‘Rebooting the City Deal’ meeting

This article was published in 2016, in Newsletter 129.

14 October 2016

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The implications of the Greater Cambridge City Deal burst into the public consciousness this summer, and some of its plans have sparked off considerable public debate. Smarter Cambridge Transport is an organisation which consists of members of the public with an interest in the city’s future; it includes representatives and members of Camcycle amongst many other local groups. October saw its first public event, called ‘Rebooting the City Deal’.

A packed audience came to hear three speakers present innovative ideas: Colin Harris of Cambridge Connect described how a light rail network for Cambridge and beyond might work; Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport described some ways to achieve ‘better bus journeys’ (a recurring motto of the City Deal) without irreversibly damaging the landscape and streetscape; and Rachel Aldred showed how much further we have to go to reach the full potential for cycling participation in Cambridgeshire.

Cycling to work in Cambridgeshire is already well above the national average, at 9.2%; but if people cycled as much as the Dutch (taking into account journey length and hilliness), the proportion of journeys could be as high as 23.7%. With e-bikes that could rise to almost 30%.

If the City Deal were to focus more on improving the quality and safety of cycling infrastructure in the city and between villages, it would lead to a huge reduction in traffic, congestion and pollution, and much better health outcomes for the population. Cllr Francis Burkitt, one of the City Deal Board members, is championing development of a network of ‘green way’ cycle routes, and readers should voice their support for these to the City Deal.

Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert (previous MP for Cambridge) and February Phillips, an architect from 5th Studio, joined the presenters to field questions from the audience. The theme of the discussion was how the City Deal got so badly off-track, and how we can fix it. £100m to spend by 2019 and a brief to create ‘congestion free’ bus routes from planned new developments in South Cambridgeshire sounds great. But this has translated into a series of ‘high-level concepts’ for busways or bus lanes with cycle paths tacked on, plus peak-time road closures and a few other proposals, some controversial, some not. When the City Deal has consulted the public, reactions have been variously bemused, confused or angry. Any suggestion that an alternative should be considered has been rebuffed: it can’t be done; it won’t make enough difference; it’ll take too long; it’ll cost too much.

Ultimately though what is being proposed is what was agreed three years ago in the draft Local Plans and transport strategies, before many people took an active interest in the councils’ transport plans.

Both Mr Zeichner and Heidi Allen, MP for South Cambridgeshire, have called publicly for the City Deal to be paused and sent back to the drawing board. The City Deal perceives a big risk with this: government might decide just to take the money away. But that’s unlikely, given the importance to the Exchequer of continued economic growth in the region, which in turn is dependent on infrastructure keeping pace.

Smarter Cambridge Transport believes that a safer strategy might be to bring forward smaller and less controversial projects, buying time to consult properly on developing a coherent, long-term strategy. Suggestions were set out in a booklet given to attendees of the event: expanding the cycle network; building a new cycle park in the city centre; using technology to regulate traffic flows; developing a smart ticketing platform for all public transport, parking, and potentially road pricing; more and better information for people to make more sustainable transport choices; and building travel hubs to support express bus services from South Cambridgeshire.

Cambridge is already the cycling capital of the UK; it could become the sustainable transport capital. It needs vision, ambition and leadership. Can the triumvirate on the Executive Board deliver?

Chris Rand

A review of Smarter Cambridge Transport’s ‘Rebooting The City Deal’ event, including a copy of the ideas booklet, is available at bit.ly/cd-reboot