Britain’s streets have been myopically obsessed with accommodating the car at the expense of everything else, damaging public health and public life, writes Stephen O’Malley
When Anne Hidalgo was re-elected as mayor of Paris last month on a promise to reduce cars and make every street include bicycle lanes, she spoke powerfully of what this meant. “You have chosen hope, teamwork, a Paris that can breathe, that is better to live in.”
It was a moment many cities are crying out for and last week our Prime Minister hinted a similar prize was in reach here. “This Covid crisis is also the moment to address the problems in our country that we have failed to tackle for decades,” he argued.
These problems are all too evident in Manchester, the city where I work. Our history not only encapsulates Britain’s failure to correct what the New York Times recently called the “greatest mistake of the 20th century, the surrender of too much public space to the automobile.” It also tells a story of public health myopia and missed opportunities.
That story begins at the turn of the 20th century when Ernest Marples, a future Transport Minister in Macmillan’s government from 1959 to 1964, was born in Levenshulme. Now buried in the city’s Southern Cemetery, he’s a constant reminder of how we tore up a community based blueprint that had stood for millennia. Few politicians have made such an impact on public life as Marples and I like to think his spectre still looms in the haze of pollution over our gridlocked roads.
At a time when we need to think big, engineering is guilty of thinking too small. Our cost-based, de-risking perspective often suffocates creativity. Boldness is absent
During his time in government, he massively expanded motorways and A roads, and, in a remarkable conflict of interest, it was his company that built them. Marples also commissioned the Buchanan Report on transport policy, which recommended nothing be done to encourage urban cycling. He followed this up with the Beeching Report, which closed thousands of miles of rail track and forced people on to the roads.
The Buchanan report changed my profession overnight. From then on, engineers looked at towns and cities solely through the lens of getting as much traffic as possible from A to B.
Marples would end up fleeing Britain to Monaco to ensure he wouldn’t go to prison for tax evasion, but he left a powerful legacy.
Yet while the Buchanan report referred to cars as “the monster we love”, another side of Manchester would ensure the unloved bicycle burst into the nation’s consciousness as one of our greatest ever sporting success stories.
The National Cycling Centre was opened in East Manchester in 1994 and would become famous as the most prolific gold medal factory across world sport.
Cyclists may have been relegated to the margins in the city of Manchester and its neighbouring towns, but at the velodrome they took centre stage. Racing round a track made of Siberian pine wood, elite athletes are pushed to the limit aided by a phenomenal R&D team equipping riders with the ultimate technological edge. Ultra-aerodynamic bikes, skinsuits with raised ribbed strips and F1 engineering expertise are part of the ‘marginal gains’ credo that’s delivered countless gold medals and world records.
For centuries, engineers looked at towns and cities through different eyes, understanding the relationship between hospitals, schools, parks and housing. They knew how to engineer communities
All of which begs the question: why have we done so much to become an elite cycling powerhouse and yet so little to encourage the general public to cycle at all?
The answer lies in the way we plan and engineer the two different environments. The velodrome is ruthlessly engineered for high performance while Britain’s streets are myopically obsessed with accommodating the car at the expense of everything else. Public health doesn’t get a look-in.
This wasn’t always the case. At the end of the 19th century plans for crisscrossing bicycle interstates and elevated bicycle highways informed visions for city living. And for centuries, engineers looked at towns and cities through different eyes, understanding the relationship between hospitals, schools, parks and housing. They knew how to engineer communities.
These skills have largely been lost. Engineering used to be an art and science. Now, emotional intelligence is lacking. At a time when we need to think big, engineering is guilty of thinking too small. Our cost-based, de-risking perspective often suffocates creativity. Boldness is absent.
More than ever we need to stand on the shoulders of engineering greats who understood the impact their work could have on public health. Giants of engineering like Joseph Bazalgette, who created a sewer network in London to end cholera and reshaped the physical landscape of central London in the process, quite literally creating Embankment, and John Fredrick Bateman, who built the largest reservoirs in the world at Longdendale Valley to provide clean drinking water.
Hidalgo’s promise of a 15-minute city, with self-sufficient communities and shops, parks, sports facilities, health centres, schools and workplaces just a walk or bike ride away, opens possibilities for a new way of living
Bazalgette and Bateman vastly improved the life of millions and made cities healthier and cleaner. It now falls on our generation to similarly raise our ambitions, ditch traffic engineering orthodoxies and re-design our towns and cities in favour of people.
In many ways, Manchester is a microcosm of the rest of the country. The chasm between the car-centric culture that strangles public health and what can be achieved at an elite sport level is shameful – and must be bridged.
Unless we act now, we’re in danger of raising a generation that’s never walked to the shops to get a loaf of bread, never cycled to meet their friends and never had the joy of picnicking on green space near their home. Hidalgo’s promise of a 15-minute city, with self-sufficient communities and shops, parks, sports facilities, health centres, schools and workplaces just a walk or bike ride away, opens possibilities for a new way of living. We no longer need to be so reliant on cars.
There is a huge appetite to make this happen and even the Prime Minister has argued, “this should be a golden age for cycling”.
But words alone won’t deliver change. The rallying cry of “build, build, build” risks making the same mistakes as before unless we are clear what we are building. Government can drive this vision, but engineers need to step up.