Is this the most car sick town in Britain?

It’s 1.1 miles north to south.  It’s 0.9 miles west to east.  A small and dense market town of just under 7,000 people.  There are a few small villages but also several large towns all around it, many a short hop away on the mainline railway, so its wider catchment population is small.  There is a big Tescos and a little Co-op in the centre.  All the pubs, restaurants and take-aways that a market town needs.  Even a market.

Even taking into account the winding streets and difficult to penetrate 1970s cul-de-sac road layouts, no front door is more than 0.85 miles from the shops and services.

This typical residential cul-de-sac is 0.6 miles door-to-door from the station and food shops.  The houses at the end back on to fields.  Every house on this street has at least one garage plus driveway space for at least one car.  Clearly this is insufficient, since the cars are parked fully blocking the pavements on both sides.*

There are no pedestrians to complain about it.

In a pedestrian-free town, you might as well make pavement parking official.

The road proper here is just visible on the left. We’re looking at a parallel service road for the houses.  They all have driveways, but that is clearly not enough.  Can you spot what has ruined the grassy area out front, where the kids could’ve played?

Clearly there’s a shortage of official and properly surfaced car parking areas.  Like here, ten yards behind where the previous photo was taken.

Or garages, as seen in the background of the previous photo.

Why so many cars, in a town where every shop and service is at most a five minute walk away?  Perhaps people drive simply because they can.

They can drive to the barber shop at the top of the high street.

Then drive a hundred yards on to the chippy or curry house.

And another hundred yards further to the pubs and banks.  No need to worry about the double yellows if you’re just popping to the Barclays cash machine.

Then down under the railway bridge for Tesco’s car park or the street market — operated from the backs of vans.

But what if you get into town and find all of those hundreds of spaces taken?  Might you have to drive the half-mile home and abandon all ideas of shopping?  Well, the more adventurous and sporty types could use the 180 long stay spaces that are between 75 and 150 yards from the high street.

(There is a pedestrian in this photograph.  The only person I saw walking anywhere other than beside the shops on the high street.  Why is this person walking?  They have a dog to exercise.)

This is Hungerford, Berkshire.  It is three miles from junction 14 of the M4 motorway and mainline railway, perfect as a dormitory for commuters to Reading and London.  Much of its housing went up at around the same time as the motorway, built with a garage and a double driveway.

One could speculate that Hungerford’s pathological attachment to the car has something to do with the events of August 19, 1987, when Michael Ryan shot 16 random people dead on the streets of the town.  We know that people routinely judge themselves to be safe and secure locked up in their private metal box — ironically the most dangerous part of the average person’s day.

But I don’t think Hungerford needs any such explanation.  The people of Hungerford were not driven into their cars.  People already attached to cars drove into Hungerford, saw that it was convenient for the M4, and took over the town.  The population of this commuter town is a self-selected sample of people who drive everywhere, to whom the idea of walking just half a mile would never even occur.

My experience of the town is limited.  But from what I’ve seen, Hungerford is the most conspicuously car sick town in Britain — and I’ve seen a lot of car sick British towns.  The problem is all the more conspicuous because there are no dual carriageways.  No multi-storey car parks.  No sprawling suburbs.  Just everybody making half mile car trips.  Because anything else would be abnormal.

* Aside: Eric Pickles and Philip Hammond announced in January that they were ending the War On The Motorist by removing the cap on car parking spaces in new build houses.  They argued that the cap did nothing to prevent people owning cars and driving, it just meant that people cluttered the streets and verges and pavements with their second cars.  “The Government believes these rules […] increased unsightly on-street parking congestion – putting the safety of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians at risk.”  Well the houses in this photograph were built long before Labour’s War On The Motorist.  Every house on the street has room for at least two cars parked off street in garages and driveways.  Some have room for more.  The logic of Pickles and Hammond therefore proves that there are no cars parked inconsiderately or illegally on the pavements on this street.  Provide 2-4 parking spaces per house and the streets become a paradise for cyclists and pedestrians.

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8 responses to “Is this the most car sick town in Britain?

  1. Ironically, I wonder how many of the houses’ garages can’t be used for car parking, because the owners have filled them up with bicycles that they never use*?

    * This includes driving the bicycles to a park on a Sunday, riding them round a bit, then driving them home again.

  2. Ha! I was considering using Hungerford station as the starting point of a reasonable-length cycle ride (for me!) recently (20 miles or so). I ended up going from Swindon, which though as car-choked as most of the UK at least has some cyclists and some infrastructure. Longer ride, but there we go.

    Have you been to Marlborough? Similar size & feel, but the last time I was there there were a fair few cyclists about.

  3. Take a trip on the top deck of an H91 bus from Hounslow West to Gillette Corner – every front garden along the Great West Road is concreted over with 2, 3, 4, even 5, cars parked on it, plus a section of the pavement on either side has been “reclaimed” for cars to park parallel to the road: http://tinyurl.com/65x95p8
    It’s evidently necessary for each household to have multiple cars as there are only three Underground stations in Hounslow West, Central and East, plus Osterley actually on the Great West Road and Syon Lane railway station, not to mention the numerous but routes within a short walk.
    Oh, there is a segregated cycle path along both sides of the Great West Road, but it’s very rare to see any cyclists.

  4. I’m not sure that’s fair. I know Hungerford quite well. It’s pretty typical of many small towns in the SE – yes, car addicted, but no worse than anywhere else.

    One of the problems with Hungerford is that the bridge over the canal. It is a humpback and everyone is expected to use it. Apparently there are plans to install a proper pedestrian one soon.

    You may have only seen one person walking, but the census records the modal share of commutes to work 50% higher that of the England average. Car commuting is just above average (but note: London skews the data such that everywhere outside looks bad) but so is train.

    My vote for most car addicted town? Wimborne in Dorset has a car commute share of getting on for 80%.

  5. @JClay: Wimborne also has a higher-than-average life expectancy, apparently partially due to the high numbers of elderly leisure cyclists (who won’t count in the commuting figures)…

  6. Rhos Chappelle

    I accidentally stumbled across this nasty piece of writing whilst looking for new bike routes around Hungerford.
    “Why so many cars, in a town where every shop and service is at most a five minute walk away?”
    ….er because
    “It is three miles from junction 14 of the M4 motorway and mainline railway, perfect as a dormitory for commuters to Reading and London.”

    No prizes for guessing I actually live in Hungerford. Unlike the author whose “…experience of the town is limited”. My children walk the mile and back to school with their mother (as do ALL my kids friends). I work in Hungerford and cycle to work. My colleagues who live locally all walk into the office.

    The author fails to mention is what day or what time these photos were taken? The high street is usually a very busy place. The canal that runs through Hungerford is also very popular with walkers and cyclists as is the local common and River walks.
    I can only assume the reference to Michael Ryan (which was 25 years ago btw) is a sad attempt to make this article more interesting?

  7. Interesting but rather superficial rant about Hungerford, there are hundreds of towns where you can walk down a street full of parked cars on pavements and elsewhere. I live there, it has it’s share of car problems, but I meet loads of people walking around the town. There are so many quiet country lanes around that there is some really fantastic cycling, anyone who chooses to cycle in Swindon as an alternative must be bonkers.
    Must add that the Michael Ryan reference is a rather pathetic parting comment ny the author of the blog

  8. Pingback: AWWTM: Is this the most car sick town in Britain? | Joe D

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