Context 167 - March 2021

18 C O N T E X T 1 6 7 : M A R C H 2 0 2 1 ‘oppressive byelaws’, but it seems one of the motives was a desire by landowners to avoid the increased costs of building houses that complied. There was pressure to improve living conditions, from advocates such as Ebenezer Howard, and elsewhere. During the attempts by the British Army to recruit young males for service in the Boer War 1899–1901, one third of volunteers were found unfit for military service. The poor physical condition of the population became a matter of grave strategic concern, and there were subsequent moves to improve diet and reduce overcrowding. Although the model byelaws did not require grid patterns or uniformity, grids and uniformity were what builders often provided. A paper in the proceedings of the Institution of Municipal Engineers commented that the uniformity of the streets designed to the model byelaws might appeal to the eye of some, but to the eye of the artist gave rise to feelings of nausea. Abandoning the rigid grid, a style of street layout developed in the 1920s and 30s which might be called, for want of a better term, ‘municipal geometric’, featuring crescents, axes, symmetry and concen- tric circles. The view from the air is impressive, but the effect on the ground is inconsequential. It requires strong architecture to carry off a crescent. The effect is lost if the buildings are two-storey, semi-detached houses. In the late 1920s and thereafter focus turned increasingly to designing for motor vehicles. Influences included the autobahn system in Germany, highway engineering practice in North America and railway engineering prac- tice, including the use of superelevation on bends and transition curves.The Ministry ofWar Transport’s Roads in Built-up Areas , published in 1946, addressed the problem of traffic growth, the efficient movement of traffic, and the crea- tion of arterial and radial roads to achieve this. It avoided making recommendations about development roads ‘ie of roads the primary function of which is to afford frontage access to land or buildings,’ stating that ‘the standards to be observed on such roads are governed by byelaws and town planning requirements.’ The manual provided numerous cross-sections for these main roads, which came to be known as ‘distributor roads’. The post-war new towns moved away from the standards of model byelaws, introducing carriageways that were substantially narrower than before, and a move towards low-density open planning. The government published recommended dimensions in Roads in Urban Areas (1966) and Design Bulletin 32, Residential Roads and Footpaths – Layout Considerations (1977). Highway authorities used street design standards that reflected this guidance. In the 1990s pioneering developments such as Poundbury moved away from vehicle-centric street design to focus on quality of place. A new era in street design was formally ushered in with the publication in 2007 of Manual for Streets , which established a user hierarchy with pedestrians and cyclists at the top, and private motor vehicles at the bottom, and recognition of the need to balance movement and place. Currently few highway authorities have updated their street design standards to reflect Manual for Streets . The standards in use are metric ver- sions of those that are half a century old and, in the case of the 24-foot, 7.3-metre carriageway, a quarter of a millennium. The current version of the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges, which provides standards that are required to be used on trunk roads and motorways, also provides a 24-foot, 7.3 metre standard. In 2020 Local Transport Note 01/20 Cycle Infrastructure Design condemned the 7.3 metre (24 foot) carriageway as being unsuitable for cycling in mixed traffic: the width permits motor- ists to squeeze past the cyclist without leaving any distance for their safety margin or comfort. We have inherited roads, streets and design standards that were created by past generations for a wide range of reasons, including the driv- ing of herds of cattle, the prevention of crime, the prevention of disease (based on theories circulating at the time), the accommodation of fast-moving motor vehicles, the provision of better living environments and various ideas about aesthetics. But the needs of the present and the future are not always the same as those of the past.We have problems and challenges of our own, ranging from enabling active lifestyles, and combat- ing obesity and its attendant health problems, restoring to children the freedom of movement enjoyed by their great grandparents, through to eliminating road deaths and serious injuries, and achieving zero-carbon. It is important that we do not blindly copy what was done in the past, but learn from it. Robert Huxford is director of the Urban Design Group. A 1960s distributor road with no access from the frontage Acknowledgements Thanks to Rob Cowan, Colin Davis, David Harrison and Graham Smith for many enlightening discussions over the years about the history and future of highways.