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cycling Cowley Rd

Oxford, Transport — December 2014

The term is amorphous and vague, but Oxford's forthcoming redevelopments at the Plain roundabout and Frideswide Square continue to follow some kind of "shared space" ideology. So it's interesting to look at how previous incarnations of that have worked for cyclists. So Cowley Rd, and in particular the retail/commercial section.

I have only been in Oxford for five years, so I have no experience of Cowley Rd before the redevelopment in 2007. But here, as elsewhere, what "shared space" seems to have meant is "divide the space up between motor vehicles and pedestrians, giving the latter priority on informal crossings; ignore cyclists completely and leave them to scramble for whatever crumbs they can find". (Thankfully it didn't, in this case, involve removing all signalised crossings and forcing pedestrians to interact with the buses and trucks.) The Cowley Rd implementation seems to have involved widening the footpath and narrowing the carriageway, removing some of the on-street parking, and making crossing easier for pedestrians by prioritising traffic lights and adding regular unsignalled crossing points. The only provision for people on bicycles, at least in the central area (there are half-hearted attempts at cycle lanes on either side of that) consists of some green bike symbols painted in the middle of the carriageway and a little bit of bike parking.

Now Cowley Rd is pretty good for pedestrians — and I have used it both by myself (as an able-bodied adult), pushing a stroller, and with a toddler walking next to me. It's not comfortable crossing everywhere (as it would be in a low traffic "nearly car free" area), but the timing on the key traffic lights outside Tesco is pedestrian-friendly and there are plenty of other crossing points. The footpaths are also comfortably wide. And as a motorist (contrary to some people's assumptions I do drive reasonably regularly) Cowley Rd is often unpleasant but no worse than the other Oxford arterials. (There's a certain amount of arbitrage involved here, of course: if Cowley Rd did get much worse than Iffley Rd, some motorists would switch routes.) This section carries around 10,000 motor vehicle movements a day, including a large number of buses, but even in peak hour traffic normally does keep moving, albeit painfully slowly and in fits and starts.

But for people cycling the experience ranges from the unpleasant to the downright hostile. If the traffic is moving freely, the cars and buses speed up, pushing cyclists to the side of the road where (because the carriageway is so narrow) close passes are often unavoidable and there are risks from car doors, pedestrians, and street furnishings. Alternatively, when the traffic is stalled in peak hour, cyclists end up filtering down very narrow gaps, subject to danger as vehicles stop and start.

I am one of the few people who cycle along Cowley Rd much as the planners seem to have expected. I ride right over the top of the (now faded) green cycle symbols, go faster than I'd otherwise like to if necessary to try to hold a place in the centre of the lane, and only reluctantly filter in traffic congestion. But I'm not even remotely fit enough to sit in 20mph traffic and will give way to impatient vehicles, and I'm in a tiny minority in any event, with well over 90% of cyclists hugging the kerb regardless of the traffic situation.

(Yes, it's possible to avoid much of this section of Cowley Rd by using e.g. Howard/Catherine/Hurst/James Sts as a bypass. This can be a pretty roundabout route if you're commuting, however, and doesn't help if you're trying to get to destinations on or across Cowley Rd itself. I don't think the cyclists currently using the road are unaware of the alternatives.)

There are a lot of constraints on Cowley Rd — the density of buses, most obviously, as well as the available width — but if we acknowledge that cycling in Oxford is a major transport mode and give it proper recognition as such, surely we can claim more for it than a few bits of green paint. And the current layout is clearly not working as intended: most cyclists ignore the painted bicycle symbols completely and I've been honked at while right on top of them.

In any event, Cowley Rd illustrates that dropping the speed limit to 20mph, narrowing the carriageway and painting a few symbols on the road is not enough to turn even a small fraction of the people who currently cycle around Oxford, let alone everyone who might want to, into vehicular cyclists happy to be mixed in with dense traffic. Nor will any amount of education and assertiveness training and encouragement convince people to ride as if they were cars and take on the buses and trucks. If Oxford is going to support genuine mass cycling, to be a city where cycling to the shops is an option for everyone, Cowley Rd — along with Frideswide Square and the Plain — needs to be negotiable by people who currently don't go anywhere near it — by parents cycling with children, by older children cycling independently, and by adults who are less confident, either because they wobble a bit or are unfit, or because they lack the social confidence to face down trucks and buses.

Afterthought: the Cowley Rd approach of reducing speeds, narrowing the carriageway, and encouraging cyclists to share the road equally with motor vehicles is exactly the same approach taken with Oxford backstreets, both sort-of-through-routes such as Hurst St and a genuine no-through-traffic routes. But think about this: how can the same approach be right for a back street carrying under a thousand vehicles a day and a major arterial carrying over 10,000, including several hundred buses?


  1. One element of the change that was really big was the speed 30 to 20 - reinforced by the restrictions in other parts of the city.
    Before the change vehicles would really try to go at the usual several mph over the limit (ie about 35mph) and, even faster at night - I could hear the roar halfway down Princes Street.
    The new 20mph limit and the changes in the layout (mostly the carriage narrowing) improved things for cyclists loads because the cars just had to accept that they didn't have enough space to overtake.
    A similar effect happened several years before on Donnington Bridge. There were cycle lanes on each side but overall it was pretty wide and the traffic would happily go at almost 50mph either way between Meadow Lane and Fox Crescent. When the double cycle lane and the concrete blocks were put in everything slowed down to the current speeds, about 35mph. The narrowing didn't make it worse to use as a cyclist on the West bound side, in my opinion, it was better because the cars overtaking now took their time because they were doing it at a more sensible speed.
    So I'm all for narrowing to slow traffic down, but the rest of the street geometry and features must support this - I hope that will be true at The Plain.

    Perhaps it can be rolled out to other junctions and allow removal of traffic lights:- both ends of Broad Street and Parks Road/South Parks Road!

    Comment by Robert — December 2014
  2. I entirely agree about the speed limit change being good. I can imagine a lot of Oxford roads would have been pretty scary before that was brought in, especially the 50mph ones. But I have to say that I don't like using the southern side of Donnington Bridge Rd even now, as the traffic density means too many passes by too much traffic, and 30mph is still pretty fast.

    But the broader problem with the "leave no space to overtake" approach is that there's a small fraction of drivers who will overtake regardless, either because they're just antisocial or because they're in a hurry. Taxi drivers seem particularly bad in this regard. If you watch drivers interacting with cyclists on any narrowish road, you can see this: some drivers will wait for a safer place to pass, even if it means slowing to 10mph for some time, while others don't wait at all and just barge on regardless; most are somewhere in between and will wait initially but become steadily more impatient. Reducing the total number of close passes while making the most dangerous ones more dangerous seems like a poor tradeoff.

    I think narrowing the carriageway works well on low traffic roads - I was skeptical when they repainted e.g. Hurst St for the CPZ, for example, but narrowing the carriageway there slightly seems to have worked ok. A similar approach might work at the eastern Broad St junction - or indeed Broad St in its entirety - since that carries no through traffic and has low traffic volumes in general. But these are completely different to Cowley Rd or the Parks/South Parks intersection you mention - those carry 10,000+ motor vehicles a day.

    Comment by danny — December 2014
  3. I picked up ''I have only been in Oxford for five years.'' Good heavens, five years went quickly. Where do you see the Yee family in the next five years?

    Comment by DL — December 2014
  4. The stealthy and unpredictable changes in the kerb line along the Cowley Road scheme are clearly intended to mimic the experience of unexpectedly meeting the two-car parking bay in the line of the cycle lane near Dawson Street. My occasional attempts to allow an irate motorist (you know the women in 4x4s that yell "stay in the bleeding cycle lane" at you) pass invariably lead to an unplanned meeting with a stealth bollard.
    The other big problem with the Cowley Road scheme is that once the planners have squeezed you all into a single line along the carriageway, they have failed to provide any escape for cyclists from the catastrophic failures of the road surface that result from squeezing all the buses into a single line.

    Comment by Geraint — December 2014
  5. to set the scene for my remarks... I live in central Ox, get around entirely by bicycle and at present don't even own a car. I cycle c. 6000 miles a year. In a past life I taught advanced motorcycle riding and have driven/ridden vehicles hundreds of thousands of miles in several different countries. I see the issue from both sides.

    So much could be achieved by better education of cyclists AND drivers. Vehicle drivers require a relatively small amount of training before exercising their "right" to pilot a bloody great heavy missile that is very easy to mishandle and kill with. Many cyclists, on the other hand, seem to be expecting the world to be reoriented to revolve around them. They want to be treated as legitimate road users - and I believe that is a reasonable aspiration - but they don't feel that the Road Traffic Act applies to them. They merrily pedal through red lights as and when it suits them, against the traffic flow on one way roads getting abusive if they have this pointed out to them and, my favourite of all, cycle around in poor visibility or dark conditions totally unlit and no attempt to wear visible clothing. In Oxford particularly with its many young students these kids have little experience of driving and do not appreciate how invisible they are or how worrying it is when they appear from nowhere with no right of way. Etc etc. Few car drivers actually want to kill or maim a cyclist and don't often don't appreciate the psychological transformation they undergo when the door shuts them into an artificial cocoon. Fewer still seem to appreciate the deadly aspects of their everyday undertaking.

    Unless we are to re-educate, with additional self-awareness training, and up-skill the car drivers out there - for as desirable as it may be - then it is much cheaper and cost effective to concentrate on cyclists to effect change. Concentrating on the cyclist brings its own challenges as cycling is a certain kind of freedom we have enjoyed with few restrictions since most of us were kids and it was our only means of extending our boundaries back then. All of a sudden we are taking this from a child's past-time and throwing the cyclist into a melee of dangerous metal boxes driven by temporarily "changed" and poorly trained people. It's a little wonder more aren't hurt. Car drivers rarely remember the cyclists that integrate into an agreed traffic management protocol and cyclists rarely recall the vast majority of tolerant and respectful drivers, many of whom know what it is like to ride a bike.

    In the heart of quality education for the future there ought to be a move to educate ALL parties on respect regarding the here and now, rather mundane but potentially life-saving skills. But, I know that is just the fantastical ramblings of someone who longs for a world where cyclists knew about road position, signalling, shoulder checks, lights and the like and where drivers paid attention, didn't exorcise their personal issues through their weapon that is a vehicle, treated other road users withe the care that ought to be accorded to a fragile pink mass of humanity daring to mix with them and so on and so forth.

    Why the hell doesn't central government just mandate separate spaces instead repeatedly rolling the same issues over and over, putting the plasters of ill-conceived and disconnected bike infrastructure piecemeal into existing chaotic situations and having everyone blame someone else? Oxford would make the ideal model but for the Brits this sort of upheaval is up there with burning the Magna Carta and ditching the Welfare State so I predict we will all rub on and grumble about the other side and little will change. In the meantime I enjoy commuting up the Cowley Road in the dark with heavy traffic.

    Comment by Dominic — December 2014
  6. Dominic, I don't disagree that education, about risks and skills and so forth, is important, but — as I think you agree, given your comment about separate space — it's not a solution to this particular problem.

    On the one hand, there's no amount of training that is going to make an eight year old safe to cycle a route like Cowley Rd on equal terms with buses and trucks, let alone make their parents happy about that. And on the other hand, no amount of driver education will deal with the tiny minority of drivers who are actively hostile to cyclists, along with the ones who are just occasionally tired, impatient, distracted, and so forth.

    And Oxford is unusual in that most of the drivers have had extensive experience driving around cyclists. It's also unusual in, as you point out, having a lot of student cyclists with no experience of driving, but if cycling is going to be a mass transport mode that's going to be normal, keeping in mind that more than a third of eligible adults in the UK don't have a licence. (Including a cycling component in the driving test seems a lot more feasible than restricting cycling to drivers!)

    Everywhere else in the UK, advocates of Cowley Rd style facilities say "we just need to get cycling numbers high enough, then cyclists will have safety in numbers and drivers will be aware of them". But we already have that in Oxford! And yes, it does make things better, but the new cyclists we'd like to attract are less confident and capable than the ones we have already — and the more people who cycle the less fit and confident the "marginal" cyclist is going to be. There is no "tipping point" where everything gets easier, no "critical mass" of cyclists beyond which problems stop.

    Comment by danny — December 2014
  7. Yes the idea that more cyclists going under the wheels of trucks is the solution is crazy. Where you see that routes with lots of cyclists are safer it usually because most cyclists ride on the safest route and the heavy traffic is elsewhere.

    Cyclists sharing space on a route with 10,000 vehicles a day is not ideal. Most people won't ever cycle in that sort of traffic no matter what infrastructure you build, and when every small car and large truck can quickly accelerate to 60 km/h they won't be happy stuck behind slower vehicles.

    You've covered this before, Crowley road isn't really wide enough to accommodate pedestrians, cars, stopping buses and cyclists. Slowing the traffic down allows cyclists who want a short commute can ride a bit safer. Building separate routes means longer slower journeys on back streets but creates conflicts with local traffic and pedestrian infrastructure.

    Much of Oxford is post WWII suburbs isn't it? People are going to want to drive and even with a lot of impoverished students on bikes there are limits to how much cycling or Public Transport can replace them, given the size, density, history and culture.

    Comment by David Watford — January 2015

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