25 years of Bus Gates in Oxford

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Oxford High Street bus gate showing signs for buses and cycles only, with a red single deck bus and three people cycling.

High Street Bus Gate

At midnight 1st June 1999 the central bus gates became operational in Oxford, and Cornmarket Street was pedestrianised.

The camera-based bus gates restrict traffic except for buses, taxis, private hire, cycles and emergency vehicles, some for 24 hours (Folly Bridge, Magdalen Street) and some for certain hours of the day (High Street, George Street).

Magdalen Street Bus Gate with an orange bus
Magdalen Street Bus Gate
Pedestrianised Cornmarket Street with lots of shoppers
Pedestrianised Cornmarket Street

The restrictions had become necessary because of choking traffic and gridlock on High Street. Nevertheless, a group of traders, the ‘Keep the High Street Open’ campaign, opposed it, and predicted traffic chaos: “You cannot simply close roads that have been the main arteries of the city for 1,000 years.” said their secretary, Brian Lester to the Oxford Mail. They raised concerns about its impact of the retail trade. 

On their first day reports are that there was some confusion among drivers who found streets previously open now not available. This calmed down as drivers got used to the changes. Meanwhile “Shoppers flooded Cornmarket Street this morning after it became the first fully-pedestrianised road in the city.” John Harwood, Chief Executive of the County Council declared “This is a great day for Oxford. We have at last got a proper pedestrianised, modern shopping centre. “Overall it has gone very smoothly and I think everyone in the new pedestrian area realises what a tremendous achievement this is.”

Looking back, they have been declared a success by both academics and locals. A study by G. Pankhurst at the University of West England found that “The most important achievement was a 17% reduction in car trips to the centre, which did not affect overall visitor numbers”. The Chair of the Oxford Civic Society, Edwin Townsend-Coles declared “June 1999 will be remembered [as the time] when the city took a bold leap forward in both traffic management and street design, creating a healthier, safer and better environment for all.”

George Street Bus Gate with a bus
George Street Bus Gate
Folly Bridge Bus Gate with a queue of cars on the left and cyclists waiting at the traffic lights at the bus gate.
Folly Bridge Bus Gate

Since then, Oxford has gone on to win awards for ‘Good Growth’ and outperform the nation in retail performance. However, traffic levels have continued to rise, apart from a respite over the Covid pandemic, and similar problems are now requiring similar actions.

Six new traffic filters will be introduced in November 2024. Like the bus gates, they are aimed to solve problems with too much traffic on the limited roads of the city. Like the bus gates, they are camera-based, not physical. But unlike the bus gates, they have many more exceptions and permits, to enable priority vehicles and users to get around more easily in reduced traffic conditions – 27 types.

Just like the bus gates, there are objectors to the traffic filters, but there is also a lot of misinformation around. If you travel into Oxford, you should understand whether they will affect your journeys, whether you need to register for permits (which will be available in August), and whether you will need to make changes to the way you travel in November. CoHSAT members Oxfordshire Liveable Streets have produced a simple, no-nonsense guide: oxfordtrafficfilters.co.uk