Birmingham New Street

Birmingham New Street is the hub of the national rail network. It has long been a dark and confusing place, buried under a shopping centre, with dim lighting and lots of blank walls that all look the same. But a glance up at the departure board always gave me that “where shall we go today” feeling, and suddenly the world seemed a brighter place.

It was hard to recommend New Street as a place to change between trains, so the railway made a virtue of running through services. Which is a pity, because sitting in a train in the bowels of the station is hardly the best way to see Birmingham. In fact, unlike many cities, the station is in the heart of the city centre – in two minutes you could be on the main shopping street, or sunning yourself in Victoria Square.

This comprehensive pattern of through workings comes at a cost. It means that services are a bit irregular, don’t depart from consistent platforms, and are prone to delay. In fact, small delays are endemic. With some trains running head on, some reversing, and some terminating, they inevitably get in each other’s way. The reversals in the high-numbered platforms, in particular, have never really worked.

New Street is currently being rebuilt, with a huge atrium to let in the light. It will be a much more pleasant place to change. At platform level it will be brighter, though still pretty disorientating. But the main improvement is that there will be a large central concourse, big enough to let you get your bearings, rather than just follow the signs.

We should take this opportunity to simplify the pattern of services. Instead of alternating between head-on and reversing, the main CrossCountry services would all run head-on. This will allow departure platforms to be standardised, and substantially reduce delays. It will inevitably force a few people to change who did not have to before, but the overall effect should be substantially positive.

All services from Reading would run to Manchester, and all services from Bristol would run to Sheffield. This is mostly just a replatforming exercise, but it would mean the service to Reading leaving slightly later (as it often does anyway).

The great virtue of simplifying the service pattern is that it will demystify New Street. The staff will soon get used to the idea, and be able to tell you which platform you need without a second thought. But it will also make it a lot easier for everybody to understand. Rail travel shouldn’t be a great mystery. It should be as easy as ABC.

The platforms would be roughly as follows:

High Speed or not High Speed

High speed rail has its benefits, but we don’t have to build it all straight away: use high speed to enhance the existing rail system, not replace it.

Normally, it’s a good idea to separate fast and slow railway services. There are multiple intermediate stops on almost all corridors, so you need four tracks to run fast services. Approaching London, you ideally need six tracks, so the urban stopping service is separate. That’s the situation on the West Coast Main Line – six tracks to Watford, four tracks (mostly) to Crewe.

Around London, many of the main lines were four-tracked decades ago, in the days when there were far more freight trains. This typically extends beyond the limit of outer commuter services, allowing the fast trains a clear run. This is why there hasn’t been the pressure to build high-speed lines – we already have an extensive network of fast lines.

With the exception of Kent (where there had never been much four-tracking), the sensible option has been to increase linespeeds, build flyovers, and extend the four-track network. And so it might continue if it weren’t for Milton Keynes.

The two largest rail markets in Britain are London to Manchester and London to Birmingham. They are large enough to justify half-hourly non-stop services, but the infrastructure does not allow this. At the London end the line is getting close to capacity. We are getting to the point where either everything has to stop at Milton Keynes, or nothing.

Approaching Birmingham and Manchester, there are sections of two-track railway, and the fast services have to run between stoppers. To make this fit, the fast services have a couple of intermediate stops. These extra stops mean there are more services to Birmingham/Manchester, and that partly compensates for the loss of speed, but there isn’t much value running more than three trains an hour.

With Milton Keynes planned to expand, the simplest option is to stop everything at Milton Keynes, in much the same way as everything out of Paddington stops at Reading. This slows all the fast trains by about five minutes. So the high speed line isn’t really about solving a capacity problem, it’s more that the capacity problem reduces speed, making a high speed line more beneficial.

The engineers have identified a route for a new line, and have ended up proposing a tunnel almost all the way from central London to Amersham – about 40km. To justify the cost of this, the route to Birmingham and Manchester needs to be ultra-fast throughout, and the line needs to be full from the outset, with branches to anywhere big enough to fill a train. This intensity of service also requires a major expansion of Euston station, demolishing several blocks of social housing in the process.

The expensive parts of the high speed line are the new terminal stations and the tunnelling into the cities. The French typically don’t do either of these – they have concentrated on building new lines between cities. Now that we’ve identified just how expensive the full scheme would be, I think it’s time to consider an intermediate option that leaves the most expensive sections to later.

Starting from Euston, I’d suggest maximising the number of 260m platforms within the existing station, and expanding the concourse, but not increasing the footprint or trying to provide 400m platforms.

I’d then use the existing fast lines to at least Headstone Lane (between Harrow and Watford), and start the high-speed line from there. That halves the tunnelling, but allows the full scheme to be implemented at a later date.*

The high speed line would then run as proposed to Berkswell on the outskirts of Birmingham, before diverting onto the existing route to Birmingham International and New Street. Capacity approaching Birmingham would be increased by four-tracking from Berkswell to Adderley Park, and providing additional flyovers at Proof House (the junction just before New Street) to make it conflict-free. Platform capacity at New Street would be increased by running services through, rather than terminating. This doesn’t quite create a perfect high-speed route into Birmingham, but it spreads the capacity benefits more widely, allowing more local and more semi-fast services.

Services to Manchester would diverge from the high speed line south of Rugby, on a new link that would join the existing main line just north of Rugby. The existing line is mostly four-track and fast for 125 km, and does not need to be duplicated. Just before Stafford, there is a gap in the four-tracking which probably needs a 5 km new line, looping south of Shugborough. At Crewe, there will need to be a new flyover at the south end, and the freight underpass at the north end will need to be upgraded.

The existing route from Crewe to Manchester is fairly fast, albeit mostly two-track and with a couple of intermediate stops required. The proposed route with a long tunnel via the airport is hard to justify. A better bet would be building a branch a bit further north, alongside the M62 then joining the line to Manchester Victoria via Eccles. This would be fast, with no intermediate stops. There would probably need to be new platforms at Manchester Victoria, but there is plenty of space.

The line will be almost full with fast services to all the main West Coast destinations, but there will be some spare capacity. It will be hard to justify a high-speed branch to Leeds: the costs will be high and the cities are smaller. Instead I would suggest a short branch towards Derby, with high-speed services to Sheffield and Nottingham, using existing lines.

It seems more likely that improvements to Leeds will come from upgrades to the East Coast Main Line. The key bottleneck is south of Hitchin, where there are too many outer-suburban services on the main line. The solution may be to use the fast lines out of St Pancras to Bedford, and make a new line alongside the A421 to St Neots. This would provide enough capacity to run additional trains non-stop to Leeds.

Rather than build an all-new high speed line, I think a greater improvement can be made by selective new build and four-tracking more of what we already have. That way the benefits will be felt more widely, and the new capacity will be put to good use, rather than duplicating what we already have. In a small country, it’s the ability to run non-stop that makes the critical difference to speed.

The map shows the existing four-track railways (in orange), the existing and suggested high-speed lines (in red), and the new four-tracking on the approach to Birmingham (in green).

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Base map is OpenStreetMap Transport layer.

* There are other possibilities, using existing major road corridors through the Chilterns. These are slightly slower, and deviate more from the full scheme, making it more expensive to implement the full scheme later. The minimum requirement is to leave the existing line before the first station north of Watford (Kings Langley).

Lower Fares / South London Overground

To really reduce fares, we need to make rail into an all-day transport service. South London is a key opportunity for transformation.

It’s become an annual tradition: when the inflation index is published for July, the campaigners start putting out press releases about what that means for rail fares in January. Eventually the government agrees to reduce it by a little. This makes the campaigners seem important, and the government seem generous, so everyone’s a winner. But it detracts from the underlying issues.

To get fares down properly, we need lots more people using the railway off-peak. The cost of running the service is mostly fixed, so the more people travel when there’s spare capacity, the lower the cost per journey. In due course, this will feed through to lower fares.

Longer-distance services into London roughly pay for themselves. This is where rail is strongest – running fast into the centre of London. It’s also where improvements to rail have the greatest effect, because getting to and from the station has (proportionately) least effect. Inevitably, railway management tends to focus on these services, rather ignoring the shorter-distance ones.

This is a problem, because it is the short-distance services that require the subsidy. But it’s also an opportunity, because short-distance services are more likely to work for leisure journeys. All you need is a high-frequency service, easy access to and from the station, and something worth going to.

Putting this together, there’s a distinct virtue in short-distance services being managed separately from long-distance services, and integrated with connecting services in the centre. If you can combine that with improving the attractiveness of the city centre, all the better.

For a number of reasons, the short-distance services in south London have remained part of the national rail network, rather than being incorporated into the Underground. The network is more interconnected, so it couldn’t readily be linked into the Underground one line at a time, as was done in north London. Instead, the whole inner network needs to transferred in one go, with just a few fast lines left for the outer services.

That wasn’t feasible until a few years ago, but the advent of HS1, and Thameslink begin to make it possible. There will need to be some further alterations, but on nothing like the same scale. The outer services need sufficient capacity so they can largely avoid interacting with the inners. I’ve identified the key improvements that will be required:

New flyovers north and south of East Croydon. These allow fast services to run from Victoria and London Bridge through East Croydon without conflict, but with cross-platform interchange. This increases the capacity for outer services, allowing the inner services to terminate. The first flyover is at Windmill Bridge (just north of East Croydon), and will take the southbound Victoria fast line (blue) over the London Bridge fast lines (orange). This reduces the inner services to a single line for a short way, but this is sufficient.

The second flyover is at South Croydon, and will take the southbound Victoria fast line (blue) back over the London Bridge fast lines (orange).

A new bridge, and a rearrangement of lines at Chislehurst. This diverts the Kent mainline outer services (orange) away from the stopping services (green), so that they can take over the lines to Chatham and Maidstone. A new curve between the fast and slow lines allows the stopping services from Bromley South to run to Orpington without conflicting with the fast services.

Six-tracking of the section from St Johns to New Cross. This keeps the outer services (orange) separate from the Charing Cross and Cannon Street locals (green). The outer services can then run into Thameslink using the new flyover at Bermondsey. This requires the widening of the cutting under a local street, and rebuilding a number of bridges. There are a couple of tight spots, but it looks feasible.

With a few fairly simple changes, all the local lines out of Victoria, Charing Cross, Blackfriars, Cannon Street and London Bridge can be separated from the outer services, and integrated with the Underground. Off-peak service frequencies can be increased, making rail into a true all-day transport service. If this is combined with making central London into an attractive leisure destination, then more people will travel off-peak, spreading the costs, and (ultimately) reducing fares.

Original imagery courtesy of Google Maps.

Low Traffic City Centres

To become a truly great city, London needs to exclude most traffic from its central commercial districts.

A shopping trip to Stanfords in London set me thinking about what makes a city a truly great place to visit.

The heavy traffic, buses, taxis and crowded pavements all feel an inherent part of London’s character. But that very character is also something that makes the centre of London a place that many Londoners generally avoid. It is too noisy, too busy, too congested. London is one of the world’s great cities, and a huge number of people work in the centre, but it is not fulfilling its potential as a shopping, leisure and cultural destination. It is still too dominated by traffic.

Many cities have made their centres attractive by excluding through traffic and reducing parking. However, by looking at a large number of examples, a pattern emerges: the low-traffic area is approximately one kilometre across, and surrounded by a ring road. This is the size of the pre-industrial city, with the ring road taking the place of the city wall (or canal). Vienna, Munich, Amsterdam, Copenhagen all seem to follow this same basic pattern.

The problem is that central London is much bigger than this, being about 5km by 2km – and that’s excluding the part of the congestion charge zone that’s south of the river. If you try to draw a 1km grid on the west end, you end up with heavy traffic on Oxford (or Wigmore) Street, Piccadilly and Regent Street, which is exactly the unsatisfactory situation we already have.

Some of the Italian cities, notably Florence, have restricted traffic over a bigger area, roughly 2km x 2km. This has required a strict ban on private traffic during the day, with limited provision of zonal permits for residents and deliveries. Trying to impose a 2km grid on central London is a bit more realistic. It can mostly be done using the wide roads that the Victorians built: Embankment and Kingsway.

The congestion charge zone has been fairly effective, but the lack of control within the zone means that the main commercial areas still have too much traffic. We can do better than that.

One observation from the various continental cities is that they typically have very little explicit provision for bikes in the centre. There are often cycle tracks alongside the ring road, but they tend to form a secondary route, with the main cycle routes heading into the restricted zone. The priority for the ring road is to keep traffic out of the centre, not to provide a cycle superhighway. At the moment, London seems to be adopting the opposite policy – of giving the traffic free rein in the centre (for a fee), and trying to carve out cycle superhighways on the few roads that are wide enough. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.

I’ve drawn a map showing how London might be made into an attractive low-traffic destination. To give access to all areas, three key routes (in pink) would be retained as traffic streets. The rest would be access-only. The traffic would be suppressed by blocking all the other through routes, by pedestrianising the streets in light blue, including Oxford Street and Regent Street. These blue routes would remain bus corridors, but would be much less congested than at the moment. They also make a good set of commuter cycle routes. There would be a few cross routes for taxis, but all other traffic would have to go round.

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors

Office Location

Commuting patterns are the result of where people live, where they work, and how they travel between the two. Workplaces may only take up a fraction of land, but their location is clearly critical to the transport system. Do we want offices to be concentrated in a few locations, spread about evenly, or something in-between?

The dominant economic force seems to be to concentrate offices in a few locations. Businesses like to be near customers and suppliers, and like the flexibility to grow and acquire staff and space that comes from being part of an agglomeration. Staff like the flexibility, and also direct access to shops, banks, and places to eat and drink. This is why offices have traditionally located in city centres. Above a certain size of city, there needs to be public transport, but this works reasonably well, given all-day demand, and priority over cars. But it can be difficult to get enough priority over cars.

The public transport priority problem is particularly acute where a city’s expansion has been restrained by a green belt. It is harder to make public transport from outside the city competitive, because the higher speeds in the countryside mean that urban priority has less impact. Railways can be competitive, if the distance is far enough (maybe 10 miles), but buses will need very clear priority to be competitive.

In recent decades, there has been a growth in business parks, where cheaper offices are offered on an out-of-town site, sometimes with some form of tax incentive. Almost all access is by car, and people drive from miles around. On a small scale this works well-enough, but as the business park expands, the road network becomes unable to cope, leading to chronic congestion (and demands for ever more capacity).

There have also been large-scale developments on suburban sites, particularly hospitals and universities. These also tend to be accessed by car, but the congestion effects are usually more immediate. In Oxford it has proved possible to impose parking restrictions at the large institutions. Many people live close enough to walk (or cycle), and many others can use public transport or Park & Ride. The restrictions are unpopular amongst the staff, but can be made to work.

The dominant tendency seems to be for employment locations to agglomerate. As such it makes sense to focus on city centres, and to make them work in public transport terms. Employment growth should also be focused on city centres, even if that means more people commuting from outside; at least then there is a fair chance that they will commute by public transport.

This does not mean that all jobs should be in the city centre. A reasonable concentration of jobs in smaller towns will give people access to local employment, and the number who drive in from outside will probably be tolerable. What should be avoided is creating concentrations of employment with a wide catchment, and not particularly drawing their workforce from adjacent settlements; that will overload the road network.

The data for Oxfordshire shows how Oxford dominates (even though Headington and Cowley have been separated out), but there are other significant centres of employment.

Oxford is distinguished by having an unusually low driving share, markedly lower than any other location. Headington is also noticeably low. The internal driving modal shares vary, dramatically, from 12% for Oxford to 60% for Didcot/Harwell/Milton. The external driving modal shares are almost uniformly high, with only Oxford and Headington differing from the norm.

I have calculated a self-sufficiency ratio – the percentage of a town’s employees who live locally. If you combine the three Oxford areas, their joint self-sufficiency is 48%. The most striking result is that all the other towns are as dependent or even more dependent on commuters from outside. People aren’t just commuting into Oxford, they are commuting in large numbers into every employment centre (and most of them are driving).

Does this create a problem? We know there are horrendous congestion problems around Oxford, so there needs to be further improvements to public transport. Where else is it a problem? The worst concentration is around Didcot/Harwell/Milton, both because it is large, but also because a lot of the traffic is concentrated on the A34. The other location with a particular problem is Kidlington, where the self-sufficiency ratio is very low. In both cases, major employment sites have been developed outside the town, rather than organically.

The solution for both Didcot and Kidlington is to actively seek to integrate the employment sites into the towns, with excellent walking and cycling provision, new housing conveniently placed for the employment site, and new public transport links. In the case of Kidlington, it would probably be better if some of the employment land was converted to housing.

Housing Growth

Oxford is one of the most expensive places to live in Britain. It is very successful, economically. The local population is expected to grow and grow – where are they going to live? Should we just let people commute in from the surrounding towns, or should we build on the green belt?

More than half of Oxford’s workers commute from outside the city. Public transport isn’t good enough and many people drive, resulting in terrible congestion. There are (far) too many commuters to re-house them in new estates on the edge of Oxford, even if we wanted to. So whatever else happens, the commuting problem must be tackled, by improving public transport.

Do we need to put housing in specific places to support fixing the commuting problem? Probably not. Bus services operate commercially and can provide for a high proportion of the demand, to the city centre at least, if they are given priority over cars. Some rail services are viable, but only as part of services running through to Reading, Birmingham and London. So the main solution will be bus priority.

Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to put new houses around existing towns served by rail, or along existing bus corridors. It’s certainly not a good idea to put housing in places that are poorly served by public transport – that would just add to the congestion.

Is there a case for building in Oxford’s green belt? The main virtue of doing so is that most of the people would commute into Oxford, so it addresses Oxford’s shortfall of housing more directly. Many would probably walk, cycle or get the bus to work. The diagram shows what happens with existing developments on the edge of the city, and how that compares to commuting from the main towns.

The bars from Wolvercote down to Barton/Northway are in rough order around the city starting from the north and going anti-clockwise. The proportion driving into the city is 15-20% for the areas with concentrated development and frequent bus services, rising to 37% for the Horspath and Wheatley areas. By comparison, the proportion driving from Abingdon is 33%. When buses are given better priority, we’d hope to be able to get the figure for the main towns down to about 20%, so the case for building in the green belt for city centre workers isn’t compelling.

There is probably a case for building in the green belt for Headington workers, however. The nearest equivalent area is Barton/Northway, and the effectiveness of the parking restrictions at the hospitals and university sites is very clear. The proportion driving to work in Headington is only 19%, and markedly better than anything that is likely to be achieved from the county towns. This bodes well for the Barton West development. The Barton West site could sensibly be extended over the city boundary, as long as it stays within easy walking distance of the main Headington employment sites. Such housing might attract some commuters to Cowley, but the numbers will be fairly small.

It is harder to make a case for building in the green belt for Cowley workers. The nearest equivalent area is Greater Leys (including part of Blackbird Leys), where the driving rate to Cowley is 45%. With public transport improvements, it might well be possible to match that from places like Bicester and Witney. The problem with car-based development is that it will also generate car-based shopping, leisure and educational-escort trips. The best strategy for the moment is therefore to stick to redeveloping sites in the Cowley area, gradually increasing the density, and improving walking and cycling facilities (preferably backed by parking restrictions).

The other site where house-building is often considered is to the west of Kidlington. The proportion who would likely drive to central Oxford is reasonably low (about 22%), but sites beyond the green belt could probably be just as good. The main reason for building in that area is to serve the major employment site just to the north of Kidlington. This results in substantial in-commuting, almost all by car. Any development should therefore focus on that employment site.

Overall, with the exception of Headington, the case for building houses in the green belt for Oxford workers does not look strong. It would be just as good to develop around existing centres further afield, and concentrate on improving their public transport links to Oxford. Those public transport links need to be improved anyway. There might be a case for development east of the car works, but this should only be developed if parking restrictions are introduced.

Driving into Oxford

There are a large and growing number of people commuting by car into Oxford from beyond the city fringe (the big red 19000 arrow in the diagram below). We haven’t provided public transport of sufficient attractiveness to get people out of their cars. The consequence has been severe congestion on the outskirts of Oxford, on Botley Road and Abingdon Road, and around the hospital.

Oxford has successfully used bus lanes on several corridors to give buses priority. The closure of the High Street to through traffic in 1999 had a similar effect, making the cars go the long way round. Coupled with parking restrictions, and cycling and walking, this has been very successful in reducing car use within the city, especially to the city centre – where the car modal split is 10%.

There are two other major centres of employment in the suburbs: Headington and Cowley. The main employers in Headington are the hospitals and the universities, and they have only been allowed to develop on condition that they limit parking. This has been reasonably successful, mostly as a result of people walking and cycling from within the city. In Cowley, the major employment site is the car works, and the business park that was developed on part of it, both next to the ring road. There is little parking restraint, though a fair number of people walk and cycle.

In terms of commuting from the rest of Oxfordshire, beyond the city fringe, the three main employment sites are all important:

Some of these drivers will be using Park&Ride, but there are only about 4000 spaces available, and they have to be shared with drivers from the fringe, and from further afield. People driving to the Park&Ride are also contributing to the congestion on the outskirts of the city. We need a significant increase in the number of people using public transport from further away.

The first chart shows where people are commuting to central Oxford from the rest of Oxfordshire, beyond the city fringe. The origins are in rough order, going anti-clockwise around the city, with the principal towns separated out (Cherwell, West Oxon, ValeA420, ValeA34 and South Oxon cover the remainder).

There are respectable levels of public transport use, particularly from Didcot and Banbury (half-hourly rail), Abingdon and Witney (buses every 10 minutes or better) and West Oxon (hourly train). But many still drive, despite the congestion: public transport is far from being dominant, though it is definitely a contender.

The second chart shows the situation for Headington. While some people use conventional public transport, it’s mainly from Abingdon (there are three buses per hour direct from Abingdon to the main hospital, plus parking restrictions to support its use). The third chart, for Cowley, shows how public transport is almost irrelevant.

So the best prospect for modal shift is still for city centre workers. The strategy is probably to try to crack the congestion issues for buses to the city centre, to really make public transport dominant. The prospects for public transport direct to Headington and Cowley don’t look very good – the market is too dispersed. Public transport works best when it focuses on key centres of demand, preferably all-day demand. So the only sensible strategy is to link the key employment sites to the public transport hub at the main railway station.

While there has often been talk of reviving the railway line to Cowley, a bus service would be the starting point, probably running fast to Cowley Centre, then via Garsington Road to Blackbird Leys. This would give it an all-day market. For Headington, a bus service along London Road almost to Headington shops, then into the hospital and on to Northway and Barton West might work better than the existing indirect service via Marston.

But doesn’t this mean yet more buses in the city centre? Yes a few, though partly it is about rearranging existing services. The key problem with buses in the centre is boarding times, and that can probably be tackled by increasing use of smartcards and off-bus ticket purchase.

By looking at where people currently travel by public transport, and where people drive, we can see where and how public transport is most likely to work. It takes a lot of people travelling for a variety of purposes throughout the day to make a successful public transport service. Oxford has an excellent bus system for a medium-sized city, and with a bit more traffic management, it can be adapted to work well for journeys from the rest of the County as well.

Housing Crisis

Oxford is one of the most unaffordable places to live in Britain, if you compare average house prices to average wages. That makes for a good headline, but that’s not the whole story.

First, Oxford has quite a lot of large houses. North Oxford was a very early suburb, and the properties were built with married dons (university lecturers) in mind, probably with a servant or two, and not to the minimum allowed by the byelaws of the time, as was the norm elsewhere. This distorts the average house price. There may also be differences in how frequently properties are sold (the more expensive houses may change hands more frequently). So I would advise against basing any analysis on average house prices. There are a large number of rather cheaper houses in the less leafy parts of Oxford.

Second, Oxford has a large rented sector. There is still council housing, and a high proportion of new developments have to be for social rent. The colleges own and rent houses to their staff, and there are large blocks of student and nurses accommodation. Young professionals generally live in shared houses. The rents are undoubtedly high, and linked to house prices, but the links are indirect.

Third, for decades, the housing strategy has been to direct new housing development to the second tier of towns in the county. Oxford and Abingdon are surrounded by green belt, and the bulk of the housing development has been concentrated on Witney, Bicester, Didcot and Banbury. So looking at the Oxford housing market in isolation gives a distorted picture. Of people who travel to work in Oxford, roughly 42,000 live in the city, and 45,000 commute in from outside.

While housebuilders tend to focus on where to build houses, the reason we have a green belt is that there are two other big factors: where people work, and how they commute. If we just let the market take its course, we’d get more and more low-density housing and employment on the outskirts of the city, and the only feasible way to commute would be to drive.

So, how well has this “Country Town” housing strategy worked? Lots of houses have certainly been built, and lots of people commute. But the country towns aren’t full of Oxford commuters, by any means; only about 15-20% of their commuters travel to Oxford. Their existing housing stock could do much more to provide for Oxford workers. Why doesn’t it? Why do people try to live in Oxford rather than commute from Bicester? Oxford doesn’t really have a housing crisis, it has a commuting crisis.

As I’ve previously described, the time has come for a radical improvement to public transport, by blocking one of the roads into the centre to private cars, and giving the buses a clear run from Abingdon and Witney. It perhaps also suggests that concentrating development on rail-served towns (Didcot, and soon, Bicester) might be sensible.

But it’s not just a commuting problem – Didcot has long had a half-hourly rail service to Oxford. Perhaps the rail service is too infrequent – maybe there needs to be a bigger concentration of demand to help justify a more-frequent service. Perhaps onward connections in Oxford (to the large employment centres in Headington and Cowley) need to be faster, by allowing buses to run two-way through Queen St. Perhaps we need to do more to discourage driving, probably by further restricting workplace car-parking. And perhaps Didcot and Bicester could do with being larger, and having a bit more city-appeal.

So rather than build on the green belt, Oxford needs to crack its commuting crisis, so that people who live in the neighbouring towns can commute easily. New development should focus on Didcot and Bicester – these are the only places that are ever likely to have frequent rail connections to Oxford. Didcot, in particular, could expand and integrate with neighbouring employment sites, though Bicester currently seems to be keener. The more that workplace parking is restricted, in every location, the quicker we are likely to get to a well-functioning public transport plus walking and cycling model. As Oxford has shown, this approach makes for a very popular place to live.

Commuting Trends

Driving Short Distances looked at the pattern of commuting within and into Oxford, using data from the census. The overall conclusion was that many car journeys are very short, and there was a strong case for making better provision for them to be made on foot or by bike. It was also evident that driving levels were lower where parking was restricted.

Of the main routes that still have severe congestion, it was difficult to see how small improvements to public transport would be sufficient to get people out of their cars. People were coming from too diverse a range of places, and from too far away for bus to compete.

Detailed data is now available for both the 2001 and 2011 census, so we can see how things have changed. What are the trends – which policies have worked, and what’s been happening despite the policies?

The main change since 2001 is that more people are cycling and walking (+5000). There was also a reduction in driving to a specific workplace, but that was balanced by an increase in the number with no fixed place of work. Bus commuting has increased slightly. However, more people are driving from outside the city, from beyond the fringe. The roads are severely congested, as a result.

Looking in more detail at internal commutes, there has been a dramatic reduction in the proportion driving to work in Headington (from 41% to 25%). The parking restraint introduced when the hospital sites were amalgamated has proved very effective. There has been an increase in commuting to Headington by bus (+4%pts), but most of the increase has been in cycling (+6%pts) and walking (+7%pts). Walking and cycling now account for more than half of commutes within Oxford to Headington.

There have also been reductions in driving to other parts of Oxford (from within the city). However, the reduction was fairly small to workplaces in Cowley, and the level of driving remains much higher than for other parts of the city (44%). This reflects the lack of parking restraint in the Cowley area, and also the patchy state of cycle provision.

The increases in cycling and walking have happened despite a lack of substantial improvements to provision; it seems likely that further increases would be possible with a little investment.

More concerning is the increase in driving from further away: public transport has not been able to compete effectively. Something substantial is required, both to improve the public transport service, and actively discourage car use.

In recent years, the County Council has focused on easing traffic flow at a number of ring road roundabouts. Occasionally some bus priority has been included in these schemes, but it has only been small-scale, and the overall effect has probably been to facilitate traffic growth. Rail services remain fairly limited, with only Didcot having a reasonable (half-hourly) service. Bicester services are currently suspended while the line is rebuilt. The line speed will be much improved, but the new service will only be half-hourly. Witney and Abingdon largely rely on bus services, which are frequent (every 10 minutes), but get stuck in the traffic.

There have been various schemes mooted to improve the bus services, principally by providing bus lanes on the fast roads approaching the outskirts of Oxford (by widening the roads). This is expensive, not least because each route has to be done separately. With the volume of traffic, it’s hard to give buses a clear run through all the bottlenecks. The best overall result requires a clear route in for public transport, to maximise the transfer to public transport, and minimise the amount of car-congestion at the new equilibrium.

So, how do we make a clear route for the buses from Witney and Abingdon? Perhaps the time has come to be radical, and to block one of the main roads into Oxford to through traffic. The short route in from the west (Botley Road) is the best option, since it provides a good route from both Witney and Abingdon. The main complication is that Botley Road provides access to a number of large retail outlets, and an industrial estate. It should be possible to use numberplate-recognition cameras to allow access from both sides but stop through traffic. Failing that, Botley Road can be closed at the city end.

There is a risk that closing one route will lead to havoc on the remaining routes. It would be sensible to ensure that a robust package of alternatives is in place, including improvements to cycle routes in south Oxford (cycle lane on Abingdon Road, easier ramps up to the river bridge), and more bus services. But there are a very large number of journeys that could switch to public transport if the service can be made competitive, so the long term effect should be an overall reduction in congestion. Which would be a lot better than the current trend, where congestion is almost intolerable, and getting worse.

English & Dutch modal splits

Comparing the proportion of trips done by different modes of transport is fraught with difficulty. Different countries measure it in different ways, and it’s hard to get datasets that match. Some datasets are for all journey purposes, some just for work journeys. Some are based on where people live, some on where they work or go to school.

However, the Dutch National Travel Survey on page 108 has a chart for internal work journeys in seventeen Dutch cities which can reasonably be compared with English census data.

The four graphs cover work (werk), education (onderwijs), shopping (winkelen) and leisure/other (vrije tijd + overig). There are lines for car (auto), public transport (ov), bicycle (fiets) and foot/other (lopen + overig).

A few points to highlight: cycling is huge for education trips, walking is quite low for work trips, and public transport is only significant inside the major cities (and not that significant, even there). Remember that this is for trips inside the cities. A large proportion of trips are inside cities, but not all, by any means.

I have produced similar figures for work trips from the English census – this uses the MSOA dataset, to restrict it to journeys that start and end in the same city, and excludes home working. London is defined as the whole Greater London area; for other cities I have used the district-level authority (which doesn’t always cover the full built-up area). The graph shows the 15 cities with the lowest level of car use, in order of the number of internal commuters. The Dutch graph is shown beneath, for comparison.

It is clear that public transport is much more significant for internal city journeys in England. The difference is that England has much more bus use. London is exceptional, but a typical value for large cities is around 30%, and smaller cities can be as high as 20%. Car usage is similar (though remember that these are the best in England in that regard). Walking is much more significant in England, cycling (with a couple of exceptions) much less so.

In terms of strategy, the normal policy in England is to reduce car use, and promote the alternatives. Dutch driving levels appear to be similar, and English policy is to promote public transport (and walking) rather than scale it back. So rather than directly copying the Dutch, it looks like we’re going to have to find a slightly different approach, which continues to give a large role to buses and walking, alongside trying to provide more widely for cycling.

I’ve also calculated the same figures for the London boroughs individually, restricting it to journeys within the borough. Given the prevalence of work in central London, this needs to be used with care, but it does perhaps give an indication of the situation for short (non-work) journeys within each borough.