The Congestion Commission set up under the previous Labour administration to tackle the chronic gridlock on York's roads was scrapped by the new Conservative-Lib Dem administration because they claimed it was too expensive.

Labour proposed to pay external experts who joined the commission £400 a day each to come up with ideas to get the city's traffic flowing again, at a cost to York of about £140,000.

Now Green councillors have come up with a cheeky alternative: a 'People's Congestion Commission' which they claim will cost almost nothing.

It isn't about playing party politics, insists Cllr Andy D'Agorne, leader of the city's Green group. The new commission - which held its first full meeting at the Priory Street centre in York last night - will be a 'cross party or non-party' group charged with encouraging the people of York themselves to come up with potential solutions to York's traffic problems.

"We will then as the professionals (at City of York Council) to look at them, and evaluate whether there is anything there."

The key speaker last night was academic and transport expert Prof John Whitelegg. He is a member of the Green party - but also a widely respected academic with connections to the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, who has advised both London and Beijing on their transport policies.

He came up with a series of suggestions to kick-start the debate. The Press interviewed him beforehand to ask about these.

York Press:

Prof John Whitelegg

Some are fairly radical - others a matter of common sense. But it's important that we do all of them if we're to get on top of the congestion that is ruining York, he says...

1. Travel plans. All big organisations/ businesses in the city - from York Hospital and the two universities to companies such as Nestlé and Aviva - should encourage their staff to develop travel plans if they haven't already, says Prof Whitelegg. This should involve sitting down with employees and working out with them ways of getting to work that might involve using their cars less. These campaigns should be non-judgemental, he stresses - there's nothing worse than trying to hector people into doing something they don't really want to do. It puts people's backs up and doesn't work. There is absolutely nothing wrong with driving to work, he says - provided people share cars, rather than each driving in themselves. So it should be a question of sitting down with staff and asking questions. 'How do you get to work?' 'Oh, I come by car.' 'Is there one person in the car, or two or three?'. He once helped Derriford Hospital in Plymouth cut the three million car journeys a year being made by its staff and patients and their families by 12 per cent.

And who should pay for this travel planning? The organisations themselves, he says. They will reap the benefits of reduced congestion - including having staff who find it easier to get to work without getting stuck in traffic jams.

2. Walking buses to school.

York Press:

Children join a walking bus to St Lawrence's School, York

Everyone knows how much worse traffic is during term-time when the school run is on. Walking buses are a simple way to counter this. They just take a bit of organisation. York does have some 'walking buses', but they aren't frequent or regular enough. Ideally, he says, every school should operate waking buses, and they should operate every day.

3. Intelligent planning. Whenever a developer proposes a development of more than 200 or 250 homes in York, council planners should insist that it is not 'car-based', he says. Developments should be connected to public transport links; they should include footpaths and cycle lanes; they don't need to allocate five car spaces for each home.

He accepts that under-funded planning authorities sometimes find it difficult to stand up to big developers. No council wants to be known as a BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody) local authority, especially in these days of acute housing shortage. But we need to be building estates that are less car dependent. There is a well-known study which calculated that on average every new home generates an extra six car journeys a day, he says. If York is to meet targets of building an extra 700 homes a year, that is an awful lot of extra car journeys.

4. You can't beat congestion by building new roads. There is plenty of evidence, Prof Whitelegg says, to show that building new roads only increases traffic. If there is a busy city road that has 40,000 car journeys a day, and you build a bypass to circumvent it, the traffic on the original road might reduce to 20,000 journeys a day - but there will also be 40,000 journeys a day on the new bypass. So there will be 60,000 car journeys a day in total, where before there were 40,000: a net increase of 20,000. Traffic is like gas, he says - it fills every available space. Build more roads and you only make things worse. In the example above, the people on that original road will have slightly less traffic going past them: but everyone else will be breathing in extra pollution as a result of the extra journeys - and we'll be pumping ever more CO2 into the air.

5. Lendal Bridge was a good idea, just poorly implemented. Yes, really.

York Press:

The Lendal Bridge closure: a good idea poorly executed, says Prof Whitelegg

There is plenty of evidence to prove that closing roads reduces traffic, Prof Whitelegg says. It is called the 'Disappearing Traffic' theory, and it operates on the same principle as point 4 above: the more roads we have, the more traffic. If a city has five roads going in broadly the same direction and closes three of them, traffic levels will fall as people find different ways of getting about.

So closing one of York's bridges was the right thing to do - it was just mishandled. Unfortunately, local authorities often get it wrong when trying to use complex national traffic regulations to introduce bus lanes or traffic bans, he says. And unfortunately, when they do, there is usually 'all hell to pay'. But the answer is to get it right: not to give up trying.

6. Subsidise public transport, not cars. Something like 90 per cent of our national transport budget is spent on roads, and just 10 per cent on everything else. We need to turn this on its head, so that much more money is spent on public transport - particularly buses - and on creating walking and cycle routes, rather than building ever more roads which will generate ever more traffic.

York Press:

We should be putting much more public subsidy into buses, says Prof Whitelegg

7. Make the polluter pay. This is not something that can be introduced locally, other than through a congestion charge. But nationally, thanks to comprehensive data, we know that what motorists pay (through car excise duty, fuel tax etc) for the privilege of using roads is less than half the cost of the burden they impose on the nation (through the health costs caused by pollution, the CO2 generated, the cost of building and maintaining roads etc). Motorists should contribute more, he says.

8. Integrate transport networks. We're not very good at joined up thinking when it comes tom, our transport infrastructure, he says. Bus routes and schedules, for example, need to link up much better with rail routes so that they are all seamless and easy to use.

9. 20mph limits.

York Press:

20mph zones work, says Prof Whitelegg

These really do reduce traffic, as well as reducing deaths and injuries, he says: because they make cyclists and pedestrians believe a city is a safe place in which to ride or walk to work. So it's a thumbs up to York on this one...

10. Change habits. Do all the above, and there is every reason to believe we can gradually be weaned off our dependence on the car, Prof Whitelegg believes. There is even a theory - the 'Peak Car Theory' - that suggests that car use, particularly amongst the younger generation, is falling. There was a time when every self-respecting teenager couldn't wait to be 17 so they could start learning to drive, he says. These days, the younger generation are more interested in their iPods, iPads and smart phones. "There is evidence they see driving as naff."

  • If you have an idea to help solve York's traffic problems, email


Conservative council leader Cllr Chris Steward: "We have consistently said that further measures are needed to tackle congestion and deal with air pollution issues but we believe the solutions lie within York rather than the Congestion Commission which proposed spending £450 per day on consultants from out of town. Indeed amongst other things Ian Gillies as Executive Member has himself been consulting with university experts on ways forward.

"It is a strange but welcome U-turn that after insisting we should spend £150,000 on a Congestion Commission the Green Party has realised there is actual vast expertise at little or no cost and we welcome them now taking exactly the sort of approach we have always advocated."

Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson Cllr Ann Reid: “As part of the Joint Executive the Liberal Democrats are committed to tackling congestion in and around York. This will involve building on the city’s transport strategy to support key bus services, invest in cycling facilities as well as lobby the Government to fund infrastructure improvements such as HS2 and the electrification of the York to Manchester line. What we won’t do is blunder into headline-grabbing schemes such as Labour’s botched closure of Lendal Bridge.

“We are listening to the ideas of residents and happy to engage with this People’s Commission. Some of Professor Whitelegg’s ideas such as making sure new housing developments encourage alternatives to the car we are already doing. Others such as extending the “polluter pays principle” would need further careful analysis.

“What Professor Whitelegg rightly points out is that to support local efforts a huge change is needed nationally to end the chronic under-investment in public transport.”

Labour Group Leader, Cllr Dafydd Williams: “Labour supports any initiatives that are serious in debating the congestion problems the city faces, congestion which is currently harming both public health and the local economy.

“Our previous proposal for a Commission was designed to take the debate out of the political arena, which sadly this proposal doesn’t do, and to then see options that improve traffic flows put in front of all parties to consider. This came with a cost which any serious proposal to effect change would do.

“Change will only happen if political parties can work together. We will remain open to working cross-party to tackle congestion but we need all parties to be around the table to do so”.