The suburban dream

Paul says:

The post is implies, that there is a huge latent demand for cycling in the UK, which will translate into actual cycling if the infrastructure is provided. The truth is that many adults in the UK prefer to drive a car, live in a low-density suburb, and at least accept (if not prefer) a longer commuting distance. They will not cycle, regardless of what infrastructure is provided.

Perhaps some people in this country do still love their suburbs.  But most British people fell out of love with identikit low-density suburbs decades ago.  The rise of the suburb occurred because a push from the city coincided with an opportunity in the suburbs.  For a long time since industrialisation, cities had been dirty, smelly, cramped, and disease ridden.  They hosted steam trains, steam ships, factories, and a coal fire in every home.  Bankside Power Station (Tate Modern) opposite St Paul’s was just one of several central London power stations pumping coal and oil smoke directly into the places where people lived and worked right up into the early 1980s.  The city was enveloped in a constant cloud.  Nobody wanted to live there; everybody wanted a house as far away from the smog and disease as they could get.

Beginning slowly with the first railways, then rapidly with the expansion of the commuter railway networks, and then in its final trickles during the motor car age, that long pent-up demand to leave the dirty city was unleashed into the suburbs.  People rushed out of the city up to whatever at the time was the limit of practical transport.

Neither the push nor the limits exist today, and the demand has dried up with them.  The power stations have been pushed downwind to the coast and cleaned up with pollution scrubbers, the trains are all electric or diesel, and infectious diseases are nothing like the worry they used to be.  People stopped leaving the inner city a few decades ago, and are now moving back in: the populations of Southwark and Tower Hamlets have boomed with the redevelopment of the Docklands with high-density residential developments.  Every inner-borough of London is The New Islington: the once run-down and undesirable area that has seen the poor kicked out by the returning rich.  It’s a part of the current housing scandal: the fact that the social housing of our inner cities — the Heygate and Aylesbury estates in Southwark; West Kensington and Gibbs Green in Hammersmith; Robin Hood Gardens in Tower Hamlets; arrays of brutalist megablocks put up in the last two decades that their close neighbours, the power stations, operated — has and is being run-down ahead of a sell-off to developers who will replace it with desirable private homes.  We don’t need cuts to housing benefit to force the poor out of inner cities — local authorities are already doing it.

Meanwhile, those who really don’t like the city have left it entirely.  If you’re going to commute for over an hour each way just so that you don’t have to live in Inner London, you might as well get on an Intercity 125 or the M4 all the way to Wiltshire.

The people in the suburbs aren’t the people Paul thinks they are any more.  “Suburb” today conjures images very different from the gardens and fields on the London Underground posters of the 1930s, and it’s not an attractive image.

London, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff: our cities are visibly in the process of pulling themselves inside out, if they haven’t already completed the process.  The low-density neighbourhoods on the periphery are not desirable these days; people don’t choose to live there anymore.  They are being left to those who have been priced out of the New Islingtons — people who can’t afford a wasteful car-dependent lifestyle. They are changing demographically, and over time, as the car becomes ever further from the reach of their residents, market forces if nothing else will change them physically.