Oxfordshire Highways, which is a kind of blind-leading-the-lame joint venture between Oxfordshire County Council and two other organisations, has started work at the Plain, the critical junction which connects East Oxford, London and Vladivostok with Oxford city centre.
This is the third and final stage in the long-drawn-out “improvement” to the High Street, which started at Carfax a year ago. The aim is threefold – to restore the surface which has been patched for years and does actually need attention, to bugger up the traffic flow at the roundabout, and to replace the existing set of signs and lines with a bigger, shinier set.
Excuse me. What? I see. Thank you. Erm, sorry about the interruption. I am told that buggering up the traffic flow is not actually the intention, just the logical outcome of the plans. And that the technical term for “replace the existing set of signs and lines with a bigger, shinier set” is in fact “reduce unnecessary street clutter”. It means the same thing, apparently or, at least, it did further up the High.
The Plain has long been a test-bed for highways officers’ curious logic. In December 1991, traffic wishing to turn left out of the High into Longwall was compelled to drive down past Magdalen, across Magdalen Bridge, round the Plain, back again and then across the main traffic-flow. A correspondent wrote in that month to the Oxford Times suggesting that this was the logical answer to the question “What action would contribute most to an increase in traffic jams in the city centre” and wondering if we should ban all left turns and have “the world’s first fully clockwise city”. “Traffic flow”, he said “was in the hands of people who would apply a tourniquet to get the blood flowing”.
Oxfordshire County Council did some fiddling with the road layout at the Plain last year, reducing road-space with some expensive and badly-placed islands and bollards, forcing cyclists and vehicles to share narrower lanes, generally introducing a degree of confusion which had not previously existed, and much exacerbating the then level of danger. They also forced drivers coming from the Cowley Road to do an entire circuit of the roundabout before going up the Iffley Road, a curious echo of the stupidity of 1991.
Last year’s works did nothing to lessen the hazard of a three-way split here, just removed the room to manoeuvre
The result made the whole roundabout much more dangerous. To remedy this self-induced problem, the present plans include (unless common-sense has driven out the original intention) the narrowing of the carriageway round the roundabout. Some plastic barriers were put up to model this scenario last Winter. The effect was substantially to increase the risk of accident, particularly where Magdalen Bridge and Cowley Road reach the roundabout. Where formerly drivers could appreciate the risk, and adjust for it, the combined effect of the changes had the effect of encouraging them forward into the traffic stream without stopping.
Narrowing the lanes here will increase the risk for cyclists by removing the space which they share with vehicles
This is a not uncommon result where highways authorities fiddle with road layouts to produce a kind of feather-bedding to the senses. Its opposite, and the current thinking in traffic management, is the concept of “naked roads”, involving the removal of as many lines, signs and barriers as possible – reducing actual risk by heightening the sense of danger.
The other source of increased risk was the narrowing of the road. In practice, the biggest source of accidents and near-accidents is cyclists veering across the junctions with no hand-signals and no attempt at observation. The idea that you can improve their safety by narrowing the road-space is just nonsense.
Note to cycle fanatics: before you pronounce on me the fatwa usually pronounced on anyone who suggests that a cyclist might ever be to blame for anything, I am not condemning cycling or cyclists en masse, merely those many whom I have observed cycling dangerously in my many years of driving – and cycling – round the Plain. I have seen many foolish motorists as well. Engage brain for once before whining. The target here is the expensive pen-pushers who are making it worse for all of us.
The road planners have shown their usual disdain for those who have businesses to run in areas affected by road works. Such little parking as there was has been removed and, as at Headington roundabout, no attempt has been made to lessen the impact on the shops which depend on deliveries and customers.
The problem, of course, is that council officials are immune to business pressures. Their salaries roll in, and their pensions accrue, whatever happens and whether they are clever and competent or as this lot are.