Changing attitudes to the car

After decades of building entire communities around the car, masterplanners, architects and housebuilders are increasingly re-evaluating how vehicles fit into residential developments. In this latest article in our Insight series, Queensberry Properties’ Sales & Marketing Director, Hazel Davies, examines how attitudes have evolved over the years.

“Architecture has always had a rather uneasy relationship with the motorcar. For the last century, cars have been the dominant means of transporting people and goods, yet the balance between the needs of motorists and pedestrians has always been hotly contested. And as we stand at an unprecedented societal crossroads, today’s architects and planners might be advised to study the mistakes of yesteryear before designing homes fit for tomorrow.

A century of experimentation

“As car ownership soared during the inter-war years, the driveways and garages which accommodated them became status symbols. Yet the car was swiftly relegated to an afterthought in the post-war period of rationing and austerity, as cities rushed to

re-house displaced citizens from slums and bombed-out suburbs. The Excalibur Estate in London’s Catford district effectively ignored cars, with rows of prefabricated bungalows arranged along walkways which branched off a single narrow access road. High-rise tower blocks also made little concession to vehicular access, with token car parks and an occasional cluster of lock-up garages often distant from the building’s entrance.

“However, the tide was turning. Scotland’s five New Towns were all designed around personal mobility, with varying degrees of success. East Kilbride’s four-way roundabout model gave way to Cumbernauld’s flyovers and uninviting pedestrian underpasses. Vehicles suddenly had prominence, with terraced houses often obscured behind rows of garages and sprawling parking courts. Meanwhile, private estates sported double-width driveways beside shrinking front lawns, as carports and garages served as indicators of affluence throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

“By the Millennium, the pendulum had swung back the other way and shared space streets were being introduced in an attempt to lower traffic speeds. Urban thoroughfares have been pedestrianised as motorists migrate to car-friendly out-of-town retail parks and suburban pavements are increasingly giving way to monoblock streetscapes which offer equivalence to all forms of traffic. While driveways and (typically unused) garages remain a key selling point for family homes, with two spaces generally required to secure planning approval, trees and hedging help to mitigate their visual impact. Similarly, apartment complexes often incorporate underground parking which allow landscaped communal gardens to flourish in place of tarmac.

Opposing forces

“In today’s post-lockdown world, the car finds itself in a strange position. Millions of us have rediscovered the merits of walking and cycling, prompting calls for wider pavements and narrower roads. Working from home hugely reduces commuting, while online deliveries and internet-based leisure activities should also make car ownership less necessary. Car club memberships and free travel passes have been among the innovations used by developers to discourage car dependence, though public transport has undoubtedly been damaged by social distancing rules and government advice to avoid buses and trains.

“On the flipside, electric and hydrogen cars don’t cause the environmental harm their petrol and diesel ancestors did. Indeed, development plans which actively discourage car ownership may appear churlish in an age when vehicles automatically brake for pedestrians and emit only water as they serenely glide along. The rise of green transport is reflected in our adoption of communal electric vehicle charging points at our new Bonnington Mill development, while our Woodcroft development in leafy Morningside offers enhanced cycle storage to encourage two-wheeled transport.

“In general, car integration remains critically important in residential architecture, unless a development enjoys close proximity to transport hubs and local facilities. Enviably positioned along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Waverley Square is an example of a mixed-use masterplan where almost every imaginable amenity is within walking distance. Conversely, suburban estates are likely to witness even greater reliance on cars in future, as towns expand outward from their urban cores. It will be fascinating to see how tomorrow’s architects continue to evolve balancing the potentially contradictory needs of cars and pedestrians, cyclists and service vehicles”.