So, is, as eleven welcome signs dotted around its perimeter suggest, Oxford a Cycling City?
The road signs, erected in 2017 and placed prominently on all roads entering the city centre, are intended to promote awareness to motorists that they are entering an area with an unusually high number of cyclists, in the hope that they'll drive with the requisite care and consideration that should be afforded to those on two wheels.
Studies, albeit a decade ago, suggest that 17% of Oxford residents commute to work or study on a bike, making it second only to Cambridge in the UK in those stakes, although some way behind their figure of 29%. However, both pale in comparison to the 70% of bicycle commuters that our twin city of Leiden in the Netherlands boasts. The Netherlands has a very different relationship with bicycles though, with over a third of all Dutch people listing the bicycle as their most frequent way of getting around on a typical day.
Cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is heavily invested in and respect for cyclists is ingrained in the culture, as evinced by The Dutch Reach - a safety technique for motorists that’s been in use in the Netherlands since at least the 1970s. Its aim is to stop cyclists (and pedestrians) from being hit by car doors as they pass parked cars. The method involves opening the car door from the inside with the hand furthest from the handle. That gives you a chance to check your mirrors and blind spot for passing people or cars. The technique was actually added to the Highway Code in January 2022, although rather like the rule that drivers at a junction should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross a road that they're turning into, it doesn't seem to have seeped into the public consciousness yet. Cyclists also need to ensure they keep up with rule changes too, like giving way to pedestrians that are using shared-use cycle tracks.
As a relatively experienced cyclist (Strava, an app that monitors my cycling suggests I've covered just over 57,000 miles in the six years since I took up riding) who rides for fun, to get around, and now for my job too, I'm a fairly confident road user. However, I understand that for some their safety on the road is a big concern and a potential blocker on their use of a bicycle. I confess that there are certain areas where I feel trepidation, like at The Plain for example, where Iffley Road, Cowley Rd, St Clements and Magdalen Bridge all converge at a fairly small and incredibly busy roundabout. Tragically, Dr Ling Felce died earlier this year from injuries sustained when cycling there after being hit by a lorry.
So, how can novice cyclists gain the confidence to get out there and enjoy the benefits of riding, and what are those rewards? Well, the benefits are plentiful; it's a low impact aerobic exercise that can help with weight loss, and improve balance and posture. It's environmentally friendly, as well as being an efficient way to move around the city (think about those traffic logjams that are a daily occurrence on the Abingdon, Botley and Iffley Roads!). As with most forms of physical exercise it can play a part in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as contributing to mental health wellbeing. Additionally, what could be better for your outlook than drinking in some of the beautiful sights that our city has to offer, like Christchurch in May?
For those seeking to expand their horizons but are nervous about traffic on the road, then there are a few options to get out and build confidence. Firstly consider riding in a traffic free environment - my children were educated in riding for the first time in local parks and my wife, an initially reluctant cyclist for exactly the reasons outlined, grew in confidence after practicing in Florence Park (remember to give way to pedestrians on shared paths, though!). We live in Cowley and since our street became a designated low traffic neighbourhood (LTN) my partner has become a daily cycle commuter to her teaching assistant job in Rose Hill come rain or shine. Another traffic free option, as well as being a beautiful route in its own right, is the tow path along the river and canal that links so many parts of the city.
Cycling is also a great way to socialise, and the club I belong to, the Cowley Road Condors, offer rides for all abilities every Tuesday and Saturday, as well as most Thursdays and Sundays, with "Meet the Condors" introductory rides generally running monthly in Spring and Summer. The Condors pride themselves on being an especially welcoming environment for female riders, who make up over 35% of the club's membership.
So, come on, get out and enjoy the sights and sounds of the city, support great Indie Oxford businesses while you're at it, and be kind and considerate to all road users, whether they're on foot, two or four wheels.