A contraflow cycle lane, a tree, and a whole lot of heartache

At the beginning of February, work began on Cookridge Street. For anyone not familiar, you can read the Cookridge Street backstory if you like.

We had been promised proper, Dutch style infrastructure that would make it appealing and welcoming for everyone to cycle, as well as formalising this massively popular desire line which many cyclists had been using illegally (including at least one senior figure in the Council's Highways department). It seemed a perfect opportunity for the Council to show their intentions for Tour de France legacy and Cycling City ambition. It's a very quiet street. At the Northern end (by the Catholic Cathedral) Cookridge Street meets Great George Street, which is busy with Loop traffic. In contrast the Southern end is used by only a few vehicles, and the Council were keen to reduce traffic further, to avoid buses being left-hooked by other traffic (oh the irony). Most days it was possible to demonstrate just how easy it would be to create this contraflow by wheeling a bike the wrong way down the middle of an empty traffic lane.

Several months of detailed negotiations followed, (years of intermittent negotiations on this route had already taken place). The initial proposal was for a contraflow starting on one side of the street and crossing to the other side halfway down. As the cycle lane was almost on the pavement, the National Federation for the Blind didn't like this idea any more than we did. The impediment to a full-length left side contraflow was the crossroads with Great George Street at the Northern end of the route. Traffic has to flow at all times here, either on Great George Street (the Loop) or exiting Cookridge Street. But hundreds of pedestrians per day are seen running across the wrong side of this crossing in front of traffic, often with pushchairs. Surely a safe pedestrian crossing should be accommodated? No, because traffic existing the Light shopping centre onto Cookridge Street would cause jams. We had never observed problems here. The Council pointed out that at Christmas, the traffic is terrible. We suggested that the currently one-way entrance road to the Light car park could be made two-way, so that some traffic can exit straight onto Great George Street without having to come down Cookridge Street at all. Yes, this might be possible. In fact, this could be a useful suggestion because NGT will one day require the same thing. (NGT is the proposed Trolleybus scheme currently awaiting a public enquiry).

Suddenly it seemed a door had opened. Yes, there could be a pedestrian crossing at the crossroads, and a bike crossing as well. Yes, the cycle contraflow could go the whole way down the street on the correct side of the road. Yes, there could be a traffic light so that cycles can exit the contraflow onto the Headrow or Park Row safely. We could cycle the whole way without dismounting!

There was some more wrangling. We would have liked the council to be brave and get rid of some of the parking. They could not. We wanted the contraflow to be 2m wide and mandatory (as suggested in the guidance LTN2/08 and TAL6/98). The Council said it couldn't be mandatory because it would need an island at both ends. We pointed out the guidance does not say this. The Council said it couldn't be mandatory because it is outside a parking bay. We pointed out this can still be allowed if the TRO is written correctly, and sent some photos from other places in the UK. The Council said it did not want to set an example of allowing driving across the inviolable solid white line of a cycle contraflow.

Let's remind ourselves what they just did on Chapeltown Road. Not much sign of the inviolable white line there, in fact this white line it is so violated it probably wishes it were no longer in existence.

The Council decided that to help discourage traffic from entering Cookridge St from the Headrow, St Anne's street should have priority over Cookridge Street, which meant the cycle contraflow would also have to stop and give way halfway down. If there's traffic queueing out of St Anne's, they'd block the cycle lane. We argued this might be dangerous. The Council refused to budge.

But it was definitely going to happen! To a really high quality, like in the Netherlands!

We told everyone who would listen about the exciting proper cycle scheme that was about to happen, about to usher in a new generation of Leeds cycling stuff!

Then work started, and some parts of it seemed different to the plans we'd seen. We queried it with the Council. They sent us a new set of plans with some last minute changes. Here are the plans we thought we'd agreed:

And here are the ones that were given to the chaps with the shovels:

Small, trivial changes. Before, there was a continuous cycle path out to the Headrow, which pedestrians could freely cross. Now the cycle path rises to pedestrian level, and disappears into the pavement in a lovely shared-use no-one-has-priority muddle. And the two bits aren't even properly aligned. Don't get me wrong, I don't require priority over pedestrians, but on a route like this where there is very high demand for the cycle route, and potentially high pedestrian traffic too, this seems like a recipe for conflict. The cycle lane should have exited as close as possible to the carriageway; that way, pedestrians could cross the cycle lane and the road in one go. However, there was a tree in the way.

The tree has been on every drawing since the beginning (albeit very faint, compared with the lovely detailed trees on the other side of the road). It shouldn't have come as a last-minute shock to the Council. But apparently it did, and required the proposed route of the cycle lane to be moved.

We wondered whether the tree could have been sacrificed in the interests of cyclist and pedestrian safety? The council had just removed and replaced all the other trees on this section of the Headrow with almost identical trees, at huge expense, just eighteen months ago. No, because the Council would need special permission to work on or remove the tree. Special permission from the Council, that is. Which clearly they sought and received from themselves when they removed and replaced all those other trees.

And if NGT goes ahead, the tree will be removed anyway.

Could the cycle lane have been moved closer to the road, away from worst of the conflict with pedestrians? No, because we would be too far out of their sight line for the drivers of buses turning right out of Park Row to notice us. Oh, did they forget to mention? The green light we were promised to allow us safe passage out of Cookridge Street will get 'a couple of seconds' head start before right-turning buses coming from Park Row will also be on green. We're told the buses will give way to cycle traffic exiting Cookridge St, just like at any other crossroads. Unfortunately the cycle lane exiting onto the Headrow now looks more like part of a toucan crossing than a proper lane of traffic, so bus drivers may not realise they're supposed to give way. Not everyone will want to face down a right-turning bus, and less confident cyclists may find this a bit scary.

So the verdict on the Cookridge Street Contraflow we've been banging on about: it's better than nothing. But it isn't what we were promised, and we feel stupid for trusting the Council to do the right thing in an easy situation. This isn't "high quality Dutch-style infrastructure". It has been built to the standard the Council specified, and they are satisfied. The question remains, does Leeds genuinely want everyone to be able to choose cycling? If so, that standard needs to be far higher.