Leeds vs Bradford: How a tale of two cities shows the need for place-based growth strategies

Leeds Town Hall. Image: public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“You can smell the money there as soon as you get off the train.” That was how one Bradford resident described nearby Leeds, in Demos’ latest research on cities and inclusive growth.

Alas, it reflected a widespread sentiment. The Bradford citizens we interviewed were not resentful of Leeds – nor were they relentlessly negative about their own city’s relative prospects. Nevertheless, it was hard not to observe the quiet, phlegmatic acceptance of a pecking order. As one citizen put it, “Bradford is totally different [to Leeds]. It’s a poorer city with less opportunity because it has not modernised as much.”

To be clear: both of West Yorkshire’s principal cities have improved significantly in this year’s Demos and PwC Good Growth for Cities 2017In fact, all UK cities improved on last year’s results with Leeds ranking as Britain’s second most improved city, after Birmingham. But when it comes to their overall fortunes, Leeds and Bradford are, once again, contrasting. 

One big reason for this is social mobility. Whilst Bradford trails Leeds across most metrics, it exhibits a particular weakness on skills and new business starts (our two proxies for social mobility). In terms of the latter, citizens regularly complained about the “decline” or “deterioration” of the city centre. As one citizen put it, “Bradford has a dying city centre. It’s a shame but it is definitely deteriorating – it does not compare to Leeds. 


Contrastingly, Leeds’ citizens saw the city centre’s commercial cloud as something which made the city an “amazing place to live in”, driving a strongly optimistic outlook regarding the city’s economic prospects. 

Yet it is the educational outlook that should most concern West Yorkshire’s city leaders. When asked about its education system, Bradford citizens often pointed to stark divisions in the cities schools: “There are the areas where the good schools are. But then we’ve got schools where there are empty spaces; we’ve got schools where English is not their first language for the vast majority.” 

More worrying still is the widespread concern about a local ‘brain-drain’ effect between Bradford and Leeds. Most young people we interviewed were happy with the range of opportunities on offer in Bradford – but this did not translate to optimism about their ability to get on in the city’s labour market.

Most citizens saw the magnetic pull of Leeds – particularly for higher skilled work – as almost inevitable: “The professional people from Bradford have all moved to Leeds. And the big firms. I don’t think we can compete any more. It is what it is, really. There are certainly more opportunities in Leeds.”

This is the challenge faced by city and combined authority leaders when it comes to raising social mobility and nurturing genuinely inclusive growth: that the local migration of skills and opportunity can, even at a micro-scale, accentuate social division and poor outcomes.

True, the contemporary move towards combined authorities and wider city regions can, in theory, mitigate this. Better for poorer areas like Bradford to have a formalised relationship with economically dynamic ones like Leeds. But without the right policy mix then economic dynamism has a tendency to cluster. 

One look at the rampant regional inequality afflicting the UK – the worst in the OECD group of developed economies, and getting worse – demonstrates the problem. The equitable sharing of success should be the founding principle of any successful place-based public policy approach; this should be the basis, at the risk of sounding overly grandiose, of the nation state itself. But what do we see when we look at the UK as a whole? Insufficiently challenged by countervailing policy, success is seeking out itself.

Make no mistake: there is no evidence this is happening in Leeds and Bradford at the moment – both cities have improved on our metric. Indeed, given those parlous OECD statistics, arguably British city leadership is doing a lot better at embedding inclusive growth than national policymakers, across the board.

But our research does underline the complex nature of trying to deliver effective, place-based strategies in a way that does not merely shift inclusive growth or social mobility opportunities between areas.

Of course, Bradford has just received one of the government’s new Opportunity Areas, precisely to help raise social mobility outcomes in the city. The lesson from Good Growth for Cities 2017 is that this must be aligned with a comprehensive, place-based approach to inclusive growth across the whole of the West Yorkshire region. 

Alan Lockey is head of modern economy at Demos.

 
 
 
 

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.