Why Rail Matters for Sustainable Urban Planning

Quite a few remarks on my twitter have questioned the relevance of planning growth around rail stations, suggesting that they still will have a car based modal split.

To answer this ill use one of my favorite examples taken from some consultancy I did in Essex. Which has the highest rail based modal share – Southend or Amsterdam. The answer is surprisingly they are roughly the same 25-26%.

The reason rail matters is it creates space on roads for bus and cycling (which is the real difference between Amsterdam and South Essex). For medium to long distance journeys car and rail compete. The persuadable switchers – what Malcolm Mosely called ‘Wolves’ as opposed to ‘Sheep’ who never switch need not be a huge slice, but policies to encourage a switch such as charging cars and subsidizing rail are critical in increasing the total carrying capacity of the system.

Ironically Covid and the decline of CBD offices increases the case for rail. Before their was little case for trains stopping at new settlements because trains were full or their was a lack of train paths, look at the studies done for places like Calvert (direct route to London) and West Tey. Hence proposals on this Blog for new terminal in London and Birmingham. Much of that concern is gone, and with increased city centre living services become more viable with reverse commuting.

With more space freed on roads there is more space for sustainable modes and less LTN style car/cycle conflict. It becomes much easier to have radically pro bus and pro cycling measures, as many cities have shown.

I have criticised proposals that rely solely on cycling – such as Tibbalds competition winner for the Arc – because these numbers don’t work. You have far fewer people cycling to stations (because there are fewer stations). There is a case for fewer stations and longer cycling catchments (as the Dutch show us) made easier with 4 track lines, but that is another story. Imagine a new settlement in Siberia disconnected from rail but with radicaly pro cycling measures. You would have low cycling modal split because the scattered employment would creates too many nodes of conflict between cyclists and cars and the low densities would make too many walking and cycling journeys too long.

That is why low carbon planning must be based around some kind of rapid transit system, which might be bus. BRT has its advantages in terms of ststion frequency and capacity, but only rail has the speed and capacity to service a large region (such as the South East) and where you dont have large boulevards (such as in South Amercian cities) where you devote a large proportion of capacity to BRT. With new steelements however, or better a string of new settlement forming a cluster, yu can plan them around BRT networks; such as the planned expnsion of cities on the continent such as Lund and Stavanger.