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Bristol’s local government leaders lack transport vision

Gavin Smith Research officer Transport for Greater Bristol Alliance Bristol BS2
01 May 2020

During a Zoom meeting last week of campaigners frustrated at the lack of progress on a rail-based tram/tram-train plan for Bristol and Bath, a fear was expressed that public transport may face a hard future once the current coronavirus lockdown eases. 

Already the railways have effectively been re-nationalised, and bus services financially municipalised – both heartily welcomed – as a reaction to the economic impact of the collapse in passenger numbers. 

But in a future in which the public might consciously avoid public transport in order to avoid social proximity, and double-decker buses might be officially restricted to 20 users (and single-deckers ten), public transport would cease to be viable. 

Will those of us not choosing to walk, cycle or work from home all return to cars? Will transport planning go backwards?  

After all, at the moment the mayor and deputy mayor of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) are continuing to bid for DfT funding mostly for specific new highway schemes, backed by an assortment of ill-thought-out public transport consultancy ‘studies’, while the mayor of Bristol is pursuing an expensive type of ‘Underground’ rail system already dismissed (in favour of trams) by the city’s twin city of Bordeaux. Both are dominated by links with commercial (very often greenfield) site developers.  

Similar concerns for public transport arose at another Zoom meeting, this time including Bristol local authority representatives, but here some possible ways forward were suggested. All public transport staff, but also all passengers, should be obliged to wear masks to protect both the staff and other passengers (a suggestion repeated the following day by a national source, though without any apparent promise of enactment, but in force in Belgium). The cities also could reallocate roadspace and parking facilities to pedestrians and cyclists (as announced for Milan): in part so that today’s temporary cyclists on traffic-freed roads can be persuaded to continue cycling when the traffic returns. 

Bristol City Council in particular could press ahead with removing the traffic congestion points already notified to it by operator First Bus as part of their joint endeavour to make the city’s buses more efficient.  

And as to air pollution – a problem magically reduced as road traffic has shrunk – we could take the opportunity to deal with otherwise burgeoning traffic rat-runs through inner city residential streets. Rat-runs will only get worse if people return to their cars and as main roads are constrained by bus, cycling and walking traffic improvement measures. 

Now, too, is the time finally to imitate Nottingham  City Council’s workplace parking levy or London’s road user charging: ideas often cited in Bristol, but never progressed. 

Regrettably, there is no great hope that either WECA or the city council will actually do any of these things, even though voters seem up for them now (judging by the consultation report published in January regarding WECA’s draft joint local transport plan 4). However, there has been almost zero progress on traffic management here – or tram planning – since Avon County Council was abolished by John Major in 1996. 

So the actions suggested above are not particularly likely to occur. They are merely what a properly functioning transport authority would do, riding on a wave of public assent. 

Meanwhile, public transport in East Asian countries with higher population densities than ours is running around with full vehicles of masked passengers, and coronavirus death rates far lower than ours – so there ought to be room for hope. Perhaps one day we will get a decent transport link between Bristol and Bath. 

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