Tag Archives: Sustainable transport

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

 

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