The opening of the first 14km section of the much-debated City Connect cycle “highway to health” was met with fanfare and scepticism. Reporter Jonathan Brown has saddled up to try the route himself.
There is no doubt that cycling is a fantastic way of getting fit and travelling at low cost, while helping out the environment.
City Connect, the 23km segregated cycle route from Seacroft to Bradford, was designed to improve the safety of cycling the intercity route while encouraging riders nervous of riding in traffic to get on their bikes.
News of the £29million investment in the scheme, which also includes Kirkstall to Shipley canal towpath improvements, was seen as a bold move by some and an unnecessary expense by others.
As a keen cyclist myself, I can certainly see the benefits. Cycling on traffic-heavy roads can be dangerous for all involved, and with more people taking to two wheels since the 2014 Tour de France Grand Depart safe infrastructure is much needed.
With my bike fitted with a Go Pro camera, I set off from Wellington Bridge on the outskirts of the city centre and headed for Armley along the first segregated sections the day after the 14km central Leeds to Bradford route opened.
Immediately it became clear that not everyone had got the memo regarding the route’s launch. I instantly spotted a cyclist ignoring the two-way path and riding on the road itself past the Armley Road industrial estate.
But cycling in a segregated lane will be a pretty alien experience for Leeds residents, so you could be forgiven for not immediately spotting a path that is largely the same grey tarmac as the pavement – apart from its green-painted priority sections.
On Armley Road the path divides so that there is a lane going with the flow of traffic on each side of the highway, but the only crossing on the immensely busy stretch that could take me to the outbound lane was out of action.
It was the first of many signs that, despite the fanfare of Thursday’s ceremonial opening, City Connect is nearly but not quite finished.
Ploughing on regardless, I cycled up to the Mike’s Carpets junction and, after being forced into the road by a poorly parked van, took my place in the long segregated lane up Stanningley Road.
Although City Connect has had its design critics, drivers coming out of side roads acknowledged I had priority and apologetically moved while pedestrians largely kept to the walkway.
The experience of cycling up one of Leeds’ busiest commuter roads – one I would previously have stayed well clear of – mid morning was nothing but pleasant. A huge improvement.
Critics have, however, voiced concerns over how the cycle lane narrows sharply around bus stops to just 75cm wide in places. And those fears are understandable during faster sections, while bus passengers are queuing. Caution is needed.
It certainly made me slow down in my initial state of confusion, but its design will certainly take some getting used to.Reporter Jonathan Brown
The route then took me up to the Bramley roundabout, and then on to the Bramley section of Stanningley Road, where a few remaining road works meant highways vans were parked in the cycle lanes on the way to Stanningley.
City Connect’s use of a long, largely flat and straight route makes it easy on the legs and simple to spot hazards, so you soon feel safe and fully separated from the cars, vans and busses.
But before long the cycleway and road markings disappeared. The tarmac was temporarily rough and ready, and I soon realised I was riding towards Stanningley Bottom – the experimental ‘shared space’ in which road markings and signage have been removed in a bid to make drivers and riders cautiously slow down to self-police traffic to some extent.
It certainly made me slow down in my initial state of confusion, but its design will definitely take some getting used to.
The clearly marked cycle path resumed before Stanningley’s Town Street became Bradford Road, and the swathes of traffic from the bypass came into sight.
Aside from the first busy roundabout, riders are protected and segregated on what is a smooth ride into Bradford.
My overall impression of City Connect is a positive one. The route is not perfect and there will be teething problems. Awareness of the route, where riders should ride, pedestrians should walk and drivers can park, is still in its infancy, but ultimately this massive scheme could cut traffic and benefit us all.
The eye-watering cost will divide opinion, but such a huge statement of intent should hopefully smooth out the long road to safer, more inclusive city cycling.