The challenge of sustainable suburbia

Potter, Stephen (2008). The challenge of sustainable suburbia. In: Universities Transport Study Group Annual Conference, Jan 2008, Southampton, UK.



This paper explores issues raised with the expansion of Milton Keynes and the dilemmas in seeking to plan for sustainable travel behaviour. The 1970 design of Milton Keynes was for a car-oriented low density land use pattern served by a one-kilometre grid of dual carriageway roads.

Today, bus services in Milton Keynes are the poorest for any town of its size and the low density design makes most trips too long to walk and cycle. Hence Milton Keynes has a level of car use more characteristic of a rural shire than an aspiring city. Furthermore traffic is even starting to overwhelm the grid roads in a casebook SACTRA manner.

Today the Plan for Milton Keynes would be viewed as environmentally irresponsible, economically extravagant and socially divisive, so proposals for the town’s expansion involve medium-density developments in new areas served not by 70 mph grid roads but 20-30mph ‘city streets’ with bus priority measures and maximising facilities within walking and cycling distance.

These proposals have sparked a big local debate. A widespread view is that this will throw away what has made Milton Keynes good and economically successful, and many advocate retaining the ethos of a ‘city built for the car’. A counter expansion plan, backed by an e-petition, proposes a continuation of low density development and grid roads.

This raises questions that have a generic application in the transport debate. Is there only one way for places like Milton Keynes to move towards transport sustainability? There seems to be a single model for transport sustainability based around high density living and traditional forms of public transport, but for the majority of suburban and semi-urban Britain perhaps more emphasis is needed on institutional initiatives rather than highly compact urban forms.

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