Councils commit to cutting traffic congestion and improving public transport in Oxford

Published: Wednesday, 18th September 2019

Oxfordshire County Council & Oxford City Council announced bold plans to tackle congestion on all major routes into Oxford a improve public transport connections into and across some parts of the city

The plans will focus particularly on the eastern arc - an area outside the city centre that links parts of north Oxford, Marston, Headington and Cowley.

The two councils want to make a real improvement to journey times for commuters and quality of life for residents, including improved air quality, by reducing the number of cars travelling into and around the city. The key points of the Connecting Oxford proposal are: 

  • Restricting car traffic by introducing additional ‘bus gates’ (similar to the restriction on Oxford’s High Street) across the city to improve bus journey times for people travelling into and around the city, and so road space can be reallocated to improve walking and cycling routes
  • New high frequency fast bus routes connecting neighbouring towns and the Park & Rides to Oxford’s eastern arc, which is seeing the greatest growth in employment but is currently less well served by public transport, particularly around the ring road 
  • New and improved cycle and walking routes, including utilising space created by removing vehicles from the road to provide safe and attractive alternatives to driving into and around the city 
  • A charge for workplace parking provided by larger employers in the eastern arc, which would help fund the proposed transport improvements and create a disincentive to drive to work. Discounts for the new bus services would be available for staff of employers paying the workplace parking levy 
  • Improved journey times for commuters driving into and around the city as a result of less congestion

The two councils are now asking for comments and ideas from residents, commuters, businesses, transport operators and other organisations to feed into the detailed development of the proposals. The feedback will be used to develop a detailed project proposal, including a full business case that sets out the costs and benefits of the scheme. 

Complementing the traffic management proposals, Oxfordshire County Council approved plans in April 2019 to roll out nine new Controlled Parking Zones (CPZ) across Oxford by 2021. These will also cut traffic by reducing the opportunity for commuters to park in residential streets. The new CPZ areas will be: Hollow Way North, Cowley Marsh, Lamarsh Road, Waterways, New Marston, Sandhills, Cowley East, Cowley West and Quarry.

The proposals for further traffic restrictions and a workplace parking levy follow research undertaken in Oxford for the County Council’s Local Transport Plan, examination of measures applied in other UK cities and experience of transport planning in Oxford. It is believed they would decisively reduce congestion into and around Oxford that is causing growing problems for residents, employers and commuters. 

Alternative options including the introduction of a congestion charge have not been completely ruled out, but are not considered to be as effective in reducing congestion and traffic over the long-term.

Bold measures needed to tackle growth in car journeys 

More than 60% of all journeys into Oxford are presently done by car, with the trend of car-dependency likely to continue as more jobs are created by the city’s thriving local economy. Unless steps are taken to change how people travel this increased demand for travel will overburden the transport network leading to more congestion for Oxfordshire commuters.  

The latest figures show that the number of journeys is on track to increase as predicted by a quarter (25%) between 2011 and 2031 unless steps are taken to reduce car-based traffic. In the first half of 2019, there were 65 days – half of all weekdays - when speeds on at least one major road into Oxford fell to under 5mph during the morning rush hour. 

Poor public transport connectivity to parts of Oxford means some of the area’s major employment sites have no direct bus service or connection to a Park & Ride site. For those travelling by bus today it can mean using two or more bus services which results in long journey times. For example, travelling from Witney to the Headington area currently takes 82 minutes on a bus in the morning peak. 

Severe traffic congestion is also having a negative impact on existing bus services. Oxford Bus Company has confirmed bus speeds in the centre of Oxford are 38% slower than in 2006, and so to ensure the timetable is met it has to put around one third more buses on the road. This, together with falling passenger numbers as a result of the slower journey times, has hit profitability, which is down by two-thirds. If not addressed, this unsustainable trend could see further impact on less profitable city and rural services.

The combination of traffic restrictions and the introduction of a workplace parking levy create positive incentives for commuters and residents to use other modes of transport, and for employers to reduce the incentive to provide free or subsidised parking for staff. Nottingham introduced a workplace parking levy in 2012 that continues to fund improvements to its local bus and tram network. 

Reducing traffic volumes allows vehicles to move at around the speed limit, which reduces the need for dedicated bus lanes in some areas. This in turn would free up more road space for dedicated cycle routes. The bus gates similarly help improve space for cycling.

Investment in bus services along with improved walking and cycling routes is part of a positive vision of a sustainable and less congested city as set out in the Local Transport Plan (2015). The proposals will complement the already agreed plan to create a zero emission zone (ZEZ) to tackle poor air quality in Oxford’s city centre. 

“The predicted growth in journeys as new jobs are created in the city means that doing nothing is not an option. We need to take bold steps to tackle the congestion problem and improve quality of life for people who live and work in the city. The benefits will be felt by people travelling into the city from across the county and is an important project for Oxfordshire as a whole.” Cllr Yvonne Constance, Cabinet Member for Environment at Oxfordshire County Council

“History shows that every twenty-five years or so Oxford needs a transformative change to its transport planning. In 1970 plans to knock down parts of Jericho and St Clements for roads and car parks were rightly abandoned; instead we introduced the UK’s first Park & Rides. In the 1990s we pedestrianised Cornmarket and put the bus gate in High Street to cut congestion in the city centre. We need another bold step to break the slow steady spiral of congestion and decline and instead create a virtuous cycle of improvement, with better public transport, safer cycling and cleaner air on our streets.” Cllr Alex Hollingsworth, Cabinet Member for Planning and Sustainable Transport at Oxford City Council

"Demand management must be a core feature in developing the Oxford Transport Strategy to bring traffic and environmental improvements to the city whilst facilitating and accommodating its economic growth.  We hope that the councils will now commission the technical work necessary to provide detailed information on the impact of the proposals so that their optimum form can be identified.”  Peter Headicar, Transport  Advisor, Oxford Civic Society

"Congestion has a huge impact for us, delaying journeys and leading to reduced frequency. Our costs also increase because we need more buses to deliver the timetable. Reliable and flexible buses are crucial to cutting down on the number of individual cars and to help drivers with links to Park & Ride. We need a radical way of unclogging the roads and welcome potential changes.” Phil Southall, Managing Director, Oxford Bus Company

“We support a new approach towards a more efficient, safe, active and sustainable low-carbon travel and a reduction in traffic, pollution and noise to create more attractive, accessible and people-friendly streets where everybody can enjoy spending time. We recognise that this requires visionary and bold measures, that may meet some initial resistance, as any change from the status quo does. But we believe that as the measures themselves are introduced public support will grow and grow. We will work vigorously to support sufficiently bold measures." Scott Urban, Coalition for Healthy Streets and Active Travel

About the new bus services

Funding from the workplace parking levy will be used to introduce new high frequency bus and Park & Ride services, connecting people living in the county towns to key employment sites in Oxford, as well as a new fast orbital route across the eastern arc.

About the traffic restrictions

New bus gates are proposed around the city centre to restrict through traffic and disincentivise vehicles driving into the central area. In addition, bus gates are also planned for the B4495 on the Marston Ferry Road and Hollow Way to reduce congestion on the route of the proposed new orbital bus service.  The operating times for the bus gates have not yet been determined. Buses, taxis and emergency service vehicles will not be restricted.

About the workplace parking levy  

There are many more workplace parking spaces in the city compared to public parking, mainly located outside the city centre and across the eastern arc. To influence private car use, particularly associated with the journey to work - a main determinant of congestion at peak periods - a workplace parking levy is proposed.   

The levy is a relatively simple and cost-efficient way to raise revenue to be invested in improved transport, as proposed in Oxford’s Local Transport Plan in 2015, and to encourage sustainable travel behaviour and mode choice.

Medium-sized and larger employers would contribute to the costs of reducing congestion and providing better alternatives that they will benefit from directly, including shorter journey times for staff coming to work. Employers within the area covered by the Workplace Parking Levy will be within a ten minute walk or less from the new high frequency bus route. It is recognised that these represent additional costs to employers, which is why organisations with fewer than 11 spaces are exempt. 

Employers in the eastern arc area would be invited to take part in a design group to influence the final measures so they can help shape the proposals and maximise the benefits to them as a local employer.  

The cost to employers has not been calculated and would be linked to the investment needed to provide good alternatives to driving. The Nottingham levy is £415 per workplace parking space per annum, and the councils believe that provides a reasonable indication of the levy for Oxford. 

Have your say 

Oxfordshire County Council and Oxford City Council have launched a major engagement exercise to gather views of people affected by congestion in Oxford, including residents, employers and commuters.  

More information on the Connecting Oxford proposals are available on the Oxfordshire County Council website along with a short survey on the proposals. People are welcome to submit comments as individuals or on behalf of an organisation. The deadline for submissions is 20 October 2019.

As part of the engagement activities, the councils will be meeting with employers, community groups and representatives of interests including active travel.