Cycle campaigning in Cambridge

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 111.

Martin Lucas-Smith presents his personal view on how campaigning should develop.

In a discussion on Cyclescape on the theme of ‘Ask for more, get more in the longer term?’, one member wrote, ‘Where we have managed to get good infrastructure is where we have not had to even ask the question about roadspace allocation because it’s a new thing entirely’. I made exactly this point to one of the Cycling Officers at a workshop at Cambridge County Council that I attended recently.

The county council has done excellent work over the last 15 years on developing the secondary network – new bridges, adding contraflows, improving signage, adding missing links, etc. But these are relatively easy: they don’t require roadspace reallocation, just money and a little bit of political will – and of course a lot of work from our very dedicated Cycling Officers in both councils. These schemes though don’t fundamentally affect driving conditions, so there is no obvious downside, as long as government and developer money flows.

Fully-segregated cycle route on Groningerstraat in Assen, the Netherlands.
Image as described adjacent

However, what has not been addressed properly is the primary network – the inner ring road (East Road, Queen’s Road, Lensfield Road, Elizabeth Way, etc. and all the absolutely horrible collision-heavy junctions along this route) and the radial roads (such as Milton Road, Mill Road, Huntingdon Road, Newmarket Road).

These are relatively wide but nonetheless have difficult challenges: much greater cost, constant side roads needing priority, and most importantly roadspace reallocation from queuing cars. The fact is that these are cycled on, even where there is (an inevitably less convenient and less obvious) secondary network alternative.

Where attempts have been made to improve them (e.g. Milton Road) these compromises have been problematic. Although in general a positive scheme, even Hills Road Bridge, with the widest on-road lanes in the county (if not the UK?), was compromised because of county politicians’ insistence on not reducing motor traffic capacity, even though there is much evidence that, even in the medium term, people adjust their journeys, i.e. people can change.

Where removal of a whole lane of traffic is needed but would cause more problematic delays, there is not yet the sense of a trajectory to achieving this or recognition of the eventual benefits. For instance, at the Catholic Church junction we proposed that the Department for Transport funding should include a study on addressing the ring road for cycling. This proposal was not taken up, despite it being obvious that an overall ring-road strategy is needed here.

With the growth in housing in Greater Cambridge, the need to improve these heavily used roads is going to get more and more urgent. I believe that proactively reallocating roadspace from motor vehicles is the only way that the carrying capacity (defined in terms of number of people) will be increased. I don’t believe that we can wait for some magic solution that will see masses of car parking removed, because even removing a single parking space seems to be incredibly difficult politically (as the article on Thoday Street shows).

So I think the increasing angst that is now becoming apparent is because the city now needs to move on to the difficult stretches of road. The secondary network benefits will not in my view go much further, given 20,000 or so new households.

I believe the way forward is that, as soon as we get ONE really good, uncompromised scheme, created to Dutch standards, then making the case for improving the many other remaining roads will become much easier. By ‘Dutch’, I mean proper width, with priority for cyclists at side roads, and a strong sense of protected space (‘segregation’ – let’s try to get away from that word).

High-quality engineering can follow later with money – it’s the political principle of reallocation of space and the strong concept of an unimpeded journey that is at the core. The ‘New Camden Model’ of a cheap and quickly implementable scheme using things like Armadillos to establish the principle of protected space, to be replaced later with ‘heavy engineering’, is a good one in my view.

Without wishing to divert the debate into whether roadspace reallocation means Dutch or Danish or something else, here is an example of what we should be aiming for: dedicated cycle space, not shared with pedestrians, and which even retains the capacity for a bit of parking in the few cases on these main roads where that is essential.

Making the case for other streets will become easier because a really high-quality scheme will (a) get new people cycling, (b) remove conflicts with pedestrians and (c) provide a visible subjectively safe place that will tempt people out of their cars. The result is that people elsewhere will say ‘I want that here too’ – i.e. create a demand. (Compromise schemes don’t create that demand.) Then it won’t just be us asking for it, it will be pedestrians, the disabled, ‘ordinary’ cyclists, even drivers, even rural councillors maybe.

This is why I am so insistent, speaking as the Campaign’s ‘figurehead’ as it were, that we must make a very strong effort to push for non-compromised schemes. This means short-term pain and sadly might mean a temporarily more strained relationship with council officers, but I think it has to happen.

There will, I think, still be cases where a stepwise approach can be useful (Gilbert Road, where the political situation was so extreme; and Perne Road, which I see as Phase One of a two-part scheme, where the DfT currently has not provided funds or the legal environment to complete the job, something that may well change). But these must be the exception, and we must clearly articulate reasons why they should be exceptions.

Eighteen years of accepting that for main roads an inch forward is better than nothing has mainly failed. But we have to find a way to do this in a way which makes an unambiguously positive and unified case, so that officers remain strongly motivated to push through this phase.

Learning from London

I think this is what has happened in London (which has the same political colour as the County Council). London Cycling Campaign (LCC) recognised exactly this need for tackling the main roads.

LCC created two clear, unifying themes: (1) Space for Cycling, meaning that whatever design of road you end up with, nothing will improve for cycling unless there is actually sufficient space to do this – requiring roadspace reallocation; and (2) Go Dutch, meaning: design to Dutch standards, learn from the best elsewhere rather than try to reinvent the wheel when the Dutch have already spent 40 years evolving designs.

Those two themes have been clear and unambiguous. They have pushed strongly for this over two years, unifying all their campaigning under these banners, and the result is that Transport for London (an organisation with many different teams and engrained cultures, exactly the same as any county council) is now starting to produce schemes with genuine roadspace reallocation.

It is clear that this would not have happened had LCC not started taking this clear and less compromising stance. I think it would be wrong to call this an ‘aggressive stance’: they have articulated a positive and clear agenda of aiming for the best. That sad fact there have been deaths in London, which thankfully we have not faced in Cambridge, has created added impetus.

The new Cycle Superhighway (CS2) extension from Bow to Stratford in London is definitely not perfect – but as the first scheme to come out of two years of ‘retooling’ in terms of engineering knowledge, it is promising. The Mayor’s vision, which we featured in Newsletter 107, is also significant in that it acknowledges the need for proper roadspace reallocation and proposes a serious budget for it. Again, it’s not perfect, and Rome wasn’t built in a day – schemes on the ground probably have an 18-month lead in time – but there are clear signs that things are changing there.

So, similarly in Cambridge, the Campaign should articulate a clear vision for Space for Cycling, and bring every member on board with this. Robin Heydon and I have been thinking about a successor document to Cycling 2020 and Vision 2016, probably called something along the lines of ‘Curing Cambridge’s congestion’, possibly not even mentioning the word cycling on the front page, but giving a clear manifesto for reallocation of roadspace as a way to cater for a quickly-growing city, getting more people cycling, and getting rid of many of the pedestrian versus cycles versus car conflicts that generate so much aggro. We need a document and campaign that the public can get behind, which creates excellent cycle infrastructure almost as a by-product.

Martin Lucas-Smith