We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Canterbury inner ring road. This will not be an occasion for celebration. But it should be an occasion for reflection.
We can for instance ask ourselves how many urban transport planners in the Britain of the 1950s and 60s possessed a vision of which British citizens could be proud today?
Are the highway systems, which they designed and which municipal authorities built, now fit for the realities of city life in the 21st century?
Were they aware of a need to respect the rights of pedestrians, cyclists and users of public transport, alongside efforts to allow the movement of private cars and commercial vehicles?
Did they, with hindsight, show any real respect for the twin imperatives of environmental protection and heritage conservation?
Cities in Britain as diverse as London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Cambridge have in recent years given a resounding “no” to such questions.
In London and Birmingham the councils have decided it is unnecessary to consign pedestrians to underpasses and subways.
Even across the busiest dual carriageway ring roads within these large conurbations, such as the Marylebone Road and the so-called Bull Ring, old subways have been filled in, landscaped and replaced by phased signal crossings. Some of these crossings are adapted for cyclists and cycle paths, for example next to Hyde Park, along the banks of the Thames and next to Regents Park in London.
Meanwhile, widened pavements and newly landscaped car parks are treated in the most enlightened English cities and towns as potential green space, so that the urban environment is refreshed by new tree planting along and near to roads.
Wycombe council in the Chilterns has recently gone so far as to set a 25% tree cover target for urban extension developments. Farnham in Surrey has managed within its urban footprint to retain 45% tree cover.
Further afield, cities in continental Europe including Freiburg, Stuttgart, Zurich, Zug, Paris, Oslo and Amsterdam, as well as many smaller towns in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Scandinavia, have adopted new models for their urban transportation needs.
These models typically give equal priority on highways at surface level to citizens who choose to walk, cycle, take a bus or take a tram. They also frequently involve a new approach to road use by cars and by commercial vehicles and to on-street car parking, utilising the “polluter pays” principle.
No such measures are apparently contemplated in Canterbury. Our legacy from the 1960s and 70s comprises a dual carriageway stretch of inner ring road leading into, and fed by, single carriageway jams in Broad Street, Wincheap, St Peter’s Place and Old Dover Road.
Except at two or three isolated pelican crossings on single carriageway stretches, pedestrians are not permitted to cross this inner ring at surface level. New tree planting in car parks, as part of new housing developments and along roads is the exception rather than the rule.
Canterbury boasts cycle paths to nowhere, notably several which fizzle out near the ring road and do not reappear, even inside the city walls.
The city also specialises in footpaths leading to main roads without safe means of crossing them. A classic case is the path leading from St Dunstan’s, across Westgate Gardens to St Peter’s Place, which ends in a raised concrete wall up to the roadway, before leading on the south side, via a further concrete wall drop, to Black Griffin Lane.
Another is the branch of the Pilgrims Way leading towards St Martin’s Church, an element of our World Heritage Site, where walkers heading north have to traverse the A257 between two dangerous junctions.
The pedestrian crossing on the ring road at the end of Burgate does allow those on foot to cross by means of separate signal phases over the two lanes of traffic, yet the combined intervals during which they must wait are so long, and the green phases so short, that they may often be seen scurrying across in front of fast cars and articulated trucks.
Councillors at both district and county level now have a chance to address such deficiencies as they pursue their recently adopted municipal transport strategies.
Sustainability is meant to be at the heart of the measures they take, in order to implement the strategies. Citizens expect in coming months to hear about measures displaying a more definite intention to protect and enhance the environment.
In Canterbury the city council is now advised by a Sustainable Transport Forum. It is time for councillors and officers to reconsider the priority they have given to building a new multi-storey car park and to reinforce their meagre, unambitious draft Air Quality Action Plan.
Instead they must step forward with bold measures to deal with traffic congestion, facilitate the use of buses by a wider range of residents on a new selection of cross-city routes, and give pedestrians and cyclists in Canterbury the kind of consideration they already enjoy in more up-to-date “mobile” cities.
Peter Styles is vice-chairman of the St Augustine’s Residents’ Association, a committee member of the Alliance of Canterbury Residents’ Associations, a member of the Canterbury Society and a residents’ delegate to the Canterbury Sustainable Transport Forum. He writes here in a personal capacity.