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.
— YorkshireEveningPost (@LeedsNews) January 8, 2018
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.
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.
There’s money to be made in parking in Leeds – Old Red Bus Station, which may be knocked down for a temporary car park, is next to this car park. pic.twitter.com/kp96mX0WDi
— Rob Greenland (@TheSocBiz) December 12, 2017
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.
— Brent Toderian (@BrentToderian) September 10, 2017
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.