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.

Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan

Last week Durham County Council’s cabinet formally adopted a Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan for Durham City. The aim of an LCWIP is to identify the core walking and cycling networks to be developed or improved. Having an LCWIP in place makes it easier to bid for central government funding.

Two trustees were among those invited to a stakeholder session in January 2020, when the plan was under development, and is good to see that the consultants took some of our comments on board in the final plan. It is also welcome that County Council has secured Department for Transport (DfT) funding for preparing LCWIPs for a further nine towns.

The Trust has concerns about some of the details of the plan, but also, more generally, about how the plan will be applied and whether the various Council departments will be able to work together to make the most of the opportunities to invest in walking and cycling. We intend to submit a formal response to the Council, but would be very glad to consider comments from members before the final response is prepared.

The broader concerns fall under the following headings

  • the delivery of network improvements beyond the LCWIP area
  • reliance on shared use facilities for walking and cycling
  • delivery of the priority routes, particularly the handing of changes to Church Street
  • ensuring that planning officers give sufficient weight to sustainable transport
  • co-ordination of road renewal and other highways works with walking and cycling improvements

Comments on proposed cycle network

Within the confines of the identified area, the proposed network is reasonably comprehensive, but there are some changes that the Trust hopes can be incorporated.

The alignment of the Northern Relief Road, which was rejected by the Inspector at the Examination in Public of the County Plan should be deleted from the network map, and replaced with a route crossing the Belmont Viaduct.

There are no connections shown to the west of the A167 at Stonebridge, despite this falling within the LCWIP area. Neville’s Cross Bank and Lowes Barn Bank are both important connecting routes which should be added.

Comments on proposed walking network

The rationale behind the walking network map is less clear. It seems to be very much focussed on the city centre, so walking routes to the shops and employment areas in Framwellgate Moor and Newton Hall are absent, as are any routes east of the A1(M), for example to the Belmont Industrial Estate. A secondary route through Flass Vale, emerging on the A167 close to Durham Johnston School has been identified, but Redhills Lane and the A167 itself, both of which are heavily used by pupils at that school, do not feature on the map. The access road on the north side of Aykley Heads is another surprising omission.

While the purpose of an LCWIP is primarily concerned with everyday journeys, in the context of the city’s heritage the significant former pilgrim routes make an important contribution to the physical structure of the city. Local people and those visiting the city use them for access from within and beyond the LCWIP area. As well as identifying more of these routes on the walking network map, the relationship between the LCWIP and the Rights of Way Improvement Plan (ROWIP) could be better articulated.

The overview of priority walking interventions in Table 5-1 seems to largely repeat Table 4-1 which covers priority cycling interventions. Some of the proposals in Table 5-1 are even on routes which are not shown on the pedestrian network map. A “shared use path on Broomside Lane” could arguably worsen the walking environment.

The Trust would urge the Council to avoid wherever possible further designation of urban footways as shared use paths. These are strongly discouraged by the LTN 1/20 guidance. It is likely that e-scooters will be legalised, and that e-bikes will become more prevalent, matching take-up in other European countries. Safe space separate from motor traffic which does not conflict with pedestrians will be crucial to the successful take-up of these new options.

Shared use may be appropriate on routes with low pedestrian footfall, but the routes in Table 5-1, identified as the priority for investment, are surely not in this category. Short stretches of shared use provision may be necessary if there is no other way provide safe cycling access, but reallocation of carriageway space and reduction in motor traffic volumes should be resorted to in preference.

Many current issues for pedestrians around the city are in the details of provision, such as narrow pavements and poor crossing facilities. A more balanced priority list might have included remedial work at a number of such locations rather than concentrating on a single route. The Durham City Neighbourhood Plan Working Group produced a paper on walking and cycling issues which included such details. While this previous work only covers part of the LCWIP area, it might serve as a starting point for the creation of a database of pedestrian issues throughout the LCWIP area. Such a database would have a number of uses:

  • making it easier to identify improvement schemes which could be delivered as low-cost add-ons to regular renewal works such as resurfacing
  • assisting planning officers in identifying opportunities for funding from planning applications, both at the pre-application stage and when determining applications
  • providing evidence of the need for improvement to counter over-optimistic transport assessments submitted by developers

LCWIP area

DfT guidance suggests that cycling can replace car journeys of up to 10km. It is unfortunate that the LCWIP area was so tightly defined, as it omits significant residential and employment areas which are well within this radius, such as

  • Brandon
  • Meadowfield
  • Ushaw Moor
  • Bearpark
  • Sherburn
  • High Shincliffe

One of the key journey generators, Durham Johnston School, is on the very boundary of the LCWIP area. Part of the County Plan housing allocation at Sniperley lies outside the LCWIP boundary.

Can a light-touch revision of the LCWIP be carried out within a couple of years, to expand the scope formally to include these areas? If these areas are not included, will it make it harder to obtain funding from developers and the DfT?

Delivery of priority routes

Walking and cycling routes from South Road via Church Street and New Elvet to Gilesgate and Broomside Lane have been prioritised for investment in the plan, partly because of the high student flows on this axis. The ideas for Church Street include a 20mph limit, pavement widening, and removal of some car parking. The removal of parking spaces could be very contentious. The Trust is also sceptical that a 20mph zone will have any effect without active enforcement and a reduction in traffic volumes. Cycling participation is unlikely to be increased without protected space.

It is clear from the concerns about removing parking spaces that the current situation is unsatisfactory, and that better management of spaces is needed. Perhaps short-stay car parking spaces could help to serve the businesses on Church Street, as well as helping social care providers visiting residents. The longer-stay parking needs to be examined. It is likely that a proportion is being used by students travelling relatively short distances to the university. Working with the university to reinforce the university’s travel plan and reduce the use of cars by students would be beneficial. The DfT’s statutory guidance to highway authorities published in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to recommend reallocation of road space to walking and cycling, including “school streets”, restricting motor traffic at pick-up and drop-off times during term.

Given all the competing demands, the Trust would like the future of Church Street, Hallgarth Street and Whinney Hill to be considered together holistically. Bringing in urban design expertise and proper engagement with stakeholders would help achieve a better balance.

The LCWIP and planning applications

While the LCWIP is vital for bidding for central government funding, it also has a role in obtaining contributions from developers, being referenced in County Durham Plan Policy 21. The Trust is concerned that the needs for sustainable transport improvements are not currently given sufficient weight by officers when assessing planning applications. The conditions on approval of the housing development at Bent House Lane, for example, involved contributions towards work on five road junctions. Cycling and walking improvements were not the impetus behind the proposals: the emphasis was entirely on accommodating additional motor traffic from the development. The developer had, in fact, offered Section 106 money towards bus, walking and cycling schemes mentioned in the Durham City Sustainable Transport Delivery Plan, but this was not taken up by the planning officer.

Highway authority comments on planning applications are often concerned solely with accommodating motor traffic. The council has a statutory duty to secure “the expeditious movement of traffic on the authority’s road network”, but the Act specifically states that “traffic” includes pedestrians. The duty is qualified by a requirement that the authority also have regard to their other obligations, policies and objectives. Relevant here are the council’s Strategic Cycling and Walking Delivery Plan, the Durham City Sustainable Transport Delivery Plan, and the need to improve air quality and enable the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Trust would therefore like to see far greater weight given by planning officers to the delivery of sustainable transport.

Value for money

The LCWIP seems to be relatively pessimistic about how long it will take to deliver the walking and cycling networks to the appropriate standard. Where funding is scarce the Council needs to make sure that every opportunity is taken to make improvements in the course of carrying out other work. The LCWIP proposes stepped cycle paths on New Elvet and changes to arrangements at the traffic lights both at the top and bottom of that street. This street has recently been resurfaced, with new road markings, traffic islands and lights being installed matching exactly what was there before. Why were the cycle lanes not constructed at the same time?

There have also been resurfacing works on Church Street, the A690 near Sutton Street, and the A690 at the top of Crossgate Peth in the last two years. In each of these locations widening the pavements, realigning kerbs, or better crossing facilities could have been carried out.

We would like to see the Council consult with local groups and parish councils well ahead of any programmed resurfacing work, to ensure that walking and cycling improvements are identified and can be delivered more cost-effectively.

There is also scope for cheaper interventions, such as modal filtering or partial road closures, in some parts of the city. The Trust would like to see the LCWIP developed to cover such ideas. There is a need for a much greater pace of change in order to support the levels of modal shift which are now required in the face of the climate emergency.

Confused messages

Seen on the hoardings around the new DCC HQ car park.