The Social Business

Category: Climate Change (page 1 of 5)

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.

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.

 

 

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?

 

 

What’s not so great about not owning a car?

I wrote last week about how we’ve got on in the two years we’ve not owned a car.  I focused on the financial angle – last year we saved £1400 compared with the year before – but it’s about much more than the money.

Yet however committed we are to trying to “do our bit” from an environmental point of view, we wouldn’t have stuck with it if it’d been loads of hassle. But that’s not to say it’s all been a walk in the park (although there have been a fair few of those, now that’s our nearest leisure opportunity….)  So, before I write more about why I’m glad we ditched the car, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on things that can be a bit of a pain.

Probably the main issue is that whilst we’re pretty happy with the service we get from car hire companies, there are things about the whole experience that could be better.  Whilst I’m used to it now (and in two years I’ve had no problems) you do worry that you’re going to get stung for the 800 quid excess for the tiniest of scratches.  As I say, I’ve had no problems, but I’ll always be the one parked miles away from anyone else in the car park, just in case someone opens their door into ours and leaves an expensive little dent.  Of course, you can pay to waive the excess, but that’s expensive – although I now have an annual policy which gives me a bit more peace of mind.   For the record, we hire from Avis – as they’re pretty near, their prices are good and their Avis Preferred scheme makes life a lot easier for regular customers.

One of the other main issues relates to spontaneity.  Today’s been a good example – a dull Sunday morning, and then early afternoon the sun came out for a glorious winter afternoon.  With a car on the drive, we may have set off to somewhere like Harlow Carr for a couple of hours.  By that time, going there on the bus (which we often do) would’ve taken too long – so we didn’t go.  I tidied up the garden instead…

There’s a similar issue in relation to your world shrinking a bit.  We go to certain places (particularly the city centre) much more than others – because some places (for example Yorkshire Sculpture Park) aren’t easy to get to by public transport.  It doesn’t really bother us that much, but it’s noticeable how we now don’t go to some places that we used to go to a lot.

Then there’s the quality of public transport in Leeds.  We’re fortunate that we’re on decent bus routes – and only around 20 minutes from the centre of Leeds.  But public transport in Leeds – for the city of its size – isn’t good enough.  Ever since I moved here 20 years ago there’s been talk of trams – and they’ve never turned up.  We might be lucky and get a trolleybus.  And whilst I do stick up for public transport – the buses aren’t as bad as people would often have you believe – it’s really not good enough – and I understand why for lots of people driving is a rational choice.

Similarly, as much as I love my bike,  cycling in Leeds leaves a lot to be desired.  It’s getting better (at least that’s what I tell myself) but Leeds isn’t a city with a strong cycling culture – or much decent cycling infrastructure.  My commute to work is 5 miles – on carefully chosen, relatively quiet roads – but it’s rare that I have a totally incident-free commute.  It shouldn’t feel like I’m taking my life into my hands every morning – but that’s sometimes how it feels.

So there you go, they’re the main challenges that come from not owning a car. You might well be wondering why we bother.  Just buy a bloody car.  But I’ll explain over the next couple of weeks why we’re happy with the choice we’ve made – and why I think our city would be a better place if more people considered doing the same.

Two years without a car – in numbers

It’s been four years now since we made a resolution, in an icy car park of a budget Manchester hotel, to drive less.

Our new year's resolution in 2010

Our new year’s resolution in 2010

Eighteen months later, we’d sold our car – to see if we could live by hiring cars when we needed them, rather than owning one.

So how have we got on?  I’ve written a few times about it so won’t go over old ground, but now that we’ve had two full calendar years without owning a car, I thought it’d be interesting to compare 2012 to 2013.  What changed year on year? And why might that be?

As I’ve suggested before, it wasn’t really about the money.  It was mainly an environmental decision – an attempt to reduce our family’s carbon footprint.  But it was also about the money to a certain extent – particularly once we started using the car less, and saw it sat on the drive, slowly depreciating.  So how much has it cost to not own a car?

These are the headline figures.  In 2012, our  travel costs (as a family of 3) totalled £4661.  In 2013, that dropped to £3260 – a saving of £1401.  So that’s a drop year-on-year of 30%.

In both years, car costs (mainly car hire and fuel) made up the majority of our travel costs.  In 2012, we spent £2518 on cars and fuel – and in 2013 we spent £1809.  That’s a reduction of just over £700 – a 28% drop.

Other costs dropped year on year too.  In 2012 we spent £1331 on buses – and £912 in 2013 – a drop of £420 (or 32%).  Meanwhile we spent £335 less on trains (£205 compared to £540) whilst the only thing we spent more on in 2013 was cycling – up from £163 to £273.  Taxis made up the last bit of spending – £120 in 2012, and dropping by half to £57 in 2013.

So £1400 less spent in 2013 compared to 2012.  Why?  In short, we’ve adapted to not owning a car.  We were pretty quick to hire in those early months – particularly at weekends.  But slowly we changed how we got around.  My son’s birthday is a good example.  In the first year we hired a car to get to his party, carry his cake, bring his presents back.  In the second year we got the bus – and – now that most of his friends’ parents know we don’t have a car – we got a lift back.  £60 or so saved.  One car fewer on the road.

Overall, in 2012 we hired a car 20 times – for a total of 96 days – the equivalent of around 1 day in 4.  In 2013 we hired twelve times – for a total of 73 days – the equivalent of 1 day in 5.  So around a 20% drop year on year – and as this graph suggests – car use was nearly all about school holidays – plus weekends away.

Car hire costs and fuel - month by month in 2013

Car hire costs and fuel – month by month in 2013

The other main change year on year was switching more short journeys to my bike.  I bought a bike through the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative Cycle To Work scheme – which meant I paid around £25 a month during 2013 out of my gross pay for a  new bike.  My cycling really picked up when Leeds Empties moved to new offices in Cross Green in the summer – as the daily commute is a perfect length for cycling – 5 miles – half an hour.  So the amount I spent on bus fares reduced – as (to a certain extent) did my waistline.

My cycling - mostly to and from work - in 2013

My cycling – mostly to and from work – in 2013

 

I’ll write more over the next couple of weeks about how things have changed – and why we hope we’ll never go back to owning a car. But I suppose the main point I’d like to make is that I think what we’ve done (which I totally accept not everyone is in a position to do) wasn’t about a sudden, dramatic change.  It was about steady, sustained changes in behaviour – bit by bit changing how we got around, so that eventually we were in a position to try to live without owning a car.

Is it time more of us shared cars rather than owning them?

It’s been 18 months now since we sold our car. It took a while for us to adapt, but if feels normal now. Except not owning a car is anything but normal. 3 out of 4 households in the UK have a car – 1 in 3 has two or more cars. Two-thirds of the journeys we make are made in a car, compared to 2% of journeys by bike. (All statistics from the National Travel Survey).

As I’ve said many times, not owning a car isn’t really an option for a lot of people, just like it wasn’t a particularly viable option for us for a number of years. Having said that, keeping track of what we’ve spent over the last 18 months, and how things have changed over that time, does make me wonder whether more of us could manage without owning a car – or at the very least, without a second car.

The key issue for me is ownership. Why own a car if it’s as convenient – or moreso – to hire one when you need one? Or share one with others? There are times when only a car will do – but that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to own it. And how might things change if fewer of us chose to own cars? Here are a few thoughts on how things have changed for us:

We can easily compare the real cost of each mode of transport. When you own a car, a lot of the costs are annualised, one-off costs – insurance, MOT, etc. They’re the same whether you travel 10,000 miles or 2,000. Similarly, you may well have already paid for your car – or the monthly loan cost is the same whether you drive every day or just once a week.

But when you hire a car, you’re paying the real cost of that particular journey. So when we go to see family in Manchester for the weekend it’ll cost us £50 to hire a car. Which suddenly makes the train look quite a good option. Result – whereas when we owned a car we’d have never considered public transport – we often do now. And that’s one car fewer on the M62….

When we need a car, we get the car we need. If we’re going on a camping holiday, we get a big estate car to fit everything in. If we’re just running errands round Leeds, we’ll get a little car. How many of us drive cars that are too big for what we need on a daily basis – just because every couple of weeks – and a couple of times of year for holidays – we need a big car to fit everyone and everything in? Having access to a range of cars – instead of owning just one – means you get the car you need. And if what you often need is a small car, then it saves you money on petrol – and is better for the environment too.

We walk and cycle more. It sounds like a bit of a cliche, but it’s true. Nationally, 1 in 5 car journeys are under 2 miles. For us, that’s the distance to the local shops and back. Previously, we might well have jumped in the car. But now the car’s not on the drive (in fact it’s at the shops). So we walk, or get the bus, or cycle. It takes a bit longer, but not that long. And the exercise does us good.

We’ve noticed the difference most with our 7 year old son. Of course he moans sometimes. Why do we have to walk? But I can honestly say that most of the time he doesn’t even mention it. It’s just the norm now to step out of the front door, and walk. Which links into the next thing that’s changed….

We do more stuff locally. Again, it sounds like a bit of cliche. But it’s true. We shop more in local shops because they’re the ones that are most convenient. And yes, there’ll be times when we’re paying more than if we went to the big supermarket that’s now not that handy. But if I’m going to spend a bit more money, I’d rather do that locally. And I feel better about where I live because I’m a regular here, here, here, here and most importantly here.

(By the way I keep reading stuff that says pedestrians and cyclists are better for local businesses – because they shop more often – I’d certainly say that’s been the case with us.)

Not owning a car has saved us money. As I’ve said before, getting rid of the car was mainly an environmental choice, backed up by a more vague desire to live a little differently. But I was interested in the impact on our bank balance too. So I’ve been keeping track of what we’ve been spending – and how that’s changed over time.

I wrote more about it here – but to bring you right up to date here’s what we’ve spent in 5 months in 2013. Overall we’ve spent £1050 on travel – including £432 on car hire and fuel. That compares with £1736 in the same five months in 2012 – including £895 on cars. So year on year our travel costs have dropped by 40% – and car costs have dropped by 52%. That’s a big saving….

Why have we spent so much less? Basically, because bit by bit we’ve changed how we live. We’re spending less on cars because we hire cars less. Where we might have hired a car for a weekend to do a few things around Leeds, we’re more likely to get the bus. And as I suggested earlier we’re more likely to do more stuff locally. My son’s default request now is to go to the local park – where we now know local kids. Which means he wants to go more – and we need a car less….

So they’re a few reasons why I’m glad we got rid of our car. I think it’s done us good – and it gets me wondering how the city I live in – Leeds – might change for the better if more of us did the same. Might our roads be less gridlocked? Might our streets be more friendly? Might our local shops be more busy? And might we get a bit nearer to that 40% CO2 reduction that we keep telling ourselves we’re going to achieve by 2020?

After 18 months not owning a car – what’s changed?

I’ve written a few times over the last couple of years about how, as a family, we decided to slowly reduce how often we used the car – with the ultimate aim of selling it. The journey started with this resolution in 2010:

Our New Year's Resolution in 2010

It’s been 18 months now and I thought it was a good time to look back and consider how our behaviour has changed over that time – particularly as it gives a good opportunity to compare Winter 2011-12 with Winter 2012-13.

The decision to use the car less was largely a green one. It was also about a slightly harder-to-pin-down desire to live a bit differently. We were interested – particularly with a young son – to explore how our lives might change if we didn’t have a car on the drive.

But we were also interested in the financial implications of not owning a car. Anyone who owns a car knows how expensive it can be to get a car on the road – insurance, MOT, servicing etc – and then keep it on the road – £1.35 per litre for fuel. So would not owning a car – and instead hiring one when we needed one – make much of a difference financially?

The only way to find out was to do it – and then record what we spent. I’ll crunch the numbers a bit more over the next few days but here’s a summary graph, comparing what we spent in Winter 2011-12 and this Winter (you can click on it to see it more clearly):

How travel costs compared Nov-Apr 12 and Nov-Apr 13

The figures show that as a family we spent a total of £2302 on travel in the six months from November 2011 to April 2012 – whilst we spent £1698 in the same six month period that’s just gone. So overall we spent 26% less.

In the first six months, we spent £1177 on cars – car hire, car club rental, fuel, annual excess insurance and other things like parking. In the same period this year, we spent £670. A drop of 43%.

Dad and Lad weekly bus tickets

Other travel costs – buses, taxis, trains and bike servicing cost £1125 in the first six months and £1028 in the six months up to April 2013. A drop of 9%.

So, in summary, we spent around a quarter less getting around – with most of that drop accounted for by lower car costs. What we spent on public transport stayed about the same.

So what’s changed over the 18 months that we haven’t owned a car? I need to look at the data a bit more closely but the main thing is that, as the data shows, we’ve hired cars less often this winter than last. Why? Mainly because we’ve got used to not having a car. To give you a good example, when it was my son’s birthday party in 2011 we hired a car for the weekend, without hesitation – total cost with fuel around £60. How else would we get the cake there intact? And how would we get the presents home? It was obvious that we needed a car.

Or at least it was obvious then. This year we took the cake on the bus and we got a lift home from a friend with a seven-seater. A mundane story about how small things change with time….

As I’ve said many times, many people, realistically, need to own a car. We did too, particularly when our son was younger and we lived a bit further away from the centre of Leeds. But I think our experience suggests that there are alternatives to mass car ownership. Whenever we’ve needed a car, we’ve hired one – either from Enterprise, Avis or, for short hires, City Car Club. But we haven’t been paying for a car to sit on our drive, 90% of the time, slowly depreciating.

This graph shows when we’ve needed to use a car – and you’ll see it’s mainly holiday times – Christmas, Easter and Summer. So we’ve hired cars (a big one when we’ve gone camping, a small one when we’ve visited family – another major benefit of hiring over owning) when we’ve needed them.

Monthly travel costs - car and public transport

My broader interest is in how my city might change if more of us chose not to own a car. It’ll sound like a cliche, but our lives have changed in many of the ways you might expect. I know more of my neighbours now (mainly because I walk up and down our street several times a week). Me and my son have regular kickabouts – with kids we didn’t know a few months ago – in our small local park (previously we’d have driven to the bigger, better park a few miles away). And we shop – and have cheeky pints – more locally.

There’s the odd time we miss the car – particularly when the weather’s not great and we’ve got stuff to do locally. But overall it’s one of the best decisions we ever made. And I hope we never own a car again.

Leeds – a good place to build your own home?

Housing minister Mark Prisk was in Leeds today to announce a series of measures to encourage more people to build their own homes.

He was visiting LILAC – an inspiring development of strawbale housing in Bramley, West Leeds – which today welcomed its first residents.

You’ll know we’ve been working hard on Leeds Empties for the past year or so. Ultimately, our interest is in ensuring that more Leeds people have access to decent housing. Sorting out empty homes has a big part to play in making that happen. But it clearly doesn’t offer the whole answer. We need to build more homes.

But I can’t be the only person who sees volume house builders as part of the problem. We’re told we need to Get Britain Building. We need to relax planning regulations. We need to make it easier for people to buy new-build homes. Just let the big boys get on with the job – they’ll sort it out.

Really? Now I’m not going to suggest that volume house builders don’t have a role to play – they clearly do. But I’d worry if we were going to rely on them alone to sort out our shortage of decent housing. Don’t their developments, often at scale, often on greenbelt land – keep running into local opposition? Do their estates of identikit housing inspire? Do they help us to make a significant dent in our CO2 emissions – 25% of which come from running our homes? And, perhaps most crucially, are many of their homes affordable, by even the most loose of definitions of affordable?

A self-build home in the Field of Dreams at Findhorn, Scotland

This is why I’m interested in how we can encourage more self-build. In the UK around 10% of homes are self-build. Across Europe, the figure is around 50%. In Germany and Austria it’s more like 80% (all stats from this programme). So it’s clear there’s scope for more of us to get involved in building our own homes.

What might be the benefits of more of us building our own homes? I’m no expert on this – but from what I’ve seen with my own eyes – in places like this and this – self-built homes can, first and foremost, be beautiful, inspiring places to live. That’s not too much to ask is it?

But they can be much more than that too. Designed well, they can offer opportunities for significant reductions in the environmental impact of our homes – both in the construction and running of the homes. And, when people decide to build together, there can be benefits with regards to a greater sense of community – LILAC, for example, is based on co-housing principles and the development includes a shared house. Might co-housing – much of it self-built – help tackle what’s been called Britain’s loneliness epidemic?

And then there’s affordability. We live in a pretty modest 3 bed semi in Leeds. About £1 in every £3 we earn goes to pay a mortgage on a house that I like, but I’d struggle to say I love. And we, of course, are amongst the luckier ones – the generation below us has got little chance of being able to afford a decent home.

Strawbale Cottage in Howden, East Yorkshire

Now there are bigger things at play here – but self-build housing surely has to help. LILAC, for example, has affordability at the heart of its approach and its ownership model. And, particularly where people group together to buy materials and do some work themselves etc you can imagine there are opportunities to do things more cheaply than house builders who are driven primarily by profit.

So how do we make sure that LILAC isn’t the last inspiring self-build community in Leeds? A starting point could be a meeting that’s being organised by Leeds City Council in May. Hopefully that’ll bring a number of people together who are interested in building their own homes. I’ll be going – it might take us four or five years before we’re ready – but I’m keen to start exploring whether our next home could be one we build ourselves – with others.

Getting together in May might also start us thinking about what might need to happen in Leeds to make it easier for people to build their own homes. Clearly access to land is key. Getting your head round planning regulations, I presume, can be a barrier. It’ll be interesting to see what role the Council – and others – could play in this – for example by identifying appropriate parcels of land – perhaps smaller pieces of land that commercial developers aren’t so interested in – and offering them on good terms to self-builders.

Personally, I’d like to see us trial an approach whereby volume house builders are offered planning permission in return for selling – at a fair price – a percentage of their land to self-builders. Might that be a good way to get more decent, green, affordable homes for Leeds people?

We need to make sure LILAC is a starting point to inspire others to do something similar elsewhere in our city, not somewhere we all visit, dreaming of what could be.

And finally, a self-build house in Findhorn built from an old whisky mash tun

A day with Bristol Together and Triodos

It’s been a busy few days. After Monday morning’s inspiring session with Muhammad Yunus I spent the afternoon with 150 others at the Empty Homes Conference.

The highlight for me was listening to Dan from Revolutionary Arts – the man behind the Empty Shops Network who brings a refreshing perspective to the use of empty space. His talk challenged me to think about empty shops – up to now we’ve steered clear of shops and stuck to homes. And I think that focus is still correct – but we should at least look into ways to make the most of empty flats above shops. Which, in some cases, may mean looking at new uses for the shops themselves too. There are people who know much more about this stuff in Leeds than we do – so we’ll be contacting them soon.

From London, on to Bristol for an event at Triodos Bank. The event at Triodos was run by Bristol Together – a social enterprise that’s been up and running for about a year now – and recently won a start-up of the year award. They provide work for ex-offenders by buying, renovating and then selling empty homes.

One of the intriguing things about them is that they’ve managed to raise £1.6 million through a bond issue organised by Triodos. The bond offers a return of 3% to investors – and is repayable in full after 5 years. Investors can also benefit from Community Investment Tax Relief – which turns a 3% return into an 8% return.

There’s a mix of investors in Bristol Together – from institutional investors such as the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation through to so-called High Net Worth Individuals. A couple of the individual investors were there, and spoke about their experience. They were clearly pretty engaged investors – both were on the Board of Bristol Together – and one commented that of all his investments, the Bristol Together Board is the most impressive he’s part of. It made me think I need to widen my network to include a few more thoughtful High Net Worth Individuals…

The £1.6m investment gives Bristol Together the cashflow to act as a cash buyer in the housing market – buying houses at auction and through Estate Agents. They’re also keen to explore a closer relationship with the Council which might see them find a way to buy unwanted properties from them. Clearly part of the return for investors comes from this ability to move quickly to secure a sale.

They reckon around 90% of the work to renovate a home is done by ex-offenders – with usually around 5 or 6 people working on each house. Obviously more difficult tasks – tanking a cellar, sorting out the gas supply– will be done by specialist traders. But much of the rest is done by the people for whom Bristol Together exists.

Each renovation is co-ordinated by a Project Manager. As you can imagine, the Project Manager is key to keeping the job on track and on budget. A big part of their role is juggling the desire to be supportive to people finding their way back into the world of work with the need to get the job done as planned. Not an easy task, but it sounds like they’ve recruited well.

Bristol Together are an ambitious bunch. They plan to scale up their work in Bristol whilst also expanding into other areas. Next up is the Midlands – with a Midlands Together business currently in development. A number of potential partners for the new venture were there – and it sounds like that’ll be something that develops over the coming months – accompanied by a £5 million bond organised by Triodos.

My main reason for making the trip down was to see if there was potential to develop something similar in Leeds. In the short term, I’d think it’s unlikely that Yorkshire Together will happen – as the next step is to develop in the Midlands. But it certainly felt like something we should explore in the medium term – particularly as there appears to be a strong commitment to working to developing each Together with local partners. We’ll be watching the development of Bristol Together and Midlands Together closely, and we’ll obviously do all we can to help them to identify appropriate local partners if they do decide to work in Yorkshire.

Then there’s the investment angle too. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I’m sceptical about much of what’s happening in the world of social investment. But today it made sense to me. Engaged investors, who have a good relationship with a social business that has a business model which can generate financial returns alongside social returns. The financial return (3% plus tax relief) seemed fair enough to me. And Triodos – well known as a values-driven organisation – felt like a Bank you could do business with.

So could we explore something similar in Leeds? Perhaps with Triodos, or perhaps with another intermediary? What do the investment opportunities look like in Leeds? Could we develop a bond which allowed social ventures in Leeds to act as cash buyers, to do up homes in ways that brought lots of extra social benefits, to ex-offenders, long-term unemployed people or whoever? And could we find a few High Net Worth Individuals of our own?

If you’ve got any thoughts on how to take things further, it’d be great to hear from you.

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