How can lower density development be made compatible with sustainable transport?

The Occasion

As a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic demand has increased for houses with gardens and open spaces, leading to a renewed focus on lower density residential development. Meanwhile, the Government has set ambitious house building targets, using a proposed formula that favours non-urban locations. However, many such developments in Britain have traditionally been car dependent and struggle to offer good sustainable transport options. In this context, how can lower density development be made compatible with sustainable transport? Will the behavioural shifts caused by the pandemic make it more difficult for sustainable transport options to be provided? And how can we better design housing developments?

To debate this important topic, the ITC welcomed a distinguished panel of experts at our digital Discussion Event held on 7th December 2020. The discussion was chaired by Dr Deborah Saunt, Founder of DSDHA, visiting Professor at Yale University and an ITC Commissioner, and the expert panel also included: Richard Blyth, Head of Policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI); Roger Madelin CBE, Head of the Canada Water Development at British Land; and Keith Mitchell, Regional Director (UK) of Community Development and Infrastructure at Stantec.


Can lower density development be compatible with sustainable transport? Key issues from the speakers:

  • Richard Blyth provided an overview of policy considerations. He explained that low density development and sustainable transport were difficult to reconcile. Government proposals for a new formula for housing requirements could jeopardise carbon reduction objectives due to a rise in speculative development in non-urban locations. He pointed to an RTPI study which showed that until 2017 sustainability objectives had been achieved in new developments, but it was unclear whether this had continued since. A TfNH report had indicated many new developments were car dependent and in locations where there was inadequate public transport provision. A key question was whether the pandemic would result in a flight from cities to the shires as seen in the 1960s & 70s. It would be important, he suggested, to have a democratic debate about housing policy rather than rely on formulae. Sustainable transport was possible in lower-density developments, he suggested, pointing to examples in Calgary and Flanders, and lessons should be learned from these. There should be greater emphasis upon nature recovery around housing developments, he argued, especially on urban fringes.
  • Roger Madelin offered a developer’s perspective on housing and sustainable travel. He pointed out that much new development seemed car-dependent, and we should accept that car reliance would be with us for a long time. Policy makers needed to take account of this, possibly by promoting electric vehicles or road user charging. Out of town developments needed to be of a sufficient scale to allow good public transport provision, but this was difficult to achieve in Britain under the current planning regime. Too often, he noted, development locations were determined by political geography in terms of places that would raise the fewest objections, leading to haphazard residential development near trunk roads or in places with poor public transport access. He agreed there was much to learn from the Benelux countries, where high levels of car ownership combined with excellent public transport provision and usage. Developments in high-density urban locations were much more compatible with sustainable transport options, but even here incentives were often needed to encourage public transport usage.
  • Keith Mitchell gave insights on how future housing development could be improved. He explained that current housing policy was committed to large developments outside major cities such as across the Oxford-Cambridge corridor. Low-density development resulted in higher carbon emissions than in high-density locations, and there were also concerns about poorer health and economic outcomes. Land use and transport policy had long recognised the need for sustainable transport in new developments, he noted, but this had been slow to take hold. Change was now happening, driven by lifestyle change and the opportunities provided by new technologies. These trends, such as increased home working, were likely to have been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. A strategic approach would be needed to encourage behavioural change, and ensure that future developments would be sustainable. Stantec’s Places First initiative was exploring how to achieve this, he observed, including through removing barriers to change, developing a future mobility roadmap for development, encouraging objectives-led planning, creating social value decision-making tools, and redefining master planning for the green industrial revolution. Such steps, he argued, could help to ensure that new developments were sustainable, viable and improved quality of life for their residents.

Key themes raised in the discussion:

The discussion was chaired by Deborah Saunt, ITC Commissioner and visiting Professor at Yale University.

  1. Will the pandemic trigger social and behavioural changes that support sustainable transport? It was noted that the 1918 global flu pandemic resulted in major behavioural shifts and the question was asked if this would be the case again after the Covid-19 pandemic. Some agreed that long term changes would result, such as increased working for home and online education which could alter patterns of housing demand. A ‘build back’ boom was possible so new developments would need to take such changes into account. Others suggested the economic recovery would be strong, leading to a new ‘roaring twenties’ due to people’s desire to restart travel and socialising, aided by cash surpluses that had been saved during the pandemic lockdowns. An alternative perspective was that less would change than many predicted, due to the need for many services (such as health care) to be provided in person, and that massive tax rises could stifle growth as was the case after 1918. In addition, it was observed that the colossal housebuilding programme in the 1920s generated a backlash and the creation of organisations such as the CPRE to fight urban sprawl.
  2. We can learn from success stories overseas about how to make lower density development compatible with sustainable transport. A number of people noted that there were good examples from overseas on sustainable transport success stories, and that the UK could learn from these. The Netherlands was cited where small suburban rail stations were combined with well-linked cycle and pedestrian routes. Frustation was expressed that the expertise of British urban designers and developers was not being used effectively to create successful new developments. Some felt that too much land in England was currently designated as restricted, which prevented sustainable new towns being created. The key or model village concept popular in the mid 20th century was raised as a possible option, with good use made of green space and local mobility options.
  3. How can we build better housing in new developments? There was criticism that too many new developments in Britain were marred by ill-judged design, such as a preponderance of single aspect flats with no provision for homeworking and limited green space. It was observed that these problematic developments were policy led and people liked buying small flats as an investment. However, new design rules in London were promoting better housing design. Others noted that good design applied not only to houses but also to the wider built environment. It was necessary to create quality places in new developments where residents wanted to spend time. The panel was unsure whether single generation neighbourhoods, such as retirement villages were a good idea, with some suggesting that a mixture of ages made for a more robust and vibrant community.
  4. The financial viability of public transport systems must be considered in relation to the density of new developments. Some attendees observed that there was a problem with the financial viability of public transport, particularly as a result of the pandemic, and this made provision a challenge in lower density developments. Others agreed that certain public transport systems, such as trams, were very expensive and unlikely to ever be viable outside high density locations. Another view was that public transport would slowly recover to pre-pandemic levels, although shared autonomous vehicles and mobility as a service systems would also have an increasingly important role to play as part of a multi-modal offer. It was also noted that cars were too often used by single occupants, and road user charging was suggested as a means of achieving more efficient car usage.
  5. More attention needs to be given to nature and green spaces in new developments. It was argued that increased access to and public ownership of green space in developments would be important as we recover from the pandemic. Even high-density urban developments such as Canada Water were incorporating a high percentage of natural space. There was criticism of highway design which allowed for high speed car travel in new developments. The panel agreed it was important to engage with stakeholders in all developments and incorporate nature into the design of new neighbourhoods.