All too often the provision of public transport is entangled with politics and prejudice. In the Civil Rights-era Deep South, public transport was segregated by colour. And in modern day China, citizens are assigned a ‘citizenship score’ which determines their access to public infrastructure like trains. The ruling Communist Party claims it allows them to monitor and punish ne’er-do-wells; critics allege that it is used to quash dissent and scare off protesters.
Bristol’s transport prejudices are, thankfully, less explicit and severe. Nonetheless, they still exist. They are underwritten not by racist ideologies, but rather by misallocation of resources and a failure to legislate bravely enough.
Travelling in Bristol, especially at rush hour, can be a misery. Within the one-mile radius of central Bristol, average driving speeds are just 8mph. Bus services are patchy, irregular and expensive; trains run in and out of Temple Meads but don’t link up in a coherent manner. Small wonder then, that an estimated 30 per cent of Bristol’s commuters choose to walk or cycle. Though this comes with its own problems: dedicated cycle infrastructure is dangerously inadequate and cyclists must weave in and out of pedestrians in dangerous ‘shared space’ schemes, ensuring the safety of no-one.
Many turn to private vehicles, no matter how traffic-choked the roads, but some households cannot afford the significant cost of owning and running a car. Cycling is also an option that is not available to everyone and it can be a dicey and unpleasant experience at the best of times.
It is essential, then, that the city’s transport network works efficiently and cheaply. Otherwise, whole communities risk being cut off.
And time is running out to fix the issues. By the city council’s own calculations, Bristol’s population is predicted to grow by 300,000 in the next decade. Initiatives like Metrobus are welcome steps in the right direction, but they will also increase pressure in the city centre by encouraging more commuting from outside areas. The much-touted economic benefits of Bristol’s expansion will prove a poisoned chalice if the city’s streets are snarled in permanent, miserable grid-lock. Bold, radical solutions are urgently needed.
“This isn’t a problem. It’s a crisis,” argues Seth Piper, an environmental consultant and co-founder of Bristol Living Streets. Seth moved to Bristol after spending ten years in Oslo, and the contrast in public transport provision shocked him. The Norwegian capital is a similar size and topography to Bristol but, Seth notes, Oslo’s authorities “made some great decisions”.
“All the through traffic travels under the city. It’s got a tram network, a subway, and an excellent, subsided bus system,” he says.
Bristol’s problem, in Seth’s diagnosis, lies not with public appetite, but with political will: “People just want to get around, they aren’t wedded to their cars. But politicians are terrified of grasping the nettle of car journeys. You have to disincentive car journeys, and to be unafraid to say that’s what you’re going to do.”
Seth points to the example of London’s Oyster Card network and its congestion charge as policies Bristol’s City Council could emulate. One-way streets and paying for on-street parking are further ways of uncoupling the damaging association of efficient travel and private car ownership, he argues.
According to Seth, “transport is a social justice issue; it’s about fairness”. There is an implicit basis, he says, in the way drivers are favoured by the city council’s policies. By forcing bus-bound commuters to endure long waits and irregular routing, there is a suggestion that lower-income families are less valuable, less industrious citizens. “Everyone has a start time for their job,” Seth says. “The council is too afraid of being harsh on drivers.”
In his annual State of the City address last month, Bristol mayor Marvin Rees told his audience at the Wills Memorial Building that he will not make life difficult for car drivers. He said: “We will not repeat the errors of recent years in pretending that cars will disappear if we make life difficult for car drivers, nor will we ignore the economic impact when we do transport planning. But we will have an impact on congestion and on people movement by presenting real choice. We must generate mass transit options that are better, cheaper and easier than car travel.”
Rees also promised “equality” for bus travel across Bristol, including doubling the frequency on main routes and introducing a single flat fare zone covering the whole city.
“The lack of easy, attractive public transport makes it difficult for people,” says Zoe Banks Gross, a scientist and community campaigner. She founded East Bristol Kidical Mass in 2014 to encourage more mums and children, especially from minority backgrounds, to get into cycling.
Zoe was outraged by the “stark health inequalities in Bristol”, and angered by the lack of good transport provision which threatened lives and community cohesion. In the ward of Lawrence Hill, for instance, “we see people being affected by poor air quality from emissions from traffic, even though the percentage of residents who own a car is lower than the city average,” Zoe says.
She argues the city’s public transport needs to be reimagined: “Bristol needs to do far more to encourage cycling, walking and public transport. Other cities of similar sizes are working harder to create provisions that are attractive to all residents.”
As well as infrastructure, work needs to be done in rebuilding attitudes, she suggests. In particular, far more needs to be done to erode the boundaries around cycling and encourage more minorities, especially women, to get involved: “Demonstrating that people from marginalised and underrepresented communities actually enjoy cycling, shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is necessary.”
One organisation helping to reframe the narrative is Bristol Bike Project. Based out of Hamilton House in Stokes Croft, it began in 2009 as a way of recycling the city’s many abandoned bikes and partnered with charity Bristol Refugee Rights to give maintenance lessons and bikes to refugees. This provided valuable skills, but also a sense of autonomy and agency.
“Never underestimate the bicycle as a tool of liberation and freedom,” says Bristol Bike Project communications manager Krysia Williams. “For people who are marginalised in Bristol, bikes can break down barriers.”
Bristol Bike Project swiftly expanded and now runs courses, undertakes repairs and sells upcycled bikes. But despite its expansion, its ethos of helping the vulnerable gain purchase on their city through cycling remains unbroken. “We work with anyone who isn’t in secure unemployment – the long-term unemployed, the homeless, victims of human trafficking,” Krysia says. But, she stresses, inclusivity is paramount: “We’re very proud of providing a space for everyone.”
Like Zoe’s Kidical Mass, Bristol Bike Project is keen to deconstruct stereotypes that cycling and owning a bike is restricted to Lycra clad road-warriors. “The mechanical world is a very male-dominated space; empowering women to feel part of it is very important,” Krysia says.
Bristol Bike Project’s emphasis on DIY skills and its make-do-and-mend approach – exemplified by their Tuesday night Freedom of Movement maintenance classes for women – feeds off and into Bristol’s “creativity and can-do attitude”.
The road to resolving Bristol’s transport woes looks steep and unforgiving. But the alternative, in Seth’s words, is “apocalyptic”. In my opinion, it is irresponsible of the city council to encourage Bristol’s expansion without first drawing up bold plans to reimagine its creaking public transport infrastructure.
Organisations like Kiddical Mass and Bristol Bike Project prove how much good can be done at a local, community level. But the responsibility to fix things should not lie with frustrated individuals. We need political boldness.
Alex Diggins is a Bristol-based writer who specialises in environmental issues