'PLAN to ban cars from city centre within three years' screamed the front page headline in The Press on New Year's Eve.

The story beneath reported that councillors had voted to approve a motion to 'restrict all non-essential private motor vehicle journeys within the city walls by 2023'.

The reaction was immediate. Hundreds of readers commented online, on social media and on the letters page of The Press. 'This is just a backhanded way for the council to close Lendal Bridge again," commented one reader. "What exactly is a 'non-essential' journey? Taking my son to hospital, swimming lessons, scouts? Visiting my elderly mother in her care home?" added another. "I think it's a great idea. Not only will it help to prevent pollution problems, but it will help the traffic problems and improve safety," said a third. "It could cause a lot of problems for people in a similar situation to me who travel in every day," added a fourth.

The confusion perhaps reflected the deliberate lack of detail in the wording of the motion, and also the enduring distrust that remains following the failed Lendal Bridge closure of 2013/14.

So what exactly might a ban on private cars in the city centre look like? Which streets would be affected? Would Lendal Bridge be closed? How would the ban be enforced? Who would still be allowed to drive into the city centre? And, crucially, does the political will really exist to introduce a ban?

York Press:

Cllr Jonny Crawshaw, who introduced the motion to ban non-essential car journeys within York's city walls

The first thing to say is that the motion was put forward by an opposition Labour councillor, Jonny Crawshaw, not by a member of the ruling Liberal Democrat/ Green coalition. It passed thanks to the support of the four Green councillors. Many Liberal Democrats abstained.

One, the Lib Dem chair of the housing scrutiny committee, Cllr Stephen Fenton, actually tabled an amendment that would have watered down the motion, by removing reference to 2023 and saying instead only that the council should 'prepare a plan by 2021, in conjunction with residents and businesses, to significantly reduce or remove non-essential motor vehicle journeys'. That amendment, however, was not passed. The silence from council leader Keith Aspden following the vote was deafening.

It almost seems like a case of the tail wagging the dog, with a minority opposition group seeming to set the agenda with the support of the Greens, who are the junior partners in the council's ruling coalition.

York Press:

Green leader (and council deputy leader) Andy D'Agorne

The Greens matter, however, because they hold the balance of power - Green councillor Andy D'Agorne is not only the council's deputy leader but also the executive member for transport.

He voted for the motion. "The Green Party very much welcome this - it is entirely in line with what was in our 2019 local manifesto," he said, when contacted by The Press.

Liberal Democrat council leader Keith Aspden's response, when also contacted for a comment, was notably more lukewarm. "This administration is committed to making York a carbon neutral city by 2030," he said. "However, we understand that to achieve this ambition, we must engage with and listen to our residents, businesses and communities before implementing any scheme on this scale. Only by learning from the experiences of our residents will we avoid previous failures, such as the previous Labour administration’s Lendal Bridge policy.”

York Press:

Council leader Keith Aspden

But the motion calling for a ban on non-essential car use was passed by a vote of the council and was presumably binding? "It’s not that I don’t support the ambition, and of course I am fully behind the commitment to become carbon neutral," Cllr Aspden said. "It’s just I want to ensure that it is done properly and the only way to make such a wide-scale change a success, is to ensure proper consultation with stakeholders."

So, it will be consultation, consultation, consultation. There will be two consultations beginning this year alone, Cllr Aspden says - on an updated Local Transport Plan, and on the city centre in general. The aim will be to "engage residents, businesses and visitors on how they feel the city should evolve over the coming years."

Nevertheless, Labour's Jonny Crawshaw, who put forward the motion on a traffic ban, insists that what is up for discussion is the question of how a ban should be introduced and what form it should take - not whether it should happen at all. That is now a matter of council policy, he insists.


The motion commits the council to 'develop and implement' a plan.

The details of what that plan will look like have yet to be decided, Cllr Crawshaw says. There will need to be a lot of cross party work and a lot of consultation to decide the details. But the aim is to reduce car journeys, carbon emissions and pollution, and improve bus services, cycle routes and footpaths. Here are a few key issues that will need to be decided:

Who could still drive into the city centre?

The ban would apply only to non-essential private car journeys. So who could still drive into the city centre? That is up for discussion, Clr Crawshaw says. But he envisages it would include blue badge users, taxis, delivery vans, buses and emergency services

Which areas of the city would be covered by the ban?

Also up for discussion, Cllr Crawshaw says. But 90 per cent of all bus routes in York pass through the congested Station Road/ Rougier Street junction. Closing Lendal Bridge to private traffic would free up that junction - allowing buses to move more freely, and helping ensure the reliability and journey speed that is essential if we're to get more people using the bus. So should the bridge be closed to all but essential traffic and buses? "We don't have that level of detail yet. But we shouldn't shy away from it."

York Press:

A bus crossing an empty Lendal Bridge during the 2013/14 closure

How would a ban be enforced?

Cllr D'Agorne, the Executive Member for Transport, says it will be for officers to set out options. But he has a couple of thoughts. "Clearly a permit system for specified streets would be one option," he says. "But there could be other ways such as changes to one way systems etc that would be cheaper but as effective. Any changes would be phased in and take all views into account before decisions were made and could involve trials."

Cllr Crawshaw hints at one way the council could keep track of who was driving in the city centre when they shouldn't be: hidden (or at least 'unobtrusive') ANPR cameras. These could be used to distinguish between legitimate, essential car and other vehicle users, and those who should not be there, he says. "These days ANPR is smart enough to 'see' or distinguish buses, vans, ambulances or cars, so it (could be) used as a simple means of enforcement – with blue badge holders, taxis, buses, emergency vehicles, city centre residents, delivery vans, etc (ie pre-approved essential journeys) all potentially having an exemption."

The strategy will be mainly about making public transport and cycle routes better, so that people want to leave their cars at home, he says. "But we do need a stick." Cameras have been used very successfully in London, he points out.


Once concern about the proposed ban is that we shouldn't consider the city centre in isolation.

Transport expert Professor Tony May of the York Civic Trust says there's a danger that if traffic were banned from the city centre, people would think that was all we needed to do to reduce congestion and pollution and hit York's target of being carbon neutral by 2030.

But it wouldn't be enough, he says. The city's outdated Local Transport Plan, last updated nine years ago, needs a complete overhaul.

Working with the York Bus Forum and the York Environment Forum, the civic trust conducted a major, city-wide transport survey.

York Press:

Citizens Transport Forum: Prof Tony May (left), Dave Merrett of the York Environment Forum (centre) and Graham Collett of the York Bus Forum (right)

  • almost a third of residents and a fifth of commuters find a regular journey difficult
  • congestion and delays are the major cause of difficulty, followed by poor public transport and cost of travel
  • improvements to public transport routes, frequencies and fares were seen as the best way of reducing car use
  • a quarter of people expected their car use to increase in the next five years, but only one in eight was happy about this.

That last finding suggests there is real appetite for change, and for a better transport system that makes it easier to use alternatives to the car, says Prof May. But if we are to achieve that, York needs a proper transport strategy, rather than doing things piecemeal - hence the need for an updated Local Transport Plan.

The civic trust, working with the bus forum and environment forum, invited almost 500 local people who responded to the transport survey to join a new York Citizens Transport Forum.

The first meeting of the new forum will be next month. Initially, there will be three workshops, at which members will discuss the survey findings and how to improve transport in York. A report will then go to the city council.

The plan is, however, for the Transport Forum to then continue as an advisory group, ready to support the council in updating the Local Transport Plan.

It won't be a confrontational lobbying group, Prof May says. "We want to work with the council rather than be banging on the door."

See details of the York Civic Trust's new transport survey here: yorkcivictrust.co.uk/home/transport/