"What would you do if you had a million pounds to spend on improving Exeter for cyclists?"
It was a strange question to be thrown at me in a discussion about recruiting an operational research scientist for a local enterprise. Out of the blue I had been invited to the offices of a hi-tech company on the business park east of Exeter. Someone there had read this blog and knew that I was interested in O.R. and lived locally, and that there are not many O.R. specialists in the city - or its environs. The organisation wants (as of the date of writing) to recruit a modeller for sustainable transport planning, with an ambitious project in mind which would help improve the environment in various ways. So we were talking about transport models, and the problems of a medieval city with a road system that is little changed over many years. On top of this historic legacy, Exeter has a catchment area which stretches across a radius of 20-25 miles - and these commuters bring their cars into a city which is close to gridlock. So obviously, making Exeter even more cycle-friendly is important, but the question came quite suddenly. I wrote about this topic from a different perspective in this article.
I wondered if it was one of those searching interview questions that are used to see how well a candidate can think "outside the box", rather like those reputedly asked at interviews for Oxbridge colleges, or to work for dotcom giants like Google.
So how might I spend a million pounds on improvements for cyclists?
My gut reaction was that the arterial roads should be made more cycle-friendly. I had ridden my bicycle to the meeting, and the route-finder had shown what I already knew, that if I followed cycle-paths and quiet roads, it would be more than 10% longer in time and distance than the arterial road which is more direct. The downside of going direct was the large number of vehicles, but I accepted that. For some journeys in Exeter, following cycle-paths and quiet roads can be significantly longer than the direct route; sometimes it is worth it. However I am not sure how much could be achieved with one million.
The next reaction was to use the money to provide locked cycle storage at the "Park-and-Ride" car parks on the edge of the city. Buses run from these car parks to the city centre, and one or two major employers, but they are not convenient for everyone. Hence offering an option for cycling rather than bus-riding. As an extra for this, one could have bike-hire stands at the car parks; already, Exeter has some bike-hire points with electric bikes (and no doubt I will write about these in the near future).
Tina and I ran the question past each other in the evening, once I had dried out from cycling home through a storm. Thinking outside the box, our first idea was to use the money to impose a 20mph speed limit across the whole city, which would make travel by bicycle almost as rapid as by car or bus. We decided that an outright ban on cars would not be feasible, and too low a speed limit would annoy the motorist.
Then we proposed that the city council should send out a £25 voucher to every household in the city, to be redeemed in cycle shops for equipment - and every voucher would also qualify for as many free hi-viz jackets and sets of cycle lamps as the householder had bicycles. (there are about 40,000 homes in the city).
Our third proposal was to require that every new house or flat should have covered storage for bicycles as a local by-law. Here, new properties must have either a garage or a dedicated parking space. The former would offer space for cycles, the latter would not.
With these three off-the-wall ideas, we started to consider another aspect of the commuters into the city. In various places in the Exeter catchment area there are ad hoc car-sharing schemes, whereby two or more drivers agree to meet at a convenient place to leave cars for the day and share the remainder of the journey. Some of the trysting places are the park-and-ride sites which are free to use (you pay for the bus fare), some are lay-bys near road junctions, some are on patches of waste ground. (In some countries, planners deliberately create such places to park at intersections.) Bureaucracy has closed one local site, by imposing a two-hour maximum stay on vehicles using a lay-by. And that is a shame. However, we realised that several local dormitory towns have out-of-town supermarkets with car parks. Only customers are allowed to use these spaces, and the shop imposes penalties for those who stay too long. Some, I suspect, monitor the parking with CCTV as well as patrols. But, suppose Exeter City Council negotiated with the store to provide a limited number of spaces for park-and-share commuters. There would be a charge, and users would have a permit to display, but many supermarket car parks are over-designed.
And all these thoughts stem from that one quick question. If you are coming to Exeter for an interview about working in O.R. and sustainable transport, this may have spoilt the surprise. But there will be others, and the bigger question - can you handle the proposed project?