This article was published in 2008, in Newsletter 79.
Earlier in the year, a number of streets off Mill Road were changed from being one way to two way for cycles. What is commonplace, common-sense standard practice elsewhere in Europe, and even elsewhere in Cambridge, was turned by politicians into a political football so that it was a fight for years to get additional streets converted. Several were refused, at least one in order to maintain capacity for cars. But four went ahead. Even when the decision was made it took a year for anything to actually be done on the ground.
And the work was a shambles. Whether by accident or design, the County Council appears to have done everything so half-heartedly that it plays into the hands of those opponents who don’t want cyclists to be given an inch. First they refused to do anything about the ghastly planting tub on the way into Kingston Street, so cyclists have to go through the same gap from which traffic emerges. Then the work took ages leaving it unclear who was allowed to do what for a while. And then they didn’t use the standard arrangement authorised by the Department for Transport, for which there was space in all but the case of Covent Garden. Instead they used No Motor Vehicles signs.
No Motor Vehicles is just too subtle. In most other contexts it is used with a plate which says ‘except for access’. In other words, it has no restrictive effect at all. The difference with and without the plate is simply too much, or too tempting, for the typical motorist to understand or take seriously. As a result cars have been ignoring the signs and turning into these streets and there are now calls for a ‘review’. In some people’s minds this no doubt means reversing the decision altogether.
Where there is a continuous or long cycle lane, and little traffic, No Motor Vehicles signs just about work. Wheeler Street and Corn Exchange Street don’t seem to have caused major upsets. Covent Garden (see cover) is similar, with a red cycle lane marked out for cycles in the ‘wrong’ direction (and it helps that the ‘wrong’ direction is towards Mill Road in this case). The lane is ‘advisory’ (dotted lines) rather than being a true contraflow lane (so not like Downing Street for example), but the distinction is only relevant to and understood by the anoraks amongst us. The effect is achieved through distinctive red surfacing, not through the technicalities of the markings.
It is not just the County Council’s fault. For years the Department for Transport has insisted on the use of a ‘cycle plug’, in effect creating two short roads side by side, one of which is signed as No Entry and the other for cycles only. They have been intransigently obstinate in not allowing No Entry signs to have ‘Except cycles’ plates. ‘Except buses’ and ‘Except Authorized Vehicles’ are allowed. In some cases private landowners and even sometimes the local authorities have simply ignored the letter of the rules (consider Malcolm Street in Cambridge for example).
A No Entry sign saying ‘Except Cycles’ is common throughout Europe. However, on its own, it does have the disadvantage that cars turning right (in this country) out of the (pseudo) one-way street automatically position themselves where cyclists need to be to turn in. At best, this is inconvenient and leads to conflict. At worst, to a crash. A cycle lane, even quite short and narrow, is therefore highly desirable. This can nearly always be accommodated where a complete island and bollard cannot be.
So, we decided to have another go at the Department for Transport through Cambridge MP David Howarth, to see again if we can get the rules changed. We have proposed a compromise which does away with the island, but keeps the desirable lane, and doesn’t require the ‘Except Cyclists’ plate under No Entry. It replaces the island with a simple white line, and signs it ‘diagrammatically’, the part for cycles next to the No Entry part (rather like the division between pedestrians and cyclists is done on the sign for segregated shared-use, or the signs indicating bus lanes).
We haven’t heard anything back yet. If this arrangement were allowed it would simplify many junctions in Cambridge, not just the new ones off Mill Road. Even if it isn’t permitted, there is no reason why those streets can’t be signed according to the existing rules (except Covent Garden, which is too narrow).
We really do despair that we have to spend so much time and effort on what should be such straightforward and simple changes to benefit cyclists. What hope of making things better for cycling in Cambridge if every tiny little step has to be fought and re-fought every inch of the way?