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What does connectivity look like for your community?

June 17, 2021

Connectivity between large centres is important for the UK economy but an emphasis is needed on local connectivity too to help strengthen communities

By George Daugherty

The benefits of good transport links are widely known. Good connectivity can stimulate development and economic activity, increase opportunities, improve health and wellbeing, and reduce isolation, all while being sensitive to the environment. 

The need to transform connectivity by bus and rail was highlighted in the Queen’s Speech and with Sir Peter Hendy expected to publish the Union Connectivity Review this summer - focusing on enabling a more joined-up United Kingdom than ever before - it’s clear improved connectivity is seen as vital in helping the country build back better after the pandemic.

But while creating connections between large centres is important for the country’s economy, greater emphasis is also being placed on local connectivity to help strengthen and bind communities. This is corroborated by government making smaller transport projects that make a difference to local areas, a focus for the first round of Levelling Up funding and Active Travel Fund.

A local model

So what should we consider when looking at local connectivity projects? There is growing interest in the concept of the ‘15-minute city’; a place where quality of life is improved by giving residents access to everything they need in a 15-minute journey by foot or bike. Mini Holland initiatives that transform streets over time to be as cycle and pedestrian friendly as their Dutch equivalents are being funded by the government following the success of schemes in London. The concept of minimal travel among housing, offices, restaurants, parks, hospitals, and cultural venues offers a new take on connectivity. In a localised future, connectivity could be seen as living close to what you need.

This is an important model to consider when planning communities fit for the future and one that could help ensure social value is incorporated from the start. This is an approach Stantec has already explored in Places First, an approach that considers how, through sustainable design, we can deliver much-needed housing developments that reduce congestion while also enhancing the lives of those who live there. 

Most local authorities want to reduce traffic congestion and the ’15-minute city’ model could do this. Projects that seek to improve routes between residential areas and local district centres via public transport, cycling or walking will help to engineer out unnecessary car trips, reducing emissions, congestion, improving the safety of our streets and increasing active travel.

Such local connections could bring economic benefits too. Despite the fact that more people working from home is having an adverse effect on town centres, local district centres appear to be profiting as people visit their local coffee shop on their breaks. An increase in active travel routes in and around these areas could cement the economic activity these local centres are currently enjoying, helping to support local businesses and create vibrant and diverse amenities for the communities they serve. Making connections to local district centres is more important than ever. 

We must put clean connectivity at the forefront of any plans.

How do we make local connections?

In the past, the answer has often been to build a road but as the need to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change becomes ever more urgent, many councils are keen to explore other avenues. 

One such avenue is to improve public transport, and while public transport also includes trains and trams, buses remain one of the most crucial connections within communities. The National Bus Strategy launched earlier this year places local authorities as lead partners in the growth and improvement of services. The Department of Transport also plans to award rural mobility funding to 17 successful proposals from English local authorities to trial on-demand bus services in their areas. Climate change is at the forefront here too, with £3 billion in funds for 4,000 zero-emission buses. 

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To make cycling part of everyday life requires the infrastructure that provides safe high-quality routes and comprehensive supporting measures such as cycle parking.

The National Bus Strategy sets out the vision and opportunity to deliver better bus services for passengers across England through ambitious and far-reaching reforms of how services are planned and delivered.  This includes more integrated and simpler urban bus networks and through the wider rollout of demand responsive services more flexible rural networks. But will Bus Back Better give us the bus networks we want to see? Uncertainties remain; for example, how long will it take for demand to return after the impact of the pandemic, and will there be sufficient funding for as long as needed?

While bus services are an important link for many, walking and cycling infrastructure is increasingly being factored into Local Plans allowing transport networks to realise the health the environmental benefits of active travel.

To make cycling part of everyday life requires the infrastructure that provides safe high-quality routes and comprehensive supporting measures such as cycle parking. This often needs difficult decisions to be made, such as designing new roads in a completely different way; reallocating road space away from cars on existing roads; and in the case of cycle parking, changing building designs. The growing importance of delivering networks that are attractive to all, regardless of experience or mobility is reflected in new and updated guidance published by the UK government and in Scotland and Wales.  This guidance requires more segregated infrastructure, following the Dutch and Danish examples where cycling is part of everyday life in many towns and cities.  Changes are also coming to the Highway Code that will give pedestrians and cyclist greater legal protections from motorised traffic.

The benefits of cycling and walking on our physical and mental health, road safety, and community cohesion are well documented but importantly, they both present an opportunity for clean connectivity.

Clean connectivity and planning for the future

We must put clean connectivity at the forefront of any plans. The recent announcement by the Welsh government to freeze all road building projects to help reduce its emissions is one that other councils will want to consider. Lockdown aside, there has been very little change in the levels of aggregate car use over the years. As other sectors have successfully tackled the carbon transition agenda, transport has been left as the highest contributor to UK Greenhouse Gas emissions. With traffic levels now creeping back towards pre-lockdown levels, there is no scope for complacency. Local authorities, 70% of whom have declared a climate emergency, will want to take action to increase connectivity while looking for ways to move people away from driving.

The future of transport must also be considered when creating new local connections. What does it take to achieve a green future transport network that supports the economy and all members of a community? Stantec has explored this question and in partnership with the Thames Valley Forum, has contributed to the “Shaping the future transport network for the Thames Valley” report that seeks to provide a vision for what a green, inclusive and vibrant future might look like with a customer-centred integrated transport network.

For more information on connectivity for your community, or to find out more about any of the themes mentioned in this article, contact CommunityConnections@stantec.com.

About the Author

George supports Local Authorities develop transport strategies and deliver schemes that reduce car dependency and create more sustainable and healthy communities. He works collaboratively to develop scheme concepts and take them through the design, funding, public consultation and technical approval stages for delivery.

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