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Transport / Mass transit

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

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.
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