This fine sunny spring evening a group of us decided to try out cycling around the centre of Leeds. The idea was to do the sort of thing a normal human might want to do in this fine city - go to the train station, bus station, and visit the splendid Peddalers' Arms ('cos it's great) - on a bike. To be honest our expectations weren't that great. Most of us already had some experience of cycling in Leeds and had a fair idea of the sort of issues we might face. But the reality of trying to do the most basic of things was astoundingly bad.
We met in Millennium Square, a lovely public space full of people enjoying the sun. Not entirely sure cycling is officially approved of here but loads of people were doing it without causing any apparent distress to the numerous pedestrians. First destination: Leeds City Station. This was not the straightforward start we had hoped for. We tried to follow one of the suggested routes and left Millennium Square via Calverley Street. A cycle lane took us down to a set of lights where the lane became a contraflow which followed the left turn into Great George Street. All good so far but things soon went bad. There is no right turn into Cookridge Street - it's one way northbound - so we had to dismount and use the pedestrian crossing. This was tedious and there was little space to get our bikes on the pavement. The crossing is busy and we felt we were very much getting in the way of pedestrians. Things got worse in Cookridge Street. The pavement is so narrow we struggled to get along it through signage and other street furniture. Again, other pedestrians were inconvenienced. The road seems almost empty and a cycle lane here seems a simple solution.
At the bottom of Cookridge Street we crossed the Headrow via the pedestrian crossing. We became marooned in the middle refuge, cramped and difficult with bikes. On the other side, yet another push around the corner onto Park Row and at last we were able to start riding again. Park Row was fairly good, little traffic and it felt pretty safe. At the bottom however things became farcical. As suggested by the signs, we used the Toucan crossing across Bishopgate Street - along with dozens of pedestrians. What a mess. It was crowded, difficult and frustrating - and at 6.30pm it wasn't even that busy. On the other side, we pushed out bikes along the pavement to the Cycle Hub. This involved passing through the taxi rank and people waiting, with bags. Finally, we crossed the station road and entered the station. Made it - but easily, conveniently, quickly and safely? No. We walked half of it and frankly even that was unpleasant.
Then it was onto the bus station. Out of the station doors there was no simple way back onto the road. Railings meant the only option was to push through the bus stop queue. Then back down the station road - at least we could ride it this time - but also back over the dreaded Bishopgate Toucan which was just as bad as last time. It must be the busiest pedestrian crossing in Leeds and no place to wheel a bike, and yet this is what we're supposed to do. A bit of cycle lane and we entered Boar Lane. This was fairly quiet although the regular buses were a bit intimidating, and no cycle lane to be seen.
At the Corn Exchange we managed to negotiate the slightly odd junction into New York Street (at one point it felt like we might be going the wrong way down an oncoming carriageway). We passed the bus station on our left but there was nowhere obvious to leave the road and a bus stop didn't help. We decided to proceed and turn left later. Well, much later having queued in traffic and used a bit of pavement on the very busy St Peter's Street we made it to another entrance on Dyer Street. It was hardly welcoming, 'no entry', 'no pedestrians/cycling' notices everywhere. There were uncovered cycle stands for just 10 bikes outside the entrance with no obvious CCTV coverage. No way would any of us consider leaving our bikes there whilst we took a bus down to London for the weekend. Why not allow bikes inside for long stay? We'll have to ask them.
Now the really scary bit. We traversed Eastgate roundabout and rode onto Regent's Street passing under the A64. We stayed in the right hand lane hoping to find a right turn, but this turned out to be several hundred yards up the road. The speed of traffic here was frightening with few apparently sticking to the 30mph limit. As a group we had some protection but a lone cyclist here would find it very difficult to keep the lane. Thankfully we all made it to a central refuge and waited to turn across more heavy speeding traffic into Hope Road and down to the Peddalers' Arms. A crack in the door revealed light, and the door was opened onto a room full of people busy fixing bikes. If you haven't visited and can face crossing Regent's Street then you should pop in, they're a friendly bunch and very helpful.
We rejoined Regent's Street after a long wait for a sufficiently safe gap in the traffic. Whether this would be possible during rush hour is debatable. We made it to the right hand of three lanes and turned right at Eastgate and up the Headrow. This was almost pleasant despite some significant potholes and the looming presence of buses. The road width changes several times here and it's not always obvious where to position yourself. But at least it was quiet.
Finally we descended to the right turn into Cookridge Street and back to our starting point. The best we can say about the experience is that we all survived. Some comments from the riders:
"Eastgate felt like a death wish." "Found the buses intimidating on Boar Lane." "Road layout not always obvious, how would someone new to Leeds cope?"
"Access to the railway station was embarrassingly bad." "There were no signs for cyclists anywhere! How are we supposed to know where to go?"
"Regent Street was very intimidating, you had to be fast and assertive. Not 'mum friendly'!" "Park Row was OK, and riding *up* Cookridge Street felt safe."
"The whole ride felt disjointed, and some parts scary. It's just not a cycle-friendly city."
When asked to score the city out of 10 for safe, friendly and easy to follow cycle routes someone shouted out "minus two!" which pretty much summed it up.
So what does this show us? That a group of fairly experienced cyclists who had at least *some* idea of how to get around the city found the experience deeply unsettling. Would someone new to cycling, or new to Leeds enjoy it? Absolutely not. In fact if they arrived by train they'd probably struggle so much getting out of the station they might be tempted to go back in and get a train somewhere else.
The Campaign is going to send a report of this ride to Councillors, MPs and Chief Exec of the council. There is much talk of possible improvments being made to cycle infrastructure in Leeds, and our ride suggests these cannot come soon enough.
A big thanks to all those who gave up an hour of their time to help - you are making a difference :-)