Sunday, 16 March 2014

Observations from Bristol

On a very brief trip to Bristol a couple of weeks ago I took the opportunity for a walk round to see if I could understand why cycling is becoming a real success story there.

It is 15 years since I lived in Bristol, and some things have changed quite a bit.

For a start the entire city centre and beyond is all one big 20mph zone.

There are also contraflow cycle lanes on almost all the one way streets.

This one near Broadmead has been there a very long time,

But these on Nelson St and All Saints St are more recent

So why does Bristol have double the weekly level of cycling of Manchester?

Figure 1. Proportion of residents who cycled (any length or purpose) at least once a month in England’s 8 core cities (plus Bath and East Somerset, North Somerset, and South Gloucester during 2010/11 - from Considerate Cycling 39

 There are a lot of people on bikes in the centre of Bristol,

even where there is no obvious infrastructure,

and there is a good variety of approaches to cycling clothing.

This is despite the fact that Bristol wont win any prizes for cycle lane maintenance,

or enforcement!

And their traffic free routes get obstructed too,

and there were several of these signs about the place

It may have helped having Sustrans head office in the city,

and there is a vibrant cycling culture that just keeps growing.

I don't think there is any one measure that you can point at and say that it is the reason for cycling being more popular in Bristol than in Manchester. Bristol has many very steep hills, yet this seems to be no barrier. By contrast much of Manchester is fairly flat.

I think some of it is down to the energy of may different people in Bristol over many years. From the people in the Bristol Civic Society who prevented the docks being concreted over in the late 1960s to the forming of Cyclebag (Channel Your Calf and Leg Energy Bicycle Action Group!) in 1977, who began building the Bristol to Bath Railway Path and then the formation of Sustrans, to the more recent foundation of the rather more radical Bristol Cycling Campaign in 1991 which brought together a group of people, including me, who were prepared to push much harder for change and target the damaging effects of motor traffic on our lives.

I left Bristol in 1999, and things have continued to change for the better in Bristol. Levels of cycling have grown steadily despite all the problems with the Bristol cycling city project where money was spent badly, but out of that has grown the Bristol Cycling Festival and many other home spun projects that have become very successful.

It is, in my mind, Bristol's radical and vibrant cycling culture which has created the conditions for the city's cycling success over the past 30 years and created the conditions where policy can shift from wasting money on roads to reducing road traffic and encouraging walking, cycling and giving the streets back to people..

Photo from the Bristol Post


  1. I left my hometown of Bristol for South Manchester in 2011, and took up cycling in January 2012. I've since been back to Bristol in the university holidays with my bike, so I've seen both sides.

    Unfortunately, I think the thing that you're missing out from this article is that other methods of transport in Bristol are undeniably shit, and that makes cycling the least unappealing option for more people.

    In particular, congestion - they have (very recently) introduced a 20mph limit throughout the city, but even before then there were average speeds of 16mph, which is slower than London.

    The public transport options are also thoroughly crap - no trams, and only one train branch line whose route is of fairly limited use. I lived within five minutes walk of one station for several years, and I only ever used it to get to Temple Meads (the mainline station, for any non-Bristolians reading!).

    Then we come onto the buses - First run a virtual monopoly on the buses, and they use that monopoly in the worst way possible - extremely expensive fares, buses that regularly turn up late or not at all and surly drivers. You can't rely on them if you need to be somewhere on time - like work, for instance.

    That said, I think having a very pro-cycling mayor (George Ferguson, elected 2012), a city that's generally much better at grassroots projects than Manchester and rather nice segregated cycling projects such as the Festival Way, I think these have largely grown out of frustrations with the other transport options.

    So whilst I will agree that Bristol has a much bigger and better cycling culture than Manchester, it's not for particularly palatable reasons, and I fear that if they were ever to get the public transport sorted out (ha!) then cycling rates might drop.

    1. "Unfortunately, I think the thing that you're missing out from this article is that other methods of transport in Bristol are undeniably shit, and that makes cycling the least unappealing option for more people."

      Well, yes and no. I agree, and I also think it's the reason so many people cycle in Cambridge, where I live. Congestion is terrible, affecting buses and private cars alike. Lots of people walk too.

      People almost always chose the form of transport that is most advantageous to them. That's true of the Netherlands too. The choices may be rather better, but essentially people cycle because it's fast, cheap and gets them where they need to go. They can be put off by things like safety, but it being safe is not actually a reason to cycle. It being the best way to get around, is.

    2. My point is that cycling isn't really any more attractive in real terms in Bristol than Manchester. It's just that other transport options are much less appealing in real terms in Bristol than Manchester, so cycling becomes a relatively more attractive option.

      This means that the rather unpalatable conclusion is that the way to replicate Bristol's success is to bugger up Manchester's public transport system, and leave the cycling options as they currently are....

    3. Agreed, cycling is the most convenient way to get around this city. The medieval infrastructure was not meant for cars, and certainly not for buses.

      One thing the article is missing though is the mention of the mountain bike scene in Bristol. Bristol is now one of the top ten cities in the world to live if you're a mountain biker. Why does this matter? It matters because it attracts talented mechanics, riders, trail (and path) builders, media attention and therefore sponsors. These are all incredibly good things for cycling and provide a fertile ground for further development.

  2. Frankly I think the 20mph limit (which has only recently started being rolled out) and scattered and few contraflow cycle lanes have little to do with it. It's not the infrastructure either; as you note it's generally poor and badly maintained.

    So what it is about Bristol? I think it's entirely to do with the Bath railway path. It's a credible route for traffic free commuting into the city. Following in it's path other routes have been built.

    1. Are you really suggesting everyone cycling in Bristol has come in from Bath?

    2. No, but it got the foot in the door.

    3. The Bristol Bath path undoubtedly helps but one of the (if not the) busiest areas for cycling in Bristol is the Gloucester Road which has little to no (to plain dangerous) cycling provision. I think it might be a mindset thing.

  3. Funny that you didn't know/notice that £22 million has recently been spent on promoting cycling in Bristol - back in 2008 it won a funding competition to become the UK's Cycling City. All sorts of projects were thought out to encourage people to cycle, festivals and cycle training and cycle parking and shelters as well as cycle lanes and so on.