Dealing with the Impact of Cars on Urban Design

When the motor car was invented in the first half of the 20th century, it brought a new and previously unimagined freedom of movement.

By the 1950s, everyone was lining up to own one. More and more private vehicles were appearing on the public way. By the 1960s tramlines were being removed and new train lines put on hold.

Despite the oil embargo of the 1970s, in the 1980s every government that could was building bigger and wider roads to accommodate the car, and then coping with the resultant traffic jams. Los Angeles, lead the way by building numerous 12 lane freeways, to no avail. By the 1990s large cities were caught in gridlock and even small towns and suburbs had morning and afternoon ‘peak hour’.

But did anyone stopped to think where and how this would end? At the beginning of the 21st century it is all too clear. There is simply not enough road space for everyone to drive everywhere at the same time and park easily nearby, for free.

The ‘baby boomers’ are the first generation in history who have to consciously relinquish this new-found freedom and bear the brunt of no longer being able to move about easily. The car has changed people’s lives. It has become a status symbol. But in granting unlimited mobility, the price has been isolation, disadvantage and arguably loss of community.

The car has had a huge impact on the design of our cities and towns: on road design, road space, parking policy, building design, and attitudes to redevelopment. Transport systems have been dominated by designing for the car. But because they are so much bigger than people, they take away public spaces that were meant for people.

It’s time to reclaim the public realm. This is not to suggest that the car should be abandoned outright. It simply needs to be used more selectively. It cannot be for everyone all the time. Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy with Les Robinson covered this topic twenty years ago in their booklet titled ‘Winning Back the Cities’ (Australian Consumers Association, 1992). They outlined in detail the negative consequences of allowing this dominance of the car and the trade-offs that the community was making, often unwittingly.

Since then there have been numerous urban design achievements that have resulted in new or redesigned public spaces that have de-emphasised private vehicle travel. The City of Sydney is leading the way with its initiatives in George Street and its controversial (for some) bikeways. 

Opportunistic urban design can help the continued refashioning of urban environment in such a way that retains the desirable features of having cars, but also introduces or reinforces the need for other forms of public or shared transport.

This paper will examine the consequences of giving such a strong emphasis to one form of transport over all others and suggest actions to address this imbalance. A key component will be ensuring the community understands what they are sacrificing for their individual claims on the public way.

Ms Silvija Smits, Principal – Planning, Hassel, Sydney NSW will speak at the 5th International Urban Design Conference – The Hilton on the Park, Melbourne, Australia from the 10th to the 12th of September – 2012

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