Oxford's Ground Zero

Published on 17 February 2024

Oxford is home to a Zero Emission Zone - a collection of streets where only zero-emission vehicles are welcome. It’s just a trial, but if it goes well, the whole city centre may go the same way.

Increasingly political battles are being fought over the road network. Not the ones we’re familiar with, like the environmental movement, where construction of tunnels or tree houses might hold up a new bypass. These days the fighting is ideological, linked with “culture wars”, and battle lines are drawn around Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), low emission zones and bus gates. Protests and, sometimes, violent action are part of it. People fighting these things often call it a “war on the motorist”.

This is the first of a new, occasional series of blog posts exploring some of those issues, which we’re calling “reports from the front line”.

Reports from the front line logo

Welcome to Oxford

Oxford is an ancient city built around its university, and its centre is a glorious maze of lanes and alleys linking shopping streets with cloisters and riverside parks, all built of a warm, honey-coloured local limestone.

The city’s relationship with the car has never been easy. This is not a place easily adaptable to motor traffic, and even a century ago the city was pushing back against the rise of the petrol engine.

Back in the 1930s, the city began surrounding itself with bypasses - bold early roadbuilding, all designed to keep traffic out of the city. And while the rest of the UK had no speed limit at all, in 1933 Oxford was granted permission for a blanket 30mph limit, an early trial for the general 30 limit we now have in built-up areas, which was rigorously enforced by the police.

The age of brutal urban roadbuilding didn’t entirely pass Oxford by. There were plans for a city centre relief road across Christ Church Meadow, but it faced huge opposition, and instead the city authorities spent the following decades embarking on pioneering schemes to promote alternatives to driving.

Oxford was among the first cities to establish Park and Ride sites, and operates some of the most successful ones in the UK. It was an early adopter of bus priority measures and cycling infrastructure. It dabbled in shared space and pedestrianised large parts of the city centre.

The result, before a Zero Emission Zone was ever on anyone’s mind, was that Oxford did not welcome private motoring with open arms: traversing the city centre in most directions was already deliberately difficult, if not impossible, and every encouragement was offered to leave your car either at home or in the suburbs and travel in to the city by other means instead.

Zero Emission Zone this way. Click to enlarge
Zero Emission Zone this way. Click to enlarge

Zero hour

Two years ago - on 28 February 2022 - Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council jointly launched a pilot Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ) in the city centre. Their stated aims were to encourage the switch to low and zero emission vehicles, make positive changes to travel patterns, improve air quality in the city centre and reduce traffic levels. The pilot was intended to be the first phase of a bigger zone in years to come.

Its current extent is not very troubling. It covers all or part of nine streets in the very heart of the city, most of which were already either pedestrianised or subject to access restrictions, and several of which are dead ends useful mainly for deliveries to shops and restaurants. The general motorist would have little reason to use them.

Map of Oxford city centre, showing the current Zero Emission Zone
Map of Oxford city centre, showing the current Zero Emission Zone

As a result, the current ZEZ is an academic exercise for most road users; its main effect is to penalise deliveries and tradespeople that service commercial properties using diesel vans.

For shopkeepers and wholesalers who still need to get in and who haven’t yet switched to electric, the charges are fairly modest (compared to many schemes of this type) and use a sliding scale, so that drivers of lower emission vehicles will pay less than those running on petrol or diesel.

VehicleEmission levelCurrent daily chargeProposed charge from 2025
Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV)0g/km of CO2£0£0
Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV)Less than 75 g/km CO2, or any two or three-wheeled vehicle with any level of tailpipe emissions£2£4
Low Emission Vehicle (LEV)Compliant with Euro 4 petrol or Euro 6 diesel standard£4£8
All other vehicles £10£20

You might look at the extent of the Oxford ZEZ and - even if you find emission-based charges and levies distasteful - consider it fairly inoffensive. In the end it applies a relatively small penalty to streets that most people would never have been driving on anyway.

The ZEZ covers Cornmarket Street, which has multiple existing restrictions on motor traffic. Click to enlarge
The ZEZ covers Cornmarket Street, which has multiple existing restrictions on motor traffic. Click to enlarge

Screaming spires

One reason the ZEZ is proving controversial is not its exact size, scope or effect, but the broader fact that it’s in Oxford. This is a tranquil academic city that has been home to the UK’s biggest and, at times, most bizarre fighting over transport policy.

In parallel with the ZEZ, the City and County Council have been making other modifications to the city, changing suburban street networks to form Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), rebuilding junctions or rephasing traffic lights to prioritise buses and cycles, and various other changes similar to those seen nationwide in the last five years or so.

In cities up and down the UK there have been complaints from those who don’t like the changes. In London there have even been some protests. Oxford… well, Oxford has had the worst of it.

Normally on Roads.org.uk we try to maintain an even-handed approach and air all sides of a debate, but it’s not easy with this one. Anti-LTN sentiment has become eclipsed by wider conspiracy theories about the “15 minute city” - itself an unobjectionable concept, but one now hijacked as a rallying cry by people who have come to believe all kinds of malicious falsehoods.

Oxford's handsome High Street, largely restricted to buses and cycles only. Click to enlarge
Oxford's handsome High Street, largely restricted to buses and cycles only. Click to enlarge

There are reports of the far right infiltrating the movement, with anti-semitic chants being sung at what were supposed to be public gatherings about a local council policy on traffic management. A local businessman was forced to apologise for comparing Low Traffic Neighbourhood street closures to the Holocaust. In local elections, Oxford’s residents now choose between pro-LTN and anti-LTN candidates.

Then, a year ago, several thousand people from across the country descended on Oxford for a mass protest against a “climate lockdown”, another conspiracy theory that claims the ultimate aim of transport policy is to confine residents to their immediate area and prevent all travel, which of course it’s not.

None of these things should be allowed to detract from the fact that there really are people in Oxford who have genuine concerns about transport policy in their city - about which roads will be closed, and where, and who are worried about things like ambulance response times and bus routes jammed with traffic. But their cause is drowned out by the frothing madness of extremists and cultists.

In other words, things are out of hand. That’s true to some extent nationwide, but right now it all seems to be centred on Oxford, and it’s happening just when the County Council is trying to consult on phase 2 of the Zero Emission Zone.

Splitting the city

Phase 2, you see, is much bigger. It will encompass the whole city centre - covering very nearly the whole of the map above, and a fair amount more. It will take in not just back lanes, delivery bays and pedestrianised shopping streets, but also several thoroughfares that do still form through routes.

Ship Street, part of the ZEZ, is the alley to the right. If a real effect is going to be had, more streets than this will have to be included. Click to enlarge
Ship Street, part of the ZEZ, is the alley to the right. If a real effect is going to be had, more streets than this will have to be included. Click to enlarge

With phase 2 in operation, it will no longer be possible to pass through the city centre from one side to another without crossing the ZEZ boundary, and so in many cases the only way from one side of Oxford to another, if you don’t wish to pay and your car produces tailpipe emissions, will be by heading out and using the ring road.

There are good reasons to expand the zone. Right now, it affects almost nobody: that’s useful to trial the concept and establish the charging infrastructure. But if it’s going to achieve anything - by actually reducing the number of petrol and diesel vehicles by any meaningful amount - then it has to affect meaningful volumes of traffic.

You can also argue, without much fear of contradiction, that the number of people who are actually trying to drive from one side of Oxford to the other will not be enormous. To attempt such a thing is an act of masochism; the traffic is horrible, the only available routes are indirect and skirt around the already-pedestrianised and restricted central area, and for much of the day such a journey is already easier, less stressful and perhaps also quicker by heading out to the ring road.

Most people affected by an expanded ZEZ will be driving to the city centre, and Oxford offers many alternatives for those journeys. It will continue to be possible to reach major car parks and the station without crossing the boundary, if you choose the right approach road; if you still have to drive right in, then you’ll do so for free in an electric car and for a reduced charge in any sort of low emission vehicle. As the years go by, more and more people will have those.

The frequently-congested Headington roundabout on Oxford's ring road. Is there room for more traffic to be diverted through here? Click to enlarge
The frequently-congested Headington roundabout on Oxford's ring road. Is there room for more traffic to be diverted through here? Click to enlarge

That last point, though, might be the key argument against the ZEZ: we are already going electric. Will this make it happen any faster? Or will Oxford’s streets be filled with zero-emission vehicles anyway in a few years’ time, whether or not the council fill the streets with new signs and cameras?

There's also the reality of pushing traffic out to the ring road - that it is already, in most parts, heavily congested; that it lacks the capacity to absorb many more local journeys from one part of Oxford to another; that the city has outgrown it so that in parts it runs through the suburbs. It may be that improved air quality in the city can only come at the expense of air quality in Oxford's outer neighbourhoods.

You may find yourself on one side of that argument or another; it’s a worthwhile debate and one where the various considerations should be weighed before any expansion to the ZEZ is approved. That’s why Oxford County Council are proposing a consultation before it goes any further.

But the consultation has no start date yet, and phase 2 of the ZEZ is still officially “TBC”.

The existing ZEZ is unlikely to be the end of either traffic restrictions or the associated controversy. Click to enlarge
The existing ZEZ is unlikely to be the end of either traffic restrictions or the associated controversy. Click to enlarge

Oxford’s local politics are not in a healthy state for the careful evaluation of nuanced arguments. Ask the question now and you’d be forgiven for worrying it might trigger a riot on St Aldate’s attended by neo-fascists and heaven knows who else. Last year a decision was taken to make Oxford’s LTNs permanent, not without serious controversy. The County Council might have decided that it stirred up more than enough trouble for the time being.

It may well be, thanks to all the above, that the ZEZ remains in its current form for the foreseeable future. Oxfordshire County Council seem to be keeping their powder dry, and for good reason.

Best not to open up another battle, here on the front lines.

Note: this is an emotive subject. We'll be particularly cautious with comment moderation.


Pete Stinton 17 February 2024

The toxic, polarising nature of social media makes constructive discussion on these (and many other) issues impossible. I live in Cambridge and the local authority recently suggested a congestion charge here. The vitriol that ensued just turned me off the debate. Whilst I was against the proposal as I felt it was a bit too much in one step, I do agree we have to do something in Cambridge.

Having visited Oxford many times over the past 40 years I can see the changes that over time have been made to the city and I think they've improved the city centre enourmously. I offer no opinion on the expansion of the ZEZ: I just hope for a less polarised, more constructive debate. An old man can dream, can't he?

Paul Kelly 17 February 2024

I express no view on the desirability or wisdom of these types of restrictions, but the increasing number of them raises an interesting issue that I have not managed to find a workable solution to.

When I am driving around the country and pass through towns and cities I am not familiar with, should I have researched each one independently before starting my journey to identify any restrictions of this type so I could decide how to handle them - such as re-routing or remembering to pay? Seeing a sign at the zone boundary can only be an effective communication method if you already have awareness of, and a full understanding of, the scheme. There is no way to react sensibly to it when you are in a stream of moving traffic, if it is your first inkling of some local restrictions.

I suffered this myself a couple of years ago when I drove into Birmingham for the first time, spent one night then then left. I never knew they had some sort of central charging zone until I got a demand some weeks later. When driving in to a such a complex city on a three lane dual carriageway, all my attention was focussed on the merging and splitting lanes, and trying to reconcile those to my satnav instructions, that I never noticed any warning or boundary signs. Even if I had, I would have had no chance to modify my routing to take them into account.

Can anyone suggest a simple and effective approach to this?

The answer is yes, you know where you are going in advance and should know about any restrictions. After all many regulations apply to you as a driver already. In Birmingham in particular, there are 300 signs in two layers, you had 6 days' grace to pay the charge after your entry and most schemes don't require advance payment.
There have to be some restrictions on motor transport- you must accept that. Our cities are car parks already. Something has to give, and it must be cars.

I think it's also worth stressing that almost everyone in the UK already knows that if you're driving into London, you should check the restrictions before you leave (assuming you didn't know the charge boundaries and/or times already).

If we were to introduce vehicle restrictions to every large and/or historic city in the UK - ignoring the arguments for or against - it wouldn't take long for people to get into the habit of checking before they travel somewhere new.

But why should you "know about any restrictions"?
How do I know when I need to investigate possible restrictions?
Does that mean that I have to research online before driving anywhere for the first time?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against low traffic zones, low emissions zones or anything else that is necessary to curb unsustainable traffic levels ... the problem is the piecemeal and inconsistent approach. What we need is some kind of national plan that cities can adopt where they need it, that has the same signage, the same restrictions, and which you can manage from a single app or online log-in. Expecting occasional visitors to be able to keep up with the proliferating variety of different schemes that all operate in different ways and at different times for different vehicles is not realistic.

To be fair, there was/is an attempt at least on standardised signage and restrictions, which is covered in this article from 2020: "No Smoke Without Ire". Without re-reading the article I cannot recall if a national charging infrastructure is also envisioned, I also cannot comment on how well the idea has survived the intervening four years. Nevertheless it does seem that someone in Whitehall recognised the issue and tried to do something about it.

Over time I would expect these to become established data on navigation apps.

Though the number of vehicles driving into low bridges may argue the opposite.

Will R 18 February 2024

We live within 5 miles of Oxford and probably go in to Oxford centre once every couple of months. We own 2 older diesel cars and would rather replace them with more environmentally friendly cars, but money is tight.

In common with a lot of people in Oxfordshire, we fundamentally agree with the notion of sustainability. Our ideal scenario would be to use the Park and Ride, but the overall cost of the parking charge plus bus fares for our family of 5 is so high that we can never justify it. Making both of these charges enough to cover basic costs and not be used for revenue generation would be an effective strategy alongside expanding the ZEZ and introducing bus gates. As things are currently proposed, we will simply end up not travelling into Oxford because there will be no economical way for us to do so, and ironically will often travel further afield to places like Reading, thus sadly increasing our carbon footprint (but at least keeping our costs within budget).

Sick of Oxford 18 February 2024

We live a few miles from Oxford, I grew up here and used to love it.
We probably only go to the city a couple of times a year now. A couple of recent trys of the park and ride were pretty awful experiences and I'd far rather park at the Westgate or simply go elsewhere.
The rash of pointless 20mph and 30mph limits in areas with zero relevant history of accidents have resulted in more overtaking and angry frustrated drivers. It's put me off cycling. Yes, it's made driving miserable, but there's no alternative so we're suffering from the idealist failing policies with no upside.

Richard 19 February 2024

Am I the only person who finds Oxford city councils hatred of the car ironic? I say ironic as what is Oxford famous for apart from the university? Yes thats right the building of motor cars!

It might be ironic but it has no bearing on anything. Whether or not Oxford has a long history of manufacturing cars, it makes no difference to the council’s approach to managing the effects of motor traffic on the city.

If you let a city's historic industry dictate its running, then Newcastle would ban gas central heating because it's known for the production of coal and Leeds would ban cotton because wool made it rich. But we don't expect that because it would be nonsense. It would be equally nonsensical if Oxford gave cars free rein - or, worse, remodelled its historic city centre to cater for everyone to drive in and park there if they so wished - just because it's had car factories on the outskirts for a long time.

Mapperjd 20 February 2024

I think people need to wake up to the idea that ltns aren’t made to restrict freedom of movement - they are made to encourage the use of cycling and walking which does not emit carbon dioxide

I've had conversations on Facebook with people who think that the Labour-run Sheffield City Council (which they voted in) are literal Nazis for placing eight bollards diagonally across a junction where nobody should be driving through anyway.

Is it any wonder residents are often ignored if this is the sort of hyperbolic nonsense they come out with?

Jack Cooper 20 February 2024

Great piece, and appreciate the 'grabbing bull by the horns' nature of addressing the culture wars issue. It feels like as each month goes by, reactions get more inflammatory, they gain more mainstream coverage, and then governments end up shifting policy to appease this vocal minority group of people. Are there issues to address with the shift to EV? Of course, but they are issues that can be dealt with constructively, not in a knee-jerk 'cancel everything' fashion. It's daft to think how green-positive the *Conservative* government were not five years ago, compared to today. And I say this all as a petrolhead: I love my cars, but nobody loves driving in a city centre, so we may as well make them as pleasant and as convenient as possible for the pedestrian.

Honestly, I agree with you as another person who likes to drive. City centers/downtowns should honestly be more pedestrian-friendly than car-friendly for a multitude of reasons. Plus, reducing the number of mandatory car trips people have to take will help reduce traffic on the roads, making them for fun to drive for those of us who actually like to drive.

Fraser Mitchell 24 February 2024

Oxford, and probably Cambridge, get away with these zones because of the huge student population who are not running cars and who generally keep the shops, bars and restaurants in the city centre in business. If they weren't there, I suspect the centre of Oxford would gradually die a death. P&R is OK, but it can be a real pain using it, especially trying to get back to the car park ! Where to pick up the bus for the return journey can be difficult. In 2018, we visited Nuremberg and used the P&R on the north side. It was brand new then with the P&R at the terminus of an extended tram route. It was absolutely easy-peasy to park and pay the fare, but any P&R in England relying on a bus company will soon fail as they run the buses when they like, and sod you if any bus is cancelled. The buses also stop running very early and then how does one get to the city for a night out ? A lot more thought is needed before these things will become acceptable.
The other thing is - should a person inadvertently passing into a low-emission scheme for the first time be penalised. I don't think so; a warning should be issued instead. At the moment, the councils have been given a Magic Money Tree.

Bryn Buck 28 February 2024

The real problem is these are issues that require adult discourse and the infantile adversarial nature of British politics (and law) makes that virtually impossible to conduct with any degree of decorum.

The vocal culture warfare types forget that driving is a privilege you have to earn and not a right you are granted without exception. It therefore logically follows that there will be restrictions and responsibilities attached to its usage but this again is anathema to the "libertarian" mindset that has been exported from the other side of the Atlantic to here in the past decade.

Basically if you're in the highways industry right now you are never going to win an argument. There's no point trying to reason with unreasonable elements of society; consultations are being turned into referendums which is another symptom of the infantile politics mentioned earlier. The simple reality, which might be unpalatable to some, is that we have representative democracy and technical services departments for a reason - in that something being popular does not make it right; burning people at the stake used to be popular.

Unchecked mass motoring has a social cost - and as motorists (including myself) it's time to put up or shut up. If we want the convenience of our vehicles then it is only fair we pay the associated premiums that entails.

Chris 29 February 2024

Being old enough to remember when there were queues of cars approaching Carfax from all four directions, you can't ever open enough roads to alleviate congestions in a medieval city. Oxford's strategy of making the city centre gradually more impenetrable is actually fairly sensible.

Twenty years ago the quickest way to get across the city was to cut across the city centre rather than using the bypasses. Now by making the bypasses much more attractive you free up capacity at other bottlenecks like the centre of Headington and Marston for people who are actually trying to get to places in the city like the hospitals.

As for LTNs, it comes down to whether roads which are clearly unsuitably designed to be a through route should be a through route simply to marginally increase capacity. I think if that's the case then they should have double yellow lines so that visibility can be maintained. It was frankly dangerous before with drivers barrelling down the hill well in excess of the speed limit. Either it's an important route of an important car park, narrow residential roads shouldn't be both.

Worth saying that every time an anti-LTN candidate has stood for election to date they have been roundly defeated, even in areas like Littlemore with relatively high levels of car ownership. LTNs are popular with people who live in the city. I have no problem with someone who lives on a street 365 days a year having more say about the street than me commuting home. A better question would be why a relatively wealthy city has allowed the bypass to become a mess of at-grade junctions and traffic lights and why no serious plan to separate long distance A34 traffic and local traffic has even been sorted.

Joseph Shortt 29 March 2024

I stumbled upon this website while researching road maps from the late 80's (still looking) and I have to say that the level and intelligence of comments is fantastic. Trolling, if any, is sublime and arguments, responses or comments are well structured. It's like I've walked in to a gentleman's club. After you sir......

On the article;
Living and working in Bicester since the early 90s', I've seen many changes both here and Oxford. I remember Bicester High St and Cornmarket Street as roads you could drive down before they were pedestrianised. As a younger 'petrol head' I didn't like this at all. Now I enjoy the benefits 'clean air' while strolling along. But how much is too much? LTNs ULEZ, LEZ, CAZ and now ZEZ

IMO, the problem is too many cars on the road now and councils/governments are struggling to keep up. If we all drove EVs, they would still look for ways to control the motorist.

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