Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Before The Car Took Over

The developing proposals to introduce 20mph zones in the Easton and Bedminster areas of Bristol offers an opportunity to consider the fact that prior to the Road Traffic Act of 1930 the entire country had a national speed limit of 20mph. In many ways 1930 was the year that road-based transport and the private car in particular, really started its rise to dominance over all other travel modes.

In our attempts to reduce this dominance can we learn anything from the inter-war period that might have relevance for today?

Looking back at the period between the wars, the amount of choice for public transport in the Bristol area seems amazingly high by today’s standards. When the Oldland Common station was opened in 1935 it brought the number of rail stations within what is now the Bristol urban area to nearly 30, with another 60 or so in the rest of what is now the West of England partnership area.

Bristol also had an electric Tram network that provided a dozen routes, a bus network that complemented the tram network, and finally the Clifton Rocks railway to ease the uphill walk from Hotwells to Clifton.

With very little competition from private motor cars which were both small in numbers (less than 2 million cars in 1926) and restricted in speed you might think that the public transport providers were experiencing a boom. In fact the opposite was true.

In 1923, the Railways Act of 1921 came into force, grouping the railways into a "Big Four" – part of the reason for this act was to stem the losses being made by a large proportion of the 100 or so existing railway companies. Similarly from the 1920s, bus companies faced a market failure leading to the introduction of bus regulation in the 1930s to reduce competition and the resulting losses – in Bristol this would include the decision to phase out tram services. If public transport wasn’t booming either, how were people getting to work?

It appears that despite all the public transport availability, the most popular method of getting to work in Bristol in the 1920s was by foot or by bike. With only a small number of cars on the road, and all motor vehicles restricted to 20mph, the roads were relatively safe for pedestrians and cyclists alike. The high levels of walking and cycling was also helped by the fact that, at this time, Bristol was a still a relatively compact city – although the low-density estate building of the 20’s and 30’s was already in the process of changing this.

By reducing the number of cars and restricting the speed of those that remain you encourage a shift to non-motorised forms of transport regardless of the level of public transport provision.
As a more modern example, the key factor in the transformation of central Copenhagen from a place geared towards cars to one designed for people, has been the gradual increase in pedestrian streets. Initially the percentage of streets that were pedestrianised was relatively small – the key to Copenhagen’s success lies in the fact that by introducing just a few but strategic pedestrian streets, motorists could no longer use the central area as a through route (a larger scale rat-run). The result is a street ambience that benefitted a larger proportion of the population compared to a system that might remove only those unable to afford to pay a congestion charge. Pedestrian streets introduced more people friendly streets with active usages (pavement cafes, market stalls, live performance, etc, etc) – in short, all the things that architects and designers like to design (or talk about designing) into modern developments like Cabot Circus, Harbourside and, not forgetting, Ashton Park.

Increasing the level of streets that are off-limits to cars also helps reduce the amount of on-street parking available. A MVA Consultancy study of Bristol for the UK government concluded that car trips into central Bristol could be cut by 41 per cent if parking measures including a 75% reduction in on-street parking, higher parking charges, and enforcement of planning permission for non-residential parking were introduced. That report was produced all the way back in 1997 – yet here we are today discussing systems like BRT and Congestion Charging that are optimistically expected to reduce car use by 10-20%.

The conclusion we could make here is that whilst the introduction of 20mph zones will certainly offer some improvement in improving road safety and thus encouraging more walking and cycling - in the end it is only by reducing the number of cars on the road that we might provide the circumstances for a large-scale shift to walking and cycling. To reduce the number of cars on the road you need to reduce the amount of road space. The question is - does anybody in Bristol have the courage shown forty years ago in Copenhagen?


  1. Just to nit pick, the Clifton Rocks Railway closed in 1934.

    But an interesting post, drawing on the historical background. I was a child in south Bristol in the 1950s and remember that the bus service from Headley Park / Bishopsworth to central Bristol was very good until the 60s when services started to be cut back. Travel to anywhere other than the city centre was difficult since it mostly meant going first to the centre and then changing. We occasionally used Parson Street Station to take the train to Weston or Portishead, but it seemed like a long walk from home.

    I'm afraid small reductions in car use and ownership aren't going to get us very far. When I started campaigning in 1982 the "intolerable" levels of motor traffic were nothing much by today's standards. If only we could have turned the tide then.

  2. I'm not clear how the Copenhagen example:

    "Pedestrian streets introduced more people friendly streets with active usages (pavement cafes, market stalls, live performance, etc, etc)"

    has much to do with reducing car usage in general, which is largely for school runs, work, trips to the supermarket etc. The street ambience in central Bristol, while quite nice, is unlikely to impact on this very much.

    You say as much when talking about Bristol in the 30s:

    "The high levels of walking and cycling was also helped by the fact that, at this time, Bristol was a still a relatively compact city."

    What we need to do is somehow 'compact' our city or perhaps how we make use of it.

    The obsession with street cafes etc. is a distraction.

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