Transportation in and around Oxford (October 22, 2007)

                                           
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Bicycling in Oxford

Oxford has the reputation of being the UK bicyclist's utopia, and the Oxford City Council has the reputation of being extremely hostile to automobiles. One can see where that impression might come from, but it is sobering to note that the end effect is hardly different from that seen in communities where the ostensible priorities are reversed. Some believe that there is a secret transportation plan, carefully laid out in 1968, aiming to intensify the contradictions in the transportation dialectic  Be that as it may, for present generations bicycling through the city centre is difficult and dangerous at most times of day or night. There are bicycle paths that cross over automobile lanes, paths that run for 100m beside a busy road and then simply stop, and no lack of automobilists for whom passing a bicycle has a pavlovian urgency, even when the bicyclist has signalled a turn, even when the car itself is just about to brake to turn off the road. Outside the city centre, there are some very useful bicycle paths, some fairly elaborate. And on a larger scale there is the UK national cycle network, now over 10,000 miles in length, which we have yet to explore.

What advantages there are for bicycles in the Oxford city centre are mainly of the sort that come simply from being numerous enough to be noticed -- what I presume to be the principle inspiring the Critical Mass movement. In many parts of the US or Canada, bicyclists are invisible to the driving public, as unnatural apparitions often are, or objects of fear and loathing. More than once I have heard reports of people throwing bottles out of moving cars at cyclists. Myself, I have not done much cycling outside of cities in North America, but I have spent some time hiking along small roads of New England and elsewhere in the US. Some automobilists were friendly, stopping to offer a ride or food, while others would slow down to yell insults out their windows. And I was repeatedly stopped by police, who wanted to know who I was and why I wasn't in a car.

There is nothing that dwellers in anonymous modern societies crave so much as acknowledgement. The letters pages of urban newspapers are filled with venomous denunciation of scofflaw cyclists, who run through traffic lights, ride the wrong way up one-way streets, and detour up sidewalks. Part of the problem is that the cyclists are, for obvious reasons, on average younger and (consequently, alas) less responsible than the population of automobilists. By a certain sub-population there is certainly the influence of a certain arrogance, an antinomian sense that the environmental saintliness of the non-driver sanctifies defiance of mere traffic codes. But one has to consider as well the effect of invisibility: If they can't see me to avoid running into me, one thinks, then why should I obey their rules? There is a poisonous strain of thinking, that bicycling is an inherently dangerous activity, and those who prefer not to be run down in the street should pack themselves into their own armoured vehicle to cross the street -- I think, for instance, of the California state legislator who was quoted in the newspaper, with regard to a proposed change in the law to make it clear that cyclists are permitted to ride in the middle of the lane, to avoid having car doors suddenly thrown open in front of them, that it was the duty of the cyclist to look into each parked car and make sure it was unoccupied before riding past. This is similar to the (now thankfully obsolete) fashion of blaming crime victims, particularly victims of sexual assault, for going out walking alone. Yes, it is the individual's obligation to take precautions, but the primary obligation ought to lie with those who make use of potentially deadly machines in public. The fact that they are common everyday machines naturally blinds us to the need to exercise the caution due to dangerous and potentially lethal devices. For this reason, it is among the jobs of government to devise procedures and regulations to keep drivers mindful of their social obligations.

Sheer numbers make the cyclists visible in Oxford, as in other places I have lived, such as Berkeley and Berlin, and the true cyclist's paradise, Rotterdam. Perhaps as a consequence of this, cyclists are acknowledged in the traffic laws and signage. Where the bicycles are simply expected to behave like motor vehicles, the absurdity drives the cyclists to ride through stop signs which were clearly set up every 100 metres to prevent cars from roaring through residential neighbourhoods, and ride against the grain on a one-way street that is simply too narrow for two cars to pass each other. But when some crucial one-way streets have an extra bicycle lane running in the opposite direction, you take it seriously when no exceptions are made; and when the pedestrian zone explicitly permits bicycles after 6 pm, you believe that some thought went into prohibiting the rest of the time. Similarly, traffic lights targeted at cyclists -- and which make sense for where bicycles will be coming from and where they will be going to -- are not only useful, they encourage good practise by discouraging the sense of exemption because of having been neglected by the law.

One striking difference between Oxford and other places where I have lived and bicycled is the number of Oxford cyclists (and I have no reason to assume that Oxford is unique in the UK for this) wearing reflective safety vests. They look a bit odd when you are not used to them, but they are worn fairly rigorously by construction workers, police, and others likely to be crossing in the way of traffic at unexpected times and places. Of course, one could question the need for high-visibility clothing at noon on a sunny day, but one of the important rules of risk minimisation is to have procedures in place which require a minimum of thought. I think of the passage I once read in a discussion of why bicycle helmets aren't really thick enough to prevent concussions: "when helmets get too thick, they look like a mushroom on the rider's head, and consumer acceptance drops like a stone." Obviously, the US cyclists who dress up like Tour de France riders and worry about whether their heads look like mushrooms are not going to wear fluorescent orange vests in the afternoon. That said, hardly anyone in Oxford seems to wear a helmet. This may have something to do with the observation (made with respect to automobile-buying tastes) that Europeans are more concerned with avoiding accidents, while Americans (despite their self-image as can-do optimists) are fatalistic about accidents, and largely concerned with surviving them.

An accident observed (Addendum Dec. 2, 2007)

In the early early afternoon a few days ago I was waiting on Museum Road, at the corner to Parks Road, for the traffic light to change. There was one bicyclist ahead of me, and for some reason she started inching ahead before the light turned. Her wheel got far enough out into the bicycle lane to be struck full on by another cyclist coming up Park Road. Her wheel broke apart, and the other cyclist crashed on the pavement. While I was still dumbstruck, other witnesses reacted with impressive speed to block traffic, help the injured cyclist limp to the sidewalk, and pull his bicycle off the road. I waited around briefly, thinking that the police would come and they would want me as a witness. I assumed that the one who landed on the road would want some compensation. This obviously reflects the kind of American experience that British people find baffling, as they seem to find the whole notion of personal liability insurance. In fact, both cyclists apologised to one another, and then proceeded on their way, as best they could. End of story.

The trains

As in so many other points, the UK rail system falls somewhere between the standards of North America (where trains are rare as diamonds, and correspondingly expensive, and run on what could only be described as a casual schedule), and Northern Europe (where trains are fast, comfortable, efficient, ruthlessly punctual, and heavily subsidised). Compared with Ontario, the best-served portion of Canada but still with only 6 trains a day between Toronto and Montreal and the earliest one arriving just before noon if it ever arrived on time (an occurrence which matches in frequency -- at least at these latitudes -- total eclipses of the sun), any spot in the UK is a veritable railroad paradise. Service is frequent (except on weekends not so much), comfortable (except that the peculiarly rigid schedules, with trains at unvarying intervals through the day leave trains varying from mostly empty to hanging-off-the-roof full (which also means regularly late by a goodly margin), and expensive (though not by comparison with Canada). The pricing, a result of piecemeal privatisation, can only be described as maddening. Not only is no one apparently able to say what the cheapest fare is on a given route, but there are disagreements between the station ticket sellers and the conductors checking tickets even about which tickets are valid on which routes. One could argue about the proper level of subsidy for public transport, but if the price is going to be set high, they could at least have the courtesy not to tax our time in addition with incomprehensible fare schedules.

Just one example: Julia travels several times a week to Coventry. The fare is 10.40 each way if bought in advance (how far in advance they don't say, but presumably that information is available somewhere, even if not on the National Rail website) or 17.50 each way if you can't buy in advance. But if you don't buy in advance, you can buy a round-trip ticket for 22.20, not much of a penalty, but only if you avoid travelling during peak travel times, which seem to be between 7:30 and 9:30 am and 3:30 and 7:30 pm on weekdays. (The 10.40 advance fare seems to be restricted to some off-peak trains as well, though it's not entirely clear to me which ones.) Otherwise, you're stuck with a 35 round-trip.

Or are you? That is the impression you would have from a merely casual acquaintance with the fare schedule. But there are several ways of lowering the price and improving your flexibility:

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