Two recent essays in The Guardian point to a way that we can recover our half-century misinvestment in sprawl.
In his December 2 op-ed, "How to build intelligent suburbs", Richard Rogers, an architect and the chair of the British government's Urban Task Force, applauds England's recent efforts to revitalize its historic cities, but notes that those efforts have not extended to the peripheral suburbs.
He writes, "if you travel just a few blocks from revitalised city centres you can see shoddy housing and wasted land, which shows how many problems remain."
Rogers advocates for "good urban design", which he argues is:
about paying attention to the spaces between buildings as well as the buildings themselves. Well-designed streets, parks, squares and pavements are the scene for the synthesis of urban life. If you make streets attractive to passersby, then you enhance quality of life and security: busy streets police themselves. Citizens should be able to enjoy well-designed public spaces at all scales, from small quiet gardens to squares, parks and countryside easily accessible on foot or public transport.
Urban revitalization, for the most part, means restoring existing buildings, repairing aging infrastructure, and 'filling in the gaps' left by abandoned brownfields.
The problem in suburbia is different; the underlying neighbourhood design is inferior to begin with.
We can all recognise beautiful family-friendly neighbourhoods, be they leafy Georgian terraces or the new waterfront developments in Amsterdam and Barcelona. We must all ask why we cannot aspire to this quality of development for all. Architecture is not just aesthetic; it has social, moral and political dimensions. Badly planned and maintained spaces and buildings play an important part in brutalising people. [emphasis added]
What do you do when the existing built environment is badly planned?
To draw families back to cities, we need to create beautiful and family-friendly suburbs too. Architects and planners have often neglected, or even derided, suburbs. They may lack the urban vitality and mix many of us enjoy, but they provide a quieter, greener environment for families and can enhance the mix of housing that a city can offer. The best suburbs - linked to the city by good public transport - already offer a model for a different style of environmentally sustainable urban living. We need to bring all of them up to this standard, through intensification and new infrastructure.
This leads to the second Guardian essay, this time by the mighty George Monbiot and published on December 5. In "I'm all for putting more vehicles on our roads, as long as they're coaches" (those Guardian editors have a way with words), Monbiot jumps out of the gate by arguing that people should have to pay the full price of their transportation choices.
Sir Rod Eddington ... insists that "the transport sector, including aviation, should meet its full environmental costs". Quite right too: every time someone dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned.
Only the British can get away with such arid humour - and Monbiot is barely joking here. He goes on:
[F]ew measures would go so far towards meeting [Eddington's] goal of "improving the capacity and performance of the existing transport network" than persuading people to switch from cars to coaches. The M25 has 790 miles of lanes. If these are used by cars carrying the average load of 1.6 occupants, at 60mph the road's total capacity is just - wait for it - 19,000 people. Coaches travelling at the same speed, each carrying 30 passengers, raise the M25's capacity to 260,000.
Every coach swallows up a mile of car traffic. They also reduce carbon emissions per passenger mile by an average of 88 percent. So one of the key tasks for anyone who wants to unblock the roads while reducing the real social costs of carbon must be to make coach travel attractive.
So how does a country make coach travel attractive? Monbiot turns to Alan Storkey, an economist who has studied transit and believes the solution is in moving the coach stations from city centres to the interchanges of highways. City buses would connect to the inter-city buses at those highway junctions.
The coaches would never leave the trunk roads and motorways. Some services would constantly circle the orbital roads; others would travel up and down the motorways that connect to them. You would change from one coach to another at the junctions. Just 200 coaches on the M25, Storkey calculates, would ensure an average waiting time of between two and three minutes. They would be given dedicated lanes and priority at traffic lights, disentangling them from the cars that now hold them up and force them to bunch.
That kind of convenience is hard to imagine, but the numbers do add up, and other than the buses themselves, there is no need to build new infrastructure and somehow fit it into the existing network.
Also, other small measures would add to their appeal:
It might even be made comfortable. Double-deckers could increase the leg room without losing much fuel efficiency, and why shouldn't every coach have TV screens and power points? In other words, the country's slowest, most uncomfortable and most depressing form of mass transport could be transformed into one of its fastest, smoothest and most convenient systems.
In fact, the greatest danger of this system is that it represents a serious threat to automobile hegemony. Monbiot concludes:
Eddington's refusal to consider [this idea] suggests that his review might have less to do with meeting our transport needs than with meeting the needs of his chums in big business, for whom an efficient coach system represents a dangerous form of competition. But when the government hired the former chief executive of British Airways to reorganise the transport sector, what else did it expect?
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