A daily bulletin of news & opinion

11 July 2012

I’m going to stick my neck out a little here and say perhaps, just a little bit, we need to be careful not to write cars out of our cities at the rate we currently are. I know I stand as a very small pebble against the flood of every urbanist working to make our cities healthier, happier environments but do hear me out.

Cars are not the beasts we’re turning them into. They are not merely for lazy people with no regard for the environment or their fellow city dwellers. It’s true that no city household could possibly need or justify three vehicles. But I’m beginning to come round to the idea that we should not be castigating households who choose to hold onto one car.

Cars serve real, practical purposes beyond the speed and convenience of getting from a to b. I moved house to another end of the city in a matter of hours last week thanks to a generous flatmate and her four wheels. Prior to this, over the course of four trips to a charity shop and recycling bank, we decluttered our old abode of more than four years’ accumulated junk. We also both kitted out our new homes with that inaugural, humungous food shop – the likes of which simply cannot be hauled home on a bus, let alone a bicycle. Thanks to my flatmate’s car this potentially gruesome experience was effortless. Of course I could have hired mans with vans but this brings me to point number two.

Vans are taking over our city streets as more and more people give up their four wheels for two. And buses, vans and cyclists are not a happy recipe for the roads. Vans do everything for vehicular vagabonds. From moving homes to delivering food, dropping off furniture, picking up recycling. It’s a discussion that’s beginning to rumble in New York and London – now we’re doing a good job of clearing cars away from our clogged pavements, how on earth do we keep them clear of vans too? Pedestrianisation might be the way forward. And this brings me to point three.

Whilst judging an architecture and urbanism awards ceremony recently we were shown an entry where a busy one-way street in London that had been “cleaned up” – pedestrianised. It happened to be a street I know fairly well. I frequent it often enough to know that the sunny pictures we were being shown of a happy urban crowd loving their reclaimed pavements was definitely staged for purposes of the awards. It feels sparse and empty and a bit sinister. When there isn’t tumbleweed blowing down it, there’s groups of youths being very loud and suddenly there’s no other-side-of-the-road to avoid them with. “This is classic good urbanism,” said another jury member. “I’m not sure it is,” I said. This little artery, now clogged with mischief-makers, used to serve as a connecting point between busy roads. Cars now have to drive a fairly nonsensical route and the traffic is worse and angrier for it. To me this is a classic case of bad urbanism.

It’s often the case that new ideas, once adopted, get taken too far in one direction before receding back to a more settled, sensible state of affairs. For all that a comfortable, reliable and affordable public transport system together with a thriving bicycle culture will indeed make a city healthy and happy, cities will always need cars too. So let’s not write them out of our urban landscape altogether.


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