Bristol buses – what next?

Bus stop - 76 to Henbury

From April 2020 WECA will take over responsibility for overseeing bus services across Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES) and South Gloucestershire.  This includes powers to introduce bus franchising.  What are the likely implications?

This article was prepared before measures to control the Coronavirus pandemic were put in place.


Under a franchising system, the regional authority defines routes, fares and timetables and bus operating companies bid to run the services.  Franchising involves significant financial risk to the regional authority.  There are costs in setting franchising up, such as contract administration, expert in-house staff, and purchase of land and facilities.  Major infrastructure works are needed to allow buses to move freely along continuous, segregated corridors.  Under a franchise arrangement, local taxpayers would have to cover the gap if bus passenger numbers and fare revenues do not exceed the fees paid to bus companies to run the service.  

FoSBR focus on rail issues, but our colleagues at Transport for Greater Bristol (TfGB) summarised their position as follows in response to the recent Bus Strategy consultation:

“Operational framework: we think WECA should stick with partnership arrangements [such as the Bristol Bus Deal] for arterial routes until the buses are moving freely, as doing it before buses can move freely carries too much financial risk for the local authority.  Franchising for orbital routes may also carry financial risk, so again WECA should only do it when the arterial routes can subsidise the orbital routes.” 

The metro mayoral election is scheduled to take place in spring 2021.  Bristol mayoral and council elections have also been postponed one year to spring 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak.  Both contests will throw up opportunity for discussion of bus operating models that minimise the problems of substandard public transport, namely, social isolation, air pollution, climate crisis and lack of access to employment.

There are several transport planning documents with relevant content:

  • WECA Bus Strategy – supporting strategy document to the JLTP4
  • Bristol Transport Strategy – fills “policy gap” between JLTP4 and modal strategy document with Bristol focus
  • Bristol Bus Deal – route by route partnership agreements between council and bus operator
  • JLTP4 – WECA’s over-arching transport plan, with specifics on routes across region

Bus Strategy

The West of England Bus Strategy Consultation Document was out for review in March 2020.  The joint Bus Strategy is a supporting document to the Joint Local Transport Plan (JLTP4). The document recognizes that despite a recent upward trend locally, only 9% of the workers commute by bus in the area which is significantly lower than other core city regions.  WECA’s stated aim is to double bus passenger numbers (all journeys) to 20% by 2036.

FoSBR submitted a short consultation response focusing on rail-bus interchange.

The Bus Strategy is a high-level strategy document, which does not mention specifics of route or interchange. The bus “vision” is defined as a well-designed network that is simple, coherent and efficient across the region:

  • Better services for people in rural areas
  • More reliable and faster buses through priority infrastructure
  • Smart and convenient ticketing – smartphones, contactless payment, multi-operator, multi-mode
  • High quality information – signage, mapping, on-board announcements
  • Safe, comfortable customer experience – shelters, lighting, CCTV, wi-fi, USB charging
  • Modern, clean, accessible, low emission buses – bio-fuel or hybrid
  • Network complemented by community and demand responsive transport, eg, dial-a-ride, app-based taxis

The strategy suggests a change of emphasis in future bus network design .

  • Most urban routes terminate in the city centres of Bath and Bristol.  Future network design could involve running fewer core urban routes at higher frequencies, running as cross-city services to an increased range of direct destinations.  In tandem, there would be frequent orbital services intersecting radial services at neighbourhood bus interchanges.  To achieve effective operation of cross-city bus services there will need to be bus priority measures involving substantial transfer of road space to bus services. 
  • For inter-urban bus services, the strategy suggests increasing interchange opportunities with other bus services and rail at “transfer hubs”, such as peripheral shopping centres and park & rides, inter-urban services providing the service rather than dedicated P&R buses.
  • For rural services, the strategy suggests that rural services operate as feeders into inter-urban service “transfer hubs”.  Rural services will maximise frequency without entering congested central areas.

The Bus Strategy contains very few mentions of rail considering the benefits to be gained by closer integration of bus and rail services.

Bristol Transport Strategy

A further relevant document is the Bristol Transport Strategy (BTS) which fills a policy gap between the WECA JLTP4, West of England Bus Strategy and city-level specific mode, topic or area based strategies and plans. The BTS is not designed to be a detailed transport plan for the city but an overall policy and strategy framework for transport in Bristol.

A great deal of traffic that travels through the city each day is from surrounding areas to access employment sites in the centre of the city, which is a big contributor to congestion throughout the city.

Bristol Transport Strategy (adopted 2019) - Bristol commuter inflows and outflows
Bristol Transport Strategy (adopted 2019) – Bristol commuter inflows and outflows

The breakdown of method of travel to work in Bristol in 2011 is 53% car/taxi, 11% public transport, 8% cycle, 18% walk, 2% other, 8% work from home.

The road network is at capacity and will be placed under further pressure from planned housing and economic growth. The West of England Joint Spatial Plan sets out plans to accommodate over 100,000 new homes and around 83,000 new jobs over the next 20 years. Around 32,000 new homes will be delivered in Bristol.  In terms of jobs, around 22,000 will be in Temple Quarter in the city centre and around 11,000 will be in the Avonmouth Severnside Enterprise Area, which spans the north western boundary into South Gloucestershire.

For the city to maintain congestion at its current level with the planned growth, the percentage of people commuting by sustainable transport would need to increase further and people commuting by car would need to reduce from 53% today to around 43% in 2036.

Bristol Bus Deal

Bristol Bus Deal is a partnership agreement between council and bus operators – the bus operator improves the service frequency and in exchange Bristol City Council improves the infrastructure with more bus lanes and greater priority for buses at junctions and traffic lights on those routes.

Bus route 2 from Stockwood–Cribbs Causeway operated by FirstBus will be the first to benefit under such a “memorandum of understanding” and is scheduled to double frequency in April 2020.

The scheme will next focus on those routes with reliability problems where latent demand will be released by improved reliability and frequency, such as routes out of east Bristol on the A4 and the bus routes 75 and 76 from Hengrove – Cribbs Causeway via A38. Each route improvement requires a separate WECA business case for funding.

The Bus Deal will ultimately cover most main radial routes.  A map of proposed priority Bristol Bus Deal corridors:

Bristol Bus Deal (September 2019) - proposed priority corridors
Bristol Bus Deal (September 2019) – proposed priority corridors

Joint Local Transport Plan 4

The Joint Local Transport Plan 4 (JLTP4) steers transport policy across the WECA area until 2026.  It is the document with the greatest level of policy detail. 

The JLTP4 claims to plan a “well-connected sustainable transport network for residents, business and visitors across the region with greater travel choices for walking, cycling and public transport”.  However, the plan has been criticised for its focus on road-building schemes given current council ambitions to decarbonise the transport network by 2030 and the need to improve urban air quality.

The sections relevant to buses are summarised here.

JLTP4 mass transit ambitions (interim solutions in some cases being bus-based):

  • Bristol to Airport  – city centre, South Bristol, and the Airport.(short to medium term, feasibility study on metrobus extension to Bristol Airport)
  • Bristol to North Fringe – city centre, North Bristol, Southmead Hospital, Cribbs Causewa.y
  • Bristol to East Fringe – city centre, East Fringe and East Bristol.
  • Bristol to Bath (initial priority for metrobus corridor to Bath, with longer-term ambition for light rail between the Hicks Gate P&R / Keynsham, Bristol Temple Meads and Bristol city centre) – this assumes traffic is using the “Callington Road link” to reduce congestion on A4
  • Bath city centre and corridors – Odd Down; Newbridge; Lansdown; A4 east of Bath

Current metrobus routes:

  • M1 – Cribbs Causeway to Hengrove Park
  • M2 – Long Ashton P&R to city centre
  • M3 – Emersons Green to city centre

The JLTP recommends substantial extensions to the metrobus network:

  • Bristol city centre to Avonmouth/Severnside
  • Bromley Heath to Coalpit Heath and Yate
  • Almondsbury to Thornbury
  • Bower Ashton to Nailsea and Clevedon
  • Bristol to Bath (A4) corridor metrobus, with potentially a light rail system extending from Hicks Gate to Bristol in the longer term
  • Bristol Parkway via The Mall to Cribbs Patchway
  • Orbital metrobus route connecting South Bristol to Emerson’s Green via the Ring Road, serving Whitchurch and new P&R sites at Whitchurch, Hicks Gate and the East Fringe
  • Weston-super-Mare network (to link the new Weston Villages developments, the accompanying M5 Junction 21 Enterprise Area,and the proposed Park & Ride site east of the town)
  • Bristol city centre to Bristol Airport

JLTP4 references the Greater Bristol Bus Network 2 which will build on the Greater Bristol Bus Network 1 (2008-2012) which improved 10 “showcase” bus corridors across the West of England area.  GBBN2 will improve bus services through targeted bus priority measures, traffic signal upgrades, interchange upgrades, enhanced passenger information and integrated ticketing on inter-urban bus corridors, the routes being selected to complement proposed MetroBus and mass transit routes:

  • A369 Portishead – Bristol
  • A38 Weston-super-Mare – Bristol
  • A37 Bristol – Wells
  • A362 Farrington Gurney – Radstock
  • A367 Radstock – Bath, A4 Bath – Corsham
  • A420 Kingswood – Bristol
  • Thornbury – Charfield – Yate
  • A4018 Cribbs Causeway – Bristol
  • A38 Patchway – Bristol.

Rings of P&R interchanges around urban areas aim to help tackle congestion and air quality problems in centres:

  • M32 P&R south of M32 J1, to intercept trips into Bristol
  • A4 Portway expansion – including service by rail from Portway Parkway
  • A38/A4174 South Bristol Link new site at Lime Kiln Roundabout– served by MetroBus and Airport Flyer
  • A4018 near Cribbs Causeway new site – possibly served by rail from Henbury station
  • A38 North between Junction 16 and Thornbury new site (Almondsbury?)
  • A432 new site near Yate
  • A420 /Ring Road new site(s) to connect to the East Fringe mass transit scheme
  • A4 Brislington site relocation to Hicks Gate
  • A37 Whitchurch new site
  • A370 Long Ashton expansion
  • delivery of new P&R east of Bath, to intercept traffic on the A4
  • improvement of the existing P&R sites at Newbridge, Old Down and Lansdown (inc Freezing Hill access)
  • delivery of new P&R to the east of Weston-super-Mare, potentially located near to the A370/ A371 junction
  • rail-based P&R at Bristol Parkway, Keynsham and Nailsea & Backwell stations will be retained, other rail-based P&R will be explored as part of MetroWest

Park & Ride sites will be served by bus, metrobus and rail, and eventually mass transit. Complementary uses for existing and new Park & Ride sites will be explored, with opportunities for sites to provide Park & Cycle or Park & Stride, Park & Share, overnight lorry parking, coach parking, freight consolidation functions, community uses, renewable energy generation, electric charging, bus depots.

JLTP4 January 2020 - Major Schemes
JLTP4 January 2020 – Major Schemes



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