Is transport really at the root of our urban sustainability problems? If we can come up with some innovative and deliverable approaches which challenge why and how we move around, does that unlock solutions to the other issues we face?
The section of my personal vision of a future Exeter headed “Place” makes much of reforms to the way we move around the city, but that could just be a reflection of my mindset. Yet if we think about the impacts of our current mobility patterns, it’s clear that these make a substantial contribution to a city building up problems for its residents and visitors.
These impacts include:
- Air pollution: cars and buses in particular, but HGVs, motor bikes and diesel trains all add to the potentially toxic mix we breathe.
- Poorer health, as we exchange walking or cycling for the soft option of the bus or car.
- Congestion: businesses use traffic congestion as the economic justification for road improvements, but it impacts on family life (a parent stuck in a traffic jam) and on health (stress from not being able to move easily), as well as adding to air pollution. A different form of congestion is overcrowding on our local peak hour trains.
- Infrastructure: new roads and new car parks are usually top of the vandalism lists because of the amount of land they take and the evidence that car journeys expand to fill the increased space available.
- An acceptance that out-of-town shopping malls can be developed on greenfield space, because car use makes it easy for people to get to them.
- Similarly, a belief by some planners (and almost all housebuilders) that it’s acceptable to build new housing on greenfield sites away from jobs and services because people will be able to travel.
Some willingness to address these impacts is being made, at least on paper. The city council has responded to concerns about pollution by having an Air Quality Action Plan in place since 2011 and more recently by producing an Air Quality Strategy and a Low Emission Strategy . However, action on the ground is less evident. There is no equivalent, for example, of the London Low Emissions Zone.
In any case, this is fiddling with the symptoms rather than the causes. Transport planning in Devon is heavily road-focussed. The centrepiece of the current Local Transport Plan  is the recently-opened South Devon Link Road designed to make it easier to drive to and from Torquay.
True, new rail stations in or near Exeter have opened – at Cranbrook and Newcourt, with further stations at Marsh Barton and (perhaps) at Monkerton in prospect. Yet there are huge disconnects between rail services and bus services. I’ve illustrated this disconnect in rural Devon in a past blog post , which argues that matters could be vastly improved by designing better services rather than building new infrastructure; and I will examine the parallel problem within Exeter itself in a later post.
Most people in the city who want to move around by public transport are heavily reliant on bus services. This is a service model that has remained largely unchanged since the widespread introduction of the bus. It has the advantage of great flexibility, both within the city and in the surrounding travel to work area, though bus operators seem strangely reluctant to exploit this advantage. Buses remain broadly the same design – mandatory wheelchair spaces being the main difference – with cramped seating and minimal luggage space.
Again, there have been marginal improvements. Stagecoach – the major bus operator in Devon – has recently introduced smartcards for fare payments, in theory reducing the time spent at stops while passengers find cash to pay to their fares. The one-day ticket for unlimited travel in the wider city area is attractively priced and seems to be well-used. Some local buses offer wi-fi.
And yet. Despite all the fine words in the Local Transport Plan, Devon County Council was forced to bow down before the god of austerity and implement cuts in bus subsidies . These bore down hardest on rural areas, and so reinforced the reliance of rural dwellers on private cars and served as a disincentive to use a bus to get in and out of Exeter.
We need to ask whether incremental improvements using traditional models will really deliver change. Outside of London, the evidence that improving public transport on its own will reduce car use is weak. Transition Exeter has promoted a report which argues convincingly that major innovation is needed if the city is not to be choked by its own growth plans .
The diffusion of leadership between different public and private bodies doesn’t help in forging a clear vision of what we want and need from our transport systems.
In future posts on transport I will suggest specific innovations that ought to be explored.
 All three documents are available at https://exeter.gov.uk/clean-safe-city/environmental-health/pollution-control/air-pollution/
 Devon and Torbay Local Transport Plan 3, 2011-2026, available at https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/traffic-information/transport-planning/devon-and-torbay-local-transport-plan-3-2011-2026/
 Rush Hour Transport in Exeter, by Trevor Preist, available at http://www.transitionexeter.org.uk/node/263