Bristol is finally about to get a rapid transit network – sort of

Bristol. Image: Getty.

Say the words ‘Metro’ and ‘Bus’ to any Bristolian and your best-case scenario is that they’ll breathe a heavy sigh.

The first route on the long-awaited Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is due to launch on 29 May. But the project has become so unpopular that Tim Bowles, the mayor of the West of England, has commented only half-jokingly that he prefers not to be referred to as a “Metro Mayor”, lest constituents associate him with the project.

MetroBus began life in 2006 as a low-cost mass transit solution: a poor man’s tram which would serve the booming Bristol population and loosen the chokehold the car has on the road network frequently cited as one of the most congested in the UK.

Bus Rapid Transit is, basically, a sexed-up bus. By running largely independently of the normal road network via segregated bus lanes and purpose-built guideways, it offers better speed and reliability. Heres’ the concept being demonstrated in Cambridge:

A video of the Cambridge Guded Busway.

The MetroBus scheme was a milestone, as Bristol has never in modern history had planned integrated mass public transport. Other city regions like Manchester may have trams to complement their bus and rail services. But Greater Bristol has remained stubbornly suburban in its thinking, limited by a lack of political will from central government and cowed by pressure from voters who commute by car – even though it’s quicker to cycle than drive in Bristol at rush hour.

MetroBus was an acknowledgement that the city can’t solve congestion by just building more roads. While it may sound counterintuitive that giving up space to bus lanes will help ease congestion, it works: any measure which improves the speed and reliability of buses means people are able to switch from their cars to public transport. This phenomenon is known as ‘modal shift’, and it removes those vehicles from the traffic traffic, easing space on the road network for people who need to drive – disabled people, traders, delivery vans, carers.

Bristol houses just under half a million people, but over 835,000 people are employed in the Bristol Travel to Work Area (Somerset, Bath, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and further afield). All three local authorities which share a border with the city are commuter hubs, with a sprinkling of fast growing satellite towns as a result of house price inflation in the inner city. The region is served by a lacklustre and overcrowded local rail system – though this is set to change with the onset of the MetroWest rail expansion project – and only three park and rides.

The region. Image: West of England LEP.

Bristol’s bus network is patchy and journey times are unreliable, a direct result of the deregulation under the Transport Act 1985 (thanks, Thatcher). It’s hard for a city to plan its transport network strategically, when commercial bus operators can chop and change their routes at will.

So MetroBus was intended to plug this gap. The proposed network would link several areas of the Greater Bristol conurbation: one route runs from the suburb of Ashton Vale to Temple Meads station via a guided busway; a second links Hengrove Park in the south to the Northern Fringe via the M32; while a link road would connect the Hartcliffe and Bishopsworth areas of south Bristol.

All this will facilitate housebuilding and regeneration. Land around the guideway has already been earmarked for residential development, assisting the council to meet its target of building 2,000 homes – 800 of which are affordable – per year by 2020.

The route map. Image: Travelwest.

Two historic bridges have been restored and a new junction and bridge built over the M32 to put the ‘rapid’ into bus rapid transit. So: faster journey times, neatly segregated from the choked arteries of a road network suffering a dire dearth of orbital roads. What’s not to love?

As it turns out, quite a bit. The project will also see the city centre redeveloped to stop motor traffic using it as a cut through into the shopping district. But it has missed an opportunity to create decent cycling infrastructure, with proposals for poorly distinguished shared space paving termed “daft and dangerous” by the Bristol Post.

Meanwhile, the monolithic black ticket machines, iPoints, have also been delayed at the manufacturing stage, and MetroBus can’t launch without them. Pre-board ticketing is vital for speeding up journeys: no waiting for Doris to start digging out her bus pass, or for passengers to be burnt to a crisp by the murderous stare of a driver handed a £20 note. Indecision over ticket zoning has also meant little information has been released publicly about ticket prices, and whether these will differ if bought on the First app.

On top of all that, the project has proven to be both later and pricier than expected. The original route to Temple Meads has changed; local authorities have had to pitch in more than £13m extra than planned after construction industry inflation surpassed expectations; timelines have slipped, and environmental protestors had to be removed from trees marked for felling.

We are now, I believe, on the home stretch: the M3 route is launching in May from Emersons Green via the University of the West of England into The Centre, and will be free for 13 days from Tuesday 29 May. A date for the beginning of services on other routes, however, has yet to be announced.  

Despite the naysayers, once people understand the concept of MetroBus, they’re usually fairly optimistic. I’m personally looking forward to the launch, and hope to be pleasantly surprised by setting low expectations: if I can get from Ashton Gate to the train station in 20 minutes, I’ll count that as a success.

If not…well, maybe we should just hold out for an underground.

Holly Jones tweets as @hollium.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.