Opinion: Gilbert Road isn’t Groningerstraat

This article was published in 2011, in Newsletter 95.

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

For some campaigners, the ideal cycling provision for Gilbert Road would have been to emulate Groningerstraat in Assen (a road of similar width). This would have required moving the kerb out, but would have provided parking bays for residents between newly planted trees and would have positioned the cycle path along the footway on the pavement. Considering the high concentration of schools and nursery schools along Gilbert Road and high levels of ‘pavement cycling’, moving cyclists away from the main carriageway seems ideal. I grew up with similar provision and favour it myself. However, Cambridge isn’t Groningen or Oldenburg. Looking for similar provision (though without parking bays) in Cambridge brings to mind Milton Road (from Arbury Road to Woodhead Drive), and that is certainly not a model I would campaign for.

The new cycle lanes on Gilbert Road might be substandard in the Netherlands, but are a real improvement in Cambridge

A logical consequence of the much higher levels of cycling in the Netherlands is that there are far fewer pedestrians of the sort walking in the segregated cycleway on Milton Road. That is partially due to lack of space and lack of awareness but also because unlike in Assen, where the segregation is marked by a grippy kerb with a 30 degree angle, in Cambridge it is usually just a painted white line. Unlike the pavement on Road which seems to be a simple layer of tarmac with tree roots coming through, the larger budgets for cycling provision in the Netherlands result in cycle paths built to last: the Dutch even apply several layers of gravel, concrete, tarmac plus a smooth top layer.

Implement a ‘Groningerstraat’ style cycleway in the UK and cyclists would lose priority at every junction. Once cyclists are away from the main carriageway they will need their phase at traffic lights. Where the authorities in Assen try to implement two simultaneous (four-way) green phases for cyclists for every round of green phases for cars, in the UK cyclists risk ending up with one dedicated ‘pedestrian green’ for every two ‘main carriageway greens’.

Moving cyclists away from the main carriageway would be ideal, but Cambridge isn’t Groningen or Oldenburg; an example of this type of provision in the city brings to mind Milton Road with just a painted line on a layer of tarmac.
Image as described adjacent

Compared to on-street cycling, cyclists on a segregated cycle path on a pavement lose visibility for drivers coming out of driveways. British cyclists would encounter ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs at major driveways (e.g. the schools), a sign which in the Netherlands simply doesn’t exist. Gilbert Road has very many private driveways leaving less space for the parking bays and new trees. If a driver coming out of a private driveway on Gilbert Road hit a cyclist on a pavement cycleway the excuse would be ‘SMIDSY’ (‘Sorry, Mate, I Didn’t See You’), and in the absence of shared or strict liability (as applies in the Netherlands or Germany), British courts would probably confirm: ‘not the driver’s fault, as the driver couldn’t see the cyclist’. What’s more, changing the kerb, felling the trees, making parking bays, planting new trees etc would cost a lot more than the £150,000 spent on the advisory cycle lane on Gilbert Road. Of course, we should have a 2m-wide mandatory cycle lane, but the limited width between the kerbs and DfT design guidelines mean that the choice was between a 1.7m advisory cycle lane (with parking restrictions marked by double yellow lines) and a 1.5m mandatory cycle lane.

The violation of parking restrictions in cycleways is fairly rare in the Netherlands, but a frequent problem in Cambridge. Unfortunately, the parking restrictions in mandatory cycle lanes can currently only be enforced by the police, who we all know are reluctant to do this. The advisory cycle lane with parking restrictions marked by double yellow lines is actively enforced by LAPE (Local Authority Parking Enforcement). I accept that we need to campaign at local and national levels on a legal framework that makes it possible to provide provision for cyclists designed, implemented and maintained to standards similar to those found in the Netherlands. In my opinion, for the real world in which we live, the current scheme on Gilbert Road is the best we could realistically achieve.

From Histon Rd to Milton Rd cyclists used to have to pull out some ten to twenty times into the main carriageway, with much faster vehicles, to go around parked cars. I have cycled on the new cycle lanes end-to-end several times without having to pull out once and without any interruptions (apart from the traffic lights, of course). I share this experience with thousands of cyclists who have already used the new advisory cycle lanes on Gilbert Road. It would be sub-standard in the Netherlands, but it is a real improvement in Cambridge!

Klaas Brümann