We need new approaches to mobility, now

In a previous post I suggested that our mobility patterns – driven by past and current spatial and transport policies – were contributing significantly to a range of environmental and social problems.  I questioned whether incremental changes based on current transport models would deliver the radical changes needed if Exeter were to become a clean, healthy, vibrant and sustainable city.

It’s clear there is no magic bullet.  We have to start from where we are now, with a legacy of spatial planning that has allowed the city to sprawl (to accommodate the types of housing housebuilders are prepared to build).  The sprawl has been accompanied by a planning policy which seeks to avoid creating competition to the commercial interests of the city centre, thus ensuring that people living in the outlying areas have to travel to the city centre for much of their shopping and employment needs.  Even if there were the political will for an immediate change in spatial planning policies in favour of housing design and location which reduce the need to travel, it would still be decades before the legacy ceased to be a constraint.

So what can we do?

We have no real alternative but to retrofit mobility polices to what we have now.  What follows is more of a mind dump than a comprehensive plan [1].  But then this is only a blog post.  These are however the types of issue we need to consider as viable ways forward, and not simply dismiss them on cost grounds.  Austerity won’t last for ever, so all the more reason to plan now.

First, start seriously reducing demand for travel

It’s ludicrous to think we can go on as we are.  In 2013, almost 70% of the UK workforce commuted to work by car during peak times, with the average driver spending 124 hours stuck in gridlock annually. One estimate sets this to rise to 136 hours in 2030, equivalent to 18 working days a year [2].  Not only does this waste time and money and consume natural resources in the way of fuel, it also damages our health.  Government calculations suggest 169 people die in a year in “Greater Exeter” as a result of air pollution from particulates – the stuff found in traffic fumes [3].  And then there’s the impact on traffic-driven infrastructure on our public realm, of which Western Way – separating the Quays from the city centre – is probably the worst example.  So, no pressure, then.

We can and should reform spatial planning with a new emphasis on higher density living to reduce sprawl and easier and/or nearer access to services and jobs – my post The Compact City is relevant here, and I’ll develop the ideas in a later post.  Relocation of essential services and recreational facilities in parts of the city which are badly served will also contribute.

Second, make it more difficult to travel by private car into the city

There are at least three audiences to address here: inward commuters from outside the city; people coming from outside and from the suburbs to the city centre for shopping, leisure and eating (and don’t all those new processed food eateries in “Queen Street Dining” make you want to ….?); and people moving around inside the urban area.  Hopefully the Commute Exeter study being led by the University of Exeter [4] will generate some useful data on commuting to inform judgements on the scale of the measures required.  But some simple steps would send out important signals as well as have an immediate impact.  For example:

  • Block off more streets, particularly residential ones, to through traffic. Apart from cutting down rat-running, limiting cars to residents’ own vehicles will give priority to pedestrians and cyclists, and lead to an immediate improvement in the local quality of life and of the environment.  Cost: capital works and signage.
  • Reduce the width of main roads available to cars, by installing a mix of bus lanes, wide cycleways and broader pavements (the last being increasingly necessary to cope with personal mobility aids). Cost: capital works.
  • Cut the number of car-parking spaces in the central area (and ensure that residents’ parking schemes in the surrounding areas are enforced to prevent displacement of car parking). The brutalist multi-stories could be demolished and converted into much-needed affordable housing or green space, as could the open-space car parks. Think of the transformation in the Paul Street/North Street/Mary Arches area!  Cost: self-financing
  • Increase car parking charges for the remaining car park spaces, but with a discount or free pass for cars operated by car clubs. Cost: nil.
  • Use available powers to introduce workplace parking levies, not just in the city centre, but beyond, with the revenue going to support transport improvements, including a “Boris bike” cycle hire scheme for Exeter [5]. A workplace levy scheme is already in operation in Nottingham, with one planned for Cambridge [6]. Cost: administration, to be financed from the scheme.
  • Enforce existing traffic restrictions, with exemplary fines: drivers are increasingly ignoring exclusions of vehicles from particular streets which were put in place to stop rat-running through the central area. Cost: additional enforcement staff, to be paid for from fines.
  • Change traffic light priorities so that cars are held up while buses are given priority. Cost: minimal

Key benefits of making life difficult for the private car are a reduction in pollution and congestion and an improvement in the quality of the public realm.  But it also takes us further down the path of reclaiming the streets for people, whether as walkers, cyclists or using personal mobility aids.

Third, improve the bus transport offer

This is a major undertaking, but is now urgent.  A recent report identifies the weaknesses in the current deregulated bus service model which operates in England outside London [7].  In brief, the model pits private sector profit maximisation against the public interest, and guess which currently wins, with poor value for money for the taxpayer and the bus passenger.

Specifically:

  • There needs to be a rebalancing of the relationship between local authorities and near-monopolistic private bus operators. The Bus Services Bill currently in Parliament will enable certain local transport authorities to introduce franchising of bus services, thus giving communities greater influence over service provision.  The rub is that franchising can only be introduced if the bus operators agree.  Local authorities are prevented from setting up their own bus companies, but not-very-arms-length social enterprises could be feasible.
  • Speed up bus services. This means cutting down on private car-led congestion (see above) but also putting in bus priority lanes and speeding up boarding and disembarking (see below).  A culture change to the continental model of trusting people to buy tickets (and hitting them hard with fines for cheating) rather than checking everyone on entry would also help.
  • Conventional buses are generally unattractive. Most are uncomfortable – try sitting in an airline seat on a city bus without bashing your knees.  They can be crowded, slow, late, erratic and infrequent.  The Park & Ride buses, with better seats, a regular and frequent service interval, and with limited stops appear generally successful – though P&R itself is not a panacea (see my post on this).
  • City buses need to be redesigned to allow faster entry and exit for passengers, and to make standing easier, as well as increased accommodation for mobility aids and buggies. This may require some differentiation of buses for particular passenger groups.
  • More flexibility of routes is highly desirable. It’s great if you live on or near a bus route, but no fun if you don’t.  Evening and Sunday services don’t reflect the fact that people want to travel at these times as well.
  • Country buses will only attract people out of their cars if they are more frequent and more flexible. Bearing in mind the rural nature of the Exeter hinterland, imaginative approaches such as minibuses (or even cars) circulating around villages and feeding into a fast bus service to the city (or a train) have a role here.  Secure bicycle parks at feeder points should encourage those who are fit enough to cycle from the remoter places.

Future innovation

There is no shortage of more radical approaches.  The driverless vehicle is attracting considerable enthusiasm [8], though I’m still sceptical enough to see it as a technology fix in search of a problem to solve.

Of greater interest is the concept of MaaS – Mobility as a Service.  In this vision of the future, both individual private car ownership and reliance on a single transport mode fall away to be replaced by a menu of personalised multi-modal travel options, using data to provide information about the fastest or cheapest or least congested or disablement-friendly way of getting from A to B [9].  Ever-innovative Helsinki has plans to move down this road [10].

 

NOTES:

[1]  This post focuses on Exeter’s roads and not on rail.  Though this opens up a charge of non-joined-up thinking, there are serious constraints on the ability of the rail network – even with new investment – to make a major difference to our mobility challenges.  I’ll review this in a separate post.

[2]  From a study by INRIX and the Centre for Economics and Business Research Economic and Environmental Cost of Traffic Congestion in Europe & the US.(2014) – see http://inrix.com/press/traffic-congestion-to-cost-the-uk-economy-more-than-300-billion-over-the-next-16-year

[3]  See Public Health England statistics at www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/332854/PHE_CRCE_010.pdf page 17.  The figure is a total for Exeter, Teignbridge and East Devon districts.

[4]  See www.commute-exeter.com

[5]   Now known as Santander Cycles – https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/cycling/santander-cycles. The estimable Co-Cars, a social enterprise car club based in Exeter is setting up an electric bike hire scheme – see www.co-bikes.co.uk. This will be great for those of us who’d like to cycle but are put off by the city’s hills.

[6]  Nottingham: http://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/transport-parking-and-streets/parking-and-permits/workplace-parking-levy/  Cambridge: http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/cambridge-8217-s-8216-workplace-parking-levy-8217/story-29316857-detail/story.html

[7]  Building a World-class Bus System for Britain by Transport for Quality of Life, May 2016, available at www.transportforqualityoflife.com/ .  The Extended Summary is excellent.

[8]  A report on pilot schemes is at www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30316458

[9]  For a useful introduction to MaaS, see a July 2016 report from the Transport Systems Catapult, Exploring the Opportunity for Mobility as a Service in the UK, available at https://ts.catapult.org.uk/intelligent-mobility/im-resources/maasreport/

[10]  www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jul/10/helsinki-shared-public-transport-plan-car-ownership-pointless

 

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