Inspired traffic solutions often lie outside the traditional confines of transport planning...

By Ying Jin and John Polak

Will the car, as we know it, still exist as a means of mass urban transport in 50 years? If so, in which part of the city will it remain? How will people and goods move in the city? These are the core questions that this compendium sets out to explore. Its focus is on what is to be done now, since looking far into the future is really about choosing the path to be taken in the next few steps. The compendium offers insights for all those who are keen to understand what really works for urban traffic, whether it is a mayoral candidate or an apprentice on her first day at work. It also shows that inspired traffic solutions often lie outside the traditional confines of transport planning: what led to the make-overs is often jobs, regeneration and crime reduction. Future solutions could come in unexpected ways too: for instance the emerging social-media based rideshare services may provide a clue for the shape of things to come, and ‘integration’ may look like a massive ‘disruption’ rather than slightly better communication between the operation silos.

The legacy

As the title suggests, the central theme of this compendium is the relationship between traffic and towns – in today’s city regions ‘towns’ are dense built-up communities that come in all shapes and sizes. The compendium is inspired by Sir Colin Buchanan's  Traffic in Towns, which was published over half a century ago. It was first produced as a UK government report and then as a Penguin paperback. Buchanan was trained as a planner, engineer and architect and this gave him unique insights into the conundrums of urban traffic. As a result, the team he led produced a groundbreaking report and an international bestseller.

For us, it felt unfair that the 50th anniversary of Buchanan’s report came and went without much funfair, which was in stark contrast to golden jubilees of other iconic UK products of the era, such as the Austin Mini, Dr Who and James Bond stories. Arguably, Buchanan’s influence on city life has been greater than that of all the other British icons of the age put together. However, the anniversary had less media attention than that of the Great Train Robbery which took place the same year when the Buchanan’s report was published.

However, the 50th anniversary did trigger a conversation among a few of us over the idea of having another look at traffic in towns. This rapidly grew into a sizeable group of people from whom the contributors and reviewers emerge for this compendium. They come from diverse fields, and often hold conflicting views to one another, although they all thought that an 'another look' is worthwhile. The idea gained further momentum when publisher Landor LINKS gave its enthusiastic and steadfast backing.

From the start, we realised that revisiting the issues that Buchanan explored is no simple feat: the questions that he and his colleagues dealt with are probably the trickiest in the field. They came up with wise answers which are not easy to challenge even today, if one reads the report carefully without taking the remarks out of context. Nevertheless, unlike Buchanan’s report, which had to resort to hypothetical examples of car use, we have ample real examples today. Furthermore, the benefits of half a century’s hindsight and the access to online publishing do give us a few new vantage points. In particular, they help us overcome two key issues that may have overshadowed Buchanan’s report.

From one-off to continuous studies

The first issue stems from the one-off nature of the ministerial commission which was to predict long-term prospects of urban traffic. ‘At one blow’ was common in the 1960s for looking at future trends, and that approach still persists today in many sectors including transport, housing and city planning. For Buchanan, there was not to be another chance to revise his analyses or predictions. Reading through Buchanan's speeches written for the 2nd, 5th, 10th and 20th anniversaries of his report (we thank the Imperial College Archive for making this possible), one could not help speculating what additional insights he could have left us, had his energy, intellect and wit been directed instead to repeating the analyses and predictions with a well-equipped team, rather than just looking back alone, largely through reinterpreting the original work.

To challenge the limitations of future gazing, we present the papers not as one-offs, but an online, continuous effort where authors can revise their predictions as the events unfold; new voices are welcome as and when fresh research findings emerge. It is pleasing to see the number of contributors and reviewers has reached a critical mass for attracting diverse expertise and views, which in turn ensures the evidence will stand up to scrutiny. For those who enjoy reading the papers in print rather than online, we will produce the compendium in book form from time to time. Books produced from this compendium are no longer end products, but occasions for the authors to time-stamp their views of an era1.

Breaking the curse

The second issue is more particular to Buchanan’s report, and we tentatively call it 'the curse of integrative thinking'. Buchanan’s professional knowledge was vast. He could intuitively see how concepts of ‘traffic’ and ‘town’ are tied in knots in a way few others could. Resolving traffic congestion and the harm arising from it would involve reshaping the towns, which just cannot be a quick task. This perspective led him to rather different conclusions from the common wisdom of the time. For instance, he was hardly wielding an Ockham’s Razor when he offered his counsel to the ministers. Urban traffic, he famously said: 'is not so much a problem waiting for a solution as a social situation requiring to be dealt with by policies patiently applied over a period and revised from time to time in light of events 2.'

His advice was not dissimilar to that from a wise doctor dealing with obesity or high blood pressure. Buchanan’s views were borne out by those who transformed parts of downtown Copenhagen, London and San Francisco through slow but persistent efforts over the past five decades, where gradual adaptations of streets and adjacent land use have made transport improvements work as intended, the land use and transport improvements reinforcing each other.

It is therefore tragic to see how few actually remembered Buchanan’s advice on the importance of land use, built form and the associated politics, consumer sentiments and vagaries of project delivery. As the authors of a government report, Buchanan and colleagues dutifully spoke of the need for co-ordinated, top down policies. But in reality few in government had the wherewithal to take Buchanan’s advice in its entirety when making concrete plans. Even the best efforts for integrating transport and urban land use had to work with the powers, priorities and funding sources of specific agencies and operational silos. This could in part be why, in the 1960s, Buchanan became a byname for road building in the UK, but was known for promoting traffic calming in Germany (see Carmen Hass-Klau’s Chapter in this compendium [could this be done as hot text?]). Only in Japan has the Buchanan Principle, which defines the basic trade-offs among urban amenity, accessibility and cost, resonated; there has traditionally been a culture to coordinate city building with transport (see the Chapter by Ohta and Kubota).

With hindsight, it would appear that opportunities to coordinate land use, built form and transport may be approached through what works locally for each community, agency or operational silo, rather than simply imposed by a grand plan. Buchanan would probably be pleased that, after five decades, London has at last found successes in integrative project delivery, where transport investment triggers major neighbourhood make-overs and vice versa. Regeneration projects such as those being built out at King’s Cross Central and around the Olympic Park may have surpassed what he thought was feasible in attracting investment to improve amenities and mange traffic pressures. But they also show that inspired traffic solutions often lie outside the traditional confines of transport planning: what led to the make-overs is jobs, regeneration and crime reduction. Future solutions could come in unexpected ways too: for instance the emerging social-media based rideshare services provide a clue for the shape of things to come, and ‘integration’ may look like a massive ‘disruption’ rather than slightly better communication between the operation silos.

Filling a gap between journals and social media

We have taken a hint from what has worked well in actual project delivery, and structured the contributions to the compendium as a ‘pull’ rather than a ‘push’. The contributors are attracted to the idea of exploring long-term perspectives. The topics that they present are those vital in their own fields as far as urban traffic is concerned. They include not only city planning, urban design, transport operations and traffic engineering (which were the focus of the Buchanan report), but also economics, finance, travel demand and new technology (which were peripheral to his vision). Over time, we expect the long-term perspectives presented here to become a centripetal force for pulling expertise from an ever wider range of fields, and for closer engagement among the contributors for integrative/disruptive thinking. Put simply, we hope the compendium to fill a gap between academic journals and social media: that is, the chapters are expected to have the peer-reviewed robustness of academic journals and the readability of social media.

How big are the challenges ahead?

The chapters in this compendium is but the first cut of the analyses, but it is already clear that the urban traffic challenges of today are more than a magnitude greater than those facing the world in the 1960s. According to UN Habitat, 200 million people are yet to move to the growing cities of the rich countries, and more than 3 billion to the sprawling city regions of the developing world by 2050. Among those, families in China are now crossing the car-ownership threshold that Buchanan faced in the 1960s’ Britain and, in all likelihood, this will happen to India before long. While the VW diesel engine scandal show how hard it is to address existing vehicle emissions, the global vehicle fleet is expected to double to 1.7 billion by 2035. Furthermore, if a cheap and efficient alternative to petroleum fuel is found, would global car ownership levels not rise to the level of the rich countries in the decades to come?

Besides the mind-boggling numbers, the important story is that in the rich countries, urban traffic problems are becoming harder to address, even as overall road traffic levels are stablising. The UK reflects many of the common trends in the rich countries. In terms of travel, the UK could be broadly categorised into three distinct types of areas: the first is dense areas with good public transport, with around 18% of the population; the second is middle Britain which deserves in every sense the description ‘middle’, with 50% of the population; the third is countryside, with 32% of the population, and the majority which lives in rural areas that are reasonably accessible to large conurbations 3.

The good news from this analysis is that, for the first 20% living in London-like areas, a combination of demographic change and planning interventions have significantly increased the influence of the built environment on travel in the past few decades. In fact the built environment appears to be the greatest influence in people’s decisions over whether to own a car or how to travel. This dense area also saw the fastest population growth between 2001-11, at around 13%, which is 1.5 million people in England and Wales. Not all battles are over yet, but in many dense areas planners are beginning to see their first successes in winning the buy-in to restrict car use whilst improving the quality of life as well as connectivity.

The bad news is that the rest of the UK, with 80% of the population, has shown very few signs of change in the historic trends of car ownership or travel behaviour. This non-dense part of the country is still growing strongly at over 6% 2001-2011, and car ownership levels are is still rising, where they have not saturated. The 32% of the population in the sparsely populated areas have few alternatives to the car – before they all drive electric cars, the residents will have to find other ways to cut down fossil fuels and generate more renewable energy. The big question relates to the 50% of the population that is Middle Britain, who currently live in town-like built-up areas but travel in ways that are very similar to those living in rural areas. More importantly, the same analysis also shows that major mobility disadvantages may remain for those travelling to work, among the fastest-growing segments of part-time, single and women workers, even in dense urban areas.

The past 50 years of experience shows that, in spite of rapid technological changes, the car as we know it may still be with us as a means of mass urban transport in 50 years' time. This is not only because of the sheer inertia in car manufacturing and the sheer size of the existing car fleet, but also the even slower process of adaptation in the built environment. The experience in Denmark, the UK and the US in the past few decades shows what can be achieved in the very dense areas in reducing the dominance of car as a means of travel, but this good practice is yet to be made to work effectively in the wider built-up areas. It is in those areas that most people live and work, and that the biggest challenges remain.

The need for a global perspective

Besides saying that we would be all doomed ultimately in terms of habitat, resources and climate change if the impending urban explosion were to go wrong, there are three immediate reasons that make it worthwhile to take a global perspective of traffic in towns.
First, the lessons are global. The ‘social situations’ of urban traffic that make or break transport projects are complex and are beyond anyone’s control individually. As a result, real successes are few and far in between, and when it happens it has always been helped by a healthy dose of serendipity. To inspire mayors of growing cities who face 1,000 new cars being added to their streets each and every day, there is a need to examine carefully what has genuinely worked in addition to physically restraining car purchase or ownership. A great deal can be learnt from the good examples, so long as real human behaviour is teased out from the circumstances that propel the dynamics. In the world of Google and YouTube, ideas travel fast and foreign stories tantalise, but hearsay and tall tales are no substitute for knowing what really has happened on the ground.
Secondly, the technologies are global. The enormous sums of investment required for taking ideas to market mean that the threshold of critical mass for innovation and economies of scale has gone much higher, and often beyond what one country can handle. There is no guarantee that the technology will flow only one way, i.e. from the rich to the poor countries. Since necessity is the mother of invention, the chances are that the emerging economies will contribute, especially through frugal practices.

Thirdly, the opportunities are global. Project delays are endemic when dealing with urban traffic, even in fast growing cities. Patience is a prerequisite for promoters and professionals. However, delays can thwart opportunities for innovation. An understanding of professional opportunities across cities and countries can help produce an expanding catchment of services, a steadier workload and a more robust track record, the essentials for success in innovation. In return, the cross-fertilisation and cross-boundary working will help spawn the key ingredients for new international standards for technologies, processes and governance models.

Ultimately, the purpose of a global outlook is to support bold actions locally. The half century time scale is the only thing that we are sure to have on our side – that is, if we learn from the successful examples how to deliver improvements patiently and persistently.
Ying Jin and John Polak

1 The authors can also preserve all versions of their chapters online.
2 Buchanan, C (1963). Traffic in Towns, 
3 See Jahanshahi et al, 2015, Direct and indirect influences on employed adults’ travel in the UK. Transportation Research A ( and Jahanshahi et al, 2016, Trendbreaking Influences of Built Form on Travel in UK Cities, Transportation Research Record (DOI 10.3141/2564-04).

Editorial note

The chapters in this compendium are published under a Creative Commons licence, which implies that the contents and responsibilities remain solely with the respective authors. The continuous nature of the compendium means that new chapters will be added and existing chapters modified as and when fresh research findings emerge. The editors welcome new and diverse voices and views. The submissions to the compendium will be peer reviewed with the oversight of a steering group to ensure that the contributions will stand up to scrutiny.

Please email Yin Jin at: for further information on submitting an article.

The managing editor of the project is Juliana O'Rourke:  


It was for the retrofit in the developed world as well as the urban traffic explosion in the emerging economies that a group of academics and practitioners have initiated this new compendium book on traffic in towns. It started with a small group of academics from the Tsinghua-Cambridge-MIT Low Carbon Energy University Alliance and quickly expanded to a global line-up (see below). We thank the publisher Landor LINKS, whose enthusiasm and support have been a key catalyst.  We also acknowledge the funding support from the UK EPSRC Energy Efficient Cities, EPSRC Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction and the Tsinghua-Cambirdge-MIT Low Carbon Energy Alliance.