Guest Post Part 2 – Cycling in York

Our roving guest blogger Robert continues his journey with a missive from one of my favourite towns – York, UK:

Parking at York Railway Station
Parking at York Railway Station

The proprietor of Cycle Heaven bike shop situated outside of the York Railway Station hired us a couple of bikes for a day and without any prompting, proudly volunteered the statistic that close on 50% of commuter journeys of less than 3 miles in York were undertaken by people riding bikes. Wow. No references for this claim, sorry, but it only took a glance across to the road outside that it did ‘look’ as though he could have been right: (exaggeration disclaimer) every second ‘Joe or Jenny average’ was in fact riding a bike, helmetless and happy. What’s more, the motoring public drove in a manner around them that conveyed a message that they were quite OK with it too.

(Editor’s note: it looks like the actual % of commuter trips <5km in York that are cycled is actually about 17% – still pretty good…)

With narrow streets busy with pedestrians, cyclist behaviour is moderated
With narrow streets busy with pedestrians, cyclist behaviour is moderated

So, there has to be something here for Christchurch to learn from, right?

Well, perhaps and maybe.

York has a history dating back to Roman times and has developed during the Middle Ages as a town of significant religious and commercial importance. Surrounded by a largely intact Medieval Wall the central area is a labyrinth of narrow streets and footpaths. Car access by necessity has always been restricted: after all, with seven million visitors annually there is just room enough for people, not their cars. Public transport services are extensive. York has five Park-and-Ride facilities and a Railway Station boasting nearly eight million users per year. Getting around by bike for short journeys is therefore fast, cheap and convenient, aided by integrated public transport services. If it weren’t for cycling and public transport options, traffic gridlock would stall the city. Cycling is a good option; simply for the city to function it has to be. For Christchurch, the use of motor vehicles as number one transport option has never been challenged in the way that it has in York.

York voted the UK’s No.1 City for Cycling - Signage aplenty
York voted the UK’s No.1 City for Cycling – Signage aplenty

Over the centuries, most towns and cities in the UK have developed networks of walking paths, the majority prior to the motor car. In a bid to improve facilities for cycling, shared use of these pathways has been a cost effective method of developing safer cycle routes. Over the last ten years a programme of pathway development, safe cycling education and minor roading modifications have contributed substantially to the increase of numbers of people riding bikes in York on a regular basis. Although Christchurch has plenty of space, such pathways have never evolved (outside of Hagley Park) in the same way. Although there is often ample room on under-used pedestrian footpaths, the law does not allow this.

York Minster Shared Bike Path
York Minster Shared Bike Path

Like Christchurch, cycling initiatives in York have been largely based on compromise, creativity, considerable cost scrutiny and copious quantities of paint. But it seems to have worked for York. The use of Advance Stop Boxes painted on the road, painted cycle lanes of various widths and descriptions, priority for cyclists at intersections (including footpath lanes to by-pass traffic lights on T-intersections) and the use of bollards to allow cycling only on narrow streets has collectively made a difference in the absence of any ‘Dutch style’ infrastructure. Contra-flow markings were evident in places and quality signage was widespread.

The York Minster Shared Bike Path. Subtle, but the message is significant
The York Minster Shared Bike Path. Subtle, but the message is significant

A painted cycle lane I noticed was abruptly halted for the provision of 3 legal car-parks and then continued on in the same format. The noise coming across the English Channel as the Dutch were ROTFL at this was clearly audible.

I think that the message here for Christchurch is that cleverly thought out and cost-effective compromise for improving the lot for cyclists can be successful. Whilst we have the ‘top shelf’ in cycle-way design coming to the city, outside of the 13 planned Major Cycleway routes there will still be a need for some priority measures to minimise cycle/car conflict. A lot could be learnt from York. The commitment of the local authority in terms of programmes of encouragement and pathway signage is laudable. For the curious but cautious ‘would be’ cyclist, there is provision of a ‘cycle trainer’ available. Sent from the council, the trainer will get you started and on your way for an hourly fee (which is comparable to a fitness coach). Brilliant.

Yellow bikes throughout the city for the 'Tour de France’ stage
Yellow bikes throughout the city for the ‘Tour de France’ stage

A couple more useful links:

Not everything's perfect - apparently bike theft is quite a problem
Not everything’s perfect – apparently bike theft is quite a problem

What could we learn from York?

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