New “cowpat” housing developments are adding to traffic congestion and locking communities into car-dependency

New research has found that greenfield housing estates [1] are adding hundreds of thousands of new car journeys to our roads, increasing congestion, carbon emissions and air pollution. 

‘Building Car Dependency’ [2], a report released today from the group Transport for New Homes [3], has concluded from its field visits to 20 new housing developments across England that a typical greenfield development is designed in every way around the car – with as many as two to three car parking spaces per home [4]. 

Rather than the walkable, green, and sustainable places that both the Government and developers envisage for future living, the group observed places where residents had to drive for nearly every journey. Transport for New Homes have created a large photographic evidence-base from visits to present their observations and many of these are in their new report.

The research follows the Transport for New Homes 2018 flagship report [5] on visits to housing developments. Returning to these sites three years later, the group have revealed that new greenfield housing has become even more car-based than before and that the trend had extended to surrounding areas, with out-of-town retail, leisure, food outlets and employment orientated around new road systems. They found that we are building ‘car-park to car-park’ with the risk of creating a sedentary lifestyle and isolation for new residents, as well as limited choices for people who don’t drive. 

Despite plans for vibrant communities with local shops, leisure facilities and community services, the visions of developers have not materialised. Equally, the excellent public transport promised was often not in place and in some cases had been reduced. In practice greenfield estates planned as ‘walkable vibrant communities’ were dominated by parking, driveways and roads with easy access to bypasses and major roads.

In stark contrast, brownfield developments [6] in cities tended to be less car-based, allowing better access to local amenities by foot, cycle and public transport. Two greenfield developments – Derwenthorpe (York) and Poundbury (Dorset) – were however less car-dependent. This was because they had been designed around walkability and the needs of a local community from start to finish, without compromise. They were also well-positioned to allow residents to easily walk and cycle along overlooked streets to shops and services in their nearby town centres.

Jenny Raggett, Project Coordinator at Transport for New Homes, said

“We cannot go on as we have been, building many hundreds of thousands of new homes in places which are not only impossible to serve with sustainable transport, but actually promote more and more travel by car. At a time of climate emergency and with a need to cut congestion on our roads, this is not the way we should be building for the future. We have to draw the line and do things differently.

Transport and planning shape the way we live. Despite our planners hoping for ‘vibrant places’ where people have many opportunities to interact in real life, the reality seems very different. Small shops, cafes and businesses built for local living are just not there in most new greenfield estates. Local parks, community halls, playing fields and other amenities that would take people away from looking at their screens and encourage them to get out and walk or cycle, appear often not to have materialised. Good public transport often remains aspirational with cuts to services looming. For people who cannot afford a car or cannot drive, they are essentially stuck. This cannot be a healthy vision for how people will live in the future.”

Steve Chambers, Sustainable Transport Campaigner at Transport for New Homes, said

“We found that new housing estates do not live up to government aspirations of homes built around walking, cycling and public transport. With rare exceptions, we discovered that newly built homes are creating thousands of car-dependent households, with poor use of land and tiny gardens to accommodate two or three parking spaces per dwelling. 

“Proposals for housing as part of the Levelling Up White Paper will produce more of the same without a dramatic change in approach to planning. Housing must be mixed with, or built close to, amenities and jobs to make active travel a reality for short trips, and good quality public transport provided as soon as the first residents move in.”

Steve Gooding, Director of the RAC Foundation and a Chair of the Steering Group for Transport for New Homes said

“The phrase ‘car dependency’ implies that people are addicted to their vehicles when generally they are making rational travel choices in the face of the options available to them. 

“Residents of new housing developments make their transport decisions based on a mix of what they see is available, what’s convenient, what’s reliable, and what’s affordable.  

“If developers, planners and architects continue to push new homes into locations that are poorly connected to the services we all need by any means other than the private car, but don’t even recognise that fact, then we’re in the worst of all worlds because car-dependent residents will end up blocking both the roadway and the footway with their vehicles. What’s needed is some joined-up thinking that puts accessibility up front, rather than languishing as an afterthought in the process.”

The key recommendations in Transport for New Homes’ report include:

  • New homes need to be built in places which can be served by a modern public transport network right from the very start of construction, and where residents are able to walk or cycle within the development and into and out of it to the adjacent urban area.
  • Direct public and developer money away from building new roads to open up land in the countryside for housing. Instead, enable our planners to coordinate new homes with metros and other modern public transport, choosing where to build accordingly.
  • Ensure that new developments are not built around the car. The very high percentage of land devoted to parking, driveways and roads is wasteful and makes it almost impossible to build ‘beautiful places’ in line with government policy. Car-based living risks creating inactive and isolated lifestyles. 
  • Redraft the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to ensure housing is built only around sustainable transport – rather than the car – and in the right locations such as smaller brownfield sites to ensure residents have access to local amenities, ensuring a walkable community and healthier, more sociable living. 
  • Direct Government funding to public realm, place-making, and sustainable transport including Dutch-style cycling networks, local rail, light rail, rapid transit, buses and trams – rather than funding road links and increased junction capacity in a vain attempt to ‘unlock land for housing’.

Case studies

  • Cranbrook, near Exeter

Cranbrook is a new town with up to 2,900 homes and potential for expansion to 6,500. Like much of the greenfield housing we saw, walkability was part of the master-planning stage but this has not come to fruition. Whilst there was an independent cafe established and a small parade of shops, at the time of our visit in April 2021 Cranbrook was still waiting for a promised High Street, a children’s centre and community facilities. Residents therefore have no other option than to use a car to access many amenities. Few residents were seen during our visit, which certainly doesn’t create the impression that it is a vibrant, sociable, walking community. A new railway station now serves Cranbrook, following many years of perseverance from residents and local campaigners. It is approximately 280 metres to the nearest house, approximately 410 metres to the walking route (leisure trail), and approximately 560 metres via a lit, safe accessible route from housing and there isn’t a bus to the main development, so residents have to walk for a long time to access it or use a car. 

  • Derwenthorpe, York

Derwenthorpe is a small development of 481 homes on the outskirts of York, about 2 miles from the city centre. The development, built by the Joseph Rowntree Association, is a good example of a new housing development that has been successfully planned and built around sustainable transport – rather than the car. During our visit in August 2021, we found it has attractive public transport from the city centre, and safe walking and cycling routes to amenities like shops and cafes. There are also ample green spaces for residents within the development, and different sized homes to cater for a range of demographics – not just families. Unlike many other developments we saw, the car parking spaces here are limited and integrated. Derwenthorpe felt like a friendly place with a real community.

ENDS

Contact details

For more details, please email info@transportfornewhomes.org.uk

Notes to editors

  1. Greenfield sites have not been built on before and are usually on the edge of towns and cities, or in rural and countryside areas.
  2. The report, Building Car Dependency is found here. It is kindly funded by the Foundation for Integrated Transport and the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund. Transport for New Homes examined 20 new housing developments in detail to see if they are built around sustainable transport – or around the car. We did this as part of our site visits, as well as looking at masterplans, visions, planning applications, infrastructure plans, transport assessments and other documentation for a wide range of new housing developments across England. Transport for New Homes also looked at how the Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) is being spent.
  3. Transport for New Homes believes that everyone should have access to attractive housing, located and designed to ensure that people do not need to use or own cars to live a full life. Transport for New Homes is a social enterprise (company number 13488016).
  4. This statistic is mentioned on page 10 of the ‘Building Car Dependency’ report from Transport for New Homes.
  5. The 2018 report, Transport for New Homes is found here. It was the first of its kind in England and examined 20 housing developments. The report looked at what is being built, and identified deficiencies in relation to public transport, walkability and access.
  6. Brownfield sites have been built on previously, such as industrial land in an urban area.