Headington traffic chaos: where next?

by Stephen Tall on March 1, 2005

Ask anyone in Headington, in Oxford, what they think is the key local issue, and you can be pretty sure the one-word answer will ring out loud and clear: traffic. Lots of it. All over the place. Throughout the day. And when you ask the city and county councils what they think is the solution, you can be pretty sure the answer will be whispered in a muffled, half-embarrassed undertone: Hamats.

I’ve set out before my concerns that Hamats, the Headington & Marston Area Transport Strategy (for that is its vainglorious name). Tomorrow afternoon, Wednesday, 2nd March, the OTS/Hamats Steering Group meets in County Hall – a meeting that is open to the public to attend. It’s an event that takes place twice a year, an infrequency which, to my mind, demonstrates the lack of seriousness with which our area’s traffic problems are too often regarded. But I intend to make good use of it to ask what I think are some key questions the councils’ transport planners have so far failed adequately to address:

1. How will we be able to judge the success (or failure) of the Hamats strategy?

The obsession with performance indicators is one which blights too much of public life. However, they can serve a purpose: they focus the mind on what it is you are seeking to achieve, help prioritise time and resources, and enable you to proclaim ‘mission accomplished’. I believe Hamats needs robust monitoring and performance indicators so that councillors and residents can assess for themselves how effective (or ineffectual) the strategy has been. Here are my proposals for what should be measured:

    * the air quality of our main roads (eg, London Road, Headley Way, Marston Road). After all, if the councils’ policies are successfully encouraging motorists to ditch their cars in favour of public transport, we should expect to see a reduction in pollution levels.
    * numbers of bus passengers, including park-and-ride. Headington residents in particular benefit from one of the best set of bus routes in the country, serving the city and county, as well as London and the airports. The city and county councils both subsidise bus journeys to promote bus travel – so what effect is this use of council tax-payers’ money having?
    * pedestrian, cycle and traffic counts, and congestion statistics. If Hamats is working, we would expect to see an increase in the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists, and a decrease in the number of car journeys. If that’s not happening, it suggests Hamats isn’t working.
    * ensuring fully integrated cycle routes across the city. I no longer cycle, but I well remember the frustration of pedalling along a well-marked path only to discover it comes to an abrupt halt at a dangerous junction. A number of parents and children in particular cycle to and from their schools – we need to do all we can to make that journey as safe as we can. The councils should clearly identify where the gaps which exist are, and devise a timetable which ‘joins the dots’ as soon as possible.

2. How do we ensure the success of the hospitals’, Brookes’ and local schools’ Green Travel Plans?

A lot of time, effort and money has been expended by public sector bodies working up Green Travel Plans designed to encourage their staff, students and visitors to leave their cars at home, and access Headington via public transport. However, the councils need to monitor carefully two things:

    * who is responsible for monitoring and, where necessary, enforcing these Green Travel Plans?
    * how do we assess the success (or failure) of these Green Travel Plans? This is not just about traffic counts. If our local hospitals are unable to recruit staff because of what are perceived to be draconian parking restrictions then that is serious for all of us. We must not lose sight of the critical issue for all of us: better health-care for residents throughout Oxfordshire.

There are several other specific issues which need to be raised, for example:

    * new residents’ parking zones (RPZs) to cover the Lakes and Northway estates, as well as Marston South area. The Northway RPZ is especially urgent, as the John Radcliffe wants to open up its Saxon Way bus-only access soon – but there is a strict planning condition forbidding this until the RPZ is in place because of fears of spillover parking. The County Council is (at last) planning to engage consultants to ensure these schemes happen more quickly. Just as well: the current timetable shows implementation in late 2008 and 2009. Central Headington residents, who’ve waited six years for their RPZ, will raise a scornful laugh that those deadlines will be met.
    * the county council needs to get on with its London Road study. My colleague, David Rundle, and I successfully lobbied to have a condition attached to the John Radcliffe Hospital’s planning application to create a new bus route on Osler Road – this stated that the County Council, as the highways authority, would need to demonstrate the bus route could operate safely BEFORE the hospital could implement the planning permission. Those of us who fear an Osler Road bus route will add yet another dangerous junction to the London Road, further congesting this busy A-road, are sceptical the council will be able to prove this. In one sense, of course, delay to the London Road study further delays the Osler Road bus route – to which I’m not averse. But there are many other improvements which can be made (re-siting of bus stops, altering the phasing of the traffic lights at the junction with Windmill Road and Old High Street, etc), which are being held up.
    * the timetable for the Stapleton Road Area Home Zone seems to be slipping yet again. Residents were promised that full public consultation would by now have occurred on how best to restrain traffic flows in these streets, and that officers would have scoped two or three feasible options for residents to decide which they preferred. Yet residents, who have attempted to engage constructively with county officers, have heard nothing in a year. All the Hamats agenda papers say is that design is scheduled for some time in 2005-06. Residents, quite rightly, want timetables and action.
    * examination of 20mph speed limits, especially in Old Headington village, which, as a conservation area, would be especially appropriate. The rules governing what can be designated a 20mph zone have, in the past, been quite strict. In fairness, I can see why – sticking up a sign imposing a speed limit doesn’t make it so: unless it can be ‘naturally’ enforced (for instance, through traffic calming measures), you’re simply creating an extra job for the over-stretched police, and it will have little effect. But now Barton Lane has been calmed – which local residents tell me has made a big difference – it seems logical to push ahead with ensuring the village is included as a 20mph speed limit zone.

There are, of course, many other issues which could be mentioned. Headington’s traffic problems are, after all, as long as a piece of string. But these are the key ones at the top of my agenda tomorrow. You can let me know what you think by e-mailing me at stephen@stephentall.org