Some observations from visiting Oxford

I just spent a few days in Oxford with my wife. We didn’t ride bikes, but did do a fair amount of walking. As we expected in Oxford, we saw lots of people on bikes, mostly with flat handlebars and normal clothes and very few of them wearing helmets. I reckon close to 50% of those riding were female. A lot of the bikes had child seats and/or tagalong child bikes and I saw quite a few cargo bikes – probably more than I’ve seen in my life before.
So I was looking forward to seeing the infrastructure that encourages so many people to ride, but it just wasn’t there. Most of the cycle lanes we saw were just as crap as the ones back home in Bolton – little more than painted gutters – and many roads had no cycle lanes at all. The people on bikes were sharing roads that were just as busy with motor traffic as ours, especially buses, and speed limits seemed to be typically 30mph. Yet I probably saw about 50 times the number of people on bikes that I typically would see at home.
So what was the difference here? Well, the first thing that struck me, when walking along Abingdon Road, was the standard of driving. People on bikes were actually riding along the road without being tailgated, or having horns blasted at them. Drivers were consistently waiting at a safe distance behind the people on bikes until they were safely through pinch points and then moving out to pass them, slowly, leaving a gap of well over a metre!
I really don’t know why things are so different here compared to home. I really do think that the safety-in-numbers theory accounts for at least some of it; people are used to driving around bicycles, and are more likely to ride bikes themselves, or at least know people who do. Perhaps the police pay more attention to dangerous driving than GM Police do. (That wouldn’t be difficult.) It even occurred to me – dare I say it – that the average level of intelligence might be higher in such a revered seat of learning. (Surely not.)
Whatever the reason, I am sure that if I had been commuting 25 miles a day in this environment, I would never have felt a need to buy a single video camera, let alone the two cameras I used for my Bolton-Salford commute for over four years.
Of course, it is most certainly a factor in the high cycling numbers that there is a high density of students living in fairly small place, and the vast majority of those on bikes seem to be young adults. However, we did see far more people of my age cycling than we see of any age at home.
The one disappointing aspect was that there were very few children on bikes. Of course, this is where protected infrastructure would have the biggest impact. Rationally, I think that children as young as 8 would be quite safe riding on the roads here, but I still would find it hard to set aside my, probably irrational, fear and have my granddaughter’s safety entrusted to even these drivers.
The problem is that it remains very difficult to convince politicians and highways planners to make the leap of committing fully to protected infrastructure on a large scale; putting aside the sacred cow that is motor traffic flows and reallocating road space to people instead. Loads of talk, such as that in Monday’s political debate, are still producing little more than hot air. We need perhaps to pay attention in the short term to addressing driver behaviour through education and enforcement, thereby allowing more adults to cycle,  if only as a political action to prove that the demand is there to people who currently refuse to see it.

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7 Responses to Some observations from visiting Oxford

  1. Alex Bailey says:

    I made the same observations in Cambridge five years ago! A range of bikes on the streets including cargo bikes, Dutch bikes galore; people shopping by bike; women cycling, middle aged people cycling; people cycling in normal clothes, hardly any cycling gear; considerate drivers, cycle lanes a scarcity, cycling happening on the major roads, such as that between the railway station and the centre, as well as the narrow streets. And not a vacant Sheffield stand to be seen 😉

    • MrHappyCyclist says:

      Hi Alex. Yes, we were in Cambridge for a few days last December, and I considered writing about it then. I did think there was a bit more off-road provision there – at least the bits we saw – but it was mostly shared with pedestrians. Also, the town centre seemed more compact, making it harder to compare. The general atmosphere was similar, though, and the drivers far more considerate than I’m used to here.

  2. Danny Yee says:

    Yes, the drivers help a lot, and the worst ones do seem to be from out of town. But there’s still 1% of people who are just nasty, if not actually psychopathic, and there’s another 1% of people who are well-intentioned but are tired, distracted, and so forth. And Oxford (especially in summer) has a lot of clueless pedestrians who step off kerbs and can knock cyclists under buses. On roads with high traffic volumes (and narrow non-mandatory cyclelanes full of pot-holes, as you describe) all of this means one or two unpleasantly close passes or nervous moments every day on a typical commute – which is enough to stop more people cycling than currently do.

  3. Dan says:

    There are more kids on bikes. But not on the main roads. There are a couple of schools (one primary, one secondary) with Dutch levels of cycling to school, both of which are situated so that they can be reached without going on any main roads.

    Nonetheless, it is generally true that we have cycling in spite of the infrastructure, and it could be much, much better.

  4. Part of the reason I am sure is that there’s an overlap between motorists and cyclists (for example, I drive part of the way and cycle part of the way to work, and I’ve observed many people with a similar arrangement) which leads to motorists (some at least!) taking more care.

  5. You’re right – it’s not very PC to mention it, but I’m pretty sure the intelligence aspect is a factor. Oxford has, as you mention, one of the world’s top universities, so a lot of the inhabitants are either very bright students or top-of-their-field lecturers, and also there are a lot of hi-tech science and engineering companies in the area, who employ highly educated and qualified people.

  6. Tejvan says:

    I cycle in Oxford a lot. Like you I find it a ‘relatively’ good place to cycle. In particular, city centre has limited rights for motorists, which limits the volume of traffic. I think many people cycle and drive which makes a big difference. The sad thing is that we could easily improve cycling infrastructure with a bit of vision and money.

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