20 April 2021
Transport, particularly in urban areas is, and always has been, about competition for space. For many years, the majority of the finite space available for transport infrastructure has been given over to motorised vehicles. Now, faced with the challenges of climate change, air pollution, and the need to encourage safe, healthy, active travel options, there is widespread acceptance that we need to reallocate the proportion of the public space occupied by roads and pavements, and rethink the layout of our neighbourhoods.
Recently, Devon County Council has introduced a series of ‘Covid-safe measures’ including closure of roads, the widening of pavements and footways and the addition of new cycle routes and lanes. Such moves have been greeted with a mixed response.
The differences of opinion over allocation of space to different modes of transport are perhaps best epitomised by the changes introduced in Magdalen Road - a popular and well used neighbourhood shopping street. Here a lane of traffic has been removed - with motorised vehicles now only able to travel one way - to make space for a cycle lane and widened walkway.
The footfall in this street, even at the height of lockdown, revealed just how important this extra space was to make Magdalen Road 'Covid-safe'. As we emerge from lockdown and return to something resembling normality, Devon County Council have put forward several suggested permanent options for this street, ranging from a return to two-way traffic to full pedestrianisation.
To return this street to traffic would be a backward step and return priority in terms of space and movement to motorised vehicles, just at a time when it is universally agreed across national and local government that we need to reduce levels of traffic overall and make walking and cycling safe, easy and pleasant.
Indeed, a St Leonard’s Neighbourhood Association survey revealed that 69% of 575 respondents were in favour of “discussions being opened into the reduction of car traffic and the pedestrian environment being improved in the shopping street on a permanent basis.”
However, some businesses in Magdalen Road say the changes to the road layout have had a detrimental impact on trade, though it must be noted that the changes occurred during the height of the pandemic and through lockdowns. Longer term, and as we emerge from this difficult time, the fortunes for businesses may change. Case study evidence suggests that improvements to public spaces and investing in improved space for walking and cycling can boost footfall and trade by between 30-40%. Full pedestrianisation of such a neighbourhood shopping street - allowing retailers to ‘spill out’ with tables, chairs, stalls etc - would be a first for Exeter, enhancing Magdalen Road's reputation as a unique ‘destination’ in its own right.
However, we believe that the piecemeal approach to reallocating space, adopted by Devon County Council - often planned and delivered in a hurry - has caused problems. Without a neighbourhood wide approach, removing motorised vehicles from a single street tends to move traffic to nearby roads.
With all this in mind, Greens in Exeter have a series of proposals to reclaim our streets for the people who live and work in them:
- Supporting Devon County Council proposals for higher residential parking rates for second or third cars registered to a particular address, encouraging the freeing up of space for:
- A fleet of electric hire cars and charging points available within a five minute walk of every house in every neighbourhood.
- A fleet of electric bicycles for hire available within a five minute walk of every house in every neighbourhood.
Such changes, of course, cost money. Reprioritising existing transport funding to reflect a long-established, but never implemented, Devon County Council ‘transport hierarchy’ would take us in the right direction. A hierarchy that places pedestrians and those with mobility difficulties at the top, then cyclists, followed by public transport users and finally car drivers. This would redirect the millions currently spent on roads towards positive changes for our neighbourhoods.
Ultimately, reallocating space is a matter of political will. Green councillors will encourage policy makers to be bold and push for changes based on evidence that will make our neighbourhoods safer, healthier and more pleasant places to live.
Andrew Bell is Devon County Council candidate for St David's & Haven Banks division in Exeter.
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