Oxford Introducing Traffic Restrictions for Privately Owned Cars After 2023

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
oxford introducing traffic restrictions for privately owned cars after 2023

In England, the Oxfordshire County Council has introduced a new traffic scheme it believes will clear up roadway congestion, improve pedestrian safety, and also address climate issues. However, the plan involves prohibiting where residents of Oxford can drive (unless they have the proper paperwork) by breaking the city into six zones. Predictably, the concept has proven to be wildly unpopular with some of the locals.

Over the last week, residents have been up in arms about the scheme and it’s not difficult to see why. According to the Oxfordshire County Council’s own website, “traffic filtering” involves stopping vehicles from moving through selected checkpoints by leveraging a network of preexisting automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras. While locals will be eligible to purchase permits that will allow them to drive between the zones “up to 100 days per year,” exceeding this limit will result in fines.

That means if you commute daily via your own car, you’re already guaranteed to exceed the permitted allotment – assuming you were actually able to get accredited in the first place.

This only applies to privately-owned automobiles. Someone driving a car owned by the government will be exempt and the same goes for all forms of public transportation, cabs, and larger commercial vehicles. There are also ways to circumvent the checkpoints, as the initial enforcement zones seem to be reserved for high-traffic areas.

Pushback has grown since the announcement and appears to be stemming from local business owners concerned that this will reduce the number of customers they see and local residents that don’t want to have to contend with a system they see as costly and unfair. There have been claims that the issue basically amounts to “climate lockdowns,” with more than a few people asserting that the entire scheme is wildly authoritarian, and reports of people being forcibly removed from county hall while expressing their dismay over the matter. Long story short, people are pretty unhappy.

The Oxfordshire County Council has reached out to the local media to deny claims that the plan is tantamount to climate lockdowns and has attempted to shift focus toward the potential safety benefits and possible traffic reductions it’ll create. However, going back to its own website shows that climate action was a major component from the beginning.

“Across our county, we want to reduce unnecessary journeys by private vehicles and make walking, cycling, public and shared transport the natural first choice,” reads the council’s own website explaining why traffic filtering is necessary. “This will help us deliver an affordable, sustainable and inclusive transport system that enables the county to thrive whilst protecting the environment and making Oxfordshire a better place to live for all residents.”

All the popular buzzwords are there, along with another entry where the council asserts that the plan will “help tackle climate change, reduce local air pollution and improve the health and wellbeing of our communities.”

This isn’t the first time Oxford has attempted something like this and citizens seem truly upset that the council wants to move ahead without there being a public vote on the matter. Though there were also meeting attendees that didn’t seem to mind how traffic filtering was put into place.

“Every economic plan for the county identifies traffic congestion as a major problem for employers. The roads are stuffed,” Robin Tucker, a member of the Coalition for Healthy Streets and Active Travel, was quoted as saying by the Oxford Mail. “Doing nothing makes it worse, and since 2015, when this plan first emerged, no one has found a better way. It was approved by the Conservative cabinet in January 2020, and only blocked by Covid.”

 “And a YouGov poll shows two-to-one support for the key measures,” Tucker added.

Based on reporting from the Oxford Mail, most of the people supporting the government initiatives appeared to be representatives of some kind of action committee designed to promote pedestrian or environmental safety (e.g. the Coalition for Healthy Streets and Active Travel, Cyclox) while those in opposition tended to be local businesses owners or members of community groups representing local residents.

Jenny Wells, a local hairdresser who does house calls, said that she was particularly worried about how driving limitations would impact her ability to make a living. “It would be really difficult for me to get to my clients and I think no one really wants these measures,” she said.

But the Oxfordshire County Council seems to have already made up its mind and has asserted that the new traffic laws would be implemented under an “Experimental Traffic Regulation Order,” because it believes it would be difficult to assess the impact of the scheme beforehand. The order reportedly gives local authorities the ability to “assess and test a scheme over time before making a long term decision about whether to stop or extend the experimental measures or make them permanent.”

Note that the public does not get a say outside of complaining at council meetings. The only real silver lining for divers is that the penalty for breaking the rules is only £70 per violation. But those not issued a permit could be seeing that fine on a daily basis if they elect to drive down the wrong road, and even those with the certificate will still only be given 100 days of grace per year. However, the 100 days only applies to those living within the city limits; county residents are only to be issued a 25-day pass.

“Currently, our roads are gridlocked with traffic, and this traffic is damaging our economy and our environment. Oxford needs a more sustainable, reliable and inclusive transport system for everyone. Traffic filters are an important tool to deliver a transport plan that works for all,” said Councillor Andrew Gant.

“Traffic filters are designed to deliver a safer, cleaner and more prosperous place to live, work and visit … This is not a scheme to stop private vehicles in the city. Exemptions and permits available for residents and businesses will make car journeys faster while also improving alternative transport options such as public transport … Feedback received by the thousands of people who responded to our consultation survey, spoke to us during the engagement events or wrote to us has been instrumental in making changes to the traffic filters proposals … The traffic filters will be introduced as a trial. This will be another opportunity for us to learn from people’s experience of the filters and adapt and make any changes if necessary.”

Hoping to tamp down some of the outrage, the Oxfordshire County Council pointed to an Associated Press fact-check to try to make the plan more palatable. While the primary focus of this piece was to prove that the action wasn’t tantamount to a climate lockdown – something the council’s own website seems to dispute – it also addressed some of the conditions of the plan and showed it wasn’t barring cars from all parts of Oxford, just specific access points.

For starters, camera-based filtering is only supposed to take place between 7:00 am and 7:00 pm during daylight hours. It also won’t have any direct enforcement with fines and police visits coming directly to your door based on the data pulled from your license plate. You can still drive wherever you want, you just have to be aware that it might result in a fine if you don’t adhere to the rules and stick to approved routes.

“Everywhere in the city will still be accessible by car,” Paul Smith, spokesperson for the Oxfordshire County Council, wrote to the AP in an email. “Nobody will need permission from the county council to drive or leave their home.”

It’s difficult to see how much better that’s going to make people feel. From the sound of things, a lot of drivers seem to be just as angry about camera-based enforcement as they are about having government-issued quotas for how often they’re allowed to drive down certain streets. Some simply don’t like the legal precedent that's being set, while others are afraid that their small business won’t be able to survive under such a stringent regulatory environment.

The issue has gotten so contentious that the city and county councils actually released a joint public statement about the pushback it was getting from residents. It claimed that members are being “subjected to abuse due to inaccurate information, being circulated online, about traffic filters,” and faulted “misinformation” as the reason it’s been receiving so many negative calls and social media messages from worried residents.

The rest is an itemized FAQ clearly intended to sell people on the plan and the repeated assertion that non-drivers have no reason to be upset.

“Everyone can go through all the filters at any time by bus, bike, taxi, scooter or walking. Furthermore, residents will still be able to drive to every part of the city at any time – but in the future, during certain times of the day, you may need to take a different route (e.g. using the ring road) if you want to travel by car,” reads the statement.

[Image: ChicagoPhotographer/Shutterstock]

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3 of 63 comments
  • GregLocock GregLocock on Dec 10, 2022

    London has wide streets due to certain unfortunate events. Denver's streets were presumably laid down in the era of the motor car. Oxford's build are the raison d'etre and are built around streets dating from the 1600s. Sure Park'n'Ride, ring roads and so on all help, but I don't actually see much difference between a congestion tax (that applies to all roads) and a restriction at 6 individual points, except that the latter seems less prone to abuse by elites.

    • Stuki Moi Stuki Moi on Dec 11, 2022

      As long as the "penalty" is a payment which the elites" can either 1)afford, or 2)be issued permission to skirt; it is quite obvious that the whole scheme is done specifically to facilitate "elite" abuse. "Elite" in financial, and/or wrt political connections of course. Not so in any other way, in fully financialized dystopias like the UK.

  • GregLocock GregLocock on Dec 10, 2022


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