Tuesday 9 July 2013

The Gorbals, Robert Moses and the hometown blues

For years when I returned to Glasgow, the city where I lived on and off from the ages of four to 24, relatives and acquaintances would suck their teeth as I mentioned how I cycled in Edinburgh, London or Budapest, the cities where I’ve lived in the two intervening decades. Cycling would never take off in Glasgow, they explained, because of the weather. The persistent, year-round rain would make it impossible.
A cyclist in Glasgow: doing his best to follow my lead
from 20 years ago
It was consequently a pleasant surprise when I enjoyed a few days’ brief return home last week to discover that I’d been only 20 years or so ahead of the times when I cycled regularly in Glasgow. I saw none of the large packs of commuting cyclists that are becoming features of the London and even sometimes the New York streetscape. But there were undoubtedly far more noticeable numbers of cyclists about on the streets, competing with double-deck buses, trucks and cars for space on the roads.

Yet cyclists’ growing visibility is by no means the most important recent transport change in the city. Across the Gorbals, a notoriously rough area where I used to cycle between my parents’ home and my postgraduate journalism course, there now strides a vast motorway viaduct, opened two years ago in the name of relieving congestion on older, 1970s and 1980s motorways. The new road – an extension of the M74 motorway leading to England – was built against planners’ advice and looks set to keep the Gorbals as depressing as in the 1990s.

My clearest memory of riding in the Gorbals then is of jostling with cars while riding by a vast, wasteland lot. I knew it had, in happier times, housed elegant tenements designed by Alexander “Greek” Thomson, a 19th century architect dedicated to turning everyday Glasgow buildings into visions of classical elegance.

The new road’s presence prompted me to notice quite how much space Glasgow devotes to the private car – and how far the priority cars receive helps to sustain their dominance. I also noticed how much priority the city’s road network gave to saving motorists time – at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists. That in turn put me in mind of how much space and time both New York – to which I’ve returned this week – and London – where I’ve lived 11 of my post-Glasgow years – lavish on users of private cars.

The FDR Drive was one of the few New York highways
not built by Robert Moses. But the neighbourng housing projects
were - and illustrate precisely how much care the
"master builder" took to create warm, vibrant neighbourhoods.
All of those cities have made admirable strides in the last decade towards enticing residents back onto the bicycles that had been abandoned as urban transport tools. But the more I thought about practical conditions for cycling in those places, the more it struck me that cyclists were often working against the grain of the cities’ current structures. Their true inclinations remained shaped by people like Robert Moses, the “master builder” who in the 1950s and 1960s sent road bridges springing across New York City’s waterways, tunnels burrowing under its harbour and expressways marching across many of its urban neighbourhoods.

Not, I should add, that I envy the task of Glasgow’s transport planners. The city, once a thriving centre for shipbuilding, maritime trade and heavy industry, has suffered from nearly every economic dislocation imaginable. Trade’s focus has shifted from Britain’s Atlantic coast towards those near sea lanes to and from Asia. Shipbuilding, undercut by Asia’s low wages and high efficiency, has all but disappeared. Other countries now make the huge freight locomotives my mother recalls seeing heading down her street on their way to haul goods across South Africa or India. The city could hardly have failed to hollow out as tens of thousands of its working class citizens lost their jobs and left homes that had been clustered around their workplaces. New York and London have undergone similar changes following deindustrialisation, but haven’t quite so comprehensively lost their senses of purpose.
A cyclist labours up the pedestrian/bike path near the
Riverside Museum. You've certainly got to admire
his determination when the city's so obviously telling him
to go about by car
Yet a family visit to the new Riverside Museum – part of an attempt to revive one of the areas worst hit by recent decades’ changes – revealed how far Glasgow goes out of its way to thwart anyone who abandons the car. In a short walk from Partick railway station to the museum, we had to pick our way across first a busy, two-lane road, then take a bridge across a four-lane expressway, before immediately crossing a second, five-lane road. The traffic lights’ pedestrian (and cyclist) phase took so long to come around it seemed like a calculated insult.

The area is not the only one so thoroughly given over to roads. Four thick, grey ribbons of tarmac – two carriageways of a trunk road and two motorway carriageways – wind their way across one stretch of the city’s south side that might, without them, stand some chance of revival as hip, inner-city neighbourhoods. North American readers unfamiliar with the city should picture the way Detroit’s urban freeways slice through its neighbourhoods to understand the effect.
A Glasgow-built Cunarder tram in the Riverside Museum:
the acme of British tram design, from a city about to take
a wholly different path
The irony is that, on reaching the museum, visitors discover how well Glasgow once provided far more human-scale types of mobility. The Riverside Museum is full of tramcars (trolleys, American readers) dating back to the days when the city’s public transport system was noted for its modernity and comfort. Exhibits are devoted to the city’s subway, opened in 1896, only the third urban underground anywhere in the world, to which my late father devoted the prime of his life. That public transport allowed the city to support large numbers of people in neighbourhoods densely-packed enough to support large numbers of shops, cinemas and other amenities. The tram tracks were ripped out and the urban motorways built in the same wave of modernisation during which Moses slashed Red Hook from Carroll Gardens with the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, severed Manhattan from its waterfront with the Henry Hudson Parkway and made suburban Long Island entirely car-dependent by building only expressways to serve new housing. There was certainly a need for some modernisation. In both Glasgow and New York, the post-war period saw the elimination of many notorious, dangerous, insanitary slums. It's simply hard looking at the end results to believe there wasn't a better way to achieve the goal.

I was particularly alive to the nature of Glasgow’s failure because during the trip I was reading 722 miles, Clifton Hood’s fine history of the building of New York’s subways. In it, he laments how after the first world war, John Hylan, the then-mayor, sponsored subway construction within then-built-up parts of the city but failed to keep extending the subways out to new, undeveloped areas. The result was that areas like Staten Island developed entirely differently from other bits of the city. As I can testify from personal experience, they remain dominated by wide roads full of fast-moving cars. It wasn’t hard to spot a similar process at work in Glasgow. Roads blight swathes of places like Partick, Kinning Park and other areas of the city that once held far higher numbers of people. The populations of those areas are now further away from the city centre in areas so thinly-spread it’s far easier for people to get about by car than by public transport or bicycle.

It occurred to me this evening as I cycled home from work that parts of New York remain as blighted by roads as parts of Glasgow. The thought came into my head as I pedalled frantically across the West Side highway – four carriageways of dense, fast-moving traffic – to reach the Hudson River Greenway before the massed ranks of cars started roaring towards me. Yet New York enjoys the enormous benefit that no politician – even the most anti-cyclist, pro-motorist – would seriously suggest building, say, a new arm of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway devastating a new bit of booming Williamsburg. No-one would suggest devastating Hoxton in London with a new motorway.
Gavin Dalzell rode this, the world's oldest surviving pedal
bicycle, now preserved in the Riverside Museum, in Glasgow.
With admirable consistency, the city gave him a hard time for doing so.
Glasgow, however, has more in common with struggling cities across the North of England and the US’s mid-west. There’s a desperate edge to some of the transport policy decisions, a feeling that the next city over might prove more car-friendly and attract a vital few investors that could make all the difference. The cities consequently try a bit of everything – some bike routes, some new rail lines, a hulking new urban motorway slicing five miles through a reviving urban neighbourhood. I feel enough affection for Glasgow to hope that the strategy works better than I fear. The city’s continued hollowing-out to facilitate car travel certainly isn’t preventing a revival in vibrant areas such as Hillhead.

But I’d feel far more optimistic if I could picture myself cycling from Glasgow’s south side to its city centre through the kind of bustling city streets where I’ll ride tomorrow morning than under the looming viaduct that now bisects the Gorbals.


  1. I cycle in Glasgow every day. The weather isn't a problem, you either get wet from the inside or the outside.

    The city has virtually no cycle infrastructure other than the occasional bit of paint. The least they could do is provide a safe way to traverse the city center.

    1. Lee,

      You are, obviously, right. As the old cycling saying goes, "There's no such thing as the wrong weather - just the wrong clothing."

      Until I moved to New York (last year) I would occasionally bring my bike up on the train from London to Glasgow when visiting my mother. So I have some experience of cycling there since I stopped living there permanently. The one thing I'd say is that the painted cycle lanes, routes by the Clyde and so on, while inadequate, have made things a little better than they were 20 years ago. But it's still pretty miserable.


    2. I don't know why cyclists so often claim there's no infrastructure when roads exist everywhere. A standard road is still the safest place for cyclists to ride. Just obey the law and ride well into the travel lane and you'll be even safer.

    3. Ian,

      I partly agree with you. But have a look at the five-lane dual carriageway in the picture I posted above. It's prioritised for high-speed car traffic and absolutely not to make things suitable for cyclists. Quite a lot of the main routes across Glasgow are like that. It's possible to ride on such roads if one has strong nerves. Goodness knows, I've done it often enough. But it's not an environment that attracts a lot of people.


    4. To be fair, the former 'Bridge to Nowhere', now Anderston Bridge, has just opened. It links the kerbed bike paths from Kelvingrove Park/Berkeley St over the M8 to Waterloo St/Central Station.

      Obviously, we need more protected routes like that to encourage people who fear cycling on the roads. Recent increase in cycling KSI stats shows they have reason to worry. Great for Ian if he's not concerned but a big increase can only come from the people who are.

      There have been other wee improvements (Custom Quay, Speirs Wharf) but most are linked to the Commonwealth Games so I wonder what will happen after 2014. 'Bridge to Nowhere'/Connect2 was Sustrans idea - too early to tell if the Council has started to 'get it' now they have so-called 'Cycling Czar' Frank McAveety.

      Glasgow hasn't been able to try "some new rail lines" - Scottish Parliament scuppered GARL and Crossrail. The latter would've connected to a new Gorbals station. Edinburgh debacle means trams are non-starter. Instead we get Fastlink buses to new Southern General and they take up the best bike road in Glasgow at Broomielaw!

    5. Anonymous,
      Thanks for the comment.
      I said further up that some things have improved and it's true there are some positive developments. I guess my overall point is that the city still feels scarred by the space given over to wide, fast roads. Glasgow kept heading that direction long after other places stopped.
      On the rail point, I was thinking of projects like Airdrie to Bathgate, the new Bellshill line and so on. I know more recent plans have been turned down but I'm still surprised when I go back how much the region's rail map has changed.
      I'd like to see far more done to turn Glasgow - and other car-scarred cities - back into more liveable cities.

    6. I maybe should've emphasised I was replying to Lee's point about infrastructure. Not disagreeing with your overall point - you only have to look at all the flyovers in Glasgow to see 'car is king'. Stuck with them unless the gov't go for a Boston-style 'Big Dig'.

      The bike infrastructure built in the last five or so years is a drop in the ocean but suggests a few people in power are starting to wake up to active travel. Obviously, the majority are still asleep at the wheel.

      The M74 extension does dominate Tradeston but I think it's positive that it's raised - leaves plenty of flat space underneath to work with (instead of needing bridges/underpasses). In any case, M74 ext'n was more about relieving congestion on the Kingston Bridge and regional travel between Ayrshire, Glasgow Airport and Lanarkshire.

      Rail: It's nothing like pre-Beeching era but I'd agree Lanarkshire has done quite well out of rail extensions - Hamilton-Larkhall as well as Airdrie-Bathgate and Gartcosh. Here's hoping, once the Borders line is complete, the Parliament revisits Glasgow Crossrail, GARL and the Subway eastern loop.

    7. Anonymous,

      My father spent long periods when I was a boy planning possible extensions to his beloved subway. He even got them to buy a bit of land for a route to the airport. So I'd love to see the subway extended.

      Overall, rail works well in dense urban areas, not so well in the countryside. So some of the projects you suggest would have a far greater chance of being viable than some of the projects done so far (in my opinion).


  2. Robert wrote:
    "Cycling would never take off in Glasgow, they explained, because of the weather. The persistent, year-round rain would make it impossible."

    Kevin's comment:
    Which is why, of course, the equally rainy Netherlands has almost zero cyclists.

    1. Kevin,

      I regularly point out that the Netherlands is rainy but full of cyclists. There are also high cycling levels in even wetter Belgium. But Glaswegians believe nowhere's as rainy as Glasgow, so it doesn't sink in.


  3. Love the Cunarder thought the choice of colors makes it look more like a Dubliner. A Celtic, not a Ranger, probably picked the scheme.
    If you want to see the Moses effect in full come out to Sunset Park. Pre-Expressway 11,000 lived west of it toward a very active waterfront and job destination(Bush Terminal). Now, maybe a thousand.
    BTW: Where's Hoxton?


    1. Tom,

      Thanks for your comment. I live in Carroll Gardens, about as close to the expressway as one can get and still say one's in Carroll Gardens. I haven't been down to Sunset Park much but I'm aware of how the expressway splits that area. Moses cut the city off from the water.

      As for Hoxton, it's just north of the City of London (the financial district) and has almost precisely the same reputation in London that Williamsburg has in New York - home of the young and hip, all riding fixed-wheel bikes. I used to joke about how when I went there people would stare and point at the strange sprockets around my bike's rear axle. It was almost true.

      The Cunarder's colours are the traditional colours of the City of Glasgow Corporation. I'm pretty confident, given the way Glasgow worked back then, that a Celtic fan would not have been in charge of choosing the colour scheme. But they were impressive vehicles - an emblem in some ways of the things the city's lost.

      All the best,


  4. Yes, the concrete flyovers are soul-stealing. In your photo under the FDR bridge, are those dwellings? Even if not, they're very sad.

    We have this same problem in parts of DC, most notably in the least wealthy areas. I was visiting a friend at the National Rehab Hospital and after the Metro ride (to the end of the world it seemed) I waited for the shuttle under a concrete fly-over, covered with graffiti. Had to wait there because the blazing sun beating down discouraged us from waiting in the designed area where weeds were breaking the sidewalk into bits. An older Asian gentleman had only a scrap of paper on which someone had written his destination. Shuttles came and went so quickly he was having trouble matching the characters up. When I finally found his shuttle, the driver was impatient with this "old man who can't move!" Well -- duh, he was going to the Rehab Hospital!

    A truly depressing day, remedied only by a bike ride when I returned to my suburban area where we have bike lanes and slow streets and mostly courteous drivers. Fresh breath...

    1. Thanks for your comment, SouthLakesMom.

      They're workmen's huts under the FDR, not dwellings. The buildings you can see to the right are the public housing in the area, which was also built in the Moses era. It's not fantastic either.

      It's best when people can live in humanscale places. The irony is that in some respects dense cities sometimes provide more humanscale environments than sprawling suburbs, precisely because of the flyovers and so on for the roads.

      All the best,


  5. Nice article.
    The comment someone has made about roads being perfectly safe infrastructure is optimistic at best and sadly unrealistic. I can't keep up a 30mph pace on my ride to work and "riding well into the travel lane" provokes all kinds of driver reactions. Last week I saw a bus driver (I was on the bus) bully a cyclist off the road for having the audacity to stop at a red light, in the advanced bike box.
    And as much as I will have a go at riding to work everyday, I would love it if my friends who are a bit less fit/confident could join me, and families could cycle (for example) from the southside to the city centre.
    I believe a route from the Squiggly Bridge through Tradeston is in development so fingers crossed....

    1. mgn,

      Thanks for commenting.

      I share some of your misgivings about the comment about roads being "perfectly safe infrastructure". There are problems with how motorists treat cyclists in Glasgow and quite a few other places (they're not all angels in my current home town of New York City, believe it or not).

      What I will say, however, is that cycling on the roads is one of many activities whose risks look a bit different from what they actually are. There are more deaths per passenger mile in the UK for pedestrians than there are from cycling, for example. It feels a lot more dangerous than it actually is (it feels terrifying, quite often, so I know this might not be much comfort).

      The other point (which I previously made here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/03/it-may-be-fun-but-is-cycling-part-of.html) is that the health benefits far outweigh the risks.

      So, while I hope they do come up with the promised cycle route and while there are plenty of Glasgow roads where cycling isn't much fun, I'd also recommend that you try it for a while, take it slowly at first and gradually get used to it. Taking the lane and so on becomes much easier after a while and motorists do mostly respond if it's clear one's confident and knows what one's doing.

      All the best,



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