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.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.