High Traffic Neighbourhoods

Image: An example of the shortest recommended car journey between Kennington and Cheney School – via Divinity Road – a narrow residential street. A 2 minute time saving on using the Eastern By-Pass Rd. Map data ©2020 Google.

By Richard Fairhurst

Anyone who’s picked up a copy of the Oxford Mail in recent months will have seen the furore around Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. But can I introduce you to their little-known cousin, the High Traffic Neighbourhood?

A High Traffic Neighbourhood is one where drivers are directed off the A and B roads, and down small residential roads instead, to save a few seconds off their journey. They exist all over Oxford and the county. In fact, you might even live in one.

“Why wasn’t I consulted?” You’re right, you weren’t. No one was. Because High Traffic Neighbourhoods aren’t the doing of our much-maligned county and city councils. They were invented by Silicon Valley software engineers, whose route-planning algorithms choose the journeys so many of us make every day.

If I ask my phone for driving directions from (say) Summertown to Templars Square in Cowley, it offers me three routes. The one via the Ring Road is quite sensible. The other two, not so much. One sends me down Rectory Road, a narrow residential street dotted with traffic calming. Another, unbelievably, goes via Wharton Road and St Leonard’s Road in Headington, seemingly to save a few seconds at the traffic lights by Barclays.

No one asked the residents of Wharton Road what they thought of their road becoming a major thoroughfare. But it happened. You can date this shift to around 2013, when Silicon Valley engineers tweaked their algorithms.

Before then, route-planners would default to the biggest roads, typically A roads and B roads. Now, cleverly, they can tell how congested a road is by tracking drivers’ smartphones. If the phones are stationary, perhaps waiting at the Headington traffic lights, then the route-planner knows there’s a jam – and diverts drivers around it. If this means going down a residential street, that’s just collateral damage.

Traffic figures in London bear this out. In the last decade, traffic on minor roads, after years at the same level, has increased by over 50%. Traffic on major roads, meanwhile, has stayed static.

This is bad news for residents, and for cyclists too. Once, you could thread through Oxford on back streets, staying out of the way of heavy car traffic. This was particularly valuable for kids and other, less confident cyclists – remember your mum telling you “Don’t go near the main road”? Smartphones have changed that. Now, quiet streets, too, can be kid-hostile arteries for through traffic.

Which brings us back to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. Smartphones might be clever, but they can’t transport you through a bollard. By putting physical obstructions in the way of through traffic, the old status quo is restored. Cars making through journeys are returned to the main roads, leaving residents and cyclists to enjoy safety and peace on the back streets.

All that remains is for the County Council to send the bill for the bollards to Silicon Valley. I suspect the software engineers might say “bollards” to that.

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