This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 144.
Ellie Gooch, one of camcycle’s summer interns, is a student at the University of Oxford. She looks at the cycling lessons Cambridge could learn from its rival.
On my first day at the University of Oxford, I went out and treated myself to a lovely pale green city bike with a big woven basket and cream tyres. It has been my best friend ever since, and after many a frantic dash to tutorials, it now makes a familiar rattling sound that I have grown fond of. My bike has given me the freedom to travel from a tutorial to a society talk in a few minutes, to get that interesting book I want from a library on the other side of town, and to fit in a netball match whilst halfway through an essay. At Oxford, time is everything.
Meanwhile, one of my friends who did not cycle much before university, and especially not in a city, has only just plucked up the courage to buy a bike for her final year. ‘I don’t feel as though I’ve been well prepared for this’, she tells me, and asks me to show her the safest routes around the city. If, like my friend Eve, you’ve moved to a city from the small rural village you grew up in, or from a large and busy city where cycling might not be feasible, you are not necessarily going to know where to position yourself on the road, how to indicate where you’re going, or what hazards to keep an eye out for. So, in most cases, either you won’t bother cycling at all, or you will risk hurting yourself and others.
Fortunately for Eve, the University of Oxford offers each of its students six hours of free cycle training, free cycle maps, discounted lights and locks and free cycle repair sessions. If I had known about the latter before now, perhaps my bike would not still rattle. If Eve had known about the free cycle training and cycle maps, she would have been able to enjoy Oxford’s vibrant cycling culture right from the beginning.
Although it is frustrating that Oxford does not make more of an effort to publicise the amazing services they offer to students to support them in cycling easily and safely around the city, at least they are doing better than the University of Cambridge (apparently, we’re better on two wheels than in a boat!). The University of Cambridge Transport Coordinator explained to me that there is no centrally-coordinated cycling support for students (unlike for staff). This is despite the fact that Cambridge University undergraduates are effectively banned from keeping a car at university, so if they want to be able to get around the city quickly, cycling is the only option. The university is looking to trial some student cycle training in the next academic year, but otherwise it is up to the colleges to decide what facilities and services to fund and arrange for students.
Some colleges, like Pembroke and Lucy Cavendish, offer a great deal of support. Lucy Cavendish College has shared cycles which students can borrow for two days at a time, as well as a stock of small bicycle parts, and assists students with maintenance and repair. They also encourage safe cycling and display cycle-related posters and publications in their porters’ lodge. Pembroke College has a scheme to reuse abandoned cycles, whereby new students can buy a culled cycle very cheaply and get it professionally serviced to make sure it is in working order. They also keep foot pumps, cycle repair tools, helmets and cycle lights in the lodge. Meanwhile, some other colleges do nothing at all.
The University of Oxford offers each student six hours of free cycle training, free cycle maps, discounted lights and locks and free cycle repair sessions
Given that colleges have different funding, resources and cultures, there will always be inconsistencies in what level of support different colleges offer to their students. However, students travel around the city rather than college grounds, and they share the roads with the public, so the university does have a responsibility to the rest of the city to help its students use the roads safely. Alex Ho, a student at St Catherine’s College, comments that just before 9am lectures, when hundreds of students descend onto the streets, ‘the junctions get manic and it does get quite chaotic’. In some places, ‘you just adapt to what’s happening in front of you… cycle through and hope for the best’.
Cambridge University should also be supporting the safety and wellbeing of its students in whatever way it can.
The university has an opportunity to encourage a new generation of graduates to go into the world with the skills and confidence to cycle rather than drive
Shorter journey times from lectures and tutorials, or even just a less stressful journey, will help to ease the great deal of pressure that students at Cambridge are under every day. Being able to cycle confidently around the city also offers students the opportunity to enjoy a greater range of enriching experiences around Cambridge during their time here. Cycle training, repair and information services could help a great deal with this. For Alex, the narrow streets mean his ‘biggest challenge’ is manoeuvring around tourists taking photos and pedestrians not taking care, which is not an easy problem to tackle, but ensuring students are not cycling around with dodgy brakes can only help in this regard.
The university states on its website that it is ‘committed to making a positive impact through outstanding environmental sustainability performance’ and will ‘support staff and students in achieving this commitment’. Preventing students from driving cars is great, but the university has an opportunity to encourage a new generation of Cambridge graduates to go out into the world with the skills and confidence to cycle rather than drive, and even potentially to promote the importance of cycling infrastructure throughout their career (remember, fourteen prime ministers went to Cambridge).
Oxford and Cambridge are both relatively small and both universities put their students under a huge amount of pressure to achieve as much as possible in a short space of time, so travelling by bicycle makes a lot of sense. It is interesting, then, that the universities have such different attitudes towards student cycling. In the interests of keeping students safe, helping students to fulfil their time commitments, expanding students’ freedom, and protecting the environment, the University of Cambridge should follow in Oxford’s footsteps. The university should coordinate, fund and widely publicise cycle training, cycle repair, and comprehensive city maps for its students. Obviously, services like these are only part of the story when it comes to safe cycling in Cambridge, and should be coupled with good quality cycling infrastructure, but that is a whole other battle.
Camcycle provides Cambridge colleges and other educational institutions with ‘Welcome to Cycling’ leaflets on safe and considerate cycling. Read more at camcycle.org.uk/welcome