York is a tourist magnet, as anyone who’s tried pushing their bike along Coney St on a summer weekend knows. According to MakeItYork, a private company promoting the city as a visitor destination, each year we get 8.4m guests who spend £765m, and support 24,400 jobs.
Their website is full of such bravo facts, but on active travel it’s less forthcoming. Cycling? Walking? Wheelchair users? Joggers? Nada.
Well, we think that with Active Travel England coming to York in July 2022 – a new government body said to have powers ensuring councils countrywide are enabling people to get round for work and play without needing a motor vehicle – it’s time MakeItYork, and everyone else, paid more attention to the car-free side of York tourism.
There’s no more space to park. And why not enjoy the place without exhaust fumes, strolling and cycling our traffic-free paths, seeing the city from a more pleasant angle, maybe getting off the beaten track…?
A few small companies are ahead of the curve. This morning (Friday 29 April 2022) I tagged along with York Cycling Tours, which has been guiding visitors gently, sustainably and humorously round the city on bikes since 2014.
Along with guide and company co-founder Cecil Pugh were Fraz and Olga, lively and good-humoured young professionals over on a day trip from Manchester. They’re occasional cyclists, but always find it the best way to ‘do’ a city.
‘It’s just so efficient and, well, fun,’ says Fraz. ‘In two or three hours you can see so much more than walking round.’
He booked today as a birthday surprise for Olga. After the bike leg, they’ll stroll the pedestrianised centre and go for a meal before their train back. From our point of view, they sound ideal visitors: spending a few quid with good humour, taking nothing but photos, leaving nothing but smiles.
Cecil’s a genial host and gets them laughing from the off in the car park of Gillygate pub, where Fraz and Olga pick up their bikes. The first section along notoriously cramped Gillygate is cumbersome, but we’re soon enjoying the tranquillity and grace of the Minster, the splendid view of the walls and spires from the war memorial, Micklegate, Bishophill, Blue Bridge and their stories, and so on.
‘We’ve had people from over 60 different countries across the world, and the majority have taken cycle tours in other cities,’ says Cecil. ‘Many of our customers do not want to go on a bus tour as it can be quite limited and impersonal. Taking a cycle tour enables our customers to see so much more of our beautiful city than they would be able to on a bus, boat or walking tour. They also get the opportunity to interact with me, ask questions and enjoy a much more personalised experience.’
Last year was York Cycling Tours’ busiest year ever, says Cecil. ‘No foreign tourists, but lots of British and Irish customers desperate to do something outside in a Covid-safe environment. What better thing to do than be out and about around our beautiful city on a bike? This year has already seen the start of the return of some customers from abroad. The Dutch are on holidays at the moment and I have had a number of Dutch customers this week.’
Cecil – a former fire fighter – has travelled a fair bit and knows the good and bad sides of York as a place to cycle. He’s familiar with the Netherlands, of course. ‘I am always envious of their cycling mentality and the infrastructure they have in place.
‘When I first came to York 37 years ago I was very impressed by our facilities and the number of people cycling in the City. It used to be quite a sight seeing hundreds of workers leaving the carriageworks on Holgate Road on bikes.
‘Sadly things do not appear to have moved on as quickly as I would have liked. York could be such a much better cycling city than it currently is.
‘I will continue to do my little bit by welcoming customers from across the globe and encouraging them to get back on their bikes.’ says Cecil.
Cecil’s job is one of the 24,400 that MakeItYork reckon are supported by tourism. But we believe there could be many, many more.
By improving York’s cycling infrastructure – or at least, stopping the decline – and promoting the undoubted benefits for non-motor visitors we already have, we could make our city a go-to destination for active breaks.
That would bring in more money, support more livelihoods – and yet make York an even more sociable, pleasant place to move around.
Here’s to York, not only as a base for Active Travel England, but also as a base for active travel for England.
With thanks to campaign member Rob Ainsley for writing this blog post for us.