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Green Recovery Insights: What transport changes are needed if Bristol is to make a green recovery?


In the latest of our Green Recovery Insights blog series, Jon Usher, Head of Partnerships for Sustrans, explores the impact of the pandemic on transport patterns, what our response to this needs to be, and the investment required to make the transformative transport changes needed for a green recovery. Sustrans is one of the Partnership’s founding supporting members. 

We all know that the Covid pandemic has had a huge impact on how we live our lives. And this is true for the decisions we make about where we travel to, and how we chose to get there.

During the national lockdown, motor traffic in Bristol fell to levels not seen since the 1950s. But over the summer, we’ve seen the gradual reopening of society. And September saw the mass return of pupils to schools, and the opening of some workplaces. This has led to day time traffic levels returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Changing travel patterns

However, there are some important differences in the local travel patterns we’re seeing. Importantly, with the advice still being to work from home if possible, we’ve not seen the return of the morning and afternoon rush hours.

This picture of traffic levels matching those from before the pandemic but without the commuting rush hours, tells us two things:

  1. Habitually, we choose our cars for many of the trips we make that are not to or from work (we travel to the shops, to visit friends, to school by car)
  2. Without the mass commute, our journeys are less predictable and no longer follow a simple into/out of the city pattern and specific points in the day.

The impact on our transport networks

For years, efforts to change people’s transport behaviour has focussed on the commute to work. For the most part, these are journeys from the suburbs (or further afield) into the centre, or to major employment hubs like the north fringe.

They were journeys we made every day, so were easy targets in attempts to break habitual car trips.

They were also journeys for which it was easy to provide alternatives to car travel. Because of this, our bus and cycle networks are largely based on the hub and spoke model. They were designed to move lots of people to just a few of main employment sites.

But Covid has broken our transport patterns. And in doing so, it’s broken the systems and infrastructure that were built to cater for them.

It’s much harder to change people’s habits for trips that happen infrequently, and that follow the point-to-point model, with multiple destinations visited at different times of day.

People will need more persuasion to leave their cars at home for these ad hoc trips, because they’re less likely to be planned journeys and will happen much less frequently than the commute.

What do we need to do in response to these new travel patterns?

We know from lockdown that people will walk or cycle when the options are safe and convenient – when the threat of motor traffic is removed.

So we need to focus on ensuring that our safe, high-quality walking and cycling infrastructure will serve us for the journeys we’re more likely to make now.

The point-to-point nature of our future travel patterns will mean we need a much more comprehensive network of routes for walking and cycling to feel comfortable.

That network will need not only to focus on cycle lanes along our main transit routes, but must also include streets across the city that are permeable to people, but not to cars. This is how we can ensure that people across the city can get safely to where they need to be, on foot or by cycle.

Perhaps too, we need to consider ways of making it less convenient (but not impossible) to drive.

The role of transport in Bristol’s green recovery

Currently, over 50% of all journeys in Bristol are made by car. And it’s these habits we need to break if we’re to achieve our net-zero carbon ambitions and ensure that Bristol’s recovery from the pandemic is a green one.

A recent report from the University of Bristol suggested we need to go much further and faster than we are to reduce the number of car trips in the city if we are to meet the net-zero target by 2030.

There’s no doubt that we’ve seen some positive movement in recent months. The scale of ambition has increased and the pace change of has accelerated. Temporary measures like the closure of Bristol Bridge and new cycle lanes past the Bristol Royal Infirmary would not have happened so quickly without Covid.

And now national policy is catching up with our local ambitions. The Government’s Gear Change vision for walking and cycling aims for ‘a future where half of all journeys in towns and cities are cycled or walked’.

But the truth is we need to push ahead and restate the transport outcomes we want delivered over the next decade. We cannot rest on our laurels.

Targeted investment in the network we need to see

And we need more than words – we need funding to match.

We also need to be quite intentional about the way we target that funding. It must not be spent only in the areas that are shouting loudest for change, but to the areas of our city where investment would have the greatest impact.

The West of England Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan identifies over £400 million of investment needed to 2036. But only £10 million has been committed for the next five years by the Combined Authority to date.

This equates to a little over £2 per person per year – much less than the estimated £7 national average spent by authorities across England.

As we see our population increase over the same period, we will struggle to maintain our current mode share for walking and cycling – let alone see it grow and flourish.

In order to build back a better transport system that is fair and works for everyone in our new Covid world, we need the funding to match the scale of our stated ambitions. And we need to invest it in the infrastructure that will serve our new travel patterns.

For more on how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting people in relation to transport, neighbourhoods and places, check out Sustrans’ Life after Lockdown policy briefing series.

About the author

Jon is an expert in transport policy and works with senior leaders in multiple sectors across the West of England. A member of the One City Transport Board and director of Bristol Green Capital Partnership, he is passionate about creating liveable towns and cities for everyone. He has led national programmes for the Department for Transport and delivered £multi-million projects that make it easier for people to walk and cycle.


Transport, News & Information, Blog, Green Recovery Insight
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