The Forgotten Bike Paths of Oxfordshire

By Andy Chivers

We think of the 1930s as the bicycle heyday – car ownership was minimal, long-distance commuting was confined to train and bus, and employers provided mass bike parking facilities. Pictures of hordes of bike riders exiting Cowley Motor Works are emblematic of that time. What is less well known is that the Department for Transport was enthusiastic about bike use too and funded 500 miles of high-quality bike routes around the country. Impressively the requirement was 9-ft-wide cycleways on both sides of the road. Cycle historian, Carlton Reid, has found 280 miles of these routes still exist, often much better designed than current cycle infrastructure.

Oxfordshire has three surviving examples, of which the most obvious is along Marston Rd in Oxford where both sides have a wide segregated lane up to Harberton Mead where the road narrows. The other two are along the A40 in Wolvercote and the A34 in Kidlington. Carlton Reid has raised funds to plan upgrades for some of these forgotten routes, and the good news is that the Marston Road cycleway is on the ‘long list’ of possible schemes to take forward.  

As Cyclox and others have often said, a bike route is only as good as its weakest link, so to give people the confidence to start riding a bike across town these routes need joining up with other good friendly cycle tracks. Joining up these isolated sections would form a useful network. The A40 route continues to Barnard’s Gate and the Marston Road route links into town via Marston Meadow to South Parks Rd. The Kidlington cycleway is an isolated section, which is shared with pedestrians and ends abruptly, tipping riders unceremoniously into the road.

What do these routes tell us? To quote government adviser on active travel, Andrew Gilligan, ‘cycling is a serious mode of transport which is not taken seriously’. But in the 1930s it was taken seriously – these cycleways are wide and pleasant with good segregation, no street furniture or trees obstructing them. 

How can we rekindle that 1930s enthusiasm? Perhaps every road maintenance contract should be balanced with an equivalent improvement to existing cycle paths. Riders on the A40 cycle path are treated to a narrow mud-covered track, which hasn’t been maintained for years, so it is almost impossible for two bikes to pass each other; riding side by side is completely out of the question.

The Oxford-Cambridge Expressway has been abandoned, but the railway is still planned and could be accompanied by a Greenway that would encourage commuting along the route. Extending the Marston Rd route to Islip would start riders on their journey towards Bicester (an e-bike can extend the distance one can comfortably cycle quite dramatically). Although it could be improved, the historic Marston Road cycleway links with the Marston Ferry cycleway, serving journeys to the Swan and Cherwell school well.

The Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP) for Oxfordshire has got people thinking more radically about ‘active travel’. We need to build on that and take inspiration from the 1930s visionaries to make it easier and safer for people to cycle as a means of transport around the city and county.

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