Bristol’s buses are in chaos. Here are four fixes that won’t break the bank

On the buses. Image: Getty.

On a damp afternoon across the street from Bristol’s main railway station Temple Meads, people stamp their feet in line, while passengers file off the late-running number 2 bus through its single door. Once the last person is off, the queue steps up one at a time to pay, some with cash and some with mobiles. When the 15 or so are on board, the driver waits for a gap in the cars and pulls out – straight into a traffic jam.

Scenes like this are a flavour of the bus catastrophe that has befallen the city in recent weeks. Roadworks have left the centre gridlocked, while driver shortages have led to frequent cancellations. While these are short-term issues, Bristol is also experiencing the growing pains that come with a 56 per cent increase in bus passengers since 2011.

A metro system is in the early stages of planning, but is many years away. Using the city’s narrow roads more efficiently is the only way to keep people moving – and that means shifting more car drivers to buses. Some modest investments could do so quickly and cheaply. 

Move along, please

First, bus journeys could be sped up greatly by reducing the time spent at stops. The current single door for both entry and exit causes long waits. A second further back, as London buses have, would allow passengers to enter without waiting for those exiting. The recent purchase of hundreds of single-door buses is a missed opportunity here, but a refit is surely possible.

There’s another thing keeping buses waiting – other drivers. When buses try to pull out from the kerb, cars often won’t let them out. These extra seconds at each stop add up along the route to slower journeys. In Seattle, cheap pavement ‘bulb-outs‘ are the solution. The bolt-in plastic boarding platforms line up with the edge of the traffic lane, allowing stopped buses to keep their place in the flow. With two doors and contactless payment, delays to the traffic behind should be minimal.

Plastic ‘bus bulbs’ allow stopped buses to stay in lane, so they don’t get stuck waiting to pull out. Image: Zicla.

Cartographer wanted

Second, fragmented ownership and branding makes it hard for passengers to understand where they can easily travel to. The transport agency’s bus map shows how frequently each particular street has buses, but not the routes themselves. Rail lines are shown, but not the routes and destinations of trains.

The public authorities’ map shows frequency on each street (dark blue) without showing individual routes. Image: TravelWest.

First Bus, the dominant operator, publishes its own maps. These show colour-coded routes, but not frequency, leaving riders guessing as to whether the bus comes every five minutes or twice a day:

First Bus’s map. It shows the routes, but not the frequency. Image: FirstBus.

Slicker information from TravelWest could help plaster over the gaps. To riders, how often transit comes is just as important as where it goes. ‘Turn-up-and-go routes’ – those running about every ten minutes or more – give people the freedom to travel without organising their lives around timetables.

In Luxembourg and Auckland, the map clearly shows such services using thickness and color. Bristol would do well to follow their example.

This is better – the lines are colour-coded, frequent routes are thick, and occasional ones are thin. Image: City of Luxembourg.

Make a change

Third, a complete redesign of the bus network could allow frequent service to the whole city, rather than just a few key roads. Today, a tangle of occasional routes run by different companies try to connect outlying suburbs directly to the hospitals, shopping areas and the centre. Ideally, passengers don’t have to change buses, but with occasional service once every hour or more, waits are long.

Schematic of today’s network. Routes are direct, but only run infrequently, so waits are long.

Counterintuitively, short and frequent routes with transfers between them would be faster for most trips than today’s direct but infrequent ones. More passengers would have to change buses, instead of waiting for the one bus that goes exactly where they want. But because all routes run very often, they’d get to their destination quicker throughout the day. Transfers between lines and between operators would have to be free, so people aren’t penalised.

Reorganisation to a simpler network gets most people to their destinations faster for the same overall cost, but more people must transfer. Images: Jarrett Walker.

Regulation ahead

Bristol’s buses are a deregulated market. Various companies exist, with First dominant. But here is the difficulty.  First is incentivised to maximise profits, not passenger numbers.


This is not an ideological dig, but a simple observation that for a business, if a small network gives the same profit as a larger one, smaller is preferable and less risky. So First, with its monopoly position, is unlikely to be commercially interested in wholesale expansion and reorganisation.

Fourth, then, services should be planned to achieve ridership, not profitability. In Jersey, the island’s council sets high-level goals, while the contract incentivises the private operator to grow passenger numbers. Passenger numbers are up by a third and subsidies down by £800k.

The city’s Bus Strategy, due early 2019, will likely offer a choice between softer measures or full regulation. If local politicians go with the latter, First is sure to put up a fight in public and in the courts. Council leaders should tough it out; voters will thank them later. And so will those waiting for the number 2.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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