(Not) Going the Distance

Cycling in Oxford is a fairly short-distance activity. Most workplaces are within a couple of miles of home. Secondary schools a mile or so, the shops somewhere in-between. These distances are slightly-annoying to walk, but easy to cycle. There’s no need for special cycling gear, and the chance of getting caught out in the rain is fairly low.

Some people will happily cycle further, but it becomes a different activity when you go more than a couple of miles, and rather fewer people are prepared to do it. You get much the same pattern in the Netherlands – for journeys more than a couple of miles, the modal share for cycling drops off, and people drive instead.

So if you want a high modal share for cycling, it’s really important to have origins and destinations fairly close together, in a “compact” city. The optimal situation is to have shops and offices concentrated in the city centre, with inconvenient car-parking.

Is Oxford particularly unusual? We can look at the average bike-commuting distance in the census, to make some comparisons. While commuting only accounts for about a quarter of journeys, it gives some idea about the character of cycling in each area.

These figures are for England and Wales, excluding London, ordered by the number of cycle commuters in each area. Oxford and Cambridge are quite similar, with average distances about 2.4km (about 1.5 miles). The two highest figures are for authorities which cover the outer suburbs of Bristol and Cambridge, respectively. The other high figures are for larger cities (and York). The value for Oxford seems to be near the bottom of the range, but not at all untypical. The overall conclusion is that – outside the major cities – short distances are the norm.

London presents an interesting contrast.

Some of these average distances are very high, and it would be fair to say that cycle commuting has a rather different character in London. But if you look at the outer boroughs, where the numbers of cyclists are lower, there seem to be two different effects. For some boroughs the average distance is very high: these are boroughs where the dominant destination is central London. In contrast, some are very low: these are places where cycling to central London hasn’t become fashionable, and you just have some very local commutes. Slightly more encouraging is somewhere like Kingston, which has a reasonable volume of cyclists and a fairly “normal” average commuting distance.

My impression is that cycling in London has become too dominated by unusually-long commutes. Such commutes aren’t representative of the mass of short journeys that are characteristic of a high-modal-split situation. London needs to refocus on a dispersed pattern of short-distance trips closer to home, if its revolution is to succeed. This will require a much more dispersed pattern of interventions, rather than focusing on a handful of routes. In effect, pretty much every road needs to be cycle-friendly.

Perne Road Roundabout

Perne Road roundabout has recently been altered to tighten its geometry. This idea of tightening roundabout geometry has been around for a couple of decades, featuring in a DfT traffic advisory leaflet as early as 1997. The idea was particularly promoted by the Swiss, who have a very “on-road” tradition of providing for cycling. See Resources for more info.

This diagram shows what has been done at Perne Road (on the three arms to the left and bottom), and what I suggest would be closer to Swiss practice on the top right. The red dashes show the kerb line before the alterations.

The key feature of the Swiss design (and indeed of Dutch designs) is that the approach is perpendicular to the roundabout. This means that at the point where the driver is giving way, their wheels are straight. This substantially reduces entry speed. The Swiss stop the cycle lane before the roundabout, to indicate that road users really ought to enter the roundabout in single file. But in practice, cyclists remain alongside the kerb. So in Oxford we continue the cycle lane up to the give way line. This does not seem to cause any problems, nor have any impact on cyclists’ positioning on the roundabout itself.

Even though there’s a cycle lane, I have narrowed the entry down to 4 metres, in accordance with Swiss designs. This should discourage undertaking of large vehicles, and overtaking by large vehicles.

I have marked the cycle lane straight, with an overrun area on the corner, based on a design used in Münster in Germany. The overrun area is textured to discourage use by cyclists. Cyclists need to approach the roundabout perpendicularly and give way, and not leave room for drivers to enter the roundabout in parallel with them. I’ve drawn it tighter than the Münster design (maybe too tight).

I have moved the outside kerb line by about a metre. This imposes the Dutch 12m radius, but drawn from the edge of the traffic lane, rather than the edge of the road. This would have to be tracked to ensure that large vehicles can get round, but it should be approximately correct. The rear wheels of large vehicles overrun the cycle lane, obviously.

Following the Swiss, the exit has been left unchanged (except for the marking of a cycle lane). The openness of the exit reduces the likelihood that a cyclist will get cut-up, and should make it clear whether the cyclist is exiting or continuing round. This arrangement also provides a good-sized triangle for use as a crossing island. This does risk excessive exit speed, making it doubly important that entry and circulation speed is kept low.

Crossrail for everybody

London’s new railways – Crossrail, Thameslink – will not only improve journeys from the suburbs, they will also massively improve short journeys in the centre of London. The new, high-frequency railways will allow fast journeys across the centre, particularly east-west, but also create a new high-frequency link north-south. The effect should be large enough to take traffic off some of the central roads, notably Upper & Lower Thames Street and Farringdon Street. The big question is how do we use the space that this frees up: let the traffic build up again, or put the space to better use? Perhaps we should use the situation to make a step-change in the function of these routes, while we have the chance?

A lot of traffic is necessary in central London, but that does not mean that all of it is necessary. Around three-quarters of the motor traffic on the Embankment and Thames Street is cars/taxis and motorcycles. The route has relatively few junctions, and is undoubtedly attracting through traffic, despite the congestion charge. The overall level of traffic is high, at around 50-60,000 motor vehicles per day. The North-South route is less busy – about 27,000 at Blackfriars Bridge and 20,000 elsewhere. Again, cars/taxis and motorbikes account for about three-quarters of the motor traffic.

So how roughly, do we want these streets to function in future? There seems to be an opportunity to turn the north-south alignment, particularly New Bridge Street and Farringdon Street into a “city street” – wide pavements, some retail frontage, 20mph, single approach lanes at junctions, fairly easy to cross on foot, using medians and formal crossings at junctions. The typical arrangement for cyclists in such a street would be painted cycle lanes, kept clear by provision for loading.

The east-west alignment is likely to remain busier, though we could perhaps be aiming to reduce traffic by enough that a single lane in each direction is sufficient between junctions. There is a fair amount of office frontage at the eastern end of the route, but the number of pedestrians is relatively low (partly of course due to the current volume of traffic). The exception is the area by the Tower, where there are a lot of pedestrians. There is little by way of frontage along the Embankment, though the trees and the river make it visually attractive. The section in the middle is a 250m tunnel with buildings on top, and no frontage at all.

The most appropriate street type for the Embankment is “city boulevard”. This isn’t a common street type, so it’s a bit hard to say what that means. I think the main aim would probably be to widen the pavements, reduce the road to one lane each way, and generally slow the traffic down, both to reduce noise, and to reduce the barrier between the city and its river. Ideally, pedestrians should be able to cross at frequent intervals, with a median and lots of zebra crossings. Given the lack of junctions, the road is likely to remain fairly fast, so there would be an argument for separate cycle tracks, for general comfort, to support right turns, and to avoid conflicts with parking. Internationally, the normal arrangement would be to have one-way cycle tracks on both sides of the road.

The route through the City is trickier. The frontage would suggest it becoming a “city street” but there is likely to be too much traffic for that. The best that can probably be achieved is a version of the “city boulevard” treatment. The basics are that there should be one lane each way, between junctions, and that the fence on the median needs to be removed.

How does this compare with the current proposals for a “Crossrail for Bikes”?

By starting with the Roads Task Force street types (city street, city boulevard), we reveal the choice that exists between providing for traffic and making city streets. So instead of trying to minimise the impact on traffic, we ask how much the traffic needs to be reduced to deliver one of the preferred street types. There needs to be a definite reduction in traffic, and the advent of Crossrail and Thameslink provides the opportunity for this to happen. In some ways, the half-hearted approach is just asking for trouble: people will still think of Thames Street and the Embankment as a through route, and it will just be more congested. Instead we need to make a definite leap to something different.

The second main difference is that the international norm is to provide for cycling on each side of the street, rather than a two-way track on one side. The international approach relies on tight geometry and advance positioning to create safety at junctions, rather than complicated arrangements of signals. The current proposals require a very large number of traffic signals, and seem more in keeping with a high speed high traffic route. This is unnecessarily complex. Two-way tracks make sense when carving a route around a gyratory that can’t be removed, but they create too many problems to be used routinely along normal streets.

The two-way track comes from a desire to fully signal the cycle route, to allow it to cater for the widest possible audience. This assumes that it is purely the form of the infrastructure that is keeping people from cycling. Cycling in central London is peculiar, by international standards, in that it is dominated by quite long trips – the average bike commute to the City is over 6km, which is about double the Dutch norm. The reality is that this length of trip is only ever going to appeal to cycling enthusiasts, and while the demographic could be broader than currently, the real problem with the infrastructure is that it is in the wrong place. If we want to normalise cycling, we have to provide for shorter trips closer to home. Making these routes in central London 100% conflict-free is unlikely to affect cycling numbers, and just adds lights, islands and complexity.

I’m certainly not going to object to the Crossrail-for-bikes plans as they stand. Compared to the current situation, they are a substantial improvement. However, I think there’s a risk that they will produce more congestion, and not provide the scale of improvements for pedestrians that ought to be achieved. We need a Crossrail for everybody.

Local Transport Plan 4

Oxfordshire County Council is developing its fourth Local Transport Plan (LTP4) and has invited responses to an initial consultation (pdf) on the headline challenges, goals and objectives.

The consultation document shows the context in Oxfordshire quite clearly, the development pressure, and gives a reasonable portrayal of the importance and potential of the various transport modes.

Transport Paradise submitted the following answers to the questions raised. These give a brief impression of the current state of debate in Oxfordshire.

Question 1: Do you feel we have correctly identified the most important transport challenges that need to be addressed? If NO, please say what you think are the most important challenges.

I think you have identified the two main challenges, but I would express them as catering for transport demand and substantially improving quality of life.

I would agree that transport demand will increase with population, but it will mostly happen regardless of what you do. The key challenge is to improve quality of life (including delays incurred while travelling) – by directing travel demand so that transport works better for the users, and has less impact on society.

Question 2: What do you think is the best way to reduce the need to travel?

Oxford and Didcot/Harwell/Milton have substantial levels of in-commuting. Both these locations should have increased housing. In the case of Oxford this should be achieved by re-developing existing sites at a denser level. There are several outer estates that are run-down: there should be an opportunity to re-develop these and increase the population. In the case of Didcot, I would suggest a significant extension to the west, towards Harwell and Milton Park. This would have multiple objectives: to provide housing for people working at Harwell/Milton (and also inevitably to commute by rail to Oxford, Reading and London), to make Didcot a high-quality place to live with excellent internal transport, and to drive rail-service improvements.

Correspondingly, I would discourage further housing development outside the major development centres (Oxford, Didcot and Bicester).

Question 3 Please tell us your ideas for making the best use of the existing transport network.

I would strongly support the development of facilities for walking and cycling. There are a huge number of short car journeys clogging up the roads which could readily switch to walking and particularly cycling if the conditions were satisfactory. In most situations, parking can be removed from the busiest roads and cycle lanes provided. Even when cycle lanes are narrow, this corresponds to locations where traffic speed is more restrained; there is no reason not to make the cycle lanes continuous. There are similar modest treatments of roundabouts to make them slower, and for light-controlled junctions. To support walking, raised crossings of side roads, Zebras and light-controlled crossings can all be provided.

It is this consistent, widespread support for cycling and walking that have made these modes popular in Oxford (particularly north Oxford), and there is no reason why this cannot be reproduced elsewhere. The key difficulty is the politics of removing parking. The Oxford experience is that residential parking can be removed from most main roads, and short-stay parking and loading can be managed down. However this does not happen overnight; it needs a persistent long-term approach that gives the politics time to adapt.

Question 4: How could travel around Oxfordshire be made easier for you?

I would focus on improving the frequency of rail services (by increasing the size of the rail market), and providing high-quality, reliable bus connections for the principal settlements that aren’t on the railway, and within Oxford. In particular, there should be a regular all-day train service to Radley (with good cycle and bus connections to Abingdon), and priority for buses to Witney, probably by diverting the A40 to Peartree, so that buses have priority access to Wolvercote roundabout. Within Oxford, bus services ought to be simplified, with key services running directly through the centre to connect the railway station with all the main routes in East Oxford.

Question 5: What do you think are the best ways to meet the travel needs of people who do not have access to a car, for example younger, older and disabled people?

This cannot be separated from improving public transport for everybody. The more people use public transport, the better it gets. Specific improvements for “those who do not have access to a car” tend to be uneconomic. However, there is an advantage in providing for cycling, which has a very low marginal cost and is thus inherently attractive to teenagers (and also some pensioners).

Question 6: Where in Oxfordshire do you think future development would best be located to help reduce transport problems?

I support a strategy of concentrating development in the Didcot, Oxford and Bicester areas. I would however avoid developments on new sites on the periphery of Oxford, which will be difficult to effectively serve with public transport. Good public transport relies on proximity to housing (and all-day traffic-generators such as universities). Serving the main suburban sites at Headington and around the car works is difficult enough; other peripheral locations should be avoided.

Question 7: When trying to reduce journey times and improve journey time reliability, what (if any) types of journey should be prioritised?

We should aim for a substantial shift towards public transport, cycling and walking, since these are all potentially very reliable. Car travel can only be reliable if there is less of it, so the focus has to be on improving the alternatives. A particular concern is bus priority on corridors with limited space: it may be necessary to delay private car transport in the short term, if that is the only practical way of substantially improving the bus service. In particular, it may be necessary to delay cars by diverting the A40 to Peartree, to give the buses a substantial advantage.

Question 8: What do you think would make public transport more attractive to people who don’t normally use it?

I do not think it is necessary or financially desirable to introduce trams. Modern buses give a high-quality transport experience without the costs of trams. Instead, the key improvement is to improve frequency and interchange and make the services feel much more like a network. The core services should be marketed as a network (stripping out infrequent services to be advertised separately).

Question 9: The need for of goods and materials to be transported will increase as the population grows – how should our transport strategy address the negative impacts of increased freight transport (lorries and vans) on people’s lives and the environment?

Consolidation of freight is unlikely to develop without restrictions on the size of vehicles allowed within the urban area. I would suggest working with key distributors (probably some of the supermarkets), and a number of other urban areas to identify a suitable technology. This will probably consist of making up lorry-loads so as to be easily divisible, and requiring delivery into the city in smaller vehicles. This has to be imposed by restriction; it will always impose extra costs. The trick will be to keep the additional costs to a reasonable minimum.

While the impact of freight transport is not trivial, it is more dispersed in time than passenger travel, and is thus not a major cause of congestion. I would prioritise improvements in the passenger sector.

Question 10: What do you think are the best ways to reduce carbon emissions from transport in Oxfordshire?

Primarily by reducing congestion – by modal transfer away from the private car to public transport, cycling and walking.

Question 11: What are the best ways to encourage more people to walk?

By providing raised crossings of side roads, Zebras, quick-response light-controlled crossings, and generally by applying a 20mph speed limit.

Question 12: What are the best ways to encourage more people to cycle?

The widespread provision of cycle lanes, junction treatments and 20mph are likely to be very effective. In larger settlements, this will need to be supplemented by a network of quiet routes focused on providing for family cycling and the early years of secondary school (the age at which children tend to start travelling on their own).

It is possible that a greater degree of separation would be more effective, but there is little evidence for this (a huge amount of opinion, but not much evidence!) I would recommend a quantity-first approach, with improvements in quality to follow if they still seem necessary. The Oxford experience is that many will cycle on the road if basic space is marked for cycling, and traffic speed is kept low. So that should be the starting point.

Question 13: Overall, do you agree with the draft high level goals and objectives for LTP4? If NO, please say which you disagree with and explain why.

Yes I agree with the goals and objectives. My main suggestion would be to substitute “reduce” for “manage” in the third goal and seventh objective, so as to reduce rather than merely manage the impacts of transport on human health and the environment.

Question 14: Is there anything which the goals and objectives do not adequately cover? If YES please tell us what you think they should cover.

Yes – I would like to see a further objective (or extension of an existing objective) to cover a wider approach to quality of life, including noise, perception of danger, perception of freedom of movement, and delay.

Question 15: Finding the money to install mass transit schemes such as trams may not be possible within the current funding mechanisms (government grants and developer funding). How do you think the money could be raised in other ways?

I do not believe “mass transit” systems are necessary.

However I would recommend the use of the Workplace Parking Levy framework to require employers to record where their staff are travelling from, and to set up expectations of how that information should be used (eg not allowing parking for short-distance commuting, or where public transport is readily available).

Northern Gateway

To the north of Oxford, there is a complicated and congested set of junctions where roads from several directions meet the ring road. The City Council has identified some of the land in this area as suitable for development, but this would be likely to make the situation worse.

The queues coming from the west (the A40) in the morning are particularly notorious. The A40 brings traffic from Witney, which has seen large-scale housing growth, but has limited public transport (principally buses which get stuck in the traffic). The conventional approach would be to make all the junctions bigger, with traffic lights controlling entry to the roundabouts. The lights would also allow for multi-stage pedestrian/cycle crossings.

While these junction schemes tend to improve traffic flow in the short term, they don’t solve any of the underlying problems. They give no advantage to public transport, and the crossings are too slow to promote cycling. So, if anything, they tend to encourage more traffic.

Instead, we should use these opportunities to think laterally. How can we organise the traffic so that public transport has an advantage? Can we simplify junctions to make them more cycle-friendly? Can the traffic be concentrated so that it feeds a Park & Ride service? Can we create space for liveable housing developments that aren’t cut off by major roads?

My suggestion would be to divert the A40 to Peartree roundabout, with the existing road kept for buses only. This gives a significant advantage to public transport. For people coming from places that aren’t directly served by public transport, the Peartree route will give them easier access to the Park & Ride. In due course, I’d also like to see a railway station at Peartree.

Diverting the A40 to Peartree would allow Wolvercote roundabout to be simplified. There would only be one main flow (from Peartree to the northern bypass), so this could have lanes through the middle of the roundabout, with the rest of the roundabout made slow. This would allow the land beyond the roundabout to be properly integrated with the rest of Oxford, making it much more suitable for housing development.

With all turning movements catered for at Wolvercote roundabout, the simplest solution at Cutteslowe roundabout – a much more confined site – would be to make it a crossroads with all turning moves banned. This will reconnect Cutteslowe (and Kidlington) to Oxford.

Given the car-based lifestyles of much of the population outside the city, it’s probably inevitable that there are large roads on the edge of the city. But the traffic can be organised so that it does not form an impenetrable barrier, and does not get in the way of good public transport into the city.

Original imagery from Google Maps.

Driving Short Distances

The census data on journey-to-work can be used to analyse where and how people are travelling, based on where they live and work. This gives some important indications of where different modes are effective, and where they could be, with some support.

This data isn’t generally available, and I’ve had to piece together the Oxford story from a number of sources. Most of the data is from 2001, which therefore doesn’t reflect some major changes in Headington. But it does give a broad indication of the issues. 2011 data should be available later this year.

High-level numbers (rounded)

Oxford’s congestion problem is the result of too many people driving. People who drive out of Oxford are probably less of a problem – their journeys don’t tend to concentrate on key destinations, or at key times. The people who drive in from outside generally travel further overall than those who just drive inside the city, but in terms of congestion, their impact is similar. The number driving from outside is roughly double that from inside, but both are substantial. The total number of drivers is about 40000.

The driving figures include about 3000 drivers, mostly from the rest of Oxfordshire (or further afield), who use Park & Ride. Oxford’s Park & Ride system is large, and makes a significant difference, particularly for journeys to the centre. But it still only intercepts about 10% of incoming drivers.

We can also see where and how people travel to the main employment areas (the centre, Headington and the Cowley works area).

City Centre

Few people drive to the centre – forty years of parking control have had the desired effect – but driving has not been entirely eliminated. It’s noticeable that the highest source of driving from within the city is the area around the car works (Cowley), despite a bus share of over 50%.

For half the city, the bus is clearly dominant for journeys to the centre (not as dominant as rail in London, but close). Cycling isn’t ever quite as dominant, but there are some ward-to-ward modal splits in excess of 50%, especially where there is no direct bus service. Cycling modal splits in the 20-40% range are quite common.
Buses already have substantial bus priority on many routes, particularly from Headington/Cowley (by virtue of the High St closure) and from the north (bus lanes). So there’s a limit to what more can be achieved by improving bus quality.

Parking is slowly being reduced, as businesses decide that land can be released for building. But there’s also probably an opportunity to improve the quality of the walking and cycling environment. Walking and cycling are already dominant from the inner wards, and offer the best opportunity to reduce driving further. Cycling is a substantial mode from Headington and Cowley (despite the hill), and there may well be opportunities to provide a clearer, more joined-up network for cycle commuting, relatively easily.

Headington

The next biggest employment destination is Headington (principally two hospitals). The situation will have changed since 2001 – there has been significant hospital expansion, new bus services, and stricter parking control. However, the different modal splits are illuminating. A large proportion of commuting is within the Headington area. Quite a lot of people are driving short distances. The other big origin wards in the city, particularly for driving, are the wards around the car works. And there is a lot driving from outside the city.

So in terms of policy, it looks like the top target would be shifting from car to walk/cycle from the immediately surrounding area. This makes a policy of restricting parking permits based on residential location look very sound (and indeed, that’s what has happened).

But do the alternatives need to be improved as well? The main reason for improving the alternatives is to make parking restrictions more palatable. In practice there has been little improvement for walking and cycling, with most of the improvements directed towards bus users. Two new bus-only access roads were built, Park & Ride sites have been expanded, and new direct bus services provided. Some of the buses are still prone to congestion, and it’s hard to provide a service to a dispersed market. So it would be better to improve conditions for cycling in parallel. Cycling is more effective as an alternative for the inner wards, and just as likely to be effective from the Cowley area.

Cowley

The third big employment destination is the area around the car works (partly still a car works, but with other similar employers and a couple of business parks as well). Again, a large number live locally, and despite a substantial level of cycling, a lot drive. Bus is almost irrelevant. There is very little parking control. Again, the most immediate opportunity is shifting from car to walk/cycle from the immediately surrounding area.

But how is this to be achieved without parking control? It will probably require cycle facilities that are more attractive than the Oxford norm, but perhaps more importantly, a substantial cultural shift (more positive about cycling, less accepting of the need to provide parking for short-distance commuters). Fortunately, there are some pretty good cycle tracks along the ring road (it’s how people got to the works before they owned cars), but the tracks need to connect up better. The useful bits of main road need to be made cycle-friendly as well, so that people feel that they can easily go everywhere.

Can buses (or other public transport) play a significant role for travel between suburbs (eg from Headington to Cowley)? Public transport is only likely to be really effective if there’s parking restraint. The ring road provides a fast route between the suburbs, so it’s almost impossible for public transport to provide a comparable service. So the focus has to be on dealing with local journeys first, where it is much easier for the alternatives to be comparable.

Congested City Centre Approaches

Even though the proportion of drivers to the centre is fairly low, there is still congestion on Botley Road, Abingdon Road and through the science area, with Botley Road being the worst. The data allows us to look at who is probably driving on Botley Road, and what alternatives to driving are most likely to be acceptable.

Botley Road carries about 1000 cars in the peak hour in the peak direction. Some journeys to work will be outside the peak hour, but clearly the census journey-to-work data gives a good indication of the origins and destinations of a lot of the peak traffic.

Journeys to the centre are the largest source of driving, despite a comprehensive bus service. But note that about 500 of these drivers use Park&Ride. Driving to the rest of the inner wards (Jericho & Osney, Other Inner (St Clements etc) and North Ward) is also substantial. For these areas around the centre it is noticeable that bus use is markedly lower than to the centre, partly due to the availability of parking (especially on Osney Mead industrial estate), but also partly due to the difficulty of interchanging between buses in central Oxford.

For the shorter journeys, cycling is a substantial mode, and often as important as the bus. While the cycle lanes along much of Botley Road are clearly valuable, the gap under the railway bridge, the problematic side roads further out, and the fairly poor conditions through Frideswide Square could all be keeping people driving.

Bus use from Botley/Cumnor to the centre isn’t as high as many of Oxford’s outer wards, and cycling is higher – it’s more like Wolvercote than Cowley. Given the hill, that is a little surprising, but reflects the different demography, and the lack of clear high-frequency bus routes. The bus service is divided between four routes (one of which has two operators). Some rationalisation of services may be required, perhaps incorporating a new link between Elms Rise and Harcourt Hill.

The lower level of bus use, and the inherent poor competitiveness when coming from any distance, makes it hard to make a case for further bus priority. Bus priority could be enhanced by holding back traffic at Binsey Lane, or by removing the turning lanes and installing an outbound bus lane. Buses are certainly being severely delayed by congestion. But because many drivers come from too far away, there aren’t likely to be enough switchers to make queue relocation or a reduction in car capacity feasible. It is probably more sensible in the short term to improve the quality of provision for cycling, to rationalise and coordinate the bus services, and to improve city-centre interchange.

General Lessons

While this has looked specifically at Oxford in 2001, in the context of a long policy of parking restraint, there are some general lessons to be drawn. A lot of people drive quite short distances, and in many cases the most likely alternative to driving will be cycling. Buses work particularly well from outer council estates to the centre, especially when supported by parking restraint and bus priority, but are less effective from between-the-wars estates, or from towns outside the immediate urban area.

Tackling Congestion in Oxford

The most effective policies for tackling congestion in Oxford are likely to be a mixture of parking restraint, providing a more cohesive network of cycle routes, particularly in the suburbs, and improving bus interchange in the city centre.

To Squeeze or Not To Squeeze

Botley Road under the rail bridge is only 8.05m wide, for a short length, between a wall on one side, and the kerb of a narrow pavement on the other. A 20mph speed limit applies. This is the only section of Botley Road without some form of cycle lane, and filling in this gap has been a top priority for more than a decade.

A 1.2m cycle lane could be marked on both sides (see second picture), leaving about 2.8m lanes for general traffic. The cycle lanes can’t be narrower than that, because of the wall on one side, and drainage grills on the other. At 20mph, 2.8m traffic lanes are adequate. That’s only just enough room for two buses to pass, but manageable.

There have long been ambitions to get this bridge rebuilt a bit wider, though that will only happen if there’s a railway business case for doing so. There is talk that it might happen as part of expanding the station, maybe in 2017.

So – the question is – do we put up with the gap in the cycle lane for years and years, in the hope that one day we might have plenty of space? Or do we squeeze in a cycle lane, at a cost of a few thousand pounds, and risk that it might be superseded in a few years?

Since a cycle lane would probably pay for itself in months, we should just do it. The sooner it is done, the bigger the payback.

Original imagery from Bing.

An Excellent Bus Network

Oxford’s buses are excellent – for getting to the city centre. Based on the inner cordon counts, over 40% of journeys into central Oxford are by bus. Buses run at least every five minutes on all the main corridors.

A large part of this success is due to bus priority, most notably the closure of the High Street to general traffic in 1999, blocking the only direct route from east Oxford.

But all these high-frequency routes don’t add up to a network. If we want a truly excellent public transport system, the individual routes need to connect – and the system needs to be clear and easy to use. At the moment, Oxford can’t really be said to have a joined-up network. In fact, as is typical in the UK, the local bus map doesn’t show what happens in the city centre at all.

There are particular reasons why the centre is too complicated to map. There are two major bus companies and several smaller ones. Bus services are profitable in Oxford, and this has led to competition and duplication. In the last few years, the two main companies have agreed joint operation of some of the busiest services, but there remains a huge variety of low-frequency services. Despite some joint-ticketing, services are still designed around route-specific ticketing.

In most of the rest of Europe, tickets are valid for a fixed time, so services can be designed for interchange. In the UK (outside London), there’s little coordination between services, even between services run by the same company, and pretty much everything runs into the city centre.

Even if low-frequency services were excluded, the situation in the centre would still be too complicated. This is because the high-frequency services take a variety of routes through the centre, with some running through, some looping round, and some doing both. By comparison, in a Swiss city such as Basel, one-way loops are rare, almost all the routes run two-way, and most of the main services run through.

This pattern is partly the result of operating trams, but it also applies to cities such as Winterthur which operate buses. The lack of loops makes it much easier to create a network map. There are fewer lines, and interchanges are clear and simple. It’s easier to understand the services as a network, and the usage reflects that – it’s not just a service into the city centre, but the normal way of getting anywhere in the city. This is one of the key reasons why car use in Basel is remarkably low (under 20%).

The Swiss even stick to two-way operation in quite narrow streets: they just run non-stop. As we’ve found in Queen Street in Oxford, buses have very little impact if they just run through a street slowly. Buses and trams only really get in the way when they stop.

How can we make Oxford’s buses simpler for people to use, for a wider range of journeys? It would be great if we had trams instead of buses, but since buses are cheaper to run, it’s probably better to stick with what we have – fares are high enough already. But even without trams, we can make significant improvements, by learning from the Swiss.

It’s difficult to run services through from one side of Oxford to the other, because demand is much higher on the eastern side, requiring bigger buses. So a lot of services do have to terminate.

We also have to cope with fairly slow loading, with every passenger having to pay the driver or show a pass or ticket. This has led to a situation where each main service has its own stop, and stands there for several minutes loading. Through journeys are tediously slow, and interchange generally requires a walk across town.

Some ticketing reform would certainly help. The central stops could have ticket machines, so the driver only has to check tickets. Tickets above a certain value could be valid for interchange between SmartZone services, for say 30 minutes. Smartcard ticketing could be extended to these 30-minute passes, rather than being limited to day (and longer) passes.

But the real solution is to run the main eastern services two-way, non-stop through Queen Street, to the railway station. This will give those services multiple credible boarding stops, no reason to stand at any stop for very long, and facilitate interchange with other services.

Only the main eastern services would run through Queen Street – the rest would turn down St Aldates and run through to the south, or terminate at Speedwell Street. Most southern services would run via Castle Street to the railway station, and northern services could run to the railway station as well. This would provide clear interchange between services, and allow a proper network map to be drawn.

More space would be required for buses at the station, but that’s achievable by moving the taxis to the short-stay car-park.

There would also need to be a clear bus priority route through Frideswide Square. That can be achieved by running the buses along Hythe Bridge Street, switching the general traffic to Park End Street, and crossing over at Worcester Street (a potential layout is shown below).

Unfortunately, the latest proposals for Frideswide Square rely on crossing over at a sequence of three roundabouts, which is almost bound to gridlock in the evening peak.

Two-way buses in Queen Street inevitably means compromising space for pedestrians. But if we want to have excellent public transport in Oxford, and get people out of their cars, we need to give the buses the space they need so they can operate as a network.

Maps from Oxford Bus Company (pdf), Basel On The Move (pdf), and Google Maps.

Short-term Strategy

Turning a city into a transport paradise inevitably takes time. There’s a lot of city that needs to change, and a lot of people that can obstruct progress. So it is important to carry on taking small steps, as well as working on bigger ones.

What’s on the agenda in Oxford in 2014? There are some major projects – a £900k project to make The Plain roundabout more cycle-friendly, and planning for a major extension to the Westgate shopping centre, and a rebuild of the railway station.

But there should be progress on financially-smaller schemes as well. They should not be postponed yet again. While it is true that people will carry on muddling through without them, they do have a positive effect, so every postponement is an opportunity missed.

There are three simple cycling schemes which should be done in 2014, and a long list of small improvements for walking where progress can be made.

1) Cycle lane under Botley Road railway bridge. The traffic-light island needs to be trimmed slightly, but otherwise this is simply a matter of painting in a cycle lane and narrowing the traffic lanes. The dimensions are all a bit tight, but adequate at 20mph. The railway bridge might get rebuilt, but it might not, and the costs of marking a cycle lane are so low that it should be done as an interim solution, regardless.

2) Cycle lanes on Marston Road. This scheme has been on hold, and should be pushed to implementation. It consists of an outbound cycle lane from London Place to John Garne Way, and cycle lanes on both sides from there to the start of the cycle tracks. The parking would all be moved to the east side and placed in a bay.

3) Parking ban on Donnington Bridge Road. Cycle lanes were painted on Donnington Bridge Road a couple of years ago, but they are generally obstructed by a small number of parked cars. The cars are parked half on the pavement, half on the road: the road is clearly not wide enough for parking. There is spare capacity in the side roads, and the whole length should be double-yellow restricted.

4) Raised side-road crossings. The new type of raised side road crossing that was installed along Iffley Road is very effective at giving pedestrians priority. These should be installed at all side roads, in due course. The next batch could be along Botley Road, to improve conditions for people walking from and to the Park & Ride.

Traffic in Inner London

This chart shows motor-traffic volumes on main roads (A roads) in inner London. The data is from the DfT’s traffic counts for 2012, with junction codings made consistent (not a trivial task).

There are huge traffic flows to the west, using the two big roads (the A4 and the A40). If you provide big fast roads, they fill with traffic (which then needs somewhere to park). Other parts of inner London, notably to the north, manage with roads that are nowhere near as big. Quite a lot of this traffic is unnecessary.

The second observation is that flows can vary quite substantially along a route. Much of the traffic is short-distance: avoid falling into the trap of thinking that there’s lots of long-distance traffic that needs through routes. Most journeys from outer to central London are by rail, not road. This effect can also be seen in the way that flows diminish away from the big roads. Inner London has excellent public transport, and unless there’s a quasi-motorway, most people will avoid driving for any distance.

The policy implications of this are well-known: traffic will disappear if you reduce roadspace. In north London, traffic could be suppressed further, for instance by removing general traffic from Camden High Street. If conditions for the on-street alternatives (buses, walking, bikes) are improved at the same time, all the better. In south London, the A road network could be simplified. Would it perhaps even be better to concentrate traffic on the Embankment, rather than creating a network of nasty junctions in Lambeth and Southwark?