Opinion: Gilbert Road is a missed opportunity

This article was published in 2011, in Newsletter 95.

 Two opinion pieces about campaigning: David Hembrow demands more imaginative solutions…

Cambridge has a higher cycling rate than any other city in the UK. What Cambridge does is followed by other cities, and what Cambridge’s campaigners do is followed by other campaigners.

The Cambridge Cycling Campaign has recognised that Gilbert Road is a problem for a very long time. In August 1999, Kevin Bushell wrote of being a ‘long-suffering user’ of the road in an article in which he thanked the council for that year’s minor improvement – the addition of advanced stop boxes. In the same article, Clare Macrae discussed the possibility of making the existing advisory cycle lanes mandatory ‘in the hope of stopping cars parking in the lanes just when they are most needed’.

The problem with the new Gilbert Road scheme is its lack of ambition

Fast forward to 2011 and what do we see? The ‘more imaginative solution’ is nowhere to be seen. The advisory lanes are a little wider, though still advisory. There is a car parking restriction now and some people have reported that this makes the road much better for cycling now.

The problem with this scheme is its lack of ambition. The Campaign asked for little more than was built. No-one really ever asked for a ‘more imaginative solution’ as discussed 11 years earlier.

What’s more, a lot of time and energy was expended in arguments with local residents who didn’t want to lose their on-road car-parking spaces. The last thing that cyclists need is to be placed in opposition to motorists and residents, who actually we could do with having on our side when redevelopment is called for.

So, could it have been done differently? I think so

In 2008 we hosted a study tour in Assen which was attended by several campaigners from Cambridge. I showed them a street here in Assen, Groningerstraat, which is striking in its similarity to Gilbert Road. It has traffic lights at either end and another set in the middle. There is a secondary school part-way along, as well as it being on the route to primary schools. It is also a popular commuting route by bike.

Assen’s Groningstraat in the Netherlands is strikingly similar to Gilbert Road. Segregated cycle paths avoid conflicts between cyclists, pedestrians and drivers and on-road parking was preserved for a large proportion of residents.
Image as described adjacent

However, the similarities end when you see what has been done with the road. In Assen we have a segregated cycle path on both sides of the road, 2.5m wide in most places, 4m wide in some places. Cyclists are kept apart from conflict with both pedestrians and drivers, increasing both actual and perceived safety for everyone. At junctions, cyclists have priority over every side-road. At the traffic lights, the junctions allow cyclists to save time by safely and legally making right turns on a red light (equivalent of left on red in the UK), and two out of three of them also use the ‘simultaneous green’ system for cyclists. This lights up green twice as often for cyclists on the cycle paths as for motorists on the road. The result is that you can make much more efficient journeys by bike than by car along this road.

What’s more, on-road car parking was preserved for a large proportion of residents, avoiding planning conflict with residents, or creation of an ‘us and them’ attitude between motorists and cyclists.

Yes, there is room for all this. It was achieved in a road that was measured by Cambridge Cycling Campaign committee members as being almost exactly the same width. And yes, it’s affordable too. It cost less from Assen’s cycling budget to transform Groningerstraat than it cost in Cambridge to do the much less ambitious work in Gilbert Road – though perhaps the different contractors used for the two jobs have some influence on that.

I have blogged several times about the features of this road, and you can read all about it here: http://hembrow.blogspot.com/search/label/groningerstraat

What has been achieved in Gilbert Road is an incremental improvement, but not nearly the best possible outcome. If progress is to be made in cycling then campaigners need to start asking for the best, not watering down their proposals before even approaching the council. Publicity and support are required. If the schools, residents, cycling campaign members, the Cambridge News, the councillors etc. had all been shown a proposal which would keep cyclists safe, keep school children safe, preserve car-parking spaces, and also result in a neat and tidy appearance, who would have been against it? The Campaign could have included visiting the model for the proposed road here in Assen so that people could experience it for themselves, on a bike, by foot and in a car. Why not?

If any place in the UK can make the move towards a higher standard of infrastructure design for cyclists, it is surely Cambridge which has the highest rate of cycling in the UK. However, the ambitions of British cyclists, and of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, simply are not high enough. As a result, cycling remains a minority pursuit in the UK. It simply won’t achieve the status of ‘normality’ amongst the majority of the population until it is made as easy, as convenient and as safe (both subjectively and in actuality) as it is in the Netherlands.

David Hembrow

NEXT: …while Klaas Brümann defends the new cycle lanes on Gilbert Road.