Hooray for toll bridges

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.

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5 Responses to Hooray for toll bridges

  1. Adam Lawrence says:

    Which is all very well, but it ignores one central fact: the toll bridge queue hits bus traffic as it does cars. If there were no queue at the bridge, the S1 would be even better, sailing as it does down the carpark that is Botley Road. And what of those who are crossing the bridge not to go to bus-served central Oxford, but some other less favoured location?

    The ratrun problem is real, but it could be solved simply by prohibiting a right turn off the A40 into the village at the western junction for all private vehicles. Apparently this was a suggestion that predated the traffic lights, but the Parish Council in its wisdom lobbied against it.

    And your fling against Ms Tomlinson is ridiculous: show me where she says she uses her motorcycle to avoid the toll? She uses it to avoid the _queue_.

  2. sbalb says:

    Which is all very well, but it ignores one central fact: the toll bridge queue hits bus traffic as it does cars.

    I don’t ignore that fact at all. I actually think I address it rather directly by suggesting a very effective solution to the overwhelmingly large component of that very queue: adopt the bridge and ban the cars.

    You seem unhappy to accept that the queue consists predominantly of private transport, or possibly instead you treat that fact as something so obvious and unavoidable that it’s beneath discussion. But to me the very root of the problem, not just the symptom, is private transport, and the majority of users making small selfish decisions to (a) structure their life around a regular, private commute and (b) use an unsuitable route to perform it. To blame the toll is, as I’ve also said above, to treat private transport like some force of nature that just sort of has to be accommodated. I don’t agree.

    And what of those who are crossing the bridge not to go to bus-served central Oxford, but some other less favoured location?

    Suggesting that the proposal to scrap the toll has been put forward on behalf of any of the current minority user groups of the bridge – for example, and some of this is pre-emptive: public transport, disabled vehicle users, non-Oxford-bound traffic, non-rush-hour traffic, and rather tangentially environmental groups – is disingenuous in the extreme. As a member of at least three of those groups, I find their co-option rather patronising. Besides, I’ve already provided a solution to the problem you describe, which you could have chosen to read in my blogpost above: hypothecation of increased tolls to a better public transport network.

    All of the best solutions to this traffic problem, as with most traffic problems, is to pander less to private transport, not more. If you like, and I’m never keen on soundbites: scrap the car, not the toll. Scrapping the toll will also, as I predict above, only have a transitory effect until the system once again reaches homeostatis, and is clogged either at the Farmoor roundabout, the junction onto the A34 or at the bottom of Cumnor Hill. To suggest otherwise is to fail to appreciate how collective behaviour is likely to adapt to changing conditions.

    And your fling against Ms Tomlinson is ridiculous: show me where she says she uses her motorcycle to avoid the toll?

    Certainly. Here, on her blogger profile (my emphasis):

    I now ride a motorbike to avoid the queues and paying the toll.

    I’ve tried to reply to you reasonably, but I feel your comment demonstrates that you’ve either not read my blogpost sufficiently carefully, or not really taken the time to understand it; nor did you really hunt among the sources with any sort of care or diligence before suggesting slightly histrionically that I misquoted something when I actually took pains not to. Also, I slept on my reply to your comment, whereas your comment’s content suggests that you dashed it off in passing and maybe only thought about it after pressing “submit.”

    I don’t consider any of that to be good behaviour on another person’s blog, and direct you to the comments policy for future reference.

  3. The A40 is such a God-awful screwed-up road because of the jigsaw of speed limits that our traffic planners (these things exist?) inflict upon us.

    On the dual-carriageway sections, the speed limits are National for all vehicles (i.e. 60mph for HGVs and 70mph for smaller vehicles).

    But on the single-carriageway sections the speed limits are limited by vehicle-type. This meanas that cars, vans and 7.5t non-HGVs have a maximum speed of 60mph. But all HGVs on the same stretches of the road are limited down to 40mph.

    As the sheer volume of cars outweighs the number of HGVs, the bottleneck possibilities are as endless as your imagination is capable of predicting.

    However if we expect private transport to have an alternative we need to see more than an integrated speed limit and more than a place where HGVs aren’t in constant conflict with other road users.

    We need an integrated public transport system.

    I’m old enough to remember when we used to have one of those.

    What we have now in the United Kingdom is an all-mode transport system that some third-world countries would be proud to have.


    Because most already have better.

    As far as public transport systems go we’re not even in the third division.

    From my home in Spain I can travel to Madrid by inexpensive, regular, luxury coach for the price of a couple of beers.

    From Madrid I can get a connecting express train to Barçelona for the price of a pizza. And all of this can be done with an ‘on the day’ ticket.

    In this country I can’t even get a train from Witney to anywhere. I also can’t get an express coach from Witney to anywhere.

    As long as we continue to fail to provide an integrated alternative to the private car, the current situation will not continue; it will worsen.

    Sorry for the rant on your blog, but I know a little about planning in general, traffic planning in particular and can vividly recall what we used to have before ‘budgets’ became the driving force for ‘efficiency’ and ‘market forces’ became the Conservative and then the New Labour mantra.

  4. sbalb says:

    Sorry for the rant on your blog,

    Don’t worry. I’m not convinced by your HGV arguments – we’d need to argue about it transcribed onto a beermat at some point – but any time you want to come here and rant about how we need an integrated public transport system in this country then you’re more than welcome to do so. I’d even consider making it a regular slot.

    The best examples of such systems end up making cars almost redundant. Spain’s transport is beautiful if a bit sparse outside the large cities. But in semi-rural Finland I once counted a dozen bikes to a handful of cars to around half a dozen buses. Buses and bikes between them must have been carrying over ninety percent of travellers.

  5. As one who divorced his car two years ago it’s a joy to encounter another person inclined to the view that ‘twenty-first century transport’ is one that will help us escape the hell of autodependency. Once on two wheels or foot, refreshingly different perspectives on problems like this present themselves, but why oh why does it always take morally superior, intelligent people like me to see the future?

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