Is this the vision we want for Oxford?

I confess to a long-term fascination with the difference between theory and reality, especially when it comes to town planning.

So here I present you with the computer-generated image of a new Frideswide Square — which refers to the non-square space outside the railway station. It is what every tourist sees when they alight a train from London, and if first impressions count, then its current redesign is both welcome and overdue. By the end of 2015, it will see four lanes of traffic reduced to two, traffic lights replaced with roundabouts to ease traffic flows, and more trees planted. It will have become a ‘boulevard’, according to officials, at a cost of £5.8 million.

Judging from the lively response in online comments to articles about the remodelling published in the Oxford Mail and Oxford Times, there is wide local scepticism about the project, spread across several fronts.

The most obvious trajectory of criticism concerns apparent non-inclusion of cyclists, but a broader train of critique concerns the traffic implications.

Regarding the model of the new square that you see below, someone calling themselves ‘olafpalme’ jots in the comments on the Oxford Mail:

In the drawing above there are about 23 vehicles in that area. In the current Google Earth view there are about 43 vehicles in the current layout. And it looks sparser. I rest my case that the new layout will be clogged solid.

He may have a point. In the other image you see here (top right), which I took the other day, you can see that with the traffic lights already shut down the result is no better than before, and while the remodelling takes place, quite obviously worse. Gridlocked is the land, come 5pm, every day. At other times during the morning and during the day, curiously, the traffic seems to flow more easily than before.

Is this the vision we want for Oxford?

Obviously, we might all agree that only time will tell. But we can already judge it against our recently published Oxford Today cover story concerning what Oxford might be like in fifty years’ time, in 2065.

Obviously, within that broad, five-decade envelope, there is plenty of space for offering big thoughts that stretch us all beyond the present. One of the big ideas we presented was that Oxford might beat London and Paris to creating a car-free city centre, or at least a fossil-fuel-free car policy, implying an ultra-low emission zone such as the one planned for London as early as 2019–20. Given how much talk there always seems to be about Oxford’s ‘world-class status’, it is perfectly reasonable to expect visionary planners and planning.

County cabinet member for transport David Nimmo Smith was recently quoted on the new Frideswide project:

Ideally we would prefer it if people didn’t bring their cars into the city centre but we have to be realistic and we know that lots of drivers use this junction every day, with car parks at the station and at Oxpens.

Is this the vision we want for Oxford?

So he knows that cars are not the solution, but he sponsors a project to ease traffic flows. The results are anaemic and confused, in a muddle-headed, very classic Oxford sort of way. By appeasing everyone a bit, nothing much at all is achieved, and at great expense.

It is a step entirely in the wrong direction if we look at where the city ought to be heading to be anywhere near its global peers (Copenhagen, Geneva, Amsterdam, Berlin, smaller equivalents such as Seville). There is no real vision for Oxford for the next fifty years, and no governance structure to achieve it, as we have told it in Oxford Today. If I’m not mistaken, this Frideswide Square remodelling is more evidence for that.

The Oxford Today Trinity issue feature on Oxford in 2065 can be read

Graphic © Oxfordshire County Council, reproduced with permission. Photograph by Richard Lofthouse.


By Dan

It is worth noting that, at least in part, the University is part of the problem. Many colleges have parking, so people drive into the city. All those people in rush hour are all going somewhere, and a lot of the somewhere is related to the university. Get rid of free parking, and a lot of the motor vehicles will disappear.

By michael126b

Were I a resident of Oxford, I suspect I would find its traffic restrictions annoying.
Were I a commuter to Oxford, I suspect I would find its traffic restrictions appalling.
As a visitor to Oxford, an alumnus and a parent of a current student, I find its traffic restrictions unwelcoming, unrealistic and frustrating.
When is the City going to find some sensible governance?

By Ian Maddison

The problem is the job description of most town planners. They usually spend most of their time surveying the movement of vehicles not people. They might better imitate the work of Jan Gehl, a Danish architect.

By Penelope Newsome

I don't understand why roundabouts are considered superior to traffic lights. Just look at the situation at the end of Marston Ferry Road where every other direction is held up by constant stream of traffic with right of way on roundabout aiming for the ring road. Headington roundabout has been much safer since traffic lights were put in. And what about pedestrians when there are no green men making it safe to cross. This is very bad at St Frideswide's 'square' at the momen with no lights. And indeed what about cyclists. .

By Clive Saffery

When I retired from Hong Kong I decided to live in the Bay Area for many reasons, one of which was to be close to the excitement of Silicon Valley. Almost every day our local reports have some news on the progress of driverless cars. The latest estimates suggest that by 2040 most cars will be driverless. The implications of this are not be factored into much forward planning. People will own fewer cars, if you want a vehicle you will book it by whatever device runs apps in the future, you won't park it, it will park itself and recharge itself, city centre car parks will be a thing of the past as will drink/driving. It seems slightly extraordinary that any city planner is not actively thinking about how the future is going to look. But then perhaps their forefathers also dreamed of large stables in the middle of Oxford before Mr. Ford came along.

By Michael

Does the university have a say in the city planning and development? Could the university pool a number of the civil engineering faculty members to be central in city planning, and have more permanent places as city advisors. Or what is the city government's relationship with the university? And talented people such as the writer of this article and the engineering faculty of the university? Or does the city prefer to work separately from the university?

By Barry Rossell

I too am disappointed that there appears to be no provision for cyclists in the new plan. Is there a provision for public comment where this, and other, topics can be raised. I plan to ask the CTC if they can make representations to the Oxford Planning Office. I do, however, accept the view that town centre planning is one of those jobs where everybody knows how to do it better than the professional.

By Graham Smith

A correction or two. (1) Richard Lofthouse writes: "The most obvious trajectory of criticism concerns apparent non-inclusion of cyclists, but a broader train of critique concerns the traffic implications" when cyclists are traffic. A casual error, and one repeated by politicians and transport planners, and entirely unhelpful in the implicit de-legitimising of the mode.

(2) "Michael's" comment lumps City and Highway Authority, the City of Oxford does NOT have a Highways function. That is run by the County.

(3) the big issue, County governance has been dealing with cuts and ongoing cuts. Staff are expected to get more efficient and the issue of design, which involves loops and reviews, gets systemised into yes or no decisions so that a single Cabinet member (Nimmo Smith) can agree or not. There seems to be an astonishing lack of enquiry, interest, inspection, in most decisions and almost no learning or understanding. But there is a very well-honed defence or rebuttal mechanism

Users of the 'moving environment' are stuck with crude designs, crudely decided and possibly crudely implemented (lack of skill and time for adequate supervision).

By Richard Mann

The current horrendous congestion through Frideswide Square is temporary (the result of mixing buses and cars on Park End Street, during this stage of the works). Congestion will soon revert to merely being severe.

As Dan said, a lot of the congestion is due to people having access to parking in the Colleges (and to an extent in the University as well). There is talk of introducing a Workplace Parking Levy to incentivise a reduction in parking, but it shouldn't need to come to that: the University and Colleges should divest themselves of parking simply because retaining it is selfish.

By David Bevir

Having experienced the traffic chaos around the station three times on 27 May, with queues along the Botley Road in one direction and as far back as St Giles in another, and then the confusion of the roundabout at the top of the Woodstock Road while trying to emerge from Wolvercote, I only hope that roundabouts at the station will work better than the one for drivers from Wolvercote.

By Jennifer Manson

I dread to think what the traffic at Frideswide will be like when the massive new shopping centre at the Westgate is built!

By Mary Clarkson

I'm a city councillor for Marston, Headington resident and a St John's alumnus. One of the problems for transport planning in Oxford is that the Conservative-run County Council tries to make sure that its rural inward-bound commuters can get into the city as easily as possible by car, while the Labour-run City Council's priorities are to reduce pollution and to make it easier and safer for its residents to get about by bus and by bike. David Nimmo-Smith is doing his best to come up with a sensible approach, but the tension between the two authorities is long-standing and there is only room for limited compromise.

By Tim

As someone who cycles through this every single day I can report that what makes the difference is, er, obviously the volume of traffic. Some days things slip along smoothly and on others there is gridlock.

I don't really understand the lack of provision for both buses and cyclists in the computer generated image it appears that you might be able to fit 3 buses into the bus stop area, sadly there are often more than 3 buses at a time so that will slow things down.

Fundamentally there is no future for the car in Oxford, the Council and University need to recognise that and move quickly to create a sustainable transport model for the city. Trams, trains, buses, cycles, walking, electric bikes...

It takes leadership and vision to achieve this - where will these come from?

By Maggie

There may be no future for the car in Oxford, but the car is part of the present, and the new homes on the ring road and the new shops in the centre will bring more not fewer in the short term. It is barely possible to take a bus with two small children and heaps of shopping; students are obliged to bring their own belongings and take them home each term; few people can afford to buy homes in Oxford near to the good schools. Many drive because they need Oxford's services and have no easy alternative. And if the restrictions on cars are intended to slow down the effects of traffic fumes on ancient buildings, how is this helped by perpetual queues pouring out fumes and going nowhere fast? Why not make today work first, then plan tomorrow?

By Danny

> Why not make today work first

Given we're going to have new homes, new shops and so forth, we're going to have increasing numbers of people travelling into and out of (and through) central Oxford. But (given motorways across Christ Church Meadow and Portmeadow were rejected in the 70s) it's just physically impossible to achieve that while maintaining the current level of access and modal share for private motor vehicles. If we got rid of all the buses and banned bicycles and pedestrians, that would make traffic congestion worse, not better. If, on the other hand, we banned private motor vehicles in peak hour, the buses would run a lot faster.

By Michelle

I visited Oxford for the day a couple of weeks ago on a weekday with my daughter. We used the Pear Tree park & ride and found the whole experience very smooth and efficient. We live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and couldn't help comparing how fine this public transport option was compared to anything offered in the Bay Area. Perhaps the park and ride system needs a bit more positive publicity, and maybe some special offers, to get people out of their cars. (I am an 1980's Oxford alum who never had a car in the city.)

By Alastair

The plans - which have received much input from CYCLOX:
- are not a competent integrated transport strategy: whilst stopping the rush-hour car park effect (every satellite road into Oxford is a bottle-neck), they show incomprehension of the conflict/danger between cyclists travelling at average speeds amongst pedestrians, and of unhelpful delays to buses lacking dedicated bus lanes. It is bizarre beyond words to reduce the previous 6 vehicular lanes plus 2 opposite long bus stops down to 2 vehicular lanes whilst failing to provide any dedicated cycle lanes through the junction -- with priority lights to help cyclists safely enter and exit Frideswide Square in all directions.. Priority that could encourage cycling and walking alike, simply through improved safety.

As Mary Clarkson states, conflicts of interest, politically and within the councils, once again leave Oxford clutching at infrastructure failure in spite of big budgets and another period of major travel disruption.

Likely the County Council do a better job than would the City Council, by illustration: the latter are so obsessed at keeping public toilets free, that - speaking of tourists first impressions - even the toilets at the 24/7/365 Gloucester Green Bus Station are only open 09:00-17:00 could not make up the extent of this ideologically driven absurdity.

Oxford needs more people shopping at their local shops, and preferably, on foot.
The smallest rush-hour 07:00-09:00 and 16:00-18:00 toll (that would create a few toll-booth jobs..) on its arterial, bottle-neck roads, might do much to improve traffic flows and change driving choices.
Meantime, we need revert to bygone days when the Universities barred their students from bringing cars to Oxford, with permits/registration permitted only in exceptional cases. Let students cycle/walk/bus.. ditto our language schools (most of them paying no business rates as 'charities') ..