We need to invest in sustainable streets that reduce car dependency

This article was published in 2022, in Magazine 155.

Robin Heydon
Robin Heydon

I was looking over the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) global report and got progressively more depressed the more I read it. The climate is not in a good state. We’ve basically missed the opportunity, unless governments do the right thing now, to limit the rise to 1.5ºC, and are on course to breach the 2ºC threshold that would see mass migration away from areas that would become uninhabitable. Cambridge could be one of those places.

But not to worry, we are still planning on expanding roads and car parks, and building inefficient houses that are heated by fossil fuels. And the government has just cut the price of petrol and diesel because being re-elected in a couple of years is much more important than actually doing something that would have a positive impact on climate change.

The only way to limit warming to 2ºC is by reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, across all sectors, now. Doing this will be hard, and for some it might require some changes to how we live. But personally, I’d prefer to turn the thermostat down a little, rather than accepting that I now have a sea-front property and all the farmland, and roads, around my house are flooded.

Of course, there are things that could be done. Transport accounts for about 44% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Cambridgeshire, so starting there might be a good thing. Some think that electric cars are the answer, and for a few that may be, but I think that electric bicycles are going to be a very good answer. They are amongst the most efficient modes of transport ever created: roughly on a par with non-electric bicycles, but useful for a significantly larger percentage of trips.

Northstowe: where cycle lanes become car parks.
If we are to cut carbon emissions from transport, we
need to do better than this. (Image: Matthew Danish)

“Choice architecture” will become a new phrase that people use. We need higher density housing closer to where people can work. Not super-tall skyscrapers, but think 5- or 6-storey buildings, with lots of cycle parking, and no car parking anywhere nearby, except for a few blue badge spaces. What are we building at the moment? Northstowe is a low-density suburban development with at least two car parking spaces per house, and very few cycle lanes that are surfaced and unobstructed. Yeah, that will bake in, sorry for the pun, bad land-use and longer car-based trips for decades.

We need mixed-use developments. We need higher density. We need footways and cycleways that provide the main way of connecting these together. We also need ultra-high-speed internet, clean water, and the North Sea not to rise so much that we can’t keep the land dry. Is this too much to ask? Probably, given that we’ve just expanded the A14, planned to build more car-dependent Park & Ride sites rather than subsidise bus services to rural villages, and kept fossil fuel as cheap as possible and driving on roads free.

As the IPCC report says, we need to do things now. Why not turn car parking spaces into secure cycle parking spaces? Why not plant more trees along the side of cycleways, or in the middle of a street? We need to invest in streets and places that can reduce car-dependency.

This year, as we approached Earth Day 2022, we started a survey to discover your ideas of the best streets in Cambridgeshire. Let’s use them as inspiration to help create sustainable, liveable places of the future. Which do you think are the region’s most beautiful, healthy or thriving streets? What aspects combine to make a street an unbeatable place to live or visit? And which ideas should we borrow from them to improve other streets in our region? By sharing your views at camcycle.org.uk/beststreets you can make a difference.

Robin Heydon is Chair of Camcycle. This article was first published on 11 April in the Cambridge News, where you can read his column each week.