What’s the recession got to do with cycling?

This article was published in 2009, in Newsletter 83.

cartoon houses

Theory has it that when times are hard people take to their bikes instead of using their cars. Well, maybe some do, but that’s not what this piece is about.

A year ago we were overwhelmed with massive plans for major developments all round Cambridge. They haven’t gone away, but it’s become noticeably quieter in the last six months. True, we had no less than five CDs’ worth of planning application bumph for the NIAB site in the post last month (and that was just the revisions) with only a few short weeks to read and comment on them.

But though the major schemes haven’t gone away, most seem to have slowed down considerably. No one can finance them any more. People aren’t buying houses (though I think most schemes are a long time from having any building start seriously on the ground and things may have improved by then).

Arbury Park (now Orchard Park): living on a building site
Image as described adjacent

What matters to cycling, though, is that the clean sheet on which most sites are working is a big opportunity to make better provision for cyclists. It’s much harder to shoe-horn wide cycle lanes into existing narrow city streets than to design a road layout that accommodates bikes properly from the start.

That’s not to say the developers always do: Northstowe, the new town to sit like a voracious cuckoo chick on the smaller parent bird of Longstanton, was widely criticised (not just by us) for its failure to address cycling properly. We haven’t seen a revised application yet, which hopefully would put some of this right. However, plans for another development (NIAB) include hybrid cycle lane provision, 2 m wide, through the main spine road, a form of provision which we have been promoting. Unlike at Northstowe, though not everyone may agree with everything planned, the developers of the Railway Station site have gone to a lot of trouble to consult on and incorporate cycling prominently in the redevelopment among many competing users – not least with a nearly 3,000 space cycle park.

Not only the opportunity, but motive too. Money. New developments generate cash for public works to mitigate the impact of the development. Some of that goes towards cycling, recognising the traffic impact (though in a really big development, the lion’s share goes on things like schools).

The Guided Busway will not only provide a major investment in public transport, it will also offer an almost traffic-free cycle route between north Cambridge and St Ives. Because of its significance and location, Northstowe was to have provided a share of the funding for the construction. But now the County Council is having to borrow to meet the shortfall in the windfall as Northstowe has hit the doldrums. Who knows what would have happened had the project not already been nearly complete?

But the whole reason for these planning agreements with developers is because of the impact of new developments. In cycling terms, that means traffic. So the longer we delay, the less of it there is in the near future – and fewer newcomers arriving without the cycling culture even non-cyclists in the city are familiar with.

Flush kerbs left 10cm off the ground. Cycle crossings impossible to use, and heaven help anyone who is in a wheelchair.
Image as described adjacent

Then there are the finishing touches. Arbury Park, now renamed Orchard Park (do we detect a certain snobbishness in the marketing attitudes here?), has been a building site for years and because it has slowed right down the people who have already moved in are having to put up with living on a building site for much longer. Often the cycling aspects of a development are the afterthoughts, the bits that get left to the end or until the final road surfacing is done. Or not, as now seems to be the case. So not only do all of us have to put up with Kings Hedges Road being turned into a nightmare for cycling, but the people who live there don’t even get the promised facilities inside the development either. The developers say the facilities are coming, but will they go out of business before they get round to it?

In the end, I guess many of us won’t lament the failure to concrete over the Cambridge hinterlands tomorrow. But be sure, they’ll be back the day after. We’d better use the extra day to increase our efforts to put cycling at the heart of how people move around and between these new settlements. We’ve already started by publishing our Cycling in New Developments paper, available on our website.

David Earl