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.


Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.

The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.