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spires from Carfax

making Oxford's Broad St a central square

The Plain is being rebuilt and ambitious plans to redesign St Giles have been floated, but for me the most obvious redevelopment for central Oxford, the one that will cost the least and deliver the most, is Broad St. All that is basically needed is to remove the car parking, remove the kerbs and resurface the entire area, drop the speed limit to 10mph and time-restrict loading access, and Oxford could have a showpiece central square.

Broad St is a fantastic space, with the frontages of the Sheldonian, the Clarendon building, the old Oriental Institute, Trinity and Balliol colleges, and so forth. It is already a kind of bike parking hub and a tourist centre — it has the biggest tourist information centre and seems to be where tour groups assemble — and is already used for occasional markets (though they are always crammed into a small space at the western end where they block a major through route for pedestrians and cyclists). Broad St should be a grand square, the very centre of Oxford, where people meet and eat and drink and wander. (The other candidate for this is St Giles, but that carries one of Oxford's major through routes so would be much harder to reengineer.) It's never quite going to be a Piazza San Marco (Venice's biggest square and tourist centre) but Broad St has the potential to approach that on a smaller scale. It's simply madness that a space with this potential is used as a car park and motor vehicle turning area, with only narrow pavements for the throngs of students and tourists and everyone else.

The first, and biggest and hardest step, would be to get rid of all the parking. After that everything would follow fairly obviously. The remaining traffic — deliveries and loading access (perhaps time restricted), maybe some disabled parking, maybe Queen-St-speed tour buses — would be sufficiently low volume that the space could be used as a square rather than a road. That is, pedestrians and cyclists would freely use the entire space. The obvious followup, to make the status of the space clearer, to make use by pedestrians and cyclists easier, and to make the space more attractive, would be to remove the kerbs and resurface the entire area to make a unified space. Throw in some new signage on the Parks Rd entry ("do not even think about trying to park past this point") and that's pretty much it. (Hollywell and Catte Sts and southern Parks Rd could be reworked as part of this redevelopment, but that's not essential.)

Doing all of this nicely will cost a bit, and abolishing the parking will take a bit of political will, but compared to the costs of rebuilding St Giles (even without a new tram line) it seems likely to be relatively cheap, and the engineering is certainly more straightforward. The potential gains — for central Oxford as a place to visit, shop, walk, and live — seem huge.

There are many definitions of shared space - some people think Cowley Rd qualifies! - so I'm somewhat reluctant to use the term, but the best existing example in Oxford of what I consider shared space is New Inn Hall St. Somewhere with very low volumes of motor traffic, moving at very low speeds, where the entire space is used by pedestrians and cyclists. (Queen St isn't really shared space because bicycles aren't allowed and there are no motor vehicles; it's effectively a pedestrian precinct with a special exemption for low-speed buses in one direction.)

Update: Nearly Car Free is I think a better term, both for New Inn Hall St and what I propose for Broad St.

Update: Thinking about this some more, and taking comments on board, I still think a square with general pedestrian freedom is the right goal, but that bicycle paths should be marked/set out down the middle, running from Holywell St to George St, with a side-branch to Turl St. That would provide routes for cyclists going through Broad St at higher speed, which pedestrians could cross but where it was clear they shouldn't be lingering. (It would also provide routes for motor vehicles when access was needed for loading, etc.)

The Oxford Preservation Trust had a "Plan for Broad Street" in 2004, most of which remains perfectly current, but there are no signs they had any luck getting it adopted. (And the details have now been removed from their web site.)


  1. I think this could be a very interesting idea - but my concerns would primarily be from the cycling side - the 'shared' space works awfully on New Inn Hall St, with pedestrians often being abusive and even aggressive (I once got pushed off my bike) to cyclists because they don't know that cycling is permitted there. Broad St is a really important connection because cyclists can't go up Cornmarket for most of the day - cyclists coming from Cowley and Iffley, and Abingdon Road are often coming up Broad St and then filtering off at the various points to get to North Oxford - I'd worry that making this seem like a purely pedestrian area will massively jam up that route as a way of getting around. And dealing with deliveries etc. will be difficult too - as it is, Oxford is a nightmare to drive around, and Broad St is one of the few streets which actually manages to connect a few places without some ridiculous detour.

    Then, I suppose, what would you do with the square once you had it? Unlike a lot of Piazzas, you couldn't have a lot of spaces with places to eat/have coffee beyond what's already there, unless you were going to try and build them in front of the college buildings, which I can't imagine ever working. There are a couple of decent cafes there, but that's about it - not really enough reason to linger at the moment.

    Comment by Kate Cook — May 2014
  2. Kate, I agree that pedestrian-cyclist contention is a potential problem - indeed there are some problems already in the narrowest part of Broad St, at the western end, which is effectively car-free "shared space". But the remainder of Broad St is much wider, reducing the potential for contention. If necessary cycle paths could be marked down the middle, for people using Broad St just as a transit route who want to go fast. Getting rid of the parking would give us a huge amount of space to use, so I'm sure some solution is possible. I have to stop or at least slow down for a parking car or other vehicle pretty much every time I cycle through Broad St, so there would be some immediate gains, too. (I've never had a problem on New Inn Hall St, but I agree that it's not an ideal option for a major cycle route.)

    The cafes could expand a bit, and there's quite a decent number of shops even at the lower density eastern end (Blackwells, the Kings Arms and the White Horse). That plus the museum and the Sheldonian and the colleges, maybe the occasional market, and there are plenty of reasons to come. But we can see that now: the pavements are already completely packed in summer, and pretty busy in non-summer term-time.

    Comment by danny — May 2014
  3. I've been pushed in New Inn Hall Street too! I was going very, very slowly because of 'sharing with pedestrians', so I had plenty of time to stop myself falling, but it was a rather peculiar experience... It was a woman wearing very high heels, and I wondered whether she may have been grabbing onto me because she felt she was falling over; perhaps women wearing high heels ought to be treated as if they were slightly disabled and this wasn't actually meant as an aggression.

    Are we sure there wouldn't be more space for pavement cafés in Broad St? Outside Blackwells? BTW The Weston Library is due to open in September, which might change the dynamics a bit.

    Comment by Jenny — May 2014
  4. A good post, Danny. Pedestrianising Broad street has been proposed many times, but for some reason it hasn't been seen through. It would be great to have a decent central square, as most cities already have. I doubt there would be a problem with it being used. There is very little space to sit outside, or for groups to gather in the city centre, so it would soon be full of people with or without more pavement cafes. It wouldn't have to become a purely pedestrian area -- it's an important route for bikes and deliveries, as Kate says, but there is lots of space to improve on the current layout.

    Removing the parking is the most contentious issue, but we could actually get a long way without reducing the number of parking spaces, just by tidying it up. The space to the west of Turl Street has a couple of loading bays, but is essentially unused. Because of bikes and a few motor vehicles passing through, pedestrians are forced to the edges. Marking a designated 3m lane for bikes and cars through the northern part of the street would leave plenty of space for pedestrians to wander, the cafes to expand, and new benches or small trees to be put in.

    The western end is also very wasteful of space: look at Google satellite photos of the space between Blackwell's and the History of Science museum. Here, rearranging the parking and narrowing the roadway would allow a public space outside the White Horse/Blackwell's and the museum. Parking for the Covered Market could be retained. At the far Eastern end outside the Bodleian, and also on Catte Street, the kerbs could be removed and the roadway narrowed to about 5m (just enough to allow tour buses to pass at low speeds).

    So we can make a lot of changes that would allow more space for pedestrians, fewer pedestrians wandering into the way of bikes, and still allow access for delivery vehicles. But let's definitely avoid "shared space" ideas as much as possible.

    Comment by Edwin — May 2014
  5. […] for parking spots and blocking the road while they do so are another. (I have commented before on the insanity of allowing 25 parking places to hold the entire space to ransom.) The junction of Magdalen Sts East and West with Cornmarket and George St is a mess, with huge […]

    Pingback by my commute - Oxford Blog — January 2016
  6. […] vehicle parking. The most obvious candidates for large-scale pedestrianisation are St Giles and Broad St — the latter is I think the easier and more obvious […]

    Pingback by Walking central Oxford - Oxford Blog — February 2016

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