Illustration: Scott Luís Masson
Due to Covid, we get to vote for two mayors this year: one for Bristol, and one for the fairly obscure West of England Combined Authority (WECA). Good, because maybe that’ll draw attention to things when they have to work together to get anything worthwhile done. And one issue among those stands out just now: transport. If everything goes right, we could be on the verge of transforming how we get around Bristol and the wider region. It’ll take longer than one term of office for any politician. But there’s everything to play for.
It’s been a while, but remember being stuck kerbside on Bristol’s main roads watching choked traffic, creeping buses, cyclists dicing with death round potholes, waiting dolefully at lights that never seemed to change?
We could change that: get people out of cars, on to clean, efficient public transport, leaving more safe space for walkers and riders – and give everyone cleaner air.
Lots of European cities have transport systems that work. To get there, they needed a long-term vision that made sense, political commitment over years or even decades, and large, patient investment. Bristol isn’t going to get the transport it deserves without these. How far we get towards it is anyone’s guess. An optimist and a pessimist can both line up plenty of arguments. Here are some of them.
Hurrah – change is a comin’?
Covid briefly showed how nice roads can be without cars. Road closures and partial restrictions in the city centre, and pop-up cycle lanes followed. Now the council, with encouragement from Whitehall, is modifying street access to create low traffic neighbourhoods, wresting public space back from cars. “Active travel” – walking and cycling – is high on the policy agenda, locally and nationally.
Also, a foot-dragging Bristol City Council has finally agreed to enforce a clean air zone, charging vehicles that don’t meet emission standards. Soon, the folk on those little e-scooters you see zipping about won’t be breathing so much gunk.
The scooters are the first visible product of a project that WECA already won government cash for – the experimental Future Mobility Zone, which covers those rental scooters, soon to be followed by cargo bikes, and the testing of systems that could knit a transport system together properly. Systems to make it easier to find out what’s running, where, and to catch a ride. Ideally, one ticket or app should allow you to ride a scooter to a tram stop, switch lines, and hop on a bus for the last bit of the journey. Some countries already do this.
Then there is the Big Upgrade for public transport, outlined in the Joint Local Transport Plan (JLTP 4) agreed in 2020 by WECA and four councils – Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. It goes beyond metrobus routes, or future improvements to bus routes and rail links. A map shows four bold arrows designating new routes that would be “transformational” – each representing a new, speedy connection between the centre and outlying parts of Bristol. Imagine living in Hartcliffe, say, and being able to ride to far Severnside, one of the city’s main employment growth spots, in half an hour, with just one change in the city centre.
Thanks to energetic lobbying by groups in Bath and Bristol, trams – not seen in Bristol since 1941 – have been proposed for these new links. They could be key to persuading people not to drive.
The government, like WECA and Bristol City Council, has quietly recognised the climate emergency, and declared that all cars sold after 2030 must produce zero emissions. That means they’ll be electric (powered by batteries or fuel cells). And if the entire auto fleet is going to be changed, we could use that to rethink car-ownership. Why not share a car, rent one from a car club, or summon an electric cab? Perhaps it’ll be easier to shift people in that direction if more of us work from home in future?
This is catching people’s imagination, too. A report from Bristol’s recent Citizen’s Assembly called for stepping up efforts to redesign streets. They want to see city-wide bike, e-bike, cargo e-bike, e-scooter and car share schemes, backed up by a commitment to transfer 3-5% of road space and street car parking spaces to cycling, walking and green space every year. Those recommendations will be put to Bristol’s cabinet after the elections.
Don’t hold your breath
Put all those together, and you really could have a revitalised transport system. But, sadly, it’s not a given. Cars dominate our roads, and drivers will use them until there’s a better alternative. Transport planning is a mess – a patchwork of organisations not fit for purpose.
Cars dominate planners’ mindset, too. They trumpet new ideas, but mostly go on doing what they know: spending on roads.
Here’s how that works. That latest 15-year plan for our region (JLTP4) features seemingly incompatible objectives: promoting economic development and moving toward zero carbon emissions. Development is a huge issue because all our regional plans blithely assume massive population growth, from 1.1 million in 2016 to 1.3 million by 2036. Those people will need homes, and jobs; transport links are largely imagined as a way to get from one to the other.
The Joint Local Plan is a monster wish list. There’s an impressive inventory of major (over £10m) schemes which are, as it says, “at very different stages of development”. The full list is diverse, and would cost £8–£9bn. As Steve Melia highlighted in the Cable, it includes 15 big road schemes.
It’s those – widening carriageways, rebuilding or adding motorway junctions – that will no doubt go ahead, with backing from the Department for Transport and Highways England. They are aimed at speeding up traffic and easing congestion, but new roads generate extra traffic, so that won’t work. Getting people out of cars depends largely on the “transformational” schemes, as yet unplanned, and unfunded.
Another giveaway is seeing numbers for reduced traffic simply grafted onto old plans. The 2017 Joint Transport Study, which JLTP4 follows closely, simply said that traffic overall ought not to go up, after 100,000 extra people arrive. The aim is to reduce it, pretty drastically if emission-reduction is to happen. But the plans remain essentially unchanged.
And the mass transit scheme, which might help, is… not exactly imminent. The four sketchily indicated routes also appeared in the Joint Transport Study. Four years since then have seen little progress.
True, Bristol City Council published a modified version of the map in March. Lines look better defined. There are even possible stops. But they aren’t real stops or, outside the city centre, real routes. The Mayor, in a media briefing (on 11 March), emphasised that everything remains in the mix – over and underground, light rail, trams, even automated “pods” got a mention. He remained upbeat about raising the £4bn needed. He and cabinet members insist the plan is developing well and “options are being finalised now”.
Meanwhile WECA, on whom the fate of the scheme depends, insists it still needs to investigate all possibilities.
So don’t get excited about trams just yet. Similar attempts to bring them back in the 1980s and ‘90s floundered. The new mass transit deal needs to go through three separate, increasingly onerous, stages before a final business case goes to the Department of Transport. That will take eight or nine years – to 2030, which is, er, when we are supposed to be approaching net zero. It seems sensible not to bank on the results.
Meanwhile, liveable neighbourhood schemes have to contend with understandable uneasiness from local businesses, and concerns about displaced traffic raising pollution levels elsewhere. Like other changes, low traffic measures look more appealing as part of a proper vision of an improved transport system. Our planning system hasn’t really produced that. But it still could. That’s why the long-term plan for transport needs probing during the election campaigns. It will be tricky to deliver, but it’s worth a try.