Cities captured by cars: Part 1 of ‘And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile’
The first in a three-part series exploring how cities around the world are snapping out of autopilot and moving beyond the automobile.
I live in a suburb of Stockholm, around halfway out of the city — one foot in the stonework, one foot in the forest — called Gamla Enskede.
Designed and built in the first decades of the 20th century as one of Sweden’s first “garden cities”, it’s a beguiling mixture of quiet, verdant streets wound around the natural landscape, neatly avoiding the literal dead-end of cul-de-sacs by threads of small alleyways called kroken, thin arteries of hedges connecting shared grassy yards. These weave and fold together thickets of small simple houses and larger three-storey blocks, all based on six or seven standard patterns, adapted over time and with a relatively diverse mix of tenure. (One of the larger blocks, Nynasvägen 307–15, designed by Cyrillas Johansson in 1915, was dubbed ‘The Future House’, indicating the area’s progressive spirit.)
Small triangular or oblong pockets of parks and playgrounds, are placed within and around every block, and near clusters of schools and shops. The houses’ gardens, originally for growing local food at scale, are still full of apple and pear trees, and occasionally, roving couples of cheeky deer from the clumps of woods around.
It’s now only 15 minutes out of the city centre, thanks to several metro stations. The row-houses and blocks lend reasonable density, whilst the villa-based streets are a little low-density for a contemporary city—but the balance is interesting. As an urban environment, it’s not exactly as enervating as the Hong Kong skyline, but as a place to live, work and play, there’s not much wrong with it. (That rather loving article uses a series of before-and-after images to give you a sense of Gamla Enskede.)
Except that in 1958, city planners decided that precisely what this pleasing knot of green streets and ochre houses needed was a six-lane freeway running through the middle of it, replacing the existing tram connection to the city and slicing the subtle designs of the neighbourhood in two, severing the organic flow of streets and squares.
The huge concrete hardscape increases the need for stormwater and snow management, and exacerbates wind tunnel and heat island effects in other weather. Either way, it massively reduces biodiversity. The road’s traffic cloaks the nearby streets in a fug of dirtier air than is necessary, and subjects the entire district in a constant, pervasive thrum of traffic noise, unavoidable other than through staying indoors and closing the (admittedly well-insulated) windows. Despite the pedestrian underpasses being reasonable enough, as they go, it unnecessarily separates communities too, of course. Before State Road 73, the walk from our house towards the Blåsut subway stop would’ve been over tree-lined avenues with intermittent trams. Now it is over a concrete bridge, actually part of a roundabout for vehicles. I’ve taken noise readings on that bridge, the only link between our house and the subway station, and it averages around a constant 75–80db, which is short of the official measure of ‘harmful’ at 85db, but is apparently somewhat like living inside a vacuum cleaner.
Here are two videos of State Road 73 at the ‘slices’ indicated in the photo above, large barriers damping things a little, but essentially creating a noisy, dirty obstacle to what was once a place. The first is at the sliced diagonal connection indicated above, now flowing directly into a plastic wall with six lanes of fast moving traffic behind. The second indicates the pedestrian underpass, which gets you under the scars left by the surgery carried out to the ‘natural’ ground plane:
More problematically for the wider city, all that extra traffic, generated by State Road 73, is dumped all over Stockholm. For we know, unequivocally, after decades of data, that roads generate traffic, rather than ease it.
Over the next few decades, State Road 73 was expanded south for 57 kilometres, locking in a pattern of mobility completely at odds with that of Gamla Enskede, or indeed the compact, walkable Södermalm it connected to at one end, and the small towns, villages and farms at the other.
This move was repeated across the country, from the heart of our cities to the countryside. In the great Swedish architecture book ‘X1960: Tio byggnader som definerade 1960-talet’ (or, ‘X1960: Ten Buildings that defined the 1960s’), we can see how this ‘Bo med bil’ (‘live with the car’) lifestyle was implicit in the 1950s/60s rebuilding of Swedish society, with Sweden the most car-dense country in Europe by 1955.
And this old Swedish newsreel from 1935 indicates the form of active ‘propaganda’ required in order to instruct people that streets were no longer something for social interaction—children playing, women talking—but simply for cars instead. You don’t need to understand Swedish to get the gist, at around 30 seconds in: “the street is now for cars, get out of the way”:
Of course, other cities were performing similar incisions, far more brutal than in Stockholm. Cities like Los Angeles and Sydney, home to the first and second largest tramways systems in the world in the 1950s, ripped out their trams and replaced them with a concrete automobile-based infrastructure, quick decisions done with the best intentions (well, other than the strong allegations that they were in fact initiated by the car industry, of course) but with an utterly deleterious effect on cities that will stuck around for decades, and may continue for centuries. Same story in Auckland, Brisbane, Chicago, and essentially most ‘developed’ cities.
Assessing the destruction wrought by just a single practice, like US-based Wilbur Smith and Associates, is instructive here.
I have an original copy of their 1968 transporation plan for Helsinki, which indicates a series of vast motorways cutting through the elegant downtown neighbourhoods of the Finnish capital. This would have laid waste to what are now some of the most desirable places to live in the Nordic region, instead producing the kind of ‘doughnut city’ problem spaces common to American cities, as well as the associated health, sustainability and social justice issues seen everywhere else.
Typically for the time, the plan proposed a major expansion in road-based transportation, right across the city. In theory, that proposition was to meet the projected demand for car-based transportation. It was seen as a perfectly rational prediction. In retrospect, we know that this works the other way around: the road-based transportation planning produces the demand for car-based transportation.
Sadly, this is still the way that much transportation-led planning works today, despite the decades of data indicating the problem with this thinking. In 1968, we can perhaps forgive Wilbur Smith and Associates and the Helsinki city planning committee.
Either way, the plan for Helsinki proposed a series of major roads right through the middle of the Daughter of the Baltic’s delicate urban tapestry. We used to live a block away from a pleasing congregation of small streets at the top of the Ullanlinna district, triangulated by the lovely Johanneksenkirkko church, the Designmuseo and the city centre, peppered with shops, cafés, kindergartens etc, and a gravelly football pitch which becomes an ice rink in winter, where my son learned to skate. It is one of my favourite places. It looks like this in winter:
And in summer, admittedly on Ravintolapäivä, or Restaurant Day:
But the Smith plan had this in mind for this space, the black knots representing large motorway access roads. Note two or three thick black lines hugging tightly precisely that football pitch/ice-rink. All of the above—the highly walkable streets, the milieu of the church and the Designmuseo, the street life, the shops and cafés predicated on footfall, the ‘natural’ links with the city 10 minutes on foot to the north and the sea 10 minutes on foot to the south, would have largely been destroyed:
Again, the plan’s apparently helpful interventions were based on projections of increased car traffic , the ever-increasing spiral of induced demand. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the worst kind, and again, still endemic in transport planning due to their unwillingness to change fundamental models.
Apparently, the Helsinki scheme was avoided thanks largely to a series of strong public protests. I can’t find much online about these protests (if you have more information, please let me know) but rather more famously, similar Stop de Kindermoord (‘stop the child deaths’) protests in Amsterdam around this time represent the spirit of those citizen-led movements against not the car per se, bu the car destroying our cities.
However, the Wilbur Smith and Associates scheme for Brisbane, in 1965, was heavily implemented, and continues to be enacted by today’s fervent toll-driven tunnelling under the city.
Again, the study was based on removing trams in favour of the car, amongst other things. This article notes the impact of the Wilbur Smith report on the thinking of Mayor Clem Jones, dubbed ‘Father of Modern Brisbane’ (largely for removing this shift towards the car).
“Cr Jones, inspired by a visit and accompanying report by American urban planner Wilbur Smith in 1963, oversaw the building of more roads, underground carparks to cater for increases in population.”
If not as well-known as Melbourne’s or Sydney’s, Brisbane had a large tram network by the early 1960s. Melbourne dodged the bullet, almost fortuitously, of removing its tram network. Sydney not so much, and removed its tram network – again, the second largest in the world – in a matter of months. Now, a little ironically, Sydney has just spent around $3 billion on putting trams back into thoroughfares like George Street, pretty much exactly where they were removed from in the late 1950s. And as with those cities, you can still find the traces of the tramlines in the ground in Brisbane. Their real impact, on the way the city is perceived and understood, runs even deeper, as the writer David Malouf indicated:
“The city is conceived of in the minds of its citizens in terms of radial opposites that allow them to establish limits, and these are the old tram termini: Ascot/Balmoral, Clayfield/Salisbury, Toowong/The Grange, West End/New Farm Park, to mention only a few; and this sense of radial opposites has persisted, though the actual tramlines have long since been replaced with ‘invisible’ (as it were) bus routes. The old tramline system is now the invisible principle that holds the city together and gives it a shape in people’s minds.”
The Wilbur Smith scheme was also heavily protested in Brisbane, as in Helsinki and Amsterdam some years later. Here, though, the protests failed. These ‘Free Transport-not Freeways’ leaflets were produced by local Communist groups, which probably didn’t help in the ultra-conservative climate of post-war Brisbane.
Here, the protests failed, perhaps due to Australia’s perennial covetous glances at American culture, simply linking the idea of progress with the image of the car, and the suburban lifestyle. The resulting roads sliced Brisbane off from the river that had been its raison d’être — leading to a disconnected city still problematic today, as well as trashing the connective tissue in numerous neighbourhoods. That central riverside in particular continues to be a repeatedly contested space—with re-planning ongoing as I write—but the impact on the wider city is almost incalculable. (Ed. I’ll write a little more about these Wilbur Smith plans for Helsinki and Brisbane another time, uploading all the images of their original proposals. Thanks to John Ellway for sending me the Brisbane images.)
The concreted-over car-dependency is increasingly problematic here, given Australia’s rising temperatures, and associated extreme weather events like Brisbane’s 2011 floods, which killed around 35 people and quickly brought the city to its knees. (The estimated economic cost of the January 2011 floods to Australia’s GDP is around AUD$30 billion.)
Very sketchy initial notes from the last day or so, sent from a suburb of Brisbane as the Queensland floods hit. As I…
While on the true cost of these 1950s plans, and their concomitant enabling culture, Brisbane, rather than being able to deal with mobility more flexibly, continually finds itself boring through rock to make the city work to the tune set by cars, an ever-decreasing spiral of self-fulfilling prophecy — the three largest tunnels in Australia are all in Brisbane, all tolled, yet with total construction costs running into tens of billions, and each an economic failure (what else could Brisbane have done with tens of billions of dollars?)
We are still living with the decisions of a relatively small group of experts and politicians in the 1950s and 1960s, a consensus on the way that cities should be, implicit within what was framed as apparently rational moves at the time. Of course, this is one of the truly radical aspect of Cedric Price’s famous provocation ‘Technology is the answer. But what was the question?’: that he said this in 1965, at the height of this ‘white heat of technology’-fuelled rebuilding of the modern world around the car and its carbon-intensive economy. We did not stop to ask ‘How do we want Brisbane, or Stockholm, or Amsterdam, to be?’, and then discuss mobility technologies. Instead, the Big Tech of the time, the car industry, was put front-and-centre.
We are living with the implications of those relatively quick decisions—Wilbur Smith’s report landing in Clem Jones’ hands; State Road 73 drawn through Gamla Enskede—six decades later. And for cities like Brisbane and Los Angeles, who were under the surgeon’s knife more than most, we may be living with them for many decades yet.
Yet some cities found an exit ramp from this apparently inexorable progress some time ago. Others are indicating they will follow, increasingly rapidly. It is clearer than ever that the private car is largely a 20th century idea, a product of that 1961 ‘Bo med bil’ (‘Live with the car’) lifestyle. There is hope at the end of the tunnels, in Brisbane and elsewhere.
In Part Two of ‘And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile’, we move onto how some cities are fighting back, and carefully unpicking these old moves. Read on.