Andrew Gilligan visits Oxford to suggest ways of improving cycling provision

ShiftingGear2017_Cyclox_SimonHunt_Andrew Gilligan

(L to R) Dr Simon Hunt of Keble College and Andrew Gilligan, former cycling commissioner for Transport for London

Oxford lags Cambridge for the share of transport represented by cycling, while both pale into insignificance when compared to the Dutch city of Leiden, to which Oxford is twinned, participants at a conference were told.

In Leiden 70% of the population cycle to work, compared to 43% in Cambridge and 25% in Oxford. The UK’s national cycle commuting average is one of the lowest in the world at less than 3%, while the number of cars has risen from 21 million in 1995 to 33 million in 2017, prompting a discussion around the concept of ‘peak car.’

Andrew Gilligan, former cycling boss for Transport for London and recently appointed cycling adviser to the National Infrastructure Commission, addressed the conference, ‘Shifting Gear: A Radical Change for Cycling,’ on November 10, explaining that his remit for a shortly-to-be-released report is the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor, a centre of economic growth faced with severe and worsening traffic congestion.

The same corridor has been singled out by the government for transport investment, mostly road and rail, including a resurrection of the old ‘Varsity Railway’ between Oxford and Cambridge (SEE: bit.do/OxCamtrains). Some cyclists have called for a comprehensive Oxford-Cambridge cycle path, sections of which would be heavily used for local commuting.

Gilligan noted that Oxfordshire is expected to absorb 100,000 new jobs and 85,000 new homes in the next few years. He noted that the city afforded ‘uniquely little scope for the usual solutions.’ Road building is not an option, while Oxford’s 1,200 listed buildings are so compressed in their geography that the city centre is virtually unalterable.

Mobike OxfordGilligan noted that while the rural bus service in the surrounding county has been severely depleted, encouraging a resumption of car use, Oxford’s city centre was already at bus capacity. He said that he had counted 190 buses pass him in one hour on St Aldate’s, a detail that informs Oxford’s widely acknowledged air quality crisis.

Gilligan then considered that Oxford and Cambridge were the two bona fide ‘cycling cities’ of the UK, yet that this had happened almost by chance, ‘a serious mode of transport, not taken seriously.’

‘Although Oxford and Cambridge are already Britain’s only true cycling cities, it has happened without much encouragement from the authorities – who often still treat cycling as marginal, and give it far less attention than it deserves. Those commuting in to the cities from outside still overwhelmingly drive, even though many of those journeys, too, are also eminently cyclable,’ he wrote recently.

The most visible change to cycling provision in Oxford in recent months has been an influx of seven different dockless bike sharing schemes such as Mobike (pictured, left, in Wellington Square on November 14th, 2017).

One reason why Oxford has lagged Cambridge, said Gilligan, is underinvestment in cycling lanes, but also political apathy. He noted that a previous County Council leader had deliberately driven to work on ‘Cycle to Work Day’, boasting about it in a tweet.

While cycling around Oxford recently, Gilligan had been appalled at certain junctions where cyclists' safety had been  jeopardised by thoughtless road planning.

He singled out a notorious black spot just north of the railway station, about which nothing was done for three years, and mentioned the Cutteslowe roundabout, remodelled earlier this year in such a way as to almost totally marginalize and endanger high numbers of cyclists.

‘We need to put cycling at the heart of transport in both cities,’ he noted, and to do so meant giving cycling its share of resource, he intoned.

In a recent blog for the National Infrastructure Commission, Gilligan added, ‘The case for the bicycle is not just narrowly economic, though. The way we travel now makes our cities, including parts of all these three cities, ugly, dirty, noisy and dangerous. More people cycling would make them safer, cleaner, quieter and more desirable. The way we travel now makes us miserable and ill. Every bike lane is a giant, free, outdoor gym, and most cyclists enjoy their commutes. More people cycling could be the single biggest way to improve the nation’s health and happiness.’

Recent modelling by the UK’s Department for Transport suggested that were the UK to follow Dutch-style policies the UK’s share of cycling for commuting could rise from its current 3% to 18%. Adding electrically assisted bicycles, already ubiquitous in markets such as Germany and Switzerland, could boost that figure to 26% or one in four commuters. The last scenario would see an estimated £2 billion reduction in health costs associated with premature deaths, owing to increased fitness levels in the population.*

Cycle use in the UK peaked after World War Two, when it accounted for over half of all journeys made, before prosperity and cars replaced it from the mid-1950s onwards.

The conference was organized by a Cyclox, a cycling group in the city chaired by Dr Simon Hunt, Emeritus Fellow at Keble College and formerly Tutor in Immunology. A minute’s silence was held at 11am in memory of Claudia Comberti, a much-loved Oxford DPhil student killed after a collision with a bus on the Botley Road on May 9.

Portrait of Andrew Gilligan with Dr Simon Hunt (latter left in picture, wearing yellow T-shirt) Credit: Cyclox/Jonathan Ives; Mobike in Wellington Square, University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse

The University of Oxford has a sustainable transport manager, Adam Bows, and a comprehensive strategy for encouraging alternatives to car commuting

* Report titled England’s Cycling Potential (Feb. 2017)

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