Is Oxford better for cycling than we think?

Is Oxford better for cycling than we think?

By Andy Chivers

You don’t have to go far to see what other places have done for active travel. It is human nature to feel that your own hometown is full of examples of poor design and poor decisions while other places have been braver and more imaginative in making cycling and walking attractive. It is easy to look at pedestrianisation, public transport provision, road filters, cycle priority, safe cycle paths, diverting through traffic and see where Oxford could have done it better compared to other places. 

But we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn Oxfordshire’s policies. This county was an early enthusiast for pedestrianisation and has a good track record for keeping cars out of Oxford city centre. We tend to see the queues of cars in Longwall Street and forget the quiet Merton Lane or even the relative calm of the High St, Turl St, and other beneficiaries of a 30-year history of progressive policies. 

I was reminded of this when I cycled to Warwick, Lichfield and Coventry recently. Each of them have adopted different approaches to encouraging active travel, but in general the levels of car driving remain high. 

In Warwick, the market square was closed to motor traffic because the Mop Fair was on and the High St was full of nose-to-tail cars long into the night with few cycle tracks.

Coventry has a largely pedestrianised centre, creating an interesting environment with fountains and statues and open spaces. But the cost comes in the form of an elevated inner ring road which encloses perhaps 1 sq km including the cathedral and the local museums. There are underpasses and bridges but there is no escaping the noise and fumes. Further out is another ring road and while there are pedestrian and cycle bridges, on the day I cycled out of Coventry at least one bridge was closed and left an impossible dilemma for as I tried to cross a multi lane roundabout to get to a safe road. 

Lichfield has an extensive pedestrianised area and seems to have avoided the worst excess of car parking. The one-way system allows cyclists to feel safer, but they haven’t made use of cycle contraflow as Oxford has and like Queen St and Cornmarket, pedestrianised areas are no-go for bikes. 

Having said that, a little step forward this month was the approval of commercial cargo bike access to Queen St during the day, a recognition of the unique and vital role they will increasingly play in keeping the city supplied. 

So should walkers and cyclists be thankful for such examples of progress? The answer is ‘Yes, but… there is more to be done.’ The world moves on. It is unfortunate that some car drivers feel there is a war against them, though it is true that for several reasons we all need to drive less. At a national level, politicians need to be more explicit about this. Generally our local councillors are open about the need to get people out of cars but is difficult to introduce changes to transport policy which everyone is happy with. A vocal minority can be very persuasive as we have seen with the low traffic neighbourhoods

Perhaps the first step is defining what we want Oxford to look like in 10 years’ time, then work out the steps to getting there. Petrol and diesel engines will be mainly heirlooms, city centre journeys will be by foot, cycle, scooter or small electric shuttle bus. Deliveries will be by e-cargo bike from a local distribution centre. Buses will be the choice for longer journeys and might be free as in some European cities. On-street car parks will be pedestrian spaces and multi storey car parks replaced with flats. The city will enjoy the sound of people rather than cars and businesses will be thriving in a new liveable world.


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