Magdalen Road Public Realm Improvements

The potential to remove through-traffic from Exeter’s Magdalen Road has been discussed for over a decade. Proposals were initially put forward by the traders’ association, prompting mixed views from businesses and residents on the effect traffic has on both the quality of the street and viability of the largely independent businesses.

To stimulate the debate LHC Design produced a visualisation showing how Magdalen Road could look with traffic reduced to one lane, whilst maintaining a cycle contraflow. The resulting generous pavement could be occupied by café seating, with the opportunity to add trees and planting to improve the quality of the public realm. A high quality environment could be created that priorities movement of people rather than vehicles, and creates opportunities to pause and enjoy the attractive street and enticing range of shops and cafes.

Magdalen Road is located within the residential area of St Leonards, on the edge of Exeter city centre. It is widely regarded as a good example of a successful shopping street that meets both the needs of local residents – with a pub, cafes, bakers and grocers – while also serving a much wider area with a number of specialist retailers. There is a good community focus, with active traders and local community groups that organise annual street events; most recently a Wellness Day which included stalls, dancing and music and a ‘long-table’ community dinner. Businesses are mainly located on the north side of the street, with a relatively narrow pavement that limits opportunities for the cafes and shops to make use of their south facing frontages for outside seating.

The road forms a link for traffic moving through the area south of the city, allowing cars to bypass the busy Paris Street roundabout and is a handy cut-through between Heavitree and Western Way. There are often queues at peak times which creates a noisy and polluted experience, reduces air quality and detracts from the quality of the street for pedestrians and cyclists.

Whilst some of the businesses have expressed concern that removal of traffic will impact on their businesses and reduce custom, there is strong evidence that reconfiguring streets to prioritise pedestrians over vehicles can have significant economic, social, environmental and health benefits.

Campaign group Living Streets recently updated their report The Pedestrian Pound which summaries academic research and provides case studies which demonstrate that safe and pleasant places, where people walk to and stay longer, can support and enhance economically vitality and deliver benefits to residents and businesses.

In relation to Magdalen Road, more detailed survey work is required to understand the proportion of trade generated by ‘passing traffic’, and the how shoppers travel to use the shops. There is a broad body of evidence from a number of studies of similar local and specialist shopping areas that retailers, businesses and agencies overestimate the importance of the car for customer travel.

In 2015 a survey of local businesses in Waltham Forest found that business believed 63% of their customers arrived by car and only 49% walked. A survey of visitors to the street revealed that in reality only 20% had arrived by car and 64% had walked.

Following on from the 2015 study and extensive community engagement, the Borough of Waltham Forest undertook public realm improvements in Orford Road and the surrounding area. The improvements included the creation of wider footways and raised junction tables, new street furniture, tree planting, zebra crossings, improved street lighting, seating and cycle parking. New public spaces, street art and pocket parks were introduced in areas formerly used by traffic. Non-local through-traffic was redirected onto the main road network.  The scheme demonstrates how streets laid out before the era of the car can be re-balanced to create a safer environment which benefits both residents and businesses. Subsequently the scheme has also encouraged more businesses to open in the area, leading to increased economic and employment opportunities.

At LHC Design we would propose an evidence based assessment of Magdalen Road to clearly understand how many cars use the street, how many stop to visit the shops and what proportion of customers travel by foot or bike. The community, traders and councils can then make informed decision on the future of the street – and hopefully choose to create an attractive pedestrian focused street that allows local residents, businesses and visitors to reap the benefits of this excellent shopping area.

Devon County Council have recently implemented temporary measures to widen pavements, remove eastbound traffic and provide a contraflow cycle lane. We’re excited to hear feedback on the temporary measures and hopefully to see implementation of a comprehensive public realm scheme to ensure the delivery of wider benefits to the community and local businesses.

Paul Osborne
Urban Design & Landscape Director, LHC Design

Devon County Council’s active travel measures in Magdalen Road – June 2020