This article was published in 2015, in Newsletter 118.
In many ways Cambridge isn’t too bad for cycling. Between side-streets closed to through traffic, use of commons and green space, and shared-use paths, you can get around without interacting with heavy traffic too much. For many people, safety and perceived safety are big factors in deciding whether or not to cycle, so these quieter routes have some appeal.
However, if you don’t know Cambridge well enough to know the back streets; if you are concerned about cycling next to traffic without a barrier; if your journey is too long to want to go at walking speed with pedestrians, then cycling is much more difficult.
The lack of main road segregated cycle routes is limiting the potential to encourage more cycling, and therefore maximise the number of journeys that can be made in the limited space of the city roads.
Obvious, direct routes
Main roads are the obvious way to get around, especially when you are less familiar with a place. They are straight, they go between the busiest areas, they are signposted and are easy to navigate. If you travel in Cambridge, by whatever method, you probably already know these roads, and can see them easily on a map.
While apps like Cyclestreets are valuable in planning quiet cycling trips, the back-street routes suggested are often hard to navigate, if you are even aware that such tools exist. I cycled on Hills Road for years, cursing it every time I needed to go to the station, before I was informed of the Gonville Place route. It’s a route I never needed as a pedestrian, when the pavement on Hills Road provided safe space away from traffic. It’s not a route I was ever likely to discover naturally. It is not visible from a bus. It is winding and unsigned. I couldn’t easily describe it to a visitor freshly arrived at Cambridge station, having hired a bike and wanting to know how to get to the city centre. It takes years to build up the local knowledge to navigate Cambridge by bike avoiding main roads. But you only build up years’ worth of knowledge of cycle routes if you start and stick with cycling.
Some people have simply given up cycling in the face of one too many close passes, or even a collision, on the obvious roads that provide them no protection from traffic. Others never started because they didn’t like the look of using a busy road where the only separation from motor vehicles was a painted line. Cycling shouldn’t be an activity that requires resilience and fearlessness or an encyclopaedic knowledge of city streets. That is what keeps cycling, in national terms, a minority mode of travel, unsuitable for the very young and very old.
When the people sitting in peak-time car queues on the city’s arterial routes wonder whether perhaps they could cycle instead, they should be able to see the route they could take to work: the one right next to the road with which they are already familiar.
Connections to villages
There are lots of villages within easy cycling distance of Cambridge. Some of them even have good cycle connections: the Guided Busway maintenance track, the Jane Coston bridge, the Genome path and the Coton path all offer varying qualities of off-road, traffic-free provision to the edge of Cambridge. However, many journeys do not end at the edge of Cambridge.
Traversing two miles of central Cambridge is much more of a challenge than four miles on the Busway, especially if you are new to it. To make the most of the potential to increase journeys from nearby villages, the natural route needs to take people all the way to their destination.
A beautiful, smooth, wide, traffic-free cycle path is less than half a solution if you are thrown back into general traffic at the end of it. While South Cambridgeshire’s levels of cycling are higher than in many places in the country, they are not nearly as high as for similar non-urban areas of the Netherlands. The distances involved in journeys from outside Cambridge mean the practical alternative to cycling will often be a private car, clogging the city streets with unnecessary levels of traffic.
Speed and the Cambridge cycling network
The existing network of winding back-streets and paths shared with pedestrians is a relatively slow way of cycling. This means travelling longer distances and frequently giving way on short non-continuous routes. Stopping and getting started cycling is a significant use of energy! Even for someone like me, who rides in ordinary clothes rather than sporting ones and isn’t trying to have a workout on the way to work, it can be noticeably slower than using main roads. Part of the appeal of cycling is that it is a fast way to travel in a city. But even a relatively sedate 12mph is arguably uncomfortably fast around pedestrians, and very uncomfortable for the person on a bike on a 30mph road!
If we really want to make the most of the potential, not just for cycling within the city, but from outside as well, speed is a factor. Someone who is cycling from five to ten miles to work will be rather less impressed with additional delays than someone who only has to travel three miles. If we are serious about cycling as a mode of transport, we need a network that allows people to use the advantages of a bike.
This doesn’t mean that we have to design primarily for the experienced, fast sports-cyclist. Rather it means that we don’t artificially hamper everyday cycling by limiting it to a fast walking pace, or doubling the distance people have to ride to avoid busy roads.
Segregated main road cycle routes
There are a fair number of people in Cambridge that you could not prise from their bikes in the event of the zombie apocalypse (indeed a bike would seem like an advantage in the circumstances). While many would appreciate a better cycle network, they are not the ones for whom we need to build. They already know the backstreet routes. They have the confidence to use the main roads if necessary. Until we have safe, segregated space for cycling on Cambridge’s main roads; until it is obvious how one would replace a car journey with a cycled one, we shall continue to congest the city streets and air pollution, health, and noise will be all worse as a result.