Bradford is beautiful. So why isn’t it booming?

The Wool Exchange, Bradford. Image: Jon Farnam/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

On a map, Bradford looks like it’s slap bang in the middle of the country. On the ground, it doesn’t feel that way.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The city centre is bypassed by the trans-Pennine M62 and relies on the tiny, sluggish Bradford Spur, the M606, to connect it to the national motorway network. Its two stations each lie at the end of the line, too: trains from Manchester to Leeds literally have to reverse out of Bradford Interchange to serve the city. “It’s like we’re in a cul-de-sac,” the council leader, Labour’s Susan Hinchcliffe says. As a result, “we’ve not made the best of our central position.”

The difficulty of getting to Bradford is perhaps one reason why such a big city would remain quite so unknown. It’s under 10 miles from Leeds and not much smaller, but it’s been consistently over-shadowed by its larger, richer neighbour: the fact Bradford has been barred from the Core Cities group of major regional centres is a source of some bitterness among local politicos. Wages and productivity remain low, even compared to nearby cities. And while it retains a relatively big local manufacturing sector, the sort of high-value business services that generally make for prosperity are conspicuous by their absence.

 

Bradford’s economy, compared to selected nearby cities. Image: Centre for Cities.

There are a few things the city is famous for: it’s home to the National Science & Media Museum, and its large Asian population means it’s also meant to be one of the best places in Britain to get a decent curry. (A local conservative councillor, Simon Cooke, has argued it should re-position itself as the capital of Asian Britain.) But generally speaking, if outsiders think of Bradford at all, they picture somewhere shabby, crumbling and poor.

This is, in all honesty, a bit of a shame – because for all the city’s problems, its centre is quite stunningly beautiful. The rapid rise of the textile industry in the 19th century packed the place with gorgeous gothic revival architecture; its equally rapid decline in the 20th meant that the local council lacked the money for the sort of utopian redevelopment schemes that might have destroyed it.

And so, by and large, it remains: Bradford is one of the best preserved Victorian cities in Britain, and I defy you to find a better looking book shop than the Waterstones in the Wool Exchange anywhere in the world.

Inside the Wool Exchange. Image: Casliber/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s getting better looking, too. For more than a decade, the city centre was dominated by a large and unsightly hole, where lack of funding and the financial crash meant development had stalled. A few years ago, though, this was finally filled in, and re-opened in 2015 as The Broadway shopping centre.

The same development saw large chunks of the surrounding streetscape pedestrianised, and a stretch of road outside the Victorian City Hall replaced by the City Park, complete with mirror pool, fountains and cafes. The park, Hinchcliffe says, has given the city a focal point and event space. “It means our diverse population can come together and feel ownership of the city.”

Centenary Square, City Park, with the City Hall on the right. Image: Bradford Buzz/Wikimedia Commons.

More changes are on the way. The council is helping fund the redevelopment of the grand 1930s Odeon building as a 4,000 seater music and events venue, to be operated by the same group as Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre. And the opening of the Broadway has pulled the city’s shopping district down the hill, towards the Little Germany conservation area. The old indoor market is following it, moving halfway down to a building that once housed a Marks & Spencer. Its current site will be redeveloped as homes.

The hope is that, as the population of the city centre increases, nightlife and other signs of vibrant city life will follow. All of this, Hinchcliffe says, is about bringing a measure of pride back to the city – as well as the affluent nearby towns covered by the council, but which currently prefer not to associate with it. “We want people to say they live in Ilkley in Bradford,” she adds, “not Ilkley near Leeds.”

But a shiny new city centre will only get you so far – and the city still faces two big problems.

One is the one we came in on: transport. There are fairly regular train services to both Leeds and Manchester, but the trains are too old, too slow and frequently, thanks to Northern, too late. Direct services to London are operated by Grand Central – but they wind their way around the West Riding before joining the East Coast Main Line, meaning it’s generally quicker to go via Leeds.

The roads aren’t much better, notes Ian Williams, a director of the West & North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce. Keighley, a town to the north west of the borough, “has a very strong manufacturing sector. But the issue it faces is getting to the motorway network.”

The Northern Powerhouse Rail plan. Click to expand. Image: TfGM.

On the former problem at least, hope is on the horizon: Bradford recently won its battle to get a stop on the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail, a partially new route connecting Liverpool to Hull. That won’t happen for decades, if at all; but if it does it will boost the city’s prospects, as both a commuter town for Leeds and Manchester and as a centre in its own right.

The other problem, argues the Centre for Cities’ head of policy Paul Swinney, is skills. Bradford has one of the least qualified populations in the country: the Centre ranks it as 57th out of 59 on GCSE results, and 60th out of 63 on share of population with higher education. Without addressing that, Swinney says, the city won’t be able to attract the jobs and businesses it needs to boom.

“You go to the centre of Bradford and it’s beautiful,” he adds. “You can tell it was once thriving as it had the money to spend on those great buildings. But the challenge has been that, once the generators of that wealth disappeared, it struggled to attract new ones.”


Better connections to the national transport network will only get you so far. After all: “Doncaster and Stoke have good transport links – and they’re not doing so well, either.”

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.