The Exeter problem: Smaller cities need huge changes to their transport systems, too

Exeter Cathedral. Image: Charles Miller/Wikimedia Commons.

The Prime Minister has promised to devolve more powers over transport to elected metro mayors like Andy Burnham in Manchester – but smaller cities choking on cars desperately need them too.

I live in Exeter in Devon. It’s small as cities go – around 130,000 residents – but it’s also a major business centre in the region. The city’s population increases by 20,000 every day with people commuting from surrounding villages and towns, especially those along the Exe estuary. That flow of commuters is predicted to rise by a further 25-30 per cent over the next 20 years. In 2017, the Centre for Cities named Exeter as the fastest growing city in the UK.

The city centre is fundamentally laid out as it was in the middle ages, though at least now we have four river crossings compared to the old single bridge. Driving around makes little sense, as if there is a problem on one of the main roads the city gridlocks. And the only thing more popular than stories of seagull attacks on our local news site are the ones about daily road chaos.

Yet driving is still hugely popular. Around 89 per cent of the people commuting into the city prefer to drive than use the public transport system, and around 35 per cent of commutes within the city are by car. We’ve nine train stations (and more planned), and 32 bus routes – so why is the car still choking our streets?

Quite simply, because the public transport system isn’t a system. The mainline station and the bus station are 15 minutes’ walk apart. There is a bus pass by the main private operator, with two zones, but no pay-as-you-go option or hopper fares. And there is no city-wide train pass, just traditional A to B tickets. In theory you could get a train season ticket with a plusbus pass; but you have to know that’s what you need in advance and get yourself to a staffed station to buy it.

The Exeter bus zone map. Image: Stagecoach.

Using such an opaque and fractured system has a huge time and cost impact that, combined with a fear of being at the mercy of unreliable service, makes driving more attractive. That’s especially true for women who are chaining their journeys between family and work tasks, and who may not feel as safe using public transport at night.

I don’t drive and I’ve recently had to use the system in unpredictable ways because I was handling a family emergency. On one memorably bad day I spent £11.60. All to get around an area a roughly the size of London’s zone 2 (TfL PAYG cap? £7). Once the buses had dropped to their evening frequency, if one didn’t show I’d have 30 minutes’ wait for the next. It would have been so much easier if I’d hopped in a car. 

It doesn’t need to be this way. Aix-en-Provence in France is also a medieval city built on Roman foundations. It has 143,000 residents, plus a wider commuter area. It too has narrow roads, a mainline (TGV) train station outside the city centre, and a big bus network. A shuttle bus connects the TGV station to the other key interchanges. This integrated transport system is run by a public/private partnership between SNCF and a Canadian pension fund.

A monthly smart card to cover transport on everything is €73 (around £65 at time of writing), and covers the greater area, not just the city itself. Compare that to the £85 for a single operator bus pass covering Exeter and the two banks of the estuary. No switching to a train for one link in a chain of journeys without incurring more costs.

Local councils have introduced the idea of a “Greater Exeter area” made up of East Devon, Exeter, Mid Devon and Teignbridge District councils (about the size of London’s zone 4). The city has also declared a climate emergency and an ambition to be carbon neutral in eleven years’ time. 


Greater Exeter. Image: copyright.

But all this work is going far too slowly. The proposed Marsh Barton railway station would reduce traffic on the A377, a notorious bottleneck and pollution corridor. It was due to open in 2016, but the latest thinking is they may finally break ground next year and there’s no revised opening date yet. The funding for the entire project is at risk.

The bus station is being redeveloped, but kept on the existing site – a noticeable distance from the mainline train station. There’s a bus, but the link covers only part of its route. More needs to be done to connect these two hubs so commuters and travellers can seamlessly switch modes. A shuttle tram would reduce the bus’s current tendency to get delayed elsewhere in the city. 

An electric bike hire scheme, just rolled out after a successful trial run, has a total of 100 bikes. There are proposals for smart ticketing, too. Given the Oyster system has been in place in London for 16 years, it’s infuriating that a smaller city doesn’t yet have it.

But the city council needs to work with the surrounding district councils, the county council, multiple private operators and land owners to make its dream of a Greater Exeter with integrated, sustainable transport a reality. And for that to actually happen, smaller cities need to be offered similar powers the Prime Minister has offered the elected metropolitan mayors.


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).