British people have a reputation for always talking about the weather. However, here in Bristol, a more likely subject for discussion is likely to be the state of our transport infrastructure.
Bristol is a great city but much of the centre is dominated by the overwhelming numbers of motor vehicles. It is this over-reliance on the car that constitutes a major part of the reason why I became a member of Living Streets which campaigns on behalf of pedestrians and to improve the liveability of our streets.
According to the 2001 census, the working population of Cabot and Lawrence Hill wards (the two wards that cover the city centre) was less than 8,500 with some 3,000 using cars to drive to work. But during the daytime this population swells to more than 90,000 as workers commute into the city centre with more than 40,000 cars flooding into the centre itself.
However even this last figure is put into perspective when you realise that somewhere in the region of 250,000 motor vehicles entered the city centre area each day in 2001. It is clear that many of those 250,000 vehicles were simply passing through the city centre on their way to somewhere else.
The effect on the city centre is devastating. The living, beating heart of Bristol, the traditional core of the city where residents, workers and visitors alike should be able to enjoy the historic heritage and general ambience of one of Europe’s most famous cities, is instead a race track where pedestrians find themselves dodging fast moving traffic and inhaling polluted air equivalent to smoking a packet of cigarettes a day.
Cyclists too find the roads dangerous and increasingly are forced to abandon the roads to motor vehicles, and find sanctuary on the pavements – which in turn inevitably brings them into conflict with pedestrians.
It is blatantly obvious that this situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely, and that some tough but necessary decisions need to be made if Bristol’s centre is once again to become the liveable heart of the city designed to benefit the workers, businesses, residents and visitors that use its wider amenities, not just those who use its roads to drive through it.
Last Friday, with the support of the local MP, eight separate groups (Bristol Cycling Campaign, Bristol Friends of the Earth, Bristol Green Capital, Bristol Living Streets, Bristol Ramblers Group, Carfree Bristol, Playing Out, and Streets Alive) combined to launch a campaign to create a more attractive city centre area – a Living Heart for Bristol.
The campaign aims to provide more public space and improve conditions for walking, cycling, and enjoying the centre by diverting through traffic away from central Bristol.
Later this month, Bristol City Council will be launching its City Centre Area Action Plan and its Public Realm and Movement Framework. These strategies will propose changes to road layouts in central Bristol, partly to facilitate the new Bus Rapid Transit networks.
The Living Heart coalition will be urging supporters to press the Council for changes to improve central Bristol during this consultation.
Other cities have taken the brave steps needed to rebalance their transport system away from one that is over-reliant on the private car, and have reaped the economic benefits. Freiburg in Germany is seen as a particularly good example of a city that has managed to combine a thriving economy with the benefits of a more balanced transport strategy. A 2004 audit of Freiburg shows that 24% of commuters travelled to work on foot, 28% by bike, 18% by public transport and just 29% by car.
More revealing is a comparison of the transport mode shares in 2001 between Freiburg and Bristol. At that time, the census shows that 64% of Travel to Work journeys in Bristol were by car, however according to the EU’s Urban Audit figures for 2001 the corresponding figure for Freiburg was 60% not massively lower.
In fact, in 2001 Bristol outperformed Freiburg for number of work journeys by foot (13% vs 11%) and by public transport (15% vs 13%). It was only in cycling that Bristol lagged significantly behind (5% vs 14%).
However, since then, cities like Freiburg have grasped the nettle, and addressed the challenge of rebalancing the traffic in their cities. Other Northern European cities like Copenhagen (where less than a third of commuters travel by car), Odense (34% travel by bike), Malmo (increased pedestrian journeys from 6% to 20% within 4 years) and Groningen (a business enhancing pedestrianisation of the city centre) have similarly reduced their dependence upon the car whilst Bristol, like almost every other British city, continues to be a slave to it.
What Bristolians need to make clear over the next few months is whether they wish their city, and especially their city centre, to continue to be dominated by the car, or do they want their city to pursue a more balanced transport strategy that will, in the end, offer greater benefits to the city and its citizens?
To find out more about the Living Heart campaign, the positive evidence from other cities, and how to support the campaign visit the website at www.livingheart.org.uk