Rail's role in transit-orientated developments

Source: RTM Feb/March 2019

Jonathan Bray, director at the Urban Transport Group (UTG), argues that transit-oriented developments are the future – and that rail has a vital role to play.

Imagine this scenario: you finish work for the day, catch a commuter train from which you alight close to your home – a city apartment, within a high-density housing development. You’re off to see a friend after work so you hop on your bike using the safe, high-quality cycling infrastructure that starts outside your door. But wait, you’ve forgotten to buy them a gift, so you pick up a bottle of wine from the shop located within your development.

This isn’t a dream, rather an example of what it’s like to live in a transit-oriented development – one in which public transport and active travel options have been placed front and centre (minimising the need to own and use a private car), as well as other services such as restaurants, healthcare facilities, or schools.

Yet while some developments like this do exist in the UK, the reality is that between 2015 and 2017, over half (53%) of the planning permissions for the 220,000 new homes within 12 of England’s city regions were more than 2km away from a railway station, and only 20% were within 800 metres. We are simply not building enough transit-oriented developments, leading to further car-based urban sprawl and the environmental, congestion, and air quality challenges that this can bring.

The UTG’s new report ‘The place to be’ seeks to change this by setting out a plan to realise more residential and commercial building developments which are based around sustainable, public transport, and active travel. But it’s important first to determine what makes a successful transit-oriented development – our report identifies seven key factors:

  • Transport must be at the heart, whether heavy or light rail, bus or bike;
  • Developments need high density of housing and commercial properties to provide critical mass for transit use;
  • Walking and cycling should be the first choices for accessing public transport and other services to encourage healthy and sustainable travel;
  • Private vehicles should be discouraged;
  • Schools, shops, and other services should be included within developments to foster localised trips;
  • Brownfield sites should be used;
  • And the public sector should be involved to provide leadership and vision.

The prize is that developments which embrace these principles deliver wide-ranging benefits, such as stronger local economies, reduced congestion, better air quality, improved public health, and increased public transport patronage.

The report illustrates this with case studies of successful transit-oriented developments from the UK and the wider world. For example, it highlights KPMG research which suggests a 10% improvement in transport connectivity by bus can lead to a 3.6% improvement in economic, social, and environmental deprivation.

Evidence from San Francisco shows how transit-oriented developments result in higher ridership on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which, as of 2017, has generated a million extra trips a year, with an additional fare revenue of $3.9bn. It also points to findings from Chicago showing that households within half a mile of public transport have lower transport-related CO2 emissions – 43% lower than the average household in the Chicago Metropolitan Area.

So how do we achieve more of these developments in the UK? Our members – city region transport authorities – have an important role to play, especially as they are often major landowners within the urban areas they serve. But they require a national planning framework that favours transit-oriented developments over car-based, low-density sprawl; national funding with more options for ensuring that value uplift from new developments can be used to improve transport connectivity (as we have seen with Crossrail); greater influence over land held by agencies of national government, which are prime sites for development; more devolution of powers over stations; and measures to improve the planning capacity of local authorities so they can better respond to potential opportunities.

Only by tackling these obstacles can we truly embark on a new era of transit-oriented developments.


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