When does a free for all become chaos?

By Andy Chivers

I had the pleasure of cycling along Marston Ferry Rd during rush hour recently, against the fantastic flow of children making their way to school. Whoever commissioned the central white line which was added a year or two ago was no doubt thinking of just this time. For me there are few more inspiring sights than a gaggle of children cycling together, perhaps four abreast, chatting nineteen to the dozen, only paying the minimum attention to the route and only reluctantly squashing up to give the oncoming cyclist room to pass. It’s the naturalness of their behaviour, the fact that the bike riding is no big deal, just the most efficient way to make the journey, which is so nice to see. 

Part of the freedom comes from being on a wide, purpose-built car-free bike path, and when cars do come into the mix at the entrance to the Swan and Cherwell schools, the driver behaves appropriately for the situation, only crossing when there is a gap in the flow of bike traffic. 

But does this free-for-all come at a price? Who loses? The cars on Marston Ferry Rd are often nose-to-tail at this time, so it would be even worse if more children were transported by car. People walking along the path have a narrow section to themselves so they are comparatively ok. Other cyclists are the ones that have to take avoiding action and can’t relax. Fundamentally however, everyone knows they should make way for oncoming cyclists and this happens – with the benefit of the white line. 

In some ways cycle paths are midway between the rule-based roads and the chaos of a pedestrian route. Shared spaces will always exist, and some work quite well: Frideswide Square, Catte St, New Inn Hall St are examples where cyclists generally adapt their speed for the conditions. One of the things pedestrians should enjoy is the freedom to stop, swerve or change direction with no hand signals, or regard for rules of the road.

This should be defended as a right. It contrasts with the road where in order to be safe and make progress, (almost) everyone follows rules and one driver can predict the behaviour of another. It reflects the danger that motorised vehicles present compared with the safety of humans walking. 

This contrast partly explains why bikes are difficult to fit into the existing road structure; cyclists don’t need all the rules of a highway but need more rules than the chaos of a pavement. It is essential for the health of this city that we encourage more people to cycle, reducing car journeys and thereby creating a more pleasant city for all. To do this means recognising that bikes don’t readily mix with either pedestrians or cars and – where possible – busy routes should have a separate bike path, as has been achieved (in the main) along the Access to Headington route from Cherwell Drive to Holloway.

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