Independent transport consultant Mark McArthur-Christie

Oxford has always been a fine place. It just loves fining people; drivers, specifically.

Fines for owning a car (called residents’ parking schemes), fines for parking in a resident space if you’ve not already paid the fine, fines for overstaying your £5-for-three-hours parking space, fines for parking on the lines, fines for parking in the wrong place and now £4m in fines for 150,000 people who dared to drive through a bus gate.

When 150,000 people break a rule, it’s time to look at the rule itself.

After all, we’re still governed by consent and 150,000 breaches doesn’t really look like consent.

But perhaps the county council, who get the fines, knows best.

Let’s look at the possible reasons behind the policy: Maybe cars were banned (and fined) to make the High Street a nicer place to be?

That doesn’t really work.

The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called the High Street “one of the world’s great streets”, yet the Oxford Transport Strategy’s “bus-izing” of it turned it into a corporation bus depot with the buildings obscured by moving walls of double deckers.

Perhaps banning cars was less about creating a more pleasant street and more about reducing congestion.

Nope, that doesn’t stack up either. After all, motorcycles are banned too. Yet motorcycles are a significant congestion solver and use road space exceptionally efficiently – and the bikes used in most urban areas are marginal polluters.

Perhaps the policy just reflects a majority view – maybe most people in Oxford travel by bus?

No cigar for that one; 58 per cent of people come into Oxford by car, just 6.8 per cent by bus, so it’s a minority mode. In fact, twice as many people work from home as use buses.

So what’s gained by banning and fining cars? Perhaps this isn’t so much about practical transport as an ideologically-driven transport strategy. In fact, the only way the bus gate and its £4m in fines makes sense is if you view it that way.


Phil Southall, managing director of Oxford Bus Company 

Imagine Oxford City Centre with shop after shop boarded up, with office blocks empty and the area deserted.

Well that’s exactly what would’ve happened if the traffic restrictions in Oxford weren’t in place. Oxford has a lively vibrant city centre and getting-on for two thirds of all people got there by bus. It’s one of the fastest growing economies in the country but it wouldn’t be if people couldn’t get in or out of the city.

Cast your mind back to last year when the bus gate was “lifted” during the floods. Well the chaos and gridlock that ensued would be a permanent feature When the city fathers founded Oxford in the 8th century they didn’t plan for motorised transport. The ancient street layout means there has to be a compromise on who can and can’t drive into the centre. People with longer memories can remember what it was like before the Oxford Transport Strategy was introduced in 1999. Something had to be done to stop Oxford grinding to a halt every day, to end the constant traffic jams along the High Street and in Cornmarket Street. Bus priority and pedestrianisation allowed people to walk in safety in the city centre.

If buses were caught up in a car free-for-all nobody would ever get to work on time, especially on the vital corridor from East Oxford.

Prophets are rarely honoured in their own kingdom but it’s acknowledged Oxford has one of the best bus networks in the country, with integrated ticketing offering economical and, roadworks permitting, reliable journeys. It wouldn’t have if there was gridlock all the time.

Oxford’s civic leaders are, quite rightly, concerned about pollution and emissions in the city centre. Oxford Bus Company is playing its part. Our latest buses are the greenest the city has ever seen. But just a handful of cars carrying just a few people would create more pollution than one environmentally-friendly bus.

The choice is simple; keep the bus gates and let the city thrive or scrap them and watch as the city dies on its feet.