Before we begin, this post was written prior to the announcement that Crosville had given notice to resign from providing Weston town services 4 and 4A from the start of September 2017. North Somerset Council are currently seeking a replacement service.
Although i’ve never formally studied urban planning, my interests in how we live stretch beyond how transport systems work and in to how places have evolved over time. One of my more curious discoveries was the French town of Montluçon, where the traditional town centre has been abandoned by the larger chain retailers in favour of a massive retail park to the north of the Cher River. The traditional commercial area in the centre of the town is left to banks, indepdent retailers and the odd smaller chain store. They can often look quite scruffy as low margin businesses vie for attention.
This isn’t a particularly unusual feature of France. An article from the BBC last year discusses the decline of traditional signwriting juxtaposed against the rise of the retail park at the expense of the traditional town centre, although this is possibly over dramatising a situation which has been gradually evolving for several decades.
The local comparison
In many ways, Weston-super-Mare has developed in a similar manner to the provincial French town. The town centre has become increasingly home to independent businesses and discount retailers with a smaller number of surviving long term residents.
The recent withdrawal of Crosville during April from most of their local bus services in Weston prompted me to investigate the possibility of replacing some of the sections of route which were not being replaced by First. Although there were no parts of town being completely cut adrift, there were plenty of links and smaller sections of route which were being lost. Having investigated the sections being withdrawn, i came to the conclusion that it would both be difficult to string them all together and connect them to at least one meaningful destination in any logical manner.
These investigations were probably what prompted a consideration of urban planning and how the layout of Weston has developed, particularly in the past 30 years. What was once a fairly simple town with a centre and a secondary high street at Worle now has three large retail parks and numerous supermarkets dotted around the suburbs. Some of the retail parks are better served than others. The comparison with Montluçon became relevant with the realisation of the level and nature of commerce which goes on outside of the town centre.
The Worle Sainsburys & Homebase site has excellent bus connections due to the proximity to the main Bristol bus corrridor (X1, X2 and X5 all call) and the introduction of a bus terminus at the rear where town services 3, 5 and 7 converge.
Flowerdown Retail Park boasts an Aldi and a location on the A370 distributor road along the south of the town. Until recently this was served by Crosville local service 16, but is now part of inter-urban routes A2 (Bristol Airport via Winscombe) and X7 (Bristol via Clevedon and Nailsea) , both of which run hourly.
The Winterstoke area is the largest and longest established of the out-of-town retail spaces in Weston, despite not actually being that far from town. The closest stores are around a leisurely 20 minute walk from the High Street, with the stores on Searle Crescent being around half an hour. Having done the walk dozens of times, the most infuriating parts are the long waits at pedestrian traffic lights and having to walk hundreds of metres extra due to crossings being in poor places, with railings everywhere. As a direct bus service, it would take no more than four or five minutes to run from the town centre out to Winterstoke, yet there has never been a frequent service doing this. The most frequent service going to Winterstoke is First 3, which takes a lengthy tour of the Bournville Estate and is scheduled to take up to 20 minutes. Like Flowerdown, First services A2 and X7 now provide the direct service.
A thought which troubles me about connecting retail parks is that we shouldn’t obsess with connecting them to the town centre. Whilst there will be some demand from those shopping in both locations, the more logical link is to areas of dense housing in the local area. This was something that Crosville’s unsuccessful 107 service had attempted – during Mon-Sat daytimes, the service continued beyond the Oldmixon terminus used by First on their parallel service 7 up to Winterstoke, some six or seven minutes away.
The link between the 1960s estate at Oldmixon and Winterstoke Road has been something difficult to achieve by public transport, despite it being the shopping area that residents are most likely to use. For several years during the 1990s, Weston to Bleadon service 83 provided an hourly link via Winterstoke and Oldmixon, although frequent retendering eventually saw the service diverted instead via Uphill and Weston Hospital before being absorbed in to Crosville’s 4A route as a diversion en route to Hutton. The 83 at various other times has also served Worlebury, St Georges, Mead Vale, Hutton Moor and other parts of the town on the other end of the service, thus providing them with a through service to Winterstoke, although most of these happened before the area really became the retail magnet it is today.
Not many of these centres are particularly well adapted to being served by buses, or even accessed by pedestrians in some cases. With the notable exception of the bus terminus at Worle Sainsburys, bus stops tend to be placed on already busy access roads or as out of the way as possible. Even where bus stops are located near the entrances to stores or centres, they tend to get used as overflow parking by the terminally lazy. Unsurprisingly, most stores and retail parks are unwilling to upset their customers (and probably attract equally lazy local journalism) by trying to enforce their own parking restrictions.
I firmly believe that places like Winterstoke, Flowerdown, Morrisons at Locking Castle and Sainsburys/Homebase at Worle should be given considerably more importance as part of the bus network (and particularly the town network as opposed to interurban services), otherwise we’re admitting defeat to these places as car-centric developments. To be honest, it is too late now to be getting it right, these centres needed to be planned as more co-operative the public transport when they were being built.
This is not just a Weston-super-Mare issue, many towns and cities are becoming increasingly decentralised but the bus networks are slow to adapt. New centres have mostly been built without consideration for providing proper, traffic free access to bus services. Imperial Park in Bristol has a token gesture of bus stops away from the main car parks, but these are located as far away from the entrances to the main retail units as it is possible to be.
It may well be too late to address such considerations given that the rate of commercial retail construction is now slowing, but there is no good reason why any new centre should be built without access available to bus services and ideally kickstart funding to provide them. Sadly the gulf of knowledge and experience between bus passengers and developers and their transport consultants doesn’t fill me with a great deal of hope.