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So Near Yet So Far Episode 5
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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 20:05 GMT
Getting about

UK cities are looking to trams to ease congestion

In episode five of Radio 4's So Near Yet So Far programme presenter Jenny Cuffe examines how the British and the French hope to tackle their transport troubles.

Rush hour in Bordeaux sees drivers almost weeping with frustration as they queue to cross the river by the Pont D'Aquitaine, where traffic authorities have built a central reservation to stop them overtaking.

Older cars often over-heat and break down, adding insult to injury for their owners. "Their car is dying on the bridge and I saw people crying in their car," says Francis Marde who commutes from his home in the northern suburbs to work as an aerospace engineer on the other side of town.

With 400 other motorists and a 100 politicians, including the Mayor Alain Juppe, he recently marched on the Prefet, the state representative, to demand better roads.

In Bristol, business consultant Andrew Thornton is a member of Access, a group with similar demands, which claims 2,000 supporters.

Cutting congestion

He believes the city council's measures to design out traffic from the city centre - the bus lanes, traffic lights and speed bumps - are making congestion worse.

"It should be obvious to all these planners that the car is the single most efficient and useful transportation tool ever invented," he says.

To ease congestion, politicians in both cities are determined to persuade more people to use public transport.

John Prescott's Transport Bill has opened the way for Bristol to operate a road toll - starting with a 1 charge to use major roads into the centre in peak hours.

Once they get the go-ahead from government, planners hope to put it in operation by 2003-4. It's not enough to deter people but it will trigger income for public transport.

The state foots the bill

This wouldn't go down well in France where the car-culture is even more deeply entrenched.

According to Alain Dunatte, an engineer who worked on the Channel Tunnel, who's been brought in to work on a traffic scheme for Bordeaux: "It's not in the policy of French cities to use this kind of system ... I don't believe that English people will readily approve this measure".

Besides, he says his countrymen would always find a way of avoiding payment - just as they do when they park in the city. To lure them onto public transport Bordeaux is offering them a tramway - three lines covering 27 miles. The cost - 6 billion francs - will be met almost entirely by the state.

Bristol also has its own plans for a light rapid transport system but most of the cost will be met by a private consortium which includes Railtrack and First Group, the company that runs its buses.

The council will also take out a loan against income from its road charging scheme.

Helen Holland, chair of the Planning Transport and Development Committee says "Bristolians are tired of hearing about this system.

"It's dependant on a government grant and so in a way we've been at the back of the queue, while other cities - Croydon and Nottingham, have gone ahead of us."

Intergarion or competition?

The key word in transport plans across Europe is integration. In Bordeaux, where the city controls buses and determines when and how they operate, planners will ensure that the tramway links up with both buses and trains.

But in Bristol, where the buses are de-regulated, the city council can only use persuasion to make private transport operators co-operate with each other.

Planners say the main railway station Temple Meads should be the hub of an integrated transport system, but the bus company, First Bristol Buses, say not enough people want to travel there to make a fuller service profitable.

The general manger of First Bristol Buses, Brian Noton, believes the market should control the transport system, not the city council.

"It's not for us, for whatever reason - whether it's political or theoretical, or academic, to run buses where we would like to run them. We run them where people tell us they want to go and where they're prepared to pay fares."

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