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Cowpats and unicorns: How new housing estates are being built for the car

Derwenthorpe street

A guest blog post by Steve Chambers from Transport for New Homes.

Here at Transport for New Homes we recently published our latest findings from our visits to new housing developments across England. Our new report, Building Car Dependency, includes many photographs of housing estates which are car-based, as well as those successfully built around sustainable transport. 

We looked in particular at developments on green fields where a lot of new housing is being built. We’d been to many of the estates before in 2017 and 2018. When we last visited we found walking, cycling and public transport had been neglected. Nonetheless the housing was promoted on the understanding that in time these things would be provided for. That’s why we decided to go back again, to see how they were getting on. 

Better buses? 

More people use the bus than any other form of public transport, so we would hope to see the bus stops on convenient routes at the heart of the neighbourhoods we visited. Nothing could be further from what we saw. Bus stops, where they existed, were located on the very edges of large estates and so far from many homes that people were not considering using them. 

In other places we found that well intentioned but perhaps cash strapped local authorities had decided to build housing around park and rides. We found residents had to walk through giant car parks and along broken paths to reach the bus stop and the service there was optimised for park and ride passengers and did not go where they needed to go. Park and rides typically might serve the shops, but not the main railway station. 

In other places we found bus routes were excessively long and inconvenient as they had to make detours to serve remote estates. Elsewhere we had to cross major arterial roads to get to the bus. But the biggest issue overall was that the streets were simply not designed to accommodate buses. It was as if they were deliberately being excluded with land given over to the convenience of parking.

Integrated rail?

We found getting rail right was very hard to do. Although many developments included opening a railway station as part of their planning application it was rarely more than a wish and a prayer. We think it shows how out of sync town planning is with the planning cycle of rail infrastructure. There just isn’t time to get a station built in time for people moving into new homes.

Even where a railway station had been provided we found integration was poor. We found one railway station with a bus stop outside, but no buses stopped there. We also found inconveniently located stations too far from houses to be useful. A particular favourite seemed to be connecting railway stations to homes via an unlit leisure trail, rendering it useless after dark. 

Walking and cycling forgotten

Because connections to bus and rail were so poor we found most homes had as much as two or three parking spaces each. We found parking on the pavement and poor design of streets that made walking and cycling impractical and unsafe. On some estates we saw more cats than people. On another, the only person we saw outside their house was washing their car.

But an even more crucial issue for walking and cycling was there was nowhere to walk or cycle to. We found the estates were often built so remotely and on such a small scale (we called these ‘cowpats’) that they could not support a shop. So there was nowhere to walk to. For cyclists we found the road networks the estates led on to were unsafe and optimised for car traffic.

Unicorns bring some hope

But it wasn’t all bad news. We did find some places doing a better job. We visited some brownfield sites that were doing much better. We think that’s probably because they were in more urban locations where they benefit from existing transport infrastructure and facilities. But we also found the odd good example of greenfield development (we called these ‘urban unicorns’) where the land owners had taken special interest in the developments. The most crucial thing they got right was location. They built close to existing towns as urban extensions and not far flung ‘cowpats’. 

What’s next?

Things must change. We’re calling on the Government to reform the planning system. Developments need to be designed around walking, cycling and public transport with adequate funding in place before permission to build is granted. We also want to see funding directed to Dutch-style cycling networks, local rail, light rail, rapid transit, buses and trams - rather than funding road links.

You can read the full findings in the report here. If you’d like to hear more about sustainable transport, planning and new homes, you can follow Transport for New Homes on Twitter

Steve Chambers is Sustainable Transport Campaigner at Transport for New Homes

Jeff Counsell of Trentbarton