The ‘New Urbanists’ may be taking us down the wrong road, says Steve Melia, who argues that the UK eco-towns guidelines should seek to build on the best of European transport and mobility practice, adopting filtered permeability, comprehensive cycle networks with priority, car-free centres and car-free neighbourhoods



Eco-town mobility



The Government’s announcement earlier this year of a programme to build five new ‘eco-towns’ was greeted with scepticism across much of the media and several environmental organisations. In The Guardian Jonathan Glancey argued that ‘the Brown Towns... will not solve the problem of ever more commuting, ever more sprawl, ever more driving to supermarkets’.1 In the light of recent experience these are reasonable concerns. Despite over a decade of policies ostensibly aiming to promote other travel modes, the 2001 Census and the more recent National Travel Surveys show a pattern of car dependency with very few exceptions outside London, the inner areas of cities and a few larger towns.

            Several major developments built or planned since 2001 have claimed to break with the past in this respect, but the limited evidence available so far does not give grounds for optimism.2 In some cases neither developers nor councils are bothering to measure actual transport outcomes. A study of Poundbury found that the level of car use there was higher than in the surrounding rural district of West Dorset.3

            So what would a genuine eco-development look like? Focusing mainly on transport, my area of research, I have spent the past two summers cycling 3,000 miles across Europe, interviewing planners and studying places where claims are matched by real achievements. Although cross-border comparisons introduce complexities which this article can only touch on, experience from elsewhere can help to challenge (or endorse) tenets of conventional wisdom. My observations have highlighted two in particular: the concept of ‘permeability’, and the integration of cyclists with other traffic.

            Freiburg im Breisgau, a city of 213,000 people in Germany, is often cited as an example of success in reducing car dependency. Between 1976 and 1999 private vehicle use fell from 60% of journeys to 41% (32% when walking is included).4 Most of the guiding principles behind Freiburg’s transport and spatial plans could be found in planning documents across the UK – for example, walkability, traffic restraint, extension of public transport and promotion of cycling. The key to their success has been their consistent integration and application in practice.

            There is one principle which differs from current thinking in the UK: the channelling of through-traffic onto a limited network of main roads. Most other roads are covered by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour (18 mph), with a growing number of ‘home zones’ and ‘bicycle streets’ limited to 15 kilometres per hour.

            The historic centre – about a kilometre square – has been progressively pedestrianised and is now closed to private vehicles. Planning policies discourage bulky retail activities in the centre. Most shoppers arrive by tram or bicycle, and the shops appear to be thriving. The main problem is the tram bottleneck created by streets full of pedestrians – shortly to be addressed by a new tram line. There are also plans to further extend the car-free area, moving an inner ring road further out and building a tunnel underneath the city centre to carry through-traffic.

            On-road parking has been progressively replaced by a larger number of spaces in multi-storey and underground car parks. Although Freiburgers believe €2 (around £1.40) per hour to be a significant deterrent, it is not particularly expensive by British standards.

            Municipal powers to regulate and subsidise public transport are a significant difference compared with the UK. Buses are organised to feed rather than compete with the trams, which carry 70% of passengers. Patronage has more than doubled since the 1980s, owing mainly to the introduction and improvement of all-mode regional season tickets.5 These are transferable within each household and cost just €41 (around £29) per month, and almost every household has one.

            In common with most ‘sustainable’ European cities, and despite some substitution of public transport for walking, cycling and walking together account for many more journeys than public transport (cycling 27%, walking 23%, public transport 18%). Although the bicycle streets are a recent innovation, the mixture of cycle lanes, shared paths, junction priority measures and traffic-calmed streets could be found in many UK cities. The key differences are comprehensiveness, consistent priority over other traffic, and attention to design detail. The cycle network, which has taken over 30 years to develop, now covers the city in all directions, connecting with routes to surrounding villages and countryside.

            Planning policies have kept the city fairly compact. There is no aversion to zoning, however. There are several large employment areas within the city, generally well served by trams and cycle routes.

            Two urban extensions, both nearing completion, have attracted considerable international interest. One of them, Vauban, is probably the best example in Europe of a genuine eco-development of medium size – around 2,000 dwellings, 6,000 people. The British Eco-towns Prospectus6 mentions Vauban, but not the key elements which have kept car use there to just 16% of journeys7 and made it a ‘sought after’ neighbourhood, particularly for families with children.

            Among many ecological aspects of Vauban, cars have been removed from most of its residential streets. Vehicles are allowed to enter at walking pace to pick up and deliver but not to park. Car owners must purchase a space in a peripheral multi-storey car park. In the absence of cars, the streets are full of children playing and skating – unicycling was a craze when I stayed there last year. Vauban’s car-free streets are noticeably more effective in this respect than conventional home zones open to through-traffic. Both Vauban and Rieselfeld, the larger and more conventional extension, are effectively giant culs de sac for motor vehicles, connected in all directions by cycle and foot paths.

            Of the households in Vauban without a car (just under half), most gave the car up on moving there. No attempt has been made to balance jobs with housing in Vauban itself, but around three quarters of the working population cycles to work.8

            Much of Freiburg is relatively flat, but it is surrounded by the mountains of the Black Forest, whose lower slopes merge with some of the suburbs. A flat terrain certainly helps to encourage cycling,9 but it is not the only, nor necessarily the most important factor. Cycling has been an integral part of Dutch culture for many years, but like the rest of Western Europe rates of cycling were plummeting in the Netherlands until, like Germany, and Switzerland (hardly a flat country), the oil crisis of the 1970s provoked a change in policy direction.

            After three decades of improvement a nationwide network of cycle routes now enables most journeys, urban and rural, to be made almost entirely on separate paths, lanes or roads free from through-traffic. Most of these routes separate cyclists from cars and pedestrians. The shared pavement, which causes hostility among cyclists and pedestrians in Britain, is a rarity in the Netherlands.

            Although cultural factors are also involved, no-one I spoke to doubted that these infrastructure improvements (which have probably helped to bolster the less tangible cultural preferences) have contributed to the rise in cycling recently observed across Dutch towns and cities. By comparison, British cycle routes are generally ad hoc and indirect, lacking continuity and priority over other traffic, so it is not surprising that evidence on their effectiveness has been mixed.10

            In Groningen, a university city of 180,000, 60% of journeys are now made by bike.11 Compared with Freiburg, public transport is much less important (there is no tram system), but most of the guiding principles are similar: compact city planning with large employment areas within the city boundaries, a comprehensive network of separate cycle routes with priority over other vehicles, and a similar policy of channelling through-traffic. Transport official Cor van der Klaauw describes this as a ‘coarse grain’ for cars and a ‘fine grain’ for bikes. Vehicular access points to residential areas are limited, while bridges, tunnels, bus gates and a panoply of short cuts assist the more sustainable modes.

            Most of these policies also apply in varying ways to smaller Dutch towns. People of all ages and both sexes will explain how they cycle because it is quicker and more convenient – this is sometimes accompanied by complaints about public transport.

            Permeability – ease and directness of movement – has become a central concern for urban designers in recent years. However, a distinction needs to be drawn between filtered permeability as practised in Freiburg and Groningen, and unfiltered permeability – the idea that connectivity should be maximised for all road users following the same routes. This recently passed from fashionable trend in the UK to Government guidance in the Manual for Streets.12 The concept originated partly in response to American studies showing that ‘traditional neighbourhoods’, generally built around rectilinear street grids, generated less car traffic than single-use estates with long culs de sac and few pavements, although the level of car use was often very high in both.13

            This comparison disguises two countervailing forces, however. The ‘traditional grid’ reduces journey distances on foot, but also by car. Although the relative contribution of each factor is difficult to quantify, many studies support the principle that giving a time and convenience advantage to a particular mode will increase its use. Whereas filtered permeability favours sustainable modes, unfiltered permeability, particularly when accompanied by parking spaces close to the home, will generally make the car the quickest, most convenient option for all journeys.

            The principle of unfiltered permeability crossed the Atlantic with the New Urbanist creed (a positive one in some other respects). Bolstered by a reaction against recent suburban housing estates with some similar faults to the American ones, unfiltered permeability has helped to shape Poundbury and its many derivatives. Poundbury, like Groningen, is flat; it enjoys a better climate. Although there are clearly other factors at play, cycling accounts for just 1.9% of journeys to work, public transport 1.8%. Over three-quarters of residents frequently drive elsewhere to shop. These figures come from a 2004 study,3 but the situation has not significantly changed since then according to West Dorset Borough Council, which has been looking into ways of improving it.

            Although car-free streets and pedestrian areas can be incorporated into neo-traditional block and street masterplans, they rarely are, for two reasons. First is a belief – challenged by a substantial body of British and European evidence14 – that viable shops need through-traffic and on-street parking. Secondly, a grid designed for traffic to circulate in all directions is easily disrupted by a street or square closed to through traffic.

            One of the urban extensions cited in the TCPA’s Best Practice in Urban Extensions and New Settlements report,15 Sherford near Plymouth, illustrates some of the realities behind the claims made for ‘model’ developments in the UK. Despite a Devon Structure Plan policy requiring the masterplan to put non-motorised modes first, the developers are maintaining that no cycle route is needed down the ‘traditional’ high street projected to carry up to 15,000 vehicles a day. On-street parking will facilitate shopping by car, while external connections to half-finished cycle routes are mired in problems of funding, land ownership and political inertia. The only public transport assured is a conventional bus service to the city centre – the projected destination for less than one journey in five.

            The Prospectus6 says eco-towns must achieve significant modal shift compared with settlements of a similar size. ‘Significant’ is not quantified – car use in most of these comparators is already high. Each eco-town must also be an ‘exemplar’ in at least one area. If ‘exemplar’ for transport means conventional UK policies plus a travel plan and a better bus service, then the scepticism of the critics will have proved well founded.

            The eco-towns programme represents a unique opportunity to push the boundaries and introduce new ideas. Although the circumstances of each development will differ, the guidelines should seek to build on the best of European practice – filtered permeability, comprehensive cycle networks with priority, car-free centres and car-free neighbourhoods – to create an exemplar which, like the first garden cities, will draw foreign visitors to Britain to see how it is done.


o Steve Melia is a postgraduate researcher at the University of the West of England, and a committee member of Carfree UK, the Sherford Community Steering Group and the DfT’s Round Table on Ecotowns.



1          J. Glancey: ‘Brown’s ‘Eco Towns’ are a greenwash’. Guardian Unlimited, May 2007

2          K. Kennell: Mixed Use Developments: Are They Sustainable? MSc Dissertation. University of Westminster, 2004

3          G. Watson, I. Bentley, S. Roaf and P. Smith: Learning from Poundbury, Research for the West Dorset District Council and the Duchy of Cornwall. Oxford Brookes University, 2004

4          Stadt Freiburg, Tiefbauamt, Powerpoint presentation

5          F. Fitzroy and I. Smith: ‘Public transport demand in Freiburg: why did patronage double in a decade?’. Transport Policy, 1998, Vol. 5 (3), 163-73

6          Eco-towns Prospectus. Department for Communities and Local Government, 2007

7          J. Scheurer: Urban Ecology, Innovations in Housing Policy and the Future of Cities: Towards Sustainability in Neighbourhood Communities. PhD Dissertation. Institute of Sustainable Transport, Murdoch University, Perth, 2001

8          C. Nobis: ‘The impact of car-free housing districts on mobility behaviour – Case study’. In E. Beriatos, C.A. Brebbia, H. Coccossis and A. Kungolos (Eds): Sustainable Planning and Development. WIT Press, 2003, pp.701-20

9          D.A. Rodriguez and J. Joo: ‘The relationship between non-motorized mode choice and the local physical environment’. Transportation Research Part D: Transport & Environment, 2004, Vol. 9 (2), 151-73

10        For the success of the National Cycle Network see ‘Info & resources’ at For a summary of the opposing evidence see: (although the selective interpretation of the Dutch cycle safety evidence on this site is questionable)

11        Excludes walking: personal communication from Groningen City Council

12        Manual for Streets. Thomas Telford Publishing, for Department for Transport, 2007. paras 4.2.3 & 4.2.4

13        See, for example, S. Handy, X. Cao and P.L. Mokhtarian: ‘Correlation or causality between the built environment and travel behavior? Evidence from Northern California’. Transportation Research Part D: Transport & Environment, 2005, Vol. 10 (6), 427-44

14        See L. Sloman: Car Sick: Solutions for our Car-Addicted Culture. Green Books, 2006, chap. 8; and Union Street Project. Colin Buchanan & Partners for Aberdeen City Council, 2004

15        Best Practice in Urban Extensions and New Settlements. TCPA, 2007