About a month ago, I went to the "Big Cafe for Transport" event that was happening just around the corner from my house at the brilliant new "Co-Exist" sustainability business centre. Coexist run as a CIC and are just about to launch with a plan to open up green community and event spaces, funded in turn by work and business spaces. I really hope that means a market in stokes croft!
After I attended, I'd promised everyone I'd write up about it, and promptly left it as a nagging thing in the background as life took over. But now the official write up of the event has been published so I thought I should finish the abortive blog post I made that same night. A disclaimer: I'm allowed to make mistakes here, so if I've written anything wrong or stupid, please correct me!
A big cafe costs 20 pounds to attend. It started really early on a Saturday morning (thus excluding the entire population of Stokes Croft), but it included a lunch (from Kukuva Cafe across the road, locally sourced or at least in aid of justice, according to their vision). It didn't have to be so expensive though: 10 pounds for students, or 15 or 5(?) if you didn't want the lunch. You get to talk to all kinds of people invited from all over the place. So, for whatever misgivings I might have with the makeup of the people in the room and with how representative we were of the people affected by transport in Bristol, it was quite cool and very well intentioned.
Yes, misgivings, because there were too many green minded people there:
How come no-one brought up road tax (as mentioned that week in the venue mag as a pressing point for car drivers - in their view it should apply to cyclists as well), or even the issue itself of road maintenance?
How come when the idea was formed to "ban front door paving", it got a huge ovation across the room and was included in the summary poster? I just thought that kind of thing just creates opposition and disagreement, but there was no voice there to say that.
Oh well, I guess it was supposed to be a very green gathering. I hope there's more effort to bring in different kinds of people in future though - if the outcome can affect real movings of money around Bristol, then it's consultative in nature, and should try and reach out to as many groups and individuals as possible. Web postings are not really an inclusive way for people to express their opinions if they're not comfortable with technology in the first place, and city centre "sustainable" events will not attract all kinds of people in this diverse city.
Fortunately, Transition Bristol is offering free training in "involving hard to reach groups in environmental projects".
I was interested to find lots of opposition on the other hand, from some people, some of whom had been active in politics for a while, even one from the green party, to the idea that transport plans should involve a shift to a locally oriented society. This is the kind of set-up where travel is assumed to be slow, so everything fun or fresh has to be made and used where you live, although this hopefully includes local specialisation and exchanges between localities and globally as well. It's hard to step beyond cycle lanes and think about the whole picture, but I'd have thought a green vision no matter what the party should involve re-localisation, and should be considered holistically with respect to the various threats that we face and the many solutions we can apply to them (fuel, population, water, food, nuclear, climate and counting!).
There have been a few big cafe events so far, starting I think at the beginning of the year. There's been a bit of chatter about this already, but the chair, Vala - who has the controversial title of Professor of Sustainability came across very well. The format of the big cafe events is as follows: You debate some big questions - suitably vague so as to further the gathering of ideas, and then these get written up a summaries. Here are the summaries from this session:
(sorry about that first one, I played with it to try and get it brighter, but now it looks like it's been through nuclear fallout)
When I arrived there, late of course, David Bishop, transport geezer for the city council was talking:
He said we can't invest in train stations because of the infrastructure costs. The same reason seemed to rule out trams, which were community architect Keith Hallet's favoured investment of our money. He says they can be the golden ticket that makes Bristol a wonderful city - they certainly used to be.. (shit link alert - turn popups off!).
The bus routes on the other hand, needed to be like an overground subway network- like the London one. A distant flag waves for First if so, although they have redeemed themselves a bit train-wise with their expansion and publicity of the Severn Beach line - a line whose other name may as well be Easton-Clifton line. Still, I decided to stop taking buses so much, since the day a driver gave me a 2p change ticket that could only be redeemed in one little office in the city centre. Since then my bike has gotten more and more creaky, and my bus rides a lot more peaceful.
On the other hand, David conceded, the bus service is currently unacceptably bad and expensive. It was good to hear a few mentions of peak oil too, although he seemed to think we're not there yet. He spoke about a proposed Rapid transit network whose posters I think were on the wall behind us - I'm sure they'll be easy to find...
We are Smart wireless urban people, he went on. We need real time info, linked, integrated.
The vision for the next 30 years is to get to this integrated transport network.
I was very sad to hear him mention this same old growth agenda - proposed by some now disgraced politician from Blair's old cabinet, of 30,000 homes to be built in the next however many years. Why does this have to be the basis for the transport strategy? It's completely unsustainable. We've proven already not to have the water in the UK for such a development, and empty houses sit unmended, empty shops unused opposite our fancy cafe chats, and both awareness of climate change and of the credit crunch has seriously changed the situation since then. Already I think groups like artspace/lifespace, with their very elegant post-squatting, are a very attractive proposition of short term living and working possibilities. Also their stay deals with that painful issue of the recent empty buildings tax by creating temporary spaces like the Pro Cathedral, whilst attracting people to that building as an arts venue.
Anyway, back to Mr Bishop: He concluded by saying the council is not good at changing it's plans based on new opinions or information, but this is changing. It is starting to listen more and it is learning to communicate better.
Next up, Vala with some examples of good and climate helping transport systems from cities around the world. These have been shown quite clearly in the official write-up.
Then she introduced world cafe format, which I spoke about above, and she introduced the big 4 questions that were to form the rest of our day:
if you had a bottomless pit of money to spend on Bristol's transport system, how would we travel around the city in 10 years time?
- What examples of better transport systems can we draw from the rest of the world or history?
What would you enable you personally to make greener choices in bristol for transport.
- How do we encourage better use of and attitudes towards sustainable transport?
I'll stop now as this is getting long, but one last thing always gets me: I had the fortune that day to sit next to councilors, council staff and other people involved in local politics, and for all their hard work and merits, what gets me is always the institutionalised, bitchy, childish infighting between political parties. I call it infighting although it crosses parties, because together they, as a group, suggest, plan and carry out changes that affect us. We pay them to do this, so I really hate seeing time and time again how we pay for them to do tit for tat politics, complaining when someone else embraces their ideas if they are from another party or destroying good initiatives for the same reasons, insulting each other, and the whole competitive side of politics. A bit of competition is good, but fairly balanced with co-operation.
If the sustainable communities bill means we're going to see what the balance books are and be shown how they work, my first question will be how much of that money is spent in this kind of faffing, and how can we change it so local government can have a neutral forum to express their views and work together too.
Maybe they need a weekend cafe as well...