Aisha Iqbal: Why do other cities do public transport so much better than Leeds?

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I think I’m suffering from a serious bout of connectivity envy.

It started properly about a year ago, when I visited Manchester briefly and had the opportunity to use the city’s tram system.

It was simple, highly accessible and perfectly integrated into the rest of the city’s road and pedestrian network.

Fast forward a few months, and I was visiting Birmingham. I didn’t get a chance to use the Midlands city’s metro light rail service on this occasion, but was nevertheless impressed by the shiny carriages and the seemingly flawless way they were operating.

London, of course, has its underground and the highly efficient Oyster system which we can currently only dream of. But on the many occasions I have used the public transport in the capital, it has just worked.

And, as I write this, I am visiting another Western European city, roughly the size of Leeds population wise, give or take 50,000 people.

We arrived this morning and I’ve already been out on the trams three times.

It runs like clockwork. And the prices are reasonable - in a city that otherwise has a comparatively high cost of living - with adult day tickets for 24 hours working out at less than £7 and children’s just £2.20. Single one-hour-or-less journeys anywhere are around £2.50. You can also buy block tickets which work out great value for travellers, and top up versions like the Oyster are also popular. Like the Oyster, there is a simple ‘tap in tap out system’ (though no credit card payment as yet).

This place’s tram network has been publicly operated for more than 70 years, and the same municipal company which runs the trams also runs buses and ferry services.

My brushes with these various types of streetcars at home and abroad have inevitably made me reflect even more on the situation in Leeds where, as a regular but increasingly reluctant and irate bus user, the simplest of journeys can become a nightmare.

I could, of course, have a rose tinted view - the grass is always greener and all that - but my experience so far says no.

Reflecting back further on my travels over the years, I realised that whenever I have been on big city breaks, the city in question always had an integrated public transport system with a mass transit scheme of some kind or other at its core.

From Madrid’s underground to the tram network in Dresden, Germany - a city that was almost entirely destroyed in World War Two but has still managed to build itself a successful mass public transport system - other cities just seem to have figured it out, while we continue to tie ourselves in knots about it. To offer some further perspective, I visited Dresden 20 years ago this year. Nearer home, Manchester has had an operational tram network for more than 25 years.

And it’s not just about big cities getting the bigger, unfairer (on the rest of us) deals.

Highly successful tramways run in cities around the size of Leeds - Dresden, Lisbon and Amsterdam being examples.

I’m neither an expert on geology or highways networks or on specific modes of transport.

But surely if a war ravaged city like Dresden can do it, we have it within us to build a reliable, efficient, affordable and truly democratic hop-on-and-offable transport system?

The more examples I see of cities who are clearly doing it right, the angrier it makes about how we are clearly doing something wrong.

I know lots of hard work is currently going on in the city in relation to transport, but the stops and starts of these conversations over the last few decades mean that even the most optimistic of observers will have a niggle about whether we will ever get there.

I guess the question at the heart of it is, what happened in the intervening decades that slowed down our progress so much and left us lagging behind so many cities in the UK and abroad?

It’s time to find out once and for all what is broken, and fix it.

PIC: Gary Hope

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