Sunday 8 December 2013

What has Britain learnt since the 1960s ?

A few days ago I asked how much Britain had progressed in the last six years. Now I'm looking further back in history. In the 1950s and 1960s the Rank Organisation made in the UK made a fascinating series of films called "Look at Life". These films documented many aspects of British society fifty year ago. Youtube user dokkertrigger has made many of these films available.

I've chosen three of the films because of their relevance to planning and cycling. You occasionally see bikes, but note how the narrator never mentions cycling in these videos (nor others I've watched). Bicycles simply were not taken into account by 1950s and 1960s traffic planners, not in the UK and often not in the Netherlands either.

November 1964. The problems caused by cars are already obvious. Amongst other ideas, the new town of Cumbernauld was designed to accommodate pedestrians (not cyclists) separately from motor vehicles and to provide space for each family to own one car (a mistake sometimes repeated). The video starts with scenes of Oxford Street in London, one of "Britain's noisy fume filled towns and cities" where pedestrians "compete with the motor car for room to move":

Not that delays are already thought to cost £500 million pounds per year. A considerable part of this could be saved if people could safely cycle. Cycling is not a cost to the economy, it's repeatedly been shown to be a benefit to the economy.

May 1959. Amongst other highlights, huge traffic jams are already a problem. See the start of works to try to solve the problem such as building flyovers above peoples' homes (accompanied by remarkably jolly music) and the start of planning for Elephant and Castle in London, a large junction which became the most lethal for cyclists in London:

September 1962. Bypasses are being built. One village to benefit is Stilton (this village gave its name to the famous cheese, though cheese made there now is not allowed to use the name Stilton):

The cross-roads where the dog is lying on the road at the end of the video now looks like this:

View Larger Map

It's interesting to note that while this road is still a dead end, the road markings have been changed to those of a busy through road. By-passing this village was not really enough on its own. No provision was made for people to travel by means other than motor vehicles or walking and local people are concerned about how future plans to expand the nearby A14 (motorway in all but name) will affect commuters who drive to Cambridge.

It would be interesting to know whether many children cycle to school within Stilton. I would guess not as despite having a bypass this looks not much different from any other British town and children here won't have the same easy experience as Dutch children. Similarly, I'd be interested to know whether many secondary school children cycle to nearby Peterborough for their studies. There are secondary schools within 10 km, well within normal cycling distance for Dutch school children, but cycling there would require riding on shared use paths with no separation from cars travelling at 100 km/h and negotiating large road junctions.

Time for another revolution
These videos often mention that the UK is behind other countries in Europe in building a road network, and they talk about avoiding mistakes made in other countries due to starting later. The UK could do the same with cycling, copying only the best examples. However, there's something else that I find interesting.

Assen in the 1960s after years of
planning which prioritised cars. Just
as in Oxford Street in 1964, railings
are used to restrict pedestrians to
narrow pavements
All western countries went through a similar spree of road building after the second world war. All saw the same 1950s ideas as the future, copying what was seen as a "modern" American example. Most countries stopped right there and policies have continued as if the car oriented 1960s never ended.

The Netherlands started off by doing the same things. This country followed the same policies as other countries, prioritizing cars above all else. This resulted in scenes like those on the photo to the right all across the Netherlands. Streets were dominated by cars just as was the case in the UK at the same date.

The same street in 2007 after policy
had changed to make a more liveable
city. See how this street works now.
In the 1970s, Dutch policy changed, resulting in what was once the busiest street in Assen now appearing to have been designed to look much less like a through route even than the bypassed centre of Stilton.

From the 1970s onwards, people walking and cycling became important in the Netherlands. Streets which were transformed in the 1960s were transformed a second time. It is this second transformation which other countries are still waiting for. Just as the UK looked to Europe to see how it could transform itself efficiently into a motoring oriented country, so the country could now look to the Netherlands to find out how to make this second transformation.

The narrator in the first video notes that "London won't be rebuilt in a day". Actually, remarkably little progress has been made in 50 years. Exactly the same problems remain. If planners and politicians remain stuck in the 1950s mode of providing for motor traffic above all else then progress will remain stunted.

Now go and listen to one of the most lovely songs ever written about building roads and the struggles of working people in general.


Dimo said...

I came across a very similar video for Stockholm from 1957. The car is praised as the new tent, changing room, raincoat, shopping bag and more. However the commentator also tries to convince people to instead use public transport to make room for those who need roads (doctors, deliveries etc).
Cycles are not mentioned at all.

The funny thing is that the rhetoric in the video sounds identical to what conservative politicians tout today. Things like large infrastructure projects and appeals to stop driving "pretty please with a chrry on top" for the greater good.

The major difference in the rhetoric is that nowadays cycles are mentioned ;)

Wijnandt said...

I have a question. Could it be that, in a class society as GB, a cyclist is seen as a lesser life-form? Thus, accommodation of motorised traffic in favour of cyclists shuold, therefore, be unthinkable and thus impossible.

Anonymous said...

There used to be trams, not very quick
Gotcha from place to place
But now there's just jams 'alf a mile fick
Stay in the human race... I'm walking.
They stuck parking meters outside our doors to greet us
Now Fings ain't what they used t' be.

'Fings ain't wot they used to be' - Max Bygraves - 1960