Comment: Why Leeds’s transport strategy must be ambitious

13 June 2016

Cast your mind back to December, and The Dispatch ran an opinion post entitled ‘Leeds traffic congestion is at crisis point‘, writes John Baron.

It was published at a time when problems across West Leeds were particularly bad, partially thanks to roadworks around Stanningley Road and Kirkstall Road. Hundreds of you voted in our poll, more than 93% saying traffic congestion was worse than it was 12 months ago. We also called for a city-wide discussion on the issue. We wrote:

“One thing is for certain, it’s time we had a proper conversation – perhaps a city summit? – about this issue. Lets involve residents, politicians, highways people and city planners – and other thoughts?

“It’s time for this conversation to be ratcheted up a level or two, no matter how difficult the answers may be to find. Leeds simply can’t go on as it is now.”

Some six months or so later – and with plans for Leeds’s much hyped trolleybus now lying in tatters – almost 200 transport experts, campaigners, community activists and city dignatories packed into Leeds Civic Hall to discuss ways to beat traffic congestion for the Leeds Transport Summit.

The discussion, which is the start of a consultation leading to a 30-year vision and plan for transport in Leeds, is long overdue. The city wanted a Supertram. We were told No. Then we wanted a trolleybus. And the answer was no again.

The Department for Transport has allowed Leeds City Council to retain the £173 million which would have been used for the trolleybus to spend on a new comprehensive transport scheme for the city. How to spend the money was at the heart of Friday’s summit discussions.

It was clear that this is the start of a wider conversation to be held with Leeds residents over the coming months, which is to be welcomed. A proper city-wide discussion on this issue is, as we’ve said, LONG overdue.

Guests questioned an expert panel and put forward their ideas to make Leeds a “beacon” in transport planning.

Key takeaway from the summit for me was talk around the best way forward with limited funds that were unlikely to support grand schemes costing hundreds of millions.

Are we lacking in ambition if we’re not going for one of these systems (like a trolleybus, light rail or supertram) or would the money be better spent, as council leader Judith Blake suggested, on easier wins such as improving the city’s bus services?

Should we be looking at smaller improvements to gain momentum or putting all our eggs in one basket and hold out for a major mass transit system? Or both? There are convincing arguments for both sides, but as Calverley and Farsley councillor (and Tory leader) Andrew Carter said:

“We can’t afford to make the same mistakes again. Because mistakes have been made. It will be third time lucky – we hope there won’t be a fourth, so let’s make sure we get it right.”

It was clear there was a strong political will to take back control of buses from private companies.

Pudsey Tory MP Stuart Andrew said it was good to discuss the best way forward but talked up tram trains in Leeds:

“For me, that involves a tram train which links to the airport, upgraded energy efficient buses and better links between Leeds and Bradford. I’m going to continue pushing for this, as businesses are keen to invest. I am concerned that this investment could be lost if we do not work towards a long term solution for transport in Leeds though, and we need to work hard with partners and providers to deliver it.”

His calls were backed by Leeds North West Liberal Democrat Greg Mulholland, who is championing a light rail connection to Leeds Bradford Airport.

Cllr Blake said lessons had to be learned from missing out on the trolleybus – and promised a public investigation via the council’s own scrutiny boards into what went wrong. She said:

“We need to identify schemes that can be delivered soon, such as park and ride sites, high quality, fast bus routes, new rail stations, better public spaces, cycle and walking routes alongside transformational long-term projects that suit the needs of 21st Century commuters and passengers.”

While the opening of the new cycle superhighway (which has caused so much disruption across West Leeds ahead of its Opening later this month) and this Sunday’s opening of the new Kirkstall Forge Station were acknowledged as transport successes, it was clear Leeds has a long way to go in catching up with cities like Copenhagen and New York, both of which have been planning better transport infrastucture for years.

As Leeds transport campaigner Rob Greenland wrote the other day:

“Now, talking about it is the easy bit. The hard part is doing it as, many would argue, has been demonstrated by the design of Leeds soon-to-open Cycle Superhighway, which has notably not taken much space from cars.”

But while there was lots of talk about infrastructure, there was little mention of the need to educate people away from being reliant on their car, which is arguably key is we’re ever going to unclog our roads.

Each table held a discussion session about what they’d like to see as the next step in transport rennaissance. Our table proposed park and rides. One delegate said: “My wife loves park and rides.” Which is fine. Park and rides on the edge of the city have their place, particularly for commuters to the city.

But it struck me that no-one around the table could see beyond the car. No talking of cycling, walking or whatever. “Leeds isn’t Copenhagen,” said one. Nope and it never will be unless we dare to think out of the box. How do we break that mindset?

“This city does not lack ambition,” said Cllr Blake. That may be true, but actions speak louder than words and being radical and brave is easier said than done.

The summit wasn’t about deciding or announcing what the money will be spent on, but I came away with the feeling that buses are going to play a big part in the future of Leeds public transport.

If coupled with a significant reallocation of roadspace to speed-up bus journeys it could be a pragmatic, relatively cheap and quick way forward for Leeds.

The consultation in coming months is to be welcomed, but it remains to be seen whether Leeds politicians, stakeholders and residents are truly willing to embrace change and follow some of the major cities across Europe and embrace and encourage modes of transport other than the car.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments below.



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Martin N says:

I gave up my car in 2007 and I now use public transport, bicycles and hire cars. I have been thinking about how a tram/light rail might work in Leeds. It will take many many years and many billions of pounds to provide a good service in south Leeds where I travel mostly, I expect the same is true in other parts of the City. Thus in my view buses are a more realistic option. One of the criticisms now of buses is punctuality, they are still subject to traffic congestion. Remove this. Restrict private cars, provide proper segregated bus lanes (and allow cycles to use them). Provide park and rides for out of town commuters. I’d prefer evironmentally friendly power source, electric then, or perhaps hydrogen power, don’t know how expensive this will be but since we already have most of the infra. upgrading the vehicles as the technology comes of age will surely be more effective than doing the same with rail transport. On that subject, we really need better rolling stock on the lines in and out of the city,