Sunday 9 April 2017

All Purpose Suburban Car Dependency Bingo

Active travel in the suburbs is a strange thing. It's a seemingly car dependent place, although there are of course contradictions and exceptions.

There are those who are surgically attached to their cars with the longest active journey being between the front door and the front seat; these are the people who drive to the paper shop and whenever there is talk of charging for parking, they throw up their arms and threaten to take their business to the nearest out-of-town shopping centre. 

There are people who drive to work because of the lack of direct alternatives. They get the bus if the car's in for repair, but it's indirect and sits in the same traffic as their normal car-based commute and so why shouldn't sit their in the bubble they pay for anyway? Then we have those who use their car at weekends because they get to work by non-car means (cycle, train, bus etc) , so car storage is their main contribution to suburban sprawl (yes, I'm one of these people).

We also have the people who don't live in the suburb. They drive in from further away, through suburbia and into the local town or city. We end up with large roads cutting suburban communities in half and the problems that it brings. It's all a vicious cycle because like any dependent system, it is hard to get out of it.

I often hear things which are indicators of the problems we have created for ourselves and perhaps give an insight into how much of a challenge it's going to be to change things. Perhaps I don't have enough quotes for a proper bingo card, but here are some gems I've heard in the last few weeks (absolutely true);
  • Most people travel to work by car
  • Kids are staying at home longer and they need cars
  • We live in a time pressured society
  • The pedestrian crossing causes traffic jams
  • The government should reduce duty on fuel and get people into electric cars,
  • We need fewer buses and more cars
  • We need to smooth traffic flow
  • We should have minimum parking standards
  • There needs to be more parking provided [in an existing residential area]
You've probably heard or read similar and so these views are not really a surprise. Whether these things are actually believed by those speaking them (I've no doubt that for many people, they do believe what they are saying) or if they have a little glimmer deep in their brain doubting their view; our suburbs are going to remain a feature of urban places for some time yet; so how do we call time on this?

It's a challenge and I think the answer has to lie partly with taking some of these comments to their logical conclusion - what would happen if we went back to minimum parking standards - would our streets really be clear of parked cars? Do pedestrian crossings really cause traffic jams? What would happen if most people did drive to work? 

The answer also lies in looking at the stories which these comments miss - yes, people have time pressures, but this always seems to come from those who are drivers. What about time pressures for children and other people without car access - shouldn't we be helping them?

Then we have active travel infrastructure. This is needed to to provide those alternatives (especially for shorter journeys) that people keep telling us don't exist. This is all thorny stuff, but it needs discussion and analysis beyond the bingo card. In my view, this doesn't get talked about enough and so the the old standbys stay with us.

Update 10/4/17 - Minimum parking standards
I must get out of my London-centric bubble! Phil Jones pointed out that most places outside London have minimum standards. This was swept away when Planning Policy Guidance (PPG13 in particular) was ditched in favour of the National Planning Policy Framework (for England). On parking, there are two paragraphs;

In other words, it down to the individual planning authority to decide (in line with "localism"); parking standards would be set in each planning authority's local plan and in turn would have been subject to consultation and the independent planning inspectorate examination process.


  1. "We live in a time pressured society"

    The last time I checked there were still 24 hours in each day in the UK.

    This is the one and only area in which every person truly is equal. Everyone has 24 hours in each day. Ever since the UK gave up National Service in 1960, everyone has complete freedom as to what to do with each of those 24 hours.

    If someone chooses to arrange their life in a way that is, quite frankly, insane, how is that my problem?

    The UK is not a time pressured society. Some persons are time pressured because they have made poor choices. The consequences of those poor choices should be 100% borne by the people who make them, and not anyone else.

  2. I'm not sure I am qualified to tell someone they have made a "poor" choice. For example, the family who drive their kids to a private school rather than walk with them to a much closer primary state school.

    However I think it is fair to say that they aren't entitled to impose the implications of their choice of lifestyle upon everyone else.

    1. People have choices, yes. But, transport provision often provides poor choice.

  3. Suburban travel patterns are surely ideal for active travel. One of the big problems with suburbs (particularly sprawling suburbs as typified by London) is that typical radial travel patterns are much less prevalent, with journeys made in a range of directions. This (plus low densities) tends to make sensible public transport provision difficult. Enter the bicycle. Local trips end to end by bike. Trips to more distant train stations by bike. Much reduced demand for cars. Of course it needs a massive change in how we allocate space...

    1. My view is that we could look at areas of 2 miles around schools and shopping parades/ local centres as a starting point to safely connect them up. In doing so, we'll start to develop a grid for active travel.