This One Isn’t About Cars

It’s about roads. A lot of them are a bit too big.

A bit of Gothenburg, Sweden: source
A bit of Gothenburg, Sweden: source

This thought could have occurred to me anywhere in Western Europe but I had it while driving along a motorway-grade road in the middle of Gothenburg, Sweden. Do we really still want 20 metre-wide roads in our cities? And if speed limits are falling in cities, why do we still have roads designed to facilitate rapid driving?
There’s an interesting article by a chap called Broadbent (2003) which outlines the evolution of design. Stage one is the one where the designer is the maker: think hand-made shoes assembled from local materials. Before the industrial revolution this was how things were done for most products. Then the designer and maker became separate. A designer handed his work to others to

Nice, isn´t it?
Nice, isn´t it? But not efficient. Uncoincidentally.

produce. Architects gave drawings to builders, designers gave drawings on to production engineers and on to machines and people on lines. This design was not scientific: the designer did what she or he thought best. After this there was an attempt to systematize design according to scientific principles in the name of efficiency (narrowly conceived): hard-systems methodology. All of that meant a focus on the quantitative. As I have said before this led to the impersonal, imposing and often dehumanizing buildings of the mid-20th century. Phase 4 of design is where there is an attempt to bring back the psychological and the personal into design, known as soft-systems methodology (SSM). Anyone who has heard of user-centered design will be thinking of a soft-systems methodology.

For product design this SSM approach is being implemented and gradually new things will replace old things made the hard-systems way. But we still have the large-scale products of hard-systems thinking: wide roads and free-flow traffic systems of the postwar period, the infrastructural equivalent of the unloved high-rises and system-built apartments that have caused so much misery. The Chinese are still building this stuff. The roads were conceived of as simply a means to channel traffic. There was no consideration of how people felt being near these things. They prioritized the person travelling over the many who lived nearby. They assumed cars and trucks needed to travel quickly and considered no more. Coventry, for example, was girdled in a ring-road to facilitate this kind of travel, leaving streets divided and at their ends the ugly stumps of exposed gable walls

1973 Alfa Romeo Alfetta: not meant for town use.
1973 Alfa Romeo Alfetta: not meant for town use.

and PLEAPS (the odds bits of land left-over after planning).

A lot of thought is being given over to the decline of the private car. I think we might also want to reconsider whether we still want so many wide strips of concrete and asphalt dividing districts, these hard systems relics. I would like to suggest that the first thing we do is to take down the concrete crash barriers and heavy-duty illumination that make these urban roads like motorways. It only encourages fast driving. The next thing is to narrow the roads back to two lanes and add footpaths. As the shared roads movement shows, a lack of guidance and the expectation of pedestrians is very effective at slowing traffic.

While soft-systems methodology is now an established part of design for new products and many new buildings, the left-overs of hard-systems engineering thinking is still in evidence everywhere you see a huge sweeping road with a 30 kmph speed limit. We need to get rid of this and make streets for people.

Wide roads need the equivalent treatment: source
Wide roads need the equivalent treatment: source

You might be wondering what’s in this for drivers. Well, assuming there are very many in the future, these places would be nicer drive through and nicer to be in once you stop. I also think that the engineering-thinking that led us to build these driving conduits made a road environment that was uncomfortable and hostile for drivers too. When I am driving I feel more at ease on a small, local road than I do driving along a motorway-grade carriageway. You can feel a sense of relief when you exit the motorway or when you get off arterial roads. The 20th century experiment with engineering thinking turned out to be a disaster when applied to architecture and we are removing those failures year by year. Big arterial roads should be next. The time has come to make our roads fit for the people inside the cars and not the cars themselves.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

8 thoughts on “This One Isn’t About Cars”

  1. I’m not entirely sure I agree. Or perhaps I should rephrase that. I do agree with a good deal of what you suggest, but counter it with my own experience. I frequently travel the same route from Hatch End in North London to Finchley, most of it on three lane dual carriageway. The aim is to get from point a to point b in the least amount of time – getting around Greater London is all about time saved. Therefore I not only value the speed in which I can (usually) travel on dualcarriageway, but also find it the most enjoyable aspect of the route – my journeys are at night, when the roads are relatively quiet. In fact, my heart always sinks a little at the Stanmore turn off on the return trip, because I am no longer free to travel at speed. (I respect speed limits in built up areas).

    Yet, by the same token, the prospect of a motorway journey fills me with foreboding. No, I can’t really explain it either.

    1. The wide urban highways are seemingly either deserted or choked. In whatever state they spoil the districts they cut through. I’d like to see them narrowed and made less hostile stretches. The 60s planners didn’t understand the effect wide roads had on urban life.

  2. I really agree with Richard on this one. I lived in Croydon for a few years, a town that is infamous for its postwar planning and having dual carriageways cutting through or over it. I used to imagine how pleasant some neighbourhoods would be without the noise and pollution of the flyovers and dual carriageways. They weren’t essential to through traffic; that still got choked up on the A23 clinging to the border of the town. I think their purpose was to funnel consumers into the town centre to buy stuff (before the big warehouse type superstores took over on the periphery. If the speed limit was reduced to 20 mph, entire lanes given to cyclists or pedestrians and frequent zebra crossings installed, it would be a much nicer place. It’s all too easy to forget when cocooned in your car that you are part of the constant drone that afflicts so many urban and suburban areas and that walking or cycling near fast moving traffic is unpleasant and intimidating. I’m sick of adverts and churnalists extolling the virtues of cars that are nippy around town. Nipping around in areas where many people are walking is just plain antisocial and dangerous. Driving around town should always be unhurried and quiet.

  3. Your piece really got me thinking Richard. Agree fully about how busy roads in urban areas are not conducive to safety and well-being of pretty much everyone. Not with you though on busier inter urban roads. There is something about the complex ever changing ballet that I find intriguing and attractive. I love long journeys, planning speeds, distances, lane changes and just reading the road. They fascinate me and I even enjoy watching traffic interact on busy roads. I like tootling along rural roads also and do see the downside of roads. Doesn’t stop me enjoying them though.

    1. For this piece I had in mind those wide boulevard, dual line roads they built in the 50s and 60s. Some run through suburbs of the same time; others stupidly run in denser areas. They usually have quite low speed limits and are usually empty. These ones are pointless: big sweeps but low speeds. They often have fences in the middle too as if people can’t be trusted to cross where they see fit. Generally, dense areas with lots of people should be for walking not cars.
      I enjoy the intercity drives especially off motorways. I have had lots of journeys on those kinds of roads and the mapping and planning is a fun part. My Michelin map of Ireland is a trusty tool for such journeys.

  4. Changes in land use over time has long been a fascination of mine, and one of my more arcane pastimes is to compare old maps to new. What becomes clear is that, from the 1950s onwards, town planners fell under the thrall of modernity for modernity’s sake. Swathes were cut through communities for roads; people were forcefully migrated into new estates and the old ones raised; old buildings were replaced with newer ones using inferior craftsmanship; manufacturing jobs were relocated to the edges of town. Little heed was made to matters of history or place, two things that are essential to people’s conception of identity. The concerns of the people these changes affected were countered by the deeply patricianal attitude of the planners, all of whom knew what was best for these people, even though they looked down on them both in class and upon the maps they were reshaping. I always think it deeply instructive to observe how pedestrians are treated by these schemes, forced up steps to footbridges and down ramps to subways, when in fact car drivers would find the elevation changes far more tolerable than those on foot. The planners in Milton Keynes at least got that one point right.

  5. What does PLEAPS stand for? I was thinking about those funny bits of useless land created by town planning the other day. Usually they have some half hearted flower bed with a bench overlooking a view no body in their right mind would ever stop to observe.

    1. Town planning and architecture have consumed a lot of my mental energy these last eight years.
      Pleaps are places left over after planning. They’d be areas cut off by motorway slip roads, odd sites where a building has been demolished for a road. Coventry and Birmingham have lots and there are loads here in Aarhus.

      Vis a vis planning: the CAIM movement wanted separation of functions and second the motorcar was seen as the way forward and planning accomodated it. Road engineering specs are now built into planning code and hard to shift; Colin Buchanan’s 1963 Traffic In Towns (partly misunderstood) and others like it explained that cars had to be accomodated. Architects and planners colluded to a) stop building streets with joined rows of buildings and b) accomodate cars in town and c) laid out car-based suburbs.
      As a counterpoint, I lived in Cologne which has quite a lot of fast, busy roads near the centre and I didn’t find it bothering. The Germans have been better at this than the Anglo-Hibernian-American set.

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