Tolls, speed limits and biker bans: What can be done about traffic issues in the Yorkshire Dales?

You could almost feel the shudders of the Yorkshire Post reader who wrote of 'motorbike mayhem' near his idyllic home in the Dales during the warm May weather.
Large groups of bikers gather in Hawes on a warm weekend in MayLarge groups of bikers gather in Hawes on a warm weekend in May
Large groups of bikers gather in Hawes on a warm weekend in May

Stainforth resident John Laker was moved to send a letter to the editor after the 'peace and tranquility' of lockdown in the National Park was rudely shattered on the Bank Holiday weekend, when visitors descended en masse.

"After experiencing absolute bliss, peace, quiet, tranquility and appreciation of the beautiful Dales during the recent restrictions, it came as a shock when, suddenly, excessive motorbikes and car noise descended onto our roads at Stainforth.

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"Throughout the week we have had speeding lorries, pollution and dust whilst out walking on our local paths. Then, as soon as the sunshine appears, it’s motorbike mayhem, speeding along the Settle to Hawes road. Something radical has to be done."

His concerns were echoed by those who attended a meeting of the National Park's Local Access Forum to complain about noise pollution caused by large groups with motorcyclists, some of whom have fitted illegal exhausts to their bikes.

They even called for traffic-free Sundays when cars and bikes are banned completely from the National Park.

Busiest the Dales have ever been

The lockdown, of course, has showcased just how peaceful the Dales can be when they are enjoyed only by walkers, cyclists and horse riders, and cars, lorries and motorbikes are few and far between.

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In late May, when restrictions were eased, the National Park's car parks were full on weekends and there were issues with illegal parking in popular areas such as Burnsall and Grassington as groups from the cities arrived to picnic, drink and barbecue. Many said they had never seen the Dales so busy.

Solutions have been proposed by those living and working in the Dales, from 40mph speed limits to complete bans on motorbikes and tolls for vehicles entering the National Park.

While these measures sound laudable and would improve quality of life, they also raise issues surrounding the accessibility of National Parks and the principles on which they were founded.

Access for all

The majority of Britain's 14 National Parks were designated in the immediate post-war period, as a result of long-term discontent over access to the countryside. Demonstrations such as the Kinder Scout mass trespass in what is now the Peak District showed the strength of public feeling on the issue. Living conditions in cities were still cramped and insanitary in the 1930s and 40s, and there was a yearning to be able to enjoy open spaces.

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Although National Parks were selected for their ecological and heritage value, they were also, for the most part, reasonably close to major urban centres from which people could travel to visit them. In the Dales, the obvious catchment is Leeds and Bradford; the Peak District tends to attract people from Sheffield and Manchester, and the cities of the north-west look towards the Lake District. And in an era when car ownership was rising, the obvious way to draw these visitors in was to ensure road access was good and parking provision ample. The rail closures of the 1960s often affected branch lines serving National Parks, so vehicle dependency grew.

So, reducing the number of vehicles allowed into the Yorkshire Dales, or charging drivers, would also undermine the principle of access for all, as well as the National Park Authority's policies to increase the appeal of the countryside to those from a more diverse range of backgrounds. With few rail or bus links into the most popular areas of the Park, tourism businesses would suffer and visitor numbers would drop.

Nuisance bikers

It's a dilemma that the National Park Aurthority's recreation management champion, Nick Cotton, is all too aware of.

"It's not within the National Park's jurisdiction to impose measures such as road closures and tolls.

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"I think the problem is that during the lockdown, we could hear the birds singing again, the air was cleaner and fresher and we maybe became more sensitised to noise. Then the bikers came back - there are probably no more than there normally are during good weather.

"Many of them have quiet touring bikes but some are very noisy. You can be well up into the fells, literally at the top of a mountain, and still hear them down below. Some of them travel very fast and people are understandably worried.

"The people who choose to fit these noisy bikes are very selfish and they stop people enjoying the countryside."

Nick points out that police do enforce the law and are able to pull over bikers and measure the decibel levels of their exhausts, and believes a reduction in the speed limit is the only realistic course of action.

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"They do circuits on certain roads, like Kirkby Lonsdale - Sedbergh - Hawes - Ingleton. We are very aware of them at weekends. I think it feels worse after eight weeks in lockdown, when everywhere was so quiet and traffic-free. It's a shock going from nothing to full-on again.

"I think if the limit on the A roads was reduced to 50mph it would mean the bikers wouldn't be able to reach the same speeds.

"There has certainly been a huge amount of talk about the issue recently."

Nick also believes that first-time visitors to the National Park were responsible for problems with parking and littering.

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"It was the perfect storm really, the weather was good and nowhere else was open. Devil's Bridge was packed - it was like Blackpool beach, I've never seen it like that before. Remote spots were just heaving with traffic. I think when more places are open and there are more things to do in cities and towns, there will be less pressure on the Dales.

"We want visitors but we don't want them behaving inconsiderately. It would be unrealistic to ban bikes, and with tolls there would always be people looking for ways to break the rules. We do sometimes have road closures for cycle sportives, so maybe we could find a way of creating circuits that are free of traffic more often.

"At the end of the day, visitors want to go somewhere, park, have a walk and drive back home again. With bikers, there is a more of a tendency to just drive around for the sake of it. During lockdown, we have had a very different sort of visitor - younger and from the cities. It's quite refreshing but when you have people who would rather be in the pub, they will light barbecues and sit and booze at the riverside. We collected 30 bags of litter from Devil's Bridge and found nappies there - these new visitors need to respect the countryside if they are going to return."

Support from tourism businesses

The owners of businesses that depend on tourism would also be cautious about the 'radical' solutions that could deter visitors rather than encourage them, yet recent incidents suggest that many would actually support more restrictive measures.

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Dales-based tourism consultant Susan Briggs said: "The majority of our visitors come to the Yorkshire Dales to enjoy its beauty, wildlife and tranquillity, aspects which are also important to residents and businesses. Dales tourism businesses are keen to welcome visitors when the time is right who share their enjoyment of the Dales calm beauty.

"Many are in support of measures to reduce road speeds, particularly on more dangerous routes. There’s also an established need to encourage considerate parking, to keep access to villages open for all, especially for emergency and farm vehicles. The police have recently been monitoring motorbike speeds and the use of illegal exhausts. Some residents and businesses go as far as supporting vehicle-free days, after seeing the positive impact of less traffic on wildlife and the tranquillity of the Yorkshire Dales."

What could happen next?

For now, very little. Although some National Parks are beginning to trial car-free days, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority officers do not believe the immediate period after lockdown, when tourism businesses are desperate for income, is the right time to launch such measures.

They would also have to be implemented by North Yorkshire County Council's highways authority rather than through the National Park management.

None of the measures recently suggested by residents are under formal consideration..