In the last couple of years I have noticed a profound shift in how campaign groups in England how approached opposition to major new developments. No longer is an instinctive opposition to greenfield development. Opinion surveys show there has been a big shift in social attitudes in favour of housing, including housing locally, reflecting shifting political priorities and concerns about intergenerational equity. Sadly not any resolution about suitable locations, though the evidence is now clear, we know the potential for brownfield sites (around 1.5 million out of need for 5 million over the next 30 years) and the rate at which the stock of brownfield sites is depleting (fast) and replenishing (not fast enough), as well as of course where it is (largely in the wrong places, outside London, in terms of location and viability, and even then not enough). Nobody disputes this any more.
With increasing proposals for planned communities there are also fewer objections in terms of social infrastructure.
The objections have shifted to a new principle objection. Transport. Even where developments are planned around train stations the objection is the trains are full and roads fuller. The objections to Marks Tey one of the North Essex Garden Communities are a case in point.
In effect housing is seen as an incurable bad because of its harmful transport impacts, pollution, noise, congestion, carbon emissions etc. So it is treated like a plague, something to be avoid, something hopefully like the Black Death other communities will suffer.
There is a point here, public transport is rarely good enough in England to clear up all residual harmful impacts of transport.
So what is the solution?
If public transport, walking and cycling is improved to a degree that the amount of traffic taken off the road is greater than the additional traffic added to by a development then things will not got any worse. This has to be the starting point, requiring integrated planning of transport networks, housing and planning. This seems to occur once you have the favorable ration of car based modal share being no more than 1/3rd, which requires large planned communities which are walkable and cyclable. This may be hard to achieve though in smaller towns and villages well away from the main public transport networks and places of employment growth. Even in those places public transport networks, especially railways, are likely to face capacity issues. This isn’t rocket science though, we know how to increase this capacity. What has been lacking in England is joining up of strategic studies to add capacity with strategic studies to add housing. or else we wouldn’t have HS2 running through the best place in England for a new City without a new station and eating up the rail ROW of the Great Central Line which could be restored for commuter services.
A large part though of housing growth though will still take place in remote locations where servicing by public transport will be a challenge. This is a good problem to have though given so much of Europe has issues of rural depopulation. However even the best rural public transport networks in the world, like in Switzerland, struggle to get modal share above 20%. Is there a solution, is there a technological solution?
We are seeing a profound shift in transport technologies. We may be seeing the last generation of carbon based fuels. Autonomous carbon free transport may replace most car use within most of our lifetimes.
You need to break down the ‘bads’ of individual small vehicles. Carbon harm might be eliminated, but half of all particulate pollution comes from tires for which autonomous vehicles are just as bad. They also use just as much road space. Autonomous vehicles are likely to slightly improve congestion as vehicles can communicate with each other at junctions, in effect making every vehicle like being manged by intelligent traffic light, and can marshal on congested roads reducing distance between vehicles, though in these cases they are just like buses only using far more energy and with greater particulate matter pollution from more frequent braking from heavier battery laden vehicles. The high energy cost is the main reason why personalised rapid transportation has proven unviable everywhere. There is no tech fix for the need for regular clockface and ‘pulse‘ timetables with regular headways.
There is no doubt that new transport technologies will help, especially for the young, old and less able living is remoter areas; but they are no substitute for good public transport and no exclude for locating too much housing on roads originally designed for horses and carts, like most of rural England. New technologies will enable people to travel further and faster for the same amount of pollution, but if this adds more sprawl the gains will be eaten up with increased travel time and energy. The ‘goods’ of the technology will only survive as long as there is high capacity pubic transport to avoid this being eaten away. The basic economic of transport and cities therefore remain with a good city where the degree to which the benefits of agglomeration exceeds the disbenefits of congestion is proportionate to the investment in public transport.
The proper role for new transport technologies then is to reduce the harm of the proportion of development that has to take place outside high and medium transit served communities. Indeed with lower car ownership with cars driving themselves ‘on demand’ there will be less need for parking spaces for cars lying unused on expensive real estate, so cities will be denser and demands for high capacity public transport networks to serve the centre of cities will be higher.
Cars, in whatever form, are the real plague whose numbers need to be kept below epidemic proportions.