The Social Business

Category: leeds (page 1 of 3)

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….

What does #LeedsTransport look like to a 12 year old?

If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that one of my favourite topics is #LeedsTransport.  It shouldn’t really be this way.   Getting around your city should be one of those things that’s incidental to the rest of your day – leaving you time and energy to get on with the important stuff.  But in Leeds, like in so many other cities, it doesn’t really work like that.

I mainly weave my way around the regular congestion on my bike.  But I use public transport a lot too.  As we’ve not owned a car for the best part of seven years, the quality of public transport, and the ease with which you can walk or cycle around Leeds, matters to us a lot as a family.

It’s why I do my best to campaign, read up on and ask questions about all things to do with transport.  Not because I have some kind of transport fetish (although just look at that tram) but because I think cities which get public transport right are better places for everyone to live in – however they choose to get around.

It’s also why I recently joined WYCA’s Leeds consultation committee on public transport (we meet quarterly – the next meeting’s in mid January).

One of the many reasons I’m interested in this is because I think it’s much easier to be a child or young person growing up in a city if it has decent public transport.  And, of course, what’s easy for a child is likely to make life easier for a parent.

As has been said many times, by Guillermo Peñalosa amongst others, if you design a city for eight year olds (or eighty year olds) it works for everyone.

Back to the story.  We hired a car over Christmas – as we usually do – and handed it back to Avis on Tuesday.  My son was due to go to see his friend over the other side of Leeds later that day.  So I set him the task of getting us there by bus.

The context is that for for a while we’ve been keen for him to be more independent – including about how he gets around his home city.  He started senior school recently so we’ve been preparing for a while to ensure he could travel independently to school.  As it happens he’s ended up walking to school most days – and in doing so has ended up encouraging a few of his friends to do the same.  Which is an interesting thing in itself – so many human behaviours are contagious (and walking is a sociable thing).

But back to buses.  I set him the task of getting us to his friend’s house so that in future he could go there on his own.  Research the options – sort out tickets – work out where to get on and off etc.  More independence for him – more time for me – and no need for another car on the road for the rest of us. I documented how we got on in this thread

The detail’s there – but I wanted to pick up on a few key points. For people to choose public transport – over the car – it has to be easy.  It has to be lots of other things too – reliable, clean, good value etc – but the ease with which you can just hop on a bus is vital.  I think it’s fair to say we’re getting better – but there’s still a long way to go.

On the positive side, things like Google Maps – with their  decent transport planner – make it a lot easier to work out how to get to places by bus.  It was no surprise that his first response to solving the problem was to Google it.

Yet on the downside ticketing is still far too complicated.  If my son didn’t already have a decent bit of bus wisdom, he’d have never worked that bit out.  If we assume you already had an Under 18 photo card, you’d then need to know that the first bus that Google Maps recommended is run by a different company to the second bus you’ll need to get.  So you’ll need a different ticket.  But you can ignore Google and get a different bus – that’s run by the same company as the second bus.  And you can get that day ticket on your phone.  Even though you couldn’t get a single ticket on your phone.

I do hope you’re keeping up.

It took around 45 minutes door to door, when a car journey would have taken 15.  But we’re playing the long game here – think of the independence and the benefits of that for him and for us.

But it was useful to see things through the eyes of a child.  How are you supposed to work out where to get off, when there’s no next stop info and the windows are steamed up?  Who might you ask if you’re not sure?  Can the driver even hear you through the security screen?

But we got there.  And it was fine.  So next time he wants to visit his friend he’ll be going on his own.  Good news all round.

And to round it all off a lovely thing happened on my bus home.  As a creature of habit, even when I’m on my own I tend to go upstairs and sit at the front.  So that’s what I did.

A few stops later I could hear two excited children coming up the stairs.  I realised immediately.  Here I was, sat at the front, on my phone, not making full use of those precious front seats.

The first child got to the top of the stairs, and we turned to eachother.  She said “Oh”, had a quick think, and then as politely as you like asked me if I’d move so she and her sister could sit there instead.   I was only too happy to oblige, knowing full well that her gift to me of a Twitter vignette was far greater than what I was offering her.

I walked down the bus and spotted a woman laughing – with me not at me – or at least that’s what I told myself.   I sat with her and we had a good chat about what had happened.    And it reminded me of that great Twitter hashtag #GreatThingsThatHappenedOnTransit  – and why better public transport is such a key ingredient for making Leeds a better place for us all to live in. 

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.

 

Ideas to tackle climate change in Leeds – a quick update

I wrote recently about how the Board of our social enterprise has given me a bit of time over the next few weeks to explore how we could get more involved in initiatives in Leeds to tackle climate change.

I thought I’d give you a quick update on how I’m getting on.  Partly because it’s a useful way to think things through myself, and partly because I think being open about what you’re doing is one very important way of making interesting things happen.  There’s no point trying to do this stuff in secret.

I’m in the stage that we’ve called Looking for Clues – looking around to see what’s going on, what the issues are, and trying to explore where there may be opportunities to improve things.  And as is always the case, conversations and introductions have led me in all sorts of different directions.  I’ll share a few of the more interesting and promising ones below.

Starting with the big picture, the people from Leeds Climate Commission pointed me to research done in Leeds a couple of years back – The Economics of Low Carbon Cities – A Mini Stern Review For The Leeds City Region.  I haven’t considered it in detail yet, but it’s a reminder of the expertise that already exists in the city around how we can create a low carbon economy.

Then at a national level, the Committee on Climate Change produced a report for Parliament last month.  Again, beyond a quick read of the summary, I’ve not had time to take in the detail – but there are clear messages in there about the opportunities that could come from decisive actions and investments – but also the increasing risks of not doing enough, and not doing things quickly enough.

So that’s all useful context – which I clearly need to get to grips with.  In the meantime, I’ve been having conversations around a number of themes.

One issue that keeps coming up is community energy – with a few people I’ve spoken with suggesting that there’s potential in Leeds to do more on this – around energy generation (community-led solar schemes for example) and around energy reduction (investment in insulation of hard to heat homes).  There are plenty of interesting co-operative initiatives around the country to learn from, including ones that have involved Local Authorities.

Again, I need to explore this more, but one of the key things to understand will be where the sustainable opportunities lie – given that the investments and subsidies that made some of these schemes viable in the last few years (Feed In Tariffs etc) are far less generous than they were.

It’s possible we may have missed the boat on this one – or we may just need to think a bit more creatively.  I’m following this one up with a few people who know the community energy world inside-out – like energy4all – and I’ll feed back more soon.

I’ve had a good few conversations around waste and recycling too.  I started by having a think about all the great social enterprises and voluntary groups in Leeds that help us to reuse and recycle things that would otherwise go to waste.  People like Seagulls, Scrap, Leeds Repair Cafe, Leeds Freegle, Revive, Re-work Office Furniture, Real Junk Food Project and Slate.

They – and plenty of other organisations – all help to reduce the amount of useful stuff that goes to waste in Leeds – saving the city money, and bringing a whole range of other benefits too.  But like with all these things, there’ll be loads of Leeds people who don’t know about them.  I’m wondering what more we can do to more widely promote all the reuse and recycling organisations in the city – so that reusing and recycling becomes as easy as throwing something in the bin.

And again, context is important here.  It emerged this month that Leeds’ new, PFI funded RERF (Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility) has missed its recycling target by quite some way – and looks like it will miss it again this year.  That’s a lot of potentially recyclable goods that have instead been thrown in the fire.  And this is against a backdrop of what appears to be declining recycling rates in Leeds.

This is a complex one.  But I’m interested in what more we can do to reduce waste – and stop reusable and recyclable goods being incinerated.  I also noticed in this Council report that the money that the PFI contractor will pay to the Council, having missed its recycling target, will be “ringfenced for the delivery of front-line services, or environmental projects that contribute to recycling.”  So there may be potential there for some of the social enterprises I mentioned above to bid for funds to help the city to improve its recycling rates.

Food and drink is another issue that I’ve been exploring.  I met up with one of the people behind Growing Better CIC – a new social enterprise that aims to grow micro leaves and herbs for local restaurants.  It’s an interesting one because of the well-documented benefits of short supply chains – but they also recognise the therapeutic benefits of growing food – and have an explicit aim around improving people’s mental health.

I’ve also been researching ideas around reducing the use of single-use plastic bottles – after spotting this news story about calls to install water fountains in city centres.  A few years ago I spent a couple of days in Paris with Danone staff from around the world – and one of the workshops I went to explored ways to increase the amount of “on-the-go” recycling.  Even those of us who enthusiastically recycle at home often end up buying single-use plastic water bottles whilst we’re out and about – and then throw them in a street-bin – with little chance of them being recycled.

So I’m interested in ideas to reduce the use of single-use plastic bottles – and water fountains sound like a good one.  It’ll no doubt come down to money – but initial responses from Leeds BID and Yorkshire Water were positive.

I also discovered Refill – a Bristol based social enterprise that works with local cafes and other businesses to offer people the opportunity to fill up their water bottle for free.  It sounds like a great idea to me so I’ve been in touch with them to let them know that I’d be interested in exploring how we could help if they decided to expand to Leeds.  Leeds Indie Food are keen to find out more too.

If you follow me on Twitter, it won’t surprise you to know that I’ve had a few conversations around transport too.  I’ve written before about what I think about transport in Leeds – and how things need to change in the city.  Short of setting up a crowdfunding page for a tram system, what more could be done to explore socially innovative ways to improve what Leeds is like to get around?

Again, it’s been a busy month for this kind of thing.   Leeds Council launched its long awaited Cycling Starts Here strategy.  I shared info about it in this thread – where you’ll see that it soon emerged that what I thought was a summary of the strategy was actually the strategy.  There was a nice aspirational Tube Map of what a comprehensive cycle network could look like, plus 24 “objectives” which covered just about anything and everything to do with bicycles.

Let’s see where it goes.  I can’t pretend I’m that hopeful to be honest – just a few days later we learnt (or at least I think we learnt, if I’ve read the notes correctly) that cycling infrastructure plans for the city centre have been scaled back, at least in the short term.   As Brent Toderian has said, look less at the vision, and more at the budget, if you want to see where a city’s aspirations truly lie.

So what are my reflections there?  Transport’s clearly a harder one to change.  There may be fewer direct opportunities for community-led approaches to changing things, but instead it might be about continuing to lobby for change, hold people to account, and point to what’s being done elsewhere (like Mobike in Manchester, the Workplace Parking Levy in Nottingham, or the Mobility as a Service pilot in Birmingham).  For me it will also continue to be a personal thing – continuing to reduce as a family the number of journeys we make by car.  I’ll also keep working to try to tackle issues around road danger near where I live.

So that’s where I’ve got up to.  Plenty more to explore – plenty more conversations to have – plenty of detail to digest.  But I’m more convinced than ever that getting involved in local responses to climate change is something  we should be doing – we just need to work out what it’s best to get involved with.  As before, if you’ve got thoughts, please get in touch.

How do you solve a problem like climate change – in Leeds?

Of all the social issues I’m involved in and care about, climate change is the one that matters most to me.  It is an existential threat – and we’re already seeing a whole range of negative impacts that have their roots in man-made climate change.

But it’s also one of those issues where it’s easy to feel hopeless.  It’s hard to know what to do.  And even if you do something, it can feel pointless.   So inaction, or disengagement, become ever-more attractive.  And the less we engage, the more time we waste, the less chance we’ve got of coming up with solutions.

Over the years I’ve tried to “do my bit” (see – even the language is problematic).  I’ve written here before about how we’ve tried to make our home more green (more problematic language).  I’ve written too about reducing our car use – and selling our car – and about big issues in Leeds – like transport and recycling.

And I’m pleased I’ve done all that.  It’s got us thinking about this stuff as a family.  It’s made a difference at a micro-level.  It’s saved us some money.  Made us feel a bit better about ourselves. And it’s got us into conversations with people we know.  Including difficult conversations, some of which probably haven’t done done much good.

But, of course, all of the things we’ve done are micro-scale, personal actions in a world that needs so much more to happen.  And they were all probably cancelled out by that flight to France last May.

It’s complicated isn’t it?

So I’ve been thinking again this year about what more I can do, particularly through work.

With this in mind, I recently joined the Leeds Climate Commission.   It’s due to launch publicly in September (if you’re interested in this kind of thing and would like an invite to the launch please let me know and I’ll pass on your request) and in broad terms it has a remit based around exploring how as a city Leeds does all it can to reduce its carbon emissions.

There are people from businesses and organisations across Leeds involved, with the Council and Universities taking a lead on bringing it all together.

My main aim in joining the Commission is to explore how we can come up with social business solutions to climate change in Leeds.  Sustainable ideas in both senses of the word.  I don’t know what they’ll be – but I’m sure there must be opportunities to develop ideas that could for example improve air quality, reduce waste, tackle traffic congestion, reduce fuel poverty, and reduce the amount of CO2 that we pump into the air.

The good thing is that the Board of our social enterprise, Social Business Brokers CIC, is keen for us to work more on this.  So they’ve given me a bit of time over the next couple of months to explore things in a bit more detail.

Could we help to develop some social business ideas in Leeds to tackle climate change?  Five years ago we decided to get involved in housing – and that led to us coming up with the idea for Empty Homes Doctor.  250 no-longer-empty-homes later, we’re still making a difference.

And on the back of that we got involved with developing Leeds Community Homes.  We played our part in raising £360,000 through a community share offer to create People Powered Homes.

So could we do the same on climate change?  Come up with sustainable social businesses that really make a difference?  I really hope we can.  And not just because it’s the issue that matters to me more than anything else.

I am increasingly convinced that many of the actions we need to take to tackle climate change are best taken at city level.  That’s the level at which you can engage citizens – and the level at which we could best appreciate the positive impacts of the changes we need to make to reduce carbon emissions.

So I’m on the lookout for ideas and opportunities – looking for clues, as it says in our 5 stage plan to creating change.  If you’d like to chat more, please say hello.

 

 

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.

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.

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