Our Design Advisor, Xan Goetzee-Barral, reports back from a recent roundtable event that explored the statement ‘beyond peak car use.’
The UK is at a critical point; with plateauing car ownership, declining rural bus services, an ageing population and declining health in many communities. These are interconnected long-term issues, affecting the UK as a whole, including Kent & Medway. The connection between these issues is movement, in particular the use of the car, so the discussion started with a call for cohesive local approaches to car travel and parking. We considered the need to instigate change through top down policy changes; holding a deeper understanding of attitudes and lived experiences is fundamental to this. These discussions often centre around new technologies and what they can bring, conceptualised as a ‘technological fix’, namely electric vehicles, automation and Uber-style transport options. Whilst bringing about some benefits, these are not the main solution to the root cause as they don’t result in a significant reduction in total energy consumption or street congestion. Also, a general policy lag trailing behind technology further undermines this approach. At a deeper level, this counteracts efforts to change our attitudes to travel and promote sustainable and active travel options.
A shift in attitudes towards car usage can be achieved through observation and experiencing how policy and programmes play out, articulated in the idea that ‘people believe their lived experiences’. We can draw inspiration from other towns and cities; Pontevedra (Spain) and Groningen (Netherlands) enjoy car-free city centres. More locally, in Dover, the government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund has supported the development of a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) between Dover Town Centre, Dover Priory railway station and Whitfield, where two major urban extensions are under construction. Implementing the BRT ahead of the finalisation of the urban extensions might be the key in helping instigate a culture change from the get-go. This has been the approach in garden settlements where local authorities have had the ability to build in public transport and active travel – in large part due to the ‘clean-slate’ appeal to councillors
We can draw insights from younger generations; the result of a changing economic, social and environment context is demonstrated in reduced car ownership – once the idealised symbol of freedom. Conversely, older generations have a different mindset and changing this might require more convincing and emotive argumentation to push for changes. This is particularly pertinent in this context as aired frustrations revolve around a lack of willingness for councillors to change policy.
Parking ratios in particular are described as a ‘policy battle’, where it is felt councillors constrain the necessary progress for this to move ahead as high parking requirements and allocated parking continues to impinge on design quality, undermine positive moves to promote active travel (e.g. bike lanes) and result in a loss of public space – a fundamental challenge which has far reaching impacts. Local authorities need to be cautious of ‘off-setting’ high parking demands with technology fixes e.g. electric vehicle charging points.
Policy and programme changes can be implemented, or more importantly, refined and improved, to help drive change. Workplace parking levies can be expanded at a wider scale to prevent parking demand from being displaced. Free parking at shopping centres can be tackled head-on. Neighbourhood Plans can be produced by communities and be place driven instead of encouraging car parking. This in particular might require greater support from developers through funding to allow under-resourced planning authorities to work closely with communities to deliver this. Design Codes might help in driving these visions and ambitions.
There are ideas and possible solutions, people are motivated and there is inspirational best practice to convince us of deliverability. So what is the next step? With the blockages identified, engaging with Kent County Council to establish its role promoting a more cohesive approach, and exploring the value of a transport strategy to drive these changes must be a good starting point. This will require a sense of exploration, willingness to learn and most importantly political leadership to unlock its true value in delivering more pedestrian-friendly places.