After last month’s blog, which considered the 20mph speed limit in Wales amongst other issues, I thought I’d start this one with a non-controversial statement. People generally live somewhere, often work somewhere other than their home, and shop and socialise somewhere. To get from one location they need some form of transport infrastructure, whether that be a footpath, a cycle path, a road or a railway track depending on their chosen mode of transport.

Yet, many housing schemes in the UK are still constructed on greenfield sites with little or no consideration to transport, other than occasional road upgrades to tackle the additional traffic. A search on Rightmove for new housing developments in South Wales resulted in a grand total of none with a rail link as part of or adjacent to the development and few mentioning local rail links. What was far more common, was ‘only 5 miles to the city centre’, ‘great commuter location’, ‘near to the M4’ and one with ‘only a 10 minute drive to local shops’.

Even the supposedly exemplar Plasdwr ‘Garden Village’ development in the northwest of Cardiff has no rail infrastructure other than a space reserved for 2 or 3 light rail stations if a line is built. Given constrained transport budgets, that is a pretty big if. To put this scheme into context for those unfamiliar with it, this is a development of around 7,000 homes, which based on an average UK household size of 2.36, gives a future population of around 16,500 – that’s the same size as Aberystwyth or Penzance or about half the size of Dumfeies or Sevenoaks. I appreciate there are towns larger than this without a rail link, but I’d wager they also have more than the current Plasdwr offer of one bus an hour and none before 9am or after 7pm. 

Whilst extensive cycle routes are proposed to get around the community, which is a significant improvement on the totally car-centric developments of the 1970s and 80s, the reality remains that the scheme is over 5 miles from Cardiff city centre and the car will be the primary mode of transport. At least the scheme is large enough to warrant new schools, medical and retail facilities, whereas some smaller schemes will have none.

So how did we get here? Historically, villages, towns and cities evolved organically around a market square or high street, or potentially around a navigable river. Houses grew around it within walking distance. The advent of the railways in the 19th century reshaped how goods and people moved around, creating trade, enabling towns to grow further and allowing people to live further from their place of work.

Widespread car ownership from the 1960s onwards, followed by the rapid development of the motorway network saw private car travel become the dominant mode of transport. This had numerous outcomes, such as increased suburban sprawl and the later development of out-of-town shopping centres and office developments. 

Eventually, the negative impacts of private car travel in terms of safety, congestion, local air quality and carbon became evident. Promoting walking, cycling and use of public transport has been encouraged to varying degrees of success, as well as initiatives such as clean air zones and low-traffic neighbourhoods. Whilst this is generally positive, it does tend to be a retrofit activity. 

So is there a better solution, at least for new developments? Better integration of transport planning and land use planning, for houses or commercial premises could help create vibrant neighbourhoods. The concept is not new; FEHRL published a roadmap on the subject as far back as 2012, whilst RICS has reported on the benefits of integrating urban development and transport and the development of mixed-use neighbourhoods, in particular the case study of transit-orientated development in southern Stockholm which was undertaken around a new tram line and where transport by public transport, walking and cycling reached levels of around 80%.  

In practice, such developments should be undertaken on a large enough scale to justify investment in rail or light rail transport infrastructure, so there is sufficient patronage on newly developed lines. If this can be achieved, it offers numerous benefits.

It promotes more efficient land use, minimising urban sprawl and reducing the need for extensive travel. Planning transport infrastructure in tandem with land development can foster the growth of mixed-use developments where residential, commercial, and recreational facilities are closely integrated. This proximity reduces travel distances and times, reducing the need for vehicle movements and offering opportunities to walk, cycle or use public transport. This, in turn, improves air quality and promotes healthier lifestyles. Strategically placed transport facilities can enhance economic opportunities by improving access to jobs and services, so supporting local economies and potentially reducing social and economic disparities, for those who can’t drive or don’t have access to a car.

It can also lead to significant increases in land values, as improved accessibility and connectivity are major factors that impact property values. This is particularly the case for rail and light rail, as this permanent infrastructure gives people the confidence to live and work in particular locations whereas a bus service could be removed overnight. For example, Natwest reports that house prices in London within 500m from a tube or train station are 9.7% higher than comparable properties 1,500m from a station. Investment in transport infrastructure can lead to investment in surrounding areas, including new businesses, retail and housing projects, further boosting land values as the area becomes more appealing. There are opportunities to develop this further for new and existing developments with railway and tram stations offering additional services for the communities within which they sit, as was investigated in a project on Creating Cohesive Communities undertaken by Amey Consulting and Maple Consulting.

Integrating transport and land use is not a panacea, nor does it seek to eliminate car travel; for some occupations, a car or van is essential, whilst it remains the most convenient option for many families. It might offer the potential for a family to become a one-car, rather than a two-car household, which would have major benefits. It also offers the choice to travel differently or work locally, and if done well, the increase in land values can go some way towards the cost of the transport infrastructure. Finally, it offers the opportunity to develop vibrant, mixed-use communities with transport offerings and local services that cater to people of all ages, not just those who drive.

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