Oxford’s 70-year battle with traffic jams
By Robin Tucker
Robin is Co-Chair of The Coalition for Healthy Streets and Active Travel (CoHSAT)
Just before the Covid pandemic, cycles brought 20% of peak-hour travellers into Oxford city centre. This was the same number as cars, but taking less road space. Buses were the only transport mode moving more people than these two. As traffic returns to its pre-Covid levels, it’s worth an exploration of how Oxford’s transport history differs from that of other cities.
Transport in the city
The bicycle was in Oxford by 1819, only two years after its invention, when a hobby horse race took place from Oxford to Woodstock. But it was only with the ‘safety bicycle’ of the 1880s that it became a practical form of transport. Cycling grew to be a key part of the city’s transport system, as shown in photos of workers cycling to the Morris works. William Morris himself had started as a bicycle mechanic and manufacturer before moving on to cars.
In the Second World War Oxford, unlike many cities, escaped bombing, reputedly because Hitler wanted to make the city his capital after the war. This left the beautiful but narrow medieval streets unscathed.
After the war, private car use expanded, with car mileage exceeding bicycle mileage by about 1950. In 1948 Thomas Sharp wrote Oxford Replanned, a radical vision to demolish rows of houses and make way for motor-focused roads through the centre of the city, including one through Christ Church Meadow. Thanks to objections and perhaps to Oxford’s ability to debate rather than decide, these plans did not come to pass. The one exception was Thames Street and Oxpens Road, cutting through the former suburb of St Ebbes.
Oxford’s streets did not change, but traffic continued to grow. Between 1950 and 1960 national traffic doubled, did so again by 1970, and again by 1990. Since then it has continued to grow at about 10% a decade. It’s been possible to route traffic around towns and villages with bypasses. But inside urban areas, traffic accumulates.
Change is needed – and nowhere more than in Oxford.
Oxford was first city in the UK to introduce Park and Ride, in 1973, with the service from Redbridge. Traffic filters, again favouring space-efficient buses, were introduced in 1999, when Cornmarket Street was also pedestrianised. Chaos was predicted, but over 23 years these are an established part of city life.
Other cities found more space for the car – at first. Either they had suffered more bomb damage, or they took bolder planning decisions, perhaps helped by more ‘brownfield’ industrial sites close to the city centre. This only delayed the problems, as traffic inevitably built up over the years to overwhelm even extensive road systems like those in Coventry or Birmingham. In the USA the $3 billion Katy Freeway expansion in Houston, Texas, 26 lanes wide in places, generated so much extra traffic it was congested from the day it opened.
What is the solution?
You can’t build your way out of congestion. Many cities are instead turning to traffic-reduction schemes, using road space more efficiently for buses and bikes. Oxford’s current plans – central traffic filters , zero emissions zone and workplace parking levy – were first proposed in 2015 when congestion was a ‘key concern for businesses’ according to an economic report. The traffic jams that have re-emerged since lockdown make the case for action clear and urgent.
Until then, the bicycle remains the practical solution. More people can ride a bike than can drive a car, they cost beans to run, and you don’t get jammed. So it’s no surprise that Oxford remains a cycling city.