Oxford stirs up a tempest by 'waging war' against the car

A series of traffic measures aims to cut vehicle journeys by a quarter within seven years

Oxfordshire County Council plans to expand its zero-emission zone, to the annoyance of many residents and business owners. Matthew Davies / The National
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Oxford has been home to one of the world's most famous universities since the 11th century, inspiring learnt thinking among its “dreaming spires”.

Given the city's tagline, high-end bed shop And So To Bed sounds like the perfect local business. But after 25 years Patrick Clacy's outlet in the south-east of the city is now under cloud.

The looming imposition of traffic restrictions as the local council seeks to reduce the city's car journeys by a quarter by 2030 threatens to cut his customers off from the shop, he says.

For example, drivers of private cars will need a permit to travel through traffic filters at certain times of day, or risk a fine. While residents and some people living in nearby areas will get 100 day passes a year, Mr Clacy is left also wondering how he will get to work.

“I run the shop and I live 25 miles away,” he said. “I will be amazed if they give me 100 passes to commute into Oxford.”

Traffic measures are becoming an increasingly hot issue in UK local politics, not least in academic Oxford where some locals accuse council leaders of declaring war on the car.

Oxfordshire County Council has adopted the Local Transport and Connectivity Plan, under which it aims to cut one in four car journeys by 2030 and deliver a net-zero transport network by 2040.

Its goals are “reducing the need to travel, discouraging individual private vehicle journeys and making walking, cycling, public and shared transport the natural first choice”.

Some people see the various proposed and implemented measures as the only way to secure safer streets with cleaner air, while others regard the plans as nothing short of an affront to democracy and personal liberty. It is a debate that echoes across the UK.

The expansion of London's Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez), became a pivotal issue in the recent by-election in Boris Johnson's former constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Traffic-reducing and so-called 'pay-to-pollute' schemes have been proposed in several UK cities.

The schemes range from sophisticated systems using automatic number plate recognition cameras to photograph offending vehicles (and consequentially fine the registered keeper of the vehicle), to bollards or large wooden planters blocking off certain roads to create low-traffic neighbourhoods.

Liberal Democrat Andrew Gant is a councillor and cabinet member for highway management on Oxfordshire County Council.

“There are too many cars. It's unhealthy and it's unsafe,” Mr Gant told The National. “There's a general assumption that road space is somehow a resource which we can just help ourselves to as much as we want, whenever we want.

“The fact is, it is finite. It is a public good and it comes at a cost – a financial cost and a societal cost.”

Exactly how the council is going to reduce the number of car journeys has caused a good deal of confusion and anger.

Bus gates

Like many British cities, Oxford already has a degree of traffic control in place. At various points in the middle of the city, bus gates restrict vehicle movement.

Bus gates are not actual barriers, but short sections of streets which only buses and other authorised traffic, such as emergency vehicles, taxis and motorcycles, can use during the day.

Most vehicles can pass through the bus gates during the evenings and at night.

Covered by number plate cameras, those who ignore the restrictions will receive a £70 ($89) penalty.

In Oxford, these bus gates have been in operation for about 20 years.

Zero-emission zone

Right in the centre of Oxford, a few streets now comprise the zero-emission zone.

In this handful of streets, again covered by ANPR cameras, vehicles that create no emissions, such as fully electric motorcycles, cars and vans, move about without incurring a charge.

Petrol and diesel vehicles, including hybrids, incur a daily charge if they are driven in the zone between 7am and 7pm, unless they have an exemption.

The zone is considered to be a pilot scheme, having been in place for about 18 months. But the county council plans to significantly expand it within a few years.

Some still don't think it goes far enough.

“My concern is that the ZEZ is not actually zero-emissions, as it allows for emitting cars as long as the drivers can afford to pay,” Green Party councillor Ian Middleton told The National.

“So it's essentially a pay-to-pollute scheme.”

Conservative councillor Ian Snowdon told The National that on a societal level, the zone is fundamentally unfair.

“Your wealthy Oxford citizens who live in places like North Oxford, whose children go to private schools in Oxford, can drive there very simply,” Mr Snowdon said.

“They just pay a few pounds for the ZEZ and drive the empty streets of [central] Oxford, whereas the carers, the cleaners and the shop workers have to sit in buses in the congestion.

“It's madness that we've made these quiet roads for the wealthy, while for the least affluent we’ve made their days longer.”

Traffic filters

Traffic filters act very much like bus gates, but their supporters point out there are crucial differences. This is where the real clash happens between the council and those who accuse it of waging war on the car.

Traffic filters are specifically designed and placed to reduce private car use. When the council talks of reducing one in four car journeys within seven years, the traffic filters are where it will happen.

Again, they will be covered by number plate recognition cameras and will be strategically placed at six points on busy roads inside and outside the city centre.

Private cars will be prohibited from driving through the traffic filters without a permit at certain times of day. Again, there is a £70 penalty.

Residents of Oxford and a few other outlying areas will be able to get 100 day passes a year, letting them drive through the filters free of charge.

Zuhura Plummer, the campaign director for Oxfordshire Liveable Streets, told The National that the traffic filters and the other traffic reduction plans are about changing behaviour.

“What it really does is make you think about the journey,” Ms Plummer said.

“If you drive more than twice a week, then you will have to think about a different way of getting around for those three days [not covered by free passes].

“So you might think about changing your working patterns; you might actually just go around the ring road; you might cycle in the summer months and save your passes for the winter months. There are all kinds of possibilities.”

One of the proposed traffic filters is scheduled to be placed almost directly outside Mr Clacy's shopfront, leaving him contemplating a longer journey round the ring road.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

Oxfordshire County Council describes a Low Traffic Neighbourhood as “an area where motorised traffic is prevented from taking shortcuts through a residential area”.

“This creates quieter and safer streets where residents may feel more comfortable when making local journeys by cycling, wheeling or on foot,” it says.

Basically, the neighbourhoods prevent “rat runs”, roads that commuters drive down when the main routes become congested.

Bollards or large wooden boxes, or planters, containing small trees are placed at the end of a road, preventing traffic from cutting through a particular area.

In Oxford, these neighbourhoods tend to be outside the city centre. They have been controversial in places such as East Oxford and Cowley, where bollards and planters have been vandalised.

Opponents claim low traffic neighbourhoods simply feed vehicles on to already busy arterial roads.

Taxi businesses claim they have forced up fares because journeys take longer. Businesses complain that the neighbourhoods have disrupted their deliveries and customer footfall.

However, academic studies have found that they do reduce traffic.

“When we've looked at low-traffic neighbourhoods in London, we've generally found that they do increase levels of walking and cycling,” Rachel Aldred, professor of transport at the University of Westminster, told The National.

“They do tend to reduce car ownership and/or use, and we've also found that they're associated with a reduction in road injury.”

But for Conservative councillor Mr Snowdon, who also owns a business in East Oxford, they are counterproductive.

“Taxi drivers charge extra now in East Oxford, just because they know it's going to take them longer and they don't really want to do the journey,” he said.

Irritations and implementations

Oxfordshire County Council's traffic plans have brought crowds out on to the streets in protest.

In a society with a high car dependency, many say the council might have underestimated the strength of people's resistance to an attempt to change their behaviour.

“I think, not just in Oxford, these sorts of schemes almost become an indicator, a weather vane if you like, for deeper political views,” Dr Geoff Dudley, from the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford University, told The National.

“They're not just transport issues, they become almost basic political values and opinions that go quite deep, really. You get sorts of groups that latch on to these issues and can use them to promote wider political values.

“I think they [Oxfordshire County Council] were taken by surprise. I think they didn’t expect the degree of opposition.”

However, there is support out there, says Liberal Democrat councillor Mr Gant.

“I go to public meetings to try to hear concerns and to try to explain things. Part of the issue here is that people often genuinely don't understand exactly what the policy says,” he said.

“People say to me, ‘I'm not going to support you because you're going to make it impossible for me to drive and visit my gran.’ I say, ‘Well, it [the policy] just doesn't say that.’”

Growing population

Nevertheless, when faced with forecasts that Oxfordshire's population will grow by 39 per cent by 2040, the political players in this saga do actually agree that something should be done about the county's traffic challenges.

It's the what, the where and the how that are at the heart of the conflict.

For Mr Gant, improvements will certainly be part of the future implementation of plans.

“There's also the question: what's the alternative? If we don't do this, what do we do? Do we simply allow traffic in Oxford to carry on growing and getting worse? It's just out of the question. It's unthinkable.”

Mr Snowdon said: “We want to tackle the congestion, we want to improve air quality. That's a no-brainer.

“It's finding the best solution that works for residents. We want Oxford to be a thriving place where people actually have good work-life balance.”

Updated: August 23, 2023, 5:00 AM