Cycling in Cambridge: A personal history

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 142.

A few decades ago, New Square was a car park, dedicated cycle parking was non-existent and cyclists were often seen as getting in the way of motor-centric traffic schemes.(Photos courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridge Central Library)
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‘The Campaign has encouraged a change of attitude. Cyclists are no longer seen as nuisances…but are regarded as the solution to congestion.’

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Positive achievements include the contra-flow cycle lane on Downing Street, cattle grids instead of gates at the entrances to the commons and new bridges such as the Riverside cycle bridge.
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Long-term member and volunteer Lisa Woodburn received the Camcycle Hall of Fame Award at our 2019 AGM. We asked her how things have changed since she moved to Cambridge.

When I came to Cambridge in 1960 the first thing I did was to buy a bicycle.

I knew Cambridge to be a cycling city, but this was just because it was flat and relatively compact. Having cycled around the city ever since it is hard to realise how different things were then. Some changes were made which I can’t remember happening – perhaps because they are now so familiar and accepted.

As far as I remember there were then almost no car-free roads: a bike was treated as just another vehicle.

I can’t remember there being any bicycle stands. Bicycles were parked amongst the cars alongside the kerb, resting on a pedal, making finding a way through to cross the road quite an operation, or bikes were just leant against walls and fences, and as often as not unlocked. New Square was a car park as was a large area in Downing Street now occupied by the Hilton Hotel.

And then most of the area between Petty Cury and Downing Street was demolished and Lion Yard with its car park was erected and Petty Cury became a bicycle-free zone. This meant a long detour from St Andrew’s Street, via Green Street, to reach the Market Square. A radical solution – and one of the first specifically cycle-encouraging actions – was installed: the contra-flow cycle lane down Downing and Pembroke Streets. There was much doubt about the safety of the scheme and it had to overcome considerable opposition, but its success led to a more open mindset among planners.

At some stage cycle lanes were introduced on the wider main roads – and shared-use pavements on the narrower roads

But then, of course, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign (now Camcycle) was founded and the importance of providing proper facilities for cyclists was given its proper emphasis to support the valuable contribution which cycling makes to the welfare of the city. As well as contributing to specific schemes the Campaign has encouraged a change of attitude. Cyclists are no longer seen as nuisances, getting in the way of motor-centric traffic schemes, but are regarded as the solution to congestion and pollution and as fostering wellbeing.

The list of improvements for cycling which we have witnessed is long, and many are taken for granted as being what was always there and should be there

  • Contra-flow lanes: allowing much greater permeability and saving time.
  • Signed ways through alleyways with no awkward ‘pram arms’ and other obstructions to negotiate, and decent surfacing. This was to a great extent the result of strong lobbying by the Campaign.
  • Cattle grids at the ways on and off the commons, instead of gates, close-spaced bollards or ‘pram arms’. The first grids were made of plain metal and there were a few accidents due to slipping. The solution was the knurled grids which exist now.
  • Cycle parking provision: at first just a few racks appeared and now there are racks at every corner, and even in some residential streets replacing car spaces. The large, indoor cycle park at the station has encouraged people to cycle to the station and has saved the several minutes of searching for somewhere to park. And there is scope for the cycle park to be extended.
  • Off-road cycle routes: these have been created and enhanced and encourage cycle commuting. Examples are the Sustrans path from Addenbrooke’s to Shelford, the path alongside the Busway track both south and north of the city, and separate cycleways alongside main roads such as Babraham Road, the A10, Barton Road and others.
  • New bridges over road, rail and river have been provided to connect different areas and other bridges have been improved for cycling.

Small improvements have also made life for cyclists easier. Efficient and bright lights which can be relied on, Velcro, cable ties. And fashion is more relaxed – trouser legs don’t have to have wide bottoms, long or full skirts are not near-obligatory and gone are the days where journeys were taken standing up in tight knee-length pencil skirts!

But I haven’t forgotten the greatest and most exciting scheme which promises to make cycling safer, and more direct and enjoyable: the Chisholm Trail.

This promises an underpass beneath Newmarket Road and a bridge across the Cam, connecting the main station to the new Cambridge North station and all the desire lines between. When it is complete it will be possible to cycle from Shelford to St Ives while hardly touching a road. What an achievement.