Comment  ⁄  Transport & mobility

Streets are for people, not cars

Cars adversely affect economic output, air quality and wellbeing, take up valuable space when parked and discourage people from walking and cycling when driven. Reducing their use would enhance Exeter's retail and leisure offer, improve public health and attract needed workers to the city.

Air quality   Cars   Congestion   Living streets   Public health   Public realm  

Designing towns and cities around private car use was a major error in post-war urban development. What once enabled personal mobility now traps many in traffic going nowhere fast for significant amounts of time. Economic output, air quality, health and wellbeing all suffer, while many streets are filled with vehicles that either take up valuable space when parked or discourage people from walking and cycling when driven. Exeter’s large and expanding Travel to Work Area, rapid suburban and satellite housing development and unusually non-concentric topology, among other factors, greatly exacerbate the problems caused by car dependency across the region.

It is now well-established that building more roads delivers neither congestion relief nor local economic benefits. Instead, reducing road capacity is the most effective way to relieve congestion, recognising the definitive limits imposed on a network by its most restricted, often central, nodes. Temporary road closures can help demonstrate what such counter-intuitive change looks like in practice, easing the way to more permanent transformation. An established approach is to restrict city centre traffic initially only on Sundays, first in selected streets and then more widely, when there is least network pressure and anxiety about adverse economic impacts.

Transforming Exeter’s streetscape from the centre outwards would not only enhance the city’s retail and leisure offer and improve public health, it would also transform its ability to attract highly-skilled knowledge economy workers, for whom high quality human-scale urban environments are a strong pull. This approach would also acknowledge that replacing vehicle combustion engines with electric motors solves neither congestion nor pollution problems, whether data-based drivers sit behind the wheel or not.

Repurposing road space is not just about restricting vehicle movement. Plentiful car parking spaces encourage visitors and workers to drive into city centres, often obstructing carriageway use for more efficient mobility modes, or preventing more creative use of scarce city centre space. Substantial research shows that the income car parks provide to pay for necessary public services is readily replaced with the economic growth that results from such changes.

Historic Exeter quay car parking Exeter city centre space used for car parking. Photo: @ZsoltSchuller.

Other routes to changing street use are exemplified by projects such as Playing Out, which helps parents reclaim roads for children’s play, Living Streets, which champions everyday walking, and Pop-up Parks, which playfully reinvents underused urban space. More than 500 UK streets in 45 local authority areas have been closed this way in the past few years, with multiple educational and health benefits.

When urban space is reclaimed for non-motorised use, both planned and spontaneous social, economic and cultural activities can take place more freely with all their attendant, often serendipitous, benefits. As Jan Gehl, chief architect of Copenhagen’s mobility transformation says, places designed for people to stay, rather than go, make urban space lively, healthy, sustainable and safe.

There is a growing movement for change in the way urban space is used across the world. Janette Sadik-Khan is acclaimed for creating 60 new plazas in just six years in New York as City Transportation Commissioner: 180 acres of road space were reclaimed for cycling and pedestrian use, and a further 44 converted to bus-only. Even parts of Broadway have been closed to motor vehicles, with spectacular success. Many European cities have embraced rapid change in the same spirit, in conjunction with progressive mobility-centred policies that reach far out into the suburbs.

In the UK, despite government transport policy still strongly supporting private car use, some of Exeter’s competitors are taking bold steps towards car-free futures. Rather than simply trying to catch up, Exeter should seek to overtake them, taking advantage of its compact footprint to rapidly create a powerful differentiating significator of the city’s sustainability leadership ambitions.

The economic development strategy that Exeter shares with its neighbouring district councils already makes much of just such an approach and an ongoing EU-funded local planning project will crucially focus on mobility, rather than transport, which should enable much wider adoption of progressive priorities and innovative strategies to deliver them, given political will.

Historic Exe Bridge traffic Historic Exe Bridge. Photo: @ExeterCycling.

Exeter used to be a nationally notorious traffic bottleneck in the 1950s and 60s, before the M5 was extended, when every vehicle bound further South West still had to cross the river at Exe Bridge (before it was plural). Daily tailbacks stretched several miles along the A30 in one direction and the A38 in the other, with the High Street choked by drivers trying to avoid the by-pass.

Sound familiar? Similar congestion often still brings Exeter to a standstill. The city is at risk of reclaiming its status as a congestion nightmare to be avoided at all costs, even without the frequent accidents and congestion that strangle the M5, A30, A38 and other arterials nearby. With 40,000 new residents expected by 2026, adding 14,000 car journeys a day if current travel modes continue, is it not time to reclaim the city’s streets for people instead?


 is managing editor of Exeter Observer and a director of its publisher Greater Exeter CIC.

 


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Preview  ⁄  Arts & culture

Rainbow Trail LGBTQIA+ exhibition queers RAMM for Exeter Pride 2019

A new collaboration between X-Plore Youth Devon, Exeter College LGBTQ+ society, Natalie McGrath of Dreadnought SW and Dr Jana Funke of the University of Exeter explores gender and sexual diversity across time, place and culture by reimagining objects from the RAMM collections.

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Exeter City Council city centre wards map

News  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter Labour loses local elections in all three city centre wards

Voters in Exeter yesterday elected three new councillors to represent them in the key wards that cover the city centre, with all the city's ruling Exeter Labour group candidates missing out despite the party's confident campaign.

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Jemima Moore campaigning in Exeter local elections

Profile  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Local resident stands as independent candidate in Exeter elections

Jemima Moore is a 36 year-old part-time primary school teacher and mother of two young children with little political experience. So why has she decided to stand for election to Exeter City Council on 2 May?

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Exeter Clifton Hill sports centre

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Clifton Hill sports centre – the background

Storm Emma met the Beast from the East and dumped a huge amount of snow on the roof of Exeter's Clifton Hill sports centre, setting off a chain reaction which has ignited two campaigns and put Exeter City Council's approaches to competence and openness into sharp focus.

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Exeter City Council press and public exclusion notice

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

What does your council know that you don't know you don't know?

Extracting information from councils is hard work but increasingly necessary for local democracy.

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Greater Exeter Strategic Plan banner

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Is the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan GESPing for air?

The Greater Exeter Strategic Plan has been a long time in gestation. When it finally arrives, will it deliver?

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Extinction Rebellion climate emergency protesters in Exeter Guildhall shopping centre

News  ⁄  Climate & environment

Exeter Extinction Rebellion stages climate emergency protest

Today around 70 people joined the Exeter branch of Extinction Rebellion on the city's streets to demand urgent action to minimise the risk of catastrophic impacts from climate change.

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Kaleider Mikrofest Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter Princesshay

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Out of sight, out of mind

A performance of From The Light of The Fire, Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter for Kaleider Mikrofest appears to favour illusion over truth in a confused rendering of Plato's cave allegory that leaves both performers and audience in the dark.

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Exeter St James period housing stock

Comment  ⁄  Planning & place

Exeter St James regeneration

How can the supply of low-cost, incrementally investable city centre accommodation be stimulated to attract and retain creative, technically-skilled young entrepreneurial talent?

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