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More Problems With Bristol

Posted on Thursday 23rd August 2007 at 00:00
Back in October last year, I wrote a piece about how London is better than Bristol. Over the last few weeks, I seem to have found myself in London rather more frequently than is my custom, and on my most recent visit, this got me thinking. The day was Saturday last, and as is often the way at the weekend, the rail service had been upset by engineering works. I had been to see a show and dine with friends and when I returned to Paddington for the trip back to Bristol, I found that my train had been replaced by a bus to Reading instead.

This changing from my travelling norms was both irritating and interesting in equal measure, for it meant I got to be driven round central London , a rare thing since Mr Livingstone took over. Normally when I'm in London, I take the train in and then use the Tube to get around, so the amount of time I spend on the streets themselves is often fairly limited and restricted to certain areas.

So, there I was, looking out of the window as the coach wove its merry way across the capital towards the M4, and I began to think about how incredibly different the streets of London are from those of Bristol. For a number of reasons, mainly to do with its size and the number of people who have to get around, London is highly decentralised. The roads, whilst not quite complying to an American city grid layout, do tend to join together in a fairly neat pattern that is fairly square. None of the roads really lead anywhere, because there is no where specific that people travelling on them wish to go. There is no focal point.

Bristol on the other hand, like many cities that have expanded a great deal in recent years, is based entirely around the city centre. Although not exactly in the centre of the city, this central area is surrounded on all sides by housing and every main road leads inwards. In fact, when you get to the city centre, all the major roads from all the different areas of the city all terminate within a couple of hundred yards of each other. Even the motorway.

The only roads of any significance that don't go towards the centre are the various ring roads that collectively draw a circle around the whole place. The result looks a bit like a spider's web on a map. The problem with this inward focus, apart from the dreadful congestion it causes is that everything the city has to offer has also been focused on this point.

In London you will find more places of interest than probably anywhere else in the country. And yes, most of them are fairly close together, but they aren't centralised. There is no one point where you will find everything worth seeing in London. At the very least you will have to travel the length and breadth of Zone 1 and maybe even move out further just to get the basic tourist attractions. If you are looking for more down to earth stuff, such as shops, theatres and restaurants, you can literally get off the Tube anywhere you like and they will be right there in front of you. There is no one place to eat, no one place to buy clothes. Ok, so Oxford Street is a popular choice, but it is by no means the only option. You can go anywhere in London and your basic needs will be easily met.

The result of this is that the spread of people and traffic is evenly distributed across the capital. Obviously there are black spots, but on the whole Londoners are fairly spread out most of the time. For example, if you decide you want a coffee, look around and the chances are there is a Starbucks or Costa on the same road or the next one along. If you plan things right, you can pop in on the way to work, without even needing to take a detour. It is just there waiting for you.

Not so in Bristol. Here we operate on a centralised system. The tourist attractions are located in the centre. The theatres are located in the centre. The main shopping centre is located in the centre. Most of the restaurants in the city are located in the centre. And almost the only branches of Star Bucks and Costa Coffee are located in the centre. Ok, so there is an out of town shopping centre at Cribbs Causeway, but that isn't a whole lot better.

The only streets to have any shops on at all, outside of the centre and Cribbs, are the main roads running into town. Kingswood Highstreet is a particularly good example, as it has a reasonable range of high street names, although not all. It has some good places to eat, but not a very wide range. And that is my point: if you want more than the bare minimum, you still have to head for the centre.

I'm beginning to suspect that this is why we still have such awful congestion problems in the city. First off, the buses are very poor here and made worse by the traffic problems, and secondly, the layout of the city has been designed so that pretty much everyone is forced to go into the centre if they want to shop, eat or have a good time out. Combine those two issues and suddenly you have a city of half a million people all trying to drive and park in an area that's less than a square mile in size.

As I mentioned there is an out of town shopping centre at Cribbs Causeway, but it really is a long way out of town, and because of this it has been designed with cars in mind, not pedestrians. Even if you do live close by, and not many do, it simply isn't practical or safe to go there on foot. And when every major clothes store is at Cribbs and at the centre but nowhere else, is it really surprising that people end up there, rather than sticking to their local high streets?

If Bristol City Council had any sense at all, they'd take a leaf out of London's book and stop making the overcrowded and impractical centre the focus of everyone's attention, but start looking at how they can develop the rest of the city to the point that we are able to spread out more and start making use of the space we have.

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