Tackling car dependency: best and the worst

Tackling car dependency: best and the worst Milton Keynes comes last in many of the categories examined.

Buses are important, right? You know it. I know it. Politicians claim to know it.

Here's transport minister Susan Kramer, speaking at Euro Bus Expo in November: “In a world of rising road congestion and vehicle emissions and ever-increasing demand for high-capacity urban passenger transport, the importance of buses is only going to go up.

Stewart Brown reports.

“They may not hit the headlines as often as other forms of transport, but in terms of their value to the travelling public and to the economies of every town, city and region across the UK no other transport comes close. Two thirds of public transport journeys in this country are made on local buses.”

Fine words.

Now, over to Stephen Joseph, chief executive of Better Transport, which has just published its 2014 Car Dependency Score Card. The title might be less than catchy, but the content is gripping. Says Joseph: “The point of this report is simple: the way people travel is affected by what councils and the government do, and if it’s made easier to use public transport and to walk and cycle, at least some people now stuck in their cars will change. If action isn’t taken, people become car dependent – those with cars use them more, because they feel they have no choice, and those without cars get isolated and excluded.”

I'll come in a moment to some of the specifics of the report, which shows London at the top and Peterborough at the bottom when it comes to getting around without a car. The factors contributing to car dependency are varied and generally well documented and include road space, land use, population density and the availability and quality of alternatives, ranging from public transport to the existence of safe walking and cycling routes.

Joseph observes: “There is significant evidence here of the benefits of devolved transport planning, where combined authorities like Manchester can provide an integrated public transport network alongside street and land development that ensures people have access to shorter and sustainable journeys rather than longer and car-reliant ones.

“More devolution to English cities could mean more integrated and greener transport networks that make our towns and cities better places."

The report criticises planning policies which have promoted out-of-town development: “Since the 1980s, many retail developments with swathes of free car parking have sprung up distant from population centres, without due regard to access by public transport.” 

While this is presented as a transport problem in the context of the CDSC, it is in fact indicative of a much wider failure by planners to grasp the consequences of their actions, as out-of-town retail developments drain the life from city centres and at the same time increase car use, with the attendant rise in pollution and congestion this brings.

Planners have a lot to answer for, and nothing the bus industry does will change that.

The CDSC continues: “Planning policies now in theory encourage a ‘town centre first’ approach with development that is located and designed to prioritise sustainable access and discourage sprawl. Although there are several good examples of cities pursuing this kind of development for housing and retail, poor practice is still commonplace and problems caused by previous development remain.”

That London comes out well is no surprise. It has a high population density supported by an extensive network of bus and rail services. The congestion charge discourages driving in the centre. But it's unique – in terms of size and transport funding. 

Of more interest, Manchester and Liverpool rank highly, which in part reflects policies to increase urban density by focusing development on brownfield sites. Both cities have achieved over 90 per cent of new building on brownfield sites. It produces what the CDSC describes as “city centre intensification”. Which is A Good Thing. 

Manchester actually comes top of the list in terms of bus and train quality and uptake, ahead of Brighton, Liverpool, London and Newcastle. When the report refers to Manchester, it means the city, not the region. It notes that two satellite towns, Stockport and Wigan, rank fairly low, pointing to a car-dependent hinterland around Manchester city centre.

When it looks at the wider benefits of low levels of car dependency, the CDSC notes that the top seven cities on the list are also the top seven cities where people described their health as very good in the 2011 census. Coincidence? The CDSC doesn't make that judgement: “It seems that making our cities less car dependent may also make them more healthy places to live and work. While we have not explored this link to identify any causal relationship, the strong correlation deserves further attention in future. Reductions in carbon emissions have a clear relationship to health benefits, and high levels of active travel, rather than driving, can be expected to have similar impacts.”

The seven cities in this ranking are Cambridge, Luton, London, Southampton, Sheffield, Manchester and Leicester.

And what of the towns and cities with the poorest scores? The bottom three are Milton Keynes, Colchester and Peterborough. Milton Keynes comes last in many of the categories examined, which is no surprise. When it was conceived as a new town in the 1960s, the car was the future and it was designed with little thought for public transport.

Next comes Colchester, and the CDSC notes that out of all the cities in the survey, Colchester's residents are least likely to be able to get to primary school, work or the town centre by walking or public transport. It says: “Whilst the historic centre is densely packed and walk-able, more recent development has been spread more sparsely around the edges of the city, meaning longer journey times.” Planners and politicians take note.

Peterborough, last on the list, scores poorly in most categories. The CDSC observes: “A lack of use of public transport and heavy reliance on cars to get around shows that people do not have the options they might need to get around more sustainably.”

And so back to Joseph: "To be good places to live and work, towns and cities need good transport. The most successful places in our research give people a choice in how you get around. They have good quality public transport, plan new development thoughtfully and make it easy and safe for people to cycle and walk.”

The relationship between urban planning and transport is complex, and the CDSC provides a thought-provoking overview. I'd get a yellow marker pen and highlight the sections with references to out-of-town development and brownfield sites and send a copy to every planner and local councillor in the country. 

It's too late to undo what has already been done. But not too late to learn from past mistakes.