A new era for the suburbs? Urban Transport Group calls for 'gentle densification'


Transport planners have to rethink the role and nature of the suburbs in modern Britain in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing climate crisis, a major local authority body has said.

The Urban Transport Group (UTG) has warned that 'the climate emergency demands that, wherever we can, we sever car dependency, ensure more people can access what they need locally and have access to a range of sustainable transport options'.


Representing the transport authorities for Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, London, Tyne and Wear, South Yorkshire, West Midlands and West Yorkshire, the body has thrown its support behind low traffic neighbourhoods and other schemes aimed at cutting car use.

In its new report on suburban transport planning, the UTG argues that despite 80% of Britons living in surburbs these area have been overlooked.

At their worst, can be 'dominated by traffic and parked cars, fraught with road danger and offering little opportunity to safely walk, cycle, gather or play to basic shops and services'.

The UTG outlined four major themes that could form the basis of a new approach to surbuban transport planning.

1. Help people to access more of what they need locally

The report states that: 'The most effective way to cut transport emissions is to avoid making an emissions-generating journey in the first place. Improving digital connectivity and skills; ensuring suburban deliveries are sustainable; supporting remote working; making the most of existing spaces and places; and adopting 15-minute neighbourhoods (where key amenities and services are within a 15-minute walk or cycle from home) will give people access to more of what they need as locally as possible.'

2. Provide family-friendly sustainable transport choices

'Family-friendly transport and planet-friendly transport choices go hand-in-hand. These include Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, School Streets, the use of e-cargo bikes to cut car use; and placing convenient transport choices on people’s doorsteps in the form of mobility hubs.'

3. Prioritise gentle densification around sustainable transport infrastructure 

'Gentle densification of suburbs along existing transport corridors can help to build up the critical mass needed to justify more comprehensive conventional public transport provision as well as new solutions such as larger shared mobility hubs. It can also support the creation of 15-minute neighbourhoods if densification efforts are focused around existing services and amenities. Taking a transit-orientated development approach can be used to develop new suburbs at appropriate densities.'

4. Provide reliable, convenient connections to the nearest town or city and key employment sites 

Ideally, every suburb would have a network of regular bus, tram and/or train services providing connections between them and beyond to the nearest town or city, but many suburbs still lack these services. Alternative solutions through shared (and equitable) micromobility options such as bikes and e-scooters; technology driven demand responsive transport; lift-sharing, car clubs and car-pooling; and the electrification of private car use can enable people to access nearby towns and cities sustainably.'

Rebecca Fuller, assistant director at the UTG and author of the report, said: 'The pandemic has forced us to move away from the idea that suburban transport is mostly about moving commuters in and out of town and city centres. The suburbs feature many more journey types, made by a diverse group of people, and these journeys now need to be made more sustainably in the face of the climate crisis.

'Far more attention needs to be made to suburban transport planning now than it has in the past. This report sets out the transport foundations for a new era for suburbs, and whilst it presents some potential solutions, it also aims to trigger wider debate about the role transport can play and the specific transport solutions that will help suburbs to thrive in a sustainable and equitable way.'

In response to the report, Anna Allwright, strategy specialist at Cubic Transportation Systems: 'spurring public transportation usage involves a complex mix of modernising and extending the rail, bus and ferry networks that currently exist. This process includes providing capacity in the right places, solving for first-mile and last-mile gaps that can impede usage and adjusting services to meet changing community needs. 

'2022 is a year of enormous opportunity for city planners, governments and industries to come together and drive mobility toward a more sustainable, equitable future that will shape the way we interact and travel for years to come.'

What is a suburb?

The UTG defined a suburb as:

  • Having an interdependent relationship with a large town or city. It is this relationship has typically dominated transport planning for suburbs, with a focus on getting suburban residents in and out of their nearest urban area.
  • Primarily residential. Unlike the city or the countryside, the main purpose of suburbs is to house people.
  • Low density, low-rise. The typical British suburban built form impacts the viability of public transport and means destinations are often spread out, increasing car dependency.
  • Favoured by families with children. The hyperlocal travel patterns of families and children are often unaccounted for and the freedom to move and play safely and independently are curtailed are a result.

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