Reflections on our twentieth anniversary

This article was published in 2015, in Newsletter 121.

To mark our twentieth anniversary, we asked to hear something from our founder members on how they think the Campaign has grown and progressed over the years. David Earl and Clare Macrae answered the call, and the next two articles show well the successes and frustrations faced by the Campaign in the past and the challenges of the future.

Twenty years: in some ways it’s a shame we’re still here. In twenty years it would have been nice to think we could have worked ourselves out of a job.

But if a week is a long time in politics, twenty years is a blink of an eye in transport. We can look at what’s on the ground now and point to successes and improvements – and there are many. When I first came to Cambridge thirty years ago, it had almost nothing to help cyclists.

But really, I think we’ve made little progress locally and nationally on a key point: cycling is still widely seen as a problem to be solved or ignored and not a solution to be enthusiastically adopted.

So, we’re usually still squeezed in where it’s possible, rather than being integral at the outset. Just look at Cambourne, a modern development, which still mostly dumps cyclists on the pavements.

Northstowe might turn out a little better, but their first try was just the same. Recently, take a look at the miserable proposals for Cherry Hinton High Street, an improvement only because things are so dire to start with. Developers have discovered two-tier racks, to meet their minimum planning obligations, and not because they truly believe bikes matter. A recent consultation about the use of Coldham’s Common seemed to start with cyclists as interlopers rather than the single most significant user group.

The Catholic Church junction was for me the most dispiriting recent evidence of why we still need to exist. Nearly £1m, half of it from a cycling budget, to rebuild a junction with hardly any provision for cyclists where councillors’ avowed number-one aim was maintaining motor traffic capacity. Now we’re stuck with it for a generation.

Yet in wider ways, and in some part down to us, Cambridge has held back floodgates in lean years, against out-of-town shopping, and against traffic in a big chunk of the city centre. And critically, cycling is still successfully rooted in our community – though some of the venomous, vicious hatred spewed out via the online comments section of the Cambridge News might make you think otherwise.

But it’s so slow. Twenty years on and we still don’t have anywhere near enough cycle parking at the station – though it’s coming. Twenty years on we still don’t have a through route along the railway, though it’s coming too and some long sections are already there. Twenty years on and we’re still having to fight for access to every one-way street, rather than this access being a general principle which we thought had been agreed.

Nevertheless, we’ve been able to get some things to change, and so far to hold back overwhelming traffic where most other places have failed, and the high cycling levels have reflected that. We’ve done that from a small start to around 1,200 members now, so we are a significant voice in our community.

If a week is a long time in politics, twenty years is a blink of an eye in transport.

Support has been available in many quarters. I’d like to pay particular tribute to long-standing member Julian Huppert’s work in Parliament over the last five years – a quarter of the Campaign’s existence. His predecessor but one, Anne Campbell, has also been a long-standing supporter and helped launch the Campaign.

Many of our local politicians cycle and recognise its value, but they are also up against many that don’t. And many of our officials are in the same position: Mike Davies and his team have been able to do great things and have provided much-needed continuity in often precarious funding circumstances, but only a small part of traffic engineering goes through his department. Former senior staff like Brian Smith and John Edwards at the county council and Peter Studdert in a variety of roles, but particularly as head of city planning, provided much needed support.

So, we’re still here. I’d like us not to be in another twenty years, but I suspect we will still need to be.

While the lion’s share of promised new money is being pumped into buses, despite the numbers, I can’t see us being another Copenhagen where cyclists are truly wanted, not just tolerated, but we can continue to argue our case and make slow progress.

It’s amazing how often we have spent ten years arguing for something, being told it’s impossible, can’t be done. And then there’s a shift, and it becomes orthodoxy, as if it were never a problem. It needs a long-term focus. And it needs new people, who I’m delighted to see coming forward. I stepped down last year, not to disappear but to try to deal with some long overdue back-office things. I’m really encouraged to see the enthusiasm of those following in the pedals of the Campaign I helped to found twenty years ago.

David Earl