Could “20-minute neighbourhoods” help get us to a zero-carbon future?

A pedestrianised street in Darlington. Image: Getty.

The Sustrans manifesto. 

This year has brought a number of unique weather events to the UK: the highest temperature ever recorded, unprecedented flooding, and the prospect of a sub-zero general election. And while we might struggle to lay the blame for hiking to the polling station in crampons at the feet of climate change, our sweltering summers and increasingly unpredictable seasons are the result of greenhouse gases generated by human activity. 

We know that transport is the single largest contributor to the UK’s carbon emissions. This is hardly surprising: 68 pe rcent of all commuting trips are made by car, while even in London half of all car trips are under two miles, a distance which could be cycled in 12 minutes or walked in 40.

As climate concerns rise, solutions for reducing our transport emissions are proliferating. Given our fondness for new tech and our reluctance to change our habits, these are typically geared towards providing an engineered means for us to maintain our routines while reducing our carbon footprint – electric vehicles (EVs) being the prime example.

However, the continued use of EVs is unlikely to result in a low-emissions transport system due to their manufacturing process. A recent inquiry into decarbonisation by the Science and Technology found that:

“In the long-term, widespread personal low-emissions vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation…this should aim to reduce the number of vehicles required, for example by encouraging and supporting increased levels of walking and cycling.”

 That’s why Sustrans' Manifesto for UK Government calls for the next government to commit to creating neighbourhoods where people live within a 20 minute walk, or roughly a five minute cycle, of their everyday services and needs.

The design and location of where people live has a large influence on where they travel, either locking people into car dependency or making it easy for them to travel by foot, cycle or public transport.

In the UK, too many new neighbourhoods have been planned around car travel, at the expense of providing the local jobs and services that communities need to thrive. People with cars are reliant on driving to pick up a pint of milk, and those without cars are left with poor access to everyday items and services.

As the UK population continues to rise, it is critical that we stop building isolated estates, and instead build neighbourhoods where people can quickly and safely walk or cycle to work and for their everyday needs.

  • To help policy makers create 20-minute neighbourhoods, our manifesto recommends four specific actions for the next UK government:
  • Update the National Planning Policy Framework to incorporate 20-minute neighbourhoods as a central principle, where dense, mixed use developments are integrated with public transport;
  • Help local authorities more easily unlock sites for 20-minute neighbourhoods.
  • Develop new planning practice guidance to ensure that new developments must embed walking and cycling provision;
  • Complement the Transforming Cities Fund by introducing a Transforming Places Fund to support 20-minute neighbourhoods in smaller cities and towns.

As humans, old habits die hard. But ours are beginning to threaten the stability of our communities, natural environment and economy.

By  adopting the 20-minute neighbourhood principle we can begin to move towards a zero-carbon transport system, clean up pollution and create better places for people to live all at the same time. 

Daniel Gillett is a policy officer at transport charity Sustrans.



Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).