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If Active Travel England is set up right it could increase walking and cycling for residents of new homes

On 28 July 2020 the UK Government announced the creation of Active Travel England, a funding body for walking and cycling provision in England and also an inspectorate of the work of highways authorities. This formed part of the Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking plans set out the same day.

The document endorses our findings. It notes that “developments often do little or nothing meaningful to enable cycling and walking. Sometimes they make cycling and walking provision worse”, and includes the welcome statement that “we expect sustainable transport issues to be considered from the earliest stages of plan-making and development proposals, so that opportunities to promote cycling and walking are pursued”.

Transport for New Homes welcomes the creation of Active Travel England to put these ambitions into practice, and in particular the powers it will have over the planning of new homes. It will be vital if the government is to release the potential of walking and cycling to achieve their transport decarbonisation plan.

We’ve been acting as an active travel inspectorate of sorts ourselves for the past few years with our many site visits to new housing developments. We’ve learned a lot from what we’ve found and have some tips about how to do things right.

The new body will be a statutory consultee for new developments over an as-yet unspecified volume of homes. Very large single applications are rare. When we looked at the garden village proposals we saw applications in the low thousands. And in the larger garden towns the area is divided into smaller developer areas, each with their own applications. The threshold needs to be set low enough to capture enough applications.

There is also the question of resources. The organisation has many functions and will need to be properly funded to deal with the volume of work anticipated. We’ll have some sense of how serious intentions are when the new National Cycling and Walking Commissioner is announced. They’ll need to be a true active travel advocate prepared to fight for the money and people required to do the job right.

Responding properly to planning applications takes time and expertise. The organisation will need to be properly funded and have the right skills to fulfil its town planning and transport planning role. The task of reviewing every highway authority annually is a substantial undertaking. Reviewing planning applications, as we’ve found, can eat up a lot of time.

There is concern about the weight Active Travel England consultee responses will be given. The planning authorities cannot ignore the rules of planning no matter what a consultee says. Planning rules are getting more light touch, with an expectation of further deregulation on the way. It would be a shame to set up an effectively powerless new body.

That said, the greatest power of Active Travel England could be its grant giving. We know from our recent report Garden Towns and Garden Villages: Visions and Reality that the number one thing holding up good active travel provision in new housing isn’t the planning system or stakeholder will. It is money. If Active Travel England can step in at the planning stage to fund active travel in new developments it could be transformative.

The plans for Active Travel England suggest it will have £2billion to give on walking and cycling grants. This sounds a lot, but will soon get used up. If you divide by the number of highways authorities it isn’t very much per area at all. The plans talk about further funding being available down the line. It would be transformative if some of that money was committed to new housing developments.

Perhaps one of the more interesting roles of Active Travel England is the envisaged role as a centre of excellence, providing both technical advice and expertise on stakeholder management. These are appropriate but resource heavy undertakings that will require a number of skilled practitioners within and perhaps outside Active Travel England. We’re available if they need a hand!

By Steve Chambers, Sustainable Transport Campaigner

The vision and reality of Garden Communities

Green promises broken: Garden Villages and Garden Towns will be dominated by the car

Press release: 16 June 2020

Far from being vibrant, green communities, Garden Villages and Garden Towns [1] are at high risk of becoming car-dependent commuter estates, research by Transport for New Homes [2] has found. The group examined plans for 20 Garden Communities [3] and found that they will create up to 200,000 car-dependent households, generating high levels of traffic on surrounding roads including motorways.

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

“Put forward by the government as an alternative to characterless estates, Garden Villages may well end up with more tarmac than garden, limited public transport, and few ‘village’ amenities to walk or cycle to.”

The coronavirus outbreak has placed new emphasis on walking and cycling, with wider pavements and new cycle lanes springing up in cities. The benefits of living more locally have come to prominence. By contrast, Transport for New Homes found that Garden Villages will be largely unsuitable for walking and cycling due to their remote location, their layout and their lack of safe routes in and out of the estate. Local facilities may well never materialise in these car-based developments: non-driving residents will be forced to walk up to seven miles to the nearest town centre [4].

Looking to the future, the need for modern bus, tram and train networks to avert climate crisis is expected to come to the fore [5]. But rather than new or improved public transport, the group found that plans for Garden Villages and Garden Towns promise major increases in road capacity to cater for a massive expected rise in car use. Garden Communities are not being planned with new metro stations at their hearts, nor are high-quality bus or tram routes assured to serve them in the future.

Many Garden Communities are backed by Government funding, the criteria for which are laid out in the MHCLG’s Garden Communities Prospectus [6]. Communities should “be largely self-sustaining and genuinely mixed-use” with “public transport, walking and cycling” enabling “simple and sustainable access to jobs, education and services”. Instead, Transport for New Homes found strong evidence that:

  • All 20 of the Garden Communities examined in detail will encourage car dependent lifestyles with the car the primary mode of transport at every single one.
  • These 20 settlements will create up to 200,000 car dependent households.
  • Only one settlement (Aylesham – although itself not funded by Homes England) offers amenities and a railway station within 1 mile of every home, though the train service is infrequent and there are no safe cycle routes to access it.
  • All other settlements failed to provide access to amenities and a railway station within 1 mile of all new homes with safe walking and cycling routes.
  • None of the 20 settlements will provide bus services to all households all day, all week.
  • Cycle routes from Garden Villages into nearby towns will often be long and dangerous.
  • Residents will have to walk up to 7 miles to access a railway station or go to the nearest town centre.

Jenny Raggett, Project Coordinator at Transport for New Homes, continued:

“It looks like Garden Communities are to become car-based commuter estates just like any other – exactly what the government wanted to avoid. Rather than seeing the emphasis on public transport that the Garden Communities Prospectus promised, with new stations funded at the heart of the development, or firm investment in modern bus rapid transit, light rail or trams, nearly every Garden Community comes with a long list of road improvements such as bypasses, link roads and new motorway junctions. Although the theme of the ‘local’ and ‘self-sufficient’ is the official line, the language adopted in the promotion of Garden Villages makes great play of their strategic location for long-distance commuting. It is doubtful, given this emphasis, that local shops and services will flourish.”

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

“Our visits to sites of Garden Towns and Garden Villages highlighted the chasm between the proposed visions and the built reality. We found that because of remote locations, public transport was rarely already provided and funding had not been secured to make it available when residents move in. Walking and cycling were clearly afterthoughts and even in the better examples did not provide safe and convenient routes to basic amenities beyond the development boundary. Garden Villages were typically too small to support any amenities and are not being built on a sustainable scale. Larger Garden Towns typically located new housing beyond a ring road, on the edge of an established town and poorly connected with it. Car dependency is being built into the Garden Towns and Garden Villages by design.”

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

“The vision for garden developments is laudable but is at grave risk of being missed – far from being delivered in a way that would encourage us to leave our cars at home the reality looks set to ingrain car dependence.

“Living completely ‘car-free’ is probably a pipe-dream outside the centres of our towns and cities – the reality is that many of us will still wish to own and use our cars but not want to be forced to get behind the wheel for every trip we make.

“Good road connections matter: they’re vital for buses, bicycles and, as we’ve learnt in recent weeks, delivery vans too, not just for the private motorist. But they have to be designed with a sensible layout, including wide footways so that walking to the local shops or to school is a safe, practical and appealing proposition.”

The recommendations in Transport for New Homes’ report include:

  • Commission an urgent reassessment of the sustainability in transport terms of all planned Garden Communities and do not give outline planning permission until it is clear that sustainable transport elements in each vision are fully funded and specified.
  • Build close to existing town centres or create strings of developments along public transport routes, rather than scattering developments around the countryside.
  • Direct Government funding to public realm, place-making, and sustainable transport including Dutch-style cycling networks, local rail, rapid transit, buses and trams.
  • Make sure that sustainable transport infrastructure is funded to extend beyond the site boundary.
  • Put kickstart funding and other financial incentives in place to establish shops, cafes, pubs, shared workspaces and other local facilities with the development, creating a walkable community.

Case studies

Case Study 1: Long Marston Garden Village

Long Marston is a proposed 3,500 home Garden Village within the Stratford-upon-Avon District of Warwickshire. It is typical of Garden Villages in that it is far from major population and employment centres. Located on a former airfield, this Garden Village will be particularly remote and without a sustainable scale will not support amenities, jobs or public transport. It is seven miles from the nearest railway station. Residents will have no option other than the car to see friends, get to work or to the nearest town centre. Visions of ‘express bus connections’ are without funding. There are also unfunded aspirations for new safe walking and cycling routes from the development, but even if they were provided there is little other than open space nearby. This is a good example of a new development in the wrong place.

Case Study 2: Aylesbury Garden Town

Aylesbury is the long established county town of Buckinghamshire. The acquisition of Garden Town status is attached to a transformative vision to create 16,000 new homes. Aylesbury is typical of Garden Towns, with the new housing developments located on the outskirts and without attractive, safe walking and cycling routes to amenities. This Garden Town is like many of the others in that plans are heavily reliant on road building, in this case the completion of a coveted ring road. Bus services are better here than in many places, but all day, all week services to every home lack committed funding. We think Aylesbury could realise its potential by scrapping the community-severing ring road plans, prioritising walking and cycling over car journeys in the way roads are designed, and by funding a rapid transit system for the whole town.

Contact details

For more details please contact Jess Fitch, Communications Coordinator, Transport for New Homes: jess.fitch@transportfornewhomes.org.uk

Notes to editors

Photographs from Garden Communities can be downloaded from Flickr.

1. Drawing from Ebenezer Howard’s vision of the Garden City more than a century ago, Garden Communities today are central to the Government’s plans to increase housing supply. Building in rural and semi-rural areas – where housing targets are high – is unpopular. To avoid objections to more estates on the edge of market towns and at the same time exploiting cheaper land to build on, the Government proposes instead building vibrant, healthy and green ‘Garden Villages’: self-contained communities with everything to hand and minimal need to travel. ‘Garden Town’ status similarly puts the emphasis on a lot of new housing, but this time near an existing urban area. The idea is that sustainable travel and green lifestyles then become central to the whole area as the housing is built.The concept is supported by a Garden Communities Prospectus (MHCLG, 2018) and £3.7 million in funding specifically for Garden Communities, as well as a share of the £2.3 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund.

2. 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 project funded by the Foundation for Integrated Transport, a registered charity (115 63 63).

3. The report, Garden Villages and Garden Towns: Visions and Reality, can be read online. Datasheets from the 20 developments examined in detail are also online. Transport for New Homes examined master-plans, visions, infrastructure delivery plans, transport assessments and other documentation for a varied range of 20 Garden Communities around England, as well as visiting existing towns with Garden status and sites proposed for Garden Villages. Close examination was made of the funding and policy landscape underlying Garden Communities, including how the Housing Infrastructure Fund is being spent.

4. See Case Study 1, Long Marston, above.

5. In the Department for Transport’s March 2020 report, Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps writes: “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”

6. The MHCLG’s Garden Communities Prospectus can be read online.

Royal Arsenal Riverside

Transport for New Homes Award: Royal Arsenal Riverside

Royal Arsenal Riverside was announced as winner of the Transport for New Homes Award 2019 in the metropolitan category. Judge Tim Pharoah, who visited the development, tells us why.

London needs many more homes, and high-density developments are required. At Woolwich Arsenal, the impact of tall blocks is lessened by the generous provision of open spaces and pedestrian only walkways. The riverfront location also provides a dramatic setting for the new residential buildings. A further advantage is the presence of many preserved 18th Century buildings from the days when the Arsenal was a major location for the manufacture and testing of guns and other military hardware. These old buildings give the area a special character, while the cannon that remain dotted around the site provide popular play equipment for children.

Despite the large scale – there are already more than 1,700 homes completed with many more on the way – there has not been a focus on catering for a significant increase in traffic. The expectation is that people mostly will use public transport, walking and cycling to get about.

So often, the marketing blurb for new housing schemes turns out to be optimistic or even downright misleading. But Berkeley Homes seem to have struck the right note when they say: “With extensive river frontage, a landscaped park and unrivalled travel connections, Waterfront III at Royal Arsenal Riverside puts you at the centre of everything that is great about living in London. Plus with an outstanding choice of amenities already on your doorstep, local life here could not be more convenient.” There is nothing to disagree with here.

The public transport available within an easy walk is truly staggering, with national rail, Docklands Light Rail and 11 bus routes passing the site. Bus frequency is more than one every minute in each direction! In addition, the development is facilitating the delivery of a new Crossrail station within the site, expected to open in late 2020 or early 2021. As if this weren’t enough, the site is also served by the Thames Clipper riverboat service to the City and West End, running at least half hourly through the day and late into the evening.

The Thames cycle path goes through the development, offering a traffic-free route east and west, and secure cycle parking is available for residents, although cycle parking for visitors is sparse.

Royal Arsenal Riverside

With all this transport, one might be tempted to leave Woolwich Arsenal, but it is also an attractive and convenient place to stay in. Whether relaxing by the water, playing with the kids in one of the safe green spaces, or catching up on some laptop work in one of the cafes, the development provides a lot of facilities and a very interesting environment.

I spoke to a couple with their two young children, who had been living there for a year. “We absolutely love it here, and the kids do too. We wouldn’t consider living anyway else now.” And do you have a car? “Yes, but we hardly ever use it. The cost of the parking garage is quite high, and we might try to sell it on when the kids are grown up.” (Parking spaces are £25,000 freehold)

Most of the parking is tucked away underground, leaving the ground level more or less traffic free, and making it safe and quiet to wander. There are car club vehicles and electric vehicle charging on site.

Given the low volume of vehicle movement, it is strange that some of the detailed street design is not geared to the pedestrian. For example at side streets, the dropped kerb crossing point is offset, requiring pedestrians to divert. Of course no-one does, and so people walk in the road. So often it is the highway engineering details that let a scheme down.

In high-density developments especially, open space has to be carefully designed and managed. The quality of landscaping at Woolwich Arsenal has already been recognised by picking up the inaugural award for landscape at the Sunday Times British Homes Awards.

Overall, Woolwich Arsenal Riverside development is a bold and imaginative regeneration project, providing a wide range of housing with excellent sustainable transport facilities. For many if not most of the residents, the car would seem to be redundant!

Responsible for Royal Arsenal Riverside:
Developer: Berkeley Homes (East Thames)
Architects: Allies and Morrison
Planning consultants: Barton Willmore
Transport planning consultants: URS
Council: Royal Borough of Greenwich

Bath Riverside

Transport for New Homes Award: Bath Riverside

Bath Riverside was announced as winner of the Transport for New Homes Award 2019 in the non-metropolitan category. Judge Tim Pharoah, who visited the development, tells us why.

All too often new housing is built around car use, but Bath Riverside bucks the trend in a positive way by providing really good walking, cycling and public transport options. One resident remarked: “My car is parked in the underground car park, but mostly I just walk or cycle”.

All new developments should be located so that people living them are not required, or even tempted, to use cars for getting around. Generally the best way of achieving this is to locate new homes within the existing urban envelope of the town or city. Bath Riverside is an excellent example of this.

The development of apartments – and some town houses – occupies the site of a disused gasworks about 1 km west of the centre of Bath. Located on the banks of the River Avon, it is well situated for walking to shops, entertainment, the railway station, bus station and bus stops. Car parking is limited and mostly out of sight, while the public realm is shaped around walking.

Attractive and direct pedestrian routes through the development link up with two traffic free walking routes into the centre of Bath. One of these is a shared walking and cycling path (the well-known Bristol-Bath traffic-free route). The annual monitoring report for the scheme shows that the great majority of residents walk or cycle to get about the city.

The development is also highly accessible by public transport, with local bus stops a few minutes’ walk away on main roads either side of the development, served by no fewer than 14 bus routes, some of them operating at high frequency. A bus into the centre arrives every 5-10 minutes, and the key bus stops have real-time information screens. A free one month bus pass is on offer to every Bath Riverside household, as well as free car club membership and a £100 cycle voucher.

Bath Riverside, built by Crest Nicholson, exploits its position on the south bank of the River Avon with two attractive public spaces and views across the river from many of the apartments.

When checked against the Transport for New Homes Checklist, Bath Riverside received high scores for its location, its walking routes and its public transport connections. It also scored well for its density, which maximises the benefits of the location, and for its attractive layout. There are many facilities nearby, including an excellent playground for children of all ages within Victoria Park. Bath Riverside has already won several other housing awards, including the WhatHouse? award in 2017.

Unfortunately the quality of the walking and cycling environment outside the development itself is quite poor. The local highway authority should be giving much greater priority to the environment for active travel modes. The bus stops also could be better located, and with better pedestrian access across the main roads. Come on, City of Bath, you can do more to support the new riverside developments!

Responsible for Bath Riverside:
Developer: Crest Nicholson
Architect: The masterplanning architect was Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. Five other firms of architects were used for the design individual phases.
Planning Consultant: Savills.
Transport Planning Consultant: WSP.
Local Authority: Bath and North East Somerset Council.

Poundbury

Transport for New Homes Award: Poundbury

Poundbury is an urban extension to the Dorset county town of Dorchester, built according to the principles of Charles, Prince of Wales, on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. Poundbury was highly commended in the Transport for New Homes Awards 2019. Judge Jenny Raggett, who visited the development, tells us why.

One of the few properly walkable places we found, with a full diversity of community provision integrated with new homes, was Poundbury in Dorset.

Although the architectural feel of Poundbury might not be to everybody’s liking, as a greenfield urban extension it is highly unusual in its achievement of a new walkable community, much along the lines of the visions we have seen for the new ‘garden settlements’ that the government hope we will build. Poundbury is green with urban trees and parks. There is a mix of all kinds of homes including rented and affordable accommodation, with offices, cafes, pubs, small shops, a garden centre, supermarket, community facilities and school all within the actual fabric of the town. There are over 2,000 people working in Poundbury and this daytime influx of people, in addition to the 3,500 residents themselves, creates a good footfall during the day for the many eating establishments and shops close by.

We have seen so many greenfield sites that are essentially housing estates with little else apart from a primary school and perhaps a convenience store by the ring road. There is normally a very large supermarket by a roundabout out of town, with a large car park, and the business park off another large junction also comes with a large car park. The nature of destinations as much as the housing itself tell the story. Out of town retail, employment and leisure on separate parcels of land mean driving everywhere.

Poundbury is completely different in this respect. The garden centre with its cafe and the supermarket are right in town, and so is everything else. You can collect the children from the school and walk to the supermarket or other shops; you can go to one of the parks or have tea. If you work in one of the offices or factories you can enjoy a meal out at lunch or pop into the shops without jumping into the car. Walkability is a lot to do with having things to actually walk to – and in the case of Poundbury there are many.

Poundbury

Perhaps it helps also that walking around Poundbury is interesting compared to the other urban extensions we have seen. Different views greet the pedestrian and the varicose nature of the streets beckons you on to see what is around the corner. The number and variety of urban trees very much add to the public realm.

Many urban extensions are cut off from their parent towns so that you can’t reach them on foot or cycle along overlooked streets. In the case of Poundbury, great care has been taken to integrate the new area with its parent town Dorchester so that streets join up – an entirely different model from the roundabout and link road concept so often seen in the ‘classic’ urban extension. What this means is that the new area and its shops and its many community facilities are accessible to a wider population, not just to Poundbury residents.

What about public transport? If you come from a small town in the rural south west as I do, the bus services in and out of Poundbury seem remarkable. The number 10 bus which goes between Weymouth, Dorchester and Poundbury (at Mansell Square) runs 7 days a week at turn-up-and-go frequencies, and continues into late evening, albeit at reduced frequency. Other buses go through Poundbury itself, providing services to Dorchester (half hourly) and to Bridport and Axminster (2 hourly), though not in the evenings or on Sundays. There are two railway stations in Dorchester and if you don’t want to take the bus, there is always the option of cycling to them from Poundbury (10 minutes) or you might enjoy the half hour walk with pavements all the way.

For a greenfield urban extension, Poundbury is eminently liveable; for this it earned the high commendation of our judges.

Poundbury bus

Responsible for Poundbury:
Estate Director: Ben Murphy
Masterplanner: Léon Krier
Architects: Ben Pentreath of Ben Pentreath Ltd and George Saumarez Smith of Adam Architecture
Highways Consultant: Andrew Cameron of Andrew Cameron & Associates
Council: Dorset Council (from April 2019, previously West Dorset District Council)

New Checklist to help root out car-dependent housing developments

In the rush to build new homes, too many estates are being built without public transport, local facilities or even pavements, leading to car dependence, congestion, pollution and unhealthy lifestyles. Now Transport for New Homes, a campaign group seeking to halt the spread of such car-based development, has produced a Checklist to enable local authorities, neighbourhood groups and others to easily identify housing plans that are likely to result in car-dependent lifestyles.

Conversely, the Checklist will help good housing plans to gain recognition for giving residents real, sustainable travel choices.

The lead author of the Checklist, Tim Pharoah of Transport for New Homes, said:

“Our country desperately needs more homes, but these must be located and designed to ensure that residents do not need cars to live a full life. Our visits to recent housing developments around the country revealed that too many had been built around car use. When housing is built on green fields, far from jobs, shops and services, with inadequate public transport and poor pedestrian and cycle links, residents are forced to drive for almost every journey.

“With traffic and air pollution blighting neighbourhoods, and transport being the UK’s main contributor to climate change, banishing the scourge of car-dependent housing is long overdue.”

Developed with input from bodies representing planning and transport professionals, as well as planners, academics and neighbourhood groups, the Checklist identifies, under ten broad headings, elements that make up a non-car-dependent housing development. These include:

  • A location within or closely connected to an existing settlement that has a clear centre
  • A welcoming environment, not dominated by car parking
  • Local facilities easily accessible without a car
  • Frequent public transport services in place from Day 1 of occupation

By considering each of these criteria, users of the Checklist can rate a housing plan as either Red, Amber or Green for how well it will avoid car-dependency.

Lynda Addison OBE FCIHT MTPS, Chair of the CIHT Sustainable Transport Panel, said:

“CIHT welcomes this important contribution to the radical changes needed in the way that homes and transport are designed to ensure that people can chose to live healthier and more active lives as part of their daily routine. This complements the forthcoming advice on ‘Better planning, better transport, better places’ that is about to be published by CIHT in partnership with TPS and the RTPI.”

Written without jargon, the Transport for New Homes Checklist is intended for use by local authorities, developers and neighbourhood groups alike to root out car-dependent housing plans. The Checklist will help to identify how such plans can be improved, or why they should be rejected altogether. The Checklist can also be applied to developments that have already been built so that lessons can be learnt.