I returned from Oxford this week, saying an emotional farewell to a cat who will have already forgotten who I am.
While I was there, the cat’s owner lent me an old Dawes road bike, which I used to pootle about the place and explore the place, with its river meadows, dreaming spires, and future Boris Johnsons.
It gave me the opportunity to assess where Oxford sits among Britain’s cities in terms of active travel policy in the face of our massive climate, air pollution, and inactivity crises.
The Low Traffic Neighbourhoods
I stayed in east Oxford, home of three Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, or LTNs. The next road down was home to what the Guardian described as “Britain’s most hated bollard”, after rat runners repeatedly vandalised Howard Street’s traffic calming measure.
The council, I am pleased to say, have doubled down: they’ve replaced the bollards with more durable, timber alternatives.
Cameras are coming too, which will help with the motorbikes who ignore the signs and speed through on their take-out delivery journeys.
Since 2020, LTNs have been weaponised by the far right and their amplifiers in the billionaire-owned press as yet another (and honestly, rather surprising) front in the endless culture war.
Climate and Covid deniers, old-school neo-nazis, and conspiracists of all stripes have descended upon places like Oxford to explain to baffled locals that reclaiming roads for walking, cycling and wheeling is in fact part of a globalist anti-freedom conspiracy.
Not everyone who opposes LTNs is a fascist. Some locals have been misinformed by our relentless reactionary media about what they are and how they work (no one is “closing roads”; you can still get to every property by car if needed, ambulances are fine).
And some just hate having to drive slightly longer to their destination and don’t care about children breathing in toxic fumes.
But others, especially those making disingenuous and easily disproven social justice arguments, are willingly revving their engines with dangerous bedfellows.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so terrifying. In a climate and air quality emergency, even the smallest attempts to improve one’s area – and all the data we have shows that LTNs work exactly as intended – become hysterical focal points of fascist-led misinformation, hatred and fury.
All these arguments felt very far away when walking the residential streets in the St Mary’s area of Oxford on a spring morning. One could hear birdsong, as kids of all ages made their way to school via scooters, bikes, pushchairs, or cargo bikes.
Unlike in places like Germany, cargo bikes are still very expensive in England – though much cheaper than a car. So they are still somewhat a signifier of wealth. But passing a school with bikes of all stripes lined up outside felt a long way from the standard pavement parking and double yellow line rage of the car-based school run.
Outside the LTNs, progress is more piecemeal.
The sheer number of bikes in Oxford, with each house seemingly having two or three locked up on the front garden, does give a sense of critical mass style reassurance when riding.
Travelling down the busy Cowley Road into town, I cycled behind a dad with three kids – one in a bike seat, and two cycling on the road, both under ten, and both with excellent Star Wars backpacks.
But all they and all the other cyclists here had to protect them was a painted lane that drivers are allowed to drive into.
Paint is not infrastructure: to achieve significant modal shift, main roads need to be significantly redesigned. Otherwise the vast majority will understandably continue to be put off.
The Plain roundabout, which connects Iffley and Cowley roads with the city, was even worse. I felt so sorry for these kids, filtering up their paint lane, as their dad tried to keep them safe from HGVs and vans.
This self-evidently dangerous junction was mildly redesigned last year after the death of a cyclist, but remains extremely substandard.
It’s incredible to me that as recently as 2022 a roundabout was redesigned with such scant regard for pedestrians and cyclists, and shows how far behind our European neighbours we remain when it comes to encouraging active travel.
The city centre
In the town centre, there are many many cyclists – as you would expect, thanks to the university’s many colleges and students making their way to lectures or whatever it is students do nowadays.
Cycle parking is everywhere – far more than you see in most comparable UK cities, which made for a gorgeous novelty. Even the old covered market had generous cycle parking inside.
And some space has clearly been recently reclaimed from cars in the city centre. One lovely example is Broad Street, where space that was once car parking is now plants, benches, and people.
In less promising news, this is one of those towns where it’s very hard to cross on a bike during shopping hours, and cross-city routing is both indirect and unclear.
It’s very easy to end up on the main pedestrianised shopping street after cycling in from the High Street, and coming into conflict with other road users in a way that would be designed out if you were in Paris or Copenhagen.
In this regard, the city reminded me of York: clearly it wants cyclists, and it wants tourists, and it wants shoppers; but the former are still very much the poor relation in terms of where they fit and where they are supposed to go.
A quite vivid example of this came on St Giles’, a very wide and beautiful road with plenty of space for proper cycle lanes.
Instead, we were relegated to paint. And sitting on that paint most of the time? Coaches full of tourists.
Cycling out of the City
As with many English cities, actually getting in or out of the city by bike is still a baffling and often dangerous experience. The national cycle routes follow the river and canal – never ideal, but better surfaced than most – and some very busy A-roads, where one is expected right next to the speeding traffic, and cyclists have no priority at any side junction.
The A34 forms a grim barrier to the west of the city, with few traffic lights or underpasses for those travelling on bike or by foot. I had great sympathy for students cycling out to Oxford Brookes’ Hardcourt Hill campus – a journey that starts with a lovely off-road route and then stops dead at a dual carriageway.
I mentioned modal shift earlier, and as with the Plain roundabout, a relatively minor improvement here would unlock so many low-carbon journeys.
I’ll leave you with an instagram post I did that has gone unfortunately viral: my attempt to cycle on sustrans national cycle route 5 towards Blenheim. This was far, far harder than it needed to me. I managed to avoid falling in the canal, but the whole experience was so grim that I took my chances with the busy A-roads and Swinford Toll Bridge to head back to Jericho and, eventually, home.
Oxford Active Travel Rating, 2023: B-