The Cardiff Capital Region, Cars and Transit Oriented Development

The problem

Our planning and development eco-system has resulted in us building ‘all the wrong stuff in all the wrong places’ for over 50 years. Homes, hospitals, shops, offices, cinemas, leisure centres, etc are all designed and located around car access. This car based eco-system now means that many new houses are located in places that require you to get in your car every time you want to buy a pint of milk.

The biggest negative influence on many of our city and town high streets, has been the huge relocation of office, retail, public services, to car based out-of-town locations in the last 50 years. South East Wales is covered in them; Cardiff Gate, Trago Mills, Imperial Park, Spytty Park, Navigation Park, Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Celtic Springs, McArthur Glen, Culverhouse Cross, Llanfrechfa Grange.

When you combine this reality with mass volume car-based corporate supermarket retail, the consequential demise of local independent shops and food retail, and now the perversity of drive-through coffee shops, the primary cause of the sickness afflicting our high streets becomes clear – car-based, out-of-town development. We have a collective blind spot with cars and a failure to recognise the wider societal and economic costs of the apparent freedoms they provide.

The impact

The resulting damage and wider external costs have been recognised by the Welsh Government who commissioned a report by the Foundational Economy Research in 2021, “Small Towns Big Issues” which illuminates the negative impact of out-of-town, car-based development, especially on existing town centres. A further report by Audit Wales came to broadly the same conclusions: “The growth of car based, out-of-town retail has contributed greatly to the decline of town centres”.

It is instructive to compare, even qualitatively, the vibrancy and status of Tonypandy High Street (Dunraven St) in the mid Rhondda Valley with Treorchy High Street at the top of the Rhondda. Tonypandy’s high street has been plagued by problems, empty properties, low footfall and many failed initiatives over decades and is seen to be suboptimal. In stark contrast, Treorchy High St won “High Street of the Year” as recently as 2019.  How can two places so close have high streets that perform so very differently?

My assertion is that Tonypandy has suffered far more from the growth of car-based out-of-town retail. Less than a mile from Dunraven St is a very large Tesco at Llwynypia; the bright lights of Talbot Green or Pontypridd with its Sainsbury on the A470 are not too far away either. However, there is limited space or land availability in/around Treorchy and/or probably insufficient commercial potential for there to be similar large car-based retail in Treorchy (albeit there is smaller Coop with car parking). Tonypandy’s high street has been hollowed out through the abstraction of activity to places like Tesco, whereas in Treorchy, most activity has remained local, in locally-owned shops.

Building our lives around the car has left us an enormous problem. Cars have provided millions of people enormous freedoms and convenience, but at what cost?

The Solution – Transit Oriented Development (TOD)

The climate emergency and Welsh Government mode shift targets demand that we completely re-think our approach to land use and in so doing embrace, so-called “Transit Oriented Development” and Placemaking to augment the development and implementation of the South Wales Metro.

Whilst there are many definitions of Transit Oriented Development [1], we need to embrace the following key features in Wales:

  • Mixed use and higher density development around transport corridors and stations;
  • Aligning new housing, public services, and employment sites with public transport – some real transport/land use planning;
  • Improving safety and quality of urban areas – especially our urban streets;
  • Integration with active travel;
  • Inclusion of open/green spaces; and
  • Community engagement and involvement in scheme development and implementation.

Transit Oriented Development is an approach to development focussed on people, public spaces and public transport, leading to reduced car dependency. It is an approach that delivers benefits, for example:

  • With higher density it becomes easier and less costly to provide public services;
  • Local shops and retail have a higher local demand that can be accessed via active travel;
  • In many cases, schemes for new housing can be linked to local and town centre regeneration projects and greening urban realm improvements; and
  • Public transport investment becomes easier to justify because higher numbers of people can more easily access transit services (helping build the fare box and reduce the operational subsidies of new transit – bus or rail).

Collectively, and more importantly, Transit Oriented Development reduces our need to use and own cars – given the present danger of climate change this perhaps is the primary reason for us in Wales to embrace Transit Oriented Development. This intent has also been set out in the National Development Framework and may flow through into the regional Transport Plans and Strategic Development Plans anticipated across Wales.

How can Transport Oriented Development be implemented?

We need a new body with an operational and delivery focus to embrace the Transit Oriented Development opportunity for the Cardiff Capital Region, especially with the development of the South Wales Metro. There needs to be oversight to help build a more sustainable city region with effective land use, regeneration, and development and a focus on densified, transit connected, affordable (and likely public) housing. Does the Cardiff Capital Region have the capacity and capability to really take on the challenge of embracing Transit Oriented Development?  Does the region need a Metro Development Corporation to complement Transport for Wales?

The expectations of Wales’ Well-Being of Future Generations Act, Welsh Government’s 2019 Review on Affordable Homes  and various articles from industry experts, academics and observers provide further local context and support the need for more strategic leadership and capacity in this space. More importantly, the emphasis on placemaking within national planning policy demonstrates a pressing need for the exploration of how and where to promote sustainable homes, great placemaking and Transit Oriented Development in strategic locations.

In practical terms, any new organisation will also have to work with the private sector to help bring forward many smaller in-fill developments, in contrast to the larger green field sites more often favoured by developers. This is challenging.

Whilst Transit Oriented Development and public transport can over the longer term reduce car dependency in urban areas (so that we provide more road space for those people who actually need to drive), it is more of challenge in rural areas and places with more limited and lower density population.  This is where the car will still be vital – for many remaining the primary mode of transportation – and where EV charging initiatives should be focused.

To conclude…

The move towards more widespread Transit Oriented Development is a must and is perhaps as, if not more, important to deliver our decarbonisation obligations than the necessary investment in public transport infrastructure and services like the Cardiff Capital Region Metro.

This is an abridged version; the full version of the blog can be found here

Mark Barry is Professor of Practice in Connectivity at Cardiff University’s School of Geography and Planning. Mark also has his own consulting business M&G Barry Consulting. He led South Wales Metro Development for Welsh Government from December 2013 to January 2016 following the publication of his Metro Impact Study in 2013.

[1] For more information on Transit Orientated Development, see: The Urban Transport Group; Transport for New Homes; Brent Toderian on sustainable mobility; Urban Village Planning Checklist; Transport Orientated Development explained