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stable a unicorn at the Plain: fantasies about Oxford transport

Oxford, Transport, , — April 2024

"The county should buy a unicorn and stable it on the Plain roundabout, where it will magically stop any collisions, alleviate all congestion, and make walking and cycling safe and accessible to all." This would probably make more sense than some of the transport proposals being bandied about - bus tunnels, removing cycling from main roads, etc. - but here I attempt to address some of the suggestions that seem sensible, but won't do what people want them to do.

Free public transport, segregated cycle tracks, School Streets schemes, traffic calming, Dutch style roundabouts, trams, and so forth are all potentially useful. But they only solve some problems, and in some cases require other measures to make them possible. They are not magically going to obviate the need for traffic removal and reduction - for low traffic neighbourhoods and measures such as traffic filters and the Zero Emission Zone.

free public transport

There is no funding for this, and if there were bus funding available it's not clear this would be the most effective use for it - expanding bus routes to serve disconnected villages might be higher priority.

And while free buses would help address transport poverty, it might not do much to reduce car use or alleviate congestion. Finland, for example, looked at the evidence and concluded: "According to research and trials, free transport systems offer no significant reduction in personal vehicular traffic, and its impact on cutting transport emissions has been limited".

segregated cycle tracks

Segregated cycle tracks would be great, but in some places (e.g. Iffley Rd) that is not impossible due to spatial constraints. In other places (e.g. Woodstock Rd) cycle tracks are only possible with removal of the bus lanes, which the bus companies will only accept if general traffic is reduced enough that buses don't get congested -- so the traffic filters and ZEZ and other traffic reduction schemes are necessary if we want segregated cycle tracks.

Road rebuilds with separate cycle tracks are also expensive: the Woodstock Rd scheme was going to cost over £4 million per kilometre. And provision of segregated cycling infrastructure on main roads is going to require removal of parking on them; anyone calling for segregated cycle infrastructure is, ipso facto, calling for all the parking on e.g. Cowley Rd to be removed.

People also need to be able to get to main road cycle tracks, which requires low traffic neighbourhoods.

School Streets schemes

School Streets schemes are great, but they are designed to reduce road danger in the immediate vicinity of schools, or on key walking and cycling routes, not to reduce traffic. They may do some of that, incidentally, but are most unlikely to remove more than 10% of school-run traffic. (What does reduce school-run traffic are LTNs in the areas around schools, because they provide safe routes for children all the way to and from school.)

traffic calming, chicanes, etc.

There's certainly a place for traffic calming, but it is not an alternative to traffic reduction. Howard St, for example, has speed humps that are probably too severe to be installed now, while Rymer's Lane has fourteen sets of hump-chicanes in 1.3km, but both of these were terrible when they carried 3000+ motor vehicles a day. (Without low traffic volumes, chicanes are horrible for cycling, as they force repeated merges with motor traffic; Dutch practice is to use speed humps for traffic calming.)

off-road cycling routes

More cycling routes would certainly be useful, but the easy ones have already been put in. And nowhere in Oxford do or would such routes preclude the need for cycling provision on main roads. Shifting any significant fraction of peak hour flows on Magdalen Bridge (1200+ cycles an hour) to the Thames path, for example, is not even remotely feasible; nor is shifting cycling from Longwall St to Queen's Lane.

a separate peripheral cycling track around the Plain

This is a great idea, but a redesign of the Plain with a Dutch-style peripheral cycle track would reduce its motor traffic throughput by perhaps 40%, so this would need the traffic filters, ZEZ, Workplace Parking Levy and probably more put in place first.


Trams might make sense on some routes in Oxford, but tram lines are really expensive (£10 million a kilometre would be cheap, £25 million is probably more plausible) and since there's no separate space for them they would require a major reduction in private motor traffic to operate.

Some not at all plausible suggestions

bus tunnels

These made an appearance in the Local Transport Plan 4, but thankfully seem to have disappeared. Apart from costing hundreds of millions of pounds, if not billions, there's no space to put in entry and exit ramps, not to mention the lifts needed to get bus passengers to and from the surface.

remove all the LTNs

Quite apart from disabling cycling and walking, allowing through traffic through side streets unsuitable for it would, in most cases, fail a road safety audit. Consider the historical collision clusters at the bottom of Southfield and Divinity Rds, for example.

"We must first improve local bus and cycle routes and continue to promote electric car and van use. Only then should we think about traffic filters and LTNs"

There is no way to significantly improve bus services or cycling infrastructure without reducing motor traffic. LTNs are cycling infrastructure. And vehicle electrification will do nothing to help with congestion (in fact it will make it marginally worse, by reducing the per-kilometre costs of driving).


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