Blue Kayak’s response to the Transport Committee’s inquiry into urban congestion

The Transport Committee’s inquiry into urban congestion aims to identify cost-effective and safe strategies for managing limited road space in towns and cities, minimising disruption to local communities and businesses, and keeping urban traffic flowing.

I am a chartered town planner with an interest in sustainable transport.

The risk, when we talk about congestion, is that we correctly identify that it entails a range of negative consequences – air pollution, delays, severance, etc. – and then put in place hasty measures which seem to address congestion at first, but which may have perverse consequences. The classic example of this might be a ring road around a town centre, which might remove congestion from the town centre but which could also facilitate more motorised transport, thus simply relocating an increased amount of air pollution, rather than reducing it, adding to carbon emissions, and causing severance and noise issues elsewhere in the city. At the same time, by diverting through traffic away from the town’s economic centre, it might undermine local retail – especially if a new road is accompanied by excessive access restrictions in the centre itself.

I’m not saying that all bypasses are bad, or that we should ignore the social and environmental costs of congestion. What I am saying is that we need a more nuanced attitude towards it – one which atomises the issues, identifies the importance of each problem in a given situation, and investigates how it might best be dealt with.

Above all, we need to understand and exploit the potential of non-car modes of transport. Private cars are a highly inefficient way of using urban space; each single-occupant car takes up multiple times the amount of space of a pedestrian, a bus or light rail passenger, or a cyclist. However, decades of facilitating motor transport above other modes has dissuaded sustainable transport, so that only 2% of journeys in the UK are made by bicycle (and most of those are made by men; women are too scared) – whereas the figure in the Netherlands is around 25%. In order to use our urban space more efficiently, we need to put in place better, safe, segregated and convenient routes for cyclists and pedestrians. We also need to return to a concept of public transport as an important part of a transport system which provides functional services for all, rather than as an afterthought for those who have no choice but to use it; and we need to ensure that bus services are planned effectively and efficiently to avoid congestion caused by multiple bus services on the same route. In this respect the Bus Services Bill, with its emphasis on franchising and partnership working, is welcomed, although its bar on local authority-owned bus companies seems to be a manifestation of blinkered ideology.

There’s also a need to integrate transport and planning, so that a city as it expands can put in place a reliable transport network, in which all residential areas are served by multiple modes. That means, for example, higher densities along transit routes, integration of cycle facilities within new developments.

Delays

The conventional view of congestion-engendered delays is: congestion causes delays; time is money; so delays must be dealt with in order to bring about economic growth. Sometimes this is translated as: if you build more roads, that will make a place richer. Actually, the evidence for an inverse correlation between congestion and economic growth is patchy. That’s not really very surprising; more economically successful places attract more travellers, and therefore have more congestion; you could argue that congestion causes economic growth, although you’d probably have the causal mechanism the wrong way round.

Travel time is a cost; an individual decides how much of that cost he or she is prepared to incur. Therefore, it doesn’t necessarily follow that quicker travelling frees up people to spend more time being economically productive (or enjoying a greater quality of life); sometimes it just means that they are able to live further away from work, and increased commuting distances have negative consequences in terms of carbon emissions. In the urban core, increasing speed is a very questionable aim, because of the multiple negative effects of faster traffic – risk to vulnerable road users, severance, and noise, for example.

Delays do have a social cost, however – particularly unpredictable delays. So there is a need to look at how to address unpredictability within the system. This might mean spreading the burden of traffic not just spatially, but temporally, and across different modes – facilitating reliable public transport systems and segregated cycle routes on which travel times are predictable throughout the day.

Air pollution

The recent High Court decision that the government have acted illegally with reference to air pollution emphasises the extent to which the motoring lobby have been allowed to distort policy – even though air pollution causes 50,000 early deaths every year. The option of diverting traffic out of highly polluted areas is simply not acceptable; all that does is to disperse the pollution rather than to reduce it. Where that dispersal entails the construction of new roads, it means an increase in the amount of pollution – with both local and global effects. This is simply selfish: it says that as long as the immediate local area, First World voters, feel no ill effects, then ill effects felt elsewhere in the urban area, country, and world, are of no consequence.

Sadly, the recent NICE guidelines on reducing air pollution are not brave enough to take on the motoring lobby. Rather than saying that air pollution should be addressed by reducing the sources of pollution, they resort to pusillanimous suggestions about the profile of speed humps and relocation of cycle routes behind hedges. As cyclists in the UK know, you cannot “relocate” cycle routes behind hedges, for the very good reason that there are normally no such routes to relocate.

Again, what is needed is a genuine attempt to facilitate sustainable transport – to ensure that people are able to access town centres without that necessarily entailing a convergence of polluting vehicles –together with measures to resist the most polluting vehicles and encourage innovation in vehicular technology .

Severance and risk

Large volumes of traffic without adequate crossings separate people and businesses on one side of the road from those on the other, thus hampering pedestrian mobility and the cohesion of the urban environment.

Severance and risk, however, are not caused by congestion per se. They are caused by highway design which prioritises motor vehicles and requires all other road users to take evasive action. Highway management and design which provides for other road users is not incompatible with vehicular use. A good example is the A167 south of Gateshead. In between the town centres of Low Fell and Birtley, the road is dualled, with a 50mph speed limit, and it is highly dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrians cannot cross it; cyclists can use it, but wouldn’t choose to. As the road goes through Low Fell and Birtley, where the historic urban fabric won’t permit high traffic speeds, the environment is a lot less terrifying. It still isn’t ideal – it lacks segregated cycle routes and priority for pedestrians – but, more or less, it is an environment in which low traffic speeds reduce the risks to vulnerable road users, and hence reduce severance.

Conclusion

There is a need for us to reassess our attitude to congestion. Seeing it as the consequence of a road system which is inadequate for the volumes of traffic currently experienced upon it is a model which can lead to perverse consequences. We should welcome and value large volumes of people wanting to visit our town centres. Rather than trying to divert them elsewhere, we should look at innovative ways of dealing with the problems that their presence might cause – above all, by facilitating a modal shift away from the private car and towards more sustainable and efficient modes of transport.

These measures are not just about benefiting the users of non-car modes; they are about efficiency and choice. Modal shift away from cars should free up road capacity for those for whom car transport remains the best option.

Sexism and the City

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun;
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl,
And, Lord, I know I’m one.

The anonymous author of the above – unlike the Animals, who popularised it in the 1960s – envisaged the narrator to be a girl rather than a boy. Her characterisation of a house as an agent of ruin is part of a prevalent thread in Western thought – the idea that the city is a place where bad things happen to girls. Clarissa, Caddy in “The Crimson Petal and the White” and the (male) narrator of the Pogues’ song “The Old Main Drag” – among many others – found that London made them into sexual objects to be used and abused. In this world-view, cities are places where “every man for himself” is a necessary maxim, since overloaded infrastructure, law enforcement and supply networks cannot possibly serve everyone’s needs. They are grubby, anonymising and above all, pitiless. It’s not that nobody noticed when Kitty Genovese was stabbed on a New York street in 1964; it’s that those who did notice saw that nobody else seemed to care enough to interfere, and followed suit. Conversely, in this view, small-town or village communities, with dense social networks, “where everyone knows everyone,” protect their own.

In a rapidly urbanising world, we should be concerned about whether this is true. More specifically, we should consider which factors, in terms of governance and built form, make girls and women in towns and cities more or less vulnerable to violence.

The relationship between urbanisation and risk is less simple than the above analysis suggests. The very characteristics which can generate risk or societal apathy in the face of violence can also lead to better outcomes for women. The looser social ties which are sometimes experienced in cities, while they may mean that a person is less protected by her community, may also mean that she is freed from some of the constraints that tight-knit societies impose upon one another. “In London, everyone is different, and that means everyone can fit in,” as Richard Curtis says in a recent promotional film. Societal constraints can mean controls on women’s movement, social and employment opportunities, or the assumption that domestic or sexual violence shame the victim and should not be discussed openly. Arguably, women in cities are more likely to have an escape route in terms of greater social permissiveness. It’s also too simplistic to say that urban societies are always less closely-knit than rural ones. The inner-city women described in the 1957 classic “Family and Kinship in East London” probably had much closer social ties than the inhabitants of a modern commuter village.

High population densities in cities can indeed overwhelm inadequate services, presenting unpredictable risks which may have a particular effect upon women; a study of sanitation facilities in poor areas of Delhi found that women and girls were particularly subject to sexual assault while visiting public toilet blocks. Conversely, however, greater populations generate the sort of economies of scale and concentration of resources which make facilities and services possible. In developing countries, girls in cities are more likely to have access to education, and women can access health services and support for victims of violence.

Law enforcement is, of course, a particularly important service with regard to violence – immediately, because without it, there is no recourse for the victims and no penalties for perpetrators; and philosophically, because without it, societal norms are determined not by justice, but by force. The extent to which a society accepts violence – against women or otherwise – is part of its ethos, and a society’s ethos and its institutions affect one another; so a law enforcement system that does not deal with violence against women is likely to be both a manifestation of societal misogyny, and a cause of it.

Just as the quality of a city’s institutions can affect women’s safety, so can its physical fabric. There has been a great deal of debate about which features of urban design are best for public safety, but there seems to be some agreement with regard to two main concepts: informal surveillance and territoriality.

Informal surveillance refers to the likelihood that criminal or anti-social behaviour will be witnessed and therefore, discouraged. Factors which can contribute to this include: higher population densities; the presence of a mixture of land uses (housing, retail and leisure) so that observers are constantly present in a place; good lighting and clear access routes; the avoidance of secluded routes or spaces; and mechanisms for the rapid re-use of deserted sites or buildings. So a busy, brightly-lit town centre environment may be more, rather than less, safe, than a quiet suburban street.

Territoriality refers to the idea that crime is less likely to occur in spaces which are believed to be owned and valued. People defend and respect the spaces that belong to them, whereas neglected places which are seen to be outside the jurisdiction of any institution or individual are free to be used for criminal activity. Positive factors include a clear delineation between public and private space, and good management, maintenance and policing of shared and public spaces. A sense of ownership may also be brought about by less obvious mechanisms, such as: clear urban layouts that people can navigate easily (legibility); appropriate scale of space in relation to its use (people feel uncomfortable in large, featureless spaces, for example) and buildings which fit in with their surroundings.

The two concepts are inter-related. Valued spaces feel safer; safer spaces attract more people; more people means more informal surveillance.

Of course measures that improve safety and reduce crime in general benefit everyone apart from criminals, and men are more likely to be victims of violent crime than women. However, there are aspects in which safety in general is particularly relevant to women. Firstly, because the proportion of women and girls who are victims is large in comparison with the proportion who are perpetrators – that is, most perpetrators (81% in the UK) are male. Secondly, because women are more likely to be the victims of sexual offences or domestic violence. Thirdly, because women’s fear of crime may be affecting them indirectly – curtailing their freedom by causing them to absent themselves from risky places or situations. In some situations, women, whose income is on average lower, may be particularly vulnerable to constraints on their freedom which could be overcome if they were richer – by driving from place to place rather than taking public transport, for example, or by moving to an area with lower crime rates.

A comparison with road traffic accidents (RTAs) is instructive here, although they do not, of course, constitute deliberate violence. Again, men are likely to be both the cause of RTAs and their victims: globally, RTAs are the leading cause of death for young men. However, again, dangerous situations may particularly affect women by curtailing their activities. Cycling in the UK is a clear example of this. In the UK, where cycling facilities are generally patchy and unsafe, most cyclists are male – and so are most people injured in cycling accidents. In the Netherlands, the cycling population has a fairly even gender balance. This indicates that women – who are less likely to be able to drive – are having their mobility constrained by fear.

I think we need to ditch our idea of the Big Bad City. We should stop expecting cities to be dangerous, because the dividing line between expecting bad things, and accepting them, is sometimes very unclear. Let’s start thinking of the city as the civitas, the place where civilisation happens – where both men and women are able to travel, live and associate freely without fear of violence.

The great thing is that we have the mechanisms to do this. We can ensure that a city’s institutions facilitate and require patterns of behaviour which generate a fairer and less violent society by rewarding those who live peaceably and respect others, rather than those who use force against others. We can make our towns and cities into places where crime is less likely to occur, and therefore, where people want to be.

We shape our cities, ethically and physically. Let us make them good ones.

Action SAFEPOLIS (2007). Planning Urban Design and Management for Crime Prevention Handbook. European Commission.

Coleman, A., Utopia on Trial: Vision and Reality in Planned Housing. Hilary Shipman.

Faber, M., (2002) The Crimson Petal and the White. Canongate.

Flatley, J., (2016) Overview of violent crime and sexual offences: Findings from analyses based on the year ending March 2015 Crime Survey for England and Wales and crimes recorded by the police covering different aspects of violent crime. Accessed at http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/compendium/focusonviolentcrimeandsexualoffences/yearendingmarch2015/chapter1overviewofviolentcrimeandsexualoffences#extent-of-violent-crime

Kay, D., Reynolds, J., Rodrigues, S., Lee, A., Anderson, B., Gibbs, R., Monkhouse, C., and Gill, T. (2011). Fairness in a Car-dependent Society. Sustainable Development Commission.

Leach, A., (2010) Why are female cyclists so vulnerable to lorries? Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2010/may/13/cycling-lorries-women-road-deaths

Richardson, S., (1748). Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady.

Smith, A., (2005). Gender and critical mass: do high cycle flows correlate with a high proportion of female cyclists? London Analytics Ltd.

Women in Cities International, Plan International, and UN-HABITAT (2013). Adolescent Girls’ Views on Safety in Cities: Findings from the Because I am a Girl: Urban Programme study in Cairo, Delhi, Hanoi, Kampala and Lima.

Women in Cities International and Jagori (2011) Gender and Essential Services in Low-income Communities.

Young, M., and Wilmott, P., (1957). Family and Kinship in East London. Penguin.