Car domination

SIR — Dear old John Betjeman, writing in the Daily Telegraph in February 1964, summed it up neatly if despairingly: Cars are the enemies of a civilised city, and we are still too barbarous to realize they must be kept without the walls . In 1960 the Mini

SIR - Dear old John Betjeman, writing in the Daily Telegraph in February 1964, summed it up neatly if despairingly: "Cars are the enemies of a civilised city, and we are still too barbarous to realize they must be kept without the walls".

In 1960 the Minister of Transport commissioned Professor Colin Buchanan to study the long-term development of motor traffic in urban areas. In 1963 the Buchanan Report, "Traffic in Towns", was published and in that Buchanan had said: "The deterioration of our urban surroundings under the growing volume of traffic has passed almost unnoticed. Perhaps because we have all grown up with the motor vehicle and it has grown up with us, we tend to take it and its less desirable effects very much for granted. The mere act of being sealed up in a vehicle induces a change of mentality characterised by indifference to all considerations other than those relating to the journey in hand."

An old picture postcard of St Peter's Street, St Albans, published a century ago, shows a lady riding a bicycle, a man driving a horse and cart, two policemen, and staring at the camera, the usual group of small boys wearing school caps and knickerbockers with a couple of little girls in pinafores and large white hats. There are a few people on the pavement. That's it. It was an ordinary town street.

Compare that with the situation in 1993 when the planning consultants, W.S. Atkins, published their St Albans Transportation Study, commissioned by Herts County and St Albans District Councils. In Section 17 they note, regarding St Peter's Street and Chequer Street: "Crossing of this major thoroughfare leads to the highest level of pedestrian/vehicle conflict in the county and an accident rate which is seven times the national average for an urban link of this type."

In 2007 there were two periods when, to allow for roadworks, St Peter's Street was closed to all traffic except buses and taxis. There were no problems of traffic flow in the city. Traffic moved as normal and where engineers thought some junctions might not be able to cope with increased flow, this did not happen with careful phasing of traffic lights.

But what this temporary closure demonstrated quite clearly was the very welcome and immediate improvement in the environmental conditions for the hundreds of people who were going about their affairs in St Peter's Street all day long. It was delightful - the noise and fumes had gone and one could walk freely and safely with no need for pedestrian crossings. Emergency vehicles had no problems. On several occasions since the full traffic has been let back in I have seen ambulances or police cars, with sirens wailing and blue lights flashing, stuck immovably among jammed vehicles.

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Full pedestrianisation is neither practical nor desirable. St Peter's Street is the de facto St Albans central bus and coach station serving around 30 separate routes that converge on it from a very wide radius encompassing the whole of the city, many towns and villages, Heathrow, North London and Harlow. Each bus passes through twice, coming and going, so there are five stops on each side of the street. There is a taxi rank which is particularly busy on market days picking up shopping-laden passengers. So buses and taxis have every good reason to be in St Peter's Street.

By contrast, since there is no parking for cars and no side turnings off the street, the only thing cars can do is to drive straight through - in one end and out the other. A small number of shops have only front servicing so very few delivery vehicles need to enter the street. Broadly speaking the shops and the market and only one cash-point machine are on the west side. On the east side are the banks, building societies and 15 cash-point machines, district council offices, The Arena, post office and law courts. These arrangements ensure day-long streams of people crossing the street to and fro.

At any time there are up to 30 cars moving along the street amid countless hundreds of people on foot. It seems quite irrational that at any moment those 30 cars, that have no business there, should play such a dominant role in the deterioration of the environment affecting so many when there are very short and simple bypasses available, much as in Hemel Hempstead and Chesham. A few motorists might perhaps be inclined to regard this as an inconvenience but not, I fancy, the drivers of emergency vehicles, buses or taxis.

St Peter's Street is no longer just another street. It has become uniquely the commercial, business, administrative and public transport hub of a large conurbation with a population around a quarter of a million - in fact an elongated city square that is, at the moment, ripped in two by a stream of traffic.

It might help to rename it St Peter's Place, a place being both a starting point and a destination for people.

There are welcome signs that the county and district councillors whose main responsibilities include the improvement of the environment, understand the essential character and appropriate environmental quality of today's St Peter's Street. John Betjeman would have been delighted.


Fishpool Street, St Albans.