Leeds Green Party

What's wrong with the trolleybus?

20 January 2013

Leeds Trolley Bus

New Generation Transport (or NGT) is the name given to Leeds City Council’s scheme for a trolleybus service running from Holt Park in the north to Stourton in the south of the city, a distance of 9.1 kilometres (or 5.6 miles).

NGT is billed by its promoters as a “rapid transit system”. As far as the northern section is concerned this is somewhat optimistic. The promoters themselves admit that the journey time to the city centre is expected to be 27 minutes. This works out at an average of about 12.5 miles per hour. This can hardly be described as rapid.

This is not to say that the proposal has no benefits at all. The buses will run entirely on electricity. This means no diesel fumes and quieter motors. The promoters also point out that carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced. This, of course, is only true if the electricity is generated from renewable sources. At present the proportion of electricity generated from renewables was only 9.4% [1]

NGT also hope that the scheme will reduce car usage by providing a Park & Ride facility at Bodington Hall. This will have space for 800 cars.

But the drawbacks are considerable:
•    Many large mature trees will be cut down.
•    The centre of Headingley (a conservation area) will be festooned with electric cables and steel gantries. 
•    The existing cycle lanes on the A660 will be removed.
•    Giving the trolley buses priority at junctions will result in traffic delays on other roads. This will actually increase local pollution and reduce the CO2 savings.

But the chief objection is that NGT will actually reduce provision for cycling. At a recent presentation to cycling groups one of the architects of the scheme admitted that the planners had not yet decided whether cyclists would be permitted to share the trolley bus lanes. There were concerns over cyclists’ safety. Many cyclists are rightly worried about having to share road space with buses. But if the existing cycle lanes are taken out then bikes will be expected to share the road with all motor traffic. This is a major retrograde step.

Traffic planners around the world now recognise that cyclists should have their own space, segregated from motorists. This is not at all unreasonable: we don’t ask pedestrians to walk in the traffic. But cyclists are just as vulnerable. As journalist Jon Snow puts it “it is the absolute fact that half a tonne of vehicle, and 80kgs of bike and human simply cannot co-exist in the same road space safely.”   [2]

In common with every other British city, Leeds urgently needs to re-engineer its roads to encourage more people to take to the bike. We need to make cycling feel safe so that it becomes the dominant mode of getting around. There are huge benefits for the whole community: less pollution, less noise, better health. And there would be more space in city centres: areas that are now car parks could be real parks, with trees, grass and fountains.

Even The Times newspaper is calling for change. Following a near-fatal collision involving one of its journalists the newspaper commenced an award winning campaign called Cities Fit for Cycling. [3]  As The Times pointed out, when Copenhagen introduced segregated cycle lanes the rate of fatalities plummeted.

This is the change that Leeds really needs: better infrastructure to encourage more cycling. British cities are a long way behind the curve – Copenhagen began investing in bikes decades ago. Now they have more cyclists than any other European city. In the Netherlands separate cycle lanes were introduced after a public campaign against child deaths on the roads.

The benefits of electric buses can be obtained without overhead cables. Already there are hybrid buses in British cities. These run partly on electricity and partly on diesel. Transport for London states that their hybrid fleet has reduced CO2 emissions and local pollutants by 30%. But the technology is changing very quickly. This summer Milton Keynes will be testing an all-electric bus that replenishes its battery from charging points beneath the road surface. There is nothing new about trolley buses and no other British city is even thinking about introducing them. There is a very real danger that this technology will be obsolete before construction is finished.

Leeds is to receive £173.5 million from central government to build NGT. On top of that the city must find an additional £75 million to pay for the scheme. The council should go back to the Department for Transport and seek consent to use the £173 million to build a first rate network of dedicated cycle lanes. That would put our city on the map for all the right reasons.

Chris Foren - Secretary, Leeds Green Party

[1] UK National Statistics Office. https://restats.decc.gov.uk/cms/national-renewables-statistics/
[2] http://www.channel4.com/news/jon-snows-manifesto-for-safer-cycling
[3] http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/cyclesafety/

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