1. Transport
September 25, 2019

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

By Mags L.

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.

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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: gesp.org.uk/crown 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.

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