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Ambitious plan to boost active travel and bus use in Leeds

Leeds City Council looks set to deliver on its transformational £270m Connecting Leeds Public Transport Investment Programme. Nic Cary reports

07 November 2019

On 28 October Leeds City Council unveiled its new transport scheme, which is set to revolutionise mobility in the heart of the city. That same evening, the Yorkshire Evening Post claimed that: “No other city in the UK has had such an ambitious plan, which aims to integrate all travel with a green ambition, making getting to places easier whatever mode of transport you choose.”

Taking improving air quality as its starting point, the scheme will bring multiple health and mobility benefits for people who live, work and visit the city. The air quality agenda has added to the drive for active travel and improving the urban realm, with multiple car-free and bus-only zones, which will create “a more liveable, greener and better-connected city centre”. The programme is due to be completed by March 2021.

Bus improvements

The scheme includes measures to improve bus reliability, using a mixture of bus priority technology linked to signal phasing and improved bus road space to ensure that buses can traverse currently congested areas near the market towards Victoria Gate. 

First Bus says that it expects to introduce more than half the delivery of 284 new buses by the end of 2019 as part of its investment programme, with nine EV buses by the Spring of 2020. Stourton park-and-ride plan to run on EV buses (currently under tender) powered by solar recharging at the Stourton depot.

Leeds City Council’s executive member for climate change, transport and sustainable development, Councillor Lisa Mulherin, said: “Enabling more people to use public transport, cycling and walking are an essential part of helping to tackle our climate emergency. These plans show huge improvements for public transport reliability, reducing delays and giving buses priority to easily get through the city centre.

“They will also make it easier for people to move about by foot or by bike. We’re also keen to see what people think about proposals for more car free public spaces and outdoor recreation. Our aim is to transform our city into a greener and more attractive place, with fewer vehicles and cleaner air, for everyone’s benefit.” Commenting on the proposed scheme for Headrow, Councillor Kim Groves, Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee, said: “The Headrow scheme is a key part of transforming Leeds and will see huge improvements for public transport reliability, reducing delays and giving buses priority to get easily through the city centre.

“By improving bus reliability and punctuality, this scheme will help increase public transport use and ultimately improve local air quality.”

The council has been alert to the views of local people. In 2016 it held a consultation that received 8,000 responses, expressing views on what they felt was important to them and what Leeds would benefit from. The strategy was born out of close work between the council and its partners including the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. Consultations are continuing into design aspects of the scheme including the area surrounding The Corn Exchange, including Call Lane, Lower Briggate and Meadow Lane.

The need for the scheme

The city’s ambitious growth plans and the national focus on Climate Emergencies mean that it is essential for its transport plans to be sustainable. Leeds ranks seventh in the UK by population size, with an estimated 500,155  residents. This figure is boosted, on average, by nearly 16% each day through a daily influx of 79,479 visitors, which equates to 29.01m visitors annually, states the 2017 Steam Survey. This emphasises the need for the city’s transport infrastructure to continue to support its attractiveness to visitors.

Leeds is the third most popular of the eight so-called ‘core cities’ [in England], according to Core Cities UK.  It is also an international destination, which places further pressure on its transport network. During 2018 the ONS estimated that 344,000 visitors to Leeds came from overseas. Visitors are key to the city’s vibrant economy. The latest figures show that the total amount spent by tourists in the city in 2017 was more than £1.1bn.

A trolley bus bounty

The city moved swiftly to develop its plans. The council’s website states that in December 2016 its Transport Committee considered the submission of the Leeds Strategic Outline Case, which was a £270m package of measures to improve public transport in Leeds District. It included £173.5m, which had previously been identified for the Next Generation Transport (NGT) trolleybus project. The plan was abandoned after the DfT refused to approve the city’s trolley bus scheme. This, in turn, had been developed after the DfT’s earlier refusal, in 2005, to approve a tram scheme. 

Leeds is the largest city in Europe without a light rail scheme. In this context, the DfT’s stance compares with the support it gave for tram services in Birmingham and Croydon. Birmingham Services commenced in 1999 and a DfT-approved extension opened in 2016. In 2019 DfT gave approval for a further extension. Croydon services commenced in 2000. In 2015 Croydon had a population of 379,000, two-thirds that of Leeds.

Uncertainties about HS2

There is strong political support locally for the arrival of HS2 in the city as Stephanie Finnegan reported, writing for Leeds Live on 5 October  Describing another potential blow to northern transport, her article highlighted concerns about the possibility that the new high speed rail link would be abandoned. 

The cross-party independent Oakervee Review into HS2’s future is anticipated to be published soon, but according to Construction News no date has been set for its publication. Given possible decisions largely outside the council’s control, the ‘Connecting Leeds’ scheme should do much to redress the balance in favour of the city.

Find out more about Connecting Leeds at Quality Bus Transit, taking place at Elland Road, Leeds, on 20 November. 

Connecting Leeds: key aims

• Over 90% of bus services to run every 10 minutes between 7am and 8pm

• Three new rail stations for key development and economic hubs serving Leeds Bradford Airport, Thorpe Park and White Rose

• 2,000 additional park-and-ride spaces

• 1,000 more bus stops with real time information

• Double bus patronage within 10 years from 2016 levels

• Promote more bus operator investment for new, comfortable, and environmentally clean buses

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