The Great Cable Car Delusion

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From time to time, in response to the worsening traffic affecting Oxford and surroundings, fanciful solutions are aired as a cure all to afford a quick and (preferably) cheap solution to the problem.   A couple of years ago we had the monorail, this year we have another craze, the cable car.  According to a variety of sources (including alas the Oxford Civic Society) we should visualise the Oxford skyline crisscrossed by gondolas, linking together various park and ride lots with the hospital for example.

You don’t even have to be a transport engineer, or an urban planner to perceive what complete and utter folly this would be.   First of all there is no evidence (except for very special conditions like the cable cars linking the Rio’s favelas or similar) that cable car work in urban areas.  Take a look at the London one, painfully bleeding money and carrying a handful of commuters a day.   There are also all the practical problems related to its siting, particularly given the aggressive history of nimbyism in Oxford.  Who would want a gondola full of people overlooking their back garden, or college ground?  How would you transport the sick and infirm to and from the hospital?  The list of impracticalities is almost endless.

The problem is that after decades of underfunding there is really no easy solution than a large injection of money aimed at creating an integrated transport infrastructure with massive road improvements, subsidised buses and enhanced railway links (including new ones).  This will cost a lot of money.  But if you stopped maintaining your home for several decades you’d soon find out that putting things right before the whole edifice fell down will turn out to be much higher than if you had spread it over the years.  Why should it be so different for public infrastructure?

Time to roll up our sleeves and start addressing those pressing Oxfordshire traffic problems with pragmatism, however expensive those solutions may appear to be.  We are now well past sticky plaster times;  yet we can confidently say that returns on right infrastructural investments could quickly turn out to be very high indeed.

I need to go now or I’ll miss the next airship from Witney to Oxford.

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Unanswered questions

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Robert Courts must have received an avalanche of letters from constituents impressed with the huge benefits the revamped Bicester to Oxford rail link has generated. Nonetheless, he now declares that “Rail may not be the answer to A40 chaos” (Witney Gazette, 14 February).

Some of his assertions are based on inaccurate premises. Reopening of the old railway line from Oxford to Witney is a non-starter. It was built to transport agricultural produce, not commuters, so the old track reflected the economic needs of 150 years ago. A new route is needed instead, one that joins Cowley to Oxford and Witney and beyond, linking with the proposed park and ride along the way and providing transport interchanges for those who use cars, buses and bikes. We envisage an integrated transport system to serve the whole district, not simply tinkering with the A40.

Much was made of ‘evidence’. For a clear example of the very rapid economic benefits that the reopening of a railway line brings one can look at Scotland, at the Border extension in particular. A year 1 report estimated that there were 40,000 fewer car journeys with improved access to job markets, greater tourist influx and overall beneficial effects to the local economy and to the environment. As for commuter satisfaction you don’t have to go as far as Scotland, just look at the revamped Oxford to Bicester line.

When representatives of Witney Oxford Transport Group met Mr Courts last August, we supplied him with detailed plans of our proposal, supported by an imaginative private/public funding scheme. We presented him with an integrated vision of a regional transport system that was not circumscribed by problems faced by cars on the A40. Mr Courts promised a considered response. Six months later we are still waiting for his response. Now it seems that he never did have the interest and imagination to see any further than the traffic jam on the A40.

Dismissing a rail link will continue to cripple the local economy of West Oxfordshire, turning large parts of our district into unattractive dormitory towns where the only possible transport mode is the car, and generating more traffic, more pollution and increased misery. Try harder, Mr Courts.

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A tale of two roundabouts

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Almost simultaneously to the start of the Wolvercote Roundabout improvement works Swindon Borough Council started working on one of the town’s major roundabouts, the Greenbridge one.   To all intent and purpose it’s a very similar layout to the Wolvercote one, see picture, and the cost is more or less the same (£4m ca for Greenbridge and £9m for two roundabouts in Oxford).  

Greenbridge roundabout

Greenbridge roundabout plans

But there is a huge difference. If you travel into Swindon at rush hour you’d barely be affected by the works.  Lanes have been left open in all directions and repairs proceed at lightening speed.  As early as 7 am there will be workmen beavering away and progress is noticeable from one day to the next.

Try travelling at rush hour using Wolvercote roundabout… and as for work progress many people have taken the trouble to write to the Council and to the local papers describing the speed of work as an embarrassment.

Before you ask, both authorities are Tory led , so there is no difference in their political make up either.   When it comes to transport infrastructure we must be down at the bottom of the pile.  People often complain to us of how poorly maintained roads are once they get into Oxfordshire, as for buses and other public transport we all know well the kind of predicament we are in. 

Draw your own conclusions…

More than 20,000 extra cars?

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Will our roads cope with the estimated traffic that additional housing developments planned for parts of our District could bring?

WOT officials have mapped potential housing developments alongside the A40 corridor.  We are aware that while some of these are certain to go ahead, others are still very much in planning and may therefore not even be developed, but the situation is certainly very worrying.

Even assuming that ‘only’ half of the developments in the map below went ahead this represents approximately 8000 new dwellings, or, 12,000 extra cars on our roads. How can we expect the existing infrastructure to cope with such surge in demand?  

A great deal of these new developments are sited close to the A40 (take Carterton, or West Witney for example) and are therefore fully reliant on that road.

We have little doubt in our minds that we need a long-term, reliable public transport solution.  If we just waited for the houses to be built it would way too late and would also end up costing us a lot more.  Why can’t we start planning long-term now?

A40 housing developments planned

Possible housing developments

Roads at breaking point – don’t panic!

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So Ian Hudspeth the Chairman of the County Council is now saying that “We are at breaking point” and that “we should use public transport more”.  This is quite  something coming from a Council that has in the past consistently ignored public transport.

For years, and despite comparatively modest subsidies, the Council has silently been chipping away at public transport routes, particularly rural bus links, as well as neglecting long term strategies on the grounds of costs.  Now we are simply reaping the rewards of this strategy.  Our roads can’t cope any longer, the A40 in particular.  Yet hundreds of houses – apparently – will need to be built outside Oxford, thus adding to existing traffic and to the misery of daily commuting in and out of the city, without any additional infrastructure, except perhaps the odd junction improvement.

Suddenly the Leader of the Council has realised that you could reduce congestion by using public transport and has urged us to use what little of it we have got left.  Pity though that buses have to share the same congested space as cars and that there are as yet no real alternatives, like light railways or tramways, to relieve overcrowding and provide reliable transport links.  As for suggesting to use Long Hanborough station the newly extended car park is virtually full, its platform couldn’t cope with additional passengers at peak times, neighbouring roads would require urgent improvements  and, without substantial rail investment, no further trains could be run on that line.  So much for a viable alternative.

So what to do?  Well, for a start we should stop burying our heads in the sand, recognising that at least for the sake of good transport planning anything within a 15 miles radius of Oxford (give or take a few miles) should be classified as being part of a unified metropolitan area.  This approach would require a dramatic paradigm shift, but could focus planners and politicians into creating a truly integrated transport network.

In some parts of this ‘greater Oxford area’ a variety of actions may be required, from road improvements (perhaps more Park and Ride facilities), to newly built dedicated public transport links.  This can be done.  It just needs the humility to admit that we can’t continue as now and that we desperately need a long term strategic approach, backed by substantial investment of course.  And on this final point it seems that we can always find money to fund new ways of killing each other, or find very large sums to deliver massive infrastructural projects like HS2 when we really want to. Why can’t we find adequate resources for decent public transport, when we can demonstrate that  these investments could even encourage a more thriving local economy? Beside, as polls have consistently shown, if you provide full clarity, apportion taxation fairly and allocate these funds to specific schemes people are willing to pay more for this kind of long term solutions.  It just needs guts and long term vision.

Maurizio Fantato

(my own opinions not necessarily those of WOT)

Tunnels and all

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No light at the end of the tunnel

In a desperate attempt to placate public opinion in the light of the currently dire transport situation in and around Oxford some of our local politicians are throwing around ideas on massive infrastructural schemes almost similar in scale to the proposed (and aborted) Thames estuary airport.   From ‘futuristic’ tramways cutting into St Giles, monorails criss-crossing swathes of our beautiful countryside and leading nowhere, to the latest idea – tunnelling under Oxford – there is no limit to a politician’s imagination at times of trouble and quite close to a general election.

The idea of boring under a city which, as the Oxford Field Observatory describes as placed on “…shallow, highly permeable alluvial sediments … rivers and streams that flow across it are well connected to the groundwater within the sediments. Groundwater levels are generally no deeper than 2m below ground level.” is quite frankly mind boggling.  While it isn’t of course impossible to tunnel underwater, it’s definitely horrendously expensive.  Why can’t we think of spending less on much more pragmatic solutions?

Anyone who has lived in Oxfordshire for a number of years has noticed an increase in commuting times in and around the main urban areas.  The causes behind increased traffic congestion are complex but range from lack of planning, demographics, the economic situation and, as we have just noticed, topographical.  If to all this we add bad planning (like scheduling major improvements simultaneously in order to make use of central funds by the end of a fiscal year) we can see that we have in our hands a recipe for disaster.

So in the light of all this could we please, please, for once take the trouble of consulting with experts, urban planners, architects and transport specialist first, so that we could really create long term plans, rather than running around fire-fighting and advocating, when cornered, implausible solutions?

Quite how Oxford and surrounding areas could cope with what Councillor Ian Hudspeth, leader of Oxfordshire County Council mentioned when interviewed recently forecasting 85,000 new jobs and 100,000 new homes up to 2031 remains a mystery, unless common sense and proper  long term planning returns to the table.