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A tale of two wheels: Oxford’s cycling culture

Within minutes of arriving in Oxford, whether that be by car or public transport, it is impossible to ignore the presence of cyclists. The area outside the train station immediately comes to my mind – the bike rails are always drowning in a sea of wheels and padlocks. For some disgruntled motorists, it can seem like there is no escaping these bicycles on the roads.  

Recent figures show just how popular cycling is as a mode of transport in Oxford. According to the 2021 census, nearly one fifth of Oxford residents over the age of 16 prefer to commute on a bicycle, and Sport England data shows that 59 percent rode a cycle in the last year. Oxford’s cycling population was beaten only by long-time academic rival Cambridge (in statistics that sadly mirror the two cities’ Boat Race performances). 

With efforts to cut carbon emissions and the city’s natural flat layout, it is no surprise that Oxford is labelled a ‘cycling city.’ So why are so many residents using bicycles to get around? What makes Oxford different from other UK cities? 

Oxford is, of course, home to an extremely high number of students who are discouraged from bringing cars with them. Oxford colleges have facilities for students to park their bikes, making cycling a convenient way to get to a lecture on the other side of the city. It goes without saying that students save an awful lot of money by using their feet or bicycle to travel. Parking in Oxford is limited and very expensive, and on top of this, much of the city centre is a ‘zero emission zone.’ This makes driving far less attractive, with all owners of cars that are not fully battery powered having to pay to drive their vehicle on the roads.  

Oxford City Council has also pledged to further encourage cycling in the city. For example, in January 2024, they greenlit a £106,000 investment which will aim to improve cycle links between Oxford centre and its neighbouring areas and towns. This project is long overdue, having been postponed due to the pandemic. By enforcing zero emission zones and dedicating funds to cycling infrastructure, it seems Oxford City Council is keen to push the notion of Oxford as a ‘cycling city.’ However, much more needs to be done before this title is truly earned. 

Whilst the council are beginning to act, certain restrictions still prevent Oxford from reaching its full potential as a cyclist safe haven. The sheer amount of traffic in the city centre is daunting for many, especially considering the lack of designated cycle lanes on numerous busy roads. Oxford’s public transport links are above average in the country, however the high frequency of buses on roads like Cowley Road and Magdalen Street can cause chaos. 

The Chair of the Oxfordshire Cycling Network, Robin Tucker, has been cycling in Oxford since the 1980s, having been a student at Wadham College. He attributes Oxford’s traffic issues to an unmanageable frequency of cars on its medieval streets and explained some of the measures being implemented to help traffic flow in the city: “The Council is acting on this with a series of traffic reduction measures, including Low Traffic Neighbourhoods which protect people in residential streets from cut-through ‘rat-run’ traffic.” 

The local community has strong feelings about Oxford’s safety as a ‘cycling city.’ Robin Tucker is also involved with Cyclox, a charity of volunteers, who have been campaigning for decades to improve Oxford’s infrastructure. Their campaign Vision Zero calls for HGV drivers to receive ‘urban training’ before driving around city centres, as well as high quality cycle lanes. Dave Nash of the Oxford Cycling Club admitted there had been huge improvements recently, yet similarly explained the problems his group faces when cycling around Oxford: Many in the cycling community are amused by the claims that Oxford is a cycling city – it’s somewhat of an oxymoron![…]I would say that the main arteries into Oxford, which our club uses on a regular basis, are very dangerous for cyclists. Improving cycling infrastructure into the city, via segregated cycling routes, would be hugely beneficial to all road users.” 

Many in the cycling community are amused by the claims that Oxford is a cycling city – it’s somewhat of an oxymoron!

It is not only the safety of the roads that prevent Oxford from living up to its reputation as a cycling city. Many restrictions are placed on cyclists, most notably on Cornmarket Street and Queen Street. Between 10am and 6pm, no bicycles are allowed on these roads. More surprisingly, bikes are strictly prohibited on the grounds of University Parks, regardless of whether said bike is being ridden or not. The safety of pedestrians on paths is a likely reason for this. Nevertheless, it seems bizarre that a city wanting to promote itself as cycle-safe would place similar levels of restrictions on bicycles that it does on cars. 

Perhaps Oxford is considered a cycling city by wider groups. After all, romanticised portrayals of students dependent on bicycles to get to tutorials are present even in hugely successful films – think of Jacob Elordi stranded on his way to Iffley Road in Saltburn. Yet it is clear that the local sentiment is quite a bit different. Personally, it would take a lot to get me to commute on a bicycle, namely because I never learnt how to ride one.

Image credit: Olivia White.