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Needed: a vision for the 'burbs

If suburbs are where most of us live these days, where's the debate about how best to improve and promote them?

The English have a love-hate relationship with suburbs. While Jane Austen celebrated their airiness and John Betjeman understood and gently mocked them, many of us live in them.

Yet somehow we rarely let them enter our debates about the future of cities.

Even in professional discourse it seems that we maintain an aristocratic distaste for those who seek, as far as they can, to enjoy the niceties of suburban living. The debate about cities is all to do with regeneration, high densities, living streets and alternatives to cars.

Those who live in the suburbs, be they the affluent of Virginia Water or ex-miners on social security in South Tyneside, have no natural advocates.

Who has a vision for Wilmslow 2025 or Solihull 2030? Where is the Richard Rogers of East Cheam?

Yet notwithstanding this black hole in professional thinking, 2004 has seen the appearance of suburbs on the policy agenda. One milestone was the setting up of a Centre for Suburban Studies at Kingston University.

The news at first attracted some levity. 'What is there to study? asked the wags. But Dr Vesna Goldsworthy, the originator of the concept, was interviewed by radio and TV from all over the world. As far as the media was concerned, she had struck gold.

Suburban fightback The Independent Transport Commission (ITC) recently published Suburban Future, a report based on research by Professor Marcial Echenique and Rob Homewood of the Martin Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies at Cambridge. Echenique's work, which argues that suburban living is cheaper (in terms of the cost of houseroom and outdoor space) and suburban travel quicker than in inner cities, proved to be controversial. But more of that later.

Finally the suburbs are themselves beginning to speak up. Ed Gowan, chief executive of the London Borough of Barnet, bemoaned suburban underfunding in The Guardian on 6 October and in early November he was due to host a roundtable on 'Taking Suburbs to the Centre of Urban Policy'.

Suddenly reality has broken through. The English are a suburban, car-dependent people. Twenty-nine million of us live in 20th century semis or detached houses in the outer parts of cities, around villages and towns or in smaller, semi-rural estates beyond the continuous suburbs. Buses and trains are not the first choices of such people when they decide to go somewhere.

The neighbourhoods they live in were, of course, designed around cars and lorries. The result is that, on average, they use cars for 64 to 69 per cent of all journeys, while walking is their next most used way of getting about. Trips by public transport account for no more than 4 to 8 per cent of the total.

The idea that the average suburbanite hops onto the 8.15 every morning to go to Manchester Piccadilly or London Bridge is a complete fallacy.

Most of the people who live in the suburbs work in the suburbs, shop in the suburbs and play in the suburbs.

Many go to university and hospital in the suburbs. They are certainly cremated in the suburbs.

All this activity generates a lot of road traffic. Sixty per cent of England's traffic growth up to 2021 is forecast to bubble up in the suburbs and outer suburbs. That is an awful lot of buzzing about and, on present trends, drivers will, to an awkward extent, get in one another's way.

This raises some important questions. Growing numbers of old people will be living in suburbia.

Many will be drivers but many will not. How will they get about? Perhaps the trickiest transport issue flows from the prospect that, in suburbia, cars will continue to be the dominant form of travel. Given the risk of climate change, and the prospect of worsening traffic congestion, how can suburban living be made more sustainable and how can suburban business be saved from rising transport costs? Should Mr Wilsmlow and Mrs Solihull be persuaded to buy ultra-economical cars and minimise their use of them? If so, how might fiscal and land-use policies be designed to do so? In other work for the ITC, Professor Stephen Glaister has suggested that, just as much as inner cities, suburbs are prime candidates for congestion charging.

Not everyone accepts the idea that suburban living will continue to be car-dependent. Professor Echenique does, and even suggests that since car commuters in the outer suburbs tootle along at an efficient 30mph, rather than at the gas-guzzling 10 mph characteristic of stop-go inner city drivers, suburban living is the more sustainable.

While the ITC was not totally convinced by this, the commission found it hard to dispute the idea that cars will continue to dominate suburban travel.

Tale of neglect In all of this one thing stands out.

The suburbs and the discontinuous outer suburbs have been neglected in transport policy. Governments of all persuasions have concentrated on improving access to city centres and on long distance inter-city road and rail routes. Meanwhile motorways like the M62 around Manchester and the M25 around London are filling up with suburban traffic. What is to be done? It seems to the Independent Transport Commission that policies for suburban land use and transport are needed urgently.

ITC chairman Sir Patrick Brown is chairman of Go-Ahead and Amey and a former permanent secretary at the Department of Transport. ITC reports can be found at www. trg. soton. ac. uk/ itc The secretary may be contacted at t. bendixson@pobox. com

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