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the Gilligan report on cycling in Oxford - a quick look

Books + Ideas, Oxford, — August 2018

The Gilligan report Running out of Road: Investing in cycling in Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford offers an excellent analysis of the potential cycling has to help Oxford fix its transport problems. And its suggestions are on target. But it has some weaknesses, largely the result of considering cycling in isolation from other transport modes. (I don't consider Gilligan's suggestions for Milton Keynes or Cambridge here, since I don't known either city well.)

Gilligan's analysis of the transport problems Oxford faces is right on, as anyone who lives here knows. Writing for the National Infrastructure Commission, he focuses on constraints to growth, but existing congestion already brings air pollution, noise, and long commute times. Even residents not directly affected by transport problems suffer its indirect effects: schools and hospitals have trouble recruiting and retaining staff, for example, because living in Oxford is too expensive and commuting into it is too painful.

40. Over the next 13 years, there are to be 85,000 new jobs and 100,000 new homes in the county. 24,300 of the jobs and 28,000 of the homes will be in the city of Oxford itself and most of the others will be nearby. The county council estimates that this could result in a 25% increase in journeys within the city boundary, and 13,000 more car commuter trips each day.

So the existing transport situation is bad, and is only going to get worse. And cycling clearly has a major part to play in improving things: it already accounts for a significant number of trips and there's huge room for growth. We're well short of Cambridge cycling levels, let alone Dutch ones, and because cycling has been treated as an afterthought and not really provided for at all, there are large returns to be had from relatively small investments.

50. Despite the huge numbers of cyclists using them, Oxford’s main roads and junctions are still laid out almost entirely for the benefit of the motor vehicle.

52. Between 2011/12 and 2015/16 Oxfordshire council says its transport spend on capital projects averaged £33.5m a year, of which about £600,000 a year (1.8%) was spent on cycling-specific projects. This was a county-wide figure; the proportion spent in Oxford was a little higher. The council stresses that many highway schemes with substantial cycling components, such as the new Access to Headington scheme (see below), are not included in this figure. Even including this, however, it seems clear that current levels of capital expenditure are not remotely sufficient for delivering the transport improvements that the city and its immediate surrounds need.

53. Most injuries and deaths to cyclists happen at junctions. But at no main road junction in Oxford has truly adequate provision been made for cyclists. Conflicts abound. Few, if any, junctions feel safe and comfortable to cross on a bike. At The Plain roundabout, at the eastern end of Magdalen Bridge, one of the city’s busiest cycling junctions, more than £1 million was spent on a supposedly cycle-friendly remodelling. It falls so far short of adequacy that large yellow signs have had to be placed there warning motorists to "think bike."

As for Gilligan's specific suggestions, I might quibble about the priority of a Jackdaw Lane bridge over the Thames, or how many people will commute 10 miles by bicycle — up to 5 miles / 8km seems a more sensible target range to me — but the vast bulk of them seem on the mark.

Five high-quality segregated or low-traffic routes should be created, several of them continuing beyond the city boundary to Eynsham, Kidlington and Wheatley.

Queen Street should be opened to cyclists

As well as connecting key centres, the five routes he proposes are a necessary part of any complete cycling network — try getting anywhere without using at least part of them! — and are in any scenario going to carry too much motor traffic to make "sharing the road" feasible for most people who might want to cycle. And everyone — except the wedded-on anti-bicycle commentators in the Oxford Mail, and the two councillors who were hit by bikes a decade ago — knows that there needs to be a proper east-west cycling route through central Oxford, and that Queen St can cope just fine with that. (If we can de-motorise Hythe Bridge St and shift the bus station from George St, that would provide an alternative east-west route. But if we can vastly improve pedestrian provision on e.g. Broad St, George St, St Aldates, High St, that to me would be an argument for allowing cycling on Queen St and Cornmarket.)

And here are some of my favourite among his other recommendations.

77. The informal path between Hill Top Road and Roosevelt Drive should be upgraded to create new links between East Oxford and Brookes University, the Old Road campus and the Churchill Hospital site.

(The long-awaited cycle path across Warneford Meadow.)

80. There is enough space for improvement at most of the worst junctions. New layouts should include physical separation between cyclists and motors; and measures – such as separate cycle phases and "hold the left" lanes – to reduce or eliminate the conflicting movements which cause most death and injury.

87. One car space can provide room to park ten bicycles. In the centre, such spaces should be removed both on street (at Broad Street and St Giles, for instance) and in parts of public car parks. The redeveloped station must include a Cambridge-style bike garage able to accommodate thousands of bikes. Park and ride cycle parking should grow.

And it's hard to complain about a recommendations that "Of the £200m we suggest spending across the three cities, we suggest that about three-quarters,
£150m, should go for cycling in and around Oxford"!

The major problems with Running Out of Road come from dealing with cycling largely in isolation.

On motor traffic reduction, the key recommendations are 89, effectively blocking Longwall and Worcester Sts so as to prevent through traffic West-North and North-Southeast, and 90, the introduction of a congestion charge.

89. Oxfordshire council is studying four main options, including point closures to block several roads to traffic, except buses and access, effectively preventing motor vehicles driving through the city centre, except in the west-to-south (and vice versa) direction via Oxpens Road.

90. The council is also examining a congestion charge, which it previously dismissed on the grounds that London’s cost too much to operate. However, costs in Oxford would be lower, because the technology is cheaper now and the number of entry points is less (about six for a central scheme, 20 for a whole-city scheme, versus 197 in London.) Any charge in Oxford need not copy London’s relatively blunt version but could allow, if desired, different (or no) charges at different times of day, in different places, or for different kinds of vehicle.

I agree that these have to be central parts of any serious attempt to reduce motor traffic (with a secondary role to be played by parking levies and low emission zones). These are going to be the hardest and politically most controversial changes, however, so should in my opinion have been tied to the funding. Instead the funding is proposed to be "subject to concrete plans being drawn up to achieve peak-hour traffic reductions of 10-15% within four years", which seems both unenforceable — what penalties are going to apply to the council if they fail to meet this target? — and too little.

A 10% reduction in traffic is not going to be enough to make secondary routes not provided for in Gilligan's five route build suitable for general cycling — Morrell Ave-Old Rd, for example, or the section of the Hollow Way connecting the Lye Valley to Barracks Lane. Nor is it going to be enough to make the bus system work rapidly and reliably in peak hour (and bus lanes unnecessary). A critical step here is making enough of a change to break the "tragedy of the commons" in aggregate decisions to drive rather than catch buses or cycle.

Which leads me to the other problem, that the report doesn't really consider the problems in scaling up the bus system to cope with the organic growth envisaged and the modal shift from motor traffic reduction, or the implications of this for cycling. Both buses and bicycles are much more efficient at moving people than cars, so doing this must be possible, but it may require as big a rethink of the bus system as Gilligan is proposing for cycling.

His suggestions here are all good.

This could include making the park and ride sites free (which would also, of course, require their expansion); improving the bus service, especially country buses; charging lower and simpler fares; imposing a single ticketing structure between operators in the city to end wasteful duplication;

But there are problems fitting bus stops and layover space into the city centre which he doesn't consider at all. He suggests separated, stepped cycle tracks on High St (and by implication Magdalen Bridge), but there's no explanation of how the space for those can be found in the context of an expanded bus system. Nor any ideas about how inter-city buses and tourist coaches should be handled.

Indeed, apart from detailed consideration of Queen St, Gilligan doesn't offer much guidance for the central city. His five flagship routes appear to terminate at the station, the Plain, St Aldates and St Giles, leaving the connections between those unexplained. Here, as at St Clements, even "a broader plan to significantly reduce motor traffic" is not going to be enough; a coherent plan to minimise bus-bicycle conflicts is also needed. Possibly Gilligan didn't want to be seen as preempting decisions being made about this, but without committing to any specific solution — a one-way bus system? a mini-bus shuttle? — it would have been good to have had some statement that High St, St Giles, Broad St, St Aldates, and so forth need drastic changes if they are going to be made suitable for general cycling.

We could spend a lot of money to make cycling in Oxford as good as it was in Utrecht in 1992. We could also jump some decades and take as a model what cities like that are doing now, for transport generally as well as for cycling.

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