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Can the Motorway City of the Seventies be made cycling-friendly?

With Saturday’s start of the Tour de France in Leeds just days away, British Cycling and Leeds Cycling Campaign have both unveiled ideas for ways the city can become more cycling-friendly. British Cycling has focussed on the town centre’s main street, the Headrow, while Leeds Cycling Campaign has laid out a programme of improvements that could be implemented over the next three decades.

With a congested centre and the cycling-hostile legacy of the city’s ‘Motorway City of the Seventies’ road-building policies, Leeds is believed to have the lowest rate of cycling of any major city in the UK.

It’s a classic example of how, in the words of British Cycling policy adviser Chris Boardman, “cycling has been designed out of our towns and cities”.

British Cycling and Leeds City Council are therefore calling on national government to commit just £10 per head per year from existing transport funds to every local authority in Britain to kick-start the cycling revolution that Prime Minister David Cameron called for in 2013.

Boardman said: “This would be a true legacy from Britain hosting the Tour de France. Inspiring people to get on bikes is one thing but the fact is that cycling has been designed out of our towns and cities and we urgently need to put this right.

“Millions of people in Britain say they would like to cycle but they are put off due to safety fears. We cannot pretend that this is going to miraculously change.

“National government need to face up to some hard truths and commit adequate investment.

“It’s important to clarify, we are not asking for more money but for a tiny fraction of the existing provision to be targeted as part of a long term plan to remodel our urban landscapes.”

Here’s what Leeds’ main street, the Headrow looks like now:

and here’s how British Cycling suggests it could look in the future. Mouse over the hotspots for explanations of the underlying ideas and benefits:

Part of the idea, says Boardman, is to make cycling accessible for everyone. Currently, the majority of Britain’s urban cyclists are young and male, a demographic that’s prepared to tolerate the percieved risk of mixing with buses and HGVs.

“Accommodating the needs of people young and old is not cheap but it’s 10 times cheaper than meeting the mammoth annual costs of treating obesity-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes,” said Boardman.

“We’re starting today with a new vision for Leeds city centre but we want this ambition to be realised nationwide.

“This isn’t just about cycling, it’s about creating accessible, pleasant, healthier places to live and work. It isn’t even a cycling project, it’s a logical, people-first, evidence-based vision with no down sides.”

Leeds Cycling Campaign's vision for Leeds


Leeds Cycling Campaign 's ideas for the Headrow. Illustration by Emma Chinnery

Leeds Cycling Campaign welcomed British Cycling’s ideas.

“This echoes our own vision for cycling,” said Lizzie Reather, chair of the campaign. “In the week that the Tour comes to Leeds, it’s great to see the Council working with BC to create some positive ideas about what our city could look like.”

In its Vision for Leeds, Leeds Cycling Campaign presents an even more cycling-friendly and leafier idea of how the Headrow could be transformed.

“You’ll see our vision for the Headrow is different from British Cycling’s,” said  Reather, “but that just shows two different options for achieving the same thing.

“We’ve gone for protected bike lanes, thinking that was appropriate for a busy bus route, whereas BC have taken a shared space approach, which works well in areas with low speed and volume of traffic. We’re all aiming for an environment where anyone can feel confident and safe on a bike.”

The campaign group’s plan envisages a citywide cycling network building out from the Leeds-Bradford cycle superhighway with safe, segregated cycle lanes along all major roads within ten years. That’s roughly the time it took the Netherlands to build the core of its cycleway network.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.