York Bridge Closure Evaluation

Leeds University led an independent evaluation of a trial closure of a key river crossing in York for the City of York Council. The closure banned private cars from using the bridge between 10am in the morning and 5pm at night but was removed at the end of the six month period because of complaints from local residents and businesses. The project evaluation report and the council deliberations can be found here: http://democracy.york.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=34626#mgDocuments

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The scheme was opening up the route from York Railway Station to the famous York Minster and the pedestrianized shopping areas of York. It forms part of the walls of York and has historic buildings fronting on to the road. The Council were hoping this would improve the environment for pedestrians and cyclists as well as allowing bus reliability to be improved.

Traffic blocking back before the trial

The impacts of the trial were significant increases in walking and cycling along the bridge. Our surveys showed just how important the local environment was as a reason to visit York. There were some important traffic diversions which created additional congestion on other parts of an already busy network.

This is where the nature of the trial becomes important. Unlike the Stockholm Congestion Charge, no improvements were built in to the trial scheme. Bus companies were not prepared to adapt their timetables in the short run and capacity enhancements at pinch points or pedestrian improvements were not put in place. The outcome of the trial perhaps not wanting to be seen to be pre-judged.

There was significant local objection from those residents directly affected by needing to reroute. These were however a small proportion of total trips in the city. The scheme really unraveled because of a very large number of penalty charge notices – up to 4500 a week. The scheme has a surplus of in the region of £750k which was not the intention. A key reason for this was tourists and visitors to the city. Although the restriction was signed, it was not clear to non-residents what that meant. Sat Nav companies were not prepared to reprogramme their software for a temporary time of day closure and so large numbers of people were being caught. The advice the Council received was to issue fines through the number plate recognition software it had. This is in contrast to the introduction of the HOV 2+ lane in Leeds in the 1990s where warning letters were issued for the first few weeks. The Council subsequently received advice that it would be OK to soften the enforcement somewhat but this was too late. The damage was done and the business community support lost.

There is a hypothesis in transport that trialling things helps to overcome objections and fear of change. To a degree that is true here. The re-routing of the traffic did not cause chaos, most people were able to adapt and there were signs of a shift to more sustainable modes as intentioned. However, trials are also a window of opportunity for lobbying and where implementation difficulties can be exploited. Timing may also be a factor, as we are approaching a round of elections in the coming year so there is comparatively little political time for the project to bed in. Either way, we need a more nuanced understanding of the role of trials within implementation and we need to consider the implications for future trials (for example of Sat Nav companies not wishing to comply).

The Lendal Bridge scheme fundamentally seems a good idea and indicative of the progressive thinking in the City of York Council. A traffic commission has been established to look at future options. York anticipates a 40%+ rise in traffic levels by 2031, only half of which it thinks can be encouraged to bus and bike. Something else needs to be done. If an incremental approach such as Lendal Bridge doesn’t work then perhaps yet more radical options need to be on the table. Now there’s an implementation challenge on the back of a bloody nose!

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