Let’s face it, all this talk of European cities, culture capitals, green capitals and the rest is just so much PR hot air and feel-good marketing soundbites from our councillors. They’re all just props to make it sound like they’re doing something important when they’re actually sat around on bureaucratic committees very slowly implementing dull reports devised by uninspired local government officers that will achieve little.
Whenever it comes down to doing anything original, exciting, radical or counter-intuitive we always end up getting nothing except a few artists impressions released to the Evening Cancer for publicity purposes and then years of inertia and excuses.
Instead our council will invariably either do exactly what Whitehall tells it – regardless of whether it’s likely to work or not – or they will just slavishly copy whatever’s going on in London because that must be the right thing to do.
Transport is a case in point. If you were mad enough to sit through this week’s ‘State of the City’ debate then you would know that transport was the issue right at the top of the agenda for most people. But councillor after councillor simply proposed the same timid solution – “we must set up a quango immediately” – which probably won’t work anyway.
As the city’s congestion reaches crisis point – it’s now the worst in the UK outside London – and the public transport system wallows somewhere in the1950s, the council simply has no idea what to do. Instead we get the stock Bristol City Council response.
This is to set up some committee supposedly doing something about the problem in the long-term while whining about having no money. Simultaneously they will then funnel any available funds they do have towards the usual gang of experts, CONsultants and vested interests whose main area of expertise seems to be in how to use a problem to line their own pockets first and generate revenue for the council’s coffers second. Our needs seem to come a distant third.
In the case of transport what we get are more and more ludicrous “traffic management schemes” – traffic lights, contra-flows, one way systems, bus lanes, half-arsed cycle lanes, chicanes, signs, speed humps, road markings – courtesy of the civil engineering industry. These are combined with ever-increasing parking charges, costly controlled parking zones for residents and now we have the genuine threat of an expensive and unproven hi-tech congestion charge looming. Just like London! (Except without the tube or rail network or a brand spanking new £10 billion Crossrail scheme of course).
All this expensive nonsense – fairly and squarely aimed at costing ordinary working people trying to get their kids to school and themselves to work – appears to have no effect whatsoever on congestion. So what’s the point of it?
Meanwhile the council’s only other transport idea is to set up a quango, or a Local Transport Authority as they like to call it. This unelected quango will apparently better arrange the bus timetables with the other councils across the former Avon area and also impose the dreaded congestion charge. This is despite the fact that nobody wants a bus-based public transport system, nobody is going to use a bus-based public transport system and nobody wants the bloody congestion charge either.
However, being Bristol, even something as simple as setting up a committee is mired in inertia. Other councils apparently aren’t too keen to work with Bristol City Council. Wonder why? (Clue: would you enter into any kind of financial arrangement with the Bristol Labour Party or its profligate members?)
And that’s it. That’s the city’s transport policy. Pay through the nose now for a system that’s not working and look forward to paying even more in the future in congestion charges or, if you can’t afford it, take an “integrated” overpriced First Bus to work.
This isn’t delivering anything for anyone is it? And neither is it likely to in the future. Whether you’re a driver, a cyclist, a pedestrian or a long-suffering public transport user there’s nothing here for anyone. Where are the ideas? Where’s the desire and can-do attitude to improve things right now for us?
Well, there’s at least one idea out there that would cost us very little and could make a lot of difference. All it would take is a politician with some vision, a couple of helpful officers in the council’s transport department and a team of blokes with some angle grinders and some pickaxes. It’s called “Shared Space“.
Developed by a Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, who sadly died last week, shared space is a nothing less than a new philosophy of traffic engineering. The idea is that road users’ behaviour is affected more by street environment and design than by traditional measures such as speed bumps, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings.
So Monderman pioneered the concept of the “naked street”. By removing all the things that are supposed to make it safer for a pedestrian – traffic lights, railings, kerbs and road markings he created completely open and even surfaces on which motorists and pedestrians negotiate with each other through eye contact. Users’ behaviour then becomes based on natural human interaction rather than on artificial state regulation.
He also claimed that congestion, traffic jams and the rush-hour would be alleviated if not completely eliminated by removing all these state traffic regulations. He further argued that if traffic is slowed down it will actually move quicker.
At the heart of shared space lies the idea of integration. This contrasts with the traditional town planning practices of segregation, where traffic and people must be ruthlessly seperated. Monderman’s attitude – which is well worth Bristol City Council taking on board – was:
“If you treat drivers like idiots, they act as idiots. Never treat anyone in the public realm as an idiot, always assume they have intelligence.”
Of course for much of his life Monderman was himself treated as a dangerous idiot by traditional traffic experts, civil engineers and the huge and powerful corporate vested interests behind them. But where his ideas have been tried such as in his home town of Friesland, Holland and in Scandinavia they have been highly successful.
Ticking just the kind of boxes the council claims to support, Monderman’s shared space has demonstrably cut congestion, improved air quality, reduced carbon emmissions and transformed road safety. In fact he’s achieved the exact opposite results to those of our traditionalist traffic and transport experts here in Bristol.
We even have in Bristol the ideal testing ground for a shared space experiment: former Labour leader George Micklewright‘s much reviled development in the Centre.
Micklewright – who these days apparently “advises” Bristol’s Green Party – was another in that long line of Labour leadership flops who ran the city at the turn of the millenium. He is chiefly known for two things. One was selling the council’s share in the airport and frittering the money away while allowing his transport boss – Helen Holland, since you asked – to hang our tram system out to dry.
The other thing he’s remembered for is the deeply unpopular development of the Centre. While the people of the city clearly stated a preference for the centre to be dug up and the docks restored, as usual the Bristol Labour Party ignored us and embarked on a cheaper option that they claimed would make it look “like Barcelona”.
Of course it didn’t. The combination of acres of concrete and their pissing fountains actually makes it look like Milton Keynes on a wet Wednesday and the area has been loathed by Bristolians since the day it opened. What’s more the place has proved itself a death trap with pensioners regularly getting hit by buses there.
Could this be the ideal place for the city to create a shared space scheme? What’s there to lose? If it fails then our traffic engineer traditionalists can lovingly recreate their pensioner death trap again in a few years time anyway.
But what if it succeeds? For starters the city would gain the kind of iconic centre it always wanted but never got. It would also be able to roll out the scheme right across the city centre, potentially garnering considerable international attention in the process and sticking it right up London with their stupid and unpopular hi-tech congestion charge run by friends of New Labour Crapita. Bristol could then perhaps start to stake a genuine claim to be the green capital it wants to be.
Will it ever happen? Unlikely. What use to our councillors and officers is a solution to congestion that doesn’t raise cash for Bristol City Council, line the pockets of CONsultants and generate huge profits for New Labour’s corporate chums like Capita?
And can you really see all those bossy tossers and little Hitlers at the Council House implementing anything that would put us in control rather than them?