The largest public space in cities, towns and villages is highway – not only the roads, but pavements, verges, cycleways and footpaths. It is land we own in common.
Over the past century, we’ve given ever more of it to motor vehicles, to drive on and park on. There are now 40 million vehicles licensed in the UK. Once they were a luxury, then a convenience; now they are a necessity for most people. We have adapted our lives to depend on them, and take it for granted that we can drive and park almost anywhere.
But there is a huge environmental cost to manufacturing, maintaining and running all those vehicles; and building and maintaining the infrastructure for them to move about safely, conveniently and without intolerable delay. Replacing them with electric vehicles is not a solution, not least because there is no surplus renewable electricity with which to mine the materials, manufacture the vehicles and batteries, and keep them charged up. (Most countries, including the UK, still burn coal to generate some or most of their electricity.)
So, we have to design a new order in which we live more of our lives locally, walking or cycling most of our daily trips; use telecommunications to reduce the need to travel (which the pandemic has accelerated); use public and shared transport for most longer trips; and travel shorter distances for holidays.
Highways in every city, town and village should be safe and comfortable to walk, run and cycle along and across. Highways need to support vibrant shops, cafés, pubs, hairdressers, community centres, art galleries, and more. They need tree canopies to create shade on hot summer days; and drainage ditches to contain the run-off from heavy rainfall and provide a habitat for wildlife. Then the highways can once more be living streets.
Communities are starting to reimagine their streets with more space for people and less for motor vehicles. Local authorities mostly want to support and facilitate such changes. Start a conversation group with neighbours on WhatsApp or Nextdoor, develop a vision and ask your councillors to help make it a reality.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 19 August 2020.