Have you ever wondered why Cambridge largely escaped the scarring caused by large road schemes seen in so many other towns? Yes there is Elizabeth Way bridge and the railway bridge on Hills Road (now tamed) but otherwise the city missed out on the urban motorways so in fashion in the 1960s and 70s.
In the 1960s the view was the cities were going to become engulfed by a tidal wave of cars that would suffocate them and destroy their vitality. The video Look At Life – Living with Cars 1964 explains the mood at the time and is well worth a watch.
The video mentions the key report at the time, Traffic in Towns, aka the Buchanan Report that carefully analysed the situation and suggested solutions that involved building ring roads, controlling parking (yellow lines), car parks and the segregation motor traffic and pedestrians on two or three vertical levels, amongst other things.
The City Council had been concerned about traffic for decades and in its Future Shape of Cambridge plan published in March 1966 proposed some major road building to solve this. Previously I detailed the cycle routes proposed, here is the Main Town Road that was described as “the obvious solution to Cambridge’s traffic problems”:
The Main Town Road was designed for “very heavy volumes” of traffic at 40mph with entry and exit points at near motorway standards. It would fly over or under main roads.
The diagram shows the proposed link between Barton Road and Brooklands Avenue across Coe Fen. Brooklands Avenue would have had a large multi-level interchange at each end. The area to the north of Mill Road – the York Street, Sturton Street and Norfolk Street areas – were expected to be cleared and redeveloped and would have seen this road running through it. New shopping was to move to the now Grafton Centre. The Chesterton Lane and Castle areas look like they would have been turned in to a traffic-filled area with a new crossing over the river to feed Park Street car park.
The diagram suggests that in addition to a (presumably) four lane road there are additional local lanes running on each side between the interchanges, bringing the width to six lanes in most places.
The west side of the city, which had been largely reserved for an enlarged university precinct, would have benefited by the demolition of Fen Causeway and the closure of Queens Road and Grange Road to cross traffic. This would have allowed a pedestrian dominated precinct from the city centre to the western edge for the university’s use.
The impact of such a massive road is difficult to imagine so I was considering trying to mock-up what this might have looked like in Cambridge but it turns out that there is no need as Coventry provides a suitable example. Its ring road hugs the city centre with a length of 2.5mi and was completed in 1971. It provides distribution to the central shopping and parking area as well as long distance journeys (although this role is now much diminished through subsequent road building).
Coventry had a medieval centre although much of this was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, leaving the ground clearer for redevelopment. Nonetheless the traditional street pattern was swept away to build the new road network and car parks.
These two pictures of modern day Coventry show the huge amount of land taken by a four lane road designed for 40mph with grade-separated junctions – and the vast impact on the cityscape.
Can you imagine Cambridge in 2013 with a necklace like this? Elizabeth Way was built and gives an impression of what parts of the city would have looked and sounded like if the entire road had been built.
Fortunately the City Council was not the highway authority and had neither the power nor the money to carry out these plans at the time.
You might also like: The incomplete Eastern Ring Road