A fool’s paradise of buses and bollards

Rowan Atkinson on Oxford's insane transport policy (circa 2003, but disturbingly relevant)

I have been amazed, nay flabbergasted, to find myself in the past week becoming so exercised about an attack on the motorist and the motor car. This is because, despite my well-documented enthusiasm for the car as a leisure tool, I have not hitherto regarded it is a particularly sensible mode of mass transportation. I have always considered cars en masse as irritating, polluting, socially corrosive and unattractive.

A car standing alone can be a beautiful and emotive object, but wherever two or three are gathered together, in my view, you have ugliness. I had always passively supported anti-car measures and pedestrianisation plans. But whatever tune I've been humming, I've changed it; the mild green cloak I have been wearing for several years has a hideous stain, caused by the intense displeasure of dealing with what Oxfordshire county council has done to the centre of my beloved city of Oxford.

In aim, it is admirable. In practice, it is a travesty: a classic example of councillors so besotted by a higher ideal that they are oblivious to the social and commercial consequences of a blanket ban on cars in the city centre.

I want to talk first about Broad Street, which is in fact quite a broad street, even if its name may suggest otherwise. Broad enough to support until last May an island of cars parked in its centre and through traffic each side of it. There are now no cars. No parking, no through traffic, no access to shops. Nothing. There were no problems with the way it was before, but who needs a problem before you provide a solution?

A staggering 20m has been spent on the scheme and this corner of Oxford has been throttled. I had never realised the degree to which traffic can invest a town with life and movement. Where cars once moved and parked in an orderly fashion you have an empty, lifeless thorough fare. Even the quality of the pedestrian's life has declined because the bustle and atmosphere have departed.

So, what does one see, of morn, surveying this one vibrant place? A traffic warden sniffs the morning air the new Disneyland Oxford. A group of Norwegian tourists stare blankly into a souvenir shop, the only kind of retail outlet likely to be trading at this time next year. And bollards, a forest of them stretching as far as the eye can see. Substantial things in cast iron - God, what a business to be in. If the people of Oxfordshire keep voting the same way. Bollards Inc won't be posting a profits warning for some time, you can rest assured. Any clearing in the bollard forest is filled, with roadsigns screaming at you No! No! No! But I always used to be able to . . . No!

An open-topped tourist bus chugs into view, at that mildly irritating pace at which they move. It is empty, except for a huddle of Norwegians on top. They take in the view. "Look, down there - Norwegians!"

No one else about. Bookshops, shoe shops, sports shops, music shops and the unique and delightful covered market have all suffered turnover losses of 15-25% and are on the brink of viability. Oxford has seized up, the rush hours are horrendous, doctors take 45 minutes to cross this tiny city at lunchtime.

The only street that seems to have benefited from this bus-friendly scheme is one from which buses have been banned. Cornmarket Street was pedestrianised yonks ago, but buses were allowed, the kerbs being removed so that human being and bus could meet each other on a level playing field. Many was the time that you felt the gentle brush of an omnibus on your jacket. Thankfully, where one once enjoyed a heady cocktail of bleating horns and diesel particulate, and where man and machine literally rubbed shoulders, the bus is banned.

Elsewhere, it is rampant and king. Goodness, a bus can be a hideous, galumphing thing and terribly intimidating in a city street. There are so many modest streets in Oxford that are now busy bus thoroughfares and much less pleasant for it, with pedestrians having their conversations stifled and their hair blown into curious shapes by the passing of vehicles the size of bungalows.

Of course, the theory - stop me if I'm boring you, archdeacon - is that we will all park and ride. The problem is that we don't want to and won't. Who's going to park and ride and wait and fume just to pick up a Harry Potter and a piece of haddock? They'll go to Bicester or Cheltenham. Or Pristina, where the parking is excellent.

No longer will I unquestioningly support anti-car actions. In Oxford it is clear that dogma has won over rationale. It's unpalatable enough for entertainers to make a lot of money, but bollard manufacturers . . . I mean, frankly.

Rowan Atkinson