The terrible legacy of turning Leeds into a 'motorway city'

Leeds was transformed into a vibrant economic hub when it became a ‘Motorway City’. But people are now being urged to revert back to methods of transport their ancestors relied on long before the 1970s. In the 1960s, Leeds was still seen by many outsiders as a grimy industrial city from the Victorian era and Leeds City Council was keen to change that perception through an ambitious tranformation.

Decaying Victorian buildings were torn down and office blocks, shopping centres and roads began sprouting up all over the city. There was huge excitement when The Merrion Centre, which housed shops, a dance hall, a cinema, opened in 1964 and a few later the first section of the Inner Ring Road was completed and the M1 reached Stourton, on the edge of Leeds. After becoming leader of the council in 1967, Frank Marshall was keen to continue with the transformation and attract more investment.

The Conservatives, under Marshall’s leadership, had promised to ‘get Leeds moving’ in their manifesto and he decided that embracing motorways would be the best way to do this.

Albion Place (King Edward Street) in the 1970s. It is now completely pedestrianised.

A few streets in the city centre were pedestrianised and there were plans for a high-level walkway, but in 1971 the city’s motorway ambitious were clearly set out in ‘Project Leeds’. The council proudly proclaimed that Leeds was the ‘Motorway City of the Seventies’ and that slogan was even stamped on letters sent from the city.

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In the early 70s, the M621, then known as the South West Urban Motorway, was built to link the M62 to the city centre and the second and third phases of the Inner Ring Road, which was the first urban motorway in this country, were completed.

Before the 70s, people relied on the Victorian railway network and the Leeds Liverpool Canal to get themselves and goods in and out of Leeds, and their own two feet and the tram network (closed in 1959) to get round the city. But 50 years on, Leeds city centre faces serious problems with congestion and air pollution. In 2016, almost 60 per cent of transport emissions came from cars in Leeds, which is one of the most congested and polluted cities in the country.

The council leaders accept that major investment in the road network resulted in “transformational economic growth”, but they want to shake off the ‘Motorway City’ status and radically reduce peoples’ reliance on the automobiles.

The terrible legacy of turning Leeds into a 'motorway city'How the junction of The Headrow and New Briggate could soon look after a GBP20 million project

People are being urged to revert back to the cleaner and greener forms of transport that they relied on at the beginning of the 20th century: buses, trains, trams, cycling and walking. But redesigning transport network of a major city requires a lot of time, careful planning and money. More than GBP270 million is being invested in upgrading the bus network (so passenger numbers will double by 2026), pedestrianising streets around the city centre and building more cycle lanes and pedestrian walkways.

Leeds is now home to the busiest station in the north and Network Rail is working on several multi-million pound projects to increase capacity and improve reliability.

After two failed attempts to bring trams back to Leeds, which cost taxpayers over GBP72 million, West Yorkshire Combined Authority has revealed plans to open a new tram network in 2033.

The government has also backed the “pioneering project” to build Leeds Inland Port at Stourton Wharf, which is expected to remove up to half a million tonnes of freight traffic from the city’s roads.

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