Learning from the past to design out bad stuff


What the newspaper archives can tell us about future urban planning and local government

On a couple of Cambridge-based Facebook groups there have been a number of people complaining (understandably) about all things cyclists. Compared to the rest of the country, Cambridge does far better, as Dr Rachel Aldred of the University of Westminster told a standing-room-only crowd at “Rebooting the City Deal” on Friday night. Over 200 people on hand to watch presentations & a debate on local transport? Only in Cambridge?

Dr Rachel Aldred of the University of Westminster.

The thing is, Cambridge’s transport problems are not new. Nor are motorists or cyclists behaving badly a new thing.


Via The British Newspaper Archive from 1939


Drunk car drivers from before the First World War


And a drunk chap in charge of a horse and cab – pre WWI

In all of the above cases, you could say the issue was behavioural – someone choosing to drive whilst unfit to drive, to not having a light on a bike.

“I saw someone cycling very fast on the pavement down my road! Shouldn’t cyclists have licences like car drivers?”

I understand the sentiment – especially if you’ve been on the receiving end of a very angry, aggressive person. (At the same time I can understand the sentiment of a very shaken cyclist who has almost lost their life on the road). The problem is with poor urban planning and design. And it’s happening to this day. The road one correspondent mentioned in the various posts one specific road in my locality that has cycle lanes. Why don’t the cyclists use those lanes instead of the pavement? A fair question.

The problem is design – which Dr Aldred in her presentation addressed. The thin cycle lanes do not offer the safe separation for cyclists from motor traffic. Hence given the option of cycling on the pavement, some cyclists will do just that. Others – myself included, refrain from cycling at all. Because the design and layout of much of the road – roundabouts & junctions excepted, has not changed for the best part of 80 years, the behaviour of cyclists is unlikely to change. Not because they are bad cyclists but because it feels risky cycling on a road full of motor vehicles where the drivers are protected by steel cages.

“Licence the cyclists like with car drivers!”

As Dr Julian Huppert said in the panel session, you will never get consensus on transport planning – he tried when on the county council and found out the hard way.

Rebooting the city deal – panel session

In the case of cyclists without lights, could Cambridge come up with city-wide policies? For example making it mandatory for cycle hire firms and cycle hire shops to ensure bikes have lights with full batteries in? (Does the council have powers to mandate this?) Or perhaps having cycle light vending machines (yes, they do exist) in places where lots of cycle parking spaces are?

As far as urban planning goes, My take is to put the segregated/off-motor-road cycle routes and infrastructure, along with things like the Light Rail in first – ie the alternatives that people would choose to use first, before penalising the motorist in a very big way. But penalising the motorist / influencing their behaviour is something that has to happen simply because of the poor quality of Cambridge’s air. In The Netherlands some places are already debating banning petrol-driven motor cars.

“You can’t ban cars?!?!”

Not overnight – because this would cause more problems than it solves. People all over the city & beyond would be left with ‘stranded assets’ – an asset that they either cannot sell, monetarise or realise the value of. Think of an oil firm spending a fortune buying land and a permit to extract oil from an oil field only to be told the next day that all oil extraction was being halted to meet climate commitments: Oil firm is left with a stranded asset.

The other problem for somewhere like Cambridge is that it does not have the infrastructure to service the electric vehicles that are seen as replacements for motor cars. It’s not just the charging points, but things like the garages and the trained mechanics to repaid broken down vehicles – and stocks of spare parts. What are the conversion costs and what’s a realistic timescale to make that switch?

What worked reasonably well in the building industry (though not without significant opposition) was the then Government’s long term plan to have all new homes built in England to meet a ‘zero carbon standard’ by the year 2016 – a policy announced in 2006. I was a policy adviser in Whitehall in this area in 2008, so saw first hand the arguments for and against. Despite the relaxing of the standard in the final year, what helped industry prepare was a timetable for incremental changes to legislation to allow businesses to make the necessary investments and changes. A similar approach could work for transport.

“What did we try in the past with urban planning?”

See my post at https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2016/10/06/now-that-the-cambridge-city-deal-has-peoples-attention/ and the embedded maps. Our predecessors of the 1950s & 1960s were wrestling with similar problems that we have today. Hence my criticism of current plans and debates lacking an historical context.

“Are there current policies that are making things worse?”

Every so often tempers explode on Trumpington Road as children from the private schools off that road are collected by their parents in very big cars – causing an annoyance for some of the local residents who, like the parents of the children at those schools come from predominantly affluent backgrounds. Around Cambridge railway station during term time in mornings and mid-late afternoon it is packed with children and students – mainly from the private schools undertaking their commutes. The growth of those schools to chase the international dollar doesn’t make the station area any less congested. How do you solve that problem? Or do you leave it as it is and wait for it to get worse and worse?

“This sounds a bit ‘class war’ – what next? Banning private schools?”

Interestingly, one of the policies in the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire Local Plan currently being considered by planning inspectors is prohibiting the development of new private educational establishments within the city boundaries. Not least because of the development of ‘cramming colleges’ and the buying up of homes and development land for students at those colleges to occupy. Once you get into the field of which business activities you do/don’t want in your city (and/or on what scale), the issue becomes party political.

Again, this is not a new phenomenon – with the issue of what areas of competency councils responsible for Cambridge should have coming up time and again over the decades – note 1974 being the last substantial country-wide change. One of the contemporary items in local politics as well as the ‘city deal’ is devolution – proposals for an ‘executive mayor’ for the county – which may come to our ballot boxes in 2017.


The challenge local councils have is they have to deal with the cumulative impacts of our behaviour. An investor might want to buy up a building and turn it into a new ‘cramming college’ – why should anyone be able to stop them? A motorist may want to buy a new petrol-chomping gas guzzler – why should anyone be able to stop them from spending their money how they see fit? But then every extra ‘cram college’ place built means someone on a social housing list having to forego – or someone like me remaining living with their family and/or in accommodation unsuited to their needs. Every extra petrol-driven engine going down the road means lower air quality and more breathing problems for residents that live here.

This is where we come to ‘property rights’. Older readers of this blog will remember the days when you could smoke in cinemas – and smoke inside pubs, bars and nightclubs. The ‘property right’ was for the smoker to enjoy smoking wherever they chose. Today, the property right is with the non-smoker to enjoy the cleaner air not ruined by tobacco smoke.

Thus we come back to urban design: We’ve found out the hard way that motor traffic, cyclists and pedestrians don’t mix well. What are the ‘urban design solutions’ that can solve this problem? How do you ensure that such solutions are acceptable to the people?



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