Leeds is stuck in a rut when it comes to its transport system, but what does the city need to do to improve it?
The city’s transport woes are nothing new, they’ve been a hot topic for over a decade in the city, and although the £173 million pledged by the government for the failed trolleybus scheme is still there, no one seems to knows what to do next, in a city that has already been left behind by its rivals who’ve obtained a form of next generation transport.
The big problem for Leeds now is working out what its transport end game is – what are we going to invest in, why we are going to invest in it and what are the long-term transport goals for a city that has been forced to go without for all too long? The answer is, and indeed has to be, a fully integrated transport system – one that builds on what we have, but is ready for future expansion, because when we get what we need, we can start working on what we want.
Dealing with the existing problems
So how do you solve a problem like Leeds’ outdated transport system? First off, the city needs to identify the biggest problems facing it, and that ultimately starts and ends with existing traffic. 2015 saw the highest number of motor vehicles on the city’s roads since they were first documented in 2000, with over 2.7 billion vehicle miles last year compared to 2.4 billion then.
The key for Leeds to reduce this is having a public transport system that people actively use, and are willing to forego the convenience of cars to make the most of. Right now, if you speak to the average Joe on the street, chances are they’ll be more than willing to moan about the city’s public transport than use it – citing cleanliness, regularity, travel time and the overall experience as reasons why driving if preferrable.
The city’s biggest public transport stakeholder is FirstGroup and they’re already making moves to improve the situation with plans in place to invest in their stock, modernising their transport and improving times by 2019, something that any bus and local rail user in the city will be relieved to hear. But that alone isn’t enough, because the buses can’t be truly effective until we reduce traffic.
The Park and Ride Schemes that have been introduced at Kirkstall Forge and Apperly Bridge have been success stories, and there’s certainly an argument that they could be spread out to elsewhere, with more places to park and more buses into the city centre. The key here is making people aware of them and proving that they’re not just there to reduce traffic, but also to offer an easy, affordable alternative to travellers.
Another solution that has been mooted is the tram-train, which has considerable support from the likes of Greg Mulholland MP. The scheme makes use of carriages that can work on both train and tram lines, with plans already in early stages for routes from the city centre and out to Kirkstall Viaduct, with services to Pontefract, Castlefield, Wakefield and Bradford to follow.
The reality here, however, is that not one of these ideas will solve Leeds’ transport stalemate on its own, so realistically, those dreams of a ‘next generation masterplan’ are out of the window over the next few decades. What Leeds needs to do is welcome any and all ideas that help take traffic off the roads now, improving public transport use and access, while making a long term plan to get the city where it needs to be.
Future-proofing the transport infrastructure
But much as we may accept that immediate solutions aren’t the ‘big ideas’ we ultimately want, we also need to make sure we’re not still having this discussion in 10 years, or when the landmark HS2 station opens in the city – in fact, that should be our goal, to have a fully integrated transport network by the time HS2 is bringing thousands of people into the city.
President of Leeds Chamber of Commerce, Gerald Jennings, sees the post-trolleybus state Leeds is in as the perfect opportunity to start thinking about the transport network in a completely different way. He told us, “Previously we’ve thought about things like trains, roads, buses, air travel, as separate entities rather than joining them all together because that transport thing has to be all one thing. So if I’m using my car on a road I shouldn’t just think ‘I’ve always got to use the roads.’ I should think, ‘How can I switch from between two and make it easy for me?’”
The reality for Leeds is that one big plan focussed around one new mode of transport isn’t likely to do the job – but a big plan that introduces progressive new modes of transport that link to and support our existing system, that really could work. There’s a real opportunity (and a big funding commitment) to change the way we think about our transport network. In the past, it’s been what Gerald describes as a “piecemeal approach”, with different modes of transport being thought of in different ways, but there’s now an opportunity for Leeds to invest in the whole transport network, to link the ones we have and build on them to create something the works.
A key factor in this is the fact that the city centre is constantly changing, and will continue to do so in the years to come. The new residential developments cropping up across the city, and in particular on the South Bank, should be seen as a way of helping to improve the city’s traffic problems by bringing more people into an extended city centre.
It’s something Jennings envisions as having a massive impact on making the future of the city’s transport network a success, “Part of the answer is to reduce the level of commuting into the city and the way you do that is by increasing the attractiveness of city living. So we’ve got the South Bank in Leeds which is a huge area and will be an extension to the city centre south of the river. There will be lots of new houses and places to live down there.”
As those developments show, Leeds is a thriving city, despite our out of date transport system, but if we want to take it up a notch, we need to up our game. What Leeds needs to do now is make a concerted effort to ease our current problems by building on what we have and making plans for the future – a future that needs to include a next generation transport system akin to our neighbours. And time is of the essence, because Leeds can’t continue to be a laughing stock when it comes to getting around.
Tram-train image copyright South Yorkshire Passenger Transport.