Urban Transport Without the Hot Air:
Sustainable Solutions for UK Cities

Steve Melia

UIT Cambridge 2015
A book review by Danny Yee © 2016 https://dannyreviews.com/
As its subtitle suggests, Urban Transport Without the Hot Air assumes a shift to sustainable transport in the UK as a goal, but it sets that in a broader polemical and comparative and historical context. Its first half addresses some common myths about transport. Its second half looks at some European cities for inspiration, outlines the background history and politics of transport in London and some smaller UK cities, and makes some broad observations about possible futures.

Seven chapters each take a particular myth as their starting point. There has been no "war on the motorist": motoring costs have fallen steadily while public transport costs have risen. Building roads and airports can boost the economy, but can also just relocate economic activity. Improvements in public transport by themselves can't solve our transport problems. Car ownership does drive car use, and parking restrictions can and do reduce car ownership. There are no fundamental obstacles to cycling being as significant a transport mode in the UK as it is in the Netherlands. Shared space initiatives mostly just allow motor traffic to push everyone else off the road. The UK has too few flats, not too many, and if anything too much of a focus on family housing.

These chapters are broader than that list of individual myths suggests — the chapter rebutting "too many flats", for example, also looks at the sustainability of different kinds of new settlements, and at how putting jobs next to housing doesn't necessarily reduce travel distances. But there's nothing terribly novel in this material to anyone who has done much thinking about transport.

The second half of Urban Transport Without the Hot Air is broader, and for most people probably more interesting. Melia looks at how the cities of Freiburg, Groningen and Lyon have taken different approaches to providing public transport and encouraging walking and cycling, and at car-free developments in the 'pedestrian town' of Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium, the Freiburg suburb of Vauban, and Cologne's Stellwerk 60 (a development of 400 homes).

This is followed by a potted history of transport in London over the last thirty years, and a look at two smaller UK cities that have bucked the trend of rising car ownership and use, Brighton and Cambridge. The emphasis here is on the political and organisational background that has enabled innovative transport policies and planning.

"The difference in local authority spending reflects a more generous central government settlement for [Transport for London] than for local authorities or transport authorities in other cities. London's unified political structure is clearly a major advantage. The moves towards combined authorities (controlling highways and some other powers as well as public transport) in some of the northern conurbations is a step in the right direction, although they will still lack the regional planning powers available to the mayor of London."

Melia looks back at the 1960 Buchanan report, which offered four options for traffic in towns: rebuild them, restrict traffic, put up with congestion and degraded urban environments, or make voluntary behavioural changes. Looking forward, he asks "What sort of cities do we want?"

"I have come to the conclusion that as long as people are free to own, park and drive cars and politicians are influenced by public opinion, urban congestion will always be with us. ... [but] we can devise better strategies for dealing with it: mitigating its worst effects and offering people alternatives to sitting in traffic jams where they are unavoidable."

He also argues that it is important to emphasize transport problems other than congestion, among them climate change, community severance, and air pollution. His suggestions include urban intensification, preserving greenfield land ("one new city is much more sustainable than ten new towns"), public transport to support that intensification, Dutch-style support for cycling, "forcing the pace" on electric vehicles, and "joined-up decision-making". And he ends with some suggestions as to what individuals can do, in local campaigning and personal choices.

March 2016

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%T Urban Transport Without the Hot Air
%S Sustainable Solutions for UK Cities
%A Melia, Steve
%I UIT Cambridge
%D 2015
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9781906860264
%P 263pp