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.