Bristol Without Cars


Bristol Without Cars (#BristolWithoutCars) is, I suppose, what you’d call a Project.

The idea is to capture images of the city without any motor vehicles in shot – not parked, not moving, and it’s been brewing for months, ever since I saw this Tweet:

It resonated because it made me realise how often I’d been frustrated at cars blocking my view of a landscape or a beautiful building when I went to take a picture.

Is anything less romantic than a 2015 Honda Jazz occupying a quarter of the scene?

Here are some embryonic attempts to capture urban scenes in a similar light, snapped with either my FujiFilm X100F, or just the camera on my phone, in the early part of 2019.

An empty road with billboard.
Wormwood Scrubs, London, April.
A shop on a side street.
St Andrews, Bristol, May.
Houses and main road.
Eastville, Bristol, in June.
Totterdown in June
Bath Road, Bristol, in June.
Empty roads in Birmingham
Empty roads in central Birmingham in early July.

That Tweet also stimulated my militant pedestrian tendency. Why should we put up with all that scrap metal littering the streets, blocking pavements and penning us in?

When I was a kid, there used to be an advert which warned against crossing between parked cars. These days, there’s no other option – almost every street is lined with them, bumper to bumper.

And on more than one occasion recently, cars have mounted the pavement to overtake or perform some other manoeuvre, leaving me no option but to leap out of the way making noises like a frightened chicken.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to click your fingers and make them go away?

Well, that’s what taking these photos feels like.

Industrial wasteland.
Netham Road, Wednesday, 21:15.
A pub.
St George’s Road, Sunday, 15:34.

I started taking this really seriously a couple of weeks ago, going out on hunting expeditions along the M32, and keeping my eyes open on the various routes to and from work.

I wasn’t sure of the rules at first – I knew I didn’t want cars in shot, obviously, but what about people or bicycles?

Sharing my photos on Twitter, I got some instant feedback: shots of completely empty streets were more striking than this…

People in a street.
Queen Charlotte Street, Wednesday, 13:33.

…which looks a bit like the kind of CGI rendering a property developer would plaster across a hoarding.

So I decided, rule two: no humans either, just empty streets.

A city street.
Stokes Croft, Tuesday, 18:05.

Responses to this lifeless world were interesting. On the one hand, there were people who saw it as I intended, as a sort of Utopia – ‘River of Orchids where there was a motorway’. The world as a pedestrian friendly playground.

But others said it looked bleak or post-apocalyptic, which it absolutely does. For all my frustration with them, cars are, it turns out, a symbol of life and humanity.

I like the idea of these photos being a kind of Rorschach, with paradise/hell in the eye of the beholder.

I wonder how responses map to the old idea of introversion and extroversion?

With that in mind, one interesting development is how impatient I’m becoming with other pedestrians. When my frame is almost clear and someone takes so long dawdling out of shot that someone else wanders in, I feel something close to fury.

People walking in and out of shot.
Corn Street, Friday, c.12:55.

I’ve also learned that people often wander back and forth when they’re on the phone, presumably because they’re almost where they need to be but can’t hang up quite yet.

I’ve had a few suggestions for ways to remove cars using digital editing techniques, e.g. taking three photos of the same location and then averaging them to remove anything that’s different from one shot to the next. This would clearly be against the spirit of the thing.

So, there’s rule three: no cars or people to be edited out, although I will allow myself a bit of cropping and straightening.

Suburban street.
Bishop Road and King’s Drive, Sunday, 12:33.

Another convention that has begun to emerge (rule four) is around labelling: for the past week or so, when I share these photos, I’ve been saying where they were taken, on which day of the week, and at what time.

That’s because a couple of people asked if I was going out with my camera at 5 am which made me realise that a photo of, essentially, nothing, needs context – a few words so that others can hear the sound of my magical finger-click.

Hill without cars.
Constitution Hill, Sunday, 15:18.

These photos don’t show the cars that are parked just out frame on either side, or the lorry that passed out of view half a second before I hit the button.

I cannot emphasise this enough: there’s hardly been an easy shot yet.

Fumes on a quiet street.
Feeder Road, Wednesday, 19:14.

Even on quiet backstreets or industrial estates which ought to be quiet, there is always – always – a car idling, turning or speeding through.

But that does help me zero in on what looks most unnerving or impressive. We expect motorways to be busy, for example, so a shot of the M32 in momentary blankness has greater impact and, yes, is actually harder to achieve, but not much harder.

Empty motorway
M32, Friday, 18:40.

There are certain images I’m especially proud of because I know how long they took to achieve. This one was like torture but when it came together I literally punched the air, even though the reflection of a car crept into one of the windows.

Empty city centre street.
Wine Street, Friday, 17:58.

In general, the waiting is pleasant. I stand there with people brushing past me or ducking beneath my lens, feeling the sun or rain on my head, listening to birdsong or the sounds of the suburbs, and enter into something like a trance.

When the viewfinder flashes clear, CLICK, then a moment of absolute joy, as if I’ve actually achieved something.

It can be frustrating, especially when I go out on my lunch break from work and know I can only wait so long for the shot to come good. That haste is why the angle is sometimes off, or a finger slips into shot.

The ideal shot shows a long stretch of road to the horizon but, in practice, those are almost impossible. But perhaps that’s the big game I need to be going for. If I get ten in a year, it might be worth it.

Tricks and techniques

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far, feeling my way.

  • Start by looking for a section of road with no parked cars – everything else is a matter of timing.
  • Junctions are good – it seems counterintuitive but there’s usually no parking.
  • Road markings are fun – they add interest and irony – CAR CLUB.
    Use the camera grid for alignment – minimalism looks better with straight lines.
  • Be patient – the frame will clear, the shot will come, even in the busiest spot.
  • But be realistic – on a busy street, go for a head-on shot of the road and buildings opposite, or a slight angle, rather than the full panoramic sweep. (Unless you have all day.)
  • Frame with your feet – if there’s a car in view, shuffle left, right or backwards until it disappears behind a wall or hedge.