Oxford study tour

This article was published in 2010, in Newsletter 93.

The last Newsletter included a short piece which described what we did when we went to Oxford in August for the Campaign’s annual study tour. Our hosts (Cyclox, the Cycling Campaign for Oxford) organised a tour of the city for us to see some of the facilities and get an idea of what it is like to cycle there.

In this article we describe some of the things we discovered and compare Oxford with Cambridge. Thanks to the other participants, especially Phil and Paul, for their input to this.

Buses, buses, and more buses!

Buses seemed to be everywhere in Oxford – at least on all the main roads and in the city centre. Oxford has developed differently from Cambridge in that the decision was taken some years ago to concentrate development in the neighbouring towns, such as Bicester, Abingdon, Kidlington and Witney, and bus networks have developed to support this distribution of population.

Cyclox on YouTube: cyclists’ and bus drivers’ experience of each other.

Interestingly, there are even streets in the town centre which are closed to cyclists from 10 am to 6 pm but are open to buses during that time. Cyclox has produced a 10-minute video (www.camcycle.org.uk/jumpto/nl93cyclox) which shows cyclists and bus drivers talking about their experiences of each other on Cowley Road, a busy road leading out to the south-east of Oxford which is somewhat akin to Cambridge’s Mill Road in terms of the businesses on it. This is perhaps something which we might consider raising with Stagecoach.

Narrow cycle lanes

Many of the cycle lanes in Oxford are very narrow, even compared with some of the poorer ones in Cambridge, such as on Histon Road. However, we were told that they are popular, because they act as queue-busting lanes during the rush hours, much as the ones on Histon Road do.

We were, of course, in Oxford at the weekend, so the traffic was presumably lighter than during the week. But we did experience traffic queues on Botley Road around 5 pm on Saturday afternoon and the lanes did allow us to keep moving. On the other hand, buses going past felt very close when we were in these narrow lanes. The other disadvantage is that they make it more difficult to take the lane when passing traffic islands, something we experienced on Abingdon Road on Saturday morning.

20 mph

Oxford has had a 20 mph speed limit in much of the city centre for some time now, including on most of the main arterial roads. Although not universally observed, it does make for more pleasant cycling. Hopefully we will see similar improvements here as the 20 mph limits settle down.

An interesting approach to making cyclists more comfortable has also been tried in a couple of places: on Cowley Road, for example, where the cycle lanes are intermittent, there are repeated 20 signs painted on the road, there are advanced stop lines at some zebra crossings (not just at signalled junctions), and alternating parking bays with the road winding between them.

Around the shops on Banbury Road they have done away with cycle lanes and just painted cycle symbols on the road to remind drivers that cyclists use the road, too; this is something that might be worth trying in Cambridge.

Other impressions

There seemed to be fewer cyclists in Oxford than in Cambridge, but this may have been because it was the weekend. It was also out of term time, rather cool for August and wet (very wet!) for a period around lunch-time, which may have had an effect on numbers.

There are few paths across open land in Oxford, and the University does not allow cycling in the parks (although they have recently allowed wheeling of bikes in one of them). We saw a really excellent cycle facility alongside Marston Ferry Road, a ‘B’ road that runs past Cherwell School on the north side of the city; this is a segregated track, mostly at least 4 m wide and well surfaced, and at times separated from the road by a hedge.

The access to this track at the eastern end is well thought out, and although the track eventually stops and drops into a cycle lane as the road re-enters the residential area (with a subway to get across to the school), it is a very comfortable way to cover the mile for which it lasts.

Really narrow cycle lanes. These are in Parks Road, just north of the centre.
Image as described adjacent

We were quite impressed by the amount of good quality cycle parking, although Oxford cyclists might take issue with that (see the next section). We saw one example of the thought that has gone in to cycle parking: Oxford has a Christmas tree in Broad Street near Balliol College during December; but rather than have no cycle parking here all year, the racks can be removed by the council while the tree is there and replaced when the tree goes.

And our hosts were delighted to discover on the tour that one of their bugbears – barriers on the access to a riverside path – had suddenly disappeared. This was close to the Donnington Bridge, which those who heard Cyclox’s presentation to our August monthly meeting may recall is where a two-way cycle track has been created on one side of the road by taking space from the road with blocks.

Travel to Work survey

Our first visit to Keble College was for a presentation on the results of a Travel to Work survey carried out by Oxfordshire County Council, given by Aron Wisdom, a travel planner working for the Council. He explained that this was an internet survey sent to major employers and educational establishments in Oxford.

A total of 3,733 people responded (although only 3,285 gave information on their mode of travel), providing both qualitative and quantitative data. The data collected were fairly comprehensive and included trip start and end postcodes, route, day and time of travel, trip duration and primary mode of transport and route, as well as details of multi-mode trips and availability of parking. Where appropriate, walking, cycling and bus surveys were included, too.

Cycle logos on Cowley Road.
Image as described adjacent

The modal split gave 30% of respondents using a car to get to work, 25% cycling, 17% travelling by bus, 10% using park and ride, and 8% walking. The remaining 10% were split between train, lift, powered two-wheeler and ‘other’; the last of these categories accounted for 2% of respondents, and more than a third of those in that category used a bicycle for part of their journey.

The cycling survey was completed by 800 people, of whom more than 80% classed themselves as experienced cyclists and around 75% claimed to be confident cyclists. Significantly more respondents classed themselves as fast cyclists than not. (The methodology asked people whether they strongly agreed, agreed, neither agreed nor disagreed, disagreed or strongly disagreed with each aspect.) However, when asked if they felt safe cycling in Oxford, the results were more spread out, with few people taking a strong view either way. More than half of those in the survey felt there were insufficient cycle facilities, while only a quarter felt that the existing facilities were good. Around 60% felt that cycle parking provision was inadequate. Asked what would encourage more cycling, the top choices (in descending order) were more road space (over 50%), off-carriageway provision (just under 40%), better surface conditions and more cycle parking. Next came reducing traffic speeds – possibly not a big issue because of the 20 mph limits throughout much of the city. Improving the image of cycling and cycle training were lowest priority. However, it has to be recognised that the majority of people answering the questions see themselves as experienced and confident cyclists, so they may not be the right group to determine what would get more people cycling. It may also be the case that the respondents as a group are somewhat self-selecting, so that the outcome of the survey is not entirely representative.

And finally …

If you heard the presentation in August, you may recall that James Styring, the Chair of Cyclox, has a regular column in the Oxford Mail. He and another writer alternate in preparing the weekly column, but it is always about cycling and generates a lot of letters, which the paper likes. This is something that would be good to get going here – although some may feel that the Cambridge News already has too many letters about cyclists, most of them unfavourable!

Chris Dorling