A car-free Broad Street at last

By Jonny Ives

Jonny is a trustee of Cyclox

This feels like a radical moment in a city built for so many centuries in the interests and images of wealth and royalty.

Broad Street is losing its car park.

Change is rarely easy, but perspective is everything. From the air, Oxford can be seen as a green city of splendid space and beautiful architecture, one of the world’s most celebrated cities. On the ground you find many of the city-centre green spaces are private gardens and quadrangles, carefully guarded and restricted. Finding somewhere to sit and relax for a moment can be a lengthy quest so let’s be thankful for coffee and its rituals, not least the chairs.

Cars parked in the Broad Street car park Oxford

Last Thursday (22 September) was World Car Free day, but Broad Street will be car free for more than just a day. Taking the car park out of Broad Street feels radical and mundane at the same time. Radical because the argument has raged so fiercely for so long, mundane because parked cars dominating so much of the city’s limited public space seems unnecessary and ridiculous to so many of us.

There will still be cars and vans, trucks and vehicles in the Broad but there will be a different context, a new perspective on whose space it is and what it is used for. We will gain a new streetscape, a place already explored and considered by the Broad Meadow experiment, that has the potential to be a one of the great urban spaces, a place to gather, celebrate and connect with our city, our communities and ourselves.

A manufacturing city

As the excellent Chippie Townie walking tours of the city remind us, for all of Oxford’s associations with politics and power, influence and affectation, Oxford is a manufacturing town. It’s an industrial city in the UK’s south midlands, whose residents have always made things, from bricks and buildings to cars and vaccines, transforming the city, the nation, and the lives of people around the world as they went.

Starting with a bicycle and moving on to the bullnose car, a young William Morris asked new questions of a city and institutions generally unwelcoming of challenge. By the time he was known as Lord Nuffield, his name and his city had become synonymous with industrial innovation and investment in health research and education on a huge scale. The Oxford vaccine is now rather more commonly discussed than the Oxford comma (though the comma did have its moment of fame this week with a ministerial command to ban it), thanks in no small measure to a boy who made bicycles on the High Street and built a new understanding of what was possible in this, our remarkable city.

A new public space

All this is worth reflecting upon and perhaps even celebrating as we recreate a new public space. Monuments and ceremony might not be the Morris style but let’s sit and meet, eat and laugh together to remember him, taking joy in this beautiful space in our beautiful city.

Now, more than ever, we are aware that change is going to come and it is testament to the imagination, persistence and determination of all those – including Cyclox, local councils, and their many partners and colleagues – who have engaged and shaped the decision-making process that change has arrived with better answers to old questions.

Let’s enjoy the new views of our city over a coffee, while wondering what else could make this a better place for all of us.

In a city of kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, let’s raise a toast to the boy with the bike.

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