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“What has the Metrobus controversy taught us about planning for sustainable development?”

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Professor Graham Parkhurst is the Director of the Centre for Transport & Society at UWE, and has over two decades of experience researching and teaching transport policy. In this article he describes his involvement with the Metrobus initiative, and offers his thoughts on planning for sustainable developments. 

“The Metrobus initiative responds to some long-running concerns with transport in Bristol: relatively low bus use for a city of Bristol’s size and unreliable bus journeys due to the traffic congestion explained in large part by high car dependence. Walking and cycling are rightly being promoted, but there is a need for enhanced public transport as well, and following the ‘showcase routes’ initiative, Bristol has probably now done about as much as can be done with conventional bus priorities.

Metrobus is a large and complicated scheme. It is hard for people outside the delivery team to engage across the whole network in the detail necessary to evaluate objectively the design choices made. More of this later, but suffice to say I have focussed my attention on the route north from the city on the M32, via UWE and on to the northwest and northeast ‘fringes’. Here we find one of the largest new structures to be built for the network: the new bus-only motorway junction.

My interest was originally attracted by the proposal for a 1,000-space park-and-ride site adjacent to the M32 north of Stoke Lane. I have researched the effects of park-and-ride schemes since the early 1990s, and in my assessment this would be a bad location for such a site. Being ‘inside’ the Avon ring road it would have attracted many of its users from the Bristol urban area itself; trips made by people who ideally would use Metrobus, or other buses, from nearer their homes and adding additional traffic to one of the most congested parts of the Bristol area road network. (Oxford, the pioneer of park-and-ride has recently recognised a similar problem and is proposing to move its five park-and-rides several miles beyond the urban area to reduce ring-road congestion.) A park-and-ride at this location might also have been an attractive, unintended ‘overflow’ facility for people travelling to the expanding UWE Frenchay campus, rather than the city centre users it was intended to target. In the event, in early 2012 the proposed park-and-ride was removed from the Metrobus scheme submitted for government funding.

The park-and-ride proposal required a complex junction with the capacity to provide for many peak-hour car movements to and from the motorway. Perhaps then without this park-and-ride, a junction specified only to allow a few buses per hour to access Stoke Lane from the motorway could have been designed to be simpler and lower cost? The junction design was not in fact changed in any significant way following the removal of the park-and-ride. As a result of this design, conflict has been generated with the Feed Bristol project and allotment holders located between Frenchay Park Road and the motorway; right in Green Capital year.

No major transport schemes can be delivered without environmental impact (and this would have been true also of the light rail alternative some would have preferred). But could Metrobus have been delivered with lower environmental impacts? Arguably ‘yes’.

An alternative junction scheme was suggested, using the existing Stoke Lane bridge, together with south-facing ramps to allow buses access to and from the motorway. Yes, the civil engineering would be challenging, due to the height of Stoke Lane above the M32, but not obviously any more challenging than the current plan. There would have been a practical issue to solve about how to prevent illegal use by vehicles other than buses, which would have been less straightforward to manage than in respect of the current scheme (which envisages those exiting the northbound M32 illegally being obliged to follow the route across the new bridge but then re-join M32 southbound). But finding a workable solution would surely not though have been beyond the capacity of a determined and resourceful highway engineer? And bus priority would arguably have been greater with a less convoluted junction design, as well as offering a more comfortable ride for immediately post-breakfast bus passengers.

So why was this junction design not revisited? It seems there were two more fundamental reasons. First, although the alternative scheme would have had a much smaller environmental impact overall, and would not have affected the allotments, the northbound ramp to Stoke Lane would have had a small land-take and visual impact on the Stoke Park estate, which has protected status. In my view a small impact here should have been tradable against a much larger impact with the current scheme. Screening the ramp should have been possible.

Second, Bristol City Council owns the allotment site, but was not the landowner of the small strip of land that would be required to provide the southbound ramp in this alternative scheme. Securing the land would have had an additional cost, although this could have been traded against the significant cost savings from not constructing an entirely new bridge and the more significant earthworks of the planned scheme. However, securing the land would have taken time.

Similarly, redesigning the junction would have taken time; which arguably the local authorities did not have. Government money is granted for projects like Metrobus on condition that the scheme is delivered to the planned timetable. Doubts about the viability of a scheme can result in the withdrawal of central government commitments; just such a thing happened in 2004 in the case of the abandoned light rail scheme. Perceptions about a local authority’s competence are argued to have implications beyond the loss of that particular project.

So why did we run out of time to plan a Metrobus that maximised sustainable transport without damaging sustainable food? Could the poor contribution of the park-and-ride have been recognised earlier? And even if not, why weren’t the two years between it being dropped and the formal planning application being submitted enough for a rethink? Did too few of the affected citizens recognise the scale and seriousness of the proposals early enough? Or did they assume Metrobus would come and go, just like the light railway? Was focus lost between the attractive but rather conceptual, broad-brush, public engagement materials and the literally hundreds of ‘zoomed-in’, detailed, technical drawings of individual slices of the planning application?

We will never achieve planning utopia, but Metrobus suggests there is still much that must be done to ensure that consultation which meets or exceeds statutory requirements also results in sufficiently early and meaningful engagement.”

A guide to MetroBus is available on the www.travelwest.info website.

Ian Barrett, Regional Director of Sustrans and a Director of Bristol Green Capital Partnership CIC, shares his thoughts on Metrobus and balancing “all the aspects of being green” in this special Bristol edition of BBC’s Costing the Earth – listen here

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