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.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.