Dante depicted hell as nine concentric circles of torment located within the Earth. For me, it’s a wet weekday morning stuck in a queue of traffic halfway into my four-mile commute to work. The typical cause of this interminable delay? A broken- down vehicle somewhere on the inner ring road.
The misery doesn’t end there. Once you’ve made it through the traffic, you invariably face a bun fight to find a parking space.
I can’t speak for other big towns and cities, but the situation is desperate in Leeds. I’ve been driving into the city centre for the past 14 years and during that time the roads have become increasingly congested and parking an ever more dispiriting exercise.
A friend, who also drives to work, sent me a text a few weeks ago lamenting the fact he couldn’t find anywhere to park having exhausted all his usual options. This was at 8.25am.
In Holbeck, south of the River Aire, car parking is at a premium which has resulted in drivers, either out of ingenuity or desperation, parking on scraps of waste ground, underneath viaducts, on grass verges and in any other space (legal or otherwise) they can squeeze into.
This sprawling area was once the engine room of the Industrial Revolution – long before the Northern Powerhouse was even a twinkle in George Osborne’s eye. Today, it’s a less salubrious part of the city.
On the one hand it’s home to a string of innovative businesses and some of the city’s most impressive architecture, but head towards its margins and it’s not the kind of place where you’d want to be walking the streets alone after dark.
The parking situation on this side of Leeds city centre is only likely to get worse.
Around 6,000 civil servants are being relocated to a new nearby hub in what’s been hailed as the biggest ever commercial property letting deal in the city’s history, which is great news for the Leeds economy but not the commuters whose swollen ranks will only be further encumbered.
It seems to me that Leeds is very good building swanky new offices but not so good at meeting the needs of drivers who actually want to park there.
The problem isn’t cost – Leeds is actually one of the cheaper big cities when it comes to parking. No, the main problem is the lack of spaces. In recent years several private car parks have been closed for redevelopment while the city council has cracked down on those being run illegally, which is fine as long as they are adequately replaced, but this isn’t happening.
Given the amount vacant land available, it’s hard to understand the logic. In an aspirational city like Leeds surely commuters should be able to park somewhere that’s safe, affordable and accessible, rather than being treated like an inconvenience?
The squeeze on city centre parking reflects a wider antipathy towards motorists in general. True, there is pressure on local authorities to tackle pollution which is understandable given the rising emissions rates. However diesel vehicles – the main air pollution culprits – are likely to be off the roads within 20 years and replaced by electric and driverless cars which will significantly reduce the problem.
It’s all very well encouraging people to use public transport and other means that are environmentally friendly and sustainable, but this only works if you have the infrastructure in place to make it happen, and Leeds doesn’t.
Take park and ride schemes. There are currently two in operation – one at Elland Road and the other at Temple Green, just off the M1. But what about the swathes of commuters who live in the suburbs north of the city centre? There are more in the pipeline but will they make a difference?
The council wants commuters to use public transport wherever possible but given the clogged state of the roads this is no better than driving in, plus there’s the added hassle of having to traipse across town depending on where you work.
There’s also been a move, on the back of the Grand Départ in 2014, to create more cycle lanes and encourage people to get on their bikes. This is good in theory and works admirably in places like Amsterdam, Bordeaux and Stockholm, where they’re geared up for cyclists, but I’d sooner take my chances on the streets of Pamplona during the bull run than cycle into Leeds every day.
As somebody who lives and works here, it vexes me to say this. Leeds has an awful lot going for it. It’s dynamic, innovative and has the kind of heritage and history that many cities around the world would give their right to arm for. But you can’t claim to be an international class city unless you have a public transport network to match, and we’re likely to be criss-crossing the skies with jetpacks before that day arrives.