End of term report: How is Tim Bowles doing as mayor of the West of England?

The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol. Image: Getty.

Concluding the Centre for Cities’ round up of the first half-year of metro mayors, we look at Tim Bowles, mayor of the West of England.

Tim Bowles became the West of England’s metro mayor after winning a tight three-way contest in the second round of May’s election. This victory gave the Conservative candidate considerable powers over education, transport and housing, as well as oversight over one of the country’s most vibrant economies.

However, Bowles also took charge of a combined authority and institutions which were relatively new compared to in some other mayoral city regions. With this context in mind, we examine the progress that the West of England’s mayor has made in his first few months, and the challenges he faces.

Progress

Given the relatively low-profile of the mayor locally, and the short history of the combined authority, Bowles’ first six months have unsurprisingly been dominated by establishing his mayoralty and office. In doing so, he has used his soft powers and expertise to build a strong network with business leaders and other relevant agencies across the combined authority.

As he suggested at our West of England mayoral hustings in March, the mayor’s job is to serve as the voice of people and businesses in the West of England. In office, Bowles has dedicated time to understanding the different challenges that businesses in particular are facing by visiting firms across the city region.

This network and consultation will undoubtedly hold the mayor in good stead as he starts to take the vital and contentious discussions about how to provide the skills, homes, jobs and transport connections which residents and businesses need to thrive. Moreover, a common complaint from businesses in the city region is that local political leaders do not shout loudly enough about its successes on the national and international stage. Bowles should consider how he can use the mayoralty as a platform to address that concern.

There have also been more concrete signs of progress in the city region under Bowles’s watch. For example, in August the West of England Combined Authority secured £3.9m from the Department for Work and Pensions for piloting an employment scheme to support individuals trapped in low paid jobs to achieve in-work progression. The pilot will run from January 2018 and will help improve the skills and opportunities to up to 3,000 adults. Bowles hailed this initiative as a way to support the most disadvantaged in the combined authority and promote inclusive growth, a key objective of his mandate.

Certainly, economic disparities are a significant issue in the West of England. While the combined authority performs better than the national average in terms of employment and skills, this masks significant local deprivation and inequality, with many residents unable to access the opportunities available.

 To tackle this issue, Bowles will need to work closely with Bristol’s city mayor Marvin Rees – for whom inclusive growth was a key part of his election campaign last year – to ensure that local and city region policy in this area works together in a strategic way.


Challenges and opportunities

Other areas which the new mayor has recognised as top priorities to address include housing and infrastructure. As we pointed out in our mayoral election briefing for the West of England, focusing on these issues will be crucial in securing the continued prosperity of the city region. For example, compared to other mayoral areas housing in the city region is extremely expensive – the mean house price in Bristol is approximately £100k higher than in Manchester and Birmingham, and over twice as much as in Tees Valley and the Liverpool city region.

Last month, Bowles and his team announced they will invest £6.5m to kick-start projects and feasibility studies to build more homes and get the region moving. This is a welcome starting point, but the next step for the mayor should be to ensure his views and ambitions are reflected in ongoing housing and infrastructure plans for the city region.

The councils that make up the West of England – along with North Somerset (who rejected the chance to be part of the devolution deal) – are currently developing a joint spatial plan, which they intend to submit to the Communities and Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid in March next year. While Bowles does not have oversight on this plan, he will have responsibility for delivering aspects of it. He should therefore use his soft power – and the substantial investment at his disposal – to influence the strategy and to ensure it is ambitious in meeting the needs of the city region.

Moreover, from May 2018 the mayor will also have responsibility for implementing a spatial development strategy for just the combined authority area. Ensuring that these plans are integrated and complimentary will be crucial for the mayor in having the biggest possible impact in addressing the West of England’s housing and transport needs.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.