York looks set to be home to one of the biggest fleets of double decker electric buses outside London. Could your local authority take inspiration from York's long-term efforts to cut harmful exhaust emissions?

22 Oct 2019


York, once the Vikings’ capital of England, is a constant innovator. It was named best cycling city (2008-11), best for buses (2015) and best place to live (2018 Sunday Times). Now it is soon to become the only UK city which is committed to a clean air zone that has not been forced to do so by direction from the government.

City of York councillors approved a Low Emission Strategy in 2012 to improve air quality because they were aware of the detrimental impact of poor air quality. In March 2019 York became one of over 100 councils to declare a Climate Emergency, with the intention to reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2030.

The decision to introduce a Clean Air Zone for all frequent bus services entering the city was confirmed in January 2019, with a grace period during 2020 for operators to complete the transition to the new fleet. This enabled bus operators to continue using some existing vehicles, even if they did not meet the Clean Air Zone standards, so long as they could prove that they are being replaced or upgraded.

To help smaller operators the council secured some government funding to invest £1.6 million in upgrading or retro-fitting buses.

Green pastures

Deputy Leader of the council is Cllr Andy D’Agorne, who has represented the Fishergate ward since 2003. He is one of the four Green councillors in the new Liberal Democrats/ Green alliance which has formed the joint administration since the May 2019 local authority elections. Friends of the Earth spoke with Cllr D’Agorne just days after he had taken on the role of Executive Member of Transport. “I’ve lived here since York was first declared an air quality management area in 2002, so I've followed the history closely. As an authority York has done a lot, as we have had an Air Quality low emissions strategy since 2012, together with a whole series of actions around lowering emissions. We are top of the list of authorities that know what the issue is and were complimented on our action plan and reporting by the national government” says Cllr D’Agorne who is a regular cyclist, but also often uses York’s buses.

York’s Park & Ride was one of the first in the country and as Cllr D’Agorne points out, “It’s still the only one that operates entirely on a commercial basis with no subsidy from the council. Companies have to tender to win the contract, as First York have successfully done most recently in 2016.”

For most cities Clean Air Zones are mandatory, but York’s compact road network has meant it was not included in this list. As a result, York now has Britain’s first voluntary Clean Air Zone.

Council officers felt the councillors were very supportive, but Cllr D’Agorne points out that successful funding was key to this positivity. “The Park & Ride contract was for seven years from 2009. In the run up to awarding the new contract, the council officers were reluctant to specify Electric Vehicles (EVs) because they thought we might not get a bid. So when it went out to tender to the bus companies, there was a challenge to be ambitious in the specification. The council can’t expect to require commercial operators to meet low emission standards if we are not prepared to specify that in our own contracts,” he says.

In the end there was only one bid, deemed to be insufficient, so the route was re-tendered. “This did delay the process, but at the end of that the tender was for ultra-low emission buses, which ties into York’s Clean Air Zone. This meant that any bus service that comes into the centre more than five times a day from 2020 will have to be either the minimum standard of "Euro 6" (basically newer buses although they do still have emissions) or electric buses,” explains Cllr D’Agorne.

Council officers helped secure the funding from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV), Department for Transport and DEFRA, finding it through a mix of information from the departments, investigation online and other organisations promoting air quality initiatives. Sustainable Transport Manager Andrew Bradley says: “A combination of officers completed the forms – largely Low Emissions Officer Derek McCreadie, who had expertise in EVs, although in some cases I took a lead and most recently, Andy Gillah, from the Air Quality team, submitted a bid to DEFRA for the bus exhaust retro-fits.”

Success means that York looks set to be home to one of the biggest fleets of double decker electric buses outside London (326 low emission buses costing £22 million plus infrastructure of £7 million). In October 2019 21 new zero-emission electric buses – built locally by the company Optare in Yorkshire – are arriving after a successful bid for funding secured from OLEV.

Each electric double decker bus fits 99 passengers and takes 75 cars off York’s streets. Trials have found that they have a range of 150 miles after just one overnight charge. And it turns out that the new fleet of buses use significantly less power than older EVs, so they won’t need their own charge point at the Park & Ride termini.

Optare’s Commercial Director, Robert Drewery, shed light on the development of the vehicle: "In 2014, our electric single deck Versas began operation on the city’s Park & Ride service. We have built on five years of valuable EV experience in York to develop our product range. In 2017, Optare partnered with First and City of York Council in launching our prototype electric double deck into service. The lessons learned during the trial have been fundamental in shaping the design of the Metrodecker EV, the world’s first truly zero emissions double deck bus. Optare is particularly proud that our vehicle, designed and manufactured in Yorkshire, will be at the centre of continued air quality improvements in York."

Cllr D’Agorne considers the Clean Air Zone as a solution to tackling air pollution. But it also fits into the vision, and targets, York council has produced to tackle climate change. To ensure progress the council now has a cross-party climate change group led by Cllr Christian Vassie. This will build on Climate Change Action Plan 2010-13 and the Climate Change Framework 2010-15.

How does it work?

The absolute centre of York is the sort of place where it’s good to amble, in part because it has one of the largest pedestrian zones in Europe. On foot it is easy to explore the cobbled Shambles, pop into an outdoor food stall in the market square, meander up close to the honey-coloured stone of the massive Medieval Minster and enjoy a huge variety of opportunities to shop or visit the many small independent businesses – all accompanied by the gentle rhythm of footsteps. Slow travel might be exactly what you want if you are one of the 7 million tourists that visit York each year, but sometimes York residents – around 200,000 live in the city – and its visitors need different ways to get around. And that’s where the Park & Ride comes into its element.

Surrounding the city there are already six Park & Rides (which also have secure cycle parking/lockers). These were created through a partnership between City of York council and bus operator First York. They are well used – with around 4 million journeys made a year. At the Park & Ride sites buses set off every 10 minutes, seven days a week and are gradually offering later evening services which is good for the city’s night life. “The price difference is massive,” adds Cllr D’Agorne. “If people are parked in York it could cost £10-12 for a day, but the Park & Ride is £3.20 per person return.”

Buses already have wifi, but before the 2020 launch First York is also upgrading its charging infrastructure, and the state-of-the-art electric buses will also feature audio visual next stop technology, USB charging points and new-look Park & Ride branding.

New concept: hyper hubs

The council owns all but one of the Park & Ride sites, so there’s an opportunity to enable citizens who own EVs to charge while they are parked. So far Monks Cross, Poppleton Bar and York Hospital have been selected to be Hyper Hubs where EVs can charge up in a half hour burst using energy from newly built photovoltaic (PV) sun canopies and battery storage. “York will deliver four 150kw rapid chargers at three locations enabling eight vehicles to charge concurrently at each location,” explains Andrew Bradley, York council's Sustainable Transport Manager. “Dwell times at the charging points will be limited and the Hyper Hub areas will be accessed through a separate entrance than the Park & Ride sites to prevent any confusion amongst users.” Funding the PV canopies and battery storage was secured through OLEV, complemented with additional funding from the European Structural Infrastructure Fund.

Knock on benefits

Cllr D’Agorne is enthusiastic about the way EV users will benefit from the hyper hubs: “As battery technology develops, quicker charging is an option and battery storage will ensure that when the sun is not shining there’s still power. This will be a rapid charge. It’s quite different to the trickle charge people use overnight when they are parked at their house, which might need eight hours to fully charge. These will only need to be parked for half an hour or so – effectively like a petrol station.”

Cllr Andrew Waller, who was the Environment portfolio lead while the bid was first put together, points out the importance of working in partnership with bus company First York to promote sustainable transport as a whole.

These type of partnerships also offer a source of potential new income for the council. In the future, income-generating ideas for the edge-of-town Park & Ride sites might even see super-efficient, compact housing built on stilts over car parks.

Here and now

More pragmatically Cllr D’Agorne says that York’s vision has led to several bus operators upgrading their buses to "Euro 6" standards, although he admits: “they have another incentive, as they operate into Leeds as well as York, which will be a mandatory Clean Air Zone from 2020.” It is possible that if York had not been so pro-active setting up a Clean Air Zone some bus companies might have migrated their older dirtier vehicles to the York routes, which would have had a detrimental impact on the city’s urgent need to tackle air pollution in the city.

According to Andrew Bradley (whose new role encompasses metropolitan West Yorkshire), the main concerns from the public were resolved by meetings. “When we first introduced electric buses in 2014, we had a session with members of My Sight York (formally known as the York Blind & Partially Sighted Society) who initially voiced some road safety concerns about the quietness of the vehicles – both as a pedestrian and as a prospective bus passenger.”

An unexpected plus for bringing in an EV fleet is dealing with stationary buses running their engines. “We’ve had quite a lot of issues about buses idling at bus stops and electric buses solves the problem,” says Cllr D’Agorne. “There was quite a lot of resistance from operators because of issues about the vehicle misting up, and all sorts of reasons why they wanted to keep the engine on. Electric buses are a win-win from that point of view. Just the other day the bus I was getting on was sat with the engine running. The driver said if he turned the engine off the bus goes into darkness and no one will know where I’m going! But the new electric buses for the Park & Ride is different. It has a retro looking display which rolls down to show the destination – the old ideas can still be the best sometimes…”

It’s clear that in this super-visited city the electric buses and improved Park & Ride are being hotly anticipated by the councillors who’ve had some hand in the process. Not only will it be making the city cleaner, it will help to boost the image of public transport, tackle congestion and be one small step towards the climate emergency target of zero fossil fuel emissions. The efforts of York City Council are an important step to pave way for other local authorities to make buses an increasingly sustainable form of transport for all.