Essay by Warren Chalk. First published in Architectural Design, Vol. 37, April 1967, p. 154

Controversy rages on, as to whether we preserve the car and learn to live with it, or whether we alter our mode of transport and banish the wretched thing from our cities for ever. In spite of the claims and novelty value, rapid mass-transit rail systems are a restricting limited alternative. Even if eventually modified into an electronic bubble for use within urban limits, the car remains the most adaptable mobile extension of man yet dreamed up. The point is less the car itself than the design of the strips it runs about on. According to the January issue of Traffic Engineering Control, roads are at present overloaded to the point of carrying 0 per cent of all passenger traffic and 60 per cent of our freight traffic. The last official survey in 1965 showed the number of private cars in this country to be 9.9 million – roughly one car for every other household. And this points to the necessity for a higher capacity, more pertinent road network, a realistic car parking policy (including terminal parking garages and peripheral city interchange car parks) but, above all, a comprehensive transport policy, embracing private cars, public transport and freight traffic, which would include traffic surveillance and control systems. The Institute of Civil Engineers Symposium on Area Traffic Control (February 20-21) was intended to promote free discussion centred mainly round the west London experiment, the Glasgow experimental co-ordinated control area, and the Toronto signal system. All of which, basically, are concerned with the use of the computer and its peripheral equipment and the firm electronic grip it may soon get on our traffic problem. The logic of scientific control would appear to be the ability to herd traffic through our cities at a uniform speed, riding on what is called in the jargon a ‘green wave’, or all-systems-go situation. In our existing maze of streets various surveillance devices, such as closed circuit TV, would check traffic junctions, relay information back to a central control computer which would hunt in its memory bank for facts about adjoining street capacity and would feed back instructions to optimize traffic light timing and re-route vehicles so that a more efficient flow was established. Traffic automation is in its infancy, and the primary concern with alleviating existing problems of congestion and recording traffic behaviour patterns is an understandable result, as is also the attraction and addiction to the hardware itself, but eventually it is not so much the system of hardware used that will decide its overall success and efficiency but the way the system is put to use. The equipment should be seen as a total planning device, not only as a tonic for traffic handling but a surgical operation to establish a balanced performance between efficiency in the existing pattern and programmed adaptability for future road network and urban fabric improvement. The current issue of Design Quarterly 66/67, published by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, includes an article by Marvin Manheim that explores the function of the computer in aiding research into highway interchanges and transportation planning. The complex interaction thrown up by the man-machine interface may eventually provide clues in the puzzle that has a complex variety of alternative options that are neither well defined nor completely understood. A permissive adaptable matrix allowing for variables to be absorbed readily into the system would seem the only feasible solution. Designers will have to stop hiding beneath the security of the familiar and learn to adapt the new methods or risk a computer specialist take-over. It is up to us to grab a piece of the action.