This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 143.
What’s it like moving to the UK’s top cycling city when you’ve cycled (or not cycled) elsewhere? We spoke to two long-term visitors to find out.
Mona El-Sayed Hervig
I moved to Cambridge in 2015 with my family from Copenhagen – the capital of Denmark. A few years ago it was announced that the number of cyclists had exceeded the number of car drivers in Copenhagen. One reason may be that the city has prioritised improving the cycling infrastructure – for example, they closed one of the busiest and longest city centre roads (only open to buses and taxis now) and built a cycle path several lanes wide on each side – great for Danish cyclists, who use it as a highway.
Coming from Denmark, it was natural to cycle in Cambridge and it is good for cycling, with cycle paths running through beautiful green parks with cows (that was a true surprise the first time). The city is the perfect size: you can get anywhere by bike and it is flat.
However, there were three things that made it difficult in the beginning and still make me nervous as someone used to cycling in Copenhagen:
1) Who has the right to move first when a car wants to turn left?
My experience is that in Cambridge, cars and buses have priority. Drivers expect ‘softer’ road-users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, to look for them and give way if the driver wants to turn. In Copenhagen, the ‘softest’ road-user has the right to cross the road first; drivers have to be aware and wait until the road is clear, and cyclists have to let pedestrians cross first. Needless to say, when I had just moved to Cambridge I got into situations that were dangerous, with me expecting drivers to wait for me to cycle before them.
2) How to cycle when you are turning right (left in Copenhagen) and at roundabouts?
In Cambridge, the bike has to move like a car – placing itself in the middle of the road in line with the cars. Drivers usually accept this. In Copenhagen, drivers and cyclists don’t mix on busy roads. Cyclists turn at a crossroads in two phases: first cycling straight over the junction, then stopping to wait for the lights to change so they can cross again and turn left to where they want to go. Drivers would be upset if cyclists started mixing in with the drivers. Regarding roundabouts: we are just not as fascinated with them in Denmark as you are in England, but where they are, they are usually lined with a cycle path and light signals. For me this was the thing it took me longest to adapt to. In a way I do like biking as a car, as I can keep the same flow as the cars. On the other hand, I am nervous when mixing with the cars – especially at roundabouts! And combined with my first point, roundabouts make me sweat every time I enter them – hoping to get out again successfully.
In Copenhagen the ‘softest’ road user has the right to cross first, so when I first arrived in Cambridge I got into situations that were dangerous
3) Where are you supposed to cycle?
In Cambridge, it is not very clear where you are supposed to cycle. It is common for the apparent cycling path to alternate between the pedestrian pavements and the road, and actual cycle paths (e.g. on Midsummer Common) are also often shared with pedestrians. This is a bit confusing, but the good thing is that consequently people here are much more relaxed towards cyclists than they are at home. In Copenhagen, walking on the cycle path or cycling on the pavement would both provoke anger!
All in all it took some time to adjust to Cambridge cycling, but eventually I have become used to it. I enjoy biking through the green areas and I enjoy people being more relaxed towards cyclists. Maybe a good side-effect of rules which aren’t so clear is that the onus is on road users needing to be more aware of each other. I find pedestrians, cyclists and motorists are in general kind and respectful and I love the frequency of greeting each other, for example when a car stops for you to cross the road. We are friendly people in Denmark, but cycling is a more serious business.
from Dublin (via Kuala Lumpur and New York)
I never dreamed of coming over to work, live and learn in Cambridge. It is currently such a privilege to get to know this lovely city. I was born in Kuala Lumpur, grew up in New York City and lived all my adult life in Dublin. I am a wife to a husband who loves cycling and a proud mom of four healthy children. This year, I am experiencing a new frontier by living away from my husband and children in order to gain a higher level of professional experience. This is a challenge in itself.
As a doctor specialising in newborn medicine, my job is physically, mentally and sometimes emotionally demanding. The hours are long and the challenges are stimulating. Prior to arriving here, I was worried about how I would get to work from where I live, which is approximately a 45-minute walk. I did some research and asked a few friends who had lived here before. What a relief to learn that this place is the cycling capital of the UK. I became really excited despite not having cycled regularly since I was 17 years old (I am now in my early 40s, by the way).
The moment I arrived, I became obsessed with what type of bicycle would be the one for me. I found myself staring at all the bikes passing by and admiring the ones parked on bike racks. All I needed was a bargain-priced, pre-loved town bike to get me from one point to another within a reasonable time. I was determined to look for one in late January. I found myself travelling the whole of Cambridge city hunting for the ideal bike. Whenever I tried a bike, I was wobbly at first and then balancing memory in my brain kicked in. After trying five bikes from three shops, I eventually found a secondhand, lightweight black Ammaco-Classique Dutch style bike from Flat Planet Cycles. The owner was very friendly and, most importantly, I’d found the right bike for me.
There is something special in the Cambridge atmosphere and it wouldn’t be the same without its transport mascots – the bicycles
Cycling home from my first shift in the hospital was a defining moment for me. That night, another person was cycling behind me really fast and overtook me in a way that caused me to wobble, lose balance and fall straight onto my knees and land on my face. Thankfully, there were no oncoming cars on the road. I was in a lot of pain but I managed to get up and push the bike home. It took a while for me to recover but it was too soon for me to give up. Regaining cycling balance after a couple of decades was not an easy task. I needed a few weeks to be confident cycling again. But I was determined to ride again. Now, I can say that cycling continues to be a liberating experience and I would like to take my trusty ‘Nelly’ home to Dublin once my time in Cambridge finishes.
There is something constantly very special in the Cambridge city atmosphere and it wouldn’t be the same without its transport mascots – the bicycles. I am proud to join the group of cyclists in Cambridge and I certainly have more respect for cyclists around me, especially when I am driving my car in Dublin city.