Cycling in the ‘other place’

This article was published in 2009, in Newsletter 82.

Members of Cyclox, our equivalent in Oxford, recently visited Cambridge to see how things are done over here. James Styring, Chair of Cyclox, reports on their findings

A cyclist on Oxford’s Botley Road.
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In Oxford, we cycle in spite of what is provided rather than because of it. [Ed: some of us in Cambridge would say the same!] Oxford needs proper investment as well as political commitment to the most efficient form of transport known.

While many councils bend over backwards to get bums onto saddles, our County Council’s current target for cycling growth is a whopping 0%. What is the budget for cycling, you ask? There isn’t one. The only money available for cycling is ‘Section 106’ money (cash that developers pay to mitigate the impact of developments).

Cycling needs to be higher up the agenda at Speedwell House (the hilariously-named home of Oxfordshire County Council’s Transport Department), so we suggested a site visit to a city where cycling is thriving: ‘the other place’. Cambridge is very similar to Oxford demographically and politically, but at least 26% of journeys to work in Cambridge are by bike. In Oxford, that figure is less than 20%.

But the times, they are a’changin. Don’t ask me why, I just feel it in my bottom bracket. Cyclox visited one Friday in December with five council transport planning officers, and Councillor Ian Hudspeth (the cabinet member for transport) and Councillor Colin Cook, a cycling city councillor with an expertise in planning. Our hosts were Cambridgeshire County Council in the guise of their Cycling Officer, Patrick Joyce, along with the impressively organised and successful Cambridge Cycling Campaign. If, like them, Cyclox had more than 1,000 members, perhaps membership subs would pay for me to cycle out to Great Milton to wine and dine Councillor Hudspeth at Le Manoir while we discuss the finer points of bike-friendly ‘pedestrianisation’. Until then…

That Cambridgeshire has a cycling officer speaks volumes. Even Cambridge City Council has a Walking and Cycling Officer. Oxfordshire, meanwhile, voted recently not to have one. All transport staff, we’re told, deal with all modes, including cycling. Really? Why then does Oxfordshire County Council employ 20+ dedicated public transport staff?

The traffic-calmed historic core.
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A cycle tour of Cambridge

Much of our cycle tour took in the traffic-calmed historic core, to the south-east of the Cam. Rising bollards are used to stop through traffic, immediately creating much improved cycling conditions. It gave a good impression of how pleasant and quiet a bus-free Oxford city centre will be when the pedestrianisation of Transform Oxford is complete. A controversial ban on cycling in many of Cambridge’s pedestrianised streets was recently rescinded. Patrick Joyce said although cycles and pedestrians sharing roads is never perfect, problems are in his view rare, and Cambridge is miles better off now bikes share motor-free streets with those on foot. We also ogled the 500-capacity cycle parking hub under their new John Lewis development. Cycling around the city centre is a noticeably more peaceful experience than it is in Oxford, and having so few cars to contend with a real boon.

Vying for space with other vehicles along East Road.
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Cycling outside the historic core was less pleasant. I found myself battling along East Road, vying for space with zooming dark-windowed limos and thoughtlessly driven white vans. I was particularly struck by the volume (in size and in frequency) of large-engined Mercs, Jags, and Range Rovers accelerating aggressively though pointlessly to wait behind me at the next Advanced Stop Line. This is perhaps because I am accustomed to earthy East Oxford rather than wealthier North Oxford. Mill Road was also a bit of a ‘mare, with relentless streams of cars forcing some cyclists to push their bikes along the pavement.

Cycling around the city centre is a noticeably more peaceful experience than it is in Oxford, and having so few cars to contend with a real boon

Cambridge Cycling Campaign members said they were envious of Oxford’s 20 mph plans, and this is one area in which Oxfordshire’s thinking is ahead of that in Cambridgeshire. Away from Cambridge city centre and the many dedicated cycle routes, some of the main roads are as bad as the worst in Oxford, and 20 mph would bring big benefits.

Cambridgeshire County Council has worked to attract some huge transport grants – in particular to pay for a novel ‘guided bus’ system from outlying villages into the city centre. Cambridgeshire also applied successfully for £millions of Cycling England funding for schemes to connect nearby villages with the city and to improve a range of things within Cambridge itself, such as introducing widespread cycle parking provision. Cambridgeshire is also still considering whether to make a final bid to the Transport Innovation Fund which would require a congestion charge but also would mean £500m of up-front investment in local transport schemes.

The beautiful, new pedestrian and cycle bridge over the Cam would be perfect for crossing the Thames between Jackdaw Lane and Abingdon Road in Oxford.
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In June, a beautiful cycle and pedestrian bridge was opened over the Cam. This massive 400m bridge (most of it over a floodplain) cost £3m. It was the pièce de résistance and shows what you can do with serious budgets for cycling. Something like this would be perfect for crossing the Thames between Jackdaw Lane and Abingdon Road in Oxford.

But the most interesting revelation of the day is that the simple, cheap measure of introducing bike ‘permeability’ around the city centre and suburbs (e.g. the closure points in Petersfield), had probably had more impact on encouraging cycling than any multi-million-pound bridge or cycle path. Bike permeability means restricting car access and giving bikes all sorts of time and safety advantages, effectively skewing street design to favour cyclists and walkers. Sensible stuff of course: drivers hardly need to be encouraged.

Permeability increased with closure points in Petersfield.
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Permeability can be assisted by bike-specific traffic light filters, by-passes, and streets which are one-way for motor vehicles but two-way for bikes. This layout already exists on Little Clarendon Street in Oxford. I am happy to expose a certain degree of geekiness by telling you that the Traffic Management Order for Oxford’s Magdalen Road allows two-way cycling as well, but a bungled road markings repainting job in the 1990s overlooked this, so the road has effectively reverted to one-way for all.

Oxford could do with more streets that are one-way for motor vehicles but two-way for bikes. If we get them, perhaps we can use the sign that Cambridgeshire hope to use. Road signs outside the regulations are supposed to be authorised by the Department for Transport, and Cambridgeshire (and indeed practically every other cycling group around the country!) are fighting for permission to use a currently unapproved sign that says, ‘No Entry – Except Cycles’. How any country that once invented railways and even the ‘safety’ bicycle can today employ educated adults to agonise over such trivia beggars belief. How controversial is ‘No Entry – Except Cycles’?

The simple, cheap measure of introducing bike ‘permeability’ around the city centre and suburbs (e.g. the closure points in Petersfield) had probably had more impact on encouraging cycling than any multi-million pound bridge or cycle path

Permeability also includes barriers such as those in Oxford on Queens Lane or suburban streets such as East Avenue and Union Street, which allow bikes to make quick and connected-up journeys, but which force commuters to make longer roundabout journeys by car – or to consider walking and cycling short inner-city journeys instead.

This is not to say that Cambridge is slaveringly anti-car. It isn’t. Compared to Oxford, it simply puts enticements to walk and cycle higher up the list of priorities. Car ownership is as high in Cambridge as it is in Oxford or indeed in countries such as Holland and Germany. The point is that, as in Holland and Germany, residents are motivated by street designs to use their bikes rather than their cars for intra-city journeys. It ain’t rocket science, in fact it’s really cheap and easy.

Visitors from Cyclox, the cycling campaign for Oxford, at the station cycle bridge.
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Councillors in Cambridge have sometimes had the vision to prioritise bike journeys over car trips, and Oxfordshire’s Conservative cabinet should do the same. Oxford and Cambridge are home to world-class universities and cutting-edge start-ups. It is high time that, like Cambridge, Oxford aspired to be a world-class cycling city as well.

James Styring