This week’s transport beauty is the antidote and riposte to all those market and county towns which have demolished, or are planning to demolish, their long-standing bus stations. In the last couple of decades, many have been replaced by scattered on-street bus shelters, or a smaller bus station with disagreeable facilities located further from the town centre than the original bus station. I’ve written about the phenomenon before (see this earlier article) but it’s an ongoing problem. No-one quite seems sure what the replacement for Winchester bus station will be, exactly. Exeter’s bus station redevelopment staggers along, mired in controversy over budgets. Guildford Borough Council remains desperate to relocate Guildford bus station somewhere, anywhere, regardless of the fact that it’s in about as convenient a location for accessing the town centre as it is possible to imagine. The land it occupies is valuable real estate, and much more valuable with shops standing on it than a bus station.
County and market towns are a difficult proposition. A few weeks ago I wrote about Barnsley Interchange, and the newly built bus station which is its most eye-catching feature. It’s a large, landmark building, boasting no fewer than 24 bus stands. It’s absolutely wonderful, but there aren’t many towns or cities that need a massive bus station with 24 stands. Market towns and county towns are far more numerous and form the hubs of many a local bus network, but have a bus stand requirement around half that. With local government and bus operator finances under pressure, it’s understandable that many of the dedicated bus stations which used to serve such towns have vanished. The remainder have very often fallen into disrepair, putting off passengers and commercial bus operators, thereby accelerating the decline in their fortunes and their risk of being demolished.
That’s why this week’s subject is such a refreshing change. Step forward the county town (well, it’s a small city actually) of Norfolk, Norwich. In many ways it is not dissimilar from countless other towns and cities of a similar size; smaller than a big industrial city but still large enough to be the hub of a bus network. Yet here, the local transport authority determined to spend the money to redevelop an outdated bus station into a modern and attractive facility, and keep it at its historic location.
Norwich’s new bus station opened in 2005. It is a replacement for an earlier bus station, but the bus station has been allowed to stay more or less where it always was, though occupying a smaller footprint and leaving the rest available for commercial redevelopment. Befitting the local bus network it serves, it’s simpler and smaller than Barnsley Interchange or other large bus stations promoted by Passenger Transport Executives in the north of England. It’s no less good, just more modest and less showy; more suited to its own particular surroundings.
Winner of SCALA Civic Building of the Year in 2006, the bus station was designed by architect Michael Spicer while at NPS, and cost £5.4m. It was delivered as part of a wider package of transport improvements undertaken by local transport authority Norfolk County Council.
It features 14 bus stands arranged around a central travel centre. It’s open seven days a week, which I oughtn’t to have to mention except there are rather a lot of travel centres around the country which are closed at weekends. That’s despite the fact it’s weekend travellers who tend to be less familiar with public transport and who are likely to need more information and assistance. The travel centre has a facade almost entirely made of glass, and has side walls faced with brick. Sitting just behind a hexagonal lightwell in the bus station’s roof, which is protected by translucent tensile fabric, the travel centre gets plenty of natural light inside.
At the bus stands, there are glass waiting shelters for the protection of passengers from the elements, but the shelters are themselves protected by the bus station’s overall roof higher up. The roof is a very striking shape. Its main section is triangular (it’s the centre of this bit that contains the hexagonal lightwell), and there’s a separate boomerang-shaped roof off to one side, connected to the triangular part of the roof by more tensile fabric. It’s not immediately apparent at ground level just how striking this structure is, though the shapes made by the underside of the roof are very attractive. From higher up, the drama of the bus station becomes clear. This is a properly stunning building, that is also somehow a bus station.
Needless to say, the bus station has all the environmental credentials you’d expect of a modern public transport building. It has low energy lighting, efficient glazing, natural ventilation and energy-efficient heating.
It was named one of the top 10 best bus stations in the world by Design Curial magazine. This caused some degree of local amazement. The Eastern Daily Press called the bus station “controversial” and suggested that it had received the accolade, “despite past problems with its leaky roof”. Of course. Bus stations and their leaky roofs; shades of Barnsley Interchange all over again. And much like Barnsley Interchange, the seriousness of what was essentially a one-off event seems to have been slightly over-played by a copy-hungry local press. The ticket office was shut for repairs after the rain got through the roof in 2012, but in the years since it was repaired no further problems have been reported.
The Eastern Daily Press had another reason for calling Norwich Bus Station “controversial” however; because it has recently suffered from overcrowding. While that’s clearly not ideal for passengers, amongst the sea of negative stories you can read about the bus industry in the transport trade press, isn’t this…um…good news? Norwich Bus Station is (whisper it) proving quite popular. The only other controversy the bus station seems to have stoked up is in the operation of the ticket office. It was originally staffed by Norfolk County Council but in a sign of how local government public transport funding was badly hit in the late 2000s, the council announced it would have to close in 2011. National Express stepped in to staff the travel centre at the last minute, and operation has subsequently passed to local bus company Konectbus.
What it proves is that you don’t need to have a massive bus network or a huge city to support the provision of high quality facilities for bus passengers. I’d add that other market and county towns ought to take note, but the trouble is that as far as I can tell, most of them just don’t seem to care. Norwich, and Norfolk County Council, have shown just how wrong they are.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Norwich Bus Station project information, here
…and anything linked to in the text above.
How to find Norwich bus station
I got through all that without once mentioning Alan Partridge. Oh. Whoops.