Myth and reality

This article was published in 1999, in Newsletter 25.

Cambridge Cycling Campaign has an image problem. We have heard repeatedly that many influential people at the County, City and District councils believe that we only care about ‘fast cyclists’. At first we shrugged it off, but as time passes, the view seems to have hardened. Since we only ever hear this second-hand, it is never possible to raise the issue directly. But with Local Transport Plan consultations just around the corner, we cannot let these misunderstandings pass any longer.

Myth: We don’t know what ‘ordinary’ cyclists want

It is not just many cyclists who are unhappy with having to mix with pedestrians. All year long, volunteers on our Saturday stall hear complaints from pedestrians, angry at losing their space to cyclists. I am also convinced that the creation of poor-quality, poorly-signed, shared-use pavements throughout the City has encouraged illegal cycling.

This myth may be based upon our opposition to unsegregated shared-use paths in urban areas, or perhaps upon our continued objections to any sub-standard proposals (such as the 1.5 m width that was originally proposed for two-way cycle use on Barton Road – not even wide enough for two cyclists to pass).

Both Cycle Audit and Cycle Review , and Cycle Friendly Infrastructure – bibles of cycle provision – agree that shared-use is a provision of last resort. And now the DETR’s guidance for Local Transport Plans says:

Provision for cycling should be of good quality, both to attract and retain users. The conversion of footways and footpaths to shared use by cyclists and pedestrians should be regarded as a last resort measure, where there is no opportunity to improve conditions on the carriageway.

In Cambridge, shared-use has too often been a provision of first resort.

As to whether local government in Cambridge knows what cyclists want: to my knowledge, there hasn’t been any credible research on the subject. If you ask people whether they would cycle more if cycle routes or showers were provided, they will say ‘yes.’ This tells us most about people’s prejudices about cycling. We think it would be better to ask whether people would prefer cycling to be ‘safer’ and ‘more convenient’.

The Transport Research Laboratory has done much interesting research recently into ‘Attitudes to Cycling’, and Cambridge would do well to learn from this and related studies, before assuming that it knows what either new or experienced cyclists want.

Myth: We only care about fast, experienced cyclists

Most cycling takes place on roads, as they are direct, and go everywhere. We often hear from relatively new cyclists that they have discovered that it is much quicker to cycle on the roads to get from A to B, because they don’t have to keep stopping. It’s not just super-fit cyclists who object to cycling on bumpy, narrow paths, having to dodge pedestrians, wheelie bins and parked cars, whilst needing eyes in the back of their heads at every side-road and driveway along the way!

Cambridge cannot afford to lose the cyclists it already has. The reduction in congestion and pollution these cyclists give is, quite frankly, a life-saver to the City, and we don’t feel this is sufficiently recognised.

We aren’t opposed to properly constructed cycle tracks – quite the opposite. The trouble is, our definition of ‘properly constructed’ seems rather unpopular with local government: ‘conforming to national guidelines, at least as safe and convenient as the adjacent road, and offering the same level of service.’

Myth: We aren’t bothered about encouraging people to start cycling

We have given huge amounts of our own time to the ‘Cycle Friendly Employers’ and ‘Travel for Work’ Schemes. We have also recently helped launch an ‘Adult Cycle Training Scheme’ to help new cyclists gain confidence. These all have City and County Council support, and we have enjoyed very positive working relationships with the officers involved.

The County Council has recently employed two staff whose remits specifically include promoting alternatives to the car: a Bus Promoter, and a Park and Ride manager. Both these people have put time and effort into finding out what their ‘customers’ genuinely want.

In contrast, the Council seems to know very little about what cyclists and potential cyclists want. We base our views on encouraging cycling upon research co-ordinated by the National Cycling Forum (which is implementing the National Cycling Strategy). We fear that these views are being discounted by plain prejudice – of the sort that gives us letters in the Cambridge Evening News saying ‘I can’t believe how many cyclists ride on Queen Edith’s Way, when I can see from my car that there’s a perfectly good cycle path over there.’

We think the Council should also employ a cycle promoter, whose job should specifically include finding out what potential, and existing, cyclists really want. The danger, of course, is that over-simplistic questions would confirm the current prejudices – but there is a wealth of research to be taken advantage of.

We fear that many councillors and officers might be very surprised at the results. It shouldn’t be just us trying to explain Government policy on cycling to local councils.

Clare Macrae