Younger people are being forced to rely on cars in many new developments which are void of transport links. How can housebuilders, developers and local authorities get this right?

Katja Stille, Director, Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design CUTOUT

The Transport for New Homes Association in its recent report on new settlements highlights some important issues around an area that the industry should be better at: active travel and good public transport are essential for new housing developments. 

Communities everywhere need a wide range of buildings to thrive and people shouldn’t be restricted to cars to get around. Often this comes down to good, strategic decision-making at the outset of a development, ideally shaping a robust and commercially-focused masterplan. 

Retrofitting key elements such as transport following planning is at best difficult and at worst ineffective

Development clearly needs to be planned for the right location, ensuring it can be well connected with good public transport, pedestrian and cycle routes both within the site boundaries and, crucially, beyond them. These routes and public transport connections have to be established at the earliest stage and fixed within the section 106 and outline planning consents. Retrofitting key elements such as transport following planning is at best difficult and at worst ineffective.

For this, developers and local authorities need to collaborate on an area-wide vision. Developers are not in a position to implement strategic cycle routes and public transport links on third-party land – their control often stops at the red line boundary. 

Local authorities and highways authorities need to use their powers to make land available to implement strategic linkages. We have come across situations where developers safeguard opportunities for future bus and strategic cycle links into their development, but unfortunately in some cases these may never get delivered beyond the development boundary. 

If the strategic building blocks for a well-connected sustainable development are in place and secured through planning and legal agreements, then developers and their designers, as well as the adoption authorities, have the responsibility to make them work in terms of the quality of the public realm. 

The challenge then for the industry is to ensure the original aims of the development are retained throughout the delivery and construction process without delaying delivery – but it can be done.

With Homes England at Northstowe, one of the NHS Health New Towns, in Cambridgeshire, these principles are being put into place. In the phases two and three masterplan, increasing density has actually made neighbourhoods more walkable, while using variation in character helps to deliver streets and spaces that are safe and interesting to walk along. The design code for phase two controls the detailed design of public realm, ensuring a consistent quality. Reinstating historic public rights of ways and ensuring they are convenient cycle and pedestrian routes is allowing new and existing communities to move around and the Cambridge Guided Busway offers the opportunity for people to leave their car at home (maybe forever).

Longer term, there is potential to put cars to the periphery of new developments entirely. VeloCity – winner of the NIC’s Oxford to Cambridge Arc competition – is a great example of how planning and transport could come together to create really strong communities. It offers a strategic approach to growth and placemaking, with a fine grain network of local, medium and longer distance cycle and pedestrian routes at its core. 

In the meantime, while we are still working within planning and funding frameworks that focus on car movement we need to continue to challenge them from the earliest stages of development. Creating densities that allow walkable neighbourhoods is a clear commercial advantage, while ensuring strategic cycle and public transport infrastructure on top of what policy may require also brings long term benefits further increases the development’s attractiveness. This way we have an opportunity to build places, today, that stand the test of time and allow people to make different lifestyle choices in the future. 

Katja Stile is a director at Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design