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Radical and unpopular solutions may be needed to end Leeds congestion woes, says bus firm boss

Date: 28th February 2017.'Picture James Hardisty'Paul Matthews, MD of bus company First Leeds.
Date: 28th February 2017.'Picture James Hardisty'Paul Matthews, MD of bus company First Leeds.

Radical and potentially unpopular solutions to improve bus travel around Leeds are needed because of the “phenomenal” increase in congestion in recent years, according to a boss at the city’s biggest bus company.

Outline plans for bus priority systems which would reduce delays and speed up journeys in the city are being drawn up by West Yorkshire Combined Authority and are due to go out for consultation later this year.

Radical solutions may be needed to solve the problem of delayed buses in Leeds, it is claimed.

Radical solutions may be needed to solve the problem of delayed buses in Leeds, it is claimed.

Paul Matthews, managing director for First Bus in West Yorkshire, admits some of the bus priority proposals may be contentious, but says they are necessary to avoid measures such as congestion charging or workplace parking levies.

He told the YEP: “Some of it will be politically unpopular and some businesses might object, but they will need to be radical because as we all know congestion in Leeds and in other cities is increasing at a phenomenal rate.

“In the last ten years we have put at least ten vehicles into the network just to stand still, just to keep buses running to time, because they are getting slower and slower. That is not in anyone’s interests.”

The performance of city buses has long been a contentious issue, with Leeds council leader Judith Blake revealing in 2017 that people had been sacked from their jobs because buses failed to get them in on time.

In the last ten years we have put at least ten vehicles into the network just to stand still, just to keep buses running to time, because they are getting slower and slower. That is not in anyone’s interests.

Paul Matthews

Mr Matthews said areas like Headingley, which is “very constrained from a road space point of view”, were an example of how one incident in the city centre can create long delays, with buses running two hours late at one point last month.

He said: “The way through that has to be through more radical bus priorities, they don’t have to be expensive, it could be traffic light phasing, it could be parking enforcement, ultimately, as an operator I would say the city might have to look at the stick, if you like.

“So bus priorities, doing what we are doing here is the carrot, but in terms of penalising motorists with road charging or congestion charging or work-place parking charging, might be necessary.”

He added: “It isn’t on the cards and would be very politically difficult, so that’s why we are 100 per cent supportive of working with councils, with the combined authority, to deliver the carrot, to deliver better bus services.”

First Bus, which has 3,500 staff across Yorkshire and carries 550,000 people a day on its 1,400 vehicles, is promising a host of changes this year.

Contactless payments are being introduced, starting in West Yorkshire in the middle of January, in bid to end the frustrating wait for passengers fumbling with change.

The firm is also re-training all of its staff to help its employees better understand customer behaviour and manage their own.

First’s most eye-catching work will be in Leeds, where a quarter of a billion pounds of improvement works funded by the public and private sector have been promised in the aftermath of the city’s failed Trolleybus scheme.

As part of this, 44 new vehicles with wireless internet, USB charging points and next-stop announcements will arrive in the city by the end of March. A further 60 new vehicles, all with a green livery, will be in place by the end of 2018.

Ray Wilkes, who leads the Campaign for Better Transport in West Yorkshire, said a focus should be put on bus priority and demand management “so traffic is moving rather than standing still”.

Describing the worst hotspots, he said: “It is Leeds and Bradford mainly. It is partly badly-planned roadworks, but often it is just someone crashing the car. We need the bus lanes to be 12 hours, starting from seven in the morning, that would have a dramatic effect.”