Space to Breathe

Gridlock in Bristol @Robert Ashby
Gridlock in Bristol @Robert Ashby

Gridlock – a word we hear far too often in European cities. Like clogged arteries, our cities struggle to push through their traffic and continue business as usual. When the blood stops pumping, it is a sign that the (transport) system is failing. In this series of blogs we look at some of the main air pollution challenges for each of our partner cities… starting with Bristol

In Britain, in one decade, the yearly commute is now on average 18 hours longer. Britain’s rail network is overcrowded, its bus service has been severely impacted by ongoing budget cuts despite it being the most frequently used mode of public transport, and cars and vans remain the most popular mode of travel for trips. Two thirds (62%) of all trips are made by car/van, compared to 25% for walking, 8% for bus and just 2% each for trains and bicycles. Most trips made by private car continue to be less than 5 miles (see NTS0308). That equates to over 12 trillion tonnes of CO2 per year emitted each year through these largely avoidable car journeys[1] – or 24% of UK’s domestic greenhouse gases. Pollution from cars and vans costs £6 billion per year in health damages, which to bring the analogy full circle, clogs our arteries. And it effects the poorest the most – in Bristol, you only have to look at the houses either side of the M32 for this to sink in.

Freeing up space

If these sub-5-mile journeys were avoided then two thirds of road users in any given day would be removed from the equation. This frees up the roads for a much improved bus network, and creates space for millions more cyclists who were once fearful of being knocked over during rush hour. With this new space, we could also improve life for those who can’t get about by active travel. Trams could be installed, cycle and foot paths built and pedestrian zones created across cities, not to mention all the possibilities for recreation and wildlife corridors! It’s these policy decisions which ClairCity has been examining through its Delphi process, with many Bristol residents showing great support for major changes in our cities and a preference not to travel by car to work in the future.

Neighbourhood design and life in the future

We need to consider how we will all work, live and play in the future. For our city to work as it should, we need a transport system which can get people from a-to-b safely, in a reasonable time and in the healthiest way possible.

Part of the reason why people travel by car/van is because their local neighbourhoods lack local amenities, such as green grocers, sports clubs, libraries, or places of worship, meaning not only are people needing to drive for their leisure pursuits, but they are finding it increasingly harder to have enough social contact in a given week. Each neighbourhood needs to be designed with environmental and social impact in mind.

Imagine if more people worked from home, could use local co-working spaces, or teleconferencing instead of travelling to work every day? And with more local amenities, people can enjoy the places where they live and hopefully gain upskilled work in climate adaptation, community organising or some other role that has not been invented yet.

We are already starting to see some of these ideas come to pass. From National Clean Air Day, to Playing Out, School Streets, school buses, cycle-to-work schemes, and city electric car rentals there are already many committed activists out there. With Bristol, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset Councils all declaring a Climate Emergency along with pledges to Bristol’s Leap Energy Partnership (the biggest ever council-led energy investment programme in the UK) we are off to a promising start.

Show me the money

However, the battle has not yet been won. Local governments are struggling to keep up with the pace of change required and marginalised communities continue to be left out of decision-making processes, meaning those with the biggest carbon footprint continue to have the biggest voice.

As Alex Morse wrote earlier this year in the Independent: “The problem is, Bristol is leading a blindfolded egg and spoon race. It has scraped together a £250,000 emergency budget, and like all the other cities it will have to invent its own direction, lacks crucial powers and has to rely on much goodwill, luck and voluntary compliance to address some of its biggest carbon emission problems. There is no jurisdiction over local businesses or residents to audit or regulate their carbon emissions”.

Holding business accountable

At the moment, some of the biggest industries, either operating in the city or supplying goods to the city, leave us in the dark about their carbon footprint. As Morse adds: “Either we adopt the mantra of buying local or we are largely dumping our carbon overseas”.

Big businesses need to be held accountable for their impact, for example by auditing the carbon footprint of teams or departments, the products they make or services, and where they are investing their money (including pension schemes). Meanwhile, central Governments need to implement a principle of ecocide to prevent environmental destruction, invest in and subsidise renewable energy, invest in community infrastructure and prioritise our national railways – the list is not exhaustive.

Demanding change

At a collective level, we can unite around these issues to push for change, and draw on precedents to help the campaign.

Some things we could do in Bristol to help shift the balance of power could include:

We need all hands-on deck in Bristol to ensure we can reach net carbon neutrality by 2030 and ensure that marginalised voices are included. What actions could your community take? Share your comments below.

[1] 46.9m (62% of the population) x (5 miles x 364 days) = 85358e10 miles/y). 5mi in a Diesel car (with an average MPG of 51.7) = 1.15kg CO2. 1.15kg x 85358e10 = 12803700000000000 = 12,803,700,000,000 Tonnes CO2. This is not the most sophisticated calculation, and it is unlikely that all of these drivers commute by themselves… but the fact of the matter is that we are polluting a lot of unnecessary CO2.