WHAT would it take to double the capacity of one of Oxford’s oldest and most celebrated bits of cycling infrastructure? A private finance initiative scheme, perhaps? Some Section 106 funding? How about an EU grant?

None of the above. Try a shovel.

The cycle path that runs alongside the northern bypass was built in the 1930s at the same time as the road it follows. Back then such provision for cycling was not unusual but, as national transport policy shifted inexorably towards the dominance of the private car, Oxford’s multi-modal ring road became an all too rare example of what proper cycle infrastructure could look like. The city’s esoteric cycling culture meant that the path remained in continuous use and survived as an important part of Oxford’s cycle network.

None of this was on my mind during a recent trip from Headington to Summertown but I happened to notice a faded white line of a paint disappearing under the turf where the path narrowed. I pondered as I pedalled. Presumably the line signified the separation of the footpath from the cycle path but why did it go under rather than round the turf? And why would the path change from a generous width of around 3m down to 1.5m in odd places? I noticed the line reappear and disappear in other places along the route.

On the return journey, having borrowed trowel, I stopped to do a little digging. In four or five places along the path I excavated a small trench. Each revealed that under the turf the Tarmac of the original cycle track was still intact. Here was Oxford’s lost cycle superhighway.

How had we come to lose half the width of a busy two-way cycle route, space that would make the path so much safer and more pleasant to use? It would appear that decades of leaf fall and gradual overgrowth had taken their toll. Leaves fall from the hedgerows and trees along the route, bike riders avoid the slippery mulch and within a couple of seasons an excellent growing medium has formed. After a few years this thick mulch has been colonised by all that nature has to offer. After a few decades a verdant grass verge has reduced the original nine feet of Tarmac to little more than three feet for much of the path’s length. Meanwhile, we ride on oblivious.

Oxford’s status as a self-proclaimed cycling city owes much – some would say much too much – to its history and not enough to its present. Here is a chance for the county council, which is responsible for our road network, to show its respect for the achievements of the past and an understanding of the requirements of the future.

And all it would take is a shovel.