Oxford City Council – a tale of hypocrisy

In the early autumn of 2006 I wanted to start a rickshaw company in Oxford, The Oxford Student Rickshaw Company, having seen how similar initiatives have been highly successful in Copenhagen, London, Barcelona, and Edinburgh.

Conducting some initial research made me aware that Oxford was actually the first city in the UK, in the late 90s, to have a rickshaw company in operation. Learning from previous mistakes, which led to its insolvency, mainly on the cost side, I looked into existing business models, insurance policies, safety requirements, sponsorship, and tricycles. Also, I started writing a business plan, had meetings with the Oxfordshire Business Enterprise, whose help was very worthwhile, and, finally, I selected a small group of fellow students, whom I thought would be able to contribute in materialising the plan.

So far, so good.

I then approached the Oxford City Council to inquire about what was needed on my part. I expected this to be a mere formality given the Council’s strong policy statement towards reducing congestion in the city centre, as outlined in the air quality action plan. Here are three of the suggested measures:

-reduce vehicle emissions
-promote changes in travel behaviour
-limiting access in central areas only to cleaner vehicles by establishing a low emission zone (LEZ)

I also referred to the Transport Committee’s scrutiny into the future of London’s pedicabs (February 2005) which to date is the most comprehensive assessment of pedicabs conducted in the UK. It found rickshaws were popular with tourists and useful for short journeys. In line with this, I believe that Oxford, a city with a huge influx of tourists, would benefit from alternative ways of exploring the many attractions and sites of interest. As such, it was not meant as a traditional taxi service but rather a convenient way of getting a guided tour.

I made an appointment with a representative from the City Council who failed to show up, however, a colleague of his was kind enough to lend me some of his time. Although very sympathetic to the idea, he pointed out that under the current regulation a tricycle carrying passengers would necessarily need to obtain a so-called hackney carriage license. This license, dating back to Victorian times, is the same sort of permission you would need to operate a black cab. In juxtaposing black cabs and tricycles in legal terms, a rickshaw is thus considered no different from a noisy, high polluting, carbon-emitting, two-tonne vehicle made out of steel(!). Furthermore, the licenses are strictly limited and, of course, administered by the taxi organisation, and, just to make the final blow to my plans, each license – if, hypothetically, I would be able to obtain one – would set me back £50K.

In other words, despite all the good intentions aired by the City Council, there is very little room for any sort of sustainable transportation alternatives in the city centre. I should perhaps add here that City Sightseeing Oxford is running a service with around 4 double deckers, as a minimum, constantly touring the streets of Oxford. Most of the time, they are empty or carrying less than two handfuls of passengers.

In an attempt to start a dialogue regarding these absurd policies, I wrote a long, polite email to my contact, the one who failed to show up, asking:

a) Why and when the City Council chose to revise its procedures, basically outlawing rickshaws by juxtaposing them with black cabs?
b) Whether it would be possible to re-consider the decision?

Shortly hereafter, I received a short reply advising me that if I wanted to take this further, I would need to ally myself with a lawyer.

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  1. Every time I cycle behind a ‘City Sightseeing Oxford’ bus, I feel my life expectancy drop by two months. Don’t they have regulations for these things????!!! Surely, in a historic town with lots of yellow brick, you’d save a lot of money if you would not have very effective soot-spewing machines running loose. Cycles seem the much better choice. Anyway, that’s my rant.

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