Tag Archives: Exeter

Up for a transport challenge?

The Exeter City Futures challenge fund approach to making the Exeter area congestion-free is not for the faint-hearted.

Exeter City Futures (ECF) is a community interest company with a mission to make Exeter and the surrounding area sustainable for the future.  Their first goals are to make the area congestion-free and energy-independent by 2025.  Not much time then, so it’s good to see a concrete initiative coming forward.

ECF has just launched a specific challenge as part of the congestion-free goal. The website [1] states:

A group of employers based at Exeter Business Park have expressed a requirement for an alternative transport choice for commuting to their offices so they can reduce the number of private cars arriving at site.

We’re offering an amazing opportunity for an early stage start-up to develop and deploy a service that is as attractive and flexible as the private car and presents a viable and investable business model for growth.

Can employees travel to work via a responsive, on-demand minibus service? Can it take you from where you want, to where you want, when you want, all for the price of a bus fare?

Are you up for the challenge? If you have a concept that has potential to deliver a successful service, then apply now.

The website gives details of the support available to the selected concept, which is significant, including £15,000, a 17-seat minibus and lots of mentoring and access to data.  The plan is that the concept is worked up into a saleable proposal (“incubated”), with the potential to scale up.

Now I’m far too relaxed to be pitching for this sort of thing myself, but it strikes me that the prescriptive nature of the invitation might be designed to attract only those who like a mission near-impossible (and why not?).  In particular, why is a minibus service the preferred solution?  It seems to rule out alternative packages such as a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) [2] approach involving different transport modes and providers which could achieve the same goal, if the right partners could be found (though perhaps the idea of Stagecoach participating in a MaaS is a bridge too far [3]).  Less elaborately, what about a simple behaviour-change model in which staff at the business park are charged for parking but receive a bus season ticket in return?  OK, the half-hourly B bus doesn’t quite meet the “on-demand” requirement.

So, seen in that light, the minibus service outlined in the invitation is a worthwhile goal in its own right, however tough.  If I were judging the final proposals – whether they’d been through the incubation route or submitted direct – I’d be looking for the following assurances:

  • A business plan that makes use of smart technology to keep costs down and customer convenience up, so that the service offers a real alternative to the private car.
  • A method of generating income that enables the operator to manage troughs in demand.
  • An operating model that demonstrates reliability in the service, including the use of smart technology to maximise the efficient use of minibuses in line with customer requirements.
  • Similarly, a model that demonstrates resilience: number of minibuses, responsibility for operating and maintaining the fleet.
  • Non-exploitative employment conditions for staff and/or contractors.
  • Regulatory issues identified and resolved, eg need to involve Traffic Commissioners, use of bus lanes.
  • Potential to scale up so that large parts of the city would be covered by this transport model, which requires a good understanding of commuting and other travel patterns.
  • Who other partners – customers and providers – in scaling up might be.
  • Realistic assumptions about how many private cars could be taken off the road at each phase of expansion.
  • And, as a prejudice of my own, the opportunity for developing a social enterprise rather than shareholder value business.

There’ll be other issues to resolve.  It all sounds great fun, but also very hard work.  Let’s hope the bright and savvy people out there will make a go of it.  And congratulations to the Exeter City Futures team for generating the opportunity.

NOTES:

[1] https://www.exetercityfutures.com/programme/open-for-application/

[2] For an explanation of MaaS, see http://maas-alliance.eu/

[3] That said, it’s encouraging to see Stagecoach South West moving in the right direction with the introduction of a smart phone app through which passengers can buy day tickets and just show them to the driver on the phone rather than scramble for cash (and delay the bus).  Details at https://www.stagecoachbus.com/news/south-west/2017/january/mobile-ticketing-launched-across-stagecoach-south-west

Normal service will resume on 3 January

Well, if you’ve read this sign on Exeter’s Stagecoach buses, not exactly.

With a delightful irony (whether intended or not, only the editor will know), today’s Express & Echo runs two adjacent stories on page 10.  The first is about an Exeter University-led project studying commuting patterns with the aim of reducing the city’s traffic congestion.  The survey stage of the project found that car commuters who also use public transport are 20% more likely to use public transport if they are influenced by the traffic congestion information they receive [1].

The second page 10 article explains in some detail how Stagecoach is celebrating the New Year by making “mergers, cuts and frequency changes” to Exeter area bus services.  And which group of bus users will be most affected by the changes?  Yep, commuters.  Two of the Park & Ride services are being merged and reduced to a 15-minute frequency (a year ago, the interval was 10 minutes).  The frequency on the commuter route from Crediton is being reduced from 4 an hour to 3 an hour (and the service from western Crediton from half-hourly to hourly).  Newton Abbot to Exeter services are cut from 3 an hour to 2 an hour, though passengers will doubtless feel greatly compensated by the news that their buses will in future be painted purple.

We know that the number of car journeys made by commuters into Exeter is twice that of car journeys within the city [3].  So cutting commuting is the key to cutting congestion and pollution.  Even Stagecoach say they recognise this – on publication of the group’s half-year results in October 2016, the chief executive said: “There is a large market opportunity for modal shift from cars to public transport against a backdrop of population growth, urbanisation, technological advancements, and increasing pressure to tackle road congestion and improve air quality” [4].

Clearly Stagecoach don’t believe that market opportunity exists in Exeter, despite the fact that the “backdrop” conditions for it are here in abundance.  After all, it’s the shareholder dividend that counts, isn’t it?

 

NOTES

[1] There are other very interesting findings.  For details see the Engaged Smart Transport project at http://www.commute-exeter.com/results/

[2] Stagecoach service update information at https://www.stagecoachbus.com/promos-and-offers/south-west/exeter-area-timetable-changes-from-3-january-2017

[3] Findings of a study by Trevor Preist, promoted by Exeter Civic Society and Transition Exeter.

[4] http://www.stagecoach.com/media/news-releases/2016/2016-12-07.aspx

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

 

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/

 

Let’s support the thinkers

Change – particularly difficult or contested change – needs a clear purpose if it is to stand any chance of acceptance.  Why should I leave my comfy car at home and stand on a freezing railway station waiting for a delayed and crowded train?  Why should I turn down the central heating in those parts of the house which the warmth from the multi-fuel stove doesn’t reach?  Why shouldn’t I fully participate in the annual orgy of consumption that is Christmas?

The answer, of course, depends on whether you believe we can go on plundering the planet’s resources.  Climate change deniers think we can, but they’re not looking at the evidence.  The overwhelming consensus among people who know what they’re talking about is we need to change our consumption habits.  But we need help.

Public authorities have generally been slow to promote innovation.  That’s not surprising, even though depressing, because politicians are risk-averse.  So we need new approaches to encouraging change.

Exeter City Futures is a new kid on the block.  It’s a not-for-dividend community interest company, with a small staff of bright people [1].  They are exploring options for making Exeter a sustainable city, starting from the premise that our current level of energy use is too high for the planet’s continued existence and that the level will increase by 50% unless we intervene to change things.  Unlike large cities where turnaround times are going to be up to 50 years, Exeter is sufficiently small for ECF to believe that significant change can be achieved within 10 years.

Sensibly, ECF is not trying to do everything.  At least initially, there is a focus on two goals for Exeter: to become energy-independent, in the sense of generating its own managed energy needs; and to reduce traffic congestion to zero.  Because transport – or more accurately our mobility needs and urges – is a key driver of energy use (40% of the total according to ECF using government figures), and because it occupies a central place in spatial planning, that’s what this and some subsequent posts will discuss.

A key element of the ECF analysis is that we use our resources inefficiently.  Congestion exists because there are too many private vehicles, which sit parked for much of the day doing nothing.  The aim should be to design a system where all vehicles are in use all of the time moving people to their destinations.  It’s worth recalling that the public sector railway industry spotted this decades ago:  those of a certain age may recall railway sidings full of carriages that were only wheeled out at summer weekends for the extra traffic.  Well before privatisation, the sidings became grass or houses or supermarkets, and the carriages were long gone to the breaker’s yard.

So the ECF approach is to develop carrots that will change social norms, so that – for example – owning your own car is seen as odd behaviour.  This is where MaaS (Mobility as a Service) comes in.  Taken to its full potential, you would buy a mobility package like you buy a mobile phone package.  Depending on what you pay for, you could have public transport and/or private car journeys on tap, without having to own a car.  It’s beginning to happen in Helsinki.

There are other approaches which don’t go the whole hog to MaaS.  For example, driverless cars – which are legal in the UK, though not in most of the rest of Europe – enable you to spend driving time working or thinking or looking out of the window or talking to your partner.  And the technology means that the hire car will come to you, saving that tedious journey to go and pick it up.

On air quality, electric vehicles have greatly improved.  Affordable electric cars can hold a 100-mile charge, which would cover about 3 days of commuting in and out of Exeter.

Journey information is a mis-used term.  Think of all those pretty LCD signs that used to adorn the bus stops in the centre of Exeter.  Or the invitation to text a bus stop code to find out when you might be on your way.  Sadly, all they told you was when the next bus was due, not when it was actually coming.  New panels are now appearing, hopefully with real time information.  Knowing when your bus or train is coming is key to encouraging people to rely on public transport.

Simple things, like tickets (or smart cards) that can be used on buses and trains.  London’s Oyster Card is brilliant, and the challenge is to do it in a fragmented transport system like Devon’s.  But it makes life easier, and making life easier is an important carrot to get people out of their private cars.

ECF are looking at these options, and more.  They deserve encouragement, though they’ll need to carry people with them at the same time.  The local authorities will need to open their minds to radical thinking and be prepared to take a few risks.  Carefully chosen demonstration projects should help.

Nothing is straightforward.  Devon is a large rural county.  If you can make the train service from, say, Honiton to Exeter more attractive, how do you make it so compelling that people who have to drive from their rural homes to get to Honiton don’t just decide to carry on in the car to Exeter?  Any answers?

Funding is the elephant in the room.  I’ll look at this in future posts.

NOTES

[1]   This post draws shamlessly – and selectively – on two presentations by ECF.  One by Glenn Woodcock, the CEO, to the Exeter Civic Society on 18 June; the other by Stephen Dunphy, the mobilty issues lead, at an ECF seminar on 23 June.

Think before you Park – and Ride

There’s a long-running stink about building a fourth Park-and-Ride facility on the edge of Exeter, this time near Alphington at the junction of the A30 and A377 roads.  Devon County Council has just withdrawn its second planning application, partly because of furious local objections but also because the goals originally claimed for the scheme seems to have evaporated.

That’s not entirely surprising.  Despite P&R as a “solution” to urban traffic congestion becoming something of a no-brainer in the popular psyche, its benefits are not always realisable and there are some serious downsides.  This post looks at the evidence.

Central government policy

Government policy on P&R schemes has fluctuated over time.  Initially left as a matter entirely for local authorities, central government up to 1997 recognised their role in reducing congestion but noted that there were potential disbenefits, particularly by encouraging additional car journeys.  From 1997, central government policy actively promoted P&R schemes, though with a much greater emphasis on them as part of a coordinated package of measures to achieve modal shift aligned to local circumstances.

Following the change of government in 2010 and the replacement of previous planning guidance with the National Planning Policy Framework, references to P&R schemes disappeared.  A sole reference in Planning Practice Guidance merely suggests that existing P&R schemes should form part of the evidence base for developing local transport plans [1].

Exeter commitments

The Devon Implementation Plan for the Devon & Torbay Local Transport Strategy 2011-2016 [2] envisages a new Park and Ride (P&R) facility to serve the Alphington Road corridor, for which a planning application has been submitted.  The Plan also envisages a P&R to the north of Exeter, though no detail is available.

The Plan assumes – though no evidence is cited in support – that P&R schemes provide benefits [3], specifically:

  • Enabling increased demands for access to Exeter City Centre from surrounding areas, alongside improved inter-urban bus services and the rail-based Devon Metro.
  • Reducing congestion
  • Reducing air pollution.

The Plan states that there is strong public support for new P&R schemes.

The research evidence on P&R schemes

There is relatively little evidence about the effectiveness of P&R schemes.  A few studies were carried out in the 1990s, and these are still cited in more recent work.

There does appear to be a consensus among those who have undertaken studies that:

  • There are downsides as well as upsides to P&R schemes
  • Any P&R scheme should be developed as part of an overall package of strategic proposals, and not in isolation.
  • There is sufficient evidence to cast doubt on the orthodoxy that P&R schemes lead to reductions in car use and the associate environmental benefits.

The most recent readily available review of the evidence on P&R schemes was published in 2008[4].  Drawing heavily on earlier work in the 1990s, the study identifies three broad policy goals for P&R schemes: transport, environmental and economic.

Transport

Do P&R schemes divert people from public transport, and with what consequences?

P&R schemes are targeted at intercepting car users from routes into city centres so removing cars and reducing traffic flow between the P&R and the centre.  But the incentives – eg fares [5], frequency, comfort – to use P&R can draw people away from existing public transport services, with consequences for their continuing viability.  Research shows significant numbers of P&R users are people have switched from other public transport in this way.  Reinforcing this from the other angle, Brighton does not have a P&R system and some councilors believe this accounts for the high use of buses from surrounding areas [6].

Do P&R schemes reduce congestion?

The evidence is weak, though interception rates between 17% and 25% have been reported for Oxford’s (well-established) P&R schemes.  Devon County Council has no information about interception rates at the existing P&R sites in Exeter, and so has no firm basis with which to justify further schemes.   It seems likely that P&R will only contribute to reducing congestion levels if backed up by other stronger methods, such as reducing city centre car parking (or charging punitively for it).  Otherwise the city centre space freed up by drivers diverting to P&R will fill up with other drivers.  Road pricing or congestion charges may also be needed.

Do P&R schemes lead to more car journeys?

There is evidence that people who might once have made their entire journey by public transport switched to driving from home to the P&R site, then continuing by P&R bus.  The perceived attractiveness of P&R can also lead people to undertake journeys they would not have done in the absence of P&R.

Environmental

Broadly, reducing emissions as a goal of P&R policy depends on reducing the number of car journeys (see above).  In addition, it is necessary for the additional buses introduced for P&R services to be low-emitting if the emissions savings from car journeys are not simply cancelled out by bus emissions.

Construction of P&R sites and localised emissions concentrations from cars using the P&R can also have adverse environmental effects.

Economic

There is a general consensus that P&R can bring economic benefits to city centres.  Local authorities often cite this as a justification for introducing the schemes.   However, there can be competition implications for surrounding centres.  If people divert to the city centre from other areas, this can be beneficial if it reduces demand for out-of-town shopping centres (which in turn leads to car mileage reductions); but it can also damage the viability of district centres and smaller surrounding towns/villages.  Again, there is insufficient evidence to draw clear conclusions.

There is no clear correlation between the introduction of P&R parking places and the number of reductions in city centre parking spaces.  Where city centre parking spaces are reduced there is potential to find a more economically buoyant use for the land.

An overall conclusion

It is difficult to improve on the following statement in a 1998 briefing from the Campaign to Protect Rural England [7].  Despite being nearly 20 years old, it has not been invalidated by subsequent evidence.

Ultimately, Park and Ride schemes are probably best viewed as an interim solution. They do not eliminate car dependency and once they reach saturation point, local authorities are left with the prospect of surrounding our towns and cities with an ever increasing number of car parks. In the end, the root causes of traffic growth have to be tackled. This requires the long term process of integrating land use planning with the need to reduce dependence on the car.

 

NOTES

[1]  See http://planningguidance.communities.gov.uk/blog/guidance/transport-evidence-bases-in-plan-making/transport-evidence-bases-in-plan-making-guidance/ para 006.

[2]  Both documents available at https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/traffic-information/transport-planning/devon-and-torbay-local-transport-plan-3-2011-2026/

[3]  See para 4.5.3 of the Implementation Plan

[4]  Role of Bus-Based Park and Ride in the UK: A Temporal and Evaluative Review: Stuart Meek, Stephen Ison and Marcus Enoch, Transport Reviews, Vol. 28, No. 6, 781–803, November 2008

[5] For example, a 7-day P&R-only megarider ticket in Exeter costs £10 whereas the general 7-day megarider costs £14.

[6]  Quoted on p191 of Urban Transport without the Hot Air, vol 1, Steve Melia, UIT Cambridge, 2015.

[7]  Park and Ride – Its role in local transport policy, CPRE, 1998.

Tinkering with transport isn’t enough

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 [1].  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 [2] 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 [3], 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 [4].  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 [5].

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.

 

NOTES

[1]  All three documents are available at https://exeter.gov.uk/clean-safe-city/environmental-health/pollution-control/air-pollution/

[2]  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/

[3] https://petercleasby.com/2016/02/01/its-not-just-the-infrastructure-stupid/

[4]  See my post at https://petercleasby.com/2015/02/13/local-austerity-how-the-environment-and-the-people-lose-out/.

[5]  Rush Hour Transport in Exeter, by Trevor Preist, available at http://www.transitionexeter.org.uk/node/263