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Thirty-year-old doodle makes fine UK transport planning map

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More than 30 years ago the computer pioneer Iann Barron doodled three diagrams of computer networks that later appeared in the book The Future with Microelectronics , which he co-wrote with Ray Curnow.

He called the first diagram a centralised network.

It consisted of a large number of single links from a central point to an elliptical pattern of outlying stations. The second he called a decentralised network; it consisted of a number of links connecting outlying stations to a small number of nodal points, themselves linked by another network. The third diagram depicted what he called a distributed network, in his view the most suitable for computer systems. This showed a network of stations of equal importance, approximately equidistant from one another so as to form an unbroken mesh without conspicuous nodes.

Barron's diagrams struck a chord in other fields as well.

Israeli military experts were tinkering with the same ideas for the optimisation of defensive positions, and used them with some success in the Yom Kippur War. Surgeons studying the human brain found a high incidence of distributed networks in its neurone system. At the same time, Joachim Krausse, German author of a 1973 study of the work of Richard Buckminster Fuller, saw the same pattern in the stress-distribution of a geodesic dome.

All that was a long time ago of course, but a good diagram never loses its value - think of the pie chart and the Venn diagram - and now it looks as if Barron's optimised diagram is coming round again, this time to fit neatly at the head of the spectrum of political ideas for dealing with traffic, transport and gridlock.

Last week light finally appeared at the end of the tunnel of Urban Task Force thinking with the news that an alternative to the fruitless talking up of cities had made its way to the table. Talks between Granada, owner of nearly half the country's motorway service areas, the Department of Transport and the Highways Agency have led to a plan that is almost pure Barron diagram three. The idea is to base the transport planning map of the UK not on the centralised Domesday Book diagram, with links fanning out from ancient towns and cities that are half derelict anyway, but to base it on the motorway system, an uncentralised, disurbanised distributed network barely 50 years old that already bypasses virtually all historic settlements and has its own traffic-friendly nodes - its own abstract urbanism - in the shape of motorway service areas.

Of course there are problems with the scheme as published last week, but none with its motorway starting point.

Unhappily it is still based on the puritanical idea that an overwhelmingly motorised population wants nothing more than to get out of its cars and stand and wait for a bus, but that is only the short-term view.

In practice, John Prescott's vision of turbocharged air-conditioned shuttle coaches barrelling down the hard shoulder from the Heston service area on the M4 into quaint old pedestrianised Westminster and back again must be less likely than the construction of a veritable Klondike of Stockley-style buildings on the plentiful redundant agricultural land that surrounds the hundred-odd motorway service areas themselves.

There, given time and sensible planning, we could have every desirable provision in spades, as one does increasingly at American airports: limitless parking, spectacular landscaping, reasonable densities, fine architecture and a location that makes sense of the national distribution network instead of nonsense of it.

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