This entry takes a historic look back to the context that has led to the dominance of motor vehicles.
I’m not suggesting that (in many respects) cars are anything other than great: we’ve got two at home. The same positives apply to goods vehicles, of all sizes, whether used for freight movements or work purposes. But in each case, their benefits apply only to the user, not to wider society.
Many transport planners have spent their careers trying to reduce these adverse impacts on society, typically by promoting alternative modes and/or gently making car use less attractive. Whilst battles were won, especially in cities, the war has been lost: market forces and public policies have, tacitly or otherwise, assumed widespread access to a car, which has made further uptake in vehicle use and ownership inevitable.
I want to look here at the core aspect that drives transport planning and provision, by turning back 57 years to 1963.
Driven by the need to address rising car use, two seminal reports were issued that year. They set the transport and planning agenda in Britain for 20-30 years, and their impacts are still apparent. Colin Buchanan’s Traffic in Towns was a bestseller (as an abridged paperback), whilst the Beeching Report, coming 5 years after the first motorway opened, sought to reshape the railway network for the motor vehicle age. It is still frequently talked about.
Traffic in Towns is still a fascinating read, with its detailed concepts and plans showing how to preserve our quality of life in the face of increasingly heavy demand for vehicle movements.
Amongst the heavy cuts proposed by the Beeching Report, there was a seemingly genuine attempt to establish a fast and efficient core route rail network, and so increase demand and capacity for longer distance passenger and freight movements by rail.
I share the common view that its recommendations were unnecessarily brutal, with ulterior motives behind subsequent political decision making: ‘Marples Must Go’ graffiti could be seen on bridges for years, a notoriety gained by few other transport ministers.
One less-recognised impact of Beeching went beyond the cuts to rail services and the infrastructure that was ripped up and discarded: all this, albeit expensively, could have been reinstated in due course. By its failure to safeguard land ownership, the value of preserving continuous potential travel corridors into the heart of our towns and cities went unrecognised. So many transport planners must have asked themselves “what if that [development XXX] was not there…”. (It seems the same is now happening in response to Covid-19, with Treasury pressure on Sadiq Khan, as London Mayor, to sell off currently surplus TfL land.)
These two reports shared a recognition that the motor vehicle was already dominant, was expected to become far more so, and so would be the future for most day-to-day travel. All else must be re-oriented to reflect this reality, whether this was the purpose of the rail network, how non-drivers could be supported, or the urban form of cities, towns and villages.
And so car use continued its inexorable rise, facilities were moved further out of town centres, and our journeys got steadily longer. Until Covid-19 struck, when the scope and ability to travel collapsed.