The Social Business

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.

 

 

How can we improve recycling rates in Leeds?

I’d never been to a hack before – and then I’ve ended up at two in the last week.

I spoke at an event on Friday which is exploring how to improve mapping of cycle routes in Leeds.  There are two more “warm-ups” and then the Hack My Route event itself – in the next few weeks.  There’s £4500 up for grabs for whoever comes up with the winning prototype.

Yesterday I went to what was termed a Recycle Hack – a Leeds City Council event, facilitated by Abhay Adhikari,  looking at how we can improve how we deal with domestic waste in our city.  Attendees were primarily council staff – plus a few people who do clever stuff with data, and a couple of interested observers, including me.

There’s a lot going on in Leeds with regards to sharing data more openly – and that was the starting point yesterday too.  The council have gathered together a range of data relating to domestic waste, including:

  • Bottle banks – locations and amounts of glass collected, by colour
  • Amounts of different types of waste collected at Household Refuse Sites
  • Information on bin wagon routes
  • Data on amount of waste collected on each household waste collection day
  • Information on contamination of recyclable waste

The data doesn’t seem to be online yet but I assume it’ll be published soon on Leeds Data Mill.

After a brief run through of the data (more about what data there was, rather than what it showed) we split into groups and began to explore what we might try to do with the information in the spreadsheets – with a focus on working out ways to improve how the city deals with its waste.

Our group focused on what information we thought it might be interesting to study in greater detail.  Pretty obvious things – like how different bin routes compare in terms of amount of waste collected, and percentage of waste sent for recycling.

We’d learnt earlier in the morning that all Leeds’ recyclable waste is sent for manual sorting to a privately run facility in Beeston, south Leeds.  One data set relates to the level of contamination of recyclable waste – for example by people putting general waste in their green bin – which (if I understood things correctly) in extreme cases can mean that a whole wagon-load of recyclable waste can be rejected and sent to landfill.  I left wanting to understand this more.  On which routes is there more contaminated waste?  Does “contaminated” mean “dirty” or does it mean “too much of the wrong sort of non-recyclable plastic”?  How is this dealt with?  What solutions might there be?

Another set of data I’d be interested in looking at more relates to areas of Leeds (around Rothwell) where households get food-waste collections. I’d be interested to see what impact that has had on recycling rates – and the amount of non-recyclable waste that’s collected.

In truth we didn’t have loads of time to explore things before we broke for lunch.  But we worked with one of the developers, Nick Jackson, (who’s also working with Leeds Empties on this open data project) to explore a few ideas – including improving the page on the Leeds Council website which lets people know when their bins are collected.  Apparently 40,000 people visit that page every month – so that’s a significant audience – potentially for information that may encourage people to recycle more.

As you’d expect, as you start to get into detail you realise that there are limitations to the data too.  There’s a natural desire to compare performance across the city – how does the prosperous suburb of Adel compare with inner-city Cross Green?  But in reality it’s more difficult – as the data gathered about waste collection relates to routes – which take in a number of neighbourhoods.  But as the data is explored in more detail other possibilities for better analysis may become apparent.  And, with time, there may be possibilities to gather data in different ways.

After the event I got into a few interesting conversations online.  I tweeted a picture of a leaflet that we’ve got on our fridge.

 

 

The leaflet was produced by Leeds University Union – and is aimed primarily at students in the city.  The issue that I mentioned before – about green bins being contaminated with non-recyclable waste – is a particular problem in student areas.  The leaflet shares information – in an engaging way – about what can and can’t be recycled in Leeds.

I learnt a lot myself – I now know that plastics with numbers 1 2 and 4 on them can be recycled in Leeds – but not others.  So, for example, most yoghurt pots can’t go in your green bin, whilst a lot of bottles can – but lots of bottle tops can’t.

Response to the leaflet on Twitter suggested that I’m not alone in being a bit confused about what you can and can’t recycle.  So maybe amidst all the talk of data we’ve found one low-tech solution – better information shared with all households.  A couple of local councillors picked up on the tweet so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there.

So it was an interesting day.  My main interest in this is environmental – but there could be clear financial benefits for the city too.  I don’t know the exact figures but dealing with the city’s waste clearly costs council tax payers a lot of money – at a time when the council’s budgets are under severe pressure.  So reducing the amount of waste we produce – and recycling more of it – makes sense for all sorts of reasons.

When I get more information about next steps – and when the data is shared – I’ll share it here and on Twitter.

 

 

The ups and downs of cycling in Leeds

If you told me that I might one day see the Tour de France pass within half a mile of my house, I’d never have believed you.

But that’s what’s happening in 10 days time.  And given my love of all things bike, it’d be fair to say I’m pretty excited about it all.

It’s great to see so much focus on cycling in Leeds.  Yet it’s got me thinking again (although to be honest I think about this stuff all the time) about my daily experience of cycling in Leeds.

And it’s been an eventful few days.  It all started on Twitter, with me responding to a tweet from West Yorkshire Police’s Roads Policing Unit.

 

I responded by re-tweeting the message (and the previous one which included a photo of the incident) and I also passed the tweet on to a cycling organisation, a website and a journalist – referring to what I saw as “victim-blaming”.

I’ll give you a bit of context – if you’re not, understandably, fully up to speed with the ins and outs of keeping safe as a cyclist on our roads.  I thought it was inappropriate to focus, in this situation, on whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet.  The issue at hand was a collision between a car and a bicycle – and as CTC subsequently pointed out, things aren’t quite as clear-cut as they might seem when it comes to helmets and safety:

 

There’s a wider point here too.  Whilst I think as a cyclist you need to do all you can to keep yourself safe, the thing that makes you most vulnerable is the behaviour of other road users.  I do all I can to anticipate danger when I’m cycling – but there’s only so much I can do.  Focusing too much on how cyclists can (apparently) “keep themselves safe” can take the focus away from the responsibility of all road users to act in ways that minimise risk to others.  Hence the call from me and others – and it’s a call you’ll hear time again – to lay off the “victim blaming”.

But it doesn’t stop here.  Later that evening I went to check my Twitter feed – and noticed that I’d been blocked by the RPU.  In Twitter terms, this means that you’re no longer able to follow what that user is saying.  It’s usually used when a Twitter user is being abusive.

Whilst I’m sure the RPU weren’t that happy with what I’d said (and I’d challenged them on other things previously) such as the tweet below, I think it’s an over-the-top reaction to block me.

 

And it appears that I wasn’t the only person to be blocked that evening….

 

We all make mistakes – so I’m open to the RPU acknowledging that this was an over-reaction.  However, it does raise questions about underlying attitudes at West Yorkshire Police in relation to road safety and cycling – questions which get louder when you see stuff like this, from last week:

 

I’ve written to the Police and Crime Commissioner about it all, and I’ll let you know when I get a response.

But amidst it all, cycling still brings great joy to my life.  And what better than seeing my son learn to ride his bike this weekend.  Here he is, practising hard:

 

My son learning to ride his bike

My son learning to ride his bike

I was there with him for over an hour, on a short cycle path next to Gledhow Valley Road, half a mile from our house.  Gledhow Valley Road is on my route to work – or at least it was.

I got fed up of being overtaken by speeding motorists – and decided to change my route to avoid it, whenever I could.  And, stood there for an hour, what I saw confirmed I’d made a good choice:

The joy I felt seeing my son ride his bike was immense – and at the same time I knew full well I’d never let him out on the roads near where we live.  That’s no good is it?

The day after we went out again, this time to Chapel Allerton Park.  And we popped in to Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op to get him a yellow jersey as a reward.  All ready for the Tour.

As we walked our bikes home I realised that the traffic was stopped – and a cyclist was lying in the middle of the road, clearly in pain.  It’s unclear what had happened – and who, if anyone, was at fault, but the incident took place at exactly the same place where I’d been stood the day before.

And, two hours previously, when I was cycling home, I’d had to pull into the gutter at exactly the same junction as a car overtook a left-turning vehicle – crossing dangerously to my side of the road.

I went back an hour later – the fact that all was back to normal – and I’ve seen nothing in local media – suggests to me that the cyclist wasn’t too badly hurt.  I certainly hope that’s the case.

But again, the joy I felt at seeing my son ride his bike had immediately been punctured by the reality of cycling in Leeds.  Our roads aren’t fit for cycling on.

What do you do?  Other people know more about this than I do – but certainly the #space4cycling campaign is starting from the right place.  The Council is also talking about Tour de France legacy today – here’s their discussion document.  Personally, I’m not wholly convinced that the Council is ready to take the tough decisions that need to be taken to make our roads safer for all – witness their current position on 20mph limits.  But it’s good that this stuff is being talked about.

So I’ll keep cycling, and you can bet that my son will too – he wants to do nothing else now. But I’ll keep banging on about how things aren’t good enough in Leeds – and elsewhere – too.

Year three car free – a quick update

I’ve had a couple of hours on the train this afternoon (who says we need to get to London faster?) so I had a bit of time to catch up with updating how things are going in our third car-free year as a family.

I’ve written plenty before.  But to summarise, we sold our car in November 2011 with the aim of getting around more on foot, by bike and on public transport, whilst hiring cars when we need them.

It was mainly a green thing – but I was also intrigued as to what the financial impact would be – so I’ve kept track of all our transport costs since we sold our car.

Our new year's resolution in 2010

Where this journey began – with a new year’s resolution

 

I’ve written before about how we’ve got on – in particular how not having a car has saved us money – and our use of hire cars has decreased year on year.

We’re now just over half-way through the third year car-free, so I’ve added up what we’ve spent (November 2013 to May 2014) and compared it with the same period in the previous two years – to see if any patterns emerge.

Here’s a graph which shows how our spending has changed over time (click on it to enlarge it):

Our spending on cars, public transport and bikes over 3 years (period November to May each year)

Our spending on cars, public transport and bikes over 3 years (period November to May each year)

 

In summary – over the three years our spending on cars (mainly hire cars and fuel) has dropped from £1368 (Nov-May 2012) to £565 (Nov-May 14) – a drop over the period of 59%.

Meanwhile public transport spending dropped slightly from £1,103 (Nov-May 12) to £1,058 (Nov-May 14) – a decrease of 4%. Whilst spending on bikes has gone from £40 to £255 during the same period – a rise of 538%.

So what’s changed? I’ve covered the detail before – so I won’t go on – but clearly over the three years we’ve reduced our reliance on cars. We use public transport more, we cycle and walk more, and we do more stuff locally.  Car use has mainly been for holidays and weekend trips to see family – although again, more of those journeys are on the train now.

Dad and Lad weekly bus tickets

Dad and Lad weekly bus tickets

For me it’s interesting that the drop has continued into year 3 – even though at a slower pace (a 23% drop in car costs from 2013 to 2014, compared to a 46% drop in the previous year). So we’re continuing to find more alternatives to car journeys – albeit at a slower pace.

Public transport costs are mainly buses – to get around Leeds – whilst the increase in bike costs relates to me getting a new commuter bike through Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op’s Bike To Work scheme. There are also bike servicing costs in there – given that I’m cycling pretty much every day now, my bike needed a pretty big overhaul this Spring.

So there you go. As I’ve said before, it’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever taken as a family – it’s great to take a step outside of car culture, particularly in such a car-centric city as Leeds. It’s the lifestyle changes that I like more than anything – the extra hour of exercise I get most days, the increasing tendency to stay local and go to the park, rather than get in the car and drive.  And as cliched as it may sound, feeling far more connected to the place where we live.

And as I’ve said many times, I totally accept not everyone can go car-free, but hopefully our decision to get rid of our car suggests that a good number of people, particularly in cities, might well benefit from making a similar choice.

Some thoughts on riding a bike in Leeds (and not being a cyclist)

Cycling in Leeds is in the news a lot at the moment.  Obviously there’s the Tour de France Grand Depart.  Then there’s the new cycle route from Leeds to Bradford.  And there are the ongoing discussions on how we can encourage more people to get around the city without always jumping into their car.

So it was good to see cycling as the main story on this evening’s Look North – with Leeds Cycling Campaign featuring prominently.

Yet the Look North piece left me with the feeling that I so often get when I cycle in Leeds.  It was all going so well and then, out of nowhere, someone shoots out from a side-street – or in this case the Look North Facebook page.  They finished what had been a well-crafted piece – which asked the question “What is it like to cycle in our cities?” with four comments from motorists on the story.  You can guess the kind of thing.  Why do so many cyclists not use lights?  Why do they push to the front of traffic queues?  Make them pay for cycling proficiency tests before they go on the road…. etc etc

You could argue that it was just an attempt to provide balance – and having looked at the Facebook page – it’s probably fair to say that the comments were a reflection of what a lot of people were saying in response to Look North’s request for viewers’ thoughts.

 

 

But it seemed odd to finish a piece that was all about “What’s it like to cycle to work in Yorkshire cities?” with the opinions of people who don’t cycle to work.  And for our next story:  What does beer taste like?  Here are some comments from people who drink wine.

Perhaps I’m over-thinking this.  The problem is that I think about this stuff all the time – because I live it every day.  I cycle to work – 5 miles each way – just about every day.  A carefully planned route from north Leeds, through the backstreets of Chapeltown and Harehills,  up the beautifully-named Dolly Lane and out of town again towards Cross Green.  It’ll never win the nation’s most beautiful cycle route award, but it’s a relatively quiet – and therefore relatively safe, route to work.

And I love it.  It keeps me fit, it saves me money, and it clears my head – I always arrive at work more alert then when I get the bus – and my cycle home provides an important barrier between the stresses of work and my role as a dad, picking up my son from school at 3.25 each day (well, 3.27 – I’m consistently overambitious about how long it’ll take me to get back home up the hill).

Yet cycling in Leeds brings its own stresses.  It’s rare that I have an incident-free journey.  Someone will pull out at a junction without looking.  Or someone will pass me too closely.  Or too fast. Or on their mobile phone.  Fortunately after 15 years of cycling in Leeds I’m a pretty confident rider – balancing assertiveness with caution – assuming people will do something stupid until proven otherwise – or until we’ve made eye-contact.  I’ve been knocked off once (by someone turning across me at lights) and a series of near misses have made me take extra care on Leeds roads.

But it’s not all about motorists misbehaving, I hear you cry.  True – and this is where I get to my point.  People on bikes do stupid things too – some go through red lights, some ride without lights, some ride without due care for themselves on anyone else.  I’ve challenged people riding badly – a few weeks ago I caught up with a guy on a bike who had ignored two sets of red lights to make the point that he makes life more difficult for the rest of us.

You see, it’s not about cyclists and motorists.  It’s about people.  There are lots of considerate people out there – people who look out for others.  But there’s a significant minority of people who appear to not really care much for anyone but themselves.  And some of them ride bikes.  And some of them drive cars.  So that’s why it gets to me when people have a go at people who ride bikes like they have done here.  Because I feel like they’re having a go at me – because they’ve thrown me into a category of people who all happen to get around on the same form of transport.  But, the thing is,  I am not a cyclist.   I’m a fellow human being.  A dad. Someone who usually rides a bike, often gets the bus and sometimes drives a car.  Someone who’d very much prefer to get home in one piece this evening.  As this article argues:

 The bicycle is merely a means to an end. It is a tool which does not convert me into a cyclist, any more than vacuuming my apartment turns me into a janitor, or brushing my teeth transforms me into a dental hygienist.

Yet our roads are sadly just part of modern life.  It’s easy to demonise – mark out as the other – a vulnerable, visible minority.  Cyclists.  Immigrants.  People on benefits.  It makes us feel better about ourselves if we kid ourselves that the problems we face (why does it take me so long to get anywhere?) are caused by someone else.  Like the guy who commented on Look North – annoyed about the fact he has to slow down to overtake someone on a bike – probably ignoring the ten minutes he’s waited in a queue of cars at the traffic lights.  Sometimes the problems we face aren’t caused by the other.  Perhaps we’re part of the problem – and we’re not ready to admit that, so we blame someone else.

Where do we go from here?  I’m hopeful that things are changing for the better, slowly.  And it’s good to hear the councillor on Look North talking about what the Council are doing to get more people riding their bikes.  And nationally, there’s some great work going on to get more investment into cycling infrastructure by organisations like CTC.   But how far are they prepared to go?  Is Leeds forever the Motorway City Of The Seventies – or will our leaders be brave enough to give us more #space4cycling – which, given that they don’t make land any more, inevitably means less space for driving?

 

 

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