Milton Road: a main route

This article was published in 2015, in Newsletter 118.

Figure 1: Milton Road today.
Image as described adjacent

Milton Road is a main route from the ‘strategic road network’ into the centre of Cambridge. It is also the main route to the new railway station, one of the largest employment clusters in the region that includes the Cambridge Science Park, and a straight line on a map that looks so attractive to people on bicycles.

How attractive could Milton Road be? If you are going from Cowley Road to Victoria Avenue, which way would you go? And to be fair, I’m placing the start at the Cowley Road/Milton Cycleway junction, and the far end at the Victoria Avenue/Jesus Green toucan crossing.

Doing this route via Milton Road is just two miles. Not a very pleasant trip, but if you are already late for that meeting, a direct route could be quicker. The alternative, if time doesn’t matter so much, is to go to Green End Road, then left onto Green End Road (turn off to stay on), then straight on to the High Street, then left on Church Street, and then left on St Andrews Road, then over the Riverside Bridge, and then along Riverside until you get to the Fort St George, and then head towards the Victoria Avenue toucan. A distance of 2.6 miles. The first bits are not very pleasant, with absolutely no bicycle infrastructure, but the latter half is lovely, if a little congested and slow sometimes.

If Cambridge is truly to become a cycling city we must improve the main roads, like Milton Road, so that we are not continuously forced onto routes that are 30% longer and where narrow shared space is the predominant solution.

There are two issues that must be dealt with: junctions, and the easy bits between junctions. The majority of Milton Road is 20 metres wide, as measured from one edge of the right of way to the other. Within that there are two narrow pavements, bits of green space with the odd sickly looking tree, and three lanes for traffic.

Today (see figure 1) the main problems are:

  • The cycleway on the north side is bi-directional, very narrow, and only separated from pedestrians by a white line. It does not get close to even the relatively poor DfT guidance for bi-directional cycleways.
  • There is no provision for cycling on the southern side of the road, except by sharing with 10-tonne vehicles travelling at 30 mph, known as the bus lane.
  • The priority over side roads and drives is ambiguous at best and downright dangerous at worst.
  • The cycle tracks just disappear where you want them most, with frequent police attention at those locations to admonish the confused.

This could be easily improved by adopting the following plan shown in figure 2. As you can see, there are a number of improvements as a result:

Figure 2: Improved Milton Road.
Image as described adjacent
  • There are cycle tracks on both sides of the road. These would generally become unidirectional cycle tracks, although at 2.1 metres wide could handle bi-directional flows and overtaking as necessary.
  • The pavement walkways have been widened. This means that it will be more attractive to walk along here too.
  • The roadway still has the same three lanes, and in mostly the same location, reducing the costs of implementing this plan.
  • The plan still has space for trees to be planted. This would create a lovely boulevard of trees stretching down Milton Road. Oh, and those trees will shelter the cycle riders from the worst of the wind and rain in future years.
  • There are no bicycles in the bus lanes, meaning that buses and taxis can move even quicker past the queuing car traffic.

This design is a win/win/win solution. It is better for people walking, better for people cycling, and better for buses. And it doesn’t restrict the movement of people still using cars. It would require some refreshing of trees, but this could be done all at one time and enable a fantastic vista of trees in future years as you cycle, or drive, down Milton Road.

It might even be possible to be a little more radical and put the bus lane down the middle of the road. This way, that bus lane can be tidal. The buses move along it into town in the morning, and along it out of town in the evening. This would have the added benefit of buses and taxis having much faster travel in the direction of the main traffic flows. This leaves the junctions. There are eight junctions that need significant improvements:

  • Cowley Road/Science Park
  • Busway
  • Kings Hedges/Green End Road
  • Woodhead Drive
  • Arbury Road/Union Lane
  • Elizabeth Way
  • Gilbert Road
  • Mitcham’s Corner.

Each junction will require a different solution. Some are fairly obvious and can be dealt with quickly. Some will require more thoughtful planning.

Mitcham’s Corner should be converted into a simple crossroads. This would open up space for additional development, quiet streets with ample cycle parking, perhaps even a few caf├ęs or restaurants, and much safer road crossings.

The Gilbert Road junction should have a single lane of traffic and segregated cycle tracks through the junction. It might also make sense to change the traffic light phasing here so that traffic turning right from Milton Road to Gilbert Road doesn’t have to wait for traffic going out of town on Milton Road, thereby reducing the risk of cyclists being crushed by undertaking vehicles moving into the cycle lane without looking.

The Elizabeth Way junction should become a simple crossroads with segregated cycle tracks through the junction. This could also improve the flow of vehicles through the junction at rush hour, something a roundabout is hopeless at achieving. It would also allow much more accessible green space to be provided here, or additional car parking for the parade of shops just to the north.

The Arbury Road/Union Lane junction might need to have one arm completely blocked to motor traffic. Union Lane would be the obvious candidate, with access from Chesterton High Street rather than Milton Road. Less obvious would be closing Arbury Road at this junction, making the Union Lane/Arbury Road cycle route a much more pleasant prospect. It would also reduce the number of phases on this important traffic junction and so reduce the delays for bicycle, bus and car traffic here. This could be a radical transformation of this junction, improving access to the shops and speeding buses along the route.

The Woodhead Drive junction is typically dominated by cars with no priority for people walking or cycling. It should be changed to have very sharp turning radii to reduce the speed of traffic entering this 20mph road, and have a set-back crossing that has priority, possibly using a zebra crossing for pedestrians and dismounted cyclists.

Kings Hedges/Green End Road should be an exemplar junction. The obvious solution here is to use an ‘all-ways-green’ phase in the traffic light cycle. The traffic lights would be sequenced thus:

  1. Green End Road
  2. All-ways green
  3. Milton Road Northbound
  4. All-ways green
  5. Milton Road Southbound
  6. All-ways green
  7. Kings Hedges Road/Green End Road.

This means that if you arrive at the lights going along Milton Road and the traffic is moving from either Kings Hedges or Green End Roads, you wait. You then get a short burst of green time to cross in any direction you like. Then the car traffic goes. This is entirely safe. Also, if you arrive when the cars are going, you have to only wait a few tens of seconds before the next bicycle phase. The whole traffic light cycle length can therefore be increased such that the volume of car traffic able to move through the junction is not reduced. Of course, bicycle traffic never has to wait for more than one or two phases before it moves off, so even though we don’t go at the same time as cars, we move through the junction quicker because of shorter delays. This also means that bicycle traffic no longer bunches up because it is being held and then released at roughly the same time as other traffic.

The Busway junction hasn’t even been finished yet, but it will be highly problematic. The only way of crossing Milton Road will be by pushing a Toucan button – oh how I hate pressing buttons – so that you can wait an inordinately long time for the traffic to stop. If they had separated the bicycle and pedestrian traffic, then the traffic cycle times for bicycle traffic could be quicker and shorter, allowing more people to cross safely. This will have to change, eventually, so why not do it now.

Milton Road at junction with Kings Hedges Road and Green End Road, looking north-west.
Image as described adjacent

The Cowley Road/Science Park junction is also a big mess that is currently optimised for cars and not optimised for people. With the opening of the new Science Park railway station, this will become a major pedestrian crossing that will take over three minutes to cross owing to the many toucans that restrict movement. Instead, a single bicycle crossing should be created on the line of the existing Science Park cycleway. This would allow a fast crossing of this junction by bicycle in a single stage. The pedestrian crossings could be retained, but some new traffic signal timings and phases may be required. Once all this is done, travelling from Milton to Cambridge should be as easy as cycling down Milton Road. No more getting lost. No more obscure signs pointing to cycle route 11 and not knowing which way to go. No more continuous ringing of bells to warn people walking that you would like to pass them. With these improvements, walking should also be more pleasant, as should riding the buses or using a taxi. The whole scheme needs to be considered as a whole. No single part of Milton Road can be improved on its own. The junctions need to be improved all at the same time, whilst the bits between also need to be improved to fit in with the junctions. Doing it all will cost lots of money, but the improvements could be transformative for Milton Road. The only downside is that once it is done, everybody else will want the same done to all the other roads in the city, perhaps even in the country.

Robin Heydon