WOT was that about?

Summing up the WOT “Unblocking the A40” Seminar, 10 November, Oxford

If you have been following our campaign you couldn’t have missed the seminar we organised a couple of weeks ago in Oxford.  Before, during and after the event we received a number of questions and we thought it would be useful to address some of these issues in a Q&A format (the questions have been re-edited as several were similar):

Why did you organise this event in Oxford and not in Witney?

Two fundamental reasons.  The first is that traffic alongside the A40 is both ways and it affects people in Oxford too.  The second is eminently practical.  We had speakers and guests travelling by train and there was simply no way they could have come to a public venue on time in Witney.  Those who commute from Oxford to Witney daily will know what we are talking about.  There was nothing more complex or sinister in the decision and the majority of our regular meetings are held in the Carterton/Witney/Eynsham areas.

How did you select the speakers?

We wanted to bring in a range of expertise and visions.  Ray provided the urban planner expertise, as well as his own joined up vision of a regional approach that might even go beyond our local stretch of the A40.  Roger came from one of our funders, Railfuture, to offer us his own perception of how these things work in terms of looking at strategic partnerships, as well as looking at opportunities in view of recent legislative changes.  Finally we couldn’t have wished for a better overall public transport expert with Stephen from CBT (Campaign for Better Transport) and his huge knowledge of these matters not only at local but also international level.

What did you want to achieve?

In a year which has seen fundamental shifts in this country’s political and economic landscape you could forgive our key stakeholders for taking their eyes off the ball, with the risk that more time would be wasted before anything was done to alleviate the situation.  A public meeting was our way of telling them that we are very much in the business of ensuring this problem should continue to be a top priority.  Furthermore, we also wanted to demonstrate that what we had brought to the table on previous occasions and in several semi-private meetings at council and district level was also backed by the public and by even more experts.   Lastly, we simply need the support of as many people and local organisations as possible to achieve our objectives.  It would have been unrealistic to have set more specific goals, like expecting to have total agreement for a specific solution.  The debate itself demonstrated the variety of interests and approaches.

Are the presentations available?

Yes, just go on the Past Events page and you will be able to download a PDF of each of the two presentations (there were no Powerpoint slides from Roger).

What are you planning to do next?

We are planning to organise a summit of all local parish councils in the new year during which we will discuss more specific details of our approach as well as exchanging information on some highly technical issues related to the proposed short term improvements to the A40

Do you favour a specific solution?

Many of us see a public transport option (rail or similar) as the best possible alternative.  We are not naturally opposed to the dualling of the A40, but we simply do not think that this alone could possibly provide a solution.  The travel pattern in our District is just too complex and, just as a mere example, even 15 years ago the County council wanted to dual the A40 *and* create a parallel public transport link all the way from Witney to Oxford.  If there was such need back then we could easily argue this is even more urgent now.  

Right now our main concern is that any land where the old rail link was sited is safeguarded.  Once the land is built up it would be much more difficult to reclaim it.   So it must be protected together with its essential infrastructure such as bridges and so on.

Why public transport?

There are two good reasons.  The first is strategic. You can’t just rely on a simple transport mode.  You couldn’t have just a few roads going from Bristol to London and no other form of transport. It would have engendered chaos and stifled economic growth.  So we need an alternative.  Public transport of the right kind, where vehicles follow their own independent tracks, is reliable by definition as a customer can plan a journey and reach their destinations within set times.  Everyone who uses trains, metros or the London river boats know this. You know the time your service will pass by your stop and when you will reach your destination.

Do you have any documentation?

We have amassed a very large library of documents, from the original Mott Macdonald report to more recent ones and more. Just drop us a line for information.

Are your regular meeting public?

Yes. We meet at least monthly and mainly at Freeland Parish Hall.  We publish the meeting dates on Facebook and on our website.  Everyone is welcome to attend.

How can we get in touch?

Easy.  Just drop us a line or follow us on our social media channels.

A tale of two roundabouts

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…

Another fudge

Fudge for car users
 
OCC’s plan is a hybrid. It proposes three miles of useful bus lane from Wolvercote to Eynsham and three miles of destructive dual carriageway between Eynsham and Shores Green. The bus lane is £12 million; the dual carriageway is £42 million.
 
OCC tell me that dualling a road costs about twice as much per mile as adding a bus lane on each side. The huge difference is because dual carriageways are built to much more elaborate and exacting standards.
A fudge but an indigestible one…
 
Therefore OCC’s proposal is about £21 million more than building bus lanes in both directions all the way between Shores Green and Duke’s Cut.
Almost all road expansion for at least the last five or six decades has increased traffic, and a Shores Green – Eynsham dual carriageway would do exactly the same. OCC refuses to believe it. It refuses to see that more road space will attract more car use.
 
OCC’s proposal does not satisfy the motor lobby. That lobby is still calling for the whole route to be dualled. Dualling between Shores Green and Eynsham will encourage demand to dual between Eynsham and Wolvercote, which in turn would require a “tin hat” bypass through the Kidlington Gap.
 
OCC’s only environmental consideration seems to be sensitive habitats in the area of Oxford Meadows. That was why it rejects dualling east of Eynsham but wants to dual west of Eynsham.
 
CO2 reduction and overall modal shift seemed to rate low on their priorities. I have seen no evidence from OCC that its A40 scheme is radical enough to fulfil either the Climate Change Act 2008 or the UK’s COP21 commitments. Instead OCC seems to be trying to placate car-dependent West Oxfordshire voters – and Witney MP David Cameron  by giving them a big new road.
 
Poor value for bus users
 
OCC’s bus lane proposal is hamstrung by its assumption that widening the bridges over the railway and canal would be too expensive. It therefore leaves the first half mile west of Wolvercote roundabout unimproved, with no bus lanes. That means half a mile of, potentially, daily car queues in which buses would still get stuck.
 
OCC says it would try to mitigate this with bus gates. I asked her where these would be and how they would help. She said they had not decided, and could give no more details.
 
2 April 2010: Derriford Walkabout
2 April 2010: Derriford Walkabout

I am no civil engineer. But does OCC pretend that widening the bridges to extend the bus lanes another half mile would cost more than £21 million?

 
Is the proposed hybrid scheme cheaper than bus lanes all the way between Shores Green and Wolvercote roundabout, including widening the bridges? I doubt it.
 
Of course Bus Users Oxford welcomes three miles of new bus lane on the A40. Eastbound from Eynsham to Duke’s Cut had already been decided upon; what this scheme would add is a westbound bus lane from Duke’s Cut to Eynsham. But the scheme is seriously compromised by both the missing half mile between Wolvercote and Duke’s Cut and the three miles of dual carriageway between Eynsham and Shores Green.
 
OCC’s current proposal for the A40 is not the most environmental option. It is not even the most affordable option. And it is certainly not radical enough to be called a solution.
Hugh Jaeger
Director Bus Users UK

More than 20,000 extra cars?

 

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

Had you heard of the Cotswold Necklace?

Ray Hall has been a member of WOT for a while and has a distinguished career in architecture and planning. You can read more about his career and experience on Ray’s website but in the meantime, Ray offered us his own pearls of wisdom, or rather, a Cotswold Necklace instead, and you can read more below. What matters most is that our District isn’t short of idea, but we desperately need the resources and the political will to make some of these long-term plans a reality.


Six years ago, my wife and I moved from our home of 38 years in southeast London to live in Witney, as a gateway to the Cotswolds. We were welcomed by many and now feel a precious sense of belonging in this very special place. For, which we are very grateful.

I led for 34 years a small Architecture, Planning and Interior Design practice based in southeast London. For ten years, we also had a property arm in Westminster, focused on rail related projects.

Soon after arriving in Witney, I began sitting attending Town Council meetings as a member of the public. My goal was to understand the issues being faced. It soon became apparent that population growth was a dominant concern, without the infrastructure needed to cope, quite apart from thrive. As a result, my own arrival was, in a sense, part of the problem now needing to be addressed.

It was not long before the then Mayor of Witney shared his deep concern that the special character of a town, loved by so many, could be undermined. He then said, ‘Ray, as a volunteer, can you help us?’ I was surprised, but pleased. I agreed on the basis that the ideas I tabled would be remain mine.

I then stepped back to see a much bigger picture. 

For, Witney is part of the Oxford City region that, in turn, is part of a ‘golden triangle’ with Cambridge and London. Together, they are a ‘powerhouse’ of innovation in the UK. Witney is also a rurally focused market town at the gateway to another region at the heart of England, the Cotswolds. It then became clear that a new relationship was now needed between those two seemingly conflicting contexts, identities and roles. The key missing component was a strategic approach to infrastructure and especially transport. I then asked many questions and talked with many people. The outcome was a substantial Discussion Paper dated 14.03.2016 that I presented to Witney Town Council. It was entitled “A new future for Witney and The Cotswolds”. As part of a bigger and more detailed picture, there were two core proposals:

  1. That the very evident investment interest in housing in the region is harnessed as part of one business plan; and
  1. That, at its heart, there must be a future-back-to-the-present infrastructure strategy, focused on transport and utilities, including green energy generation and recycling. 
Diagram of the Cotswold Necklace proposal

The drawing above hosts three diagram maps that summarize my overall masterplan. It was tabled before the Eynsham Garden Village was proposed, but anticipated substantial new villages north of the A40. 

Hanborough station would become a multi-modal transport hub, accessing a new eco-based rail line serving a region focused on Eynsham, Witney, Brize Norton and Carterton. With an opportunity to extend westward to a second transport hub near Swindon. I called it ‘A Cotswolds Necklace Line’.

New residential schemes would enable its delivery. Each would be local in character and green energy based. The rail line would be pivotal to a network of pedestrian, cycle and bus routes to minimize a dependency on cars, even when electrified. One goal was that the Lower Windrush Valley is accessible for recreational enjoyment by all ages and abilities from across the region. 

This strategy would then enable all of the existing towns, villages and hamlets to consolidate, free from the pressure of future development interest. There would also be long term clarity. For, other eco-villages could be added as the rail based ‘Cotswolds Necklace Line’ extends towards Swindon. Carterton would then become pivotal in the region, potentially as an energy + air-focused, innovation based counter magnet to Oxford, accessible into a national rail network.

As a sub-regional transport hub, Carterton could also have substantial park-and-ride provision off the A40 west of Witney. Clearly, locations such as Burford and Bampton would also be beneficiaries As can be seen, my goal then is a ‘Cotswolds Circle Line’. It would embrace a region that at the heart of a nation that has a challenging, as well as an exciting, future ahead. 

The direction of these proposals was formally welcomed by Witney Town Council. It has taken no further action.

A national, regional and local context is, however, now shaping that can could enable its’ themes to be explored further. As a result, through colleagues, there have been discussions with a credible rail operator, with the goal of being able to implement an eventual scheme. If it was possible, gaining a more detailed response locally and regionally could, therefore, be timely. For, it could help me discern whether and how to proceed further.

Roads at breaking point – don’t panic!

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

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.

 

 

A journey to better transport

The editor of the Oxford Mail has recently added his voice to the chorus of concern on local transport when it was reported that the previous day it had taken commuters over three hours to reach Oxford from Witney.

For those who are commuting daily on that route the misery has only exacerbated due to a combination of crumbling infrastructure, roadworks around Oxford and simply increased traffic.  Matters will not improve substantially either by simply extending a junction or adding a new lane here and there.  Oxfordshire, and West Oxfordshire in particular, has been starved of real investments for far too long.

Council planners had identified potential problems way back in 2001, yet thirteen years later we are still waiting for a solution. It has now become an emergency.

Quick fix risk

The risk now is that officials may be tempted to rush into a quick fix, throwing a few millions here and there, not enough for a well planned long term solution, but just sufficient for palliative measures.  We cannot afford to go down that road.  We don’t need a sticky plaster, but a robust and future proof transport infrastructure project.

While we have always advocated an agnostic approach to transport modes we cannot remain silent when we see that things are heading in the wrong direction.  There are non negotiable elements to any transport plans for our region and these are:

  • Reliability and proven track record
  • Sustainability
  • Integration with other transport modes
  • Low visual impact
  • Proven ROI over a medium/long term period

The next few months will be crucial.  Expect a flurry of interest especially as we approach general elections.  Expect some harebrained proposals too, as the smell of big money will inevitably attract unscrupulous entrepreneurs.  If you feel strongly about what we stand for join us so that we can have an even louder voice on the decision making process.

On the futility of dualling roads

More road building?

At long last our politicians have awaken to one of the major problems affecting our District: there can be no further economic development around Witney/Carterton unless something is done to alleviate congestion on the A40 to to Oxford.

In between the totally insane (like providing monorails or cable cars) there has been some decent debate too, but it’s disappointing to hear that our own MP has come out in favour of ‘dualling the A40’. (Note that in his maiden speech in 2001 Mr Cameron said “I will always support moves to examine reopening our railway to Oxford and extending the line to Carterton…”)

You don’t need to be a transport engineer to understand that even if you quadrupled the A40 you would only just get to the Wolvercote roundabout and then abruptly stopped there.  Any solution, no matter which, is only as good as its weakest link.  In the case of transport in and around Oxford the city itself is that weakest link.  Whether because of historical neglect or bad planning – there is no time to discuss this matter in such a short blog – you can’t easily drive through the city of Oxford, in fact not even around it. So what would be the point of attracting even more car traffic to it (as this is what dualling roads create, by the way)?

No, what we really need and deserve is something much more intelligent and cost-effective.  We don’t need a bigger road, we need an alternative.  We need to offer people the ability to commute knowing that their journey will take a set amount of time, every day and regardless of weather or anything else, except real force majeure.  We need to enable people to reach the main hospital on time for their appointment and without having to park there. We need to be able to connect with the rest of the country. We can achieve these many goals through fast and efficient public transport, but not of the kind that has to share the same space with cars as this would be pointless.

A few weeks ago we met up with representatives of the CPRE.  One of them, a retired architect, had spent some time planning a number of alternative tram/trains routes joining the Cotswold line from the north of Eynsham with a number of ‘hubs’, or convergence points, where commuters from neighbouring villages would drop their cars or get off local buses, or bikes, and jump on the tram/train to Oxford and beyond.  This is the kind of solution we need (but extended to Carterton of course).  A solution that encompasses multi modal transport, not just a single one.  For those who live in rural areas cars are still essential, but they should not be used to reach congested urban areas.

So the argument for dualling the A40 is a specious one.  We have no time here to discuss evidence, cost benefits and so on  though in the short span WOT has existed we have already amassed a vast amount amount of information.  All we need now is the support of the people of our District and to get a few heads around the table, with an independent study aimed at joining up the dots, as well as using new evidence to back up our argument.  This is what we at WOT are now fighting to achieve.  As we say in our publicity – doing nothing is not an option.

This blog was written and edited by Maurizio Fantato and it therefore expresses his own views and not necessarily the official ones of WOT