In the aftermath of World War Two, the use of the private car rose rapidly in the western world, and the UK was no exception. The streets of British cities had not been designed with cars in mind and were quickly overwhelmed. By the late 1950s transport planners realised that traditional cities could accommodate unrestricted car use only through demolition on a scale that would destroy them.
In 1960 Prof Sir Colin Buchanan published his report “Traffic in Towns” which addressed the dilemma. He strongly advocated the principle of the “road hierarchy”. Local areas would be dominated by pedestrian movements and designed with this in mind. These areas would be linked together via wider primary and secondary distributor roads devoted mainly to vehicles. Long-distance traffic would be routed via dedicated high-capacity roads designed exclusively for vehicles. The report also recommended a high degree of segregation of road users, for example by providing pedestrian routes distinct from those intended to be used by vehicles.
In practice it was very hard to re-design an established Victoriancity on these principles. However, this difficulty did not exist if a city was being planned from scratch. Thus Craigavon, along with its contemporary New Towns in the rest of the UK, represented the first time that a city had been laid out with the Buchanan principles and the private car consciously in mind. Craigavon was designed not only to support car use, but to support the free use of the car. In other words, the city’s roads were to have enough capacity to flow freely without traffic jams even at the height of the rush hour. This meant a substantial road system.
Craigavon was to be a low-density city and therefore a lot of travel was going to be required. In Brownlow, the only part of the new city to be substantially built, there would be six distinct residential areas that would consist of neighbourhoods with local facilities. While a road for vehicles would run through each one, the idea was that each of these areas would be principally navigated comfortably on foot.
The neighbourhoods were to be connected via secondary distributor roads, which would consist of one lane each way and be connected via roundabouts. Although not all of Brownlow’s residential areas were built, its system of secondary distributors was largely completed, leading to some rather odd setups today such as Monbrief East Road which carries very little traffic as it runs through open countryside.
Brownlow itself was to be connected to the other neighbourhoods of the New City (Portadown, Mandeville, Lurgan and the “city centre”) via an East-West primary distributor. This was also largely completed as a dual-carriageway with roundabouts at every junction and is known today as Lake Road.
The pièce de résistance of Craigavon’s road network was to have been a large motorway to run the full length of the city, on the north side, to allow vehicles to quickly travel from one area of the city to another, and to access the M1 motorway towards Belfast. This motorway was to have had three lanes in each direction with the railway line in the central reservation. It was never completed, but a section of the westbound carriageway was built and is now known as the Northway.
Craigavon was also designed to allow free movement by bicycle and on foot, and this resulted in a substantial network of fully segregated pathways with bridges and underpasses that meant that pedestrians practically could reach most places in the New City without ever have to cross a road – Brownlow has almost no conventional pedestrian crossings. This is also evidenced by the surprising lack of footpaths adjacent to many of the roads in Brownlow.
While the New City of Craigavon is often the butt of jokes, its transport system was well planned, was ahead of its time and functions well today. Many residents identify the network of segregated pathways as one of its best features. Elsewhere in Northern Ireland the Buchanan principles of road hierarchy have been set aside with poor results. For example, the A24 Saintfield Road and the A20 Upper Newtownards Road in Belfast both mix all types of road user from schoolchildren on foot to long-distance lorries on a single road: both roads have a poor safety record and are unpleasant environments for virtually everyone. Craigavon’s methodical segregation of road users by both type and purpose of travel still has a lot to teach the rest of Northern Ireland.
The numerous roundabouts are sometimes a source of frustration to drivers – a three mile journey along Lake Road from Portadown to Lurgan takes you through eight of them – but there are also very few traffic lights in Brownlow. Had the city and its road system been constructed to the scale planned it is likely that it would have suffered from less congestion than comparable settlements of a more traditional layout.
The road system today has a somewhat sad, untidy look to it principally because it represents only a fraction of what was planned and some elements lie unused and dilapidated. One lesson that can be taken away by transport planners it is that when a new road is built it should be left in a tidy, “completed” form – even if the plan is to extend it at a later date. The past fifty years of changing transport plans have left far too many ugly, unfinished road schemes in Northern Ireland. New roads should be completed in such a way that they would still look acceptable even if no further work ever took place.
Craigavon’s road system shows us how a city that is truly designed for the private car, rather than being retrofitted for it, looks in practice. The result is not universally negative; the road system has its problems, certainly, but in many ways it is superior to those of the congested traditional settlements that surround it.