New problems for a historic city: air quality in York

The historic city of York has successfully implemented an overarching low-emission strategy based on intelligence of the local area to improve air quality.  


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City of York Council has been aware of local air pollution issues for around 20 years and, from 2002, declared three air quality management areas (AQMAs) to deal with elevated concentrations. 

The first AQMA identified was the village of Fulford just to the south of the city centre, which is on the main commuter route from Leeds and Selby into York. The next AQMA chosen was Salisbury Terrace, another commuter route to the west of the city centre, made up of narrow Victorian streets where pollution from large numbers of buses is trapped as they make their way through the terraced streets. 

The third AQMA is in the centre of York and one of the areas with the worst air quality is Rougier Street, which is south of the River Ouse and acts as an unofficial bus interchange. In 2012 nitrogen dioxide concentrations exceeded 60 micrograms per cubic metre, significantly above the health based objective of 40 micrograms. 

Why is air pollution such an issue in York? The area has long been a desirable place to live but redevelopment of the former industrial areas introduced more vehicles and more pollution. 

Air quality in York is also adversely affected by the city’s historical heritage. With streets dating from Roman, through the Medieval period and then into the Georgian and Victorian eras, much of the city centre is a conservation area with narrow streets  limiting how traffic can move around and what mitigation measures can be put in place. The narrow streets also mean that buildings trap the pollutants in “street canyons”.   

Alongside the AQMAs, City of York Council first introduced air quality plans in 2004 and 2006. However, the city’s air quality continued to deteriorate despite the closure of traditional industries associated with chocolate making and the railways. 

A more radical approach was needed. In 2012 York Council devised an overarching low-emission strategy that not only looked at transport, energy and planning but also considered procurement and the way people lived in the city. 

EHPs started by finding the source of the problem. They discovered that while buses only make up only about 3% of local traffic they were responsible for about third of the pollution. HGVs were being replaced more frequently so were less of a problem, while cars were contributing a relatively small amount of pollution compared to commercial diesel vehicles. 

It was therefore decided that different strategies were needed for different types of vehicles: a blanket ban on polluting buses was not practical so it was important to calculate which were causing the most pollution overall. 

A matrix was drawn up and buses were placed in different categories depending upon how frequently they passed through the city centre. The council also worked with the bus operators targeting the most polluting vehicles in real terms. 

And York’s consideration of a Clean Air Zone, to be introduced from 2019, subject to economic impact and health impact assessments, will be unique compared to the other mandated Defra schemes as it will only apply to buses, it will essentially be self-policing, and it will address the frequency of a bus journeys. 

The council prides itself in the way it has worked with the bus companies through the green transition and how it has helped firms to access funding to help with the financing. Buses from the east coast thorough York and on to Leeds have already been upgraded to Euro 6 diesel. Electric buses are being used on the western route into town and also the route to the north east servicing a new retail park, which was agreed following discussions between the council and bus operators. 

And a couple of years ago, with money from the Department for Transport’s Clean Bus Technology Fund, York embarked on what is thought to be the world’s first electric retrofit of a 15-year old double decker. The success of the initial project has meant the city’s sightseeing buses are currently  in the process of being converted, eventually saving the bus operator around £20,000 a year operating costs per bus, while cutting emissions by 535kg of nitrous oxides for each vehicle. 

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HGVs required a different approach. York signed up to the ECO Stars Fleet Recognition Scheme originally set up in South Yorkshire in 2009 by four neighbouring local councils. The scheme is free to haulers and enables consultants to work with fleet operators to increase fuel efficiency, cut emissions and improve logistics while providing telematics, or data fed back to a central point on the efficiency of a specific vehicle.  

About three years ago, York introduced financial incentives to encourage taxi drivers to switch their cars to low emission vehicles. More recently, the council implemented a new taxi licensing scheme requiring any new or upgraded taxi must be either ultra-low emission, Euro 4 petrol or Euro 6 diesel. The city’s taxi fleet has gone from zero compliance to 13 per cent with a significant increase expected now the new rules have come into force. Also, council employees are encouraged to use a low emission car club when on council business while the same cars are hired out to the public at night.  

As for domestic vehicles, York created the infrastructure for the local community to convert to electric cars and uses grants and the planning process to fund it. For example, any major new development is required to install electric charging points and developers that build properties with a garage must also provide a charging point for each household. 

The Council’s expertise and experience in improving air quality in York’s means they are now able to provide advice  and consultancy service for other local authorities facing similar challenges, such as monitoring, and helping with Annual Status Reports and  Air Quality Action Plans. 

Mike Southcombe, Public Protection Manager for City of York Council, has worked on air quality solutions in York for 17 years and said that making improvements in this area requires a set of policies that reduce all emissions but target the sources that have the greatest impact on pollution. 

“We are seeing significant improvements across the city in general,” said Mike Southcombe. “So much so that, aside from the odd blip, we are at the point where our report to the council’s executive member in August will recommend that we revoke one of our air quality management areas while keeping a second under review for another 12 months. 

“But the hard work doesn’t stop there and we will use national clean air day to focus on cars that idle. We’re planning to visit schools, hospitals and other locations where vulnerable people tend to be to remind drivers that if they are waiting, then they should turn their engines off for the benefit of the environment and people’s health.” 


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