This comment article is written by Tessa Coombes, former Bristol councillor and now studying for a PhD in social policy at Bristol University
Transport and Bristol are two words that evoke many different images for different people but which are all too often negative when brought together. Go to any meeting or discussion about the problems Bristol faces and you will find transport a regular topic at the top of the agenda.
It also feels like we are being bombarded with new ideas, solutions and initiatives that will somehow solve the problem.
In the last few years we have had endless debates about bus rapid transit schemes, local rail and trams. We’ve had proposals and plans for a workplace parking levy, residents parking schemes and even congestion charging, and we’ve had debates about the contribution of walking and cycling.
But what we don’t appear to have is a plan – a coherent strategy that sets out how all these things work together, what takes priority, what provides the greatest benefit and where we should be focusing our efforts.
Without a plan it is difficult to be inclusive, to engage communities and to get ‘buy-in’. Instead what we have are ideas, initiatives, schemes and changes being made, with many resisted by residents and business not because they don’t want to see improvements made but because they don’t feel included in the debate and don’t have an overall picture of what we are trying to achieve and how.
Every time I mention this lack of a plan I am told to look at the Joint Local Transport Plan – now on version three published in March 2011, for the period 2011-2026. This is a 150-page document which has nine supplementary documents on individual aspects of transport, such as cycling, freight, network management and parking! A further refresh of this document was produced just two years later in 2013 – showing just how fast things do move in the transport arena, in theory if not in practice.
These are documents I have read before and have flicked through again recently, but I am still left with a sense of unease about our ‘plan’ and whether we really have one.
We all know Bristol has a transport problem, but are we agreed on the causes of that problem and the key aspects of the problem? Do we know what we are trying to achieve and what is actually achievable? Do we agree on the priorities? Should residents parking schemes be a priority in this plan; should we have plans for congestion charging to fund new public transport schemes; why hasn’t the Portishead line been implemented; why is Filton Airfield being developed before the Henbury Loop? The questions seem endless and are not fully addressed by the ‘plan’. So what next?
The answer of course is we should be supporting a clear, organised and coordinated programme of measures that will reduce traffic congestion in and around the city region, promote sustainable, low carbon and affordable transport that connects all areas of the city region. And yes that might well include all the different initiatives that have been discussed, debated and implemented, but they might be prioritised differently.
Perhaps it is time we had this debate more openly, in public, with proper community engagement? Perhaps it’s also time to challenge the status quo, to challenge the solutions currently on offer and challenge the very nature of debate that sees us tied to funding-led ‘solutions’ that may not turn out to be the solutions we need.
If you were in charge of transport in the Bristol city region what would your priorities be?
I’d start with affordability, sustainability and accessibility for all as underlying principles. This may well mean unpopular notions about charging people for the convenience of driving their cars into congested areas and using that income to support quality, efficient, low-carbon and cheap public transport for those who don’t drive.
It would also mean starting with a hierarchy of transport need that starts with the individual and their accessibility needs, that prioritises the most vulnerable in our society and promotes public transport, walking and cycling as a priority choice rather than a second-class service for those who can’t afford a car.
I’d also start with the notion that we don’t build large numbers of new homes or employment and retail areas without providing the public transport infrastructure first – we plan properly for these things and get the transport in place at the start.