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Putting the public first

Comment

The death of Sir Colin Buchanan last week serves to underline and remind us just how little we have learnt since his seminal report Traffic in Towns was published in 1963.

When Buchanan assembled his team to study the effect that the motor car would have on society, there were fewer than 7M vehicles on the road. And, although growth has been marginally less than he feared 40 years ago, the environmental and social consequences of the 28M plus vehicles on the road in Britain today are nevertheless with us.

As the Buchanan report pointed out, something radical had to be done to ensure that the motor car did not dominate our planning at the expense of human life and activity. But restricting car use in major cities, boosting emphasis on public transport and enhancing the walking experience was new thinking to engineers and the public, both of whom were busy embracing this revolutionary, liberating and, let's face it, sexy beast. While people realised that cars were dangerous, they were seduced by the freedom they could offer.

Despite Sir Colin's success in raising awareness of the potential downside of the motor car, the love affair has continued unabated. Without doubt, the planning process looks wider than the needs of cars. Urban design is becoming more geared to the needs of people and the environment, and there is greater emphasis in government policy on public transport provision.

But it is also clear that, after a four fold increase in the UK's traffic volume since the 1960s, we still tussle with the rights and wrongs of congestion charging.

We are still battling over the best way for the public to avoid paying for its vital public transport provision. And we are still trying to find more creative methods of slowing down and discouraging vehicles in residential areas while children are forced to play behind closed doors.

Many would argue that the Buchanan report's failing was to focus too heavily on the need to accommodate the motor car, rather than suggest ways to curb the growth of its use. If the latter approach had been adopted, who knows, there might have been fewer cars around today.

Certainly, Sir Colin was a passionate driver until reluctantly sliding over to the passenger seat after his 90th birthday. But as an engineer, architect and planning professional, he was swayed only by the arguments before him. Car ownership, he saw, could not be restricted. Car use, on the other hand, would almost certainly have to be - a message that was understood even if not properly addressed.

Regardless of how we have eventually utilised its conclusions, the Buchanan report shows how Sir Colin managed to influence the government, the public and, hence, the engineering profession towards a new and radical way of thinking about problems and the consequences of our actions.

By getting the attention of Ernest Marples, the minister of transport, he was able to transfer his ideas into practical reality.

The unusual step of publishing a government report as an interesting and readable book also put his committee's work in front of a wider public audience, so giving it much greater impact over a longer period of time.

Like many engineers of his generation, Sir Colin's success stemmed from his passionate belief that he had something to offer the public. Too often today, the professions remain obsessed only with what the public owes us. We should learn from his approach.

Antony Oliver is the editor of New Civil Engineer.

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