What’s actually in the “Building Better Building Beautiful” Commission’s report?

Suburban densification: an artist’s impression. Image: Francis Terry, via London YIMBY.

I assumed the Commission to Build Bloody Bucketloads of Beautiful Houses had been named by Jonn Elledge, but – sadly – I had misheard.

The not-necessarily-more-grammatically-titled Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission [sic] was presumably christened by someone inspired by childhood lessons on alliteration, but who felt themselves above the pedestrian distinction between adjectives and adverbs.

You might see a parallel with the planning system’s lofty rhetoric and its abject failure to, well, actually get any reasonable number of decent homes built; I merely note a common origin somewhere in the bowels of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Orwellian riffs on that title I leave to you; I need to get to the point or my editor will cut this whole section. We all know what bowels produce, anyway.

Recovering from the linguistic atrocity at its birth, the Commission has proposed forty-five measures to improve what and how much we build, including a “fast track for beauty” featured in the Sunday papers.

Anyone who has seen a council planning committee might share my doubts whether beauty is the only concern of residents. Try to watch those meetings and to conclude they are a sane way for people to negotiate about what should be allowed. Congestion is another big objection. And don't forget the wheelie bins. Civilisation may end if you do.

“Some housebuilder[s]... believe they can build any old crap and still sell it.”

Senior executive in housing and development industry speaking to the BBBB Commission 

But the Commission has built an impressively broad consensus around some pretty sensible ideas.

Some of the underlying convictions peek through; for example, it would be fun to see the original description of highway engineers. The final, doubtless softer version suggests that the training of planners, architects and other related professionals – “particularly highway engineers” – should include the empirical research on what urban designs make people healthier and happier. Hard to disagree with that.

It proposes a range of things dear to urbanists: an end to suburban style parking requirements outside the suburbs (why not everywhere?), and an end to strict daylight/sunlight rules and large minimum distance requirements between homes – both of which are violated by every historic village anyway. We should also help high streets by encouraging gentle density around them.

On communities, the report presses for early engagement, more co-design and community-led development, including community land trusts, and to allow “intensification with consent”. The founder of HTA Design, Bernard Hunt, told them:

“My experience as a ‘community architect’ in both the public rented sector... and also in the owner-occupied sector... leads me to conclude that communities will actively support development/redevelopment IF there are clear incentives. Policy must be carrot- not stick-driven.”

In particular the Commission recommends trials to let individual streets vote to opt in to limited additional permissions, subject to design codes. This idea has got further than I expected, crazy though it seemed at the time. Perhaps I should write drunk more often.

It also argues that current methods of value capture to help local communities – Section 106 agreements and Community Infrastructure Levy – “tend to fall short of securing real consent, since they so often fail to prioritise what really matters to the public, which is the enhancement or degradation of a place.”


There is a welcome recognition that permitted development rights, if continued, should have better standards, particularly as to external appearance, and no longer be able to bypass required contributions for infrastructure and other things.

The additional two million street trees it calls for won’t help with the housing crisis, but they might help make some places much more liveable. 

With Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets as the surviving chair, no-one will be surprised by the emphasis on design codes and simple, visual, form-based codes to make building better but also easier and more predictable.

“We need to turn our planning system round, from its existing role as a shield against the worst, to its future role as a champion of the best.” Hard to disagree with that too.

Congratulations to the Commissioners. For their Herculean and unpaid labours, we all have much to be grateful. Even the highway engineers.

John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance and London YIMBY, which campaigns to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.