Cambridge’s economy depends on investment in cycling

This article was published in 2011, in Newsletter 98.

Companies will not move to or stay in a city where people cannot move around easily. And this is why cycling is so important to high-tech Cambridge: it lets the city function.

The growth of Cambridge and the health of its economy are absolutely dependent on continued investment in cycling. We don’t have direct research to prove it, but when you look at it, it’s fairly obvious.

Why Cambridge is dependent on cycling

We all know about the effect of the return to school on traffic jams. Suddenly everything gets a lot worse. But there is only an increase of around 10% in actual car volumes. In other words, Cambridge’s transport system is at the edge of gridlock: a few extra vehicles mean many more delays. This is well-established queuing theory. As demand approaches the limit of space in a network, friction increases quickly. Now imagine what would happen if there were tens of thousands of new houses and more centres of employment.

Cambridge is a compact city. And it is a growing one.

The County Council’s renewed growth agenda clearly relies on an increase in jobs and housing in Cambridge and its immediate surroundings. Any student of geography will tell you about the effect of high-tech clustering as an important part of Cambridge’s success – spreading high-tech industry loosely around the countryside isn’t what works. Cambridge itself will surely therefore continue to be the focus of growth, with close inter-firm proximity absolutely key to this.

This means more and more people living and working in Cambridge, and therefore more housing.

Much housing is now being built on the edges of the city, with tens of thousands of dwellings in total projected to be put through the planning system. That is tens of thousands of new people living and working here, and massive demands on an efficient transport network.

These huge developments are dependent on efficient transport, and simply will not work otherwise. The transport modelling for the NIAB site for instance requires 60% walking/cycling share in order to prevent increased problems on the A14. So not only do these developments need to be designed to make cycling the easy choice, but so do the surrounding areas, because people will travel outside the developments.

There would be no economic or social sense in knocking down huge numbers of buildings in Cambridge to make more space for more queuing cars. Therefore the only solution is alternatives to the car if we want to cater for a growing population.

We have often proposed that the County Council undertake computer modelling of a ‘no-cycling day’. Most people who cycle in Cambridge have cars – our own membership survey shows this.

Now imagine that tens of thousands of extra car journeys were made by people in the new developments driving rather than cycling and using public transport. The effect is obvious: gridlock. Companies will not move to or stay in a city where people cannot move around easily. And this is why cycling is so important to high-tech Cambridge: it lets the city function.

Cycling isn’t some namby-pamby form of hippy transport. It’s absolutely key to the ability of Cambridge to work. All groups of people, whether they be wealth creators in suits, people undertaking high-tech research, or those on the minimum wage who form the bedrock of our employment centres, can be found cycling to work. And they do this because it is efficient.

Cambridge depends on high rates of cycling, and as more people come to live here, cycling has to get much better if our high-tech economy is to survive.

The County Council must continue to invest in cycling

The County Council must therefore radically improve cycling and put money into this. If it does not, Cambridge’s economy will decline as tens of thousands of new houses result in gridlock.

This means making more space for cycling on our streets, and adding new cycle routes, so that those moving to the city can feel confident that cycling is both a safe and the fastest way around for them.

And there is money available. Government funds are available for this, through the Local Sustainable Transport Fund. Cambridgeshire County Council has an excellent record of getting a lion’s share of (still relatively small amounts of) central government money for cycling. And Section 106 funds are already allocated for cycling transport improvement schemes.

The growth of Cambridge means that the County Council must increase, not reduce, its investment in cycling. Doing so is far cheaper than other forms of transport investment.

Cycling is the cheapest way to increase capacity of the network

In stringent economic times, cycling is the obvious investment as it is the cheapest way of increasing the capacity of the street and road network. It is incredibly efficient
in terms of space for the numbers of people that can be accommodated.

The Department for Transport’s own model (WebTAG) for economic appraisal of cycling schemes gives a very high rate of return in transport terms: a benefit:cost ratio of 3:1. Work by Sustrans gives even higher benefit ratios, up to 33:1 in some cases. See:

In other words, you can achieve a lot more by putting small amounts of money into cycling than by spending much larger amounts on anything else.

Building new roads is expensive. The Addenbrooke’s Access Road cost £25m, much more than has been spent on cycling across all of Cambridge for all of five years. The A14 upgrade was projected to cost £1.3 billion, which is unaffordable in today’s economy.

Four clear economic wins

Cycling means economic wins for business, public finances, the individual and the community:

Business: investing in more efficient staff works

  • Cycling, and walking, have predictable trip times so better punctuality for such staff.
  • Healthy cycling employees take less time off sick.
  • Employees arriving by bike are fresh and alert.
  • Land for parking space is a huge business cost; cycle parking is far cheaper than car parking.
  • Gross Cycling Product worth £2.9 billion to UK economy (LSE report, August 2011).
  • Regular cyclists are more likely to use local shops and businesses, rather than drive to Lakeside, Bluewater or Milton Keynes.

Public finances: investment in good cycling infrastructure pays back quickly

  • Reduces the load on adult care as older people remain fitter for longer.
  • Attacks the ‘ticking time-bomb’ of obesogenic diseases, reducing the costs to the NHS.
  • Cycle routes free up space on the road for those who really need to use a car (since people DO switch modes).
  • It is cheap to maintain. A person on a bike would need to do 10,000 trips before they damaged a road as much as a single car weighing ten times as much.
  • A well-constructed cycle route should never need resurfacing, although a regular sweep, and salting on freezing days, helps.
  • In a 2004 TfL study of extra cycle parking at Surbiton station, one in ten of new cyclists had previously driven – a clear case of more transport capacity.

Individual: lower health costs and time savings

  • NHS/adult care savings (see above).
  • Programming regular exercise into our daily routine keeps us fit and active.
  • Regular cyclists live longer. Twenty minutes of daily exercise is easy to fit in with short journeys by bike or on foot.
  • Using the car or bus can just create the sort of stress we all need to avoid.
  • Trips of under a couple of miles will be quickest by bike, even for the relatively unfit.
  • Journey times by bike are more predictable.
  • When using a car, even the ‘marginal’ cost is very high for the first couple of miles or until the engine reaches an optimum operating temperature.

Community: lower externality costs

  • Reduced accidents.
  • Less noise.
  • Lower pollution levels.
  • Better quality of life and therefore more attractive cities. Cycle-friendly cities are less polluted, less noisy: compare Cambridge and Luton.
  • A new safer route to school may enable more to cycle to school. Most of the benefits may go to the many drivers on the less congested road.
  • Those who cycle regularly are more likely to support local shops, and cyclists spend more per visit, ensuring their continued existence much to the benefit of those within the community who are less mobile.