Our roving blogger Robert continues his travels by exploring Oxford, UK:
Oxford is 83 km northwest of London and, along with Cambridge (a similar distance to the northeast), forms the cradle of academic learning in the UK (and indeed could also be said for much of the modern western world). Like York, it is relatively flat. It was built alongside the Thames River at the point it joins several other rivers, and was developed in Angle-Saxon times around 1000 years after Roman York. The population is roughly 75% that of York. Being principally a University city, Oxford has the youngest median age group of any UK city and is more ethnically diverse and internationally represented than other places.
The transient nature of the population is reflected in car ownership statistics, where the Oxford Local Authority is listed at only 340 cars per 1000 people, 324th on the national table out of 348 (York by comparison sits at 265th).
So you would expect that cycling would be a popular way to get around Oxford, and indeed the 2011 census reveals that 17% of the population cycle on more than 3 days per week. This is second highest in the UK behind Cambridge (29%) and ahead of York and Gosport (15% each). Like York, you would expect that such positive cycling statistics have been achieved with some good infrastructure and positive initiatives to encourage those on bikes. This did not appear to be so and the masses of people riding bikes in Oxford were there in spite of the infrastructure not because of it. Sure, there were plenty of painted lines and some priority features and shared pathways along the river and outer suburbs but the feeling was that, with such a young population who would cycle anyway, perhaps cradling and encouragement was not such a priority. There was considerable sharing with vehicles. With many riders being young and confident, and some not so, drivers showed the usual UK patience and respect towards those on bikes.
Like York, we hired bikes for the day, this time to ride south along the river path to Didcott (Sustrans Route #5 – more about Sustrans in another post).
As an interesting aside, the photo of the Didcott Power Station Cooling Towers is now pretty special. Voted the ugliest and most polluting coal fired power station in the UK, only last week the cooling towers were detonated (much to the delight of the Green movement).
The return journey was notable for a navigational malfunction which resulted in a several kilometre ride through a large commercial estate (think Birmingham Drive in ChCh x 20…). The entire route was along a shared footpath, well signed-posted and with smooth marked crossings at side roads. Easy because there were no pedestrians to share with (no bikes either) but, for the cost of a few signs and some paint, the cycle friendly/safety message was loud and clear. Fantastic.
Oxford has a cycle parking problem. It appeared that every available downpipe and fence railing was premium parking space, despite parking stands throughout the city. Cars were banned from several inner city streets during the day so, apart from a window of access for service vehicles on some streets, bikes, pedestrians, buses and taxis had free reign on these streets. It was hard to estimate the usage of helmets but a safe guess would be well under 50%.
With an hour to wait at the Railway Station whilst catching a train to London it was interesting to observe cycle commuters making their way off trains through the ticket barriers and crowds and off down the street to work. Brompton Bike hire is available at Oxford Railway Station and the shelters for bike parking are extensive.
Like York, Oxford has joined the “20’s Plenty” traffic calming scheme, with 20 mph (32 km/h) speed limits. Not only does this improve suburban living it is also a great boon for those on bikes, particularly if less confident when riding alongside traffic going at speed.
The success of getting people on bikes in Oxford has been partly due to an extensive integrated public transport system. When making comparison with the cycling scene in Christchurch it is the lack of easily usable public transport that compromises the attractiveness of cycling here. Whilst we will eventually have a superior bike friendly infrastructure, for it to be truly successful, public transport must be given higher priority. Restricting the speed limit in central city and residential areas is required. Important too, the provision of priority parking for bikes, and priority short-cuts when off the separated cycle-way routes. The active transport options in Oxford are extensive and contribute to it being a tourist friendly and fun city, and easy for everyone to get around.
What can we learn from Oxford?