A movement to reclaim the central areas of towns and cities from motor traffic is gaining momentum.
A conference on Friday organised by UWE on this theme sold out over two weeks ago. Planners, councillors and transport professionals from across southern England will come to the Arnolfini to hear the people who are transforming the central areas of London boroughs, Leicester, Cambridge and Taunton.
We have made a short film telling the story of how Leicester (pictured above) reclaimed its city centre, which was once, like Bristol, dominated by traffic.
25 years ago, the A4 that ran through Queen Square was closed. Crossing the road into Queen Square we will invite the delegates to imagine what it once looked like with a dual carriageway running through it.
In the early 1990s, when College Green was also pedestrianised, Bristol was in the forefront of this movement but since then progress has stalled, whilst other cities have pressed on.
If you have ever travelled around northern or central Europe you may have noticed how many cities have removed motor traffic from their centres. Many streets are pedestrianised; on others vehicles are allowed in and out but no-one can drive through the centre.
Walking around the centres of French, German, Dutch or Swiss cities you will find very little evidence to confirm the fears of people who say it will kill trade or cause gridlock on surrounding roads.
We know from studies in Britain and elsewhere that when roads are closed or lanes are removed much of the traffic disappears; it is not all forced onto surrounding roads.
There are several reasons for this: some people change their mode of travel; some people change their destinations; more people decide to share vehicles or combine trips that they would have made separately.
We know that retail spending increases on commercial streets where traffic is removed and property values rise because of increased economic activity.
Although better public transport can help, in most of these cities, walking and cycling generate more trips. Some of the evidence for all this can be found on the website of the Living Heart for Bristol, a campaign I helped to set up a few years ago to promote these types of changes here in Bristol.
In the cities I have studied, which have successfully removed traffic from central areas, one factor stands out: strong political leadership.
Traffic removal is always controversial; people generally oppose it beforehand and welcome it afterwards so you need politicians with a longer-term vision. In recent years Bristol has seen frequent changes of political control with no-one in power long enough to finish what they start.
Leicester’s directly elected (Labour) mayor has driven those controversial changes over many years. In Bristol work has begun on a new transport strategy with a longer-term view.
Whatever the reasons for past inertia, looking forward, there is no reason why the progress that began in Queen Square cannot be restarted.
Dr Steve Melia is a senior lecturer in transport and planning at UWE’s department of geography and environmental engineering
Main photo courtesy of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain