The Rampton-Cottenham cycle path

This article was published in 2008, in Newsletter 79.

The shared-use path between Rampton and Cottenham has recently been upgraded, possibly to provide a safe route to Cottenham Primary School for children from Rampton. The original shared-use path was of such dire quality that it was not considered to be a cycle facility and was rarely used. This article is a detailed analysis of the new ‘facility’ by Martin Popple (a Cottenham resident) who set out to highlight the issues with this path before the Cottenham-Histon shared-use path is upgraded later this year.

The local transport problem

Cottenham is essentially a car-centric village. The roads within Cottenham and leading to surrounding villages are plagued by high traffic volumes and speeds. The environment is so unpleasant that cycling levels are low, possibly marginally above the national average of around 2% (of commuter levels). However, given the proximity of Cottenham to Cambridge, the cycling capital of England (27% commuter levels), and Histon (10% commuter levels), it should be possible to induce a modal shift from cars to cycling within the Cottenham area. This would be hugely beneficial for everyone in Cottenham in terms of their quality of life. But to obtain a dramatic increase in cycling levels, motorists must be persuaded out of their cars, without disadvantaging the present cycle commuters.

Understanding success

The UK standard width of 3 m for a two-way shared-use path is never reached, with some sections being as narrow as 0.5 m.
Image as described adjacent

In the Cambridge area, converting pavements into shared-use paths was for a while the default solution to providing for cyclists, and it remains so between the necklace villages. But when improving facilities for cycling, no-one states what they expect to achieve in terms of increased cycling numbers, so it is difficult to measure the success of a solution. For example, in creating a particular cycle path, is the goal to obtain a 2%, 10% or 27% commuter cycling level (as for the UK average, Histon or Cambridge areas) or is the aim a 37% cycling level as in the whole of the Netherlands (note this figure is for all journeys). For a new facility in a necklace village one might define success as ‘An increase in cycling levels from the present 2% of commuter journeys to 10% in one year and 25% in five years time’. These figures should be achievable for Cottenham because it is so close to the cycling centres of Cambridge and Histon. If the cycle facilities implemented cannot achieve this level of cycling then we must question the approach being taken.

Understanding the generic needs of cyclists

The generic needs of cyclists can be stated simply. Any facility needs to provide a pleasant environment which is not only safe but also feels safe. The facility should be of a consistent high quality permitting sports cyclists, commuters, novices and children to mix safely together. The routes selected need where possible to be more direct and more convenient than those available for a motorist.

The capacity of any cycle facility is particularity important and one indication of capacity is its width. An adult’s cycle is typically 0.6 m wide and a cyclist feels comfortable with a minimum distance of about 0.4 m from hedges, pedestrians, etc. (although a pedestrian is likely to prefer more). So one-way cycling requires a path width of 1.4 m whilst two-way cycling requires 2.4 m. Where an adult is cycling along controlling a child cyclist (i.e. has a hand on their shoulder), a width of 1.7 m is required (assuming a typical child bike is 0.4 m wide and a 10 cm overlap is needed for control). For two-way cycling a width of 3.0 m is required. The width of a standard child cycle trailer which carries two children is typically 0.9 m and thus a parent would require a path width of 1.7 m one-way, or 3.0 m for two child cycle trailers passing each other. These values fit in well with the latest UK guidance on cycle infrastructure, i.e. that one- and two-way shared-use paths should be 2 m and 3 m wide, respectively.

The fundamental question in this case is: does the upgraded Cottenham-Rampton shared-use path fulfil the generic needs of cyclists?

Detailed analysis of Rampton-Cottenham shared-use path

A detailed analysis of the Rampton-Cottenham shared-use path is rather long because the number of problems is significant, and many of them are common to shared-use paths between villages (and indeed elsewhere). Here we present only an outline of the issues:

The narrowness of the path here may create friction between cyclists and pedestrians wishing to pass each other.
Image as described adjacent
  • The latest UK standards state that a two-way shared-use path should be a minimum of 3 m wide. This width is never reached anywhere on this path and there are many places where the width is as narrow as 0.5 m. Thus for much of the path cyclists cannot pass and certainly cannot overtake each other.
  • On the road or on a cycle way a cyclist has right of way. On a shared-use path the pedestrians have right of way. This is a huge inherent disadvantage of shared-use paths for cyclists.
  • Pedestrians lose out with shared-use paths: they often feel intimidated by cyclists and can no longer relax in this environment. The narrowness of the path will also create friction between pedestrians and cyclists wishing to pass each other.
  • Fast cyclists and commuters tend to use the road and pedestrians want this to continue. As soon as a shared-use facility is built adjacent to a road, any on-road cyclists will be intimidated by a minority of motorists who feel that the cyclist should then use the pavement. Many cyclists feel they can no longer use the B1049 between Histon and Cottenham because of intimidation. Yet the deficiencies of poorly designed shared-use paths means that the many cyclists can expect to have their journey time doubled (or worse) if they use them.
  • Access to properties is a problem when a shared-use path is present. There are a number of examples on the Rampton-Cottenham shared-use path where motorists must completely block the path to have visibility of the road in order to leave their properties.
  • At the Rampton end, access to the path for Cottenham-bound cyclists is inconvenient and dangerous. Non-flush kerbs, posts in the path, metal support cables and a narrow access point make this very hazardous. Even leaving the path at the Cottenham end occurs at an access point to allotments, unnecessarily creating conflict with other users. Rampton-bound cyclists accessing the shared-use path at the Cottenham end must cross fast-moving traffic lanes, which is potentially more dangerous than cycling directly along the road. At Rampton they must form a queue with other cyclists in an attempt to cross the road again. The time in the queue is likely to be long at rush hours as car traffic is continuous. This access point is also close to a blind bend where vehicles are nevertheless travelling at 60 mph.
  • While the Rampton-bound cyclists are queuing they effectively block access to the path for Cottenham-bound cyclists who presumably must queue on the road. This is clearly dangerous.
  • Cyclists heading for Rampton will be dazzled by the car lights of on-coming traffic even when dipped. Semi-blinded cyclists will deal less well with the many varieties of obstructions on the path. The shared-use path is therefore dangerous to use at night for these cyclists. This is compounded by the fact that Rampton-bound cyclists have to cycle between on-coming cars and on-coming cycles whilst giving way to pedestrians. Any mistake a cyclist or a pedestrian makes will cause the cyclist to be directed unexpectedly into oncoming traffic. This is a serious safety issue at any time of day or night.
  • Last year a cyclist was killed on the B1049. He was riding on the shared-use path in a 60 mph zone. The accident was caused by a speeding motorist losing control of his car. This scenario could also happen on the Rampton-Cottenham road but here the situation is worse, because for half the length there is not even the protection of a kerb, and the shared-use path is on the outside of a bend which is exactly where cars will tend to leave the road. This is another serious safety issue.
  • Farm vehicle access to fields adjacent to the path tends to leave mud on the surface. Initial clumps of mud eventually end up as a smear of dirt, giving a surface where braking is ineffective and where cyclists are likely to skid off their bikes. There is no cleaning budget and therefore the path will end up in a consistently poor state.
  • There is a hawthorn hedgerow along some 200 m of the path which will leave thorns on the shared-use path. Without constant cleaning cyclists will end up continually mending punctures. This is not a problem for on-road cyclists as the draught of the cars tends to clean the road daily.
  • Shared-use paths are not gritted in the winter, only the roads are. Freezing surface water and metal works in the path are a serious problem for winter cyclists, who risk slipping into the road. (N.B. there are at least 13 metal covers along the path).
  • Two weeks after the shared-use path was completed, the surface in one section was already breaking up. Three plants have pushed up the surface by a few inches and there are around 30 other surface lumps. The build quality is so poor that the first HGV that parks on it will irreparably damage the surface. Since there is no maintenance budget for this path, any failures will be there for years before being dealt with.
Overgrown hawthorn impinges on the narrowest section of path and fallen thorns left uncleared are likely to cause punctures.
Image as described adjacent


The solution selected for the transport problems between Rampton and Cottenham inherently disadvantages cyclists and pedestrians. This low-capacity, inconvenient and dangerous shared-use path is very unattractive for cyclists and it is inconceivable that motorists will switch from their cars to cycles because of the poor design of the path. The path provides an illusion of safety whilst creating more hazards for pedestrians and cyclists, and fails to address the fundamental problem of the route, namely high vehicle speeds.

The Rampton-Cottenham shared-use path inherently disadvantages both cyclists and pedestrians.

Prior to any upgrade of the Cottenham-Histon shared-use path a fundamental review of what it will achieve is required. Any solution should put the safety and convenience of cyclists first and ensure that pedestrians are not disadvantaged. This inevitably means not considering the needs of motorists as the main priority. We must certainly ensure that the present poor-quality Cottenham-Histon shared-use path is not upgraded by default to a slightly better poor-quality shared-use path.

Chris Dorling