Many of us would benefit from more exercise, and we can all help to reduce pollution and congestion by getting out of our cars when we can. Cycling, walking, scootering and other forms of active travel are healthy and fun. West Oxfordshire District Councillor Dan Levy, cycling champion and candidate for Oxford County Council, talks us through what West Oxfordshire is like for people who want to cycle or use other forms of active travel, and how he thinks things could be made safer and more attractive to encourage people who currently avoid active travel.
Q. What’s the current situation for cyclists in West Oxfordshire?
Dan Levy: The good thing is that there are lots of people cycling, and there's more and more people cycling. I think there is a genuine commitment by the local authorities around here to make cycling better. And there are some pockets of decent facilities in some places, though very few. So, for example, the A40 has a cycle track that leads all the way from Witney to Northern Oxford. It's not perfect, but it is well used, and it's safe in most places. People use it, whether they're keen cyclists in Lycra, or people going to work. From Eynsham to Oxford, lots and lots of people do their daily commute by bike along the A40. So that's fantastic.
But the situation could be a lot better, and the only way it's going to get a lot better is if some money is spent on improving facilities. There needs to be the ability of people to get safely from one point to another, feeling confident that they're not going to get hit by a car. The key areas where things could be made much better, like Witney. There are cycling facilities in Witney—by Cogges, for example. But they always end in junctions that are not designed for cyclists, and it’s these junctions that people worry about. On the other side of the Oxford Road, there's cycle routes going through the new housing areas. Again, the junctions don't really work. So, with a bit of a will, Oxfordshire County Council could make things a lot better. And it could, if it did it properly, get central government to pay for those improvements. Central government has been giving out grants for cycle schemes, but because there isn’t the will to challenge some of the base problems at junctions, not all that money is being used as effectively as possible.
So, what I’d like to do is have an honest conversation that says, ‘Look, to make things work, sometimes we are going to have to make things a bit more difficult for car drivers. In some places, we're going to have to give priority to people who are on foot or on bikes.’ Sometimes that's going to make people's journeys by car 30 seconds longer—but we should make those junctions work for cyclists and pedestrians. There are a whole bunch of pinch points around West Oxfordshire that could be improved.
"There needs to be the ability of people to get safely from one point to another, feeling confident that they're not going to get hit by a car"
On top of that, there's some nice shiny, obvious cycle routes that ought to be built and have been promised for ages. So along with the new housing that's happening in Eynsham—the Garden Village to the north and the huge development to the west of the current village—it will be crucial to have a cycle route between Eynsham and Hanborough station. Hanborough station needs to be turned into a proper hub people can cycle to to get the train rather than have to drive. Equally, if there was a station in Eynsham for a Witney to Oxford train, people would be able to cycle from Hanborough to Eynsham, park their bikes and get the train or even—GWR permitting—take their bikes on the train.
Then, in the other direction, from Eynsham to Botley, there needs to be a cycle route. The campaign for a cycle route through Farmoor to Oxford, from Eynsham, has been going on for ten years: it's just had its anniversary. Oxfordshire County Council has it on their list of things that would be done if the funding was available. However, they removed their request for funding from the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government when they were handing out the money that's being used for the Park & Ride. The relatively small amounts of money that would have been required to make a cycle track along the road through Farmoor, the County Council didn't ask for funding for. That would make a huge difference to the wellbeing of people out in West Oxfordshire, because it'll give them an attractive direct route into Oxford by bike.
Q. And it's Oxfordshire County Council who's making these decisions?
Dan Levy: Transport is a County Council responsibility. The District Council has some influence, it can do things like cycle parking, which is, of course very important. But there's not much point in having cycle parking if people aren't wanting to cycle because they're scared.
The really key message is that cycling isn't for fast cyclists with expensive bikes. People like me go out on our bikes every Sunday and we'll do that on the roads. The reason you put cycle facilities in is so people who don't currently cycle can use their bikes and kids can cycle places and go to school. Cycling facilities aren’t for cyclists—they're for people who don't cycle. And, at the moment, we have the ludicrous situation where head teachers try and discourage their kids from cycling to school.
Q. Because it's unsafe?
Dan Levy: Yes. So Bartholomew School, for example, in Eynsham has a catchment area that obviously includes Eynsham village. But it also includes the bit of Oxford that would be served by the cycle track I just talked about, so Farmoor and bits of Botley, as well as Hanborough. Lots of kids go to Bartholomew, and, at the moment, they're bused in, which is okay. But that bus provision disappears when kids get to the sixth form. Sixth formers don't get free bus travel. And, of course, if you do afterschool clubs or play sport, then you don't get a bus either. It's ridiculous that if kids want to play football or rugby or hockey, they have to have parents who can come and collect them. It’s absolutely ludicrous.
Q. I’ve seen the cycleway being pushed for on a sign at Decathlon in Botley.
Dan Levy: That’s Bike Safe, the campaign group.
Q. And basically there was a major setback a couple of years ago, when the money wasn’t applied for because of the Park & Ride?
Dan Levy: Oxfordshire County Council declined to bid for the money under the misunderstanding that if it applied for funding for bike facilities, those couldn't ever be directly connected to housing. There’s a housing infrastructure fund, which is what they were looking for the money from. They thought if they applied for bike money, that might invalidate the whole bid. But they were subsequently told by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government that that was wrong, and they could have bid for it.
Another thing I would campaign for—though it's not currently a top priority—is putting a footbridge at Bablock Hythe, where the ferry used to be. You can see from a map that this used to be the main route between Oxford and places like Standlake and Witney. A footbridge there would make it much easier to cycle into Oxford from this part of West Oxfordshire. You would go over the river, go via the backroad up to Cumnor and from there you could go down Cumnor Hill. You could also easily get to Abingdon without clogging up the A34. It would also make it much easier to do a fabulous walk with some excellent pubs all linked together (and incidentally allow the Thames Path actually to follow the Thames).
Q. If somebody wants to see routes around Oxfordshire where they can cycle safely, where can they look online?
Q. So far we’ve focused on people heading from West Oxfordshire into Oxford to work, from places like Eynsham, Witney, Hanborough. They’re very suited to cycling because they’re pretty flat. What about places that are more in the Cotswolds and a bit hillier, like Chipping Norton?
Dan Levy: Chippy is hilly but that's no reason for there to be absolutely no facilities. Bicycles do have things called gears or if you don’t want to break into a sweat you can use an electric bike.
In Chippy, first of all, the new houses that are going up on the outskirts (Chippy is basically doubling in size) need to have proper cycle routes. Like everywhere where new estates are being built there should be direct routes for people using ‘active travel’—that’s anyone on foot, on scooters, with push chairs and on bikes etc.—and indirect routes for people in cars. This is much easier when you’re building new estates because you can design them properly.
The other thing Chippy could have is a cycle route to Kingham station, along the old rail line. Chippy used to have a railway station, in the olden days. You could have a cycle track along the old rail line leading to Kingham station. Then you’d have the ability to cycle to a station and it'd be a nice ride of about three or four miles. The only problem with that is the will to do it and also the last little bit, getting through Kingham into the station. But it's doable.
Q. Is there anywhere else in West Oxfordshire that could be improved?
Dan Levy: Well, nowhere should be completely cut off. If money was no object, you could create a proper network of off-road or semi-off-road cycle routes to get anywhere in West Oxfordshire. There are places that are currently almost completely cut off, like Stanton Harcourt.
Q. Yes, that road between Eynsham and Stanton Harcourt is where a cyclist was killed last year, along the B4449. The other terrifying place is between Carterton and Witney. It’s no fun cycling along that road because people in cars just bomb along.
Dan Levy: Yes, Witney to Carterton ought to be cyclable, but there’s a gap between Brize Norton and Witney that could be dealt with. There have been proposals—though they haven't gone much further than that—to create a non-car route between Brize Norton and Witney through Ducklington. That works because the A40 can take the traffic instead. Again, that'll be controversial. People don't like being told they can't drive directly. But there are three car routes between Brize Norton and Witney, so shutting one of them to everything bar residents, cyclists, and buses, could work.
Q. How feasible it is to implement all these improvements we’ve been talking about?
Dan Levy: If the government was willing to help, then yes, things could be done. Everything depends on money and that’s to do with priorities. There is an awful lot of demand on money in Oxfordshire County Council, there’s all sorts of other things that need to be looked after—like education and social care—that have been neglected for the last 16 years. But if you think that, according to the current plan, it's going to cost just over £100 million to make the A40 probably not much better between Witney and Oxford, that money could be better spent doing other things. And there's a cost to doing nothing.
Q. Can you explain ‘active travel’?
Dan Levy: It's partly an attempt to not tar people who don't use cars as just being cyclists, because cyclists are very othered. You can be horrible to “cyclists” because they're seen as men in Lycra. So, people either talk about ‘people on bikes’, which is a bit long winded or ‘active travel’—which has the advantage that it also covers people on foot and scooters. When we push for ‘active travel’ to be in the plans to get from one part of the Garden Village that’s being built in Eynsham to another, it means we want it to be easier to travel without using a car. We don't want to say you have to use a bike, you could be an elderly person or a wheelchair user or a parent with a push chair. There is only going to be one medical centre for the Eynsham/West of Eynsham/Salt Cross mega-village, and people ought to be able to walk to the doctor if they can. Primary school children should be able to cycle to school without ever encountering a car.
Marston Ferry Road in Oxford. Thanks to the dedicated path, Cherwell is the top school in the UK for pupils arriving by bike.