The Social Business

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.

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A few immediate thoughts on Leeds Transport Summit » « Leeds needs to decide what kind of city it wants to be


  1. Very interesting but has nothing to say about the transport need of the mobility impaired whether they be young or old.

    Following your tweets I am forever pointing out that all this stuff about “we” , health improvement, cycling etc. has nothing to say for those who struggle to get around physically and are positively endangered by “shared spaces”.

    In this selection of worthy ideas you have got as far as recognising that poverty is an issue – now there’s a surprise but the bulk of what you are talking about applies only those who are reasonably able bodied and young.

    The old and disabled are constantly reminded that they are a burden on the rest of society and get treated accordingly – what amazes me is that people who probably regard themselves as being progressive and “doing good stuff” fall into the same trap despite all the waffle about the caring (sorry compassionate) and convivial city.

    Bye for now


  2. Rob Greenland

    June 10, 2016 — 9:29 am

    Thanks for your comments John. In response:

    I think you main point is a fair challenge. I think it’s something I do keep in mind a lot, but yes, that hasn’t come across here. It’s an issue I’ve discussed with people a fair bit and clearly we have to work out how we continue to make sure that people for whom other forms of transport aren’t an option – and therefore need to drive – are able to access the city. I would also argue that prioritising cars – as we currently do – doesn’t help people who do need to use their car for most of their journeys. So I think you can prioritise other forms of transport – whilst, at the same time still allowing for people who need to to get around the city by car.

    As I mention elsewhere, many people who live in poverty are unable to afford a car, and we know that there are plenty of older people, or people with a disability, who live in poverty – so a car isn’t an option for them. So yes, we need to ensure that people who do need a car, and have access to a car, can use it, whilst also recognising that it’s not an option for a lot of people. We’d need to look at how much we invest in services such as Access Bus, or how we could encourage taxi services that are more accommodating to (for example) older people’s needs etc – recognising that the current level of service doesn’t fully meet people’s needs.

    On the ‘we” point, “we” for me are the people of Leeds. And, of course, like just about anyone, my interpretation of what “we” want or need is coloured by my experience, who I am, where I live, who I mix with etc etc. But I don’t accept what I assume is your underlying point, that when I say we I actually mean “me” or “people like me”. I make it very clear that much of my interest in transport in Leeds is based on the recognition that how things are currently organised doesn’t work for a lot of people – including people who are in a much worse position than me – in terms of income, access to transport, mobility or work & life pressures. Using the language of “we” is also, to be honest, an attempt to engage people in the discussion. I would argue (on most social issues, not just transport) than one reason we don’t make progress is that “we” don’t (or aren’t able to, or aren’t invited to) engage in understanding and making progress on the social issues we face. We leave it to “them” – and “they” are often quite happy to get on with it – not necessarily always in the best interests of “all of us”. Much of the effort, for example, that I put in on social media to read council documents and share them with people is to invite people to engage with this stuff. Because that’s how I think we have a better chance of changing things.

    I don’t understand your “now there’s a surprise” point on me talking about poverty. Feel free to elaborate on that.

    I never suggest that the things I would like to see prioritised, such a better public transport, and improved cycling infrastructure, will be accessed by and accessible to everyone. But we need to work out how we give ourselves the best chance of moving however many of the 750,000 citizens who want to get around our city today – along with all the visitors. It’s clear to me that that means we need to prioritise efficient forms of transport – accessed by many. With fewer cars on the road – as more people have switched to other forms of transport – there can be more room for people to make journeys by car, when needed – whether that’s because of mobility issues, or because the car, for whatever reason, is the best choice for that journey.

  3. A few stray thoughts

    Beginning with the “we” – I prefer not to use that term at all basically because in a highly diverse society I like to think I am honest enough to say I have only a limited experience of the world and so speaking on behalf of others is not really my thing. I could go on at length to say how I think using the word “we” is a claim to power even if the speaker thinks she is speaking for the silenced, expressing the “common good” etc. etc. But I won’t bore you with that.

    I’m an old fashioned type who still likes to think that the material world matters in terms of housing, income, health etc. Therefore inevitably beyond the issue of disability I was raising there lies the fact that people need money to get around even if they receive a subsidy e.g. bus pass, disabled parking etc. I was only being provocative by implying that you had only just discovered this for yourself quite recently.

    I was quite interested that you now seem to be more open to planned solutions rather than what I took to be your commitment to the local and you share my view that vision is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Obviously it depends how this is created and implemented.

    After reading your colleagues article on mobility scooters and cycle ways I will ponder more on transport policy for people with disabilities.

    You may find it slightly amusing that when I was more actively involved in community politics I was accused by the powers that be that I was too communitarian and supportive of the third sector. Today if I have a political identity I would be accused of being too statist and modernist and should really have moved on with the times.

    Cheerio for now


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