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.