The Oxford ‘Cycling City’ Signs
By Jake Backus
Every so often someone complains, quotes or holds up the Oxford ‘Cycling City’ signs as if they are a declaration of an achievement, some sort of fake news and an unsubstantiated affirmation. Oxford is clearly not a nirvana for people to cycle, so why make the claim? This is true, but it would be a misunderstanding of the purpose and intent of the signs.
The signs and declaration have multiple objectives, the first being around safety––that people driving into Oxford city should look out for cyclists––’this is a cycling city’ or at least a city where a lot of people are on bikes. It implies that vehicle drivers don’t have a greater right to the road (so no need to shout to people cycling out of the window to ‘get off of the road’ because they don’t pay ‘road tax’, which hasn’t existed since 1937). A human is a human and ownership of a bigger vehicle doesn’t make you more human and, although some people behave badly on a bike, bad behaviour in a motor vehicle is more dangerous and therefore comes with additional obligations to be careful (which is why we have the Highway Code).
Oxford residents want to feel safe to cycle (as do students and visitors) and to feel that everyone has the option to do it, regardless of wealth and social class, and regardless of whether they also own a car, or not. You only have to see children making their way to school by bicycle on some of our ‘shared road space’ and yo feel great anxiety for their safety. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The second intention is that all new developments within the city should now be challenged as to whether they are commensurate with Oxford being a cycling city. It would be hypocrisy to allow something to go ahead if it were to make cycling in the city worse. ‘Cycling City’ is now a standard which needs to be met; a standard that focuses on humanising our city and considers health, wellbeing and the environment alongside other considerations such as the economy.
After all, Oxford is the 2nd highest city in the UK for journeys to work and school by bicycle (17%), but there is a long way to go to reach Cambridge (at about 29%), or our twinned city Leiden (upwards of 70%).
While we wait for funding to improve the infrastructure, there is a second important element, which is behavioural; the suggestion to try cycling, especially if you are stuck in slow moving traffic being sedentary and anxious, and the concept that all users of the roads, whether cyclists or drivers should be considerate towards each other. Both have an equal right to use the roads and there are no extra rights conferred to people driving heavy machines, electric or otherwise.
The first city in the UK to be declared a ‘Cycling City’ was Bristol and South Gloucestershire in 2008, which has since helped them to secure additional funding for infrastructure development for the benefit of everyone. The Bristol Cycling City project’s aim is to double the number of cyclists in the Greater Bristol area via the implementation of safe, continuous, attractive, comfortable and coherent routes across the project area.
Better and increased cycling is one of the greatest improvements a city can make to the health and wellbeing of its population, through improved air quality (which tends to affect the poorest areas the most), fitness, mental health, carbon emission reduction, local businesses development and faster travel times.
So, while Oxford is not there yet, it’s a directional sign.
May you have tailwinds and stress-free journeys regardless of whether you cycle. Meanwhile, please be considerate to other road users.