Sometimes politics really does overlook the obvious, and there’s a fine example just now in those two great centres of clear thinking and clogged traffic, Oxford and Cambridge. Here is the problem. The country wants, and badly needs, to build on these cities’ success in tech, bioscience and other industries: 129,000 new jobs and 135,000 new homes are planned in and around them over the next decade or so. But first you have to plan how to transport all the new people, and none of the usual answers works.
Even if new roadbuilding were an answer in any city, it can’t be in these two. Their historic centres are inviolable, their electorates implacable. Gone, thank God, are the days when plans could be drawn up for a new highway through Christ Church Meadow. More buses? Both cities’ centres are already choked with them. Metros? Vastly expensive and disruptive, years to build, and couldn’t hope to serve most of the journeys people will need to make.
Yet even as Oxford and Cambridge draw up plans for light rail, busways and rapid transit networks, one far simpler, cheaper and quicker answer is staring them in the face. It is something which already epitomises both places; which, in Cambridge, already has a greater share of journeys than any other mode, and in Oxford not much less. It is, of course, the bicycle.
In a report published today for the National Infrastructure Commission, I show how cycling can become the real rapid transit network in these cities, and how – with their small distances, historic centres and ever more dispersed employment sites – they are almost perfectly suited to it.
Even excluding students and those who cycle for less than half of their total journey (for instance, to the station), 43% of work journeys entirely within Cambridge are already done by bike, the highest proportion in Britain and perhaps in the English-speaking world. For Oxford, it’s 27%.
With numbers like these, you might ask: can we really do more? Categorically yes – because those volumes have been achieved with, at least in Oxford’s case, almost no help from the authorities. One key central Oxford street is closed to bikes – while being open to buses. Oxfordshire council, the highway authority, does not have a single officer dedicated to cycling.