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Demands of the transport revolution: back to the future

Above: 'Ebenezer Howard's No. 5 Diagram: Illustrating the correct principle of a city's growth - open country ever near at hand, and rapid communication between off-shoots'

Following on from our last 'Science Cities' forum in Cambridge where the challenges of creating affordable housing close to jobs with sustainable transport were debated, planning expert and forum contributor Simon Payne of Lambsquay Consulting, has been writing about the influences of the founder of the garden city movement, Victorian planner, Ebenezer Howard, and how our current electric transport revolution might change our ideas on planning:

‘Back to the Future?’

‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ published in 1902 and written by Ebenezer Howard mapped out a utopian vision where ‘beautiful homes and gardens may be seen on every hand; how the bounds of freedom may be widened, and yet all the best results of concert and co-operation gathered in by a happy people’. Howard’s vision was mapped out in perfect geometric design and with clear advice about the administration and financial organisation of these ideal new settlements.

In one hundred and twenty-one years the needs of people have not changed, clean water, pure air, green and pleasant local spaces, affordable housing and well paid jobs. Most of Howard’s expectations still remain to be properly fulfilled, even if he did express his ideas in the language of the time when for instance he recommended that: ‘The smoke fiend is kept well within bounds in Garden City; for all machinery is driven by electric energy, with the result that the cost of electricity for lighting and other purposes is greatly reduced’.

Howard envisaged rapid railway transit as the primary means to move people and goods: ‘ first, an inter-municipal railway connecting all the towns of the outer ring—20 miles in circumference—so that to get from any town to its most distant neighbour requires one to cover a distance of only 10 miles, which could be accomplished in, say, 12 minutes. These trains would not stop between the towns—means of communication for this purpose being afforded by electric tramways which traverse the high-roads, of which, it will be seen, there are a number—each town being connected with every other town in the group by a direct route.

Of course Howard had not anticipated the growth of the internal combustion engine and the consequences for urban and transport planning. The impact of the motor car has had a profound impact on the design of our urban places and the quality of our environment.

And so one hundred and twenty years later we stand on the edge of another transport revolution that will have a huge influence on the places where we live and work. Not only in relation to moving away from fossil fuels and the greater use of renewables, but in the way in which we choose to use the new technologies. For example the impact of a pandemic has shown us how the balance of lives can change without the need for a daily commute to work.

The introduction of autonomous vehicles will alter the economics of personal and public transport to allow more demand responsive services and enable individuals access to convenient personal transport options without having to own and maintain a vehicle which spends most of the time parked. We are planning places now which will last for generations and yet, to give one example, within 30 years it is likely that many existing car parking spaces within residential and town centre locations may no longer be required. We need to future proof our plans in anticipation of change.

So whilst people’s needs have not changed since Howard’s time, and we may still seek to achieve a utopian vision, it is important to recognise that change is a continuous and, in our time, an accelerating, process. Our plans need to be capable of adaption and evolution if we are to create places that measure up to Howard’s and our own aspirations for the future.

Simon Payne

Director: Lambsquay Consulting of Cambridge Limited


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