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Thoughts on an equitable traffic solution in East Oxford

Background

Like any other problem, finding a solution to actual or perceived traffic problems requires both research into the causes and intelligent devising and implementation of solutions, if any are required.


In East Oxford some residents in some streets perceive a problem with excess through traffic, often described pejoratively as ‘rat-running’. What constitutes too much traffic in any given street is a matter of opinion, and indeed frequently disputed. Those who consider traffic is excessive often advocate for road closures to create cul-de-sacs, euphemistically ‘low traffic neighbourhoods’ (LTNs), whereas those who consider the traffic acceptable or essential want roads to stay open. The ‘closure’ lobby tends to regard all through traffic as unnecessary, the ‘keep open’ lobby consider it includes vital/important local communication.


The problem is that there is no meaningful data on the proportions of traffic that is local (‘local’ is itself a question of perception), or from outside that could use other routes as easily. Also there is no information on why people make these journeys, and to what extent they are ‘essential’ or ‘trivial’; closure advocates assume the latter, ‘open’ advocates the former.


Although everyone agrees to some extent on access for emergency vehicles, the importance of efficient circulation of delivery vehicles and taxis is not considered important by ‘closure’ advocates, who also downplay the negative effects of closures on the elderly and those with restricted mobility whose ability to turn to cycling or walking may be limited or non-existent. ‘Closure’ advocates also downplay the inconveniences of extra time, distance, pollution and congestion if a necessary car journey is made (heavy shopping, hospital, visit to tip etc.) on the grounds that all residences are still accessible, although ‘you may have to find a slightly different route’ as County Council documents somewhat disingenuously explain. The fact that traffic is forced onto roads peripheral to the LTNs, most of which are also residential, creating new problems there is generally ignored by ‘closure’ advocates, or it is assumed to ‘evaporate’ once people increasingly take to walking and cycling.


‘Open’ advocates tend to stress access, communication and convenience over the negative effects of pollution, speeding, risk to children in residential streets, and also argue that the perceived traffic excess is not objectively a major issue, at least in most streets to be closed. They also make the point that residents do not ‘own’ their streets, which are communication thoroughfares for all (local and beyond), and many under threat of closure are very important local link roads.


Although the problems, real or perceived, vary from street to street, in general both points of view, which tend to become strongly polarised, have some merit. Any solution therefore needs to be acceptable to reasonable people from both perspectives, and that requires research to identify the drivers (no pun intended) of traffic movements in and around the affected streets, to look at alternative mitigation methods, and devise more imaginative solutions than simply closing off roads.


Although some ‘closure’ advocates invoke combatting climate change and curbing CO2 as gains from road closures, this is an irrelevance on the global scale, as measures to deal with these overarching problems need governmental action; fiddling with bollards will solve nothing while ‘Rome burns’.


Research

Although some data has been collected (mostly by private individuals) on through traffic numbers and turning movements. However this is confined to Divinity Road, Magdalen Road and James Street, and tells us nothing about why the cars are there, nor where they have come from or are going to. Furthermore the data collection has been within streets, so there is no link from the Magdalen Rd data to that collected in Divinity Rd. A car driving up Magdalen Road could be coming from Iffley Fields housing (e.g. Bedford St) to the Tesco carpark in Cowley Road for shopping, be driving from Radley to the John Radcliffe hospital, or be a parent from Southampton visiting a Brookes student in Pullen’s Lane accommodation. Any other route would make no sense for the Bedford St resident, but going via the ring road would add 35% distance (but not much time, if any) to the Radley resident’s journey, and a trivial amount to the visitor from Southampton (who could also perhaps use the park & ride). Hence knowledge of actual journey reasons and distances would inform the best way to manage the traffic.


While stopping cars and asking for journey details would be prohibitively expensive, using numberplate recognition (ANPR) cameras on all inputs to the ring road and along it between exits, would, with computer analysis of movement data collected, give a clear idea of to what extent through traffic came from outside or inside Oxford. It could also distinguish between delivery vehicles and private cars. An ANPR-based system could then be set up to distinguish locally registered from outside-registered vehicles, and different (and flexible) regimes applied, as with the congestion charge in central London.


ANPR is also expensive, but once installed would be operative indefinitely, unlike one-off surveys which would have to be repeated every few years to discover changes in traffic movements. There is a significant privacy issue to be addressed – it would be useful to contact the GLC to discover how this is dealt with in London.


Finding a solution that all can accept

Given that there is no general agreement on what amount of traffic is excessive, nor on the necessity to keep open local link roads, any viable solution must somehow accommodate the disparate views of ‘closers’ and ‘openers’.


The ‘closers’ want less traffic movement (and hence pollution), lower speeds and safer cycling/walking routes. The ‘openers’ want unrestricted movement, but are not opposed to lower speeds and cycling infrastructure improvement as long as roads stay open. Hence the crux is traffic movements through residential (but not radial) streets. With ANPR this can be managed as with the London congestion charge. All roads in designated for traffic reduction should have ANPR cameras at each end that can monitor speed and identify non-local traffic. Exceptions and exemptions can all be easily accommodated, and the definition of ‘local’ can be varied as necessary.


My initial suggestion (subject to prior research with ring-road ANPR) is that all vehicles registered to addresses within the ring-road should be exempt from restriction, as should emergency, refuse and delivery vehicles (subject to size restrictions), taxis, disabled badge holders, care workers, health visitors and probably other categories of essential workers. Electric vehicles would not be exempt (they still speed and drive through!). There would need to be provision for visitors – this could be on the same lines as visitor parking permits, each household having a limited annual allocation (to be applied for), though there would need to be an online system for exempting the visitor on the visit day. Speed would be limited to 20mph (as it is officially already) with the cameras at each end acting as average speed detectors.


Details of some streets being specifically cycle-priority ways would need further discussion.


All this would take longer to research and implement than the crude but simple use of road-closure LTNs, but would create much less division and hot air and have a flexible structure that could be adjusted as required through time.


 

by Anthony Cheke 9/8/2021

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