When I first heard someone complaining in the local press about it taking them forty minutes to get into Oxford from west Oxfordshire, my immediate reaction was: so what? That sounds about right, and if you have the misfortune to be trying to travel on a Sunday and catch a gap in the bus schedule then it can take much longer than that from door to door.
Then it clicked: this person was complaining because, being an habitual user of a private car, they felt entitled to travel between two points in a time only dictated by: 1. the road distance as measured on a map; and 2. (notionally) the speed limits. In other words, they had a car user’s geographical concept of travel time. It would never occur to them that less selfish people who used public transport would consider such a journey time quite reasonable.
The Swinford toll bridge, which is currently up for sale, lies on a minor route into Oxford, just south-east of Eynsham. It acts as a useful choke on private motorized transport. Without the inconvenience of the toll, this traffic would otherwise consist of far more vehicles, because it’s made up of lots of people who think they know a special secret quick route that bypasses the A40. The Farmoor–Swinford road is a minor tributary of the vast flow of traffic on the A40, so they’re hardly in short supply.
There’s a roundabout off the A40, after Eynsham, that in theory is the route you ought to take to the bridge and beyond; but even now the early-morning traffic through Eynsham has this odd peristaltic quality, where these terribly clever short-cutters turn off the A40 at the north-west traffic lights and, in a brief spurt of green light, power their way through the chicane of the village, two fingers crossed they don’t hit anything fleshy. Given that the local parish council is considering removing the traffic lights, getting rid of the toll bridge as well will essentially turn Eynsham into a fully fledged rat-run.
For my sins, I’ve travelled over the Swinford toll bridge by car. Not often, because west Oxfordshire has one of the best bus routes in the county, the S1. I’d certainly never be daft enough to drive over it in rush hour, when buses are at their most frequent. But I think the last time I actually did use it in a private capacity was in January, when j4 and addedentry needed help transporting a wedding cake into the city centre.
I can safely say that the experience of the toll bridge was banal to the point of being utterly unmemorable. You have to pay five pence each way which, on top of around a fiver for petrol, is a trivial expense for the upkeep of a pretty piece of architecture that I’m abusing with my two-ton metal shell. Otherwise, the main problems with the journey were in getting round Oxford, which indicates a good transport strategy because it means I’m encouraged to leave my private car at home unless I need it.
Jane Tomlinson has blogged at some length about the toll bridge, and has even taken up motorcycling to dodge the five pence every day (or so her “about me” suggests.) I bet it’d have been great to have such resourceful stoics on side during the Blitz. Her comments on the topic demonstrate a lexical gap of the sort you get from cagers, an unwillingness to grasp the fact that traffic queues are, ultimately, made up predominantly of private transport. She does say she uses the bus sometimes, but then spoils it by saying “A bus lane is one of the many ways to alleviate traffic queues and time wasting for a small number of bridge users; but it doesn’t tackle the heart of the matter,” while missing the heart of the matter—as indicated by my emphasis, and more on that dark heart later—by a glaring countryside-alliance mile.
She’s now suggesting that the county council should buy the bridge. Well, I’m not sure if I’d trust the OCC with a bench by a duckpond, let alone a bridge over a river. But I’d be happy to see the toll bridge in the hands of someone sensitive to twenty-first century transport. That means that the first thing I’d expect the new owners to do would be to ban all private motorized transport over the bridge; either that, or to raise the tolls and hypothecate the money towards improving local public transport. That’s how to deal with congestion in west Oxfordshire: get people out of their cars rather than pandering to them, and move to a sustainable, low-impact transport system which doesn’t involve everyone having their own personal engine.
Who commutes into Oxford, from far outside Oxford, in their own car, every day, by choice? Who ignores the county’s best bus service, and takes a winding country road towards the biggest bottleneck in Oxford’s entire transport infrastructure—Botley Road and the railway bridge, which unfortunately nobody’s found a way of abolishing—yet expects it to be a relatively smooth transport experience? Who thinks that the way to improve transport is to sign petitions demanding it be made easier for private transport, rather than signing petitions demanding better public transport?
And this co-opted bullshit about the carbon footprint of the toll bridge? That footprint is the sum total of each individual driver’s decision, that morning, to perform a selfish act and use private motorized transport, despite measures which—if they’re so worth complaining about—ought to discourage them from doing so. Deciding to live in one place, and then work in another, such that you have to and can afford to drive between the two, is an affirmation of your intention to perform a selfish act; an act which aims to deplete common resources and space for your own convenience, twice daily, for the foreseeable future. By all means make your own choices, but at least have enough of a mammalian brain to predict that others might think that self-centred motivations put you beneath sympathy and pandering.
Private transport is not a force of nature. It’s not some immutable consequence of a law of physics. If you’re driving regularly over the Swinford toll bridge, then the problem isn’t the toll: it’s you. The heart of the matter is you. You’re at fault. If you want to whine about the state of the traffic, then: get out of your car or off your motorcycle, and onto a bus or a bike permanently; vote for a bus-only Swinford toll bridge; campaign for better rural bus services and abandon any campaigns for abolishing tolls. Then we’ll talk.