Spotlight on school travel: no safe routes for children in Headington

Following recent protests by parents at Headington and Barton schools afraid for the safety of their children on the school run, this first in our series of posts on school travel looks at the reasons behind the lack of infrastructure enabling active travel for children in Headington.

A young person wearing an orange helmet and rucksack rides an orange bike on the road
Photo by Jackie Alexander / Unsplash

Due to the lack of good protected main road cycle paths, crossings and connected low-traffic minor roads, combined with the prioritisation of motor traffic at every main road junction in the area, Headington is objectively one of the worst places to walk, wheel and cycle in Oxford, particularly for children and families.

But how did it come to this? Let’s look at the recent history.

Main road cycle paths

The ‘Access to Headington’ scheme, completed around 2020 and costing £18m, failed to materially improve things for people walking, wheeling and cycling in Headington. Due to poor design and/or implementation, it did not achieve its stated aims of:

“Providing a higher standard of cycle route provision and, in particular, more legible and continuous design than seen at present” and

“Enhancing pedestrian and cycle routes by providing greater priority at side-roads, and new and improved crossings.”

Low-traffic minor roads

Residents of Highfield, Quarry and Old Headington have, at first separately and now together, been calling for measures to address the increasing volume of through-traffic past their homes for over 20 years.

These concerns came close to being addressed in 2022, when plans were drawn up and funding received from central government for 3 low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) in Headington. But, while schemes that were part of the same funding package were implemented in neighbouring areas, the Headington schemes never were. The explanation Headington Liveable Streets received from Oxfordshire County Council at the time appeared to indicate that funding obtained for Headington had been diverted elsewhere.

But the high levels of through-traffic Headington residents face every day haven’t gone away and without action will only continue to get worse, so why weren’t the ready-made plans taken forward in subsequent funding applications? Read the story so far here: What’s happened to the Headington low-traffic neighbourhoods?

Given the lack of good protected cycle paths along Headington’s main roads, people trying to walk, wheel and cycle through the area rely all the more heavily on its minor roads to get around. In a properly functioning active travel network, traffic-calmed minor roads fill the gaps between and link up protected cycling paths on the main roads.

It’s all the more problematic, then, that Headington has few low-traffic/access-only minor residential roads – whether by design when built or created subsequently – compared with other areas of Oxford, as shown by the map below. Note the red cluster around Headington!

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The knock-on effect of this lack of low-traffic routes on the ground can be seen in the Cyclox online cycling map below, published in May 2023 to show safe cycling routes in Oxford (click here for a larger view). The resulting gaps in connectivity in Headington compared to other areas are clear to see:

Map showing low number of quiet cycle routes in Headington relative to other parts of Oxford
Map of quiet cycling routes created by Oxford residents for Cyclox

Main road junctions

Access to Headington failed to prevent the death of a female cyclist in a collision with an HGV at the junction of Headington Road and Headley Way in September 2021.

Less than a mile away, students at Cheney school face significant danger when crossing the busy Warneford Lane/Roosevelt Drive/Old Road/Gipsy Lane intersection immediately outside the school. Despite the most recent tranche of active travel funding from central government (in 2023) specifically targeting active and independent travel to school, Oxfordshire County Council made no application for funds to improve safety around the major junction directly outside Cheney, one of the largest secondary schools in Oxford whose catchment area to the east covers Barton,Wood Farm, Lye Valley and Headington.

There are no quiet roads in Headington

The lack of infrastructure to enable safe and easy cycling, wheeling and walking for short journeys is problematic for all residents, but particularly for children, with no safe routes to school or, as they get more independent, to visit friends or get to activities after school/at weekends.

And it’s not just children’s safety and physical health that’s suffering as a result: a study from last year found that “a primary cause of the rise in mental disorders is a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.”  There’s an easy explanation for why Dutch children are some of the happiest in the world.

Time for change in Headington

The status quo is what motivated many of us to join together to form Headington Liveable Streets in the first place. But, while measures have since been introduced to address similar concerns elsewhere in Oxford, the situation in Headington, a large residential area that’s also home to 6 schools, 5 hospitals, a medical research campus, a university and many businesses, appears to have gone unanswered. This has created a huge disparity between the experience of children living in and travelling around Headington compared to that of children growing up in other parts of Oxford. Why has Headington been left out and left behind when it comes to safe streets and active travel?

Every year, a new cohort of parents attempting to make short journeys with their children by walking, wheeling or cycling must discover – like the cohort before them – that there are no quiet roads in Headington. When is this going to change?

We have to ask: whose interests are being prioritised on Headington’s roads? The status quo indicates it’s the interests of drivers travelling through the area, rather than the people who live there and try to ease traffic and support their local community by making short everyday journeys without using a car. When it comes to junctions, if you have to wait 90 seconds after pressing the button to cross the road as a pedestrian, a vehicle travelling at 25mph (drivers seldom adhere to the 20mph speed limits) that’s a kilometre away when you press the button effectively has priority over you. At the Windmill Road/London Road/Old High Street junction, this means a vehicle exiting the ring road at the Headington roundabout when you press the button will likely cross the junction before you – and as pedestrian crossing phases are barely long enough to cross one arm of the junction, let alone two, you’ll have to do it all over again to complete your crossing if you want to get to the other side of London Road, all while having to stand feet away from heavy, fast-moving motor traffic.

Headington residents are not asking for special treatment: we want the neighbourhood streets we live in and travel around to be brought up to the same conditions now enjoyed by most of the rest of Oxford. Check back soon for our next post on how active travel routes to schools elsewhere in Oxford compare with Headington...

We’re calling for:

  • Reinstatement of the plans for low-traffic neighbourhoods to give children safe, quiet routes to school via minor roads – as is the case for children in East Oxford, Cowley, Littlemore, Blackbird Leys, Botley, Grandpont, Jericho, Summertown and Cutteslowe.
  • Rising bollards or other physical barriers during school drop-off and pick-up times to protect the Windmill School Street, which has become less effective and experienced an increase in vehicles passing through since the introduction of non-physical ANPR-controlled barriers without any supporting changes to the road layout. Rising barriers have been in place at a school in North Oxford (which is itself located within a low-traffic neighbourhood) for many years – why can’t the same (or similar) be implemented at Windmill? Windmill is the only School Street in Oxford which isn’t located in a cul-de-sac within a low-traffic neighbourhood. Windmill students therefore experience the double whammy of having both an unsafe and unpleasant journey from home to the School Street and a less effective School Street when they get there. Implementing the Quarry LTN would dramatically stop the heavy flow of vehicles from outside the area turning off the Eastern Bypass and travelling through Headington Quarry, past Quarry Foundation Stage School and onward into the streets surrounding St Andrew’s and Windmill Primary Schools. The Quarry LTN would therefore support the only meaningful traffic-calming intervention made to support school children in Headington for decades – the Windmill School Street.
  • Safe routes to Cheney School from Headington, Risinghurst, Barton, Sandhills, Wood Farm and Lye Valley. The East Oxford LTNs and protected cycle lane on Warneford Lane have provided safe routes for students travelling from the direction of East Oxford – we need the same for students travelling from the east of the catchment area.
  • Safe routes to Swan School from the direction of Headington, as experienced by Swan School students travelling from North Oxford and Marston thanks to car-free cycle paths, LTNs and subways to help them cross dangerous, busy roads.
  • Good subways and bridges to help children cross the Eastern Bypass to get to Cheney School, Windmill Primary School, Headington Quarry Foundation Stage School, Sandhills Primary School and Barton Park School, as are provided for children travelling to Cutteslowe Primary School, Oxford Academy, Swan School, Cherwell School and St Nicholas Primary School.
  • In the absence of any other safe routes, or at least until the need can be alleviated through other local traffic-calming measures, removing discriminatory barriers and allowing the use of Cuckoo Lane and Bury Knowle Park for cycling, as is permitted in East Oxford on Barracks Lane, Meadow Lane, Boundary Brook Path, Florence Park and Cowley Marsh Recreation Ground, and in North Oxford on the OCR 5 cycle path (which is significantly narrower than Cuckoo Lane by the JR).

Make your voice heard

If you want to join us in calling for safe walking and cycling routes for children in Headington, please email your local councillors and Cllr Andrew Gant (Oxfordshire County Council Cabinet Member for Highways) and tell them. Ask them for the low-traffic neighbourhoods in Headington Quarry, Old Headington and New Headington we were promised in 2022; for our junctions to be redesigned to protect and prioritise people walking, wheeling and cycling; for separated, protected cycle lanes on the main roads; and for potential car-free routes around Headington to be made accessible for people of all ages and abilities to use, at the very least in the interim while awaiting wider measures to enable active travel around the area.

Coming soon...

Check back soon for our next post on how active travel routes to schools elsewhere in Oxford compare with Headington.