‘Instead of 20 people on the bus, we’ll have 10 taxis’: how cuts to Bristol’s buses are hitting BS3
Bernice McKendrick, 65, has lived in Ashton Vale for 13 years. She used to work as a housekeeper at Bristol Royal Infirmary but gave up work last year to care for her husband Sam who is in a wheelchair.
“When we moved [here] there were two buses,” she tells me. “Then they put it to one and promised that there would always be a bus service down here.”
Now, with the cancellation of the 23 route from Ashton Vale to the city centre, Bernice is considering moving house because she feels so cut off. She recently enquired with the council about the possibility of moving, but because of their need for a property that is properly adapted for wheelchair users, that won’t be easy.
The 23 is among eight services to be axed in south Bristol recently. These are just some of 42 services being axed across the West of England at the start of April.
These lost bus services have left the people who rely on them – many elderly or with disabilities – stranded.
‘All we’re asking for is buses to get us from A to B’
On an overcast day at the end of March, its final day of service, I take a trip on the 23 to meet some of its passengers. There are just over half a dozen people on the bus when I get on at Rupert Street, all of whom are incensed at the cancellation of the bus route.
Sally Sutor, who is retired, moved to Ashton Vale 14 years ago. “I gave up the car because we had two buses, and they ran every 10 minutes one or the other… [From] tomorrow we’ve got no bus at all.”
Another retired passenger, who asks not to be named, is a carer for her daughter, who is in a wheelchair. From tomorrow they’ll have to take taxis everywhere. “We need this bus service to get from A to B,” she says. “That’s all we’re asking for.”
Louise, who is immuno-suppressed, points out that removing bus services doesn’t fit into a supposedly green agenda being pursued by both private and public bodies. “If they’re so green, they should be helping these buses,” she says. “Instead of 20 people on the bus we’re going to have 10 taxis.”
Another passenger, Jane Caines, is retired, with a partially collapsed lung. She has COPD and is having to rely on her daughter to get her shopping. “I’m going to the doctor’s on Monday. I’ve got to get a taxi there and a taxi back… This is just not good enough. We’re out on our own down here.”
She says residents organised a meeting at Ashton Vale Community Centre in March to discuss the changes, inviting representatives from First Bus and local politicians. “It was absolutely teeming down with rain,” Jane adds.
Sixty residents made it out, but no one from the council, nor the West of England mayor Dan Norris, who was also invited. “It was dreadful,” Jane says.
Teething problems expected with new service
While not a replacement for these cuts, a new demand responsive travel (DRT) service called WESTlink launched in April to help connect communities to core transport routes across the region. This shared, flexible service enables passengers to pre-book a trip by specifying the time and desired pick-up and drop-off, via an App, the website or by phone.
WESTlink is currently being trialled in Knowle, Windmill Hill and Totterdown. Unlike dial-a-ride, where passengers can be picked up from their homes, WESTlink picks up and drops off passengers at bus stops.
Norris tells the Cable: “The new stop-to-stop service is a fleet of what will eventually be 30 accessible minibuses which has started rolling out in some areas of the city and region.”
“In these very early days, we are expecting teething problems as we all get to grips with the new system,” he says.
According to Ed Plowden, Green councillor for the Windmill Hill ward, the launch has been hampered by protracted decision-making and poor communication. The local authority only formally made the decision to pursue DRT in January, and cancelled a meeting in Brislington planned to discuss the changes.
While information about WESTlink is available online, Plowden feels that this should have been directly communicated to affected residents, many of whom are elderly, well before recent bus services cancellations. “If nothing else there should have been a number with a voicemail really early on.”
Green council leader, Emma Edwards says: “The demand service is a good idea and I’d like to see it work, but I don’t think it’s going to be a substitute for a good reliable bus service… My mother would never use an app, she’s going to go to the bus stop.”
Edwards also raises concerns about people who speak English as a second language accessing the service. A recent report looking at transport in London suggests many are being left behind by a digital-first approach.
Tanya Williams, who works at Windmill Hill City Farm, has tried using the app to arrange travel for her 76-year-old mother. “I’ve been trying to figure it out… But the app continues to have technical issues, so I’m unable to book at all,” she says. “My parents only know about WESTlink from me, as it only seems to be advertised on social media – which their generation does not use.”
There is also a number people can call to book, but it’s still an added hurdle for people used to regular services. I tried the app and was taken through half a dozen stages before I could set the route, then had problems receiving my confirmation code on the online booking service. While you can pay in cash for WESTlink, it says drivers only accept the exact amount for the journey.
The Welsh government trialled a similar scheme for 12 months in Newport. While it said the trial had been “successful”, readers of the South Wales Argus paper disagreed, with one saying that “booking seemed impossible”.
Funding for new initiatives ignores local needs
The decision to go ahead with DRT came after the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) was awarded £105m by the Department for Transport to deliver the West of England Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP).
The West of England managed to secure the second highest amount of grant funding in the country. Norris explained that this funding came with explicit conditions that it should be “for new services and specifically cannot be spent on council-supported services, such as the 512”.
WESTlink has received £3m in funding and will run in a north zone in South Gloucestershire and a south zone, which includes part of south Bristol, North Somerset and BANES. It’s also being trialled in a ‘future transport zone’, a large area of north Bristol, to “test out innovations,” including e-scooters, a new transport app and a transport data hub.
But given that the funding used to finance WESTlink is also time-limited, it doesn’t bode well for the roll-out of the service across the region, especially for residents of Ashton Vale who fall outside the bounds of the three DRT zones.
Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South, tells the Cable: “It’s clear to see that south Bristol residents have been left behind when it comes to decent transportation. We need more drivers and a clear assessment of future demand to support our local routes and keep people across South Bristol and Bristol connected.”
While WESTlink is supposed to keep residents connected, Norris says that he’s also created a £2m scheme – WESTlocal – for “community groups to create their own not-for-profit bus solutions based on local need,” calling it “real people powered transport”. But communities might feel daunted by the prospect of having to apply for funding in a competitive process, although support is available.
On the axed services, a First Bus spokesperson said: “New passenger behaviours and travel habits since the pandemic have meant that like many businesses, we have seen changes to demand for bus services.
“Unfortunately, there are a very small number of journeys that have continued with passenger levels well below that required to even cover costs and cannot be retained. Regrettably, this does include the 23 service.”
“The bus company ought to hang their heads in shame,” says Bernice. “For many of us [the bus] is our lifeline.”
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Thanks for this article Jonathan I found it describes the problems well.
A few points come to mind.
Why did I regularly see the bus company First Bus regularly run double decker vehicles throughout the day when they were carrying very few passengers ? Surely mini buses would have been more appropriate all round ?
Secondly with Bristol City Council wanting to roll out 15 minute neighbourhoods, this news article servers as a real life example of how they can never work without far far more infrastructure. For example green grocers, health clinics, schools to name just a few of the services and shops required.
Thirdly it also demonstrates the failure of Bristol City Council’s sustainable transport policies over the last twenty years. Nothing short of scandalous by all involved.
Now how about those who did not attend the meeting providing some answers before it becomes a crisis ?
Thank you for seeing and telling Dan norris doug cherngold and marvin reece we need a bus for our life line