Durham City Travel Study 1997

Twenty-five years ago the final report of the Durham City Travel Study was released. It was commissioned by the County Council to recommend how to provide “an environmentally friendly and sustainable transport system which meets future economic and social needs in an effective manner”.

The final report came out a few weeks after Labour’s landslide victory in the 1997 general election. Later that year the Kyoto Protocol, the first to include specific carbon reduction targets, was agreed. In the last days of the Major government, in the wake of protests against the Newbury Bypass, the Road Traffic Reduction Act was passed, which gave the Secretary of State for Transport the power to require local councils to prepare assessments of local road traffic and targets for reductions. These powers have never been used, and the transport sector has made almost no contribution to reducing carbon emissions.

In the local context, plans for a Western Relief Road had recently been dropped from the Department of Transport’s National Programme. The county Structure Plan envisaged the reopening of the Leamside Line, and included a Northern Relief Road together with a link from the Pity Me roundabout to the A691 at Witton Gilbert. The “Through Road” in Durham City centre was carrying 40,000 vehicles a day and the “growth of the university and expansion of tourism” had contributed to local travel demand.

This may all sound rather familiar, but on reading the report we are quickly reminded of many fundamental differences. The report recommends establishing Park and Ride services, a Controlled Parking Zone in the city centre, and permit-controlled access to Saddler Street and the peninsula, where the university still allowed car parking on Palace Green. Signalising the Gilesgate, Milburngate and Leazes Bowl roundabouts is proposed, while at the time of the report North Road was open to north-bound traffic along its whole length. Bus priority schemes included adding bus lanes to the A690 from Carrville to Gilesgate roundabout and on High Carr Road and Dryburn Road approaching the city centre from Framwellgate Moor.

The report included an outline programme, in which the key recommendations would have been implemented between 1997 and 2001, but it inevitably slipped. The first controlled parking zones, in the Elvet area, became operational in October 2000. The restrictions on access to the peninsula were implemented as the UK’s first congestion zone in October 2002, and the three Park and Ride services were running by December 2005, six years later than planned. The Gilesgate and Leazes Bowl roundabouts were not signalised until 2016.

Other proposals have not been taken forward. A Park and Walk site, converting one of the Chorister School playing fields on Quarryheads Lane into a car park to serve the Cathedral, would have been very damaging, even if it had been softened with what the consultants termed “National Trust” type landscaping! On the other hand, there were many practical suggestions for improving walking and cycling which have not been carried out, including footway widening on Quarryheads Lane and Church Street and a pedestrian crossing at the bottom of Station Approach. It is not clear how much work was done on “Safe Routes to School” – children attending St Margaret’s School still rely on a crossing patrol, rather than a signalised crossing, for example. A toll on Milburngate Bridge traffic was controversial, and would have required new powers from central government.

The report suggested that if each employee currently travelling by car used another mode one day a week, a reduction in car travel of 20% could be achieved. This will no doubt be suggested again, but it is foolish to rely on public co-operation without any incentives.

Although the Controlled Parking Zones were implemented, the report envisaged a rather different approach to managing car parking in the future, including using planning controls to encourage reductions in private non-residential parking, and the use of pricing to severely limit long-stay parking in the city centre. The proper management of car parking is described as “key to the future of the DCTS” (Durham City Travel Study) and is designed to “increase the supply of short-term spaces for visitors, shoppers and the disabled” as well as assist the introduction of cycling, walking and bus priority measures. With the current flat half-hourly charges, and free parking in the afternoons, there are many streets in the city where these aims are not being achieved. It is likely that the bus lane that the report proposed on the north-bound side of New Elvet would have required removal of car parking, and many of the suggestions for the cycle network might also have conflicted with parking spaces. The Durham City Sustainable Transport Delivery Plan, adopted in 2019, noted the problems caused by free parking at major employers (including the County Council and the university), and judged the on-street parking charges as low compared to other historic towns. But the Delivery Plan does not include the level of detailed analysis and data behind the 1997 study. A review of the management of car parking in Durham is long overdue.

Overall, the 1997 report was highly influential, and shaped a lot of the traffic management measures we see in Durham today. The Park and Ride services and the congestion zone have been successful. If the walking, cycling and parking management measures in the report had been fully implemented, and less effort been wasted on planning relief roads, Durham would be a safer, cleaner, and altogether more liveable city. It is clear that these areas should be given much greater priority in the future.

Over the last 25 years, even as car ownership and congestion has risen, local people have continued to demand better transport, with the Trust playing a significant part. There are two petitions live on the Council’s website at present relating to traffic on Lowes Barn Bank and Shincliffe. Will the Council continue to shrug its shoulders and do very little, or can the new joint administration drive through a change in approach? While central government has been somewhat chaotic of late, there is a renewed impetus in national policy towards sustainable transport. In his first Prime Minister’s Questions, Rishi Sunak was asked about safety for school children, and highlighted how local authorities can reduce speed limits and create school streets to restrict motor traffic at busy times. Durham County Council has started reducing speed limits round schools, but restricting access has not yet been tried.

When we look back in another twenty-five years, will we recognise this period as being the start of a dramatic improvement in how we travel around our city and county? Or will we regret the missed opportunities? Probably, like this review of the 1997 plan, it will be a bit of both.

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