Studying cycling in Cambridge

This article was published in 2018, in Newsletter 137.

An all too familiar sight in Cambridge. A sign that the infrastructure is not suitable for the more vulnerable users.
Image as described adjacent

In the autumn of 2011 I moved to Cambridge from France to work as a software engineer, and started cycling across town every day to go to the Science Park. I became interested in economics and sustainability (studies which are rooted in the way we organise our towns and cities) and eventually decided to change careers and study urban planning. I started my Master’s in Montreal, Canada, before moving to Birmingham, where I graduated a few months ago. For my dissertation I chose to study cycling in Cambridge, given that it was the place that inspired me to start cycling regularly for transport.

There have been a number of studies of cycling in Cambridge. The two I selected to underpin my research were a study of the cycling culture in different cities in the UK, including Cambridge, conducted by Rachel Aldred,1and a cycling infrastructure assessment of Cambridge, Edinburgh and different cities in the Netherlands carried out by Hull and O’Holleran.2 The aim of my research was to connect the two aspects by studying both culture and infrastructure and how they influence each other. For my research project I created a survey to assess how people perceived the cycling experience and infrastructure in Cambridge. I received responses from 113 people in August 2017.

The data show that while an overwhelming majority of respondents (88%) declared feeling safe when cycling in Cambridge, most of them also claimed to avoid specific areas, such as Newmarket Road, Mill Road and other busy roads with high-speed traffic and intersections. This suggests that many quarters of the city are still deprived of safe cycling infrastructure.

Nearly as many people (81%) do not believe that the current cycling infrastructure is truly suitable for more vulnerable users such as children, older people or people who have disabilities. The main problems highlighted are the discontinuity of the network and the lack of separation from motorised traffic.

When I asked them why Cambridge has high levels of cycling, respondents attributed this to better-than-usual infrastructure, the compactness and flatness of the city and the high proportion of students. The experience of cycling in Cambridge is considered superior to other English-speaking countries such as Australia or the United States, but inferior to other European countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark or Germany. Respondents often perceived that other road users in those European countries showed less hostility towards cyclists than those in Britain.

I asked respondents for their thoughts on recent developments or projects. The most popular project was the maintenance track alongside the Busway because it provided a cycle route protected from motorised traffic. In contrast, the new advisory cycle lanes on Green End Road were thought to provide little or no improvement because of the perceived presence of cars always obstructing them. The most strongly disliked recent development was the new CB1 square in front of the main railway station. Although respondents welcomed the multi-storey cycle park, they strongly criticised the lack of cycleways to help reach the cycle park or pass by the station. Implementation of 20mph speed limits was not felt to have improved the perception of safety when cycling and 71% of the respondents felt that 20mph speed limits are generally disobeyed by drivers. Despite our Local Plan policies, a narrow majority of respondents (51%) felt that planning officers and property developers still gave priority to car traffic over cycling and walking in new developments.

Perhaps the most worrying outcome of the study was the number of respondents who reported having experienced confrontation and intimidation when cycling in Cambridge. While there were many references to drivers, especially of vans, buses and taxis, altercations were reported with all kinds of road users, including other cyclists and pedestrians. Tensions with pedestrians were often related to shared-use paths and unclear signage. The nature of the altercations ranged from vocal abuse or honking to more dangerous acts such as drivers pushing cyclists off the road. Some of these attacks involved sexist behaviour against women cycling.

Overall, the study shows, like other studies before, that increasing the number of people cycling takes several approaches, resting on two main factors: high-quality, continuous infrastructure and a cultural shift towards widespread acceptance of cycling for transport. Nobody benefits from a tribal approach (‘us versus them’). We need frank discussions about how we want our towns and cities to be designed and planned, and how that will benefit everyone in the long run. In addition, the quality of cycling infrastructure should be judged primarily by how well it works for more vulnerable users. For example, junctions are the most dangerous parts of roads, and yet they are the least likely to have safe and inclusive design. This could be tackled in the short term by adopting best practices from other European countries and testing them here.

If you have any questions or want to read the full results of the survey, please email me at julien.pj.bouvet@gmail.com

Julien Bouvet

  1. Rachel Aldred. Incompetent or too competent? Negotiating everyday cycling identities in a motor dominated society. 2013.
  2. Angela Hull and Craig O’Holleran. Bicycle infrastructure: can good design encourage cycling? 2014.