All change

Today’s guest blog is from James Freeman, Managing Director, First West of England.

All change: the opportunity presented by covid-19 to make mobility around the city and the region more sustainable

As we negotiate our own roadmaps out of the pandemic, it is difficult to comprehend how much has changed over the course of just one year. But with change comes opportunity: and I believe we now have a once in a lifetime opportunity to reinvent our cities for the better and to establish sustainable and clean mobility once and for all into our urban infrastructure. 

Before lockdown, congestion and air pollution in the West of England were two of the key issues being addressed by our local authorities, with Climate Emergencies being declared by many, including Bristol.

As I write this, we are anticipating the rollout of the first Clean Air Zone (CAZ) outside London across in Bath on March 15th and, of course, the soon to follow CAZ in Bristol in October which comes hopefully just at the right time as we all start getting back to some normality .  We prepared well ahead for both of these events because as a business we have our own commitment to be zero emissions by 2035 and to stop investing in diesel vehicles by 2022. It’s now a year since we introduced virtually carbon-neutral bio-methane gas-powered buses, There are 99 of them now running clean and smooth on local routes in Bristol, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 85%.  We will also have the whole of our bus fleet in Bristol and Bath retrofitted to meet the highest Euro 6 standard, which also significantly reduces exhaust emissions to improve air quality.

It’s not just Clean Air Zones that will drive change. Bus-only roads and the pedestrianisation of key areas, such as the old city in Bristol city centre, are other key moves to tackle congestion and pollution.  Through the landmark Bus Deal, which aims to double the frequency of services, we have also worked closely with both Bristol City Council and the West of England Combined Authority to develop service 2 in Bristol. The 2 is (normally!) Bristol busiest bus route, running south-east to north west across the City Centre so critical to getting people out of the car for their commute.  As a bus company, we support cycling – people might think we wouldn’t!  But cyclists are often also public transport users and certainly less likely to own and use a car.  We are working to be part of the first and last mile solution by allowing foldable bikes on to our buses.

Covid-19 also prompted the astonishingly rapid development of some clever new ideas to make things easier for the bus user including the change to the First Bus app that enables users to see where their bus actually is on the map and indeed how much space it has, and Tap and Cap which facilitates quick and safe contactless boarding whether you are paying by card, phone or Apple watch.

Through active partnership working, we will continue to support the economic, community and environmental wellbeing of the city, combining funding from local government in bus infrastructure with our own commitment to cleaner vehicles and easing congestion. It’s essential we get people back on public transport rather than reverting to the old habits of private vehicles.  We have all faced unprecedented challenges, but rather than writing off 2020 as the year that wasn’t, let’s make the most of the opportunities which have been presented to us and view it as the year that together we created a positive and long lasting transport legacy.

I have led First West of England these past six-and-half years. As I prepare to enter retirement at the end of this month and hand over to my successor Doug Claringbold, I feel both humbled and privileged to have had a role in bringing about significant change in the way that our bus services interact with local people. It’s been a huge privilege to be part of it all and I will be watching future developments with great interest as I ride off into retirement!

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