Adventures in the Busless City

Public Transport in British Cities is dominated by the single-entrance double deck bus operated by private companies who have almost complete autonomy to set fares, routes and stopping places. British Cities typically have less in the way of fixed transit systems than comparable European (or sometimes even North American) cities, and city Transport Authorities have little control over the way their bus networks operate (although the Bus Services Bill going through Parliament at the moment may change this)

On 13 June 2016, drivers at the local bus operator in Leeds, First Leeds, went out on strike. First Leeds is the successor to the city-run bus network whose privatisation was forced in 1986, alongside those of all the other major city transport authorities (PTEs), and they currently have a market share of around 90% within Leeds, with little competition aside from interurban services run by other operators. Of course, for bus users, life goes on, so I followed a bus trip scheduled that day for a meeting, travelling from Headingley to Seacroft.

The route (start and end points slightly obfuscated) (Google Maps)

Because local transport is dominated by buses, and, in most cities, the local rail network provides limited connectivity rather than a frequent, metro-style service (lack of rail capacity is also an issue here, but this is largely for historical reasons of there being limited local transport powers and funding for cities, London excepted), local rail services in cities tend to run half-hourly or hourly. Seacroft is served by several bus routes with reasonably high frequencies (every 10 minutes), but today we were making the journey by train. There was also a half-hourly service by another bus company which starts in Central Leeds and calls at Seacroft, but for the purposes of looking at what the city looks like without buses, we made the whole trip by train and on foot.

Burley Park station

We begin at Burley Park station on the Harrogate Line. The station is a typical unstaffed stop, opened at low cost in the 1980s, although there are staff with portable ticket machines at peak times, supplementing the ticket machine on the Leeds-bound platform, the back of which can just be seen inside the shelter. The ticket seller says the station is not much busier than normal, which suggests that bus users are perhaps not shifting mode to rail. It is the beginning of the evening peak, and both the University of Leeds and the busy ITV television studio complex are walking distance from this station.

The journey here is a single stop to Leeds City station, then a wait (timetables are not coordinated, and off-peak, there would be a half hour wait here as the not-quite-half-hourly service to Cross Gates leaves as the Harrogate Line train arrives)

Boar Lane at 1657, normally full of buses

Fortunately, at peak time, there are extra services to carry the larger numbers of commuters who trade off the lower frequencies for faster and more reliable service. There is still a wait, so we go into the city centre to see what it looks like without most of the buses. Thanks to the reliance on buses with a capacity of only 90 passengers (as opposed to the 130-150 of a standard articulated city bus), British city centres are typically jammed up with large numbers of vehicles which get in each other’s way. This is refreshing, and the difference in air quality is also immediately apparent without the huge number of stationary buses.

First bus on Vicar Lane

A First bus – what is that doing there? Evidently there are drivers breaking the strike…

Ordinarily, at this time (5pm), there would be congestion on this street with the number of buses, and the stops on either side of the street would have crowds of passengers

Information on bus services

So what’s happening? It turned out that services which normally run every 7-8 or every 10 minutes were running hourly until the evening peak, with last buses from the city centre being mostly around 6pm

A single bus to carry the peak time load

Heading back to the station, there is a bus to Seacroft, with a large number of people attempting to board it. With an hourly service, this is the only bus to carry the peak time load.

An alternative operator for one service (Informary Street bus station at 1712)

A couple of interurban First services had another operator step in, but this is a main bus station at 1712 – there should be large crowds of people coming into this area to catch buses, but of course there are very few buses for them to catch.

Wellington Street at 1714, again, normally full of buses

Another street view from outside the rail station, with a notable absence of buses compared to normal. My connecting train is slightly delayed, though we are keeping an eye on the departure board by smartphone, and it’s now time to go back in to catch it.

The delayed 1712 Transpennine Express to Scarborough, which makes an additional stop at Cross Gates in the peak

This train may not be busier than usual, since it’s one of the main peak trains for York and Cross Gates commuters, making an additional stop there to provide additional peak capacity. Cross Gates has an additional 2 trains this hour.

Cross Gates station at 1730

That’s a reasonable number of people leaving a 3 coach train here. We should perhaps have asked if this was busier than normal…

Outside Cross Gates station

Cross Gates is a busy suburban centre, we come straight out of the station into the shopping area, alongside the Leeds Outer Ring Road, which we will be following to Seacroft. Barriers make crossing difficult, and we can see one person making an informal crossing (this is perfectly normal in the UK, we have no jaywalking laws)

Cross Gates roundabout

Just after crossing the main shopping street, the footway splits. Go left to cross the Ring Road, or right, behind the hedge, to stay along it. The hedge shields us from traffic noise, but this might not be a popular route after dark…

Ring Road Cross Gates, so far, so suburban

Immediately after the hedge is the very 1930s suburban Ring Road Cross Gates. Footways, grass verges and a 40mph (60km/h) speed limit.

Ring Road and the times at a bus stop. Not impressive

While the Outer Ring Road connects a number of communities in outer Leeds with schools, retail parks and suburban centres, there is only an hourly bus service. Otherwise, you will need to get a bus into the city centre, then out again.

York Road / Barwick Road Roundabout

Here, the Ring Road meets the A64 Leeds to York Road, and the Ring Road becomes part of the A64 temporarily. Its character changes significantly here, with the speed limit becoming 70mph (110km/h)

Footbridge over Ring Road Seacroft

Just after the roundabout is a footbridge over the Ring Road (now called “Ring Road Seacroft”, each section has a different name). The footway appears to stop here, with pedestrians having to cross over, we decide to carry on to see what happens…

No footway! There is a Tesco trolley though…

The footway disappears after the footbridge, so we continue on the grass verge – much easier on fox feet. The gap in the hedge here reveals that there is another footway behind, which appears to be accessible by the entrance to the footbridge. Completely missed that, but then again there is no signage and no visual clues here as to the existence of a footway on this side of the road…

A big speed difference! Side roads at 20mph (30km/h) and main road at 70mph (110km/h)

Rather curiously, the residential side street here has a 20mph (30km/h) limit, but is directly off a 70mph (110km/h) road.

A bus stop, behind a fence?

There’s a bus stop on this section, albeit served only hourly and with no equivalent stop across the road, but it appears to be behind a fence…

Oh, that’s how you get there (sorry about the blurriness)

The bus stop is accessed after the edge of the fence, by walking around. This isn’t obvious coming from the south, as we were. The legibility of the walking environment here is very poor…

And now, a subway…

Now, we’re directed onto a pedestrian subway. As we’re getting closer to our destination, on the other side of the road, this might be a good idea. It’s a very average subway, not worth taking a photo of. At least it didn’t smell.

The subway comes out on a parallel street, behind a hedge

We emerge on the other side of a hedge from the Ring Road (this seems to be a theme here, keeping pedestrians away from the Ring Road and its noise, but at the same time disorientating). We’re on a parallel residential street now.

The footway crosses to the other side of the hedge

Suddenly, the footway crosses to the other side of the hedge, as a shared cycle route. There is a fence to discourage crossing over to the hotel (pictured) and houses on the other side of the road.

Journey’s end!

After some disorientation alongside the roundabout, with footways seemingly going in every direction apart from alongside the road, and no signage, a “Welcome to Seacroft” sign and the Tesco petrol sign indicate journey’s end at the Tesco Extra Hypermarket (with the meeting venue beyond here).

Seacroft Bus Station, empty and abandoned

At the front of the hypermarket is Seacroft Bus Station, terminus for the number 40 bus we saw earlier. It’s usually fairly busy with people from the surrounding area making bus journeys to and from the hypermarket, but there are only two people here and no buses.

Overall, with the walk from Cross Gates station taken at a walking pace rather than a canter to take in more of the pedestrian experience here (and take photos), the journey took about an hour and a half, but this was also because of a long wait of nearly half an hour between trains. Seacroft is usually about 30 minutes by bus from Central Leeds, for a distance of around 4 miles (6km). Only one of the main bus routes has a measure of priority and segregation (on the York Road Guided Busway), but this is mitigated by a circuitous route.

The busless city, in the centre particularly, seemed more open and pleasant, with a notable absence of diesel fumes in the air – a taste of what many German cities, for example, have with prohibitions on buses in the city core, albeit only possible because of underground light or heavy rail. There are a number of ways in which the negative impact of buses in the city core can be reduced, and the ease of crossing shopping streets and enhanced air quality should provide incentives to at least think about how British cities could be better by being less clogged up with them.






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