Do the Germans do it better?

Do the Germans do it better?

By Oly Shipp

Last year I lived in the university town of Greifswald in north-east Germany. Reflecting on my experiences there, I wonder: could Oxford solve its transport challenges by learning from the Germans?

The city centres of both Greifswald and Oxford have similar problems: lovely but narrow, historic streets; full of shoppers, students, and tourists; and totally unsuited to car travel!

But there is a striking difference: Greifswald’s centre is completely car-free – and has been for decades!  Driving a car there is unthinkable, apart from exemptions for police, disabled, or deliveries. As a result, their city has a beautiful, bustling centre where you can walk, cycle, drink with friends, buy fruit from the thriving market, watch your kids play safely, and enjoy touring entertainments.  

In contrast, I returned to Oxford where the noxious queue for the Westgate is as bad as ever, and our Broad Street remains sadly dominated by cars. Can I hope that this parking will be removed soon, the tiny zero emission zone will expand, and we will finally create similarly attractive central spaces here in Oxford?

The residential areas of both cities also have similar challenges: housing density and rental prices are high, and it is really hard for local people to afford homes they are happy with, near to their work, schools, or families. 

Impressively, every single residential street in Greifswald has been thought about and designed for the people who live there. Larger streets always have segregated pavements and safe, continuous cycle tracks. Then, depending on the remaining space, motor traffic is either one or two way, with car parking on separate cobbled lay-bys if there is room. You can walk or cycle in both directions on smaller residential streets, but they are often one way for motor vehicles, and strategically filtered to avoid ‘rat running’.  

Here in Oxford, we have suffered decades of poor or absent transport planning. On the main routes near my home like Iffley Road or Cowley Road, motor transport clearly has first priority, and car parking is the next. People walking or cycling are afterthoughts, squeezed in where there’s room, crowded out whenever space is tight.

Shamefully, on Oxford’s quieter residential roads, ‘might is right’ has long prevailed over proper planning. The authorities’ response to car drivers selfishly parking on pavements wasn’t to reclaim them for pedestrians, but shockingly to legitimise pavement parking. I hope they will give us back our pavements soon.  

The new administration’s implementation of Quickways this summer will finally remove car parking from the major routes and make them 20mph, a good start to reverse years of neglect. And it is so welcome to hear the Leader of the County Council making a commitment to Vision Zero, to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable “mobility for all”.

Similarly, people driving cars have been allowed to increasingly use our residential areas as cut-throughs, depriving our children of safe, liveable neighbourhoods. Happily, the new council is showing leadership in implementing the low traffic neighbourhoods they were elected to trial – once people see them in practice I’m sure we’ll love them and want more. Certainly, my kids are now allowed to cycle to Florence Park, which they absolutely love – that’s real progress!

A final observation: every village within ten kilometres of Greifswald is now connected with a safe, continuous off-road cycle track. This means communities are no longer cut off, and people don’t feel compelled to drive into an already busy centre.  

In contrast, cycling my kids to Beckley last weekend was pretty terrifying – villages in Germany are safely connected to their city, why not here in Oxford?


2 Responses

  1. […] seeing lots of people with their children cycling to school in the morning. They also cycle to Florence Park and the whole route is much quieter now. It doesn’t bother her that there is only one route to […]

  2. […] and we haven’t got the resources to provide the infrastructure that is being delivered in places outside the UK and in major cities here too. But I want to see more people cycling, walking and scooting, being […]

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