Cycling infrastructure as experienced by two older visitors

I invited my parents, who are both in their 70s, to Cambridge to see the Tour de France come through. Since they have both cycled all their lives, I suggested they bring their bikes with them as that would probably be easier than battling with buses and long walks. Actually they were fine about this and then said that, as they were staying until Wednesday, they’d like to go to St Ives on the Tuesday – not using their bus passes!

They come from a small town near Bath. When my father was first working, he lived in a village and cycled the 6 or so miles along the A roads to work in the town. You could in the 1950s. When they married they lived in the town, and always used their bikes, not the car. My mother still cycles 1950s style, starting off by scooting along on one pedal then putting her other leg through and mounting. This probably does mean you have to use less torque to get going and may be the only way for some older people to manage, but is not terribly practical if your cycling is very stop-start, as it often is in Cambridge. Their current favourite ride is the Bristol & Bath Railway Path (NCN route 4).

Day 1 – Tour de France day

The party atmosphere.
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We headed down from Milton to Shelford, via the Haling Way, then past Tesco on Newmarket Road, through the car parks of the shops and through the Beehive. That’s where the problems with infrastructure started. Neither of them could manage those awful railings on the way from Riverside to Newmarket Road Tesco but had to get off and walk. As it was before 8am, all the car parks were pretty quiet so that was a fairly smooth experience. The next problem was Vera’s Way, the route off the Beehive to Sleaford Street. Again, they had to get off and walk. It was just too narrow and twisty for them. What I was beginning to suspect by then was that neither of them would win a ‘slow bicycle race’ nor manage the kind of stop-start cycling which is also de rigueur in Cambridge.

Le Tour itself. (Photo: Tony Coleman).
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We wended our way to the station, although I’d forgotten that they’d not cope with the path from Devonshire Road and going through the quite busy car park. They loved the southern Busway. I did walk them over the junction to head to Addenbrooke’s as I figured that was really the best thing to do. We eventually found the Genome Path, but it was a good thing I’d got ahead of them on Francis Crick Avenue, as it took me ages to spot the sign, and the path in a less-than-obvious place. That needs sorting. It’s rubbish. They enjoyed the Genome Path greatly, apart from getting onto Granhams Lane at the end. Such a ghastly ending to such a great route.

Are there really that many cycle first responders?
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Had we known that actually the outer ‘closed’ roads were pretty open to cyclists before about 10am, I’d have taken them down Brooklands Avenue instead so they could cycle some of the route. We did a bit in reverse after the Tour had passed, stopping to see the vintage bikes at Trumpington, and watched the end of the stage on the big screen at Parker’s Piece. It was a fantastic atmosphere everywhere both before the Tour passed – expectation and a real party atmosphere – and after the Tour had been through, with people enjoying the lack of traffic apart from pedestrians and bikes, especially in Shelford and Trumpington. And so to home. We went through the Beehive again reversing our morning route. They didn’t cope so well this time, as the car parks were very busy indeed. I don’t think sending a cycle route like the Chisholm Trail through car parks is sensible if we want to persuade non-cyclists to use bikes; if a couple who have cycled all their lives, albeit in a quieter and smaller place than Cambridge, find it scary and difficult, it is not a suitable cycle route.

One way to get from Milton to the Busway. (Arrow indicates entrance to the busway.)
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Day 2 – the northern Busway

I could write an entire article about the fact that the residents of Milton are clearly NOT MEANT to aspire to cycle north out of Cambridge on the Busway. There is no clear clue as to exactly how you get onto the Busway from Cowley Road. Since it was a working day, I didn’t think getting them to follow some of the ‘Cambridge moves’ I’d do would be sensible (cycle south on the Milton Road and turn right, clearly signalling), so we used the toucans. Or rather I toucanned, they walked. They’d never seen one before. ‘It’s a pedestrian crossing so you must walk, surely it’s not legal to cycle on a pedestrian crossing?’. And my mum’s cycling style, once she’d realised she had a legal right to cycle across it, couldn’t cope with the chicanes and barriers and the sheer number of times you have to stop and start just to cross a road. The signage on the shared-use path on the western side of Milton Road also wasn’t clear enough to stop them thinking I was breaking the law, so they walked there too.

Once we got onto the Busway, all was fine. Until we hit the first ‘mystery junction’ at Histon Station, where it’s really not very clear that cyclists have to cross from one side of the Busway to the other. And the lights don’t give you very long to cross, certainly not if you start off by scooting. After a couple of goes, we finally all got across. The next bit of fun was negotiating the strange barrier things where you cross Park Lane. From a distance you can’t tell how far apart they are, and they both got off thinking they were like the barriers on the Newmarket Road Tesco path. What are they for? And wouldn’t it be nice if the traffic lights turned green for us as we got to each, deserted, road. No, we were supposed to stop each time, and either look each way and go, or press a button and wait a long time.

No seats, but a work of art sufficed as a substitute.
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But we were making good progress on a lovely sunny, hot day. The flowers were pretty, and we saw many butterflies and heard loads of yellowhammers and woodpeckers. When we got to Fen Drayton Lakes, I said we should have a look and, as we found a picnic table overlooking water, we had a very early lunch. The decent cycle racks there were already being well-used.

And so to St Ives. Or, the ‘where on earth are we meant to go now?’ moment. You are pitched onto a zebra crossing. But surely this is a cycleway? Then you get to a toucan across the most horrible-looking fast road I’d ever seen close to a town. No signs to St Ives for cyclists or pedestrians, perhaps ones who’ve taken the Guided Bus to the place. Obviously the only people who are supposed to go to St Ives are those who live there already, not those from Cambridge! They don’t want tourists in St Ives. I figured that surely we weren’t meant to go onto that horrible-looking road so we took the road that apparently only buses could enter, but we seemed to have a side pavement bit. Not sure if what we did was legal, but it seemed fairly safe. This needs fixing. It’s just rubbish. And people do cycle in St Ives as when we got to the Market Place, we had trouble parking as most of the racks were full.

Left: Mystery route to St Ives? Right: Are we meant to go over there? I can see a blue sign in the distance, so maybe this is a cycle route?
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After a while there we decided to head for home. It was a hot day. We were all getting tired. Oh for somewhere to dismount and sit down to have a drink, like there is on the Genome Path. There is not a single seat where walkers or cyclists can stop and have a rest on the entire Busway. Obviously you’re not meant to use it unless you know you are up to it, a bit like climbing Snowdon.

Once we’d battled our way back across the Milton Road, I thought it would be plain sailing to get home. It seemed silly to come off the Jane Coston bridge, go around the mini- roundabout onto the Cambridge Road, in order to turn right onto Coles Road less than 200 yards later. Normally I use the road because the eastern shared-use path is so awful, but I was thinking they’d not enjoy a roundabout and a right turn. I’d forgotten the bit about not being able to do slow bicycle races, and my poor mother walked along most of the rubbish shared-use pavement on the east of the Cambridge Road as you need to cycle slowly so you can give way at the numerous junctions if needed. I’ve got used to it on the rare occasions I use it. Again, another example of facilities only being suitable for those who know them very well!

Conclusion

There are two aspects to this account of what was a very pleasant couple of days cycling around the area with my parents. Firstly, if you are used to cycling on roads as my parents have done all their lives, you may find some off-road cycle facilities quite baffling. I’m sure if roads for cars were signposted as poorly as many of the facilities we used, there would be lost people, congestion and possibly accidents through people simply being mistaken and getting it wrong. Secondly, the brief for the design of many facilities is that an intelligent twelve-year old can use it. There seems to have been no thought about how people of more mature years, who may have cycled all their lives, will cope with what has been provided. Their balance may be less good as they get older and they may have more trouble getting on and off a bike and may be much slower. Is this why many older people give up riding a bike, a particularly beneficial form of exercise, which is also useful for getting around? They begin to find the on-road experience terrifying, but find the off-road experience, which should be perfect for them, disorientating and difficult.

Heather Coleman