A radical approach to future urban transport

When the Buchanan report ‘Traffic in Towns’ was published in 1963 Robert Cattell was inspired by the prospect of implementing some of the bold and imaginative proposals of the report during his career.

Cross-section render of proposed integrated transport corridors
Cross-section render of proposed integrated transport corridors
  • Updated: 05 May 2016

However, no British public authority has since attempted to develop fully any of Buchannan’s suggestions. In addressing the growing pressures on our urban transport networks and freeing up land for housing, could radical measures proposed in the 1960s transform life in our future cities for the better?

Glance at a map of London and it is immediately clear that dedicated infrastructure for railways is excessive for the job we require it to do. Conversely, dedicated infrastructure for motor vehicles (segregated, grade separated, controlled access expressways) is almost non-existent despite the fact that almost all goods traffic currently goes by road.

The balance between urban rail and road infrastructure is skewed, but we persist with the use of a single system of ground level city streets for all non-rail uses - pedestrians, cyclists, delivery vehicles, buses, trucks, through traffic, local traffic. This leads to life-threatening conflicts. The deaths of numerous cyclists on city streets – many involving HGVs - should be a wake-up call for us to consider dedicated expressways for commercial traffic, but so far there is no sign of it happening.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s there was considerable discussion in Europe about how to adapt its ancient large cities for motor traffic. Colin Buchanan in his 1963 report wrote:

“in a huge urban sprawl such as London, the case for a high capacity road network seems unanswerable”.

Ambitious new urban motorway schemes were proposed and many built, but in London they were all rejected because of the risk of disruption, or were foiled by planning laws. Instead, the M25 was constructed far outside the city, and connected to the radial motorways entering London. This benefited the surrounding towns more than London itself and led to increased urban sprawl.

Meanwhile similar sized cities in the rest of Europe, like Paris, proceeded to build urban motorway systems and cross-city suburban railway networks to complement their metro systems. This left London’s infrastructure, and with it the productivity of its citizens, languishing at the bottom of the European league.

Because of the historical advantages conferred on London by virtue of the laissez-faire private development of the railways in the nineteenth century, there are more than enough railway rights-of-way in the city. This offers great scope for rationalisation and better use of the land which they occupy. This is not a call to convert all railways into roads, but some suburban rail alignments could be upgraded to integrated transport corridors. By placing the rail tracks below ground in cut-and-cover tunnels and building elevated expressways over them on the same alignment, space is created between for well-designed buildings of 2-4 stories or more depending on context.

Transport corridor model
Integrated transport corridors would feature low-level rail, high-level motorways and public and retail spaces in between

Placing rail tracks below ground and expressways above creates more ground-level space for public use, and integrates areas once divided by suburban railways. The railways would be out of sight and the roads would be shrouded by the open-top mansard roofs of the buildings, hiding them and eliminating noise and housing equipment to treat pollutants they create.

An advantage to this approach is its cost-effectiveness. In a single pass of construction activity, four objectives would be achieved:

  • existing railways could be upgraded;
  • a new urban expressway network would be created;
  • severance would be eliminated, and;
  • extensive new commercial space would become available in valuable inner city sites which in turn would release brown field sites away from the roads for new housing

The current public sector owners of the railways, Network Rail or London Underground could sponsor and operate the transport corridor developments under their continued ownerships. In so doing they would come to derive three major income streams replacing the single ones they presently have. And development planning processes would be as uncomplicated as they could ever be in London.

Integration of these new structures into existing urban spaces would be the subject of detailed design. Every stretch of expressway would be different, and teams of road and rail engineers, architects and developers would have to work together to mitigate and mask the ill-effects of intrusive and unsightly major roads and railways.

A key objective would be to allow businesses and housing developments (for example see ‘Motopia’) direct access to the new roads at the same high level, which would provide a framework for future urban renewal. It would also permanently remove traffic from London’s narrow streets, restoring them to use by pedestrians, buses, cyclists and service traffic only.

A rough estimate of the building costs at current prices is £285millon per kilometre. The land is in already public ownership and deemed 'free' but reconstruction of the railway and local utilities to prepare the site would be required instead. Annual incomes per kilometre could be expected to be £25m for space rental, £5m for rates and £6m for road use. If charging 25p/km a 50km journey across town would cost £12.50 - about the same as the daily congestion charge. Building rental income could dwarf road use income, indicating the main advantage of this solution over tunnelled expressways which are being considered. The overall return on investment is 12-13%.