A recent photo of Tim Bowles hopping on an electric scooter in his suit and tie could be the sign of things to come in Bristol.
The region is one of just four in the country selected as a future transport zone and will see an investment of £28m to test new tech and monitor travel in a bid to accelerate innovation and reduce the reliance on polluting vehicles.
As part of this scheme, over-16s will soon be able to rent e-scooters to ride on the city’s roads and there also are plans to trial self-driving cars and introduce booking platforms, enabling people to book one journey across multiple modes of transport.
Bowles, the regional mayor who heads up the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), believes this could have the potential to revolutionise how we get about, although plans to introduce e-scooters have been criticised by some over safety concerns.
“It’s about reducing reliance on the car and decarbonising transport,” says Bowles.
“Transport and connectivity – to make sure we are able to get the region up and running – has always been at the heart of what we need to do, but now even more so.”
The Conservative politician was the first person to be elected into the role of ‘metro mayor’ in 2017, presiding over a £1bn budget and devolved powers over transport, housing, planning and education for the region, incorporating Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire councils.
The next West of England mayoral elections are due to take place in 2021.
Lib Dem Stephen Williams is the first challenger to announce his candidacy. He has strongly criticised Bowles’ four years in office, saying he is “completely invisible and has achieved very little”.
Speaking to Bristol24/7 via Zoom from the WECA offices in Redcliffe, Bowles reiterates his belief that regions are best placed to lead the way on economic recovery and transport, and stresses his commitment to improving Bristol’s ailing public transport infrastructure.
“We are committed to continuing support for buses and trains,” says Bowles. “We know that if we provide good bus and train services, more and more people will take those up and have the confidence to leave their cars at home.”
Bristol has recently had an investment in biogas buses, as well as upgrades to Temple Meads and a funding injection to accelerate improvements to walking and cycling routes.
Alongside this ongoing work, there are plans in the pipeline for a mass transit system – that could incorporate some underground lines – to link up corners of the city and the airport, unlocking job opportunities.
First announced by Bristol mayor Marvin Rees in September 2017, the proposed £4.5bn transport network was slammed at the time by some political opponents, including Tory councillor group leader Mark Weston who called it a “pie in the sky” idea.
But Bowles, who has recently faced criticism from Rees for leaving Bristol and the city’s leadership out of important decision-making, said this kind of long-term thinking on transport is vital.
“We have got to start planning further ahead,” he told Bristol24/7. “A lot of problems in the past is because we have not been able to plan long-term effectively. The principle of the mass transit system is the ability to be able to move flexibility and efficiently across routes.”
Bowles is undeterred by the cost involved in gathering data in advance of building a mass transit system, saying: “We have got to get that evidence and data right. It will cost a lot of money, but these things do – that’s what makes them transformational.”
He admitted it will be “years” before the plans become a reality, adding that in the meantime “quick” measures, such as improvements to cycling and walking infrastructure are ongoing.
Unlike Bristol’s Labour mayor, who has slammed the level of government support and communication to cities as inadequate, Bowles argues the government has dealt well with the coronavirus crisis.
He pointed out that without financial support from the government, buses and trains would not have been able to keep running.
Bowles also welcomed the billions invested to try and protect people’s livelihoods and businesses and said he believes people are starting to recognise the “positive” outcome in Britain, especially compared to elsewhere in the world.
Main photo courtesy of WECA