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Oxfordshire Local Transport consultation

Oxfordshire County Council is running a consultation on its Local Transport and Connectivity Plan. This involves 28 brief topic papers and questions about them, but it is easy to respond to just one or two of those, so I would encourage anyone concerned about any aspect of transport within the county to lodge a response. The deadline has been extended to 17 May 2020.

My own response will be based on what follows. Feel free to use any of the ideas in that.

Overall comment: many of the schemes and ideas addressed in the LTCP5 consultation involve reducing car use and traffic volumes, in encouraging or enabling people to shift to other transport modes, in requiring motor traffic reductions to work, or in reallocating space. But this central component of the transport strategy is nowhere made clear and explicit — there are no questions about car use at all! Reducing both car ownership rates and car-miles driven within the county should be made explicit goals.

Question 1: Cycle Streets

Cycle Streets are a great idea, but they only work when motor traffic volumes are low — fewer than 1000 motor vehicles per day ideally, perhaps 2000 if they are reasonably evenly spread across the day. Motor traffic on a street is particularly problematic when most of it is commuter traffic concentrated into a few hours of the day, usually the hours when people most want to cycle (to school or to work). Roads with 3000 vehicles per day can not be made suitable for general cycling just through traffic calming measures. (Rymer's Lane / Cricket Rd is an example of this in East Oxford.)

So Cycle Streets will work best if deployed inside Low Traffic Neighbourhoods which have no through motor traffic, and in conjunction with other traffic reduction and calming measures.

Question 2: Greenways

Greenways are a great idea.

They need to be surfaced so they are usable year round, in all weather conditions, by people walking without hiking shoes and by all kinds of cycles. We don't leave roads unpaved just because tarmac detracts from the "rural ambience", and bridleways and other such tracks are much less intrusive.

Greenways also need to be designed for comfortable use by larger cycles, such as tandems, box bikes, cargo bikes and trikes, and mobility cycles, and must not have barriers that block access by those. They need to be wide enough to cope not just with current levels of use, but with likely increases as the quality of both individual routes and the overall network improves.

Question 3: LCWIPs

Most of the work done on LCWIPs is excellent, but I have one major concern with the approach suggested.

A distinction between Quick Ways and Quiet Ways on the basis of usership is a really bad idea, most fundamentally because the people who cycle (or might want to) are not bimodally distributed.

We don't want a situation where people who are less confident cycling are "trapped" in local areas, or forced to use wildly circuitous routes, because the main road routes around them are designed for faster commuters. All the routes need to be usable by everyone. It has to be possible for 8 year olds and 80 year olds and nervous 40 year olds to cycle across Magdalen Bridge and up High St, otherwise East Oxford is effectively disconnected, for most of the people who might want to cycle, both from the city centre and from destinations which involve passing through the city centre. If Cowley Rd is too hostile for most people to cycle, that blocks cycling as an option a huge range of potential trips, both too Cowley Rd itself and across or along it. And so forth.

Cycle routes need to cope with mixed speed cycling. This means that, except for short sections, cycle lanes or tracks on busy routes need to be wide enough to support overtaking.

Question 4: Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

The benefits of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are clear: for resident health and well-being from reduced road danger, air pollution, and noise (and increased active travel), but also for reducing greenhouse emissions. They need to be implemented in a coherent fashion, with suitable sized "superblocks" or cells treated as a whole, to avoid or mitigate unplanned side-effects.

Early community consultation is essential in allaying the fears of residents and local businesses. But this should be focused on which implementations would best enable access and deliveries and services, not compromising on the general principle of blocking through motor traffic.

Question 5: SHIFT

Integrating transport modes is critical to reducing private car use. One key component of this is making walking or cycling to bus or train services safe, simple and straightforward.

This requires motor traffic minimisation in local areas (Low Traffic Neighbourhoods), but also secure cycle parking at local bus stops. Security is particularly important in rural areas, where cycles left at isolated bus stops on main roads are particularly vulnerable.

At the other end, it requires vastly better provision for cycle access and parking at railway and bus stations: both Oxford railway station and the Gloucester Green bus station are woeful here. In many cases pedestrian access could also be drastically improved.

This needs to be seen in the broader context. Improving cycle parking at (for example) Didcot railway station will have limited effect on modal choice while the roads around the station are so hostile, carrying large volumes of motor traffic with no provision of safe cycling infrastructure.

Question 6: Parklets

The county should have an explicit policy of providing parklets. Priority should be given to putting them on those streets that would benefit most, where there's currently nowhere to sit and rest, nowhere to shelter from sun or rain, no or limited greenery, or other deficiencies. A longer-term target might be one on each side of every street, every 400m or so, but this should be integrated into a broader "Healthy Streets" program.

Parklet provision should be done with resident consultation, but should not necessarily wait on resident action — the areas that would benefit most from them, as with other improvements, are not necessarily the ones with the most vocal residents' groups. (Requirements for installing parklets should not be stringent; prioritising parking over parklets privileges those with motor vehicles over those without them.)

Parklets could be combined with traffic calming measures where appropriate. They will in many cases provide carriageway narrowing that's not dependent on parked cars.

Of the potential problems with parklets that are listed, replacing car parking and the need for cars is actually a positive not a negative. The council has no duty to subsidise the car industry by allowing people to store its products on public space at council expense. People who drive cars do not have a monopoly on use of the streets, and resting places for people walking are a higher priority. Maintainance can be handed over to local residents' associations. Homelessness should never be "resolved" by removing benches or making spaces inhospitable to people!

Question 7: Strategic Active Travel Network

A county-wide approach to active travel is important. Planning and implementation of local initiatives such as School Streets and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods can benefit from sharing experience and tools. And there needs to be consistency in areas such as signage of routes and colouring of cycle tracks. (Though much of this should be done nationally, not at a local authority level.)

But too much focus on a strategic network risks overlooking that the vast bulk of active travel is local. Long distance walking and cycling routes are valuable, both for recreation and to support some everyday trips, but at distances over five miles they are not realistically an alternative to public transport for most people and should not be pitched as such.

If there are funding constraints, the focus should be on enabling local walking and cycling, either to reach workplaces and schools and shops and other destinations directly or to access public transport (bus stops and railway stations). This should, however, be done within a framework that allows for easy integration into larger networks.

Question 11: Park and Ride

Locating new Park-and-Ride sites so as to minimise car-miles driven sounds logical, but adding parking by itself will simply induce more car traffic by making driving a more attractive option — additional park-and-rides around Oxford will, in the absence of other changes, simply provide additional options for people driving there. So any new park-and-ride facilities need to be accompanied by removal of at least the same number of parking places from inside the urban areas they are designed to serve (enforced by management of all car parking, through Controlled Parking Zones or otherwise).

Similarly, there will be no gains from reducing pollution and road danger and congestion inside Oxford unless provision of park-and-ride facilities is accompanied by an explicit plan to reduce motor traffic volumes on arterial routes, and to shift space on those (and time at junctions) to other modes. Otherwise congestion reductions from existing drivers shifting to new park-and-rides will just induce other people to shift back to driving (from buses or other alternatives). So any new park-and-ride schemes for Oxford need to be accompanied by an explicit goal to reduce motor traffic volumes on the city's arterial routes.

Getting people to avoid getting using their cars entirely is clearly a better option, wherever possible. So a higher priority should be to enable town and village connectivity to bus services to Oxford. Which means safe cycle routes and secure cycle parking at county bus stops, along with additional bus routes on top of those already envisaged in Connecting Oxford.

Question 12: Climate Emergency and Transport

Private cars are responsible for 20% of carbon emissions in the UK, and that fraction is growing. Replacing all cars with electric vehicles (EVs) would require a major expansion of the power system and a huge investment in charging infrastructure. On top of that, manufacture of EVs is also resource intensive, and replacing all the cars in the UK with EVs would create on the order of 4 gigatonnes of carbon emissions. So simply switching to EVs is not a solution. The UK needs to be aiming for a reduction in car numbers by 80% or more, with electrification of the remaining 20%.

So council priorities should be provision of better walking, cycling and public transport alternatives, with disincentives to own and use private vehicles. Support should be given to car clubs and hire cars and taxis rather than to individual households switching to EVs. There should be a moratorium on road construction or expansion.

My household currently drives some trips inside Oxford that could easily be replaced by cycling if it were safer and more straightforward to cycle with our young child. And many of our trips within Oxfordshire could be switched to buses if the bus network was more extensive and ran at higher frequency. Given how little we drive, our switching to an EV would probably be counterproductive for the climate emergency — and we certainly shouldn't be subsidised (directly or in the provision of infrastructure) to do that.

Question 13: Air Quality

The highest priority in reducing air quality should be reduction in motor traffic volumes in those areas where air pollution (and noise pollution) does the most damage — in urban centres with high densities of people walking and cycling, around schools, and so forth. So Connecting Oxford should be implemented with 24/7 bus gates and limited exemptions, to remove through traffic from central Oxford. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and School Streets schemes should be used to reduce traffic volumes on residential streets and around schools.

Low-emission vehicles still generate pollution from road dust, tyre wear, and so forth. But it would be useful to switch those vehicles that make a lot of trips, especially in sensitive areas, to electric drive. So buses, taxis, and delivery vehicles should be prioritised, with the latter switched to cycle freight where possible.

Better data collection and dissemination is important, but should not be used as an excuse to delay action: the evidence on the adverse health effects of air pollution is pretty clear. Noise pollution should also be considered, ideally as part of air pollution monitoring and reduction schemes.

Question 15: School Streets

School Streets should be a high priority for the council.

They are in most cases relatively inexpensive. They may be some ongoing enforcement and administration costs, but in many cases the larger part of the costs will be in one-off capital expenditure, making such schemes significantly more effective than the recurrent costs of (say) funding weight-loss or sports programs.

School Streets schemes discourage car trips and enable active travel for regular journeys — in many cases the "school run" happens 400 times a year — not just occasional ones, so have a potentially large effect on motor traffic reduction, fitness, air pollution, etc.

While initial pilot schemes may need to be more exploratory, the council should use evidence from those to adopt a general policy, with an explicit goal that the area immediately surrounding all schools should be safe for walking and cycling and have pollution minimised. (On main roads this may involve alternatives to School Streets traffic restrictions, such as provision of crossings, removal of parking and use of bollards to ensure clear lines of sight, and green screens to lower air pollution; an explicit goal of reducing motor traffic volumes on main roads would also help.)

Governments (national or local) should not try to offload their responsibilities by creating unrealistic ideas or expectations about how much individual action can do. Allocation of limited space outside school entries needs to be decided by some form of governance, not by road-rage between parents using different modes of transport. Individual choice of transport modes is constrained by structures largely outside their control: whether roads can safely be crossed, traffic volumes, junction timings, and so forth.

Question 16: Connecting Oxford

The basic idea of Connecting Oxford is great, but it needs to be re-envisaged as more than a way of shifting commuter traffic from private cars to buses. It should be implemented as a "circulation plan", aimed at a general reduction in car trips and motor traffic within the city.

To do this, it needs additional bus gates on top of the ones planned, to block private motor traffic between East Oxford and Headington. It also needs the expanded bus routes and cycling infrastructure to replace most of those trips.

Question 17: Area Transport Strategies

Both new commercial/industrial/business developments and new housing developments should be sited so they are within straightforward walking or cycling distance of each other and of transport hubs and other services.

Sites such as Culham and Harwell need to be provided for with improved active travel and public transport connections to centres such as Abgindon and Didcot, but any new such research centres need to be located closer to housing and transport. Similarly, locating new mass housing in locations such as Chalgrove is a terrible idea.

Question 18: Transport Corridors

Buses should be prioritised on major transport corridors such as the A420. Speed limits and enforcement and road layouts should be used to calm and simplify traffic flows. It may not be possible to prioritise pedestrian crossings on major corridors, but they have to be at least possible and safe.

It is essential to have safe footpaths and cycling paths along transport corridors; the latter should be built to the standard of Highways England's CD 195 "Designing for Cycle Traffic".

Question 19: Regional Transport Network

Given the need to drastically reduce motor traffic volumes to meet carbon emission targets, and for sustainability more generally, an Oxford-Cambridge expressway is a truly terrible project. The council should oppose it.

Road upgrading should only be done to install or improve dedicated bus infrastructure, cycle tracks, or footpaths, not to increase motor traffic throughput. If congestion is a problem, that should be addressed by demand management.

Question 20: Zero Emission Zone

A much broader system than a ZEZ is needed to control motor vehicle access to central Oxford. At low volumes of EV use, a ZEZ privileges a small number of early adopters rather than those who need access most. At high volumes of EV use, a ZEZ will stop significantly restricting motor vehicles at all.

Instead a "permitted access only" system should restrict access to essential motor vehicles, with graded fees based on size and weight in order to encourage the use of smaller vehicles or cycle freight instead.

Question 21: Local Community Action

A scattering of small schemes in an area is less useful - and less cost-effective - than an integrated Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme covering entire "cells" or "superblocks". The latter should be based on a broad Healthy Streets approach, with provision of tree-planting, rest stops, crossing places, traffic calming, mciro-parks, etc. alongside the basic modal filtering to reduce motor traffic volumes.

Question 22: Digital Transport Infrastructure

We can't build a digital transport infrastructure that excludes, entirely or partially, a significant fraction of the population, especially if that digital infrastructure is going to underpin basic transport provision in any way. So if the goal is "to improve digital connectivity" then more important than what is deployed - 5G or ultrafast broadband - is ensuring access by every household and individual. So I would advocate kind of Basic Minimum Service, in which every resident and every household gets a free monthly mobile data quota and a free basic broadband connection.

As the closing of schools in the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, there are massive inequities in access to online resources. These kinds of inequalities risk being exacerbated by any transport strategy that depends on Internet access.

Question 25: Freight Strategy

HGVs (along with large buses) contribute disproportionately to road danger, both directly and through blocking visibility. So as far as is possible they should be kept out of urban cores and other areas with high densities of people walking and cycling. Large vans are similarly worse than smaller ones. Cargo bikes, as well as being the quietest and least polluting delivery option, have a uniquely low profile and are by far the least intrusive visually.

The use of cargo bikes wherever possible and smaller vans otherwise, rather than trucks and HGVs, should be encouraged by making motorised delivery vehicles pay size-based fees for access to space-constrained areas. Such fees would also be an incentive for freight consolidation.

The possibility of using autonomous vehicles for freight is a distraction. While it may be possible to automate driving, there are other components of delivery services which will be harder or impossible to automate. And automated freight will have little effect on congestion, while simply switching some kinds of road danger for others.

Provision of space for freight and service vehicles needs to be improved, to reduce conflicts with space allocated for walking or cycling. This may involving trading time-of-day restrictions for access to spaces otherwise assigned for walking and cycling, and reallocation of space away from private car parking.

Question 26: Smart County

Any kind of "Smart County" approach is going to require extensive data sharing between a broad range of organisations. So I think a core part of this should be an "Open Data" policy, with the provision of data by the county in open and accessible formats, subject to privacy and other legal constraints.

It would require much greater resourcing and is probably beyond the county unless backed by the national government, but one option would be trying to emulate something like Estonia's e-government strategy, which involves a unified platform for securely connecting heterogeneous government and private services. Estonia's population is about twice that of Oxfordshire's.

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