As active travel and liveable city campaigners, it’s tempting to portray our own city as falling behind while others forge ahead with brave and progressive plans, as a tactic to nudge our own leaders into similar action. But we should be careful not to fall for our own myths, hype and mutual jealousy.
Everybody is looking at Paris with much jealousy at the moment. The city is making remarkable progress at reducing the dominance of the motor car in the city centre and enabling shift to active travel modes, with some bold targets to reduce on-street parking and reallocate street space. And it’s a good city to look at, learn from, and tell your own city leaders to copy — not so much for the specific infrastructure and street designs they’ve produced, but for the speed at which they’ve moved and the strategy they’ve adopted.
And yet I see on social media all the time Parisians looking with jealousy at what London has achieved, with cycle superhighways and low traffic neighbourhoods. I see Britons excitedly sharing the scattered examples of progress in the patchy and often mediocre for active travel nation of Germany, and I see Germans jealous of the isolated pockets of progress here. I see people in Cardiff jealous of Manchester’s emerging Bee Network, and people in Manchester jealous of Cardiff’s implementation of the Active Travel Act. Worst of all, I see Europeans looking at plainly awful places like North America and Australia and falling for PR stories desperately trying to claim that somewhere there is doing something with active travel worth taking an interest in.
Bristol already did this
I was prompted to write about it on this occasion by this particularly perfect example of the phenomenon. A media organisation produced a slick CGI video of the new design for the Champs-Élysées and somebody tweeted that Bristol should do this.
Thing is, Bristol already did that 20 years ago.
For more than half of the 20th century, “The Centre”, the focal point of Bristol, was a vast lazy sprawl of tarmac, a gyratory system with space for 4 lanes of traffic and kerb-side parking alongside. In the middle was some grass with some flower borders, which nostalgists in the local paper sometimes like to claim is much missed but which in reality was noisy, smelly, and very difficult to get to because all the pedestrian crossings were terrible. The gyratory was, in turn, just one corner of a ring road that circuited the main shopping and office districts.
Then, in the 1990s, Bristol began reversing some of the worst mistakes of the urban motorways era. Most famously it removed an entire section of the no-longer-a-ring road a couple of hundred metres away in Queen Square, where the fine Georgian cityscape was restored after decades of blight and decay.
Less well remembered now, but just as celebrated and hyped at the time, was the transformation of the Centre, where the parallels with the Champs-Élysées changes are remarkable. At the turn of the millennium, the gyratory system was swept away and replaced with a straightforward road — though still a big and intrusive one, with two lanes each way just like in the Champs-Élysées visualisation. Perhaps that’s why we forget how much fanfare there was at the time about the scale of the transformation. National newspapers, the highways trade press, and Radio 4 magazine shows discussed this radical new way of thinking about our streets, with its widened footways and pedestrianised spaces, strictly controlled parking and loading in designated bays, single-stage pedestrian crossings, and tree and shrub planting. If we’d had social media, there would no doubt have been flashy fly through CGIs.
Most of all, the PR and media focused on the return of cobbled streets. The new St Augustine’s Parade was to be block paved as a traffic calming measure — not unusual these days, but at the turn of the millennium it was enough of a novelty on such a big main road to attract comment, much of it repeating the nostalgia-baiting PR line about bringing cobbled streets back to the city.
Of course, the expensive block paving quickly started falling apart under the weight of the traffic, as we now know block paving always will, and it was swept away entirely to be replaced with asphalt a few years ago. No doubt the French will learn the same lesson soon enough.
Knowing when to move on
None of this is to say that Bristol doesn’t have lots that it should be doing to enable active travel, reduce car dependency and dominance, and improve liveability. And there’s lots that Bristol can learn from looking at other cities, including Paris. But the Champs-Élysées isn’t it. We’ve done that.
Bristol has made fantastic progress improving its city centre — removing inappropriate urban motorways and gyratories, building protected cycle tracks, pedestrianising or reducing traffic on lots of central streets, and improving public realm and green space. And while it has some way to go yet before the city centre is truly great, it has good plans for what’s next, with a system of bus gates and filters already in place to trial dividing the centre into a set of low-traffic cells, reminiscent of the celebrated traffic circulation plans in Groningen and Ghent. Indeed, this plan was itself hyped and misreported by the media last year as “pedestrianising the whole city centre”, leading to many active travel and liveable cities advocates posting on social media that their city should be following Bristol’s leadership.
But it has made little progress outside the city centre — in fact, thanks to the forces of satnav rerouting, bloating of new car models, and the spread of sprawl and big barn retail, things are worse than ever in the suburbs. Bristol needs solutions to suburban streets that are too full of big vehicles and aggressive drivers to cycle on. It needs solutions to neighbourhood high streets that are too noisy and fume filled to want to walk down or sit at a cafe on. It needs solutions to the bumper-to-bumper pavement parked cars that have blocked up every residential street. It needs solutions to the car drivers who block the buses on every arterial road, making public transport chronically unreliable and unattractive.
Instead, we keep on tinkering with the same few roads in the city centre. Since that initial transformation, St Augustine’s Parade has repeatedly had minor adjustments — improvements, usually, but nothing like a transformation. We mustn’t let obsession with landmark city centre locations prevent us moving on to the places that now need our attention more urgently.
Don’t fall for your own hype
Maybe it’s useful for local campaigners to hype up what other cities are doing from time to time, as part of a marketing and influencing strategy. Point to the progress that Shelbyville has made, and tell people that Springfield is falling behind. Show your mayor that bold active travel and liveable city policies are popular.
But getting excited by glossy PR and social media-friendly stories about what other cities are doing is an unhelpful distraction if the thing they are doing is not a solution to the problem that your city has. Over-selling what another city has achieved can get you into trouble when it turns out the policies and actions it took them to get there are more complex and harder work than the social media summary made out. And sometimes — just sometimes — it’s worth remembering the times that our own city has made breakthroughs, and asking what we can learn from them.