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.

 
 
 
 

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