David Behrens: Traffic jam of jargon hides Yorkshire authority's lack of clout on transport

WEST Yorkshire, you might be surprised to know, has a 'combined authority' to oversee its transport strategy. That, at any rate, is what it calls itself but, as titles go, it has more holes than the main road through Otley.

Vicar Lane, Leeds City Centre.
Vicar Lane, Leeds City Centre.

The first problem is that despite the name, it has very little actual authority; it doesn’t run any of the transport services itself. Neither does Transport for the North, which sits higher up the food chain. That’s why Theresa May, when she visited Yorkshire on Monday, ruled out giving it the same powers as Transport for London, which – as she pointed out – actually does run some of London’s transport. Its title is watertight.

The other issue is that West Yorkshire has no combined system in any practical sense; just a mish-mash of disparate bus companies, and train lines that are still plied by sickness-inducing Pacer carriages. For goodness sake, there are fairgrounds with more comfortable rides.

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A genuinely integrated network would be one on which I could use my season ticket on the bus when the trains were late, or vice versa. And if the combined authority had the clout to bang heads together and make that happen, its presence would be quite welcome. As it is, it’s one more layer of bureaucracy – a return by stealth of the old West Yorkshire County Council, which Margaret Thatcher did away with in the 1980s.

It was trying to make its presence noticed at the beginning of the week when Leeds Council announced proposals which it said would “revolutionise” bus travel on some of the city’s busiest routes. Specifically, it would put in place “new bus priority measures” on the roads to Bradford, Alwoodley and Roundhay.

Don’t let the jargon get in the way. Giving priority to buses means slowing down cars. The council says prioritised networks have been “proven to be highly effective” – but for whom? The bus companies, certainly, but I’d like to see the figures on how many drivers concur.

The council says it wants to double the number of people using buses in the next 10 years. But will it do that by creating a bus network so efficient and affordable that commuters are moved to use it by choice instead of necessity? Or by making the remaining all-vehicle lanes of the A58 so congested that car journeys are no longer practical?

Let’s look at its record, and it’s not great. Leeds is horrible to drive through; it has no trams and no trolleybuses, and it has wasted more than £70m on abortive projects. It’s the largest city in western Europe without a rapid transport system, whose only route to the mid-21st century is to designate yet more bus lanes.

Years ago, when I was making TV programmes for a living, I was asked to conduct a media training exercise for staff at the city’s transport department. This involved sitting them in a studio and firing hostile questions at them, so that in the event they ever had to face the real-life ire of a presenter on Newsnight, or more realistically Look North, they would know how to conduct themselves.

Their instinctive defence to any criticism was to lapse into jargon. Theirs was a world too technical and complex for a mere interviewer to understand, was their drift. They spoke of vehicles “platooning” through traffic lights in order to balance the flow of traffic across the area. I asked, by “balancing”, didn’t they just mean slowing everyone else down as well? Yes, they did, and it wasn’t an admission; it was a badge of honour.

Fewer private cars and more buses have been the goals of transport departments for two generations, irrespective of the wishes of those who finance them. Yet in Leeds today, it takes around 20 minutes to drive home to Alwoodley from the city centre, outside of rush hours, but 50 minutes to make the same trip by bus. Only a traveller with no alternative would choose the latter.

The road from Leeds out to Ilkley is not on the new list of priorities, so one must assume it is considered by the council and the combined authority to be already operating at its optimal efficiency. And there’s the worry – the A65 through Kirkstall is one of the worst stretches of road I know. If this is the combined future envisioned for the residents of Alwoodley and Roundhay, they had better start making plans to spend a lot less time there.