Active travel: The overnight cycle city

Road closures and pop-up cycle lanes were a common aspect of the Covid-19 response across the UK. But few cities were as well placed as Exeter to act quickly, for the long term — and without upsetting too many local residents

January 2022

Words by Katie Puckett Photos by Tom Campbell

Walking and cycling are often presented as a magic bullet for many of today’s urban woes, from congestion and air pollution to obesity and poor mental health. But they’re a hard sell for municipalities seeking to win over their citizens, amounting not only to a significant lifestyle change but a completely different approach to city planning.

Making space for active travel usually means taking it away from cars, taxis and commercial vehicles — overturning decades of motor-centric policies and inevitably provoking loud objections. It’s one thing to widen pavements or install cycle lanes; it’s another to persuade people to use them. Supporters of active travel believe there is a silent majority who are receptive and willing to adopt new habits, but how to engage with them?

The Possible spoke to transport planners in two very different, very car-centric cities, to find out what they’d learned about tackling one of the hottest potatoes in local politics.

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Part 2: Exeter, UK

“Riding the cusp of acceptability” is how Devon County Council’s Will Pratt describes the biggest lesson from its successful implementation of active travel in the UK city of Exeter. “It’s about just staying within the limit of what will be accepted, being ambitious but not going over the line.” 

If that sounds simple, the challenge lies in identifying exactly where the line is — no mean feat as Covid led policymakers to consider unprecedented restrictions on freedom of movement. In May 2020, as the pandemic prompted a sudden reappraisal of urban life, the UK government made £225m available for local authorities to reallocate space to help pedestrians socially distance and to encourage cycling as an alternative to public transport under the Emergency Active Travel Fund. In towns and cities across the country, roads were partially or fully closed to traffic, pop-up cycle lanes installed and space reallocated to walking and cycling. It was change on a scale that environmental campaigners and cycling enthusiasts had hardly dared dream of, and it had to happen practically overnight.

Devon County Council — where Pratt is a transport planning team leader — was in a good position to respond. It had already spent several years developing a detailed, evidence-based transport strategy for Exeter, and had secured political buy-in for an ambitious target that walking and cycling should make up 50% of journeys. So when the council was awarded £300,000 of emergency funding, with £150,000 earmarked for Exeter, they knew how they could spend it. According to the Covid-19 measures tracker from the European Cyclists Federation, among UK cities Exeter was beaten on kilometres installed only by London — 30 times larger, 70 times more populous and the recipient of £5m. And whereas vehement opposition has forced the removal of many temporary measures elsewhere, all but one of Exeter’s nine pop-up changes are to stay, either permanently or for further consultation. 

Though Exeter is home to just 120,000 people, it draws from a much larger catchment of around half a million from a large, mainly rural county. The overwhelming majority of journeys from outside the city are made by car. But most local residents live within 5km of their workplaces, and when the council’s transport planners dug into the data, they uncovered some of the highest rates of walking and cycling in the UK — accounting for around 35% of journeys — and strong growth, with cycling trail use increasing 5-10% year-on-year.

Pratt initially proposed that the strategy’s active travel target be “the majority” of trips, but the decision was made to aim for 50% instead — just a fraction of a percentage point less, but within the limit of what would win political support. “When we started pushing that vision three or four years ago, people weren’t sure it was realistic,” he says. “But we had enough data to show that a target in that ball-park might be achievable and over time it was increasingly accepted. When we consulted on our new strategy in 2019, that was one of the most popular measures in the whole thing.”

They had also identified the best routes to achieve it. Exeter’s main arterial roads are constrained by narrow railway bridges, with limited opportunities to create new cycle lanes without major disruption to key vehicle, freight and public transport corridors. So the strategy was to focus on the smaller, but still busy, connecting roads instead, those carrying 5-6,000 cars a day, as opposed to 20-30,000: “We took a view that if you couldn’t provide a high-quality cycle route along all of it, you’re better off to go between the main radial routes,” explains Pratt. “We didn’t have much money, so we had to just look at simple interventions, such as closing a few roads or banning them to through traffic.”

They chose two of the routes identified in the transport strategy, extending southeast and northeast from the city centre and representing access to around 50,000 jobs. “That’s more economic activity than in our next three biggest settlements combined, so that became the focus.” 

Pete Knight, principal transport planner at WSP, was struck by how quickly Devon progressed these schemes compared with councils elsewhere in the UK. “Will got on the phone as soon as he could and told us what he wanted to get done. Whereas other clients had the funding but were still trying to work out the way forwards, Devon almost had the list ready to go.” 

Whereas other clients had the funding but were still trying to work out the way forwards, Devon almost had the list ready to go”

Pete Knight, WSP

WSP’s Exeter-based transport and local government team completed the planning, design, legal formalities and logistics, and the nine closures were installed in June — providing new cross-city routes in less than four weeks.

The council’s highway contractors are used to responding quickly with emergency signage; they are less accustomed to creating welcoming streetscapes. The first iterations were red and white traffic barriers — perceived by some as “looking like the chicane on a Grand Prix circuit” — replaced by planters shortly afterwards. It quickly became clear that improving the streetscape would further boost the public acceptance of the closures.

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“A lot of people didn’t really care about practicalities of walking and cycling, or that there was less traffic,” says Pratt. “They cared about the knock-on impacts, which is that it became a nicer, safer place to live and the air was cleaner. People were socializing more with neighbours, using the green spaces outside their houses and letting their children cross the road to play on it. The industry is often very much focused on evidence and numbers, but perhaps not enough on people’s stories and winning hearts and minds.” The latter also appealed to local politicians. 

The changes provided an unexpected boost to homeowners in particular: “It has created cul-de-sacs that are really attractive to live on, and which maybe the residents wouldn’t be able to afford to live on otherwise.” When you widen a road or put in a new junction to accommodate more car traffic, the people living nearby experience a disbenefit, he points out, whereas enhancing networks for cyclists and pedestrians has the opposite effect. “Because people were benefiting, even though it was a bit more difficult for them to get around by car, most accepted that trade-off. They were also so used to traffic, that such a change in the character of the road was difficult for them to imagine.” 

“The industry is often very much focused on evidence and numbers, but perhaps not enough on people’s stories and winning hearts and minds” 

Will Pratt, Devon County Council


One of Pratt’s favourite letters arrived two days after installation: “The resident was complaining it was ‘typical council, didn’t consultant with people, didn’t tell anyone you’re doing it — but it’s amazing. It’s completely transformed the street and my quality of life’.”

For all the opprobrium that taking space from cars provokes, he is convinced that there is a silent majority in favour. After the immediate flurry of complaints had subsided, other, much more positive letters started to come in three or four weeks later. “They said how transformational it had been, and people don’t write to say they like something unless they really, really like it. The feedback on one scheme was 55/45 against, and when one of our councillors went and knocked, she said almost everyone said it was great, they just didn’t have the time to respond to this sort of stuff.”

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It is still worth considering the obvious opposition. “The fact that we didn’t choose the main roads, and were careful to not disbenefit public transport or the roads that really affect taxi companies, made a huge difference — we were able to show that we were trying to strike a balance.” In a second phase of measures, the council did close a main road in the city centre, but allowed taxis as well as buses and cyclists. “I think that was a very savvy thing to do, because taxis alone could have generated quite a lot of negativity.” He also makes a case for pragmatism: “Some abuse of restrictions doesn’t really affect what you’re trying to achieve. We took a road with 6,000 vehicles a day and we currently have 100 vehicles a day passing through the no-entry sign. The street is still much, much safer.”

The council kept a record of all the responses it received — more than 500 letters, as well as petitions and responses on social media. “You’re always going to have some people who are anti and some loud objectors, but we could show that we also had a lot of people and organizations in favour. On one scheme, we received a petition with around 1,000 signatures, and they claimed it was about all the schemes in Exeter. Luckily, because we had a log of all the responses, we were able to show that  only one scheme was getting overall negative feedback.” Removing that one closure made the future more certain for the rest, and demonstrated that the council was prepared to make changes.

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So what went wrong at Vaughan Road, the one that failed to gain local support? It’s the exception that proves Pratt’s rule about staying within acceptable boundaries: “It was probably a bit bolder than we originally intended,” says Pratt. “But it was a unique opportunity and we knew it would be transformational for the traffic in the whole area, so we said ‘let’s trial it’.”

There were demographic differences between that neighbourhood and the others affected by the closures too. Pratt had anticipated the greatest repercussions from the most affluent street, but there the response was overwhelmingly positive. By contrast, Vaughan Road is in a less affluent area, with lower levels of physical activity to begin with. “It is a place where we really need to promote active travel, but it’s much harder as the feedback isn’t so strong.” There is a perception that cycling is an activity for the wealthy, so active travel needs to be presented in a more accessible, universal way if it is to be more widely adopted. “What has helped is being able to show huge increases in walking, which everyone relates to. The more you make it about walking and about place-building, the more people get on board.”

It also helped that there had been significant investment in Exeter’s walking and cycling infrastructure, with an on-street network of e-bikes for hire, steadily increasing cycle parking capacity, and the 36km Exe Estuary Trail — something of a “gateway drug” for lapsed cyclists. “It genuinely is world-class infrastructure — if you go down the Exe Trail on an e-bike on a sunny day, it’s impossible not to have a good experience.” Pratt thinks e-bikes will normalize cycling by making it more accessible, not to mention fun. Use of Exeter’s e-bike hire scheme has increased by over 500% since March 2020, and riders are noticeably more diverse across age, gender and ethnicity. The council is continuing to expand the network, and working with WSP to trial dockless e-bikes, which will allow network capacity to be expanded more swiftly and flexibly. 

Pratt’s team is now gearing up for the much more arduous process of making the changes permanent, but he has been inspired by how much can be achieved with simple, inexpensive methods. “It’s really easy to gold-plate everything, look at a plan and say there ought to be a high-quality cycle route here, and train stations here. But we managed to find the minimum number of interventions to make some pretty major changes. I think that’s what we need to do more of going forwards — not just for climate and for public health, but for our own sanity, because ultimately we want to be involved in making things happen.”

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