Hallelujah! Oxfordshire County and Oxford City Councils have realised that throwing money at small tweaks to transport won't get anywhere and, facing everything getting slowly but steadily worse, have come up with proposals for traffic reduction that would actually make a real difference. As I've mentioned before, the central requirement is breaking the tragedy of the commons in commuter decisions between private motor vehicles and buses — and this proposal attempts to address that directly.
There is going to be a lot of opposition to this, so it needs to be carefully thought out and the arguments for it clearly articulated. Some of my ideas about this follow.
The proposal is largely pitched as an anti-congestion measure, but it really needs to be seen as a "sustainable future" measure. There is no way to address the climate emergency without a significant reduction in personal car use, and this is a major step towards that. The other potential gains this proposal will bring — in reducing air and noise pollution and road danger, and in allowing active travel and public realm improvements — also need to be emphasised. And it needs to be clear that people who have no choice but to use private motor vehicles — blue badge holders, some tradespeople, some deliveries — should benefit from greatly reduced congestion, even if some trips may be longer.
Focusing on the biggest and hardest single piece of the problem — commuter flows to Oxford's Eastern Arc, largely from the west of the county — is useful, because it makes it hard to water the proposals down to the point they are ineffective, and because a lot will inevitably follow if that is solved. But transport problems can't be tackled in isolation, and these proposals need to be accompanied by changes that are broader both geographically — looking to the rest of the county and the rest of the city — and temporally and socially — looking at all journeys, not just peak-hour commuting flows.
Both the problems and the solutions are, as the councils realise, not restricted to Oxford. So the changes envisaged in the proposal need to be complemented by changes outside Oxford.
One key change is restoration of local bus services to smaller settlements, to enable people living there to shift from driving, and providing connectivity for people who can't drive.
Active travel needs to be enabled in areas outside Oxford. It needs to be safe, direct and convenient for people to walk or cycle to bus stops in county towns and along main roads, to take advantage of the new bus services to Oxford. This will also enable a shift from shorter car trips to local centres.
In some cases cycling directly to Oxford (or train stations connecting to Oxford) may be an option: cycling longer distances may only be for a minority, but e-bikes make this more plausible, perhaps from as far as Eynsham, Abingdon, Wheatley and Kidlington. So support should be given to such facilities as the B4004 community path and an upgraded A40 cyclepath, and much better cycle connectivity to the north of Oxford.
Elsewhere in Oxford
The focus in the proposals is on trade-offs for commuters, but the bus gates are also going to force changes on residents — and provide opportunities for major improvements. It is important to consider intra-Oxford transport, at all times of day, for all purposes.
An Oxfordshire Liveable Streets director got a bit of shellacking trying to defend these proposals to the Osney Island residents association. Someone asked, quite reasonably, what they were going to get out of this, apart from no longer being able to drive to Summertown, and was skeptical that this would make cycling there any better.
A scheme that's going to restrict people's ability to drive trips like this - whether it's Osney to Summertown or East Oxford to Headington - needs to articulate the case for reducing car traffic much more broadly, making the sustainability and health arguments and not treating this just as a congestion problem, and provide alternatives for intra-city car trips, ideally a better (direct) bus connection and a safer and less stressful cycle.
There need to be improved bus services to areas of the city not covered by the eastern arc route. As well as commuter services to the city centre, the internal bus network needs to be improved, in particular by the addition of routes around the city that are not currently served, which will be needed to replace car trips.
Active travel will need to take up a good deal of the shift from private motor vehicles for intra-Oxford trips. This is going to require a combination of reducing motor traffic volumes and, where those remain substantial, reallocating space to wider footpaths and adequate width cycle tracks separated from motor vehicles.
Traffic volumes on main roads inside Oxford need to be reduced to the point where bus services run smoothly without separate bus lanes, allowing space to be reallocated to footpaths and cycle tracks, and with junctions that prioritise walking and cycling. We need drastically improved cycling routes along routes such as Botley Rd, Woodstock Rd, St Clements, Iffley Rd, the Hollow Way, Donnington Bridge Rd, and Marston Rd. As well as trips around the city, this will support trips to areas on the periphery of Oxford such as Littlemore, Botley, the Northern Gateway, and Barton, which are where growth is planned.
As mentioned in the proposal, other routes will need to be blocked to through traffic to prevent rat-running (Divinity/Southfield is one obvious example). In order for this to work coherently, it should be done as part of the creation of coherent low traffic neighbourhoods across Oxford, making walking and cycling short trips more attractive. We also need improvements in last-half-mile walking and cycling access at employment sites and destinations such as the hospitals, the Old Rd Campus, and the business parks, both to support direct trips and to make it easy to reach bus services.
In the inner city, this proposal needs to be complemented with something along the lines of the Phil Jones proposals — it is essential that some way is found to get space for adequate footpaths and 8-80 cross-centre cycling infrastructure. If it's not going to be possible to drive directly from one quarter of Oxford to another, cycling those trips has to be enabled for everyone, not just the fit and confident. There have to be direct routes through the city centre that eight year olds can safely and comfortably cycle.
This could be combined with public realm improvements. One obvious example would be making Hythe Bridge St a pedestrian-cycle boulevarde linking the railway station with the city centre. The bus gate on Worcester St North should reduce traffic flows enough to allow this.
There needs to be a coherent plan to encourage freight and deliveries to be shifted to cargo bike wherever possible, and to be consolidated where larger vehicles are required.
The exemption of central Oxford from the parking levy seems arbitrary, and bad from a public relations perspective. While the Eastern Arc has more parking, that's an artificial division; southeastern Oxford by itself probably has similar amounts to the centre. Central Oxford is also the most space-constrained part of Oxford, with the narrowest streets, so traffic there has disproportionately harmful effects, both in taking space from walking and cycling and in air pollution.
It is unclear to me why the proposed bus gate is on South Parks Rd rather than on Longwall St (or Magdalen Bridge). Longwall St is too narrow to safely carry two-way motor traffic and support walking and cycling, so is a logical spot to block traffic, allowing its use as a cycle (and perhaps one-way bus) route. The Plain would also provide easy turning.