SPECIAL REPORT: The vision aiming to tackle Exeter congestion and traffic woes

“Fact: Exeter is an hour’s drive from Exeter during rush hour.”

The tweet published this week summed up the feelings of many people who use their cars to commute to work.

Anyone who has tried to travel in Exeter at rush hour knows what the traffic is like.

No matter which road you try to drive on, be it though Heavitree, Marsh Barton, Alphington, Cowley, or at times, on the M5, cars are bumper to bumper, crawling along at slow speeds.

And the precarious nature of the city’s highways system often means that just one crash on any of the main roads leads to gridlock for hours.

Exeter is a thriving economic centre, a desirable location to live, and as a result, the city has grown rapidly over the past two decades.

This economic success and growing influence has increased travel demand into the city, so much so that the Exeter Travel to Work Area is the second largest geographical area in the country.

In total, 50 per cent of the 40,000 plus people who work in Exeter travel in from outside the city.

In the last decade, there has been an increase of 7,500 people travelling into Exeter from outside the city for work.

The continued growth in the city is already leading to increased congestion, pollution and unreliable journey times, and Exeter’s transport system is struggling to cope.

Congestion is rising in the evening peak hours and, although officially data suggests conditions are remaining unchanged in the morning peak hours, anecdotal evidence would question this.

With major housing developments being built to the east and south of the city, and developments such as the Science Park expanding, the numbers of people employed in Exeter and on the outskirts is likely to increase by another 25 to 30 per cent over the next 20 years.

Exeter City Council has already put in place measures to try and discourage motorists from driving their cars into the city centre, saying that the amount of vehicles and congestion on the road cannot be reduced without ‘reasonable and regular increases in tariffs’.

A 10 per cent rise in car parking charges came into force in April for all city council-managed car parks.

It was the second massive rise in two years after charges increased in April 2018 as well.

Cllr Phil Bialyk, leader of the council, said: “People are making choices to drive their cars into the city and we have to get them to change their attitudes.

“We want to continue the success of Exeter but it will not continue if people continue to clog up the streets in their cars and there is severe air pollution going forward.

“We have got to encourage people to use other modes of transport to come into the city as if we don’t then we will be responsible for allowing the city to die.

“We need to work with organisations like co-cars and increasing usage of electric bikes and we have to say give people alternatives.

“It gives you an intense pleasure when you zoom by stationary traffic on your bike.”

But despite the 2018 charging rise, councillors were told that car park usage actually increased by four per cent compared to 2017 figures.

Either the extra hit to the wallets of motorists wasn’t damaging enough to stop them driving their cars, the alternatives were not popular enough, or that for motorists who need access to their cars during the day, they didn’t have a choice.

A draft Exeter Transport Strategy has been proposed and consulted on that aims to tackle some of the congestion chaos in the city.

Consultation took place earlier in the year, and a report based on suggestions on the strategy was due to come to Devon County Council’s cabinet in September for adoption.

However, it has been delayed, and the council’s forward plan now says it will come forward for debate at either the October, November or December cabinet meeting.

The draft Exeter Transport Strategy 2020-2030 recognises the limitations of the city and the roads that have limited scope for additional widening, and therefore increasing highway capacity is not possible within the city.

It says that Exeter’s traffic issues are partly down to the way that the city is built, with its historic road network built around the River Exe.

Any motorists wishing to get from the north to the south of the city, or vice versa, have to cross the river, and there are only a limited number of crossings over the River Exe.

You can travel either over the motorway on the M5, or cross the Exe at Bridge Road, Exe Bridges, or by the level crossing at Exeter St David’s. And that’s it.

As a result, with only four potential ways to cross the city, traffic gets congested on all the key routes and Topsham Road, Honiton Road, Heavitree Road and Alphington Road see traffic crawling.

Residents of Exeter are already travelling more sustainably, to a point where the majority of Exeter residents now do not drive to work.

Only 35 per cent commute in their cars, with the majority choosing to either walk, cycle, get the bus or travel on the train.

But from outside of Exeter, the story is different. Nearly half – 48 per cent of people – who work in Exeter have to commute from outside the city boundary, and of them, only 11 per cent use public transport.

In the Greater Exeter Area, 75 per cent of people in towns use their car as the primary mode of transport, rising to 90 per cent from the villages.

From the wider area, 80 per cent of people commute using their vehicles.

With existing transport networks already at capacity in peak periods, additional capacity will be required to support rising travel demand and economic activity, the strategy says, but as building extra highway capacity is not possible inside the city, sustainable alternatives have to be found.

One of the aims of the strategy is for there to be a park and ride station on all the main corridors and to double the number park and ride spaces.

There are currently park and ride sites at Sowton, Honiton Road and Matford. There are hopes for a park and ride/change interchange facility serving main corridors of Alphington Road, A377 to Crediton, B3181 to Broadclyst and A376/A3052 to be created, and to increase cross-city park and ride services.

However, the plans have hit snags, as a search for land for a park-and-ride on the North West side of Exeter found no suitable sites.

Cllr Nick Way asked a recent full council meeting if there had been any progress been made towards providing a park and ride car park on the north western side of Exeter for those commuters travelling on the A377 and A3072.

But Cllr Andrea Davis, cabinet member for infrastructure, told the meeting that so far, no suitable sites around the A377 in the North West quadrant could be found.

The council had also hoped to use the Roundfield site in Ide beside the A30/A377 interchange being used to create a 566 parking space park-and-ride on the site to reduce the traffic levels along Alphington Road in Exeter.

But the a policy was included in the Ide Neighbourhood Plan which says that proposals for development in the Ide Gateway Enhancement Area, which includes the Roundfield site, will only be supported if they do not have an adverse impact on the rural character of the village entrance or its approaches along the Ide Village Road, was acceptable. The policy all but ends the hope of that site been used.

Of course, even if you do put your car in one of the park and ride stations and catch the bus, the congestion on the roads means buses can be caught up in it.

Although there are some bus lanes within the city, on a large number of routes into the city, buses are forced to join the same queues as motorists in their cars.

Speaking last year in discussions over the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan, Cllr Stuart Barker said that, unless it is quicker to go on the bus and not in the car, then why would anyone go on the bus?

He added: “If we get the transport solutions right, some routes might not need improvement, as we improve bus usage then there will be fewer cars on the roads.

“For example, if you live in Dawlish and work in Marsh Barton, can you get a bus to work at the time you want? Probably not, so those are the issues that we need to solve and the GESP must address and solve these issues.”

The aim of the Exeter Transport Strategy 2020-2030 is to get buses running every 15 minutes and to work with operators to achieve a modern, reliable and low carbon network of bus routes.

Half-hourly rail connections are included as part of the strategy to and Devon Metro plan, introduced in 2011, had new stations at Cullompton, Cranbrook, Monkerton, Marsh Barton, and Newcourt included.

Cranbrook saw trains arrive for the first time in 2012, and Newcourt station opened in 2015, but Cullompton and Monkerton stations remains a distant dream.

Marsh Barton station was due to open in 2016 and has been hit by delay after delay, but a planning application for the station is set to be submitted at the start of 2020.

A regular service from Okehampton to Exeter is also planned and there are hopes that it could be running by this time next year.

Upcoming timetable changes that take effect in December 2019 would also improve the city’s attractiveness for rail travel.

There will be longer trains on the Barnstaple line, giving a 17 per cent increase in seat numbers, a new earlier first train to Exeter with an arrival time at Exeter St David’s of 7.31am, an hourly calling pattern throughout the day, a timetable recast to two trains per hour between Exmouth and Paignton, operated by four car services, with all Exeter Central services extended to Exeter St Davids and Saturday services for Dawlish Warren increased to half hourly.

But as helpful as the changes to the timetables may be, and while new railway stations and more trains will help reduce traffic on the roads, they will only benefit people who live near to a train station in the first place.

For people who live in and around Exeter, there has been a concerted push to reduce the traffic on the roads by getting people out of their cars and onto their bikes.

Investments have been and continue to be made by Devon County Council to improve the strategic cycling infrastructure in the city.

Once the whole E4 strategic cycle route is completed it will link housing developments in the east of Exeter to the city centre and Exeter University.

In July 2018, Phase 1 of the E4 cycle route was completed along Cumberland Way and Pinhoe Road. This section provides a high-quality bi-directional cycle track segregated from vehicles and pedestrians.

Phase 2a included path widening improvements along Exhibition Fields and Bettysmead Playing Fields which have been completed in June 2019.

This section provides improved shared walking and cycling facilities.

Phase 2b connects Pilton Lane on Pinhoe Road to the railway bridge on the northern end of Exhibition Way.

The work includes widened shared facilities, and segregated paths. Work on this section is scheduled to start in September/October 2019.

Phase 3, is the pedestrian and cycle bridge across Summer Lane, connecting Exhibition Fields with Bettysmead Playing fields. Work is scheduled to start in autumn 2019.

Phase 4 is the last remaining section to connect Bettysmead Playing Fields to the Prince Of Wales Road. Preliminary options are being developed for this section of the route.

And Co Bikes, the UK’s first electric on-street bike hire scheme, has returned to Exeter’s streets.

Five of the stations have reopened – at County Hall, Civic Centre, St David’s station, Central station and the University of Exeter’s Streatham campus.

Digby & Sowton station and University of Exeter’s St Luke’s campus are due to reopen within the next couple of weeks.

Heavitree High Street and Cranbrook Younghayes Centre stations are set to open in September, with an October opening for one at Pinhoe station.

Cllr Stuart Hughes, Devon County Council cabinet member with responsibility for cycling, said: “I’m delighted that, through our funding partnership, Devon County Council has been able to support Co Bikes’ return and expansion across the city.

“By giving people more sustainable travel choices we’re helping to improve the environment for all of us and I look forward to seeing this scheme continue to grow around Exeter and other locations in Devon.”

But cycling campaigners are still lobbying the council for improvements to make the city safer for people choosing to cycle and walk as their preferred method of transport.

Alex Tait, a campaign volunteer overseeing the project at Exeter Cycling Campaign, believes many of the frustrations voiced by the members of the group could be resolved relatively inexpensively.

She said: “When I talk about cycling with our members, I’m often hearing the same comments, about how there are so many barriers to cycling.

“An example is Mincinglake Valley Park, where the entrances are completely inaccessible by bicycle, wheelchairs or buggy.”

They came up with nearly 150 suggestions and put these ideas into a report to submit to Devon County Council on behalf of the campaign.

Central to the Exeter Transport Strategy is to create a comprehensive, accessible and coherent cycle and pedestrian network that ‘connects key economic hubs to transport interchanges and residential areas’ – and for at least 50 per cent of trips within the city will be made on foot or by bike.

It says: “This represents the most achievable way of freeing up capacity to facilitate the increase of car-based inward commuters from outside the city and complements the Sport England Local Delivery Pilot and Exeter’s aspiration to become the most active city in the country.

“Park & Ride sites on all key corridors will increase transport capacity into the city and provide a realistic sustainable travel option for those trips from rural areas into the city that can’t feasibly be served by traditional public transport services.

“There will be enhanced bus corridors and better connections with key employment hubs. Within the city, particular focus will be given to enhancing Heavitree Road to achieve more reliable journey times, an improved environment for pedestrians and cyclists and to reduce pollution.

“Alongside this will be continued improvement of ‘Devon Metro’ rail services improving the connectivity within the city region so that the towns of Cranbrook, Crediton, Dawlish, Dawlish Warren, Exmouth, Honiton, Newton Abbot and Teignmouth are served by at least half hourly rail frequency.

“The strategy must ensure that the transport network protects and enhances strategic road, rail and air connectivity into the city and South West Peninsula so that it retains momentum and continues to offer an attractive place for sustainable growth.

“In addition to hard infrastructure, new transport innovations and interventions will be encouraged, with active testing of smart measures being piloted on the network. The thriving data analytics community in Exeter will partner the local authorities to better understand travel behaviour and travel patterns to deliver complementary solutions.

“Central to this will be introducing a new single ticketing platform, giving convenient and attractive multi modal travel and a cost-effective alternative to multiple car ownership.

“The network will benefit from smarter operation and management. Such initiatives could include innovative car parking strategies in the city centre, which encourages longer stays in the evening and off-peak, while discouraging car travel at peak times.”

The Exeter Transport Strategy 2020-2030 is set to come back to cabinet later this year for approval.

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