The Social Business

Category: Green issues (page 1 of 8)

How can we help Leeds to become the Best City For Motorists?

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.

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.

Parking

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.

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.

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.

Could a Latte Levy work for Leeds?

The year is only a few days old and already we’ve had at least two big news stories about waste.

The first concerns plastic – and the possible impact of China’s decision to no longer accept our plastic for re-processing.  Then today we’ve had news of a potential 25p Latte Levy – to “nudge” people into reducing their use of non-recyclable coffee cups.

Waste reduction is an issue that interests me a lot.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve had a bit of time over the last few months, courtesy of the social enterprise that I help to run, to explore “green” business ideas – things we could get involved in locally that would help in one way or another to tackle climate change.

We’ve been looking in particular around community energy, waste, and transport.  Waste and recycling is the one where we’ve made most progress – and I’ll be putting some more time into it over the next few weeks.

We’re interested to see what more could be done to help Leeds as a city create less waste,  and increase the amount of waste materials that gets recycled.

The context is that in Leeds, as elsewhere, recycling rates have stalled in recent years.

Up until recently,  year-on-year progress was impressive – with close to 44% of Leeds household waste recycled in 2013/14 – compared to 22% in 2006/07.  Yet this dropped to 38.5% in 2016/17.

This is pretty consistent with the national picture – as these Government statistics demonstrate.

I’m not sure why we’ve hit this plateau.  My guess would be that years of central Government cuts haven’t helped – and that the continued investment that’s needed to ensure that householders are able to recycle more just hasn’t happened.

On this, it’s interesting to compare what’s happened in Wales – where improvements in recycling rates are much more impressive.  So it would seem that it can be done, if there’s political will and investment.

Locally, Leeds City Council are currently working with WRAP – and are undertaking a review of their Waste and Recycling Strategy this year (see item 17 here).  So it seemed to us that it was timely to explore whether there were any ways we could help to work out how to waste less and recycle more.  I summarised some of the key points in the council report in this thread.

Our starting point has been to chat with the wide range of social enterprises that are active in Leeds on waste and recycling.  There’s loads going on already – with really impressive social enterprises such as SCRAP, Seagulls, and Revive doing loads of good work to make good use of stuff that other people are throwing away.  And, of course, Leeds is the birthplace of the Real Junk Food Project – who through projects including Fuel For School and the Sharehouse have saved tonnes of food from going to waste.

But could we do more?  That’s what we’ll be exploring at a meeting we’re hosting later this month.  We’ve invited the Council along too to chat about the review of their waste strategy  – and to find out more from them about the challenges the city faces around waste & recycling – alongside opportunities to do more.

One really positive thing in Leeds is that a lot of social enterprises already have a strong relationship with the Council – for example Revive has reuse shops at two of the Council’s household waste sites.  And it’s that kind of co-operation that has a big impact.

As today’s focus on coffee cups has illustrated, this is a really complex issue.  There are no easy solutions – and progress will probably come (if it does come) in a range of different ways.  Businesses have a role to play, as do all of us as consumers.  Local and national government will play their part too.

That’s why I think the coffee cup issue is such an interesting one.  I think it’s going to be a really tough one to solve.  As Jo from The Greedy Pig outlined in this Radio Leeds interview, (from 2hrs42min),  the issue of disposable coffee cups is a bit different to plastic bags.  It’s the “on-the-go” consumption that makes it such a difficult issue.

There will be solutions.   But I think we’re going to have to think really creatively.  There are plenty of interesting ideas in this post by Hubbub, who’ve been working a lot on the issue.  I think they’re right that there’s plenty of scope for city-level action – and I’m already talking with a couple of Leeds indie businesses who are up for working out how they can reduce the amount of packaging waste that they create.  Many independent businesses already take a lead on this (eg offering Vegware packaging) – and it’s great to see there’s an appetite for doing more.

There are other interesting ideas out there too – like Cup Club – and again, I’ve been in touch with them to see if there’s scope for trying something out in Leeds.

It’s a massive challenge, but I sense a change in public mood – thanks in no small part to David Attenborough.   There will be things we can do to increase recycling rates – but even more importantly there’ll be ways to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.  And the thing that interests me is that I think it’s in cities that we’ll be able to do the collaborative, joined-up work that will help us make progress on this issue.  Starting in Leeds of course….

Ideas to tackle climate change in Leeds – a second update

I’ve written two posts – here and here – over the last couple of months about how I’m keen to get more involved locally in tackling climate change.  I’ve also outlined how the social enterprise I work for has given me a bit of time to explore a few ideas, to see where there is scope for us to get involved with things that are already happening, or set something up ourselves.

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a bit of time each week exploring a few ideas, so with the launch of the Leeds Climate Commission this evening, I thought it was time to give another update on where we are up to.

Big picture first – talking with people, and reading up on this issue has left me more convinced than ever that this is something I want to focus on over the next few years.  Whilst there are no shortage of issues to worry about in the world right now, I’m convinced that climate change is the biggest threat we face.  So I’m more keen than ever to try to get involved in things locally that could make a difference.

But how do you make a difference?  That’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit too.  Rather than just concentrating on social business ideas, I’ve been thinking – what actions are most effective?  When, for example, is it best to focus on lobbying politicians, or campaigning?  When does it make most sense to focus on changing what you do personally – what you eat, how you get around your city, etc?  When should you concentrate on teaming up with neighbours and friends to do things locally?  And when might it make sense  – in our case – for us to set up a new social business?

It won’t surprise you that I haven’t come to any conclusions on all of that, other than to confirm that all of the above are important!  But I think it’s a useful starting point – a reminder that making progress on such a big issue will require a whole host of approaches – whether that’s at a global scale, or at the scale we’re focusing on primarily – Leeds.

That said, our Board will be expecting an update next month.  So is anything emerging around the themes I explored in previous posts?

Energy remains the topic where there’s most, well, energy.  Most conversations have included discussion of opportunities to generate more renewable energy locally, and to involve local people in financing this activity – through for example community shares.

Given our recent experience with Leeds Community Homes and #PeoplePoweredHomes, this is clearly an opportunity that interests us a lot.  And, in summary, at the moment it’s definitely the main avenue we’re exploring.  But we’ve also been given plenty of advice to tread carefully – given that the business models for community energy have become more difficult to sustain, due to reductions in incentives like Feed in Tariffs.  It would have been an obvious one to explore five years ago when the policy environment was very different – but it’s a little more difficult now.

Our next steps around energy are to continue to look in more detail at other community energy schemes around the country, and also talk with Leeds City Council (we have a meeting on Monday) to see if they would be interested in partnering up with us in some way – eg on a rooftop solar scheme.

We’re also looking into insulation – in the news again this week.  Given that it makes so much sense  – and brings all sorts of benefits – is there more we could be doing in Leeds to insulate more homes?   For example some of the empty homes social enterprises we’ve worked with have developed expertise in insulation hard-to-heat homes – could we help them to do more?

Waste remains an interesting topic too – and as I suggested in the two previous posts it’s an area where as a city we’re pretty strong, in terms of having a whole host of social enterprises turning “waste” into useful resources – including of course the Revive re-use shops at 2 household waste sites.

This is one where it feels like if there is an opportunity, it is in supporting the organisations already doing good stuff in Leeds to do more.

As I’m reminded every time I look in a skip on our street, plenty of good stuff still gets thrown away.  That costs us all in a whole range of ways.   How could we make it easier for more people to reuse more useful goods, instead of throwing them away?  I’d be interested in chatting more with the Council and others on that one, as it’s an interesting problem to explore, around behaviour change and effective marketing.

Transport is another key theme – particularly so in a city like Leeds with public transport provision which is nowhere near good enough.  Reading up on things over the last few weeks has confirmed to me that, personally, this is the particular issue that interests me most.  It’s such a crucial issue for so many reasons – carbon emissions, pollution, economic growth, making the city child-friendly etc etc.

Yet, from a social business start-up perspective, opportunities are probably limited.  It might be one where we focus more on lobbying and working with others to make the case for significant investment in public transport and active travel.  I’ll hopefully be able to use my membership of Leeds Climate Commission to continue to get up to speed with the issues, and also influence the debate around transport in Leeds.

So that’s a quick update.  There have been plenty more conversations which I haven’t got time to share now but hopefully that gives you a bit of a feel of where we’re up to.  There’s a fair bit of detail for me to keep exploring over the next few weeks – to then discuss with our Board in October.

As always, we’re keen to chat with people who’d like to work with us on this – so if you’re interested in exploring how we could work together in Leeds to come up with practical ways to tackle climate change, please get in touch.  And don’t forget to follow the Leeds Climate Commission launch on #LeedsClimate.

 

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.

What can Leeds learn from a New York City streetfight?

I’ve just finished reading Streetfight – Handbook For An Urban Revolution – by ex New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  It documents her seven years in the role – making massive changes to the city’s streets, including creating over 400 miles of new bike lanes and more than sixty new public spaces.

I’m fascinated by how we can make our cities better places to live.  In particular, I’m interested in how we all get around our cities – and the problems many of us face in places where motor traffic dominates.  My city, Leeds, regularly grinds to a halt – and has some of the worst air pollution in the country.  And it’s certainly not a city where cycling feels like an easy, or particularly safe, option.

Whilst every city is different – and will have its own challenges, there’s loads we can learn from places that have begun to deal with the issues many of our cities face – primarily how to enable lots of people to get from A to B – and how to make our streets places where people want to linger, chat, and, of course, spend the money that keeps the city going.

There’s so much in the book – and it’ll take me a while to digest it all – but I’ve tried to pick out a few key themes – in particular ones that I think are relevant to the city I live in.

It’s not just about bike lanes – it’s about the kind of city we want

When I first heard about Janette Sadik-Khan’s work (via Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat’s Twitter feed) I focussed immediately on the work she’d done to create hundreds of miles more bike lanes in New York.   As someone who makes most journeys in my city by bike, I liked the sound of that – particularly as I imagine New York to be a city where the automobile rules.

And that’s still the bit I’m most excited about, as I can see how everyone in our city could benefit if 10-20% of us regularly got around by bike.  But in the book there’s as much talk about creating public space as there is about creating safer routes for people on bikes.  Under her leadership the city created over sixty new public spaces – taking space from cars and providing people with the opportunity to sit, eat, think, drink, spend.

Creating more people-friendly cities isn’t just about how we get around – it’s also about creating better public spaces.  What Brent Toderian would call sticky streets – places where people want to hang out.  Places that are safer.  Places where people linger – and spend money.

The benefits of acting quickly and cheaply

It feels like change can take forever.  Just look at Leeds.  There’s been talk of a tram system in the city ever since I came here in 1991.  And  changes to the City Centre Loop (such as closing City Square to traffic) may have been announced last year, but won’t happen for a good few years yet.

Why do things have to take so long?  Budgets, consultations, planning – all important stuff.  But what might we gain if just tried a few things out?  A common theme in the book is of New York’s Transportation Department trying things out quickly and cheaply – a lick of paint to designate a new public space – filled with a couple of hundred $10 chairs from a hardware store.

Could we do more of this here?  Yes, consultation matters.  Yes, we need to spend public money wisely.  But what if we just tried things a few things out?  Put a few cheap chairs outside the Town Hall and watched what happened?  Or created a temporary bike lane, with temporary barriers, on a few city centre streets in August for a few weeks?  Trying things out – and helping people to visualise how our city could be different – might just work.

2016 will be the year of the bikelash in Leeds

The clue’s in the name of the book.  It’s not “How we found a comfortable middle ground that everyone in the city was happy with”.  It was a fight – and it still is.  There was lots of opposition – to creating new bike lanes, to taking parking spaces away, to creating new mini public squares.

Congestion will get worse.  Pollution will get worse.  Shops will lose trade.  Pretty much all the arguments you’re hearing in London right now, as they expand their cycle superhighway network.  And, arguments that you’re hearing in my city – and which will increase in volume once the City Connect route opens later this year.

I don’t know whether City Connect will be a success – I trust it will be – and I hope it will be.  But one thing’s for sure – within days of it opening there will be countless people on social media and in the local media telling us how much of a waste of money it is.  And you won’t be able to move for tweeted photos of empty bike lanes, next to gridlocked traffic.  Those of us who think that City Connect has to be the first part of a city-wide network of protected bike lanes need to be ready to fight – and to make the case that better designed streets – and more space for cycling and walking – will benefit all of us, however we get around.

More analysis, fewer anecdotes.

Sadik-Khan’s boss was Mayor Bloomberg – a man known for many things, including the phrase: In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.

One of the things I found most interesting in the book was the emphasis on data – in particular to help them to analyse the impact of the changes they were implementing.  It would seem – and others have said the same – that our methods for measuring what happens on our streets is often inadequate.  Mostly, what is counted is traffic – the number of cars.  And even when we do collect other data – collision data for example – the data isn’t rich enough for us to analyse (or we just don’t bother analysing it).

In New York they put a lot of effort into coming up with new ways to “measure their streets”.  So anecdotes (“the traffic has slowed; more people are riding bikes on pavements; shops have lost trade”) were replaced with data.  And, (unsurprisingly to those of us who follow this stuff) the data mainly told good stories.  Fewer road casualties.  More trade for local businesses. Improved traffic flow.  Data that built the case for the next plaza, the next bike lane – and crucially – got local people  requesting infrastructure improvements in their neighbourhoods.  There’s lots of good work happening on data in Leeds – by people like Leeds Data Mill and ODI Leeds.  What data could we collect and analyse to make our city streets work better?

So they’re my immediate thoughts.  Like a lot of people who care about this kind of thing, I get a bit worn down at times, constantly having the same arguments, regularly being told “that’s all very well, but it really isn’t possible.”  But having read this book, I feel like I’m ready to fight for better streets again.

 

 

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.

 

 

The ups and downs of cycling in Leeds

If you told me that I might one day see the Tour de France pass within half a mile of my house, I’d never have believed you.

But that’s what’s happening in 10 days time.  And given my love of all things bike, it’d be fair to say I’m pretty excited about it all.

It’s great to see so much focus on cycling in Leeds.  Yet it’s got me thinking again (although to be honest I think about this stuff all the time) about my daily experience of cycling in Leeds.

And it’s been an eventful few days.  It all started on Twitter, with me responding to a tweet from West Yorkshire Police’s Roads Policing Unit.

 

I responded by re-tweeting the message (and the previous one which included a photo of the incident) and I also passed the tweet on to a cycling organisation, a website and a journalist – referring to what I saw as “victim-blaming”.

I’ll give you a bit of context – if you’re not, understandably, fully up to speed with the ins and outs of keeping safe as a cyclist on our roads.  I thought it was inappropriate to focus, in this situation, on whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet.  The issue at hand was a collision between a car and a bicycle – and as CTC subsequently pointed out, things aren’t quite as clear-cut as they might seem when it comes to helmets and safety:

 

There’s a wider point here too.  Whilst I think as a cyclist you need to do all you can to keep yourself safe, the thing that makes you most vulnerable is the behaviour of other road users.  I do all I can to anticipate danger when I’m cycling – but there’s only so much I can do.  Focusing too much on how cyclists can (apparently) “keep themselves safe” can take the focus away from the responsibility of all road users to act in ways that minimise risk to others.  Hence the call from me and others – and it’s a call you’ll hear time again – to lay off the “victim blaming”.

But it doesn’t stop here.  Later that evening I went to check my Twitter feed – and noticed that I’d been blocked by the RPU.  In Twitter terms, this means that you’re no longer able to follow what that user is saying.  It’s usually used when a Twitter user is being abusive.

Whilst I’m sure the RPU weren’t that happy with what I’d said (and I’d challenged them on other things previously) such as the tweet below, I think it’s an over-the-top reaction to block me.

 

And it appears that I wasn’t the only person to be blocked that evening….

 

We all make mistakes – so I’m open to the RPU acknowledging that this was an over-reaction.  However, it does raise questions about underlying attitudes at West Yorkshire Police in relation to road safety and cycling – questions which get louder when you see stuff like this, from last week:

 

I’ve written to the Police and Crime Commissioner about it all, and I’ll let you know when I get a response.

But amidst it all, cycling still brings great joy to my life.  And what better than seeing my son learn to ride his bike this weekend.  Here he is, practising hard:

 

My son learning to ride his bike

My son learning to ride his bike

I was there with him for over an hour, on a short cycle path next to Gledhow Valley Road, half a mile from our house.  Gledhow Valley Road is on my route to work – or at least it was.

I got fed up of being overtaken by speeding motorists – and decided to change my route to avoid it, whenever I could.  And, stood there for an hour, what I saw confirmed I’d made a good choice:

The joy I felt seeing my son ride his bike was immense – and at the same time I knew full well I’d never let him out on the roads near where we live.  That’s no good is it?

The day after we went out again, this time to Chapel Allerton Park.  And we popped in to Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op to get him a yellow jersey as a reward.  All ready for the Tour.

As we walked our bikes home I realised that the traffic was stopped – and a cyclist was lying in the middle of the road, clearly in pain.  It’s unclear what had happened – and who, if anyone, was at fault, but the incident took place at exactly the same place where I’d been stood the day before.

And, two hours previously, when I was cycling home, I’d had to pull into the gutter at exactly the same junction as a car overtook a left-turning vehicle – crossing dangerously to my side of the road.

I went back an hour later – the fact that all was back to normal – and I’ve seen nothing in local media – suggests to me that the cyclist wasn’t too badly hurt.  I certainly hope that’s the case.

But again, the joy I felt at seeing my son ride his bike had immediately been punctured by the reality of cycling in Leeds.  Our roads aren’t fit for cycling on.

What do you do?  Other people know more about this than I do – but certainly the #space4cycling campaign is starting from the right place.  The Council is also talking about Tour de France legacy today – here’s their discussion document.  Personally, I’m not wholly convinced that the Council is ready to take the tough decisions that need to be taken to make our roads safer for all – witness their current position on 20mph limits.  But it’s good that this stuff is being talked about.

So I’ll keep cycling, and you can bet that my son will too – he wants to do nothing else now. But I’ll keep banging on about how things aren’t good enough in Leeds – and elsewhere – too.

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?

 

 

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.

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