Oxford: a cycling city?

Oxford: a cycling city?
Photo by Lance Chang / Unsplash

Britain’s cycling profession has descended on Oxford. The “Cycle County, Active County” conference, an annual gathering for transport planners, academics, cycling advocates and consultants, is taking place at the Examination Schools yesterday (5 July) and today.

Oxfordshire is there en masse. County cabinet lead Andrew Gant and the city council’s Louise Upton are both speaking. So are leaders of local cycling groups, officers from Oxfordshire County Council, university academics, and Oxford bike businesses.

Attendees arriving by bike will pass signs at the city limits proclaiming “Oxford: A Cycling City”. Those arriving by train will unfold their Brompton next to a forest of parked bikes by the station.

They’ll then pedal or push across Frideswide Square, depending on whether they spot the subtle, unpainted cycling symbols embossed in the shared-use footway. They might ride up Hythe Bridge Street, where a narrow bike lane abruptly ends with a pavement build-out and cyclists are pushed into the path of motor traffic. Or they might pedal along Park End Street towards the Westgate Centre, to be greeted by signs instructing them to dismount along Queen Street – while 20-tonne double-decker buses sail blithely on.

For conference guests from the Netherlands, this will be a long way from their experience of a “cycling city”.

Britain’s cycling cities

It will seem alien to many from this side of the channel, too. Recent years have seen a step change in cycling provision across Britain. A groundswell of anger at cycling deaths in London forced the then mayor, Boris Johnson, to redraw designs for his ‘Cycle Superhighways’ to include physical separation from motor vehicles – standard practice in the Netherlands, common elsewhere in Europe, but rare in the UK.

London built two exemplary cross-city segregated routes: one from east to west along the Embankment, another from north to south. Transport for London, the mayor’s transport agency, has gone on to deliver many more, with a particular focus on junctions where cyclists have been injured or killed.

Other cities followed. Cambridge built segregated cycle routes on the main radial roads into the city, plus a network of feeder routes from nearby villages and towns. Birmingham installed a cycling expressway along the central reservation of a major road. Manchester embarked on an expansive ‘Bee Network’ of safe routes.

On elevation to No 10, Johnson brought along his cycling advisor, former journalist Andrew Gilligan. At his instigation, the Department for Transport issued a cycling design guide (“Local Transport Note 1/20”) which codified the new approach. Narrow painted lanes and footways shared with pedestrians, common across Oxford, were out. Dutch-style segregated cycle tracks were the new orthodoxy. A Government body, Active Travel England, was given teeth to enforce the guidelines: councils were told that substandard plans would no longer get Government funding.

Oxford’s cycling story

Oxford might be the birthplace of Morris Motors, but William Morris began as a bicycle manufacturer. Cycling remains at the heart of city life. 17% of commuters cycle to work, the second most in Britain after Cambridge (31%). The university-led culture (students have long been discouraged or even forbidden from keeping cars in town), compact city plan, and largely flat topography (with apologies to readers in Headington) make cycling a natural choice.

Morris’s first and second industries remain uneasy bedfellows. As car ownership ballooned – and so did the cars themselves, including the Oxford-built Mini – the bicycle’s hold on Oxford’s streets was weakened. A “Balanced Transport Strategy” adopted in 1973 aimed to reconcile buses, bikes, pedestrians and cars. But although it stymied further road-building, including the infamous plan for a relief road across Christ Church Meadow, the main winners were buses. Outside the city centre, the cycling experience was little changed. The same year saw the foundation of “Stop de Kindermoord” (“Stop Child Murder”), the Dutch campaign that led to the country’s network of safe, segregated cycleways; Oxford had built just one such cycleway (beside the new Marston Ferry Road in 1971) and there it rested.

Oxford is not short of ambition for cycling, whether at council or campaigner level. But it doesn’t yet have a track record of turning ambition into action. Cycle campaigners can rattle off a list of grand plans that haven’t been executed. Five successive Local Transport Plans. A volume of Oxfordshire Cycling Design Standards, widely acclaimed but never implemented on the ground. A network of Cycle Super Routes and Cycle Premium Routes, never built. A redesign of the Plain, watered down after bus company objections. A city centre circulation plan with segregated tracks on the High, relegated to the status of a “concept study”.

Two contrasting tweets on the first day of the Cycle County conference illustrate the disconnect between Oxfordshire County Council’s ambition and achievement. We reported on genuinely exciting proposals for a Strategic Active Travel Network, county-wide cycle routes connecting Oxfordshire’s market towns and employment zones.  Twitter users from Essex, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Shropshire, Cumbria, and Norfolk all retweeted us saying “Can our county have one of those?”

Yet at the same time, Paul Troop, chair of Bicester Bicycle User Group, wrote about OCC’s refusal to ensure adequate cycling provision at a new £10m roundabout. Manchester and Cambridge have been building cycling-friendly roundabouts since 2020. OCC’s ambition might be the envy of other counties. Its achievements, not yet.

The Oxford way

Is this stasis ending? In the last two years, Oxford’s cycling landscape has begun to change – but not entirely in the direction pioneered by London and adopted by national Government.

The city’s Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are a concept used widely elsewhere, particularly the London boroughs. Indeed, similar changes formed part of Oxford’s 1973 Balanced Transport Policy (“cycle gates on blocked-off roads to enable direct access by cycle… physical closure of some minor streets allowing access for servicing from one end only”). They have filled the pages of the Oxford Mail and are fiercely resisted by some, but among Oxford’s cyclists they are popular.

But Oxfordshire County Council has chosen not to follow the segregation model set out in Government guidance. Instead, it is building a network of ‘Quickways’ and ‘Quietways’. “Building” is perhaps not the right word, as there’s very little physical construction. Instead, Quickways are main roads where parking has been cleared away, and cycle symbols painted on the carriageway – sometimes with a painted lane, sometimes without. Quietways are less direct routes along existing back streets, often with reduced motor traffic as a result of LTNs.

Proponents say the model builds on the city’s existing high levels of cycling and is appropriate for Oxford’s narrow streets while being affordable. Critics say that it provides an unacceptable choice between quick, unsafe routes and safer but indirect routes; a design principle popular 20 years ago, but since rejected by other cities.

This deliberate departure from national standards leaves the Oxfordshire Fair Deal Alliance – the LibDem/Labour/Green coalition running Oxfordshire County Council – exposed.

The uncomfortable truth for the Alliance is that the last Conservative administration built more dedicated cycle infrastructure in Oxford than the centre/left parties will during their four-year term. The Conservatives’ schemes on Headley Way (“Access to Headington”) and Botley Road were imperfect and far off best practice at the time, let alone now. Yet the shovels hit the ground in a way they haven’t done since.

This looks unlikely to change. Oxfordshire County Council was turned down for Government cash in the latest round of Active Travel Fund bidding; since then, funding has been slashed nationally. Plans for segregated cycleways on Woodstock Road have been shelved after road projects elsewhere in the county went over budget. A new volume of Oxfordshire Cycling Design Standards is envisaged, formalising the Quickways and Quietways theme and the departure from national guidance.

Zero progress?

London’s move to Dutch-style infrastructure was prompted by a tragic rollcall of death on the city’s roads. In November 2013, six cyclists were killed within the space of two weeks.

In Oxford, Claudia Comberti, Samantha Blackborow, Jennifer Wong, Ellen Moilanen, and Ling Felce died on the city’s roads between 2017 and 2022. All were younger women killed in collisions with HGVs or other large vehicles – the same pattern as in London.

But Oxfordshire’s reaction has been very different. London began building safe infrastructure. Oxfordshire has announced an “ambition” to eliminate road deaths and serious injuries (“Vision Zero”). On the ground, all that has yet happened is a minor reconfiguration of the Plain. A system of traffic filters is promised for an unspecified date, but HGVs will still be allowed through.

Early on Tuesday morning, a cyclist was hit by a motorist on the A4074 outside Dorchester-on-Thames. He died at the scene. Thames Valley Police arrested the motorist on suspicion of causing death by careless driving, and driving whilst unfit through drink or drugs.

The A4074 is one of the roads where Oxfordshire’s latest cycling ambition, the Strategic Active Travel Network, envisages a safe alternative. If Oxfordshire is to truly become a Cycle County, and Oxford a Cycling City, the county council needs to work out how to translate its grand ambitions into action.