Why Bristol is still failing to be a cycling city

In writing up the Cycling Embassy’s AGM infrastructure safaris, I said some nice things about Bristol. I think it’s the least worst city for getting around by bicycle in Britain. But despite the good things that Cycling England’s demonstration city project achieved, and the city council’s boasts about it, Bristol has failed to become a cycling city where it most matters.

The city was named and shamed by The Times for one of the worst junctions in the country, the St James Barton roundabout — aka The Bearpit — on the inner ring road. Four lanes of circulating traffic forming a formidable barrier to getting into the city centre from the arterial roads that terminate here. But while one wing of the city council considers new variations on the Great British shared facility — awkward kludges to work around the mistakes and omissions of the 1960s — another is independently working on “public realm improvements” just yards away, each apparently oblivious to what the other is doing. And neither of them seems to have a clue that this is a “cycling city”.

Regular readers might already be familiar with the street that they wish to improve: the A38, one of those arteries terminating at St James Barton. It’s variously Stokes Croft, Cheltenham Road, and later Gloucester Road. It’s the artery explored in this infrastructure safari, and, a few miles up, the high street that was the subject of this post on how people get to their local shops.

Heading north out of town, if you survive St James Barton, you’ll need to turn onto the bus lane, underneath 51°02, onto Stokes Croft (technically North Street for the first hundred yards or so), and then try to dodge the buses which are overtaking you on the bend ready to immediately pull into the bus stop that’s hidden just behind 51°02’s stilts…

…while on the southbound carriageway a single lane widens into four for stacking at the roundabout, much having been bulldozed out of the way for them half a century ago. Continuing northbound, a section of extra-wide footway — spare space set aside when there were ideas that this road should one day be even wider — is mostly lifeless in this land of the motor…

…and finally, the section of sprawling highway ends abruptly where the old street dimensions and frontages survived the bulldozers… but suffered the years of planning blight from threats of road widening that left them in a poor state of repair and, when occupied at all, usually occupied by the city’s less wholesome businesses.

There’s no doubt that this is a pretty foul place for pedestrians, with a cloud of fumes coming off the four lanes of stacked traffic waiting for the lights; and the cars speeding around the blind bend from the roundabout; and the acres of dead space in the non-standard road layout that encourages non-standard manoeuvres. So the city council are consulting on “public realm improvements” for this area, hoping to bring the pavements alive with people and street cafes. So what are these improvements?

Taking out the bus lane to widen the footway, leaving cyclists with that thoroughly discredited facility, the 1.5m on-carriageway cycle lane, leading cyclists into exactly the same deadly conflict with the bus stop as before, and providing the ever delightful environment of buses pulling in and out inches to the left of you, speeding cars and trucks inches to the right of you.

And acres of dead carriageway replaced with acres of dead pavement, and again, that widely tried and widely failed 1.5 metre cycle lane, a gutter sandwich between traffic and the driver-side doors of the loading and parking bays. But it’s OK, the designers have thought about the needs of cyclists: the loading bays are supposedly  “wide enough to create a safe buffer between car doors and passing cyclists”. And a raised table will apparently slow drivers down as they nudge the steering wheel slightly to turn across the cycle lane into that grossly distended side road, King Square Avenue, so that’s alright then.

No doubt the trees and fancy fashionable paving will make this a less awful place to be on foot, but I’m not sure people will be rushing to set up pavement cafes next to the totally unchanged four-lane stacked traffic. It’s treatment of symptoms without addressing the real causes of the problems here.

More to the point, it’s still useless if you’re on a bicycle, because, like everything built by the city’s highways engineers, it’s designed with Britain’s useless guidelines and rules. And that’s why Bristol’s authorities can not claim to be administering a cycling city. The great things that have been achieved in the city can be attributed to either the few excellent hard working cycling officers, or to the consultants and contractors bought in and guided by Cycling England during the demonstration city project. But the cycling office appear to have been put in a silo, able only to get paths put in where they won’t inconvenience anybody — through the parks, behind the allotment gardens, under the electricity pylons; and the hired expertise left when Cycling England and the demonstration city project went up in the bonfire of the quangos. The rest of the council seems to be as oblivious about cycling as any other authority in Britain: the highways department are as obsessed as any other with traffic flow and junction capacity; transport officers are just as obsessed with buses; parking enforcement just as powerless to keep cycle lanes clear; police just as indifferent to dangerous driving. It’s not a cycling city, it’s a city with a cycling department.

You can see it when a southern bypass is proposed with a 1.5m wide pavement cycling facility; when the flagship cycle path is suggested as the perfect location for a BRT line; when quaysides and riverside paths — crucial for linking together the network of traffic-free cycle routes in the city centre — are left impassable for years due to construction work (or lack of it); and every time the highways department puts in another 1.5m cycle lane in the gutter underneath the car parking.

All of the candidates to be Bristol’s first mayor say they want to be in charge of a cycling city (even if one of them doesn’t mean it) and all of them recognise that there’s a way to go before they can claim to be so. If they’re to get there, they need all their officers behind them, not just the few in the cycle paths office.

9 thoughts on “Why Bristol is still failing to be a cycling city”

  1. “It’s not a cycling city, it’s a city with a cycling department.”

    Actually, the cycling section was abolished at the end of cycling city and all cycling specialists were subsumed into other departments.

    And you’re right, Bristol may not be brilliant, but at least they try. As someone living in South Glos, also part of Cycling City, I can only concur with the view expressed by one of Bristol’s transport planners “South Glos only exists to make Bristol look really, really good.”

    If you’ve got access to Local Transport Today, you might like to check out my article about cycle planning in July 2012

  2. Before I moved to London I cut my cycling teeth in Bristol and although that was only half a decade ago, I can’t say that I miss cycling there. You’re right to castigate the ‘bear pit’ roundabout but I always went out of my way to avoid it when possible and to get to the west side of the city to the harbour there are alternative paths. Broadmead however is a fortress and getting there by bike is/was a nightmare and the new-ish retail development has only exacerbated this.

    I think a lot of Bristol’s rep as a cycling city comes solely from Sustrans and the Bath-Bristol cyclepath – which is only really of use if you’re commuting in from the east / Fishponds and not at all welcoming at night – despite being lit. South Bristol too is horrendous for cycling. It still baffles me how the place is held up as an exemplar.

  3. Actually, a lot of Bristol’s on-road cycle lanes are much narrower than 1.5 metres, so that proposal is pretty generous!

    Take as an example the cycle lane approaching the Clifton Suspension Bridge from the city: allegedly to help cyclists, but it is barely a foot or so wider than the double yellow line markings, and gets even narrower on the final bend before the Bridge (it gets narrower than the said double yellows). I have been very nearly doored along it once, by a passenger leaping out of his mate’s car (his response to my shout was “Well, you stopped, didn’t you? So whats the problem?”).

    Or going down along Park Row toward the BRI hospital and (eventually) St James Barton roundabout, where the path is a little wider than the double yellows (and is painted red, this time). It is the roughest, most pot-holed surface imaginable, then disappears as it gets to a pelican crossing, then reappears for another hundred metres or so before disappearing permanently. And the end of it launches you into a stretch of potholed road which makes you feel ill (and wishing you had a full-suspension bike).

    But I agree with Monchberter – most of Bristol’s cycling reputation is based on the Bristol Bath Railway Path (which I have never used).

    I commute into the city from the other side, so I either have the joys of the overgrown cycle path alongside the A369, or the mud of the riverside Pill Path, or I have to go over the Avonmouth Bridge and along the shared path at the side of the Portway (the A4), or I can just ride on the road and face the miffed-off motorists in a hurry to get to work.

    The A369 means you have to make your way down from Clifton on the roads.

    The Pill Path and the Portway bring you out near the old docks (the cycle path leads you into an area marked as “not suitable for cyclists” due to the old railway lines sunk into the surface).

    And Bristol motorists are not exactly welcoming. Have a look at the comments on thisisbristol.co.uk – the website for our local paper. Half the commentators want cyclists to be off the road “somewhere” (but aren’t clear where) and the others just want them lynched or something.

    Remember, we may be the Cycling City but are also the city where a bus driver was convicted of using his bus as a weapon after a cyclist annoyed him on the famous St james Bartion roundabout. A scarily large number of the comments on the site mentioned above were of the belief that the cyclist had deserved it.

  4. As a Bristolian of only five and a half years (and a cycling one of four) I can only concur with the OP and those in the comments above. While much money has been spent on cycling infrastructure it has always been towards getting cyclists away from main thoroughfares to enable motorised traffic to flow better. Designated cycle routes, while good for leisure rides, are always way longer than any sensible motorist would take and therefore not be ones that commuting riders would ideally like to take.

    And no-one has touched on how awful & just bloody scary it is to get from just north of the city (Bishopston) to the countryside further north. Just try and negotiate the complex set of roundabouts, as a not 100% confident cyclist, to bypass the Cribbs Causeway industrial estate! I’m glad I don’t have a family to want to do it with. All in all, excepting the much vaunted Bristol-Bath track, if you live in north Bristol you do, as a cyclist, feel trapped in concentric rings of very dangerous, and often malicious, traffic.

  5. Yes, glad you wrote about this one. I live in Montpelier, and a quick zip down Stokes Croft into the centre really ought to be the perfect hop-on-and-off cycling trip. It’s doesn’t feel *quite* dangerous enough to totally put me off, but it is sufficiently dispiriting that I usually end up walking.

    I know cycling city money was limited, and I know that nice connections from central areas like Montp and Stokes Croft were not a priority given limited funds … but there does remain a feeling of disappointment that the nettle of the nasty road environment has just not been grasped.

    1. In which case you must visit South Gloucestershire, also part of the Cycling City scheme and see the new Hayes Way/A38 junction, done during the period of cycling city. Possibly the worst piece of road provision for everyone, but especially cyclists, since the dawn of time, and the subject of my recent article for Local Transport Today. If you’d like the guided tour, let me know.

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