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not for myself

Oxford, Transport, — March 2019

I'm not trying to reform transport in Oxford for myself. Personally, I find Oxford remarkably easy to get around, and indeed one of its attractions for me has always been that, while it has the "cultural capital" of a city many times its size, it feels like a village because getting around it is so easy. But after my first few years in Oxford, experience pushing a stroller and getting around with a toddler, and conversations with a broad range of people, I began to realise that for many things are not nearly so pleasant.

The key thing here is that I'm reasonably fit and confident, and will happily cycle almost anywhere in the city, which means I have a fast, reliable, convenient and cheap option for most trips. I am similarly capable of negotiating the obstacles Oxford throws at pedestrians. On top of that, we are well enough off that we can afford to own a car, to pay parking fees or bus fares when we need to, to have a tandem bicycle that makes cycling anywhere with a child possible, and to live not too far out of the centre.

But for many people things are not nearly so pleasant.

For some, walking even to bus stops or local shops or parks can be problematic. Oxford's residential streets include both cramped "parking lots", which force people walking into the middle of the carriageway, and rat-runs with too much motor traffic going too fast, which can be difficult to cross. And main roads and junctions are designed for motor traffic at the expense of people walking or cycling. I face only a slight rise in stress negotiating these streets by myself, but people who are visually impaired, slower-moving, accompanied by small children, in wheelchairs, or just more nervous will find them much more challenging. I can see why many people won't let their children walk to nearby schools. Similarly, if you're pushing a stroller, using a walker, otherwise mobility impaired, or unfamiliar with Oxford, then the city centre suddenly becomes a gauntlet of narrow crowded footpaths, buses and bicycles, hostile crossings, and other unexpected hazards.

Most people — I would estimate two thirdsaren't comfortable cycling around Oxford. They either don't cycle at all, do it only recreationally in parks or touring, or only cycle limited routes at restricted times. They are not so fit or confident, face higher risks than me, are less able to cope with stress, have children and no easy option for cycling with them, or have to deal with other obstacles. This leaves them facing an often much less attractive range of choices. [2020 Update: trying to get around with an independently cycling 7yo has brought all this home to me even more strongly.]

My commute is about 12 minutes on a bicycle, but someone unable or unwilling to cycle it faces much less appealing options. Including walking at either end, the bus might take 30 minutes if all goes well, but could take significantly longer in peak hour — and an annual bus pass costs nearly £600. And walking would take maybe 45 minutes. Looking at the 2011 census data, of the 632 people commuting from my census area to central Oxford 260 cycled, 160 walked, 144 took the bus, and 60 drove (in 52 vehicles). But commuting figures flatter cycling rates: they don't include children or the retired, and people are more confident cycling a regular route.

Oxford's bus system is pretty good by UK standards, but mostly has to deal with the same congestion as private cars. And it doesn't work so well if you're not trying to get into or out of the centre. Friends bringing children to our house for playdates, for example, from Lye Valley or Headington Quarry, face awkward journeys. Trips that take me, with Helen in a child seat or on the tandem, 10 or 15 minutes, for them involve walking and roundabout bus routes; it only takes a missed bus or traffic congestion for them to be facing hour-long trips. (The "Pickmeup" on-demand bus service might alleviate this problem, but would still leave my friends paying £10 for an afternoon visit.)

And then there are the people stuck in traffic, in cars or buses, getting into and out of Oxford every day; in peak hour many of these trips now take an hour or more, and lack of spare capacity to cover accidents or roadworks makes times highly unpredictable.

The general argument here is that transport policy and planning need to take into account "children who would like to walk to school by themselves" and "people who don't cycle but whose lives would be better if they could", along with "people who would like to use buses but haven't got access to them or can't afford them" and "people who would spend more time in central Oxford if walking around it wasn't such an unpleasant experience". The largely invisible problems of transport poverty.

Oxford isn't anything like a transport paradise even for me. Much of my cycling is stressful, there are some sections which I approach with trepidation, and occasional incidents that leave me shaking. Sometimes I have to catch a bus or drive, and end up sitting in the traffic jams. Walking is not stress-free. Oxford's lack of decent public space affects me. And I'm breathing the same polluted air as everyone else.

Outside Oxford itself, suddenly there's fast moving motor traffic on roads that often don't even have pavements, let alone any kind of cycling infrastructure, and the bus services get sparser and less frequent.

And in twenty years I'm going to be frailer and slower than I am now.


  1. I'm from the Netherlands, a country where 17% of people above 65 cycle every day and where we have more bikes than people. I'm really disappointed by transport and infrastructure around Oxford (and the rest of the UK).

    In my opinion, it's not about making more cycle paths in a city or similar measures. It's about a mindset. Back home, cyclist always receive privileges above motorised transport. Kids starting biking in traffic at a young age, get biking examinations in school and I have personally experienced how mad driving instructors become when you don't look out for cyclist well enough.

    I'm sorry to say, but I feel like the mindset of most British citizens seems too conservative for a massive shift towards the healthier and safer option. For instance, why can High Street only become car free in 2050 (according to the new plans)?? Start tomorrow! This model has proven itself many times now in Dutch cities.

    I agree with you, it's sad too see that people are afraid to bike. I hope they will visit my country and see what cycling can be and bring to their cities and implement similar concepts as quickly as possible.

    Comment by Tom — March 2019
  2. FWIW, I'm in that two-thirds who don't feel safe cycling in parts of Oxford (basically, once I go down Headington Hill, the traffic makes me feel unsafe).

    And yet, I'm not an underconfident cyclist, nor am I facing untested fears; I cycle happily from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road in London on a regular basis (after taking the coach from Oxford), and don't feel as threatened in central London as I do in central Oxford. I'm also quite happy cycling for long distances - when there's been traffic blocking off London, I've cycled comfortably from Hammersmith to TCR (a 10km route). OTOH, I will not cycle the 7km from my home to my mother's house on the Botley Road, or the 4km from home to the Westgate because I don't feel safe on the roads.

    My fears are based on direct personal experiences - when I go down the hill, over 50% of my journeys end up with me talking to the police about what happened.

    If I don't feel safe, and yet I'm an experienced cyclist who's used to busy roads, what chance is there of a new cyclist, still working out what they need to worry about and what they don't need to worry about, feeling safe?

    Comment by Simon Farnsworth — March 2019
  3. Add "in pain" to those finding pedestrianism challenging. When you're in pain, changing direction unexpectedly, uneven surfaces, objects to manouver around, stopping suddenly and starting again suddenly are all pain triggers and cause worry, as well as the discomfort. When you see an obstacle to dodge on the pavement you slow down to try and minimise the jerky movements you need to make. If it's a moving object, like a person not looking where they're going, you're also anticipating what they will do and possibly start announcing your approach to reduce the chance of unexpected movements. People in pain can seem abrupt and angry. It's not hard to see why when simple acts like walking are so challenging.

    Comment by BadlyParkedOx — October 2022

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