The Social Business

How can we help Leeds to become the Best City For Motorists?

There’s an opinion piece in today’s Yorkshire Evening Post on the current state of the transport network in Leeds, written by the Assistant Features Editor Chris Bond.  Chris,  by the sounds of things,  drives four miles into the centre of Leeds to work every day.

The arguments will be familiar to anyone who lives in and travels around Leeds, a city which, as the author suggests, has lots going for it, but has a real issue with traffic congestion, inadequate public transport provision, a lack of high quality cycling infrastructure and, to top it all, issues with poor air quality.

It won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t agree with quite a lot of what’s in the article.  However, I do largely agree with the headline, that Leeds is failing to meet the needs of people who drive.

One of my favourite quotes, from Canadian urbanist Brent Toderian is this one:

“A city built for cars fails for everyone, including those who drive. ”

That’s so true for Leeds.  The arguments are well-rehearsed, and there’s no time to go into them here, but Leeds – Motorway City of The Seventies – is reaping the rewards of that period in which the future appeared destined to revolve around the car.  Efforts to shift that balance (again, well-documented elsewhere) have failed spectacularly over the last 25 years.  So we are where we are – in a city that’s the largest in Europe without a mass transit system.  Where, for many people, for many of their journeys, the car seems like the best bet.

The cause of the near-daily congestion isn’t, as Chris suggests, a car broken down on the inner ring road, or whatever today’s excuse is.  It’s the fact that there are too many people traveling alone in cars, so that when there’s a problem (traffic light failure, collision, broken down car) the system collapses.  There is no resilience – because too many of us are traveling in a way that the system just can’t cope with.

So I agree it’s no fun driving around Leeds.  Where we disagree, by the sounds of things, is around what should be done to sort things out.  Let me pick out a few points where I think we may see things differently.

Parking

It’s a common argument – “It’s so awful driving into Leeds, and when you get there, there aren’t enough parking spaces.  Why don’t they build more?”  As outlined above, the primary cause of congestion is too many people driving into and across the city centre.  Inviting more people in, by making it easier for them to park, will only make the problem worse.  We need to be reducing the amount of city-centre parking, not increasing it.

People, not motorists

The opinion piece is written from the perspective of a “motorist”.  As if we’re defined by one fixed mode of travel.  I don’t think it’s like that.  Most people just want to get from A to B as quickly, comfortably, safely and inexpensively as possible.  We need to stop thinking of people as “motorists” – or “cyclists” for that matter.  We are people trying to get around our city.  The problem is, the more of us who choose to drive, the worse it gets for all of us. 

You’re not in traffic, you are traffic

As is common in articles such as this, the author appears to believe that problems are all to do with other people, and nothing to do with personal choices.  As someone who hasn’t owned a car for seven years, I know the buses aren’t as good as they should be.  I know cycling doesn’t feel as safe as it should. 

But I also know that if I hire a car and drive it into Leeds at 745am, I’m part of the problem.  I am traffic. 

I’d like people to take a bit more responsibility for the impact of their personal choices. I know life’s complicated,  and I don’t expect everyone to rush to the bike shop and suddenly start making all their journeys on two wheels.  But I also don’t buy the common narrative around “no choice”.

Amsterdam wasn’t always like Amsterdam

One thing it sounds like Chris and I can agree on is that Bordeaux is a great place.  I’ve visited twice in the last couple of years and it really is beautiful.  And it’s a great place to get around – when by all accounts a few years ago it certainly wasn’t.

What’s changed?  It’s invested in public transport, cycle infrastructure and decent, pedestrianised public space.  It’s prioritised sustainable forms of travel and made it more difficult to drive into the centre, or park there.  It’s one of the reasons why I want to keep going back.

Similarly Amsterdam was a very different place 40 years ago, dominated by cars.  Years of investment – and prioritisation of sustainable forms of travel over inefficient travel modes like cars, have turned it into the place we know today.  Same for Copenhagen, and, more recently, to a certain extent, for London.

I know that’s not a great deal of use for this afternoon’s commute home, but it’s a reminder that cities can change – but there are choices to be made, priorities to be agreed upon.  Making it easier for people to drive into the city centre and to park isn’t going to help.

A large part of the issue with buses is that they’re stuck behind single-occupancy cars

The best way to make life easier for people who drive around Leeds is to make life easier for people who don’t.  You can do that by, for example, investing in more bus lanes.  By creating a joined-up network of high quality cycle lanes.  And, yes, by taking away road capacity from cars.

As I’ve suggested above, for most of us our travel modes aren’t fixed.  We just want to get from A to B.  Give us a better alternative and we’ll use it.  But that will involve tough choices over limited road space, which will probably upset a lot of people, because they’ll see lanes re-purposed for more efficient modes of transport like cycling and buses.

But if measures like more bus lanes mean that buses don’t get stuck behind big queues of people sat alone in cars, then more people will choose to take public transport, because it will be become relatively more attractive.  This will take cars off the road – leaving road space for those who do drive.

So although it may not like sound like it at times, I do have a lot of sympathy for people like Chris.  It really is not fun driving around Leeds.  So let’s make Leeds the Best City For Motorists.  By making it less attractive to drive.

Could a Latte Levy work for Leeds?

The year is only a few days old and already we’ve had at least two big news stories about waste.

The first concerns plastic – and the possible impact of China’s decision to no longer accept our plastic for re-processing.  Then today we’ve had news of a potential 25p Latte Levy – to “nudge” people into reducing their use of non-recyclable coffee cups.

Waste reduction is an issue that interests me a lot.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve had a bit of time over the last few months, courtesy of the social enterprise that I help to run, to explore “green” business ideas – things we could get involved in locally that would help in one way or another to tackle climate change.

We’ve been looking in particular around community energy, waste, and transport.  Waste and recycling is the one where we’ve made most progress – and I’ll be putting some more time into it over the next few weeks.

We’re interested to see what more could be done to help Leeds as a city create less waste,  and increase the amount of waste materials that gets recycled.

The context is that in Leeds, as elsewhere, recycling rates have stalled in recent years.

Up until recently,  year-on-year progress was impressive – with close to 44% of Leeds household waste recycled in 2013/14 – compared to 22% in 2006/07.  Yet this dropped to 38.5% in 2016/17.

This is pretty consistent with the national picture – as these Government statistics demonstrate.

I’m not sure why we’ve hit this plateau.  My guess would be that years of central Government cuts haven’t helped – and that the continued investment that’s needed to ensure that householders are able to recycle more just hasn’t happened.

On this, it’s interesting to compare what’s happened in Wales – where improvements in recycling rates are much more impressive.  So it would seem that it can be done, if there’s political will and investment.

Locally, Leeds City Council are currently working with WRAP – and are undertaking a review of their Waste and Recycling Strategy this year (see item 17 here).  So it seemed to us that it was timely to explore whether there were any ways we could help to work out how to waste less and recycle more.  I summarised some of the key points in the council report in this thread.

Our starting point has been to chat with the wide range of social enterprises that are active in Leeds on waste and recycling.  There’s loads going on already – with really impressive social enterprises such as SCRAP, Seagulls, and Revive doing loads of good work to make good use of stuff that other people are throwing away.  And, of course, Leeds is the birthplace of the Real Junk Food Project – who through projects including Fuel For School and the Sharehouse have saved tonnes of food from going to waste.

But could we do more?  That’s what we’ll be exploring at a meeting we’re hosting later this month.  We’ve invited the Council along too to chat about the review of their waste strategy  – and to find out more from them about the challenges the city faces around waste & recycling – alongside opportunities to do more.

One really positive thing in Leeds is that a lot of social enterprises already have a strong relationship with the Council – for example Revive has reuse shops at two of the Council’s household waste sites.  And it’s that kind of co-operation that has a big impact.

As today’s focus on coffee cups has illustrated, this is a really complex issue.  There are no easy solutions – and progress will probably come (if it does come) in a range of different ways.  Businesses have a role to play, as do all of us as consumers.  Local and national government will play their part too.

That’s why I think the coffee cup issue is such an interesting one.  I think it’s going to be a really tough one to solve.  As Jo from The Greedy Pig outlined in this Radio Leeds interview, (from 2hrs42min),  the issue of disposable coffee cups is a bit different to plastic bags.  It’s the “on-the-go” consumption that makes it such a difficult issue.

There will be solutions.   But I think we’re going to have to think really creatively.  There are plenty of interesting ideas in this post by Hubbub, who’ve been working a lot on the issue.  I think they’re right that there’s plenty of scope for city-level action – and I’m already talking with a couple of Leeds indie businesses who are up for working out how they can reduce the amount of packaging waste that they create.  Many independent businesses already take a lead on this (eg offering Vegware packaging) – and it’s great to see there’s an appetite for doing more.

There are other interesting ideas out there too – like Cup Club – and again, I’ve been in touch with them to see if there’s scope for trying something out in Leeds.

It’s a massive challenge, but I sense a change in public mood – thanks in no small part to David Attenborough.   There will be things we can do to increase recycling rates – but even more importantly there’ll be ways to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.  And the thing that interests me is that I think it’s in cities that we’ll be able to do the collaborative, joined-up work that will help us make progress on this issue.  Starting in Leeds of course….

What does #LeedsTransport look like to a 12 year old?

If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that one of my favourite topics is #LeedsTransport.  It shouldn’t really be this way.   Getting around your city should be one of those things that’s incidental to the rest of your day – leaving you time and energy to get on with the important stuff.  But in Leeds, like in so many other cities, it doesn’t really work like that.

I mainly weave my way around the regular congestion on my bike.  But I use public transport a lot too.  As we’ve not owned a car for the best part of seven years, the quality of public transport, and the ease with which you can walk or cycle around Leeds, matters to us a lot as a family.

It’s why I do my best to campaign, read up on and ask questions about all things to do with transport.  Not because I have some kind of transport fetish (although just look at that tram) but because I think cities which get public transport right are better places for everyone to live in – however they choose to get around.

It’s also why I recently joined WYCA’s Leeds consultation committee on public transport (we meet quarterly – the next meeting’s in mid January).

One of the many reasons I’m interested in this is because I think it’s much easier to be a child or young person growing up in a city if it has decent public transport.  And, of course, what’s easy for a child is likely to make life easier for a parent.

As has been said many times, by Guillermo Peñalosa amongst others, if you design a city for eight year olds (or eighty year olds) it works for everyone.

Back to the story.  We hired a car over Christmas – as we usually do – and handed it back to Avis on Tuesday.  My son was due to go to see his friend over the other side of Leeds later that day.  So I set him the task of getting us there by bus.

The context is that for for a while we’ve been keen for him to be more independent – including about how he gets around his home city.  He started senior school recently so we’ve been preparing for a while to ensure he could travel independently to school.  As it happens he’s ended up walking to school most days – and in doing so has ended up encouraging a few of his friends to do the same.  Which is an interesting thing in itself – so many human behaviours are contagious (and walking is a sociable thing).

But back to buses.  I set him the task of getting us to his friend’s house so that in future he could go there on his own.  Research the options – sort out tickets – work out where to get on and off etc.  More independence for him – more time for me – and no need for another car on the road for the rest of us. I documented how we got on in this thread

The detail’s there – but I wanted to pick up on a few key points. For people to choose public transport – over the car – it has to be easy.  It has to be lots of other things too – reliable, clean, good value etc – but the ease with which you can just hop on a bus is vital.  I think it’s fair to say we’re getting better – but there’s still a long way to go.

On the positive side, things like Google Maps – with their  decent transport planner – make it a lot easier to work out how to get to places by bus.  It was no surprise that his first response to solving the problem was to Google it.

Yet on the downside ticketing is still far too complicated.  If my son didn’t already have a decent bit of bus wisdom, he’d have never worked that bit out.  If we assume you already had an Under 18 photo card, you’d then need to know that the first bus that Google Maps recommended is run by a different company to the second bus you’ll need to get.  So you’ll need a different ticket.  But you can ignore Google and get a different bus – that’s run by the same company as the second bus.  And you can get that day ticket on your phone.  Even though you couldn’t get a single ticket on your phone.

I do hope you’re keeping up.

It took around 45 minutes door to door, when a car journey would have taken 15.  But we’re playing the long game here – think of the independence and the benefits of that for him and for us.

But it was useful to see things through the eyes of a child.  How are you supposed to work out where to get off, when there’s no next stop info and the windows are steamed up?  Who might you ask if you’re not sure?  Can the driver even hear you through the security screen?

But we got there.  And it was fine.  So next time he wants to visit his friend he’ll be going on his own.  Good news all round.

And to round it all off a lovely thing happened on my bus home.  As a creature of habit, even when I’m on my own I tend to go upstairs and sit at the front.  So that’s what I did.

A few stops later I could hear two excited children coming up the stairs.  I realised immediately.  Here I was, sat at the front, on my phone, not making full use of those precious front seats.

The first child got to the top of the stairs, and we turned to eachother.  She said “Oh”, had a quick think, and then as politely as you like asked me if I’d move so she and her sister could sit there instead.   I was only too happy to oblige, knowing full well that her gift to me of a Twitter vignette was far greater than what I was offering her.

I walked down the bus and spotted a woman laughing – with me not at me – or at least that’s what I told myself.   I sat with her and we had a good chat about what had happened.    And it reminded me of that great Twitter hashtag #GreatThingsThatHappenedOnTransit  – and why better public transport is such a key ingredient for making Leeds a better place for us all to live in. 

Ideas to tackle climate change in Leeds – a second update

I’ve written two posts – here and here – over the last couple of months about how I’m keen to get more involved locally in tackling climate change.  I’ve also outlined how the social enterprise I work for has given me a bit of time to explore a few ideas, to see where there is scope for us to get involved with things that are already happening, or set something up ourselves.

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a bit of time each week exploring a few ideas, so with the launch of the Leeds Climate Commission this evening, I thought it was time to give another update on where we are up to.

Big picture first – talking with people, and reading up on this issue has left me more convinced than ever that this is something I want to focus on over the next few years.  Whilst there are no shortage of issues to worry about in the world right now, I’m convinced that climate change is the biggest threat we face.  So I’m more keen than ever to try to get involved in things locally that could make a difference.

But how do you make a difference?  That’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit too.  Rather than just concentrating on social business ideas, I’ve been thinking – what actions are most effective?  When, for example, is it best to focus on lobbying politicians, or campaigning?  When does it make most sense to focus on changing what you do personally – what you eat, how you get around your city, etc?  When should you concentrate on teaming up with neighbours and friends to do things locally?  And when might it make sense  – in our case – for us to set up a new social business?

It won’t surprise you that I haven’t come to any conclusions on all of that, other than to confirm that all of the above are important!  But I think it’s a useful starting point – a reminder that making progress on such a big issue will require a whole host of approaches – whether that’s at a global scale, or at the scale we’re focusing on primarily – Leeds.

That said, our Board will be expecting an update next month.  So is anything emerging around the themes I explored in previous posts?

Energy remains the topic where there’s most, well, energy.  Most conversations have included discussion of opportunities to generate more renewable energy locally, and to involve local people in financing this activity – through for example community shares.

Given our recent experience with Leeds Community Homes and #PeoplePoweredHomes, this is clearly an opportunity that interests us a lot.  And, in summary, at the moment it’s definitely the main avenue we’re exploring.  But we’ve also been given plenty of advice to tread carefully – given that the business models for community energy have become more difficult to sustain, due to reductions in incentives like Feed in Tariffs.  It would have been an obvious one to explore five years ago when the policy environment was very different – but it’s a little more difficult now.

Our next steps around energy are to continue to look in more detail at other community energy schemes around the country, and also talk with Leeds City Council (we have a meeting on Monday) to see if they would be interested in partnering up with us in some way – eg on a rooftop solar scheme.

We’re also looking into insulation – in the news again this week.  Given that it makes so much sense  – and brings all sorts of benefits – is there more we could be doing in Leeds to insulate more homes?   For example some of the empty homes social enterprises we’ve worked with have developed expertise in insulation hard-to-heat homes – could we help them to do more?

Waste remains an interesting topic too – and as I suggested in the two previous posts it’s an area where as a city we’re pretty strong, in terms of having a whole host of social enterprises turning “waste” into useful resources – including of course the Revive re-use shops at 2 household waste sites.

This is one where it feels like if there is an opportunity, it is in supporting the organisations already doing good stuff in Leeds to do more.

As I’m reminded every time I look in a skip on our street, plenty of good stuff still gets thrown away.  That costs us all in a whole range of ways.   How could we make it easier for more people to reuse more useful goods, instead of throwing them away?  I’d be interested in chatting more with the Council and others on that one, as it’s an interesting problem to explore, around behaviour change and effective marketing.

Transport is another key theme – particularly so in a city like Leeds with public transport provision which is nowhere near good enough.  Reading up on things over the last few weeks has confirmed to me that, personally, this is the particular issue that interests me most.  It’s such a crucial issue for so many reasons – carbon emissions, pollution, economic growth, making the city child-friendly etc etc.

Yet, from a social business start-up perspective, opportunities are probably limited.  It might be one where we focus more on lobbying and working with others to make the case for significant investment in public transport and active travel.  I’ll hopefully be able to use my membership of Leeds Climate Commission to continue to get up to speed with the issues, and also influence the debate around transport in Leeds.

So that’s a quick update.  There have been plenty more conversations which I haven’t got time to share now but hopefully that gives you a bit of a feel of where we’re up to.  There’s a fair bit of detail for me to keep exploring over the next few weeks – to then discuss with our Board in October.

As always, we’re keen to chat with people who’d like to work with us on this – so if you’re interested in exploring how we could work together in Leeds to come up with practical ways to tackle climate change, please get in touch.  And don’t forget to follow the Leeds Climate Commission launch on #LeedsClimate.

 

Ideas to tackle climate change in Leeds – a quick update

I wrote recently about how the Board of our social enterprise has given me a bit of time over the next few weeks to explore how we could get more involved in initiatives in Leeds to tackle climate change.

I thought I’d give you a quick update on how I’m getting on.  Partly because it’s a useful way to think things through myself, and partly because I think being open about what you’re doing is one very important way of making interesting things happen.  There’s no point trying to do this stuff in secret.

I’m in the stage that we’ve called Looking for Clues – looking around to see what’s going on, what the issues are, and trying to explore where there may be opportunities to improve things.  And as is always the case, conversations and introductions have led me in all sorts of different directions.  I’ll share a few of the more interesting and promising ones below.

Starting with the big picture, the people from Leeds Climate Commission pointed me to research done in Leeds a couple of years back – The Economics of Low Carbon Cities – A Mini Stern Review For The Leeds City Region.  I haven’t considered it in detail yet, but it’s a reminder of the expertise that already exists in the city around how we can create a low carbon economy.

Then at a national level, the Committee on Climate Change produced a report for Parliament last month.  Again, beyond a quick read of the summary, I’ve not had time to take in the detail – but there are clear messages in there about the opportunities that could come from decisive actions and investments – but also the increasing risks of not doing enough, and not doing things quickly enough.

So that’s all useful context – which I clearly need to get to grips with.  In the meantime, I’ve been having conversations around a number of themes.

One issue that keeps coming up is community energy – with a few people I’ve spoken with suggesting that there’s potential in Leeds to do more on this – around energy generation (community-led solar schemes for example) and around energy reduction (investment in insulation of hard to heat homes).  There are plenty of interesting co-operative initiatives around the country to learn from, including ones that have involved Local Authorities.

Again, I need to explore this more, but one of the key things to understand will be where the sustainable opportunities lie – given that the investments and subsidies that made some of these schemes viable in the last few years (Feed In Tariffs etc) are far less generous than they were.

It’s possible we may have missed the boat on this one – or we may just need to think a bit more creatively.  I’m following this one up with a few people who know the community energy world inside-out – like energy4all – and I’ll feed back more soon.

I’ve had a good few conversations around waste and recycling too.  I started by having a think about all the great social enterprises and voluntary groups in Leeds that help us to reuse and recycle things that would otherwise go to waste.  People like Seagulls, Scrap, Leeds Repair Cafe, Leeds Freegle, Revive, Re-work Office Furniture, Real Junk Food Project and Slate.

They – and plenty of other organisations – all help to reduce the amount of useful stuff that goes to waste in Leeds – saving the city money, and bringing a whole range of other benefits too.  But like with all these things, there’ll be loads of Leeds people who don’t know about them.  I’m wondering what more we can do to more widely promote all the reuse and recycling organisations in the city – so that reusing and recycling becomes as easy as throwing something in the bin.

And again, context is important here.  It emerged this month that Leeds’ new, PFI funded RERF (Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility) has missed its recycling target by quite some way – and looks like it will miss it again this year.  That’s a lot of potentially recyclable goods that have instead been thrown in the fire.  And this is against a backdrop of what appears to be declining recycling rates in Leeds.

This is a complex one.  But I’m interested in what more we can do to reduce waste – and stop reusable and recyclable goods being incinerated.  I also noticed in this Council report that the money that the PFI contractor will pay to the Council, having missed its recycling target, will be “ringfenced for the delivery of front-line services, or environmental projects that contribute to recycling.”  So there may be potential there for some of the social enterprises I mentioned above to bid for funds to help the city to improve its recycling rates.

Food and drink is another issue that I’ve been exploring.  I met up with one of the people behind Growing Better CIC – a new social enterprise that aims to grow micro leaves and herbs for local restaurants.  It’s an interesting one because of the well-documented benefits of short supply chains – but they also recognise the therapeutic benefits of growing food – and have an explicit aim around improving people’s mental health.

I’ve also been researching ideas around reducing the use of single-use plastic bottles – after spotting this news story about calls to install water fountains in city centres.  A few years ago I spent a couple of days in Paris with Danone staff from around the world – and one of the workshops I went to explored ways to increase the amount of “on-the-go” recycling.  Even those of us who enthusiastically recycle at home often end up buying single-use plastic water bottles whilst we’re out and about – and then throw them in a street-bin – with little chance of them being recycled.

So I’m interested in ideas to reduce the use of single-use plastic bottles – and water fountains sound like a good one.  It’ll no doubt come down to money – but initial responses from Leeds BID and Yorkshire Water were positive.

I also discovered Refill – a Bristol based social enterprise that works with local cafes and other businesses to offer people the opportunity to fill up their water bottle for free.  It sounds like a great idea to me so I’ve been in touch with them to let them know that I’d be interested in exploring how we could help if they decided to expand to Leeds.  Leeds Indie Food are keen to find out more too.

If you follow me on Twitter, it won’t surprise you to know that I’ve had a few conversations around transport too.  I’ve written before about what I think about transport in Leeds – and how things need to change in the city.  Short of setting up a crowdfunding page for a tram system, what more could be done to explore socially innovative ways to improve what Leeds is like to get around?

Again, it’s been a busy month for this kind of thing.   Leeds Council launched its long awaited Cycling Starts Here strategy.  I shared info about it in this thread – where you’ll see that it soon emerged that what I thought was a summary of the strategy was actually the strategy.  There was a nice aspirational Tube Map of what a comprehensive cycle network could look like, plus 24 “objectives” which covered just about anything and everything to do with bicycles.

Let’s see where it goes.  I can’t pretend I’m that hopeful to be honest – just a few days later we learnt (or at least I think we learnt, if I’ve read the notes correctly) that cycling infrastructure plans for the city centre have been scaled back, at least in the short term.   As Brent Toderian has said, look less at the vision, and more at the budget, if you want to see where a city’s aspirations truly lie.

So what are my reflections there?  Transport’s clearly a harder one to change.  There may be fewer direct opportunities for community-led approaches to changing things, but instead it might be about continuing to lobby for change, hold people to account, and point to what’s being done elsewhere (like Mobike in Manchester, the Workplace Parking Levy in Nottingham, or the Mobility as a Service pilot in Birmingham).  For me it will also continue to be a personal thing – continuing to reduce as a family the number of journeys we make by car.  I’ll also keep working to try to tackle issues around road danger near where I live.

So that’s where I’ve got up to.  Plenty more to explore – plenty more conversations to have – plenty of detail to digest.  But I’m more convinced than ever that getting involved in local responses to climate change is something  we should be doing – we just need to work out what it’s best to get involved with.  As before, if you’ve got thoughts, please get in touch.

How do you solve a problem like climate change – in Leeds?

Of all the social issues I’m involved in and care about, climate change is the one that matters most to me.  It is an existential threat – and we’re already seeing a whole range of negative impacts that have their roots in man-made climate change.

But it’s also one of those issues where it’s easy to feel hopeless.  It’s hard to know what to do.  And even if you do something, it can feel pointless.   So inaction, or disengagement, become ever-more attractive.  And the less we engage, the more time we waste, the less chance we’ve got of coming up with solutions.

Over the years I’ve tried to “do my bit” (see – even the language is problematic).  I’ve written here before about how we’ve tried to make our home more green (more problematic language).  I’ve written too about reducing our car use – and selling our car – and about big issues in Leeds – like transport and recycling.

And I’m pleased I’ve done all that.  It’s got us thinking about this stuff as a family.  It’s made a difference at a micro-level.  It’s saved us some money.  Made us feel a bit better about ourselves. And it’s got us into conversations with people we know.  Including difficult conversations, some of which probably haven’t done done much good.

But, of course, all of the things we’ve done are micro-scale, personal actions in a world that needs so much more to happen.  And they were all probably cancelled out by that flight to France last May.

It’s complicated isn’t it?

So I’ve been thinking again this year about what more I can do, particularly through work.

With this in mind, I recently joined the Leeds Climate Commission.   It’s due to launch publicly in September (if you’re interested in this kind of thing and would like an invite to the launch please let me know and I’ll pass on your request) and in broad terms it has a remit based around exploring how as a city Leeds does all it can to reduce its carbon emissions.

There are people from businesses and organisations across Leeds involved, with the Council and Universities taking a lead on bringing it all together.

My main aim in joining the Commission is to explore how we can come up with social business solutions to climate change in Leeds.  Sustainable ideas in both senses of the word.  I don’t know what they’ll be – but I’m sure there must be opportunities to develop ideas that could for example improve air quality, reduce waste, tackle traffic congestion, reduce fuel poverty, and reduce the amount of CO2 that we pump into the air.

The good thing is that the Board of our social enterprise, Social Business Brokers CIC, is keen for us to work more on this.  So they’ve given me a bit of time over the next couple of months to explore things in a bit more detail.

Could we help to develop some social business ideas in Leeds to tackle climate change?  Five years ago we decided to get involved in housing – and that led to us coming up with the idea for Empty Homes Doctor.  250 no-longer-empty-homes later, we’re still making a difference.

And on the back of that we got involved with developing Leeds Community Homes.  We played our part in raising £360,000 through a community share offer to create People Powered Homes.

So could we do the same on climate change?  Come up with sustainable social businesses that really make a difference?  I really hope we can.  And not just because it’s the issue that matters to me more than anything else.

I am increasingly convinced that many of the actions we need to take to tackle climate change are best taken at city level.  That’s the level at which you can engage citizens – and the level at which we could best appreciate the positive impacts of the changes we need to make to reduce carbon emissions.

So I’m on the lookout for ideas and opportunities – looking for clues, as it says in our 5 stage plan to creating change.  If you’d like to chat more, please say hello.

 

 

A few immediate thoughts on Leeds Transport Summit

It was the Leeds Transport Summit this afternoon. I thought I’d try to share a few quick thoughts about how I thought it went – and some of the key themes that emerged for me. You can see what other people thought on #LeedsTransport .

I thought that generally it was a good event. The Council were keen to make the point that it was the start of a wider conversation – to be held with Leeds citizens over the coming months. And as a starting point, I thought it went well. I have a short attention span – and I stayed interested until then end, so that suggests it was pretty good. Here are a few quick reflections:

Agreeing and communicating the long-term vision is crucial
This was the key theme for me, and came out in various ways in the presentations from various people, including Peter Hendy (Chairman of Network Rail), Cllr Judith Blake (Leader of Leeds City Council) and Professor Greg Marsden from Leeds University. In different ways, each of them said we need to work out what the end-game is – why are we going to invest, over the long term, in transport.

Peter Hendy was pretty clear that it was about the economy. Other speakers, whilst acknowledging the key importance of economic growth, looked more broadly at the social and environmental benefits of strategic investment in sustainable transport.

Peter Hendy also made a key point around the importance of a strong vision – in that it helps you to win the short-term arguments around issues such as road-space reallocation. It’s never easy, but if people can see what the long-term goal is, they may be more likely to accept short term inconvenience.

Personally, I think we’re really going to have to work at this one. I’m not a transport expert, but I’ve read enough to know that assessment models for transport investment are far from perfect – and they tend towards valuing economic benefits over everything else. This tweet from Leeds’ Chief Officer – Economy and Regeneration, Tom Bridges, summarises the problem we’ve got very well. I do think there are senior people in Leeds who get the fact that we need to think beyond economic benefits – but we’re really going to need to get our act together and make a broader case for transport investment- beyond the economic case.

Re-allocation of roadspace is on the agenda
People like me who are into walking, cycling and public transport bang on a lot about the need to re-allocate space on our roads. Transport professionals talk about the Reverse Traffic Pyramid – making it clear that you prioritise modes of transport that make the most efficient use of limited space. Reallocating road space was discussed by several speakers.

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. So there’s plenty to do here, but I think it’s positive that it was at least talked about, without any hissing or booing.

Are we entering a golden age for the good old bus?

The politicians who spoke were keen to emphasise that all options are on the table – and they recognise the need to be ambitious. But I heard more than I expected about buses. Clearly there’s a strong political will locally to take back control of buses after what many (including me) would argue are years of pretty disastrous de-regulation. Park and Ride was talked up too (@LeedsJourno will be pleased).

As I say, today wasn’t about deciding or announcing what the money will be spent on, but I certainly came away with the feeling that buses are going to play a big part in the future of Leeds public transport. That may disappoint some people. But – if coupled with a significant reallocation of roadspace to speed up bus journeys – maybe it could be a pragmatic, relatively cheap and quick way forward for Leeds. Again, I’m no expert, but I read enough to know that much of the smart money in cities around the world is on Bus Rapid Transit – investment in decent buses, on main routes, with top quality bus lane & ticketing infrastructure. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see us go down this road.

Involving citizens is vital

To say Leeds people are fed up with how things are is probably a bit of an understatement. Feedback sent via email before the Summit apparently included a pretty loud and clear message: “Whatever you do, just bloody get on with it.” We need to really engage Leeds people in this process, and that’ll take some thinking through. It was mentioned that Community Committees will be central to the consultation process. I’ll be honest, I haven’t been to a Community Committee, but I think we’re going to need to work a bit harder than that to truly engage local people in this issue. I don’t have the answers, but I hope we can look elsewhere at how other cities, like Toronto under Jennifer Keesmaat’s leadership – have involved local people in thinking through the future of their city.

And maybe, just maybe, we could host a meal for 500 Leeds people on the Inner Ring Road one evening this summer – to discuss the future of our city? What do you reckon?

A few thoughts ahead of the Leeds Transport Summit

We have a Transport Summit in Leeds this week – and the plan apparently is that it’ll be the start of a wider consultation process which will involve people across Leeds.

Following on from this post – in the days after the Trolleybus decision – I thought I’d gather together a few thoughts and share them here. Partly because I’m going to the Summit on Friday – and want to organise my thinking a bit – and partly because it might help to stimulate a few discussions, before, during and after the event itself.

As I said before, my main reflection is that Leeds needs to decide what kind of city it wants to be. For me, this isn’t about trams or trolleybuses, bus lanes or parking. It’s about what Leeds is like to live in – today and into the future. I think we’re all agreed that the way things are transport-wise in Leeds has all sorts of negative impacts. So I think it’s important to keep these things in mind as we discuss what we do next. So, in no particular order, here are the things going around my head.

Let’s learn from other places
There’ll be benefits of being late adopters of sustainable transport. If we’re open-minded (and don’t just say, Ah, but yes, but that’s Amsterdam/New York/Nottingham/Sao Paolo, that could never work here) then we could pretty quickly learn from what’s working elsewhere – whether that’s Bus Rapid Transit, high quality bike lanes, steam powered monorails, or whatever.

Be bold – and accept some people won’t be happy
Trying to please everyone won’t work. For too long Leeds has been built around the needs of the car-user – and a bit of tinkering around the edges isn’t going to fix that. Some big decisions about how we use our limited road space efficiently will need to be taken. That’s going to be tough – and we’ll need a few visionary leaders to take big decisions that might not be immediate vote winners.

Think of the health impacts of poor transport options

Which country is bucking the trend on obesity? The Netherlands – a country where cycling – aka active travel – is an easy thing for many people to do. Making it easier for people to make short journeys by bike or on foot could bring real health benefits for Leeds citizens – and, in the long term, ease pressure on health services. Pollution – a major issue in Leeds – needs tackling too. The number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads is way above the target we’ve set ourselves as a city – and it’s the vulnerable – children, pedestrians, cyclists – who suffer most. Our Director of Public Health writes award-winning reports that talk about the link between transport infrastructure and health – let’s make sure we use his expertise, and listen to him.

Let’s use data, openly

Leeds is deservedly well known for its embrace of open data. Let’s gather all the data we can to help us to make informed decisions about what we do next. Let’s think about all the different data sets that are out there – and gather them together for people to pull apart and learn from. Road casualty stats. Pollution data. Traffic speeds. Numbers of people cycling. Number of car parking spaces. Let’s get the data shared, so we don’t just end up relying on anecdata. This is particularly important if we genuinely want to think more creatively, and involve a wider group of people in discussions.

Let’s have lots of conversations

Data is good – but so is lived experience. Transport is one of those topics where most of us think we’re experts (and I’m guilty as charged). But, even with our limitations, and our confused energy, there’s no end of fascinating lived experience that could, if gathered in the right way, inform where we go next.

We need to talk about efficient use of limited space
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I’m a fan of bikes. And walking. And decent public transport. You could be forgiven for thinking that I hate cars. It’s a bit more complex than that – I’m just very clear that cities built around cars work for no-one – including people who drive. It’s not about being “anti-car” (for the record I don’t own one, but drive a hire car when needed) – it’s more about wanting to use the limited space that we’ve got as efficiently as possible. Currently the easiest choice for many people to make in Leeds is to drive. One person in a large vehicle is, quite simply, not an efficient use of space. Pointing that out isn’t being “anti-car”.

Think multimodal
We all do it – but we need to move beyond defining people by their primary choice of transport. Cyclists, motorists…. Instead, let’s remember that most people are just trying to get around their city. They may or may not be happy with the choice they’re currently making. A “motorist” today could become a “cyclist” tomorrow if the conditions were right. And then a bus user, and a taxi rider. For me, the beauty of not owning a car is that we’re now free to make the best choice for each journey. Walk, bus, taxi, bike, hire car. Multimodal life could work for many of us.

It’s about poverty

Loads of people in our city can’t afford to run a car. That wouldn’t be too bad if the public transport was so good that you didn’t need one. But that’s clearly not the case. So it’s people in poverty who lose out most in cities with poor public transport. With poor transport options, leisure choices are more limited, and it’s harder to access jobs.

Don’t forget the kids
We’re aiming to be a child-friendly city. Great. Has anyone asked any kids what it’s like to get around Leeds? What it’s like to ride a bike, in the city of the Grand Depart? Or how easy it is to convince their parents that they can go off on their own into town, on public transport? Cities with decent public transport are much better places to grow up in. They are also safer places to live – witness how road casualty rates amongst young people are high – and rising – in our city.

It’s about the economy, stupid
Any measure to reduce car use – or to make car users pay the real cost of parking – is routinely met with a response along the lines of “But what about the economy?”. It’s assumed that the end of free parking, for example, will result in shops closing. Evidence appears to suggest that making it easier for people, for example, to cycle to the shops results in shops enjoying more trade. And, it’s pretty obvious that people sat in traffic jams – as so often the case in Leeds, aren’t contributing to the visitor economy by enjoying a pint in a locally-run craft beer emporium.

We need to value our streets as places
Streets are amongst the greatest – and most abundant – assets a city has. But what do we do with them? We mostly store vehicles in them, or we facilitate the free movement of motor traffic through them. We need to think what we can do to make streets more sticky, as Brent Toderian would say. Places that people want to hang around in, not escape from.

So that’s what’s going around in my head, before this week’s Transport Summit. I find it bizarre in a way that I spend so much of my thinking time on something so mundane – how to get around my city. Yet it’s one of the things that has most impact on my life, my wellbeing, and how I feel about my city. Conversations I’ve had with lots of people about this suggest I’m not alone. Gathering together these thoughts will hopefully help to start a few more conversations, and help us to work towards making Leeds a great city to get around, and live in.

Leeds needs to decide what kind of city it wants to be

Leeds has had better weeks. Thursday saw the rejection by Government of plans for a Trolleybus – 25 years since more ambitious plans for a tram system were first developed. And on the same day, the World Health Organisation confirmed what we knew already – we have a serious air pollution problem.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know transport is probably the thing I talk about most. It shouldn’t be this way. Getting around your city should be one of those things that are incidental to far more important things that you get up to in life. But whether you’re sat in a daily traffic jam, making the best of mediocre infrastructure on your bike, or stuck behind a load of cars on the bus, getting around Leeds feels like a big deal. That’s not good enough for a city with the ambitions that our city clearly has.

I’m interested in transport for all sorts of reasons. That interest grew in 2011 when we got rid of our car – and as a family we started getting around more by bus, on foot and on bikes. What I’d been aware of before suddenly hit me in the face – Leeds, Motorway City of the 70s, is built around the car – and it works for no-one – including people who drive around our city.

I’m interested in this for a number of reasons. The first is environmental – as a city we need to reduce our carbon emissions – and we need to sort out a pretty serious issue that we’ve got with air pollution. It’s no coincidence that a city with poor public transport options – we’re the biggest city in Europe without a mass transit system – also has serious congestion, and poor air quality.

I’m also interested from a social justice angle. Car-centric cities don’t work for people in poverty. Many people in poverty in our city don’t have access to a car – and, crucially, their public transport options are often limited too. That has an impact on quality of life – and, importantly, on the ability people have to access jobs.

I’m interested because I want Leeds to be a child-friendly city. Cities with decent public transport are better for kids – and can help them to become more independent by making it easier for them to travel around their city on their own. And it’s pretty clear cities with polluted air aren’t so good for kids.

And I’m interested because I love cities. At least I love them when they work well. When you can live well. When streets feel like places to linger in, not places to escape from as quickly as you can, because the air is thick with diesel fumes and you can’t hear yourself think over the traffic noise.

Leeds has to decide what kind of city it wants to be. And that goes beyond whether we get a tram-train or a Monorail powered by waste energy from the new incinerator. We’ve got to think bigger than that. How do we build a city that works for people? A place that is good to walk around. Streets that are places where you want to hang around. Decent public spaces.

We need to be bold. It won’t surprise you to learn that I think we need to rethink the city and design out the dominance of the car. It’s clearly not working. We need to make active travel more attractive – so short journeys, so often taken in a car – feel like they can realistically, enjoyably, be walked or cycled. That means taking roadspace away from cars, and building high quality, protected bike lanes. Because everyone benefits when more people cycle – not just the “cyclists”.

Am I hopeful? I have mixed feelings. It can feel like a cheap shot to keep banging on about Leeds still being the Motorway City of The Seventies at heart. But anyone who knows this city well will recognise how that culture still lives on. I’ve had a fair few interactions with the Highways Department (the name of the department tells you all you need to know) – and I can’t tell you how difficult it is to try to influence something as simple as the wait-time for pedestrians at a pelican crossing, or to ask for a pedestrian crossing to access one of our main civic spaces. If we can’t change things like that, what hope have we got of making the big changes that we need?

But there is hope. The Council recently produced a document looking at a future transport strategy, which also looked more broadly at changes that could be made to the city’s streets. Some of it is really good – and there are ambitions to make changes that will result in a more people-friendly city centre – like the closure of City Square to most traffic.

So as we chew over what comes next for the city, let’s not forget that it’s not just about trams, light rail, or electric buses. It’s about the kind of city we want to be. As Janette Sadik Khan suggests, we need to fight for our city’s streets – and for the future of our city as a great place to live.

What can Leeds learn from a New York City streetfight?

I’ve just finished reading Streetfight – Handbook For An Urban Revolution – by ex New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  It documents her seven years in the role – making massive changes to the city’s streets, including creating over 400 miles of new bike lanes and more than sixty new public spaces.

I’m fascinated by how we can make our cities better places to live.  In particular, I’m interested in how we all get around our cities – and the problems many of us face in places where motor traffic dominates.  My city, Leeds, regularly grinds to a halt – and has some of the worst air pollution in the country.  And it’s certainly not a city where cycling feels like an easy, or particularly safe, option.

Whilst every city is different – and will have its own challenges, there’s loads we can learn from places that have begun to deal with the issues many of our cities face – primarily how to enable lots of people to get from A to B – and how to make our streets places where people want to linger, chat, and, of course, spend the money that keeps the city going.

There’s so much in the book – and it’ll take me a while to digest it all – but I’ve tried to pick out a few key themes – in particular ones that I think are relevant to the city I live in.

It’s not just about bike lanes – it’s about the kind of city we want

When I first heard about Janette Sadik-Khan’s work (via Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat’s Twitter feed) I focussed immediately on the work she’d done to create hundreds of miles more bike lanes in New York.   As someone who makes most journeys in my city by bike, I liked the sound of that – particularly as I imagine New York to be a city where the automobile rules.

And that’s still the bit I’m most excited about, as I can see how everyone in our city could benefit if 10-20% of us regularly got around by bike.  But in the book there’s as much talk about creating public space as there is about creating safer routes for people on bikes.  Under her leadership the city created over sixty new public spaces – taking space from cars and providing people with the opportunity to sit, eat, think, drink, spend.

Creating more people-friendly cities isn’t just about how we get around – it’s also about creating better public spaces.  What Brent Toderian would call sticky streets – places where people want to hang out.  Places that are safer.  Places where people linger – and spend money.

The benefits of acting quickly and cheaply

It feels like change can take forever.  Just look at Leeds.  There’s been talk of a tram system in the city ever since I came here in 1991.  And  changes to the City Centre Loop (such as closing City Square to traffic) may have been announced last year, but won’t happen for a good few years yet.

Why do things have to take so long?  Budgets, consultations, planning – all important stuff.  But what might we gain if just tried a few things out?  A common theme in the book is of New York’s Transportation Department trying things out quickly and cheaply – a lick of paint to designate a new public space – filled with a couple of hundred $10 chairs from a hardware store.

Could we do more of this here?  Yes, consultation matters.  Yes, we need to spend public money wisely.  But what if we just tried things a few things out?  Put a few cheap chairs outside the Town Hall and watched what happened?  Or created a temporary bike lane, with temporary barriers, on a few city centre streets in August for a few weeks?  Trying things out – and helping people to visualise how our city could be different – might just work.

2016 will be the year of the bikelash in Leeds

The clue’s in the name of the book.  It’s not “How we found a comfortable middle ground that everyone in the city was happy with”.  It was a fight – and it still is.  There was lots of opposition – to creating new bike lanes, to taking parking spaces away, to creating new mini public squares.

Congestion will get worse.  Pollution will get worse.  Shops will lose trade.  Pretty much all the arguments you’re hearing in London right now, as they expand their cycle superhighway network.  And, arguments that you’re hearing in my city – and which will increase in volume once the City Connect route opens later this year.

I don’t know whether City Connect will be a success – I trust it will be – and I hope it will be.  But one thing’s for sure – within days of it opening there will be countless people on social media and in the local media telling us how much of a waste of money it is.  And you won’t be able to move for tweeted photos of empty bike lanes, next to gridlocked traffic.  Those of us who think that City Connect has to be the first part of a city-wide network of protected bike lanes need to be ready to fight – and to make the case that better designed streets – and more space for cycling and walking – will benefit all of us, however we get around.

More analysis, fewer anecdotes.

Sadik-Khan’s boss was Mayor Bloomberg – a man known for many things, including the phrase: In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.

One of the things I found most interesting in the book was the emphasis on data – in particular to help them to analyse the impact of the changes they were implementing.  It would seem – and others have said the same – that our methods for measuring what happens on our streets is often inadequate.  Mostly, what is counted is traffic – the number of cars.  And even when we do collect other data – collision data for example – the data isn’t rich enough for us to analyse (or we just don’t bother analysing it).

In New York they put a lot of effort into coming up with new ways to “measure their streets”.  So anecdotes (“the traffic has slowed; more people are riding bikes on pavements; shops have lost trade”) were replaced with data.  And, (unsurprisingly to those of us who follow this stuff) the data mainly told good stories.  Fewer road casualties.  More trade for local businesses. Improved traffic flow.  Data that built the case for the next plaza, the next bike lane – and crucially – got local people  requesting infrastructure improvements in their neighbourhoods.  There’s lots of good work happening on data in Leeds – by people like Leeds Data Mill and ODI Leeds.  What data could we collect and analyse to make our city streets work better?

So they’re my immediate thoughts.  Like a lot of people who care about this kind of thing, I get a bit worn down at times, constantly having the same arguments, regularly being told “that’s all very well, but it really isn’t possible.”  But having read this book, I feel like I’m ready to fight for better streets again.

 

 

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