Lendal Bridge traffic ban: Car-free York makes for a happier city

How they get about in Copenhagen. Photograph: russavia on Wikipedia
3 Dec 2013 @ 11.30 am
| Opinion
How they get about in Copenhagen. Photograph: russavia on Wikipedia
How they get about in Copenhagen. Photograph: russavia on Wikipedia

Lendal Bridge Week

lendal-bridge-weekWe’re halfway through the six-month ban on private vehicles using Lendal Bridge between 10.30am to 5pm. This week YorkMix is running a series of articles from people with very different responses to the trial. What do you think? Comment below, Tweet us @theyorkmix or go to our Facebook page

andy-shrimpton-headshotIt may affect his business in the short term, but Andy Shrimpton says the car ban will pay dividends for residents and visitors

When I was nineteen, I visited Copenhagen. What I experienced there in a few short days shaped the course of the rest of my life.

Here was a large, bustling city with grand promenades, historic waterfronts and gorgeous architecture; yet it had the convivial feel of a town with its green spaces, intimate squares and pavement cafes.

My insider guide was Danish and she showed me around her urban village. Stopping and chatting with her friends on the street, I experienced a quality of urban life that I had never encountered before.

I began to ask myself why all cities couldn’t be like this.

I didn’t have to look very hard. As she pointed out, the answer lay in how we moved around – by walking, and riding bikes, buses and trams. The city prioritised forms of transport that favoured street life, the communal experience and the collective needs of the many.

For Danes, the city’s public streets and spaces were a scarce resource too precious to be colonised willy-nilly by private cars.

In Copenhagen they realised years ago that allowing the car free-reign was not just causing problems of its own (pollution and congestion), but it was actively stifling the alternatives – slowing public transport and bullying terrified pedestrians and cyclists off the streets.

This in turn diminished the quality of street life, neighbourliness, social inclusion and the viability of local traders.

True to their egalitarian tradition, they have continued to invest in public transport and cycle infrastructure to an extent that 37 per cent of trips are now by bike. There were plenty of carrots, but to curtail car use they needed a few sticks.

Stemming the sewer

A cyclist crosses Lendal Bridge during the restricted access hours. Photograph: Richard McDougall
A cyclist crosses Lendal Bridge during the restricted access hours. Photograph: Richard McDougall

The so-called Lendal Bridge “closure” is one of those sticks. The way it’s been introduced is pretty blunt, but with the prospect of ever increasing congestion, ask yourself this: what kind of city do you want to live in? (Ask anyone from Copenhagen if they’d rather live in York).

And guess what? The bridge is still open – open all of the time to those who choose to travel in a way that is appropriate to York’s scale and sense of place. According to the last York travel survey that’s the majority of us, as 60 per cent of trips in this city are made by foot, bus or bike.

And, as it happens, it’s open most of the time to private cars – including at rush hour.

But here’s a question: when each car takes up on average 65 square feet, why do a minority of travellers get to dominate such a valuable public asset as the street space in our historic city?

Indeed, if York seriously wants to be a world heritage city, why does it allow this sewer of traffic to pass right through its historic core?

Long-term benefit

As a businessman, in the short term, this bridge closure will do me no favours.

We face a serious competitive threat from out of town; our customers for the big ticket items normally come by car and have access problems; and yes, we too run a van and have to brave York’s “traffic”. Nor will the closure lead to an immediate surge in the number of cyclists, as these things take time.

But in the long run, we will certainly benefit – as will all city centre retailers. Studies have shown a positive economic impact from city centre car reduction just about everywhere it’s tried.

And as citizens, we’ll all benefit from the improvements in the public realm that such changes will begin to make possible.

The Danes, by the way, are officially the happiest people on earth.