A vicious transport circle

Barry Hutton

Town and city planning in many Western countries has been driven by the individual’s love of the private car. But the resultant urban sprawl has made it difficult to provide an effective and efficient public transport system that offers frequent services on popular lines and improved links to the car-reliant suburbs.

Providing a sustainable and affordable public transport sys­tem creates a quandary. If city-centre parking demand is to be reduced by the provision of public transport, it must pro­vide a service that is acceptable to people from all income groups and all lifestyles. To do that, buses, trams and trains must be fre­quent, comfortable and safe. This contrasts with public transport’s traditional role – carrying those who have the economic misfortune not to own a car (known as captive riders).

In all the major cities in the world, public transport is used by all income groups: in Washington DC, New York, Paris, Berlin, London, the white collars are as abundant as the blue ones. But this is not true of all lines nor of all times – away from peak hours and from the very heart of the city, the ratio of white collars fades as the traditional captive riders, particularly women, become more nu­merous. The reason is not difficult to understand. Public transport is being used as a solution to the parking problem.

City centres are busy, crowded places with high land costs and high-rise buildings. Many of those travelling into town, whether for business or leisure, will do so in a car. When parked in the street, cars have a footprint, including minimal manoeuvre space, of around 12m2 and, more crucially, 5m of kerb space. For example, Edinburgh, which has approximately 6 km of kerb space, would be able to ac­commodate just 1,200 vehicles if every centimetre was dedicated to parking. That’s enough to service just one office block. Other cities will have different arithmetic but exactly the same problem.

Of course, every metre of kerb cannot be used for parking. Offi-ces have to be serviced by a plethora of vans delivering paper clips, drinking water, toilet rolls or new filters for the air-conditioning, quite apart from the shops, which need their shelves restocking, or the banks, which need their cash machines replenished. Still more kerb space is lost to parking restrictions protecting pedestrian crossings, bus stops and sight lines at junctions. The problem is unavoidable: there is simply not sufficient street parking to enable enough people – and their money – to travel by car in order to sus­tain the commercial viability of city centres.

At one time, the disparity between the demand and the supply for parking was thought to be bridgeable by building multi-story car parks. The need to be able to get out of a parked car, other than by crawling through the sunroof, allied to the need for room for circula­tion, pushes the floor space requirement up to 20m2 per car. In most offices, there is roughly one worker for every 10m2 of floor space, which means that if everybody drove to work, each office block would have to be served by two multi-storey garages of equal size!

There are only two possible solutions to the conundrum of mak­ing town centres sufficiently accessible to sustain their commercial viability. Either businesses stay where they are and public transport provides the necessary access, or the businesses move to new loca­tions where densities are low enough to create the requisite parking.

And so we return to the public transport quandary. If you work at a time and place where parking is difficult or impossible, as in city-centre office blocks, then public transport is the only answer. But, if you are travelling to a place where parking is provided, then the car is the first choice. The white collars, so much in evidence on public transport at peak hours, are using it to get to a particular place at a particular time, whereas captive riders have to use public transport at all times to travel to all places.

The alternative to sustaining urban centres by public transport is to disperse the commercial activities to places where there is enough space to satisfy the parking demand. Throughout the Western world, radical changes in urban geography have kept in step with increasing car own­ership. As town centres became increasingly difficult to reach by car, due to a combination of congestion and a lack of parking space, busi­nesses began to relocate to places in the suburbs and around the urban fringes where ample car parking could be provided at minimal cost.

In general, the new out-of-town developments have been com­prised of low-rise buildings set in a sea of asphalt. Housing has changed too, with densities prised open by detached houses set in their own gardens, with private garages and parking spaces, often built in or near to villages and small towns. Driven by the individu­al’s wish to use cars – coupled with corporate decisions to build the dispersed, decentralised developments best able to accommodate those wishes – the city has ceased to be a dense, clustered organ­ism, its fabric now much looser and more extensive.

The result has been an urban form antagonistic to the use of pub­lic transport which, if it is to be both efficient and attractive to passengers, needs travel demands to be concentrated in places and along routes that are able to generate the necessary speeds and fre­quencies: public transport cannot cope with dispersed development and diffused patterns of movement.

The revolution in urban geography has happened by default. It has been a self-referential process using the undoubted flexibility and convenience of the car to cope with the congestion and park­ing problems created by car use. It is a process that has reduced the use of public transport, driven up average journey lengths, and increased fuel consumption and CO2 production. Many people now maintain they cannot do without their car – and, if they live in an ever-expanding urban conglomeration with poor public transport and work in a suburban business park, they are right.

About the author:

Barry Hutton is a professional transport planner who has worked as an academic and consultant


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