Going underground

The overground-only mass transit plan being brought forward by the metro mayor would close huge chunks of the city, bringing chaos to our road network*.

Do you want to see large swathes of Gloucester Road (A38) and Church Road/Two Mile Hill (A420) close? Or have you just given up on having a mass transit option for Bristol, risking us being left lurching along behind other cities both economically and environmentally. Are you happy to just keep being unhappy about the buses or the traffic or the delays to your journey?

That’s the question we are now asking the people of Bristol, of the city region and, yes, of the metro mayor and WECA.

There are now two choices if Bristol is to have a segregated mass transport system to transform the way people move around the city. Going underground in the densest and most crowded areas or pursuing an alternative overground-only plan that shuts large areas of main roads, some for a few years and some forever.

The debate you are seeing unfold in the press between Bristol and the region is that stark. It is not as some commentators would contend: a political debate that’s holding us back. In reality, it’s actually a question of ambition for Bristol or more of the same old mediocrity of leadership that our city has historically suffered from.

A mass transit system can take many forms – trams, underground, fast segregated buses, light rail – but what defines the term is the ability for people to get on a public transport system that moves people around and is their best alternative for travel. A system that speeds up journeys and in the main is segregated and away from delays.

Segregation is a key element. If you get on a bus today, some of that journey may be along a specific, speedy bus lane but you also know that you will spend some time in a traffic queue. If you catch a train in Bristol today, you will get traffic free travel but to a limited number of locations.

Simply put, the city has no room for many overground train lines, miles more bus lanes, or free space for trams. The decision is stark: go underground or fail again.

There’s no mystery why, in the 1850s, with London getting more crowded and travel becoming more difficult, that local councils and planners drew up a scheme for mass transit. Their plans came to fruition on 10 January 1863, when the world’s first underground railway opened.

From that day, the capital has further expanded, improved, and modernised its railway systems, making it more accessible, quicker, more regular, and more efficient, creating a mass transit system of 402km, serving residents, the economy, and millions of visitors. Everyone knows London’s mass transit system as ‘The Tube’ or ‘The Underground’. What is less well known is that only 45% of it is actually underground.

What London city governments and Londoners in general have known for 160 years is that the city is too crowded and too dense for transport infrastructure to dominate above ground in central areas. So 160 years ago, they went underground. Buenos Aires, Sydney, Brussels, Rio, Oporto, Montreal, Prague, Marseille, Tbilisi, Athens, and 198 other cities around the world have all realised the same challenge and gone underground too. 45 cities in China and 13 cities in USA have underground transport systems. As well as London, so do Glasgow, Liverpool, and Tyne and Wear in the UK.

We now face a simple choice. We must wake up to the ambition that those cities and many others who are already investing in going underground, building a mass transit system for Bristol that will tackle one of the worst transport systems of any UK city. We must build it without disrupting our city’s roads, driving traffic including HGVs onto smaller roads, or closing large parts of the city, wrecking our economy and driving people into isolated communities.

The Elizabeth Line was recently added to the UK’s list of mass transit systems, linking Reading, Heathrow, and other small towns to the capital as well as crossing London. £19 billion was invested in this project, transforming travel in and around London and the South East. The service has carried more than 150 million passengers in its first year of operation. Businesses and traders have all championed the line’s success in growing a more inclusive and sustainable economy. Alongside the success of the line itself, buses have seen dramatic upturns in passengers around the line, connecting with the service at each stop.

It is Bristol’s turn. It is Bristol’s time. We must go underground in the densest areas or else we cannot deliver a segregated, reliable, fast transport system that people will use in big numbers.

Do not be fooled by the argument that it’s too expensive. A leaked WECA report said it was £18 billion. That report was written without any detailed design and made substantial false assumptions. The cost is actually much lower if managed correctly. Bristol deserves the investment that London and more than 200 other cities around the world have already delivered.

We need ambition. We have the opportunity now to transform the way we move around our city or miss out forever.

*The plans being put forward by the metro mayor for an overground-only mass transit system include:

  • Closing the Gloucester Road (A38) to general traffic between Ashley Road and Ashley Down Road, or making this road one-way, with inbound traffic diverted along Ashley Down Road;
  • Closing the Church Road/Two Mile Hill (A420) to general traffic between Lawrence Hill roundabout and Kingswood, aside from a short section of one way between Chalks Road and Summerhill Road where Hanham (A431) is diverted along Beaufort Road, Blackswarth Road, Chalks Road, Whitehall Road, and Easton Road;
  • Making Bedminster Parade and West Street (A38) one-way, with full closure of Bedminster Parade and Malago Road for construction;
  • Closing St Luke’s Road.
A map of Bristol shows, in red, the roads proposed to be closed to general traffic/made one way under an overground-only mass transit system, including Gloucester Road, Church Road/Two Mile Hill, Bedminster Parade/Malago Road, Bedminster Road/West Street, and St Luke's Road.
Red lines show the roads proposed to be closed to general traffic/made one-way under an overground-only system: Gloucester Road, Church Road/Two Mile Hill, Bedminster Parade/Malago Road, Bedminster Road/West Street, and St Luke’s Road.