Smart Transport

New housing developments are ‘locking communities into car-dependency’

Derwenthorpe near York was used as an example of how to build transport links into new housing development

Transport for New Homes has released a new report based on a review of 20 greenfield developments that says “housing is designed in every way around the car”.

The ‘Building Car Dependency’ report shows that 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 on visits to housing developments.

Returning to these sites three years later, the group has 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 these developments in England are building a ‘car-park to car-park’ strategy 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 in cities tended to be less car-based, allowing better access to local amenities by foot, cycle and public transport.

Two greenfield developments - Derwenthorpe, near York (pictured) and Poundbury in 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.

"We have to draw the line and do things differently"

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.”

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. 

Gooding said: “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."

Key recommendations from the Transport for New Homes’ report:

  • 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.

While 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 were 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 were limited and integrated. Derwenthorpe felt like a friendly place with a real community.

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