Tag Archives: leeds

Transport Poverty

Note: I’m really struggling to comprehend the number of comments I’m getting along the lines of “ah, well I once had to carry three hundred melons up Mount Everest, so you are wrong”.

So for the purpose of clarification: This article isn’t suggesting that every single journey made by everyone in the whole world should be made by bike. Of course buses, trains, cars and taxis all have their uses, I use them all myself.

What I’m saying is that Britain’s infrastructure over-encourages the use of buses, trains, cars and taxis and massively suppresses the use of bikes, especially for short urban journeys (which make up the vast majority of journeys that people in the UK make every day, and for which the bike would make most sense for many people).

Last week I went to an event 2.7 miles away from where I live.

My journey was entirely urban, through London’s central financial district, AKA “the City”.

There was a tube strike on, so that wasn’t an option. As a result, the buses were packed and the roads congested too. (Actually, the roads are always congested, but still.)

So I walked.

I walked past where my bike is locked up, and kept on going.

It took almost an hour.

At that time of day, the bus would have taken nearly as long – probably 45 minutes or so. But I’d have been paying for the privilege of being squashed into a crowded space for the duration.

Even if the tube had been running normally, it would have taken me 30 minutes at least, if the walking at either end was included. And again, I’d have been paying to cram into a tiny underground train with hundreds of other people.

The distance could easily be covered by bike in about 15 minutes, and yet I chose not to cycle because the conditions on the roads in this country are so awful. (As I walked along, I saw that I was right not to cycle.)

I call this Transport Poverty.

I’m not the first to use this term, but I’m going to talk about what I understand it to mean.

Choices, choices…

What are the options to British people today?

There’s public transport, which for most British people means a bus. Outside of London, buses are usually expensive (here in London it’s £1.45 for a bus journey of any length, in Leeds it’s usually £2 or £2.80 depending on distance – how does your town compare?). They can also be infrequent, especially in smaller towns or on Sundays, whereas here in the capital they are at least fairly cheap and pretty reliable.

But we’re still paying £1.45 to sit on (or stand in, or squeeze onto) a great lumbering beast of a vehicle which almost certainly doesn’t even go exactly where we want it to, and even if it does then it may not take the most direct route.

Photo of a crowded bus with steamy windows. An unhappy-looking woman looks out of the window.

Yeah, this is a great way to travel two miles. (Photo: Simon Ingram)

As Mark Treasure pointed out, a BBC News report about the tube strike showed crowds of people waiting to get on a bus whose entire route is only six miles long – and most bus passengers don’t travel from the first stop to the very last. Even if every passenger was going to the final stop, the whole journey would take only about 30 minutes by bike – and the bike takes you right to the very place you’re going, there’s no walking at the other end.

The same goes for the tube and trains. Rail travel is great over long distances, but for a huge number of shorter journeys it’s terribly inefficient.

Another down-side to public transport is that not only do you have to walk the first and last legs of your journey, but you have to wait for the bus/tram/train to arrive!

You know, now I’m describing the actions required to make a short journey by public transport, the more insane it seems.

You have a walk from where you are to the stop or station, then you have to wait for the bus/train/tram. When it does arrive it may be full to bursting, and it will stop several times at places you don’t want to go before it gets to your stop. Even then you still have to walk to your final destination.

And that’s when everything is running perfectly – when there’s some unforeseen delay it can increase the total journey time massively, and surely we’ve all missed the last train or bus at least once?

Hundreds of people cram onto an underground train

That millions of people choose to do this every day rather than cycle for half an hour, even on a perfect summer’s day, should tell you something about the conditions on the surface. (Photo: Steve Chou)

If you’re very rich then a good (almost-) door-to-door solution is a taxi, but these do cost a lot of money and are often no faster than a bus, as they have to sit in the same traffic as everyone else while you watch the meter run up your final price. It does also seem rather mad that in London we have a huge army of people driving thousands of empty cars around such a densely-packed city, looking for people who need an expensive lift somewhere.

Then we come to the private automobile – usually a car. This option is very space-inefficient as just one person can take up so much room. Wherever these vehicles are found in great numbers in urban environments, you’ll find them going nowhere fast at all. The sheer bulk of the things means that they can never be a mass urban transportation solution, as our villages, towns and cities soon fill up with them, and the freedom these vehicles supposedly represent seems bitterly ironic. Given the massive cost of owning and maintaining these vehicles, many people have to spend a good chunk of their earnings on keeping one.

A still from one of TfL's traffic-cams, showing traffic at a crossroads. One road has three lanes, the other has five. The traffic flows are blocking each other, leading to gridlock.

What London really needs is more space for bulky, polluting, dangerous vehicles. (Image via.)

I should also insert motorbikes into my list somewhere, but this is one option I don’t know much about. But while I’m sure they have their uses, and they don’t take up anywhere near as much space as a car, I’d say that they’re overkill for the vast majority of urban journeys (which are only a few miles in length). They make far more transport sense than cars in some ways, just for the space efficiency (and surely they’re more fuel-efficient, too?). I expect that, for most people, motorbikes also suffer from a poor safety image – which brings us to the humble bicycle.

The right tool for the job

For my journey today (and for a vast proportion of journeys that British people make on a daily basis) a bike would have been easily the best mode of transport. It’s certainly much cheaper than the competition (except walking), and in central London – where the cars and vans barely move at all – it would have been much faster than any other transport, too.

There’s no per-journey cost, it can take me from door to door, and it’s fast enough to make journeys across town quickly. It poses almost zero risk to other people, it doesn’t take up lots of space, and it doesn’t pump toxic fumes into the air. What’s not to love?

People using bikes for transport in Utrecht

Wow, it’s the perfect vehicle for urban journeys! What could go wrong?

But the way that Britain’s roads have been designed means that the best tool for the job is also the scariest. (And remember, they were intentionally designed that way – they’re a man-made construction, not a natural phenomenon.)

So what do millions of people do when they need to make a short journey of just a mile or two? They walk to a bus stop and wait. They flood into a tube station and wait. They sit in the traffic. Some of them even walk along the narrow footpaths and cross all those vehicle-priority minor side-streets!

Very few of them even consider using a bicycle even though it would be the fastest way of making their journey, and cheaper than everything except walking, too. But given the dreadful conditions for cycling in this country, I understand that decision completely.

Kingsland High Street in Hackney, London. A bus is stopped, and a lorry is overtaking it. A cyclist dressed in high-visibility clothing follows the lorry, and a bus follows the cyclist.

The luminous person is cycling despite the conditions here, not because of them. (This road has apparently been described as “perfect for cycling”.)

So because using the easiest, most direct, cheapest and cleanest mode of transport involves high levels of stress and fear, the vast majority of people choose to pay to sit in queues of cars belching fumes, or herd into trains and buses.

Cycling in Britain today really is that awful.

There’s a whole country outside of London

And outside of my little central London bubble, the form of transport poverty that many are locked into is that of dependence on motor vehicles.

In Leeds, where I’m from, people are locked in to car ownership, and most people feel they have no option but to drive. The buses are infrequent and expensive, and despite the acres of space available the conditions for walking and cycling are dire. I myself have felt the panic of having no car to rely on, back in what now seems like a former life. I have friends who still live there who really do feel the pain of car ownership yet feel there’s no alternative. Even for very short journeys, the car is seen as the only sensible option.

A road in Leeds which is incredibly wide. Wide enough for 8 lanes of traffic at least, even though there's only one lane each way. Most of the huge expanse of tarmac is painted with various stripes and parking areas.

Leeds could accommodate space for cycling, but it’s a matter of finding space in those narrow streets.

In any Dutch city, even in the busiest parts of The Hague, Amsterdam or Rotterdam, most people would choose a bike to make such a journey. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in that country, and I’ve covered many hundreds of miles through countryside, villages, towns and cities, without any of the stress and fear which is the norm when riding a bike in the UK.

We don’t have to live in transport poverty

If we didn’t live in a state of transport poverty, we wouldn’t even have to think twice about how to travel a mere 2.7 miles.

Dutch families on bikes on a cycle path at a junction. In the foreground we can see a teenage boy on a bike, next to him is his mother with the younger brother sat in a child seat on the back of her bike. Further away is another mother with her children in a box-bike.

This is the opposite of transport poverty. Transport affluence? Transport ease? Transport abundance? Whatever it’s called, I want it.

 

 

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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. Added July 2014: I say they’re good “for the UK” which is faint praise – they still have some severe flaws, as described in this Reddit conversation.)

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.

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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Football-pitch junctions

We’re really not stuck for space, we’re just bad at slicing it up.

I was looking at a huge junction in London recently and was wondering if you could fit a full-sized football pitch in the space. (After all, it’s a measurement people seem to understand.)

It turns out, you quite often can (or very nearly). I superimposed an aerial shot of a major football team’s pitch onto various road junctions around the UK to see how much space was really available. Then I made them look nice and uploaded them here for your perusal.

If you’re not familiar with the scale here, have a look at these photos to get an idea of just how big this football pitch is.

 

Parliament Square, London, with two football pitches overlaid

Parliament Square, London. I find it amazing that you could fit TWO full-sized football pitches in here!

 

Holborn Circus in London, with a football pitch overlaid to show just how massive the space is.

Holborn Circus, London. A notoriously dangerous junction which is currently undergoing redevelopment (though the redesign looks pretty crap to me).

 

Euston Circus, London, which is as big as a full-sized football pitch

Junction of Euston Road and Tottenham Court Road, London. Still called Euston Circus despite being bulldozed through in the 1960s or 70s, this area is currently subject to road-works where the car will remain king.

 

Aerial photo of Picardy Place, Edinburgh, with a football pitch overlaid to show the size.

Picardy Place, Edinburgh.

 

Tollcross in Edinburgh, big enough for a football pitch.

Tollcross, Edinburgh. A junction which I hate, it’s some sort of 1960s town planner’s dream scheme. Awful to walk across, takes ages waiting at the many arms of this junction. I’ve never cycled there but I can’t imagine it’s much fun.

 

A junction in Leeds, absolutely masses of unused space, very bad walking and cycling conditions.

Kirkstall Road and Willow Road, Leeds. Recently remodelled, this area offers “provision for cyclists to use the new bus lane and enjoy a safer and easier ride“, as if that’s going to get people cycling. Duuuhhh, try again, Leeds City Council!

 

Hyde Park Corner in London is bigger than THREE full-sized football pitches!

Hyde Park Corner, London. I know the island takes up much of this, but the fact that you can easily fit THREE full-sized football pitches in the area tells us that there’s literally room for improvement here.

 

And a new, late addition:

The junction of Leith Walk and London Road in Edinburgh, into which a full-sized football pitch can almost fit.

Currently the subject of fierce debate, the southern end of Leith Walk in Edinburgh.

 

Do you have any more suggestions of wide roads and junctions to try this on? Let me know in the comments and I might do a follow-up.

All satellite images from Google Maps.

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