Ensuring sustainable travel is at the heart of new developments

TPS board member, James Gleave, asks us to consider sustainable travel in the phasing of development. He explores the challenges; questions raised and proposes a future research agenda.

When delivering new homes, transport planners face a constant dilemma. Not necessarily of whether we should be building sustainable travel into new developments or not, but when and how best to do it.

The principle of incorporating sustainable travel into new developments is well established, although in practice it is highly variable

Which is why the Transport Planning Society, Royal Town Planning Institute and Transport for New Homes are working together on guidance  for just this. But how do we deliver and phase new development in a way that embeds sustainable travel from the outset?

Connecting new houses to existing destinations

Usually if asked this question, the response is simple: we should provide sustainable transport services and infrastructure from the outset, of course.

And for good reason. Major life events, such as moving home, are when we reconsider car ownership and change travel patterns. Having sustainable alternatives to the car from the outset is best practice, and part of a suite of options for successful travel planning and encouraging travel behaviour change. Simple, right?

But delivering new developments is rarely simple.

For instance, a new bus service may need to run with very few passengers and, therefore, at a subsidy for many years. Even then it may not generate the demand needed to run without subsidy. Who pays, how much and for how long are questions for each community.

For other modes that don’t require investment but less operating cost, such as building cycle tracks, footpaths or ‘roads to nowhere’, it seems simpler.

But they too can be subject to legal disputes over ownership and maintenance. This is before we get into issues of the commercial viability of developments; house builders still need to make a profit on their developments after all.

Creating new destinations while housing is being built

In mixed use developments, these issues become more complex. It is not just about travel infrastructure and services.

Building and operating destinations such as schools and shops before all the associated housing is built or occupied also requires significant levels of subsidy. Not to mention numerous legal agreements to take ownership of buildings, rental agreements, and of course planning conditions and detailed approvals.

Building new homes while accounting for the needs of new residents is hard to do, and it is even harder to do well.

 Preparing for an uncertain future

There is also the ongoing issue of whether the services that are created through extensive negotiations will meet the changing needs of the residents over the lifetime of the buildings.

Providing links to nearby services, town centres, and transport interchanges make sense as a means of planning for some travel. But this does not guarantee success.

While existing travel patterns and our understanding of how people commute to and from work, for example, provides a baseline for planning, it does not mean that these patterns will continue into the future.

Collaboration is key

Phasing new developments is, in practice, a complex and multi-faceted beast, of which providing transport infrastructure and services is merely one part of many considerations.

This is why collaboration is so important. As Stephen Bennett eloquently put it, it relies on a lot of people working together with a common set of goals and principles to achieve sustainable development.

Whilst at the same time realising it cannot all be delivered at once. Collaboration is important. Ongoing collaboration even more so.

 An agenda for future research

When researching for this post, I came to a startling realisation; whilst there are many viewpoints on what makes for an effective phasing of developments for sustainable transport, there is no evidence of what the most effective methods or approaches are.

In some ways I am not surprised. The delivery of development sites is highly variable, and monitoring of travel patterns before and after delivery of new sites is generally quite poor. And add to that time frames over which these changes take place compared to those of most transport research projects.

Fortunately, thanks to the work of the likes of Transport for New Homes, there is a renewed interest in the impact of new developments on travel patterns.

Transport planning for developments does not stop once planning permission is granted.

It’s high time we turned researchers’ attention to the challenge. In the meantime, the Transport Planning Society and Transport for New Homes are looking out for best practice sustainable travel in new developments to inform the profession of what good looks like.

Find out more about the 2019 Transport for New Homes Award in partnership with the Transport Planning Society as part of Transport Planning Day 2019.


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