Tag Archives: Cities

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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A Tale of Two …urban extensions

In my post on the Compact City, I noted the different choices made by Freiburg and Exeter in their approaches to balancing the need to provide new homes against the need to protect the natural environment.  To illustrate how these choices played out in practice, what follows is a brief study of how the two cities have managed urban extensions.

Freiburg

Within Freiburg’s southern city boundary is the district of Vauban, built on the site of a former French army barracks about 3km from the city centre [1].  Planned and developed between 1994 and 2014, with building work starting in 1998, the district was designed to be an exemplar of sustainable living.  Its population at the end of 2014 was 5,600, or 2.5% of the city’s total population.  Covering some 40 hectares, the whole district is easily walkable from one end to the other.

The city council bought the land from the German federal government, and so had effective control over land use decisions.  In planning the development, however, the council worked in a formal partnership with communities, through a purpose-built organisation known as Forum Vauban, a vehicle for articulating community views and for influencing the types of housing, traffic and energy plans and ensuring the development of a community centre for social services.

The City Council and the Forum took steps to ensure that the Vauban community was indeed “green”.

  • Energy-efficient housing was mandated, including over 100 buildings to PassivHaus standards. Solar energy is a major contributor to energy needs, and was designed into some of the buildings from the start.  Rainwater is captured on flat roofs.
  • Preference was given to co-operative housebuilders. Though there was some privately-built housing, the major housebuilding firms were excluded from Vauban.
  • The district is designed to provide some 600 jobs: in shops, schools, businesses and community services. This does not appear to have stopped commuting, but it is a better jobs to houses ratio than in many other places.

160628 Vauban Mitte

Transport planning has been managed seriously and proactively.  In particular:

  • Cars are not banned, but they must be parked in a community car park on the edge of the district, not beside houses and apartments. Households without cars don’t have to pay towards the community car park upkeep.  Car-sharing through a car club is on offer.
  • The excellent tram service was integrated into the development at an early stage, with services running from 2006. Trams to the city centre and beyond run on dedicated tracks along the district’s main central road, every 7-8 minutes.  The trams – and the buses – are run by a municipally-owned company.
  • Bicycles are in common use. The whole district is flat, there are few cars to create conflicts with cyclists, and ample parking for cycles both at the main tram stops and in residential areas.

160628 Vauban culdesac

Vauban looks modern but it doesn’t “feel” like a new town.  Its main street has ample shops and businesses, there are plenty of people walking and cycling.  The architecture is varied and well located around green spaces.

Though not designed to the same green standards, another major urban extension in Freiburg is the district of Rieselfeld [2].  Larger than Vauban, at nearly 10,000 residents on a 70-hectare site, it was also built on brownfield land – a former sewage works – without breaching the city boundaries to encroach on green space.  In Riesefeld too, the tram system was an early piece of infrastructure and now runs at the same frequency as in Vauban, taking 15 minutes to the city centre.

Both these developments are real expressions of Freiburg’s planning policy “It is quite clear: the more residential areas constructed on the outskirts of a city, the greater the negative ecological consequences. The prime directive of the city of Freiburg is therefore to keep the need for new areas to an absolute minimum.” [3].  In pursuing this goal, the city’s planners have not been afraid to plan for high-density living:  Vauban’s population is currently 137 people per hectare, the highest by far of any of the Freiburg city districts, and the density in Rieselfeld is 100 per hectare.  The average for the city as a whole is 49 [4].

Exeter

The policy response to Exeter’s housing need has been, reasonably enough, to get more houses built.  The key planning document, the Core Strategy (no longer as key as it was, but that’s another story), commits to an increase of at least 12,000 dwellings within the city boundaries between 2006 and 2026.  As a result, major developments of several hundred houses have grownn and are growing up on the city’s fringes, particularly to the east, pushing against the city’s administrative boundary.

Many of these developments are housing-driven, with little by the way of the services that make life tolerable.  In a growth area in the east of the city, a proposal for a shopping centre was refused by the city council on the grounds that it could have an adverse impact on trade in the city centre.  To be fair to the council, the proposal was a bit OTT, and plans for a more modest district shops and services centre would probably have been approved.  Meanwhile the residents are as far away for easily accessible shops as ever, yet another example why planning is too important to be left to “the market”.

A characteristic of Exeter’s housing developments is that they sprawl, often onto greenfields.  Despite fine words in planning documents, it seems to be impossible to impose any sort of density requirement on house-builders through the planning system, and to prevent the gradual (and not so gradual) erosion of unprotected green space.  It’s common knowledge that housebuilders prefer building 3-4 bed “executive homes” with garages and gardens, because they will make greater profits than from building 1-bed apartments.  It’s also common knowledge that they prefer building on green space rather than brownfield – previously developed – land.

One consequence of Exeter running out of developable space has been a new settlement, Cranbrook, over the boundary in East Devon.  Started 5 years ago, currently at 1,300 homes, it is planned to quadruple in size over the next 20 years, all on greenfield land.  This new town has very little to do with East Devon’s own housing need, and everything to with Exeter’s: as late as September 2015, a report to Devon County Council concluded that decisions needed to be taken on “whether Cranbrook would constitute a standalone development in the future or an urban extension of Exeter, linking with other developments taking place in its vicinity as part of a wider growth corridor” [5].

Cranbrook is modestly described in East Devon’s Local Plan [6] as follows: “[the} efforts in delivering this self-sufficient, low-carbon new town, the first stand-alone settlement in Devon since the Middle Ages, have won national acclaim.  A sustainable community located close to real employment opportunities, among them a significant number of highly-skilled jobs, will be an exemplar for green travel.”

Ho hum.  A quick, and admittedly not comprehensive, comparison with the green district of Vauban raises a few questions about these claims.

  • First, and crucially, there are no car restrictions in Cranbrook. Almost every house has a garage or a car parking space, so there is no incentive for the residents to use public transport.  This is not surprising because, second comparison, public transport is sparse.  There is a train once an hour from the new station – opened two years late – west to Exeter or east to Honiton and beyond.  The bus service to Exeter is half-hourly most of the day.

160807 Brooks Warren(1)

 

  • Cycles are a rare sight. On a weekday morning there was one parked at the railway station.

160817 Stn bike park weekday(2)

  • Vauban has its central spine, walkable from one end to the other in 10 minutes, but the overall shape of the place is rectangular.  Cranbrook is a linear sausage, planned to become even longer in the future.  Both are the products of the site allocated by the planners:  Vauban based on a former barracks, Cranbrook squashed in between a railway line to the north and a former trunk road to the south.  The planners’ density assumption for Cranbrook is 40 dwellings per hectare (excluding green space) [7]

Like Vauban, Cranbrook has a district heating scheme, which is laudable.

Cranbrook’s housing design has been largely left to the developers and house builders.  Apart from the broad locations of housing set out in the Local Plan, there is – perhaps surprisingly – no development plan for the town.  East Devon District Council is currently preparing one, which won’t be adopted until mid-2017 [8].  There is something to be said for not designing a place in full until there are sufficient residents to generate worthwhile public input; but it leaves a great deal to house-builders at the outset.  And, unlike Vauban, the big house-builders are all that’s on offer: Bovis, Taylor Wimpey, Charles Church and Persimmon all strut their stuff.

That said, there have been serious efforts to provide affordable housing.  In the first development phase, 300 houses were offered at social rents or on shared ownership terms, and a further 100 at below market prices on the grounds that their rooms are 20% smaller than average. [9].

It’s probably unfair to judge the “feel” of Cranbrook at this stage.  It’s still being built, and it’s dwarfed by housing.  Yet I’ve met people who live there and rave about it.  Let’s just say it’s got a very long way to go to be a green exemplar, though with intelligent planning and strong local leadership it could get there.

 So what?

These differences between Freiburg and Exeter reflect in large measure wider social and political differences, in particular the embracing by the UK’s – or at least England’s – political classes of market-driven doctrines over the past 30 years.  This contrasts with the “managed social economy” approach prevailing in Germany and much of the rest of the EU.  Whether England’s bosses will ever realise that the market is not the solution to everything is at present unanswerable.

Meanwhile there are lessons in the Exeter-Freiburg comparison, which I will elaborate in future posts: how plans are developed, and community engagement; the relationship between local government and the private sector, and the former’s relationship with central government; the involvement of social and co-operative enterprises; and investment in transport.

 

NOTES:

[1] The website www.vauban.de provides a wealth of information about the origins of the district, some of it in English (though much needs updating).  Freiburg City Council’s website is authoritative but mostly in German: for Vauban, see http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/208732.html. The Google translation tool at [..] makes a valiant if not wholly successful effort at rendering German planning-speak into English planning-speak.

[2] See the entry in Freiburg City Council’s website at http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/208560.html (in German)

[3] English text available at http://www.greencity-cluster.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Dateien/Downloads/Environmental_policy_Freiburg.pdf. Page 9 refers.

[4] These figures refer to population per hectare of developed land (“besiedelter Fläche”), so are less prone to distortion from large areas of greenspace in an area.. They are from page 34 of the 2015 edition of the excellent 300-page compendium of statistics published by Freiburg City Council, available at http://www.freiburg.de/pb/site/Freiburg/get/params_E1938626907/906571/statistik_veroeffentlichungen_Jahrbuch_2015-NIEDRIG.pdf  .

[5]  See para 9 of the report at http://www.devon.gov.uk/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_cs1519.html

[6] Available at: www.eastdevon.gov.uk/planning/planning-policy/local-plan-2013-2031/

[7]  http://eastdevon.gov.uk/planning-libraries/evidence-document-library/chapter8.1-housing/hsg012-cranbrookexpansionoptions.pdf

[8]  http://eastdevon.gov.uk/cranbrook/

[9] More detail at http://www.exeterandeastdevon.gov.uk/cranbrook-new-community/

 

A Green future for Exeter?

This blog is about Exeter – what needs to change, what needs to be conserved, and how what’s needed can happen.  Much of what I will write is, I hope, applicable to other similar communities; and indeed to some that are very different.

It’s written from a Green perspective, though it does not always follow adopted Green Party policy. Nor do I speak here for the Green Party, despite being an active member in Exeter. Much of the content will be familiar to local Party friends and colleagues, because it reflects our shared belief that society should be organized for the common good respecting the limitations of the planet and not for the convenience of the financially privileged.

The starting pistol for this blog was fired twice during January.

On 20 January we witnessed a pyrrhic victory of the ruling Labour group on Exeter City Council who – despite extensive and well-informed opposition from community groups – gave outline planning approval to a deeply flawed scheme for redeveloping the city centre bus and coach station site. At this stage the details are not important: suffice it to say that the development will do nothing to help create the sustainable community we need. It is a triumph of the increasingly redundant “old politics”, which I will describe in the next two posts on this blog.

Then, a week later, the Exeter City Futures project was formally launched. Under the strap line of “Our City, Our Say” – though who “our” is in this context might be debated – the project promises to “reimagine” the city’s future, using data analytics and technology to identify solutions for a sustainable city and draw in capital investment. The project is run jointly by the city council and Andromeda Capital an Exeter-based company which invests in projects with essentially green ideals. How this project might evolve, and how the people of Exeter and wider Devon can influence it, will be reviewed in a future post.

First, though, where are we heading? What could the Exeter of the future be like? To provide an “anchor” for this blog, to give it a sense of purpose, I’ve set out here my own take on that future.  This isn’t a masterplan, and it may evolve during the life of the blog.

Much of this particular future can be achieved within the existing powers available to local government, aided by some substantial attitude and behaviour changes by all who live and work in Exeter. The one flight of fancy is that central government has been persuaded – perhaps by the work of the emerging Exeter City Futures project – to designate Exeter as an “Innovation Zone” which allows some creative modification of national tax and accountancy rules.

If any of this interests you, do add comments or click “Follow” for updates.