Leeds welcomes careful drivers

Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity claimed this week: “We want to make Yorkshire the European capital of cycling. This isn’t just a one-off, there are other international races we want to see happening in Yorkshire and we want to see more people cycling at all levels.”

Leaving comparisons with other European capitals of cycling to one side for the moment, and focussing on our home city of Leeds, the most significant barrier to take-up of utility and leisure cycling is perceived danger on the roads. As London cycling champion Andrew Gilligan pointed out recently, if your product isn’t any good, no amount of promotion will get people to want it. And at the moment, cycling in Leeds as a product just isn’t appealing. Yorkshire needs a massive and persistent change to both physical infrastructure and the behaviour of drivers to engender a significant shift to cycling. Does Leeds have the political commitment to make this happen? Recently there have been worrying signals that Leeds City Council isn’t just inept and lacking in resolve when it comes to creating a cycle-friendly city.

The Council’s acting head of transport policy, Andrew Hall, took place in a Bike Week panel debate last week on the theme “Can we get Leeds cycling?” at Leeds University’s business school, organised by the UTravelActive project. Andrew’s repetition of the familiar barriers to building decent infrastructure (the council represents the community and the community want to be able to drive everywhere; there are competing priorities and cycling is the preserve of a minority; Leeds is committed to cycling but needs funding from central government to make changes) was business as usual. But there was a surprise when each panellist was asked to briefly sum up their key points. Andrew decided this was the perfect moment to introduce two new points to the debate: the inability of cycle campaigners to agree on what they want; and the behaviour of a minority of cyclists running red lights and illegally cycling on pavements.

This week also saw the publication of a letter from Coun Andrew Carter (Conservative Group leader) to the Yorkshire Post highlighting “the antics of certain cyclists” and agreeing that “it is time the police clamped down on a few rogue cyclists as well as drivers of motor vehicles”. A consultation on the West Yorkshire Safer Roads action plan earlier this year provided another opportunity for Councillor Ryk Downes to focus on irresponsible cycling.

The dust seemed finally to have settled on the old cycling infrastructure debate this year, with everyone basically agreeing that cyclists need high quality infrastructure of whatever type is appropriate to the situation and prevailing conditions. There are plenty of successful examples of cycling cities and countries for us to learn from, if we choose to. Most of those include calm, pedestrian- and cycle- friendly residential streets with low speeds and volume of vehicles, coupled with good quality segregated paths alongside busy main roads. Narrow, obstructed cycle lanes that disappear at junctions or wiggle confusingly through back-streets with inadequate signage don’t tend to feature much. Presenting local cycling advocates with various equally crap choices, then complaining when they can’t agree, is not the work of a council with real ambitions for a sustainable transport future.

On law-breaking cyclists, there are many reasons why pedestrians, cyclists and drivers choose to break the law or ignore the Highway Code, and if they endanger others by their actions, of course they should be accountable. But there is an argument for attention proportional to the harm caused by the various groups.  According to the Department for Transport (DfT), in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, no pedestrians were killed in collisions with cycles, whereas 426 were killed by motor vehicles. Around 40 children will be killed or seriously injured by vehicles in Leeds this year. Complaining about cyclists isn’t going to save lives.

Earlier this year, Paris trialled a scheme allowing cyclists to turn right or go straight ahead through a red light, in a bid to reduce accidents, as the Parisians pointed out “Cyclists can be crushed in blind spots by lorries turning. Bicycles failing to accelerate away as fast as motorised vehicles are also a cause of constant problems” while the UK House of Lords was urged to consider cyclist-only signals. You can read an interesting perspective here on “cyclists” as a group who should all be judged on the behaviour of the few. Of course, most cyclists are law abiding and careful, like most drivers. Enforcement of the law and highway code is a great idea. Why not start with the minority of dangerous drivers whose disregard for speed limits, inattention, and aggressive behaviour is much more likely to cause harm to others?

Dave Horton, who also took part in the debate, has written about Cycling Struggles, including pavement cycling: “busy main roads where pavement cycling is concentrated … feel difficult and dangerous to ride, so many cyclists get pushed onto pavements which are often narrow and crowded with pedestrians, as well as street furniture and other obstacles.” Pavement cycling is a sign of desperate need for decent, safe places to cycle. Dave concludes “rather than continuing to throw cycling and walking together, those people most responsible for ordering and re-ordering our cities should start mainstreaming these sustainable modes whilst marginalising the car.”

Let’s see what some of the other cities vying for the title of European capital of cycling have been up to. Bristol has just held its first car-free Sunday, set to become a regular monthly fixture. The Mayor has been the subject of criticism by taxi drivers, and went ahead anyway. Leeds’ bid to the Cycle Cities Ambition Bid included provision of 50 (yes, fifty) new cycle parking spaces in the city centre, while the forthcoming Victoria Gate development on Leeds’ Eastgate proudly announced 800 new car parking spaces. Utrecht announced plans for the world’s biggest cycle parking facility with twelve and a half thousand cycle spaces. That’s a city with ambitions for cycling.

Councillor Carter and Andrew Hall were both speaking in an official capacity, representing the Council. If the acting head of transport policy thinks that pointing the finger at cycle campaigners and rogue cyclists is an appropriate response to being asked to sum up “how can we get Leeds cycling”, and two Councillors think the anti-cycling bandwagon is a great political vehicle, it’s a worrying signal. For years, cycle campaigners have joked about Councils reducing accident statistics by actively discouraging cycling. But it now seems an underlying element of anti-cycling sentiment could lurk in the hearts of our decision makers.

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Harrogate Road Consultation Revisited: A Correction re Carriageway Width

In response to the blog published yesterday, the Chief Executive of the Council has responded questioning my “assertion that the road is 25m wide,”, continuing, “This is not the case, the width of the carriageway is the key constraint in providing a scheme which meets the needs of all users.  There is not space to provide all of:  general traffic lanes; a northbound cycle lane; a southbound bus lane; and the current levels of parking. This is the reason the options presented in the consultation showed the potential compromises required within the scheme.”

Here’s the image of the road at its widest point…25m width - Harrogate Road

He’s right about the width being less than 25 metres.  My bad.  I have corrected the original blog and noted the mistake. The width was an estimate based on Google images and Google satellite view and did not allow for the ownership of the frontage to the shops.  I have this evening braved the traffic, cheap 5m tape measure in hand, and measured the carriageway.  At the point shown in the image on the blog, the widest part of the road, the carriageway is 22 metres wide, plus 9 metres shop frontage.  At the narrowest point of the proposed scheme, the carriageway is 18.2m wide.  A one-man job with a tape too short will not be precise, but I would be very surprised if the actual width were more than half a metre less at any point.

However, even if I’m out by a couple of feet, I’ve calculated that the carriageway is plenty wide enough to accommodate what the Highways Department have declared impossible without compromise.  Below is a detailed breakdown, citing the relevant design standards, of how the total width can be used to accommodate a proper width cycle lane (wider than any in Leeds), a shared bus and cycle lane, parking, and a buffer zone to protect cyclists from ‘dooring’.  It also preserves the existing wide footways in order to keep cost down and provide for pedestrians.

Table Carriageway Width, Lane Width and Design Guidelines

I am not a highways engineer, of course, but I would be interested to understand where I have gone so far wrong in my calculations, and would be grateful for any comment in the box below.

Incidentally, the argument that “there is not space” is a very familiar one.  David Hembrow, a transport expert now resident in the Netherlands compares side-by-side UK facilities where “our roads are too narrow” with Dutch provision of high quality cycle infrastructure on similar streets.  David Hembrow runs study tours for transport professionals.  I hope Leeds’ Highways Department staff will attend one.

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Leeds City Council’s Harrogate Road Consultation – Conspiracy against Cycling?

Increasing the number of people cycling, as part of a sustainable transport strategy, is known to be good for the health, economy, and environment of any city.  Cycle-friendly planning is good for property values, retail vitality, local businesses, and “agglomeration”, and has wider economic benefits due to reduced health-care costs and absenteeism, and improved productivity.  It reduces CO2 emissions and improves air quality, has a low impact on the built environment, and alleviates noise pollution.  Cycling reduces levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cyclists live, on average, two years longer with fitness levels of people ten years younger. (See Cycling and Local Transport, CTC)

Leeds City Council claims to recognise this, and to have strategies to encourage active lifestyles, to increase sustainable transport, and to promote walking and cycling.  Improvements to a busy road running through the centre of one of Leeds most vibrant communities should have presented an opportunity to put this into practice.  The Highways Department’s recent proposals were an opportunity to re-design Harrogate Road through Chapel Allerton to make it more pleasant to walk or cycle to local shops, restaurants and businesses or to use public transport into and out of the city centre. 

Why, then , does it appear that the council have manipulated the consultation process at every stage to justify not making much-needed improvements to one of the city’s most cycled routes? At the design stage, at the consultation stage, and now at the report stage, the council have sought to justify a scheme which does little or nothing to improve cycle safety in one of England’s most dangerous cities for cycling, or to make Harrogate Road a pleasant and safe place to live, shop, eat, walk, and cycle.  Is it to appease local businesses, to meet outdated and inappropriate targets, or just because the council doesn’t see Harrogate Road as a place for a community to live but as a way of getting somewhere else? Is Leeds still the Motorway City of the 70s?

Manipulation of the Results

Leeds City Council’s Highways Department last week published what it calls the ‘factual results’ of a consultation on improvements to Harrogate Road through Chapel Allerton.   The consultation considered two options for changing Harrogate Road to benefit pedestrians, cyclists, and bus users.  Option 1 implemented a bus lane, which would also benefit southbound cyclists, created a pedestrian crossing island, and removed a small amount of parking.  Option 2 removed more parking to create a northbound cycle lane as well.

The results have been published in a format that suggests businesses favour no change, local residents favour Option 1, and non-residents favour Option 2.   Is this a fair reflection?  Are those the ‘factual results’?  Or is it a means of pushing through Option 1, which does very little to help cyclists?

As far as I can see, none of the council’s other consultations have been analysed and reported in this way.  For this consultation, the overall results are not shown, only the breakdown into local, non-local, and businesses.  This hides the fact that 98 out of 196 respondents, a full 50%, were in favour of Option 2.  A third favoured option 1 and one-sixth favoured no change.  Only by presenting the breakdowns, and not the full picture, can the council make it look like a three way split, with the middle option being the one favoured ‘locally’.

And what do they mean by local? Someone who lives almost two miles away on, say, the Farm Hill Estate, and who uses Meanwood Road to get to and from the City Centre, is counted as ‘local’, with an LS7 postcode.   Someone who lives on Allerton Grange Gardens, less than half a mile from the proposed changes, and who travels Harrogate Road daily to work, is ‘non-local’.

Even if the ‘local’ definition is accepted, and local opinions counted double, Option 2 remains the favourite.  In fact, even if local people count double and local businesses count triple, Option 2 is still the most popular.  The respondents to this survey want a northbound cycle lane and the council’s ‘factual’ report makes it seem that they don’t.

Worse, the ‘key findings’ of the report are presented in a way that distorts the data gathered.  We are told, “The main problem areas are traffic congestion, the conditions for cyclists and the delays to bus services.”   But this is not the rank order that the respondents gave.  For both ‘local’ and ‘non-local’ respondents, conditions for cyclists were ranked as the most serious problem, with 58.1% overall considering it a major problem . Only 42.1% overall considered traffic congestion a major problem.

Even the first statement about the findings, “the results show that the main form of transport along Harrogate Road is the private vehicle.” is wrong.  A self-selecting questionnaire can’t show that: only a traffic survey can.  But it doesn’t even reflect correctly the questionnaire responses.   A weighted analysis of respondents’ answers about the mode and regularity of transport gives 33.7% of respondents’ journeys on Harrogate Road by car, 33.6% on foot, 17.7% by bus, and 15% by bicycle.  The 0.1% difference in journeys made by car or on foot barely justifies the statement that private vehicles are ‘the main form of transport along Harrogate Road.’

The bias against cycling and in favour of driving is evident throughout the report.  The main concern expressed was safety for cyclists, but the report garbles this as, “70% of the respondents think that cycling is a major problem on Harrogate Road, though nearly 3% feel there is no problem.”  The correct, and shocking, conclusion is that only 3% of people responding think there is no problem with cyclist safety on Harrogate Road.   The report also implies that all respondents own or have access to a car, claiming that “over 23% use there (sic) vehicle less than once a week or never.”  Difficult as it may be for the council and the highways department in particular to understand, 41% of Chapel Allerton households do not own a vehicle.  (2011 Census, http://tinyurl.com/LS7NOCAR)  Question 3 of the consultation survey asked about car ownership, and not about bicycle ownership, but the report did not disclose the findings.

Manipulation of the Consultation

It should come as no surprise that the ‘factual results’ are presented misleadingly, and in a way that understates the demand for cycle facilities, downplays the problems faced by cyclists, and supports the less cycle-friendly options,.  The questionnaire itself, and the options presented, seemed designed to encourage responses that opposed improving conditions for cyclists.

The questionnaire appeared to be designed specifically to elicit a negative response to the northbound cycle lane proposal.  The information about the impact of the two options should have been contained only in the consultation documentation, but an extra note about the supposed presumed aspects of Option 2, “would reduce the amount of parking by 29 spaces  and could only be implemented if the crossing at the school is removed” was repeated in the questionnaire itself.  This was the only factual information highlighted again in the questionnaire., as shown below.Biased Question - Harrogate Road

In the opinion of an expert on public consultation from Leeds University’s Institute of Transport Studies, this would bias the results against the northbound cycle lane,  “It is quite a big red flag…  …It probably would affect the decision of those filling in the questionnaire.”

The council also closed the consultation process early, finishing it at midnight on the 9th December when it should have finished at midnight on the 10th December.  The Council blamed, “error with the questionnaire service”, but as concern over the proposals grew among local cyclists, leaflets and emails were circulated by cycling groups and businesses encouraging people to respond, and a greater proportion of the later responses were likely to have been in favour of the most cycle-friendly option.  My own response was only included because I printed, completed by hand, scanned, and emailed my response.  Several cycling friends, including two of the staff at my local bike shop, were unable to make their views known because the process was ended early.

Manipulation of the Design

There is a third reason to suspect the Highways Department is deliberately discouraging cycling.  Did the design of Option 2 intentionally pit the needs of cyclists against pedestrians, car drivers, and local businesses, in order to drum up opposition to cycle facilities?

Implementing a northbound cycle lane does require the removal of some parking spaces, but there does not need to be any conflict with pedestrian needs.  The proposed new crossing is only in conflict with a cycle lane because it is not a proper crossing, just an island with bollards in the middle of the road which reduces the traffic lane width, leaving no room for a cycle lane.  But there are no signals to slow or stop the 30mph traffic.  It is intended to allow parents and children to cross to and from the primary school.  Is it safe to invite parents with very young children to cross between parked cars and wait on a small island, with no protection, for a gap in fast-moving traffic?  The bollards are made from collapsible plastic because this causes less damage to vehicles if they are hit, which is hardly reassuring.   If a new crossing is installed surely it should be a full width, light controlled crossing like the one 200 yards north of the school.  A properly implemented crossing would not conflict with a northbound cycle lane as the central refuge would not be needed and the traffic lanes would not need to be narrowed.

Even Option 2, the most cycle-friendly option, does not comply with the Department of Transport’s standards for Cycle Infrastructure.  The guidelines say that on busy roads, cycle lanes should be 2 metres wide, and bus lanes shared with cyclists should be 4.5 metres wide.  The council has in recent years used its own standards of 1.5m and 4.2m where it considers there is enough room, and often provides even less whenever it would mean narrowing the vehicle lanes.  The northbound cycle lane in Option 2 is just 1.5m wide, even where the carriageway is 22 metres wide … [NOTE: this is a correction of the original text which said the road was over 25m wide here.  Excluding the shop frontage, which is not publicly owned, the carriageway is at least 3 metres narrower than was originally stated.  A new blog post suggests this is still more than adequate for what the council says is not possible.]

25m width - Harrogate RoadThe top concern of both local and non-local respondents is the safety of cyclists, and even the “cycle-friendly” option does not comply with standards for designing safe cycle facilities.

The Council’s proposals also failed to address other serious local concerns.  The local residents committee, CANPlan, objected that, “Neither of the proposals sort out the dangerous mess of the Montreal Avenue and the Methley’s junction”, a confusing intersection of six roads which is difficult to safely negotiate on foot, by bike, or in a car.

Why would the Council Manipulate the Consultation?

The Highways Department appears to have manipulated the proposals and consultation at every stage.  It has produced designs which don’t comply with standards for cycle safety, issued a consultation questionnaire biased against the cycle-friendly option, closed the consultation early, and manipulated the results to claim support for its preferred option, even though two thirds of all respondents favoured other options and  58% of respondents thought cycle safety was the biggest problem on the road.

Why would they have done this?  I can suggest three reasons.

1. Parking for Shops and Businesses

Firstly, the council say they are keen to support local businesses.  All of the options were heavily concerned with preserving parking along Harrogate Road, and ensuring parking spaces are available outside local shops and businesses.  But even among the business respondents, fewer than half wanted no change, and 38% favoured the most cycle-friendly option even though it reduced parking.  10 out of 13 businesses said they wanted all parking spaces retained, but studies show that retailers hugely overestimate the number of people arriving by car, and the importance of providing parking.  People prefer to walk or cycle around their neighbourhood if they feel safe to do so.   If Harrogate Road and the rest of Chapel Allerton were more pleasant to move around by bike or on foot, the demand for parking would be reduced.  Pedestrian shopping areas are attractive precisely because they do not have parking adjacent to the shops and traffic passing by.  I would imagine that if the whole central triangle of Chapel Allerton were pedestrianised, the businesses around the centre would be very likely to see a boom in business as the whole area became a more pleasant place to eat, shop and relax.

2. Safety Targets

Leeds has targets for reducing the number of people killed or injured on its roads.  The Safer Roads Action Plan is out for consultation at present, although the consultation does not seem to be accessible on the Council’s ‘Talking Point’ site.

The new plan doesn’t break down the number of people killed or seriously injured into cyclists, pedestrians, and car users, like the previous plan did.  But the 2011 Leeds Road Casualties Report shows that in recent years the number of people killed or injured in cars has steadily reduced, mostly due to improved car design and medical intervention.  The number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured has fallen only slightly in recent years, after a reduction from 1994 to 2005. This was probably due to people walking less, and more children being driven to school, although child pedestrian casualties have not reduced since 2005.  The number of cyclists killed or seriously injured is rising, with a clear upward trend over the last five years, which the council says is due to an increase in cycle use.  The Council’s 2013 plan quotes a 43% growth in cycling and an 18% casualty increase, and its 2011 casualty report claims a doubling of cycle commuters into the city centre.  But comparing 2001, when 25 cyclists were killed or seriously injured on bikes and 1.10% of journeys to work were on bikes, with 2011, when 40 cyclists were killed or seriously injured and 1.75% of work journeys were by bike, it seems that cycling to work has not got any safer in ten years.  (source: Census Data 2001 and 2011, ONS)

It is clear that driving is getting safer per mile driven, but it seems that walking and cycling may not be getting safer at all.  Since the targets are absolute numbers of people, not rates per mile or per journey, reducing the number of cyclists and pedestrians helps the council to meet their targets because driving is over forty times safer per mile than cycling .  While the council says it wants to promote walking and cycling, the focus on safety target s and measurements is set up to discourage active travel modes, which are currently more risky than driving.   And the council doesn’t seem able to take the necessary steps to make walking and cycling safer, as can be seen by every single cycle lane in the city being below the DfT’s recommended width.

3. Is Harrogate Road for Cars or for People?

The biggest reason for the Council’s failure to support cycling on Harrogate Road was identified by the local residents association, CANPlan, who said that the proposals were ‘Highways thinking about the highway only.’   The fundamental problem is that Harrogate Road is being regarded as, and treated as, a major arterial route by the Council.  It is not being treated as it should be: as a place where people live, shop, and work.  Harrogate Road is not an A-road, or even a B-road, and the concern of planners should not be traffic capacity.  Scott Hall Road was constructed as an A-road to carry through traffic, but Harrogate Road is faster for many car journeys, and carries a substantial volume of non-local traffic.  In fact, some of the traffic is not even travelling to Leeds, as Harrogate Road is a quicker alternative than the main trunk road and motorway network for travelling from, for example, Harrogate to Wakefield.

The most fundamental concern of Leeds’ Highways Department is getting as many cars in and out of Leeds as fast as possible. Harrogate Road is a route, and not a place, for them.  Leeds still is ‘The Motorway City of the 70s’ as it proudly boasted at its sorting offices…motorway city of the seventiesAt the moment, Harrogate Road is a barrier to people walking and cycling to the local shops and restaurants.  I know this from many, many conversations with neighbours and customers of my shop in Chapel Allerton.  It carries too much traffic, travelling too fast.  It is intimidating and difficult to cross on foot or by bike and is dangerous to cycle along.  It needs more safe crossings, slower traffic speeds, and dedicated lanes for bicycles.   It needs positive measures to encourage people to leave the car at home and walk, cycle, and use public transport.

The Highways Department just don’t understand this.  For fifty years they have been designing a city for cars, not for people, where the only priority is vehicles moving as swiftly and smoothly as possible.  As a consequence, over 1000 pedestrians and over 350 cyclists have been killed or seriously injured on Leeds roads in the last ten years. Many more have had minor injuries or near-misses and some will have changed their behaviour as a result.  With a low rate of cycling and around forty cyclists killed or seriously injured every year, Leeds is twice as dangerous for cycling as Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham or Liverpool, four times more dangerous than Hull and eight times more dangerous than York.  As things stand, more cycling and more walking means more deaths and more serious injuries.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Leeds is among the most polluted cities in Europe, with pollution from motor vehicles killing more than a thousand people a year, and Leeds does not expect to meet its 2010 pollution targets until at least 2020.  The city also faces rising healthcare costs from an epidemic of obesity and diabetes as a result of sedentary lifestyles.

Leeds is car-sick, and the Highways Department will not do what is needed to make walking and cycling safe and convenient, and make the people of Leeds healthier, happier, and wealthier.   The whole mindset of the Council and the Highways Department needs to change, starting with a new set of proposals to make Harrogate Road a pleasant and safe place to live, shop, eat, walk, and cycle.

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‘Peak Car’ in the motorway city of the seventies?

Back in November last year, the media switched on briefly to the big news that, for the first time since the 1973 oil crisis, car use in the UK was decreasing.  2008 was the first year to show a decrease, and, as the Times reported, “Traffic declined again in 2009 and 2010, but rose very slightly last year.”

The theory of ‘peak car’ has been around almost as long as the car has, and previous blips have been followed by further seemingly inexorable rises in volumes of traffic.  It would be easy to put the recent blip down to the recession, and expect the volume of traffic to rise once our economic fortunes have turned.  The DfT still expects traffic to increase by 44% in the next twenty-two years.  But there is good evidence that the trend is not a very recent one, nor one that can be blamed on the recession.  While total car use has only just started to fall, that is partly because the population is growing.  The miles driven per person has been static or falling for a lot longer.  The BBC reports an analysis that “analysed government data for Britain between 1995 and 2007, purposefully stopping at that point to exclude the effects of the recession” and which found that the number of miles driven per person nationally has been static since 2002.  As the New Scientist reported, the picture is a complex one and is part of a global trend, which began in Japan and the US.  In the UK, analysis of the statistics shows that while women are driving slightly more, men are driving a lot less; rural driving is still increasing while in London car use has been falling for over twenty years; and young people are driving a lot less, but older people are driving slightly more.

Overall, though, the effect is clear, “the distance travelled per person has fallen every year since 2005 and is now 6%  lower than a decade ago. The distance travelled by car peaked in 2006 and has fallen by 8% in a decade.”

For someone like myself, who daily sets out on a bicycle to share the congested, polluted streets of Leeds with a sizable minority of careless, reckless, and downright dangerous car drivers, the news that car use is falling was very welcome, and I set out to investigate when Leeds might start to see the benefit of this.  Leeds is still the car-sick self-proclaimed “motorway city of the 70s”, with a higher rate of private car use than any comparable city in England, except for even more car-sick Bradford.  As a result, it’s also the second most dangerous (also after Bradford) for cyclists, with the risk of being killed or seriously injured being double that in Manchester or Liverpool, four times more dangerous than Hull and eight times more dangerous than York.

So I looked up the figures, and here they are

Leeds Traffic Growth 2001-2011Yes, that’s correct.  Car use in Leeds peaked in 2005, eight years ago, and fell by 7% from 2005 to 2011.  It fell sooner, and faster, than the national average.  Leeds, the motorway city of the 70s, for so long behind the times in its transport policy, is ahead of the curve in terms of ‘peak car’.  Perhaps help is at hand for Leeds ‘Road Safety’ team, who have been unable to reduce the number of pedestrian casualties on the roads since 2004 and who have seen a 60% rise in cyclist casualties since 2001.  Their newly drafted 2013 strategy promises more of the same failed measures, so perhaps a reduction in car traffic will help meet their targets.  And perhaps some of the road space no longer needed by private motor vehicles can be given over to safe, convenient routes for active travel, i.e. walking and cycling.

Cyclists in Leeds have repeatedly been told that real, substantial, improvements to the highways to make cycling more popular and less dangerous are not possible because the road capacity cannot be reduced.  Reducing capacity for private cars would increase congestion, according to the council, which they say is damaging to the economy.  A cyclists’ deputation to the Council was fobbed off with the conclusion that they needed to “maintain a balance of provision for all road users.”  The Chief Executive of the Council, Tom Riordan, recently wrote to a cycle campaigner to defend the £100M ring road extension with the argument that, “to ensure that our economy is strong we have the right balance in transport connectivity.”  But now there is less demand for driving than there was ten years ago, and more demand for cycling, so the balance is shifting, and the council must surely act to reallocate road space for active travel.   Quality cycle infrastructure, and better pedestrian facilities, are needed to address the city’s appalling road safety record, and to make Leeds a more pleasant city in which to live, work, eat, shop, walk, and cycle.

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Shipshape and Bristol fashion

Leeds council’s current idea is making Leeds “The Best City”. Officers are starting to consider once-taboo subjects like -whisper it- a proper segregated Dutch-style cycle lane on one city centre road. A senior Council colleague asked “what would the best city do?” and asked for plans. I won’t get my hopes up, but the very fact that it’s being considered feels like a great leap forward. But looking at the conditions for cycling in Leeds today, is the pace of change fast enough to move us up the league?

I recently returned from the Cyclenation/CTC conference hosted by Bristol Cycling Campaign, which included a choice of guided rides around to city to see how the infrastructure has developed there. Bristol is clearly a generation ahead of Leeds when it comes to cycle provision, attitudes towards cycling, and numbers of normal people on bikes.

Our guide pointed out a rare case where road space had been taken away to provide a cycle lane. I was surprised: the amount of space given over to cycles is so generous, if it didn’t come from road space, then what? In fact, the process of taking away road space started in the early nineties – nothing to do with cycling, but simply to make the city centre more pleasant. On several occasions we were shown green, pleasant places which used to be dual carriageways. They were taken out in the nineties and noughties as a way of just making the city nicer. Putting in cycle infrastructure was easy once the roads had been taken out. “Of course there were loads of objections from motorists,” our guide told us. “The Council did it anyway.”

Leeds as “the best city”? We’ve got a way to go.

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Once more around the Loop, dear friends

Michael Macintyre made fun of Leeds’ Loop Road in a recent stand up sketch –and with good reason (though one might ask why, if he could see the theatre from his hotel, he felt the urge to drive to it – anything for a good anecdote, I suppose!). There have been real examples where businesses moving offices had to ask their removal lorries to negotiate nearly two and a half miles of busy road just to move a hundred yards. But far from being an object of ridicule to the Council’s road planners, the Loop is inviolable: capacity on the loop must be protected, and nothing must be allowed to delay or interefere with the traffic flow. We’ve seen it a few times in plans for various parts of the city centre network, and this attitude doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.

To new drivers in the city, the Loop causes more stress than probably any other road in the region. There’s a slightly scathing junction-by-junction critique from CBRD. Growing up in York, the Loop was spoken about with fear. It was said that you would never find your exit; that you would see your destination flash past, while you were in the wrong lane to get off; that there were lost souls still Looping, many years after setting out to skirt the city. In fact, the Loop is a very efficient way of moving vehicles around the city: I would argue, too efficient. In a widespread survey of traffic movements a few years ago, the Council discovered that a high proportion of the traffic entering Leeds during rush hour isn’t going to Leeds at all, but through it, from Harrogate to Sheffield or from Bradford to York. Crossing the city in a car, by far the quickest way is to drive straight into the centre, around the Loop and out again. Driving an extra Loop if you miss your exit, or even two or three, is still quicker than almost any other route.

Those new to the Leeds road network might feel as if the Loop’s been there forever. Why did the Loop happen? What problem did it solve? Does it still serve its purpose? Not questions I can answer.

Cyclists and pedestrians might ask, can’t these more vulnerable groups sometimes be prioritised over the Loop traffic? Can’t the Loop traffic be delayed while people on foot or bicycle cross roads into and out of the city centre?

For me, a much more important question is, why must capacity and speed on the Loop be preserved above everything else? Why not try to reduce traffic flow on the Loop, reduce traffic speeds, and send the Loop traffic away from the heart of the city? Can’t the Council see that the Loop makes Leeds city centre hostile instead of friendly to those on foot, and those on foot make up the vast majority of people actually benefiting the city’s economy. Instead of “fortress Leeds”, protected by a flowing metal moat, why can’t we have a city that’s permeable, wanderable, cyclable?

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My kingdom for a Sheffield stand!

Think of all the places where there are car parks in the city centre: at (or near) how many of them do you also see cycle parking? Cyclists don’t particularly want to walk further than car drivers when they’ve parked (in fact cyclists are probably less tolerant of walking, cos it’s so blumin’ slow!) and take up much less space. Many of the cycle parking spots in the city centre are now occupied a lot of the time, and there’s a dearth of convenient railings and lamp posts.

Cycling should also be recognised as part of an integrated travel network: so why no secure, covered cycle parking at the bus station?

The crucial one for me is the shopping. I don’t want to walk out of Coop, tesco, sainsburys, morrisons or even waitrose with my full panniers and then spend ten minutes walking to my bike while my arms are stretched a few inches. Many supermarkets are ok at this (for example Morrisons in Kirkstall has cycle parking outside; so does Morrisons in Rothwell). Some are dreadful. No dedicated cycle parking at Chapel Allerton Co-op? Join the Revolution indeed.

If the Council isn’t sure what adequate cycle parking looks like, they should try looking at the Leeds University campus. A combination of modern, covered cycle stands, some open Sheffield stands for visitors, and secure key-access cages for commuters, mostly covered by cctv and patrolled by security staff. And quite often, quite full of bicycles.

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Fat is a transport issue

Public Health is back on the agenda for the first time in forty years. Developed to fight the impact of deprived living and working conditions on health, it has a new focus caused by the opposite. We’re a society dying from its excesses. Too much to eat, drink and smoke. Too easy to get around without moving an arm or a leg. Too many days spent at desks instead of in fields.

Cycling can’t reverse the effects of all these changes: cycling can’t make you quit smoking. But it can fix just about everything else! Cycling improves mental health. It benefits the body (although you can’t quite eat whatever you want, as my bathroom scales discovered when I started commuting by bicycle!). It’s accessible, low pollution, and it’s now generally recognised that allowing people to use cycling and walking as part of their daily routine is one of the easiest ways of increasing physical activity. Because it’s not physical activity: it’s just travelling to your destination. You don’t have to drive a couple of miles, park, pay the exorbitant fee, get changed in front of strangers, and sweat in a humid cavern until the prescribed twenty minutes have counted down, while staring at a reflected image of your own blotchy face.

Now the government is beginning to catch on. The Health and Social Care act, widely lambasted as a direct attack on the NHS, devolved responsibility for Public Health, and care of the corresponding funding, to Local Authorities, and gave them a new set of duties to protect and improve the public health of citizens. This means that for the first time, Leeds City Council has to care about how what you eat, and drink, and smoke, and how you commute.

At national level, the Department for Transport and Department of Health are cosying up like the pets in the gas advert. Will Transport still love Health tomorrow? Maybe not, but now may be the right time to ask Leeds City Council how it intends to make it easier for us all to get around on two feet, or two wheels. Allowing more vehicles to drive around the city faster surely isn’t the answer we’re all looking for.

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