Houses, houses everywhere

This article was published in 2001, in Newsletter 39.

David Earl takes a personal wander by bike through the developments that may happen around our city in the next twenty years.

We can be pretty certain that ‘Greater Cambridge’ is going to get bigger. The ethos of limiting growth around the city has been discarded, and it is now more a matter of ‘where’ and ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. What does this have to do with cycling? I think it has a lot to do with it. Firstly, to what extent will new communities and new places of work be conducive to cycling, and to what extent will newcomers want to cycle? And secondly, will people already cycling want to continue in the face of increased pressure on city road space from the larger number of people?

It’s easy to automatically assume that all the new housing is needed because of newcomers moving to the area, but the County Council says this is not the case. Less than a third is for in-migration. The remainder is because people are living longer, and because we all prefer to live in smaller household units. But builders still seem to want to build large, profitable houses.

Two big new residential areas are competing for acceptance, though who knows, we may end up with both: the large area east of the A14 near Oakington, which over time might end up as large as half the size of today’s Cambridge; expansion of the City north and east of Cherry Hinton using the airport and land between it and the A14, swallowing Teversham, and linking into Fulbourn. This latter option is the City Council’s preference. Cambourne, to Cambridge’s west, will be South Cambridgeshire’s largest village when complete.

Nevertheless, it could well be the case that newcomers are less likely to cycle than people who have absorbed the city’s cycling culture. Will they be reluctant to use public transport too? A recent advert for NTL staff at their offices on a big new business park near Waterbeach sums it up: ‘plenty of car parking, no need to rely on unreliable public transport’. (Actually, you probably couldn’t if you wanted to, as there is hardly any public transport to their location!)

A new settlement at Oakington might be big enough to sustain internal cycling, it could be designed for this from the outset. But planners please note – Groningen would be a much better model for this than Milton Keynes’ abysmal cycleways. However, in general people no longer live close to where they work. Oakington is too far from central and southern Cambridge for most people to consider cycling (though perhaps not from northern Cambridge and the science park, especially if connected alongside a public transport link that will almost certainly be built on the old St Ives line). And the formidable barrier of the A14 lies between it and most other destinations.

Eastern Cambridge would be much more suitable for cycling connections with the rest of the city. But would it result in some of the Marshall’s workforce who currently cycle having to use cars to get to the new site, wherever that might end up (if it is prepared to move at all, that is)? New development here is also amenable to building in cycling from day one. I think we should be talking about things like home zones, streets engineered for people not just cars, links between otherwise dead-ends, and connections to the city. Cycleways come low down on my shopping list of cycle friendly infrastructure. If you do have them, Dutch style is best because then the cyclist doesn’t play second fiddle to the car.

Even if some people, old and new, can be bullied, persuaded or bribed to use public transport or cycle, there will undoubtedly be more traffic arising from the hugely increased population criss-crossing the City and South Cambridgeshire. This makes cycling a less attractive proposition for those who have never tried. It may also cause more existing cyclists to give up. Cycle paths may offer an alternative for some, but there isn’t room to put them everywhere. And for many cyclists this is as unwelcome a prospect as the harassment and difficulties created by extra traffic.

On a more positive note, new development means new money, and developers will be required to provide community infrastructure. Both non-residential and residential development will probably have to fund transport infrastructure over quite a wide area around their sites.

There are numerous non-residential proposals. Huge western expansion of the University of Cambridge is already well under way. In the longer term, the University also wants to expand south of Huntingdon Road near the city boundary. In the south, Addenbrooke’s has major expansion plans for the area south of Long Road.

This has the potential for achieving a lot, or it could be wasted on fussy, minimum vision projects that don’t even maintain the status quo. Could we see a broad, smooth, uninterrupted, north-south corridor opened up for cyclists alongside the railway (as in our Chisholm Trail proposal) funded on the back of such schemes? Or might we get a narrow, fenced-in track, with a bridge over the river that has to be walked, and pelican crossings at every intersecting road, because they have put most of the money into a guided busway?

Finally, will people who have been here for years have to continue to suffer the inadequacies of the present roads and public transport, whilst the new occupiers get all the goodies? For example, I notice that the station nominally put in Fulbourn is in the new development, serving the existing population least well. The guided bus would link the new Oakington and nearby villages to Cambridge. But why shouldn’t Sawston or Burwell have equally good access?

If the only infrastructure investment is for connecting up the new houses or offices, then the existing Cambridge cycling population will have to endure the increased, city-wide traffic. It is the users of the new developments and their immediate neighbours who will get the best deal and, arguably, they are the least likely to make good use of it. There’s a strong case, in my opinion, for saying that the impact of development on this scale is so large that it affects the whole area. Therefore money available to reduce the impact should be applied anywhere in and around the city.

If handled well, new development on this scale has the prospect to help cyclists and promote cycling; handled badly, it could destroy Cambridge’s cycling culture entirely. Either way, I think the Cambridge of twenty years’ time will feel rather unlike today’s city.

David Earl