I build therefore I sprawl

In his latest article for Passenger Transport Magazine, Jonathan Bray asks will where future Britons, live, rely on, or ignore public transport?

Tens of thousands of homes lying empty whilst people sleep on the streets, not enough homes of the right type in the right places, unaffordable homes, not enough new homes being built. Britain has a housing crisis. Nothing new there. Cathy never did come home. But what is new is that Britain’s housing crisis is now near the top of the political agenda. Everyone is now agreed: we need to build more homes. But where will they be and will the places where future Britons live rely on, or ignore, public transport?

How quickly Britain takes to the concept of transit oriented development could be key to answering that question. Transit oriented development means putting public transport at the heart of new developments which are also sufficiently dense to make that public transport viable. Developments where walking and cycling is easy and car use… not so much. Places which are not flats and houses and nothing else – but places which are mixed – combining housing with shops, healthcare, schools and other key services. Brownfield sites should be the first location choice and there should be a significant role for the public sector in their development (as someone needs to hold the ring to ensure quality, affordability, public transport access and that mixed developments happen).

In short they should be places to be. Places to really live. Places that people don’t just sleep at night but places that might be destinations in themselves.

Last time I was in Amsterdam I got tram 26 from Centraal station to an entirely new residential area of the city called IJburg about which I’d read good transit oriented things. The tram romps along, soon escaping the claustrophobic world of selfie-taking, Harry Potter loving mass tourism in the city centre. And in 20 minutes flat it has tunneled and bridged its purpose-built way to the central boulevard of IJburg. Constructed on a series of seven artificial islands on Lake IJmeer on the city’s eastern side, IJburg was created from scratch. Land, street layouts, buildings and all other components of a complete urban district have been developed in less than 10 years on what had previously been the seabed. The plan is that 45,000 people will live there.

Acclimatising in the wintery pre-dusk it took a while for its charms to beguile me; but after a while I got what they mean when they call it the ‘good ordinary’ (which is harder than it looks to achieve). Sub-districts vary from a mix of denser residential and commercial blocks with an earth tone, house style (though with some subtle visual reminders of traditional Amsterdam architecture) and lower density family homes (again with lots of variations in design style). The more I wondered around the more the quality of the architecture and design became apparent as well as the peace and quiet, this place is reverential to its big skies and calm waters. And although some of the roads were generously proportioned for vehicle traffic; somehow the peaceful nature of the place seemed to be slowing everyone down. This place was somewhere where kids could wonder with abandon. You can see why (as a triangulation between suburb and city) there are more families in the place than was originally anticipated.

Pleasing to British eyes was that there seemed to be more independent shops and eateries around rather than our beloved chain stores and estate agents. It also seemed more diverse, settled and faintly egalitarian than its UK counterparts. But despite the mesmerising calm of IJburg (with the sun setting at a watery horizon at the end of its streets), wherever I was, I was rarely out of earshot of the sound of the next tram (‘the people’s gondola’) rumbling its way through the spine of the entire development on its way to the city centre.

Good transit oriented development is not unique to the Netherlands of course. In our recent report (The place to be – How transit oriented development can support good growth in the city regions) we highlight Kirkstall Forge in West Yorkshire, Salford Quays and Northstowe (on the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway), as well as Kings Cross. We are also seeing a new push from transport authorities to build new housing as part of existing, or new transport infrastructure – including Transport for London converting tube station car parks to housing and Transport for Greater Manchester making housing part of its new Stockport bus interchange development. RATP takes this approach even further in the Greater Paris region with subsidiaries which build, develop and run housing – including social housing for public transport employees and new housing developments as part of new transport infrastructure (such as the scheme at Montrouge bus depot which will include 650 new flats).

Back in the UK, Kings Cross is a particularly good example of the key role of the public sector in controlling the pace and quality of regeneration and capturing the uplift in land value in order to fund the supporting infrastructure. The quality control role of the public sector in IJburg was also a major factor in its success with the city council ‘quality team’ having a ‘coach’ working on each part of the development who acted as a coordinating architect, ensuring that the building and block designs of individual designers combined coherently, and that potential conflicts between different users were also considered. All so that “nobody can simply choose the path of least resistance and trot out a design on autopilot”.

Again Kings Cross is a good example of a UK transit oriented development that the public sector ensured was not trotted out on autopilot. Unfortunately there are many residential schemes in the UK which may have good public transport access but feel transient, hollow and fixated on the financialisation of the proximity to views of water. There’s nobody about and nowhere to get a pint of milk.

And meanwhile, out of the cities, in too many places it’s like the nineties never ended: all big sheds, edgelands, none places and ever widening roads. Dystopia is the default and all viewed out of the window of your car as there are no bus stops, and on some new housing estates, no pavements either! Estates built without even the possibility of a conventional bus service because the developer says they won’t build the estate at all if they have to go to the expense of designing the roads to accommodate buses. An Englishman’s home is his castle – and the place where nobody can hear you scream from loneliness if the statistics are anything to go by. The danger is that a rush to build more houses will rush us into a future which is ugly and unworkable.

In our report we make five recommendations on how to make more quality transit oriented development happen in the UK.

Firstly, we need to ensure that we have a national planning framework that favours transit oriented development over car
based sprawl.

The second is for a national funding framework that allows more options for ensuring that value uplift from new developments can be used to improve transport connectivity.

Thirdly, planning authorities need more influence over land held by agencies of national government which would be prime sites for transit oriented development schemes. In particular, city region authorities in England need the same veto powers over Network Rail land sales that the Scottish Government currently enjoys.

Fourthly, transport authorities need more powers over stations where they have the ambition and capacity to take on those responsibilities.

And finally, we need to invest in the planning capacity of local authorities so they can respond effectively rapidly and imaginatively to opportunities for high quality transit oriented development.

All of this seems ambitious in the Westminster context but pales when compared with the Netherlands VINEX plan which increased housing supply by 7.6% in 10 years mostly through urban extensions (of which IJburg was part). And all supported by government funding for the necessary infrastructure. Things are getting ugly out there but it doesn’t need to be that way. We can make places to be. And with wider public transport patronage trends going weird on us, also places that need public transport to thrive.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

Read ‘I build therefore I sprawl‘ here.

Transport should be at the heart of new developments – and here’s how


What is transit oriented development?

You might not instantly recognise this American term, but if you’ve been to the new development north of London’s King’s Cross station, then you’ll know what one looks like. Although still not fully completed, this once unused industrial site represents a flagship transit oriented development – the principle of putting public transport front and centre in residential and commercial developments, with the aim of maximising access by public transport, encouraging walking and cycling, and minimising the need to own and use private cars. With its shops, restaurants, offices (Google is located here), public sector organisations (Camden Council has offices here) and excellent public realm – all located within striking distance of plentiful transport options such as rail, tube, buses and active travel infrastructure like cycle superhighways, it certainly fits the bill.

Transit oriented development is not only found in large world cities. Northstowe, in Cambridgeshire, is part of the NHS Healthy New Towns programme, which aims to encourage active lifestyles and incorporate healthcare facilities into new town developments. Good public transport options are available here via the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway and the nearby Cambridge North Railway Station. And in West Yorkshire, a new railway station at Kirkstall Forge outside of Leeds, is part of a new transit oriented development which, on completion, will provide over 1,000 new homes, 300,000 square feet of office space and 100,000 square feet of retail, leisure and community facilities, including a school – all just a six minute ride train journey from the city centre.

Our new report – The place to be: How transit oriented development can support good growth in the city regions – looks at how ‘Transit oriented development’ can help meet housing demand and reduce car-based urban sprawl, and provides examples like these, and many more.

For instance, Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, is a transit oriented development which prioritises walking and cycling by having low speed limits. The area is served by a high frequency tram and all homes are within 400 meters of a tram stop. This integration of sustainable transport means that car ownership is low, at 150 cars per 1,000 residents, compared to 270 for Freiburg as a whole.

So, integrating public transport into new developments, along with providing urban realm that encourages walking and cycling, can help us move away from a car based sprawl approach to delivering new housing, one which locks residents into car-based lifestyles and exacerbates the challenges of congestion and poor air quality in our cities. We’ve identified seven key success factors for transit oriented development schemes in our new report, including: integration of public transport, support for walking and cycling and discouraging car ownership and use, high density development on brownfield sites, integration of services and the involvement of the public sector. You can see these in our new infographic below (which can be downloaded here).

ugt tod info-graphic

But how exactly do we go about achieving such developments, and overcome some of the barriers?

Our members – city region transport authorities – have an important role to play, as they are often some of the biggest land and property owners in the cities they serve. In order for them to make transit oriented developments happen, they need:

  • a national planning framework that favours transit oriented development rather than car-based low density sprawl
  • a national funding framework with more options for ensuring that value uplift from new developments can be used to improve transport connectivity – like we have seen with Crossrail in London and in places like San Francisco’s Bay Area. In particular, we need a joint programme of work between city regions and national Government to examine the issues, and develop the options, on land value capture mechanisms.
  • more influence over land held by agencies of national Government which would be prime sites for transit oriented development schemes. We’d like city region authorities in England to have the same veto powers over Network Rail land sales that the Scottish Government currently enjoys.
  • more devolution of powers over stations where a city region transport authority has the ambition and capacity to take on those responsibilities.
  • measures to improve the planning capacity of local authorities in order to respond effectively, rapidly and imaginatively to opportunities for high quality transit oriented development.

As our Chair Tobyn Hughes notes, transit oriented developments are “an idea whose time has truly come”… but if we are to embark on a new era of transit oriented developments, and realise the benefits they can bring, we must overcome these obstacles. We hope that by following these recommendations, we can usher in this new era.

Clare Linton is Researcher at Urban Transport Group

(Picture top: R~P~M via Flickr)

Debating with data

Data Hub computer image

What is Data? A character from Star Trek? Or is it factual information or numbers that can be used to help inform decision making?

Both are correct, of course. But in an era where disinformation and ‘fake news’ are playing an increasingly key role in driving geopolitical crises, it’s more important than ever that we all strive for higher standards of data and the presentation of that data. This is particularly key for the world of transport.

That’s why in July 2017, the Urban Transport Group launched the Data Hub – an online, interactive tool allowing users to create bespoke visualisations of key transport data. This unique tool has proved very popular, with thousands of people visiting the hub to explore data and produce their own visualisations to help support the work that they’re doing on transport.

Back in July 2017 whilst I was at Nexus, I was working on the early stages of developing a new Bus Strategy for the region. Seeking the data to support statements in the draft, the Data Hub was able to instantly present to me the trends of bus patronage and bus trips per head for Tyne and Wear. Previously, such a task would have required trawling though spreadsheets for hours on end to get the data I wanted. The Urban Transport Group has recognised that transport planners and policy makers from across its membership were likely doing the same tasks and so the Data Hub was born, turning long spreadsheets into usable data for everyone.

When I joined Urban Transport Group on secondment earlier this year, it was clear to me that the organisation did not want to rest on its laurels. Driven by the positive experiences and constructive feedback from users, overseeing an upgrade to the Data Hub became one of my main jobs.

Select, visualise and share

The upgrade has involved two key elements. The first was working with engineers AECOM to carry out upgrades, including the introduction of Geocharts (or maps) to allow data to be paired with maps and the ability for users to add their own data to charts. The Data Hub, once loaded, should also now be faster too when creating new visualisations.

The second key upgrade was the significant expansion of data that was on offer. From station entry and exit data to road safety statistics, I have spent the last few months trawling through some of the Department for Transport’s and Office of Rail and Road’s largest and greatest datasets, bringing them together in a more presentable and useable format.

Ultimately, we believe that this work has expanded the ability to ‘select’ the transport data you’re interested in, ‘visualise’ that data in graphs, charts and maps, and to ‘share’ it on websites, social media or in presentations.

Data Hub infographic 2018

This isn’t the end though, and there are lots more exciting developments in the pipeline as we continue to evolve the tool – including even more data sets (from beyond just the UK city regions) and the ability for our members to capitalise on the software behind the Data Hub.

This has been a thoroughly enlightening project to work on. I never knew there was so much excellent data on city region transport out there and I’m pleased the Data Hub will be able to raise the profile of this data.

All that is left to say, is to ask you to head over to the refreshed Data Hub and to get stuck into the new data that is available and explore the new functions we’ve added. Visualising this data and presenting it to others will help you sell your message and continue to make the case for investment in transport with accurate, informed analysis. Go on, give your work the integrity and substance that is so often lacking in today’s key debates and discussion. Debate with data!

Stephen Bellamy is Business Development Officer – Policy at Nexus, and oversaw the upgrade work to the Data Hub whilst on secondment to Urban Transport Group