After 40 years, can Leeds finally stop being the “Motorway City of the Seventies”?

Talking to people in Leeds about utility cycling is a bit like trying to explain air conditioning to Eskimos.

I don’t mean to insult the citizens of Leeds here – I was one myself for 30 car-filled years. I love my friends and family, but they have lived their whole lives in a city which has one of the lowest cycling rates in a country with one of the lowest cycling rates in Europe, so you can hardly blame them for driving everywhere and thinking that’s normal and healthy. I understand that from this position the concept of utility cycling can seem baffling and outlandish.

Nor do I criticise anybody in Leeds who uses a car every single time they leave the house. There are few genuine alternatives for most people.

The bus system in Leeds is dominated by one bus company, almost to the point of monopoly, and there is no integrated ticketing system or smart-cards in use. So if you buy a day ticket on a FirstBus bus, you can’t use it on another operator’s bus. You can buy a “Metro Day” which is a ticket issued by the local transport authority, but that costs more and isn’t widely advertised.

As there’s no Oyster equivalent either, each new passenger has to have a conversation with the driver about where they’re going, hand over cash and wait for change. Multiply this by several passengers, or even twenty or thirty people at a busy stop, and you’ll see why a bus journey in Leeds takes much longer than it should.

There’s no metro system, just regular National Rail trains. These are only of use to those who live near a station, and who aren’t in a rush. They’re not the most frequent services either, to say the least, and some of them have certainly seen better days.

The cycling modal share in Leeds is pathetic. Even the commuting share, which tends to be about twice as high as the overall modal share, is around 1%. In the student areas it rises to the giddy heights of 2%.

But this is no surprise, as Leeds City Council has for decades promoted private car use above all else. Not long before I was born, Leeds proudly proclaimed itself to be “Motorway City of the Seventies“. That was actually used as a slogan for the city! You can imagine the sort of schemes they cooked up.

The planning decisions which were made back then have resulted in a dreadful transport environment. Even driving in Leeds is no fun, as the congestion is so bad. (It’s not London, but it’s bad enough.)

Morning Has Broken

However, there is a small ray of light shining through the diesel smog. Like many local authorities across the UK, Leeds, along with conjoined sibling Bradford, is at long last rousing from its 40-year transport slumber, awakened by the delicious aroma of central government money.

The two neighbouring councils have joined forces to come up with a grand plan to create a “cycle super highway” from the centre of Bradford all the way through Leeds to the other side. (If it sounds familiar, that’s because those in charge of Leeds have delusions of grandeur and will copy everything London and Manchester does.)

Someone at the council clearly has a sense of humour, as they’ve called their bid Highway to Health. In it, they’ve used the word “segregated” which is interesting as this wasn’t even on the menu a couple of years ago, but it’s seemingly a word which no cycle plan can be without today.

It promises “segregated, safe cycle lanes, secure cycle parking and activities to encourage cycling and walking” which sounds pretty good. And looking at the plans, they’re considering something which would give those 1970s planners heart attacks: “reduce existing carrigeway to provide cycle track”.

This is actually really encouraging. There’s plenty of space in Leeds for really great cycle infrastructure (not that lack of space is ever a good reason to ignore cycling). They’ve defined two types of cycle track, one Dutch-style and one Danish-style, and they’ve got the general idea right.

Leeds' two cycle track designs. One Dutch-style with a separating kerb, and one Danish-style with only vertical separation.

Pretty good, but not wide enough. Ideally the elevation of the cycle track would always be halfway between the footpath and the road, as it is in the Type 2 diagram.

They’ve also defined what their bus stop bypasses will look like, and they look pretty good to me.

Leeds council's bus stop cycle bypass design.

Looks okay to me. They’ve got the general idea.

Part of the route has access roads alongside the main road, and these will be utilised for cycling as part of the plans. This is a great way to get a long stretch of decent cycle route, almost for free, as long as they can discourage as much motor traffic as possible by using alternating one-way restrictions and other methods.

A False Dawn?

Unfortunately, while the general concept is a good one, they seem to have been designed by someone who drives everywhere, although they have watched that video of London’s planned cycle path along the Victoria Embankment. I doubt that those behind the plans have been to the Netherlands to see why cycling works so well over there.

(I acknowledge that these plans are a first draft, merely an attempt to get the funding, and I sincerely hope that the scheme designers take this constructive criticism on board should this project go ahead.)

For a start – and it’s a biggie – their minimum width for a one-way track is only 1.5m, and 2.5m for a two-way track! This is far too narrow, and makes me worry that the whole scheme is about to unravel. The standard minimum for one-way cycle track should be 2m (ideally 2.5m), and 4m for a two-way track. If the current widths are kept, Leeds’ cycle tracks run the very real risk of being seen as toytown infrastructure, dangerously narrow, and a waste of money.

It also looks like they’re planning for full-height vertical kerbs, which reduce the usable width of the cycle track by quite a margin. It sounds like a silly little detail, but it’s really not. Kerbs need to be suitable for safe cycling, and the standard UK road kerb isn’t good enough.

Toucan play at this game

Also worrying is the number of toucan crossings (combined cycling-and-walking crossings). They’re nearly always fiddly for bike users and confusing or unnerving for those walking. If we must sometimes put the two modes together, parallel cycling/walking crossings are legal, so why can’t we use those?

I’m not sure about their concept for when a cycle track meets a pedestrian crossing either. What happens if people are waiting at the crossing? Do bike users have to wait until the crossing is clear, or are they expected to swerve onto the footpath? Are people on foot expected to press the button then take a few steps back?

The Netherlands has solved these problems, we need to copy their designs rather than waste time and money with rubbish like this:

Leeds City Council's plans for when a cycle track passes a pedestrian crossing. A recipe for confusion.

A recipe for confusion, not fair on people riding bikes or walking.

Here’s one in action, near Leeds train station:

A photo of a cycle track which runs beside a pedestrian crossing. The cycle track gives way then disappears, only to re-appear after the pedestrian waiting area

Something is wrong here.

Well I say “in action” but this design only really works because so few people cycle in Leeds that the chances of a pedestrian meeting a person on a bike here are infinitesimally slim.

(Incidentally, the cycle tracks near the station are of a pretty high quality for the UK. It’s just a shame that they’re so very short and of limited use.)

Dutch-style junctions? We’ve heard of ’em

They seem to be having terrible trouble getting junctions right. Whoever drew these plans really needs to visit the Netherlands, as all the situations have been solved already. The current plans involve a mixture of ASLs, painted cycle lanes and toucan crossings, which simply isn’t good enough.

Again, the Dutch have existing, working solutions for all of these junctions. Why not copy them?

Detail from Leeds council's plans for the roundabout at Barwick Road and the Ring Road, where bike users are expected to use a two-stage pedestrian crossing with a pig-pen island.

I’ll be honest: this doesn’t scream “convenient” to me. (See it on Google Maps)

Do you think there might be a better solution here? Even though Dutch-style roundabouts are still undergoing trials, why not provide a single-stage straight-through crossing?

Note to traffic engineers: IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO DO A 90º-TURN ON A BIKE.

Here’s another junction:

One of Leeds City Council's junction designs, a confusing mess of paint and toucan crossings.

“We didn’t know what to do here. Will this do?” (See it on Google Maps)

I like the phrase “on and off road facilities to be provided” which is traffic planner code for “this looks hard, and we didn’t know what to do, so we’ll put ‘confident cyclists’ on the road, and everyone else will just go on the path.”

I know this junction well, and I can tell you that the proposed design is a mess. They really need to go back to the drawing board on this one. It’s really not that complicated (it was a roundabout until about ten years ago) but they’ll need to put in some cycle-specific signals to fix it. Dare they make the cars wait?

And a final junction:

A junction on York Road in Leeds, where the cycle paths turn into on-road cycle lanes

Nice cycle paths, shame about the junction. Also note lack of any facility for turning right, other than cycling across multiple lanes of motor traffic. (See it on Google Maps)

This junction really isn’t that complicated, there’s no excuse for giving up on the cycle paths and putting in painted lanes instead. They may as well do nothing and cross their fingers. Junctions are where good cycle path design is needed most!

Oh Bradford, where art thou?

I must reserve my ire for Bradford though, as they’re letting the whole thing down. Their side of the scheme looks largely to be business as usual, with long stretches of “on-carriageway cycling”. If you’re lucky, there will be a painted cycle lane.

The section below is on Leeds Old Road, which is a wide road with a painted central strip. There is plenty of space for a proper cycle track. Bradford aren’t even trying.

A section of Bradford council's "cycling ambition" plans, which provides nothing for cycling whatsoever.

Thanks for nothing, Bradford. (See it on Google Streetview)

They’re even suggesting “cycle on carriageway” at the enormous multi-lane Thornbury Gyratory, which is ridiculous and shows that they really don’t care about cycling.

The enormous Thornbury Gyratory in Bradford, where the council thinks there's no room for cycle paths.

This junction is HUGE, and all they’re suggesting is cycle lanes? Look at it on Google Maps. LOOK AT IT NOW.

Maybe Bradford is secretly hoping to become the new Motorway City of the Seventies.

In conclusion: possibly

Overall though, the scheme is a huge leap forward, and a world away from the usual cycle provision of bus lanes, blue signs and apathy (well, the Leeds side is, anyway – Bradford really needs to get with the programme). It’s physically a huge scheme too, crossing right from one end of the city to the other.

This is no complete solution, however. It’s still nowhere near the dense network of cycle paths and nearly-traffic-free streets which are required for mass cycling, and there are many details which need to be fixed.

But there are very many good points also, and the general concept is the right one – provide safe, protected space for cycling, away from motor vehicles.

With some alterations (fix the junctions, widen the tracks) then maybe – just maybe – Leeds can finally begin to leave the 1970s behind and one day become a 21st century European city.

 


 

Manchester is also up to something which is good but could be better. Two schemes, in fact – this one in the city centre and this one on Oxford Road. You can take a look and tell the council how to do it right – even if you don’t live there you can respond.

 

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “After 40 years, can Leeds finally stop being the “Motorway City of the Seventies”?

  1. Lip service as usual.

    I lived in Leeds for a long time before I escaped.
    I was run over on a bicycle by idiots in cars 16 times. Out of those, twice I was nearly killed. Nobody cared.
    I served on the council’s cycle consultation committee. All the recommendations were ignored.
    Since 1986, when i first moved there, the council announced grand plans for cycling infrastructure over and over and over again. Hardly any was built, some white lines were painted, drivers ignored these or parked in them, and there was no enforcement.
    The police in Leeds don’t care whether cyclists live or die, and never have done. Any cycle paths built as per your “type 2″ diagram will just be used as parking spaces, and the police will not attempt to prevent it, because they are too busy sitting in car seats too.

    Nothing will come of this plan, and nearly all cycle journeys in Leeds wil remain unimproved. The whole thing is just puffery from the council, intended to allow them to pretend that they are moving forward. It is only one tiny step above sheer outright organised lying.

    • I fear you may be right.

      It breaks my heart to watch my family take the car everywhere they go, leading inactive lives.

      It’s criminal, the system which has been foisted on the people of Leeds – and the rest of the UK – over the past 50 years.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for posting this interesting article about Leeds.

    It’s incredible that it’s taken Leeds so long to come to its senses regarding providing for cycling and that the mode share for cycling is an eye-watering paltry 1% in 2013. And I thought South West London was bad!

    The plans aren’t great (e.g. multi-stage crossings, only one track across the city) but it’s a start, and hopefully Leeds council will progress from there.

    Look how far TfL Superhighway designs have come in only 3 years – huge improvements in the CS2x and CS5 designs have been made over the original CS7.

    • That 1% is the commuting share, by the way! The actual modal share must be near 0.5%. When you get that low it’s difficult to measure, it just becomes background noise.

      Should Leeds get the go-ahead, I really hope they won’t install these tracks as currently planned. They will merely be more fuel for the Franklinist fire.

      As you say, it’s amazing how much the language has changed in the past few years. I await the concrete physical changes though!

  3. Hi SC, Interesting article, I grew up in Bingley and worked in both Bradford and Leeds in the 1980′s. I was one of about 80 people who worked in an international bank in Bradford. Only two people cycled to work, myself and a lovely modest man called Mike. I gave up after a few weeks as it was just too scary and felt so dangerous. Mike cycled almost every day. I later found out that he had climbed Everest with Chris Bonington. Clearly a thrill seeker and a strong fit and brave man – pretty much what you have to be to cycle in the UK.

    Thanks for including the link to our study tours. We’re taking bookings now for the open tour in August or we can accommodate officials from Bradford and Leeds at almost any time. Because it’s somewhere that I lived for many years I’d be especially pleased to be able to help Bradford and Leeds and show people from these places what it would take to make cycling accessible to all.

    • Hi Judy,

      I really hope that somebody from Leeds or Bradford councils comes on the tour. I think it would really open their eyes – Leeds really is in the dark ages when it comes to transport. Having a former local showing them around could really help them understand!

      S.C.

  4. Graham

    My evidence is only anecdotal but although so few people cycle in Leeds, as you put it, I have noticed at least a doubling of commuter numbers on my route from Alwoodley to the city centre in a space of about two years…and that’s using the main road and not the newish cycle route.

    I think the main problem with most of the routes is that most of them never follow a straight line or divert up a big hill whereas most cyclists (commuters anyway), myself included, are most likely to use the path of least resistance – which explains why a very small part of my route sees me go the wrong way down a one way street and not taking the 400-yard detour onto what must be the busiest junction in Leeds (Sheepscar).

    Although I applaud the ambition of this scheme, what it isn’t is an integrated cycle route system – it’s just one very long route – and still a far cry from the grid system our Dutch friends enjoy.

    • I think the recent rise in cycling in the UK has been due to “push” factors rather than “pull” factors – i.e. for a few people it’s not as bad as sitting in a traffic jam or on a bus. It’s certainly not improved conditions for cycling which have caused it!

      It’s unfortunate that this is just one flagship route rather than an integrated network. I wonder where they got the idea from? *coughWestwayCough*!

  5. Tim

    Interesting stuff. I like the way they’ve considered the dutch/danish designs and provided accompanying profiles. When the Dutch guys came over for the Love Cycling, Go Dutch conferences and we were looking at profiles to see how much space is required for good quality cycle infrastructure one of them said 2m is minimum for comfort although they might occasionally go down to 1.75m (single direction).

    Regarding heights and kerbs, I would point out this example from Manchester. http://goo.gl/maps/0PsOR Here, if you can make out the detail, the height of the cycle path is between the pavement and the carriageway and the kerbstones are all at an angle, a bit like a Copenhagen lane, although narrower, and importantly one of the main reasons for the step here is to allow the cars to park on the pavement (argh!). Of course the problem is that cars don’t just cross the cycle lane, they double park or wait on the cycle lane itself (see the taxi’s ranking on the cycle lane in this rather dark and wobbly video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tWsGplgHO4 ). For this reason I would personally prefer a kerb like the “type 1″ which would physically discourage vehicles from crossing the raised section, since they would have to mount the kerb to get across to the “separated” cycle lane. Of course there would need to be gaps in various locations. I think for the Oxford Road proposals they’re considering sections of kerb or even “armadillos” ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/camdencyclists/8171928991/sizes/o/in/set-72157631790720427/ ) . The thin plastic bollards you sometimes see in the states ( http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/12/03/sf-gets-first-protected-bike-lane-drivers-already-violating-it/ ) would be another option, but a bad one since they look cheap, temporary and ineffectual. Plus they wouldn’t actually stop anything.

    Those toucan junctions look like a nightmare.

    • That Manchester example is dreadful! Again, they tried to do it on the cheap (moving a post-box will cost money!).

      I think the plastic ‘wands’ are a good solution if the separation needs to be done quickly and cheaply, or as a temporary measure. Proper physical kerbs are much better, but in a city which may be wary of cycling infrastructure I reckon they can help people get used to the idea without massive outlay.

      The problem with that San Francisco example is that the cycle lane is so wide a car can drive along it. The solution there (as the Dutch do) is to put a single bollard in the middle of the lane at intersections: http://goo.gl/maps/DYN9B

      Something Andrew Gilligan has spoken of is quick, temporary trialling of new road layouts, to see what effect they have. (I suspect the idea is to convince the motor supremacists at TfL that converting a lane to a cycle track won’t cause massive tailbacks.) I reckon the wands could work really well for something like that.

      As for toucans… like ASLs, they’re a tool which is appropriate in a few specific circumstances, but which traffic engineers have seemingly fallen in love with as some sort of quick-fix solution everywhere.

      • Tim

        I do think that toucans at least demonstrate an understanding that we can’t treat bikes the same way as we treat cars. Cyclists are not pedestrians or drivers. They are something in between and need specific provision.

        Regarding that example I linked to, the engineer responsible was keen to point out its advantages compared to the shared bus/bike lane which is prevalent on most of the route. For example the huge number of buses do a lot of damage to the road surface (due to the combined weight) but it’s the cyclists who suffer most from potholes. At least here the cycle lane surface remains intact most of the time. Still a great deal of room for improvement though.

  6. philip

    Isn’t this proposed cycle track merely a PR stunt to make Leeds appear cycle -friendly to the outside world because a leg of the tour de France will be held here next year?

  7. Pingback: Space for Cycling and Childhood Freedom | The Alternative Department for Transport

  8. Andy K

    Is there space for signalised turbo-roundabouts with pedestrian and cycle crossings?

  9. Pingback: Some thoughts on riding a bike in Leeds (and not being a cyclist) | The Social Business

  10. Andy R

    Frankly, I think the proposals are about the best you’ll get out of what must be the most demoralised transport department of any Local Authority. I say this because for the last 30 years or so the city’s councillors have tried and failed to get a tram system in place (Leeds being the largest city in Europe without a rapid transit system); constantly being strung along by (to quote Alex Salmond) ‘Westminster politicians’. Thirty years of telling them there was ‘just one more hurdle’ to surmount. Now they are left having to try and sell a trolley bus as ‘Next Generation Transport’…poor sods.
    (During this same period, of course, Manchester seems to have received Government funds sufficient to ‘regenerate’ itself more times than Doctor Who).

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