On the morning of Saturday 12 September, an 18-member delegation of RTPI London members, friends and affiliates travelled up to Cambridge by rail. The aim of the trip was to experience, first-hand, the best urban cycling environment that the UK has to offer.
Nationally, British utility cycling rates are among the lowest in Europe; closer to American levels than our Dutch and German neighbours (see: Pucher & Buehler (2008); p. 42) Cambridge is an exception to this; its all-journey cycling mode share of 15% is one of the highest in the English-speaking world. The city also has a strong economy, high quality of life and bold plans for its future development. How do these relate to cycling? We decided to see for ourselves.
Our guides for the day were Robin Heydon and Jim Chisholm, of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Robin is the current Chair of the organisation; Jim is a long-time member and the creator of the trail bearing his name, which has recently been approved for consultation.
Having convened at Parker’s Piece (where in 1848 the rules of Association Football were first codified, did you know?), our peleton cycled up to Cambridge railway station and the adjacent CB1 development. A 3,000-space multi-storey cycle parking facility is being built next to the station; this is good; though will it be large enough to meet future demand? Less encouragingly, many of the new-looking flats in the area have bicycles parked on their balconies. This, explained Robin, means that the ‘official’ bicycle parking in the development is sub-par. Bicycle parking should be as easy to use as possible. If people are prepared to trawl bicycles through lifts, lobbies and over thresholds in an attempt to park them somewhere safe, there is clearly room for improvement.
We then rode alongside the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway on a smooth asphalt path. While generally good, its surface is corrugated in places due to tree roots. Also, despite completion in 2011, it only received streetlighting in August this year. This led us to the Trumpington Park & Ride and thence to Clay Farm/Abode; a planned urban extension of Cambridge that is under construction. Design quality appears to be very high; this is helped by use of a detailed design code.
Reflecting its job opportunities and high quality of life, Cambridge is growing rapidly. There is a worry that such growth will simply translate into unbearable traffic congestion (driving in Cambridge is not pleasant at the moment). High quality walking, cycling and public transport provision are rightly recognised as vital measures to pre-empt this outcome. This is evident at Clay Farm/Abode.
A combination of shared-used paths and on-road lanes led us via Addenbrooke’s medical campus to Hills Road. This is one of the main arterial roads into Cambridge; it is also an important bus route. High-quality segregated cycleways are being built, with floating bus stops. These deliver a continuous cycle route and are designed to minimise conflicts between buses, pedestrians and bicycles.
Crossing the railway line at Hills Road Bridge (formerly four traffic lanes; now two, plus wide bike lanes), we headed to the Stirling Prize-winning Accordia. Here, we had the honour of a guided tour by architect and urban designer Paul Drew, who also happens to live here.
Having parked our bicycles in the courtyard at Paul’s beautiful house (certainly no shortage of bike parking here), we saw how 365 dwellings had been cleverly inserted into an existing landscape. Much of the credit is due to landscape architects Grant Associates, who skilfully incorporated the existing mature trees into the new masterplan. It also accommodates a listed Cold War bunker and a nature reserve adjacent to Hobson’s Brook.
Accordia was largely developed according to its original masterplan. The quality of architecture and public realm is exemplary. Despite being completed in 2006, the neighbourhood has already been declared a conservation area. The relatively high-density layout has ensured that a large proportion of the site is reserved as open space. Bicycle parking is generously provided in undercrofts and courtyards; we did not see a single bike parked on anyone’s balcony here.
There are a couple of areas for improvement. The single retail unit is poorly-located and unable to make use of footfall from the adjacent UK Government offices; it went out of business earlier this year. Following a problem with inbound car-commuters, Accordia has had to bring in restrictions for on-street car parking; this is clearly a problem in Cambridge.
Despite these peccadilloes, it is very hard to fault Accordia as a place to live and visit. Paul Drew’s evident enthusiasm for the neighbourhood is more than justified and it would be safe to say that many delegates were rather envious of the quality of life that it is able to offer.
The historic centre of Cambridge uses a system of rising bollards to restrict motor traffic, while allowing pedestrians and bicycles full access.
Crossing the Cam, we made for the Coton Path, a foot-and-cycle-only route that links the city centre with West Cambridge. The Coton Path has a similar profile to a miniature road, with the footway set above bikeway level, separated by a kerb. This is a good design because it is easy to understand. This in turn minimises conflict.
West Cambridge is something of a satellite site; it depends upon easy access and links such as the Coton Path are absolutely vital. Developed from the 1950s onwards, it contains numerous university buildings, including Veterinary Medicine and the Whittle Laboratory. It is also due for major intensification.
While the amount of surface cycle parking will not increase, a multi-storey structure 100 metres long is due to be built. For the moment, it also has a cycle parking “tent” which provides shelter for hundreds of cycles.
After West Cambridge, we headed via Huntingdon Road (which, like Hills Road, is also getting top-quality cycleways) to Gilbert Road, which has wide-ish 1.8 metre on-road tracks. These were delivered alongside centreline removal which has slowed traffic speeds down and allowed more people to cycle.
A different approach has been used at Riverside, where filtered permeability has been used to restrict motor traffic to local access, while allowing seamless passage to bicycles and pedestrians. This turns a rat-run into a pleasant riverside promenade and connects nicely to the UK’s longest foot-and-cycle only bridge.
Many people in Cambridge possess cars; many of these are “weekend cars”, generally usedfor days out, holidays and trips to see friends and relations (this is true for both of our cycling tour guides). For day-to-day trips during the week, the bicycle is often quicker and almost always more reliable.
Following a restorative stop for tea and cake at CB2, we cycled back into the mediæval centre of Cambridge. Once again, the near-absence of car traffic made for a thoroughly relaxing experience. After a group photograph at Trinity College’s Great Gate, we headed to the underground bicycle park at the Grand Arcade shopping centre.
While hirers returned their bikes, we learned how people can valet-park their bicycles here (for £1.50 per day) and obtain gratis pushchairs for the purposes of including infants in retail perambulations.
Forget the stereotype of the solitary “lycra warrior” – cycling in Cambridge is a sociable way of getting around; most people seemed to be with friends, in everyday clothes. This is, apparently, reflected in the transport choices of the city councillors and planning officers, all of whom cycle. This has helped deliver the city’s extensive provision for cycling, and foster ambition for improvements. People are not riding bikes here as part of a “lifestyle statement”; it is a sensible way to get around the city.
Cambridge is not yet a “British Netherlands”. While there certainly is a lot of good infrastructure, it does not have the uniformity of cycling provision that we experienced on our Dutch trip last year. Major junctions can be particularly unpleasant and there is controversy over a recent roundabout redesign. Connections to outlying towns also could be a lot better. Nonetheless, it is difficult to think of any other major UK city where twenty people could cycle around all day and feel that they were using a mainstream mode of transport.
From a UK perspective, a trip to Cambridge is an eye-opener for planners and designers interested in sustainable urban transport. The city has an enviable track record of improving streets for cycling. It has council officers who understand that people on bikes obey the rules of the road when the environment allows them to do so. The latest cycle infrastructure is increasingly high quality and has the potential to influence best-practice across the country.
There is a lot for other cities to learn from Cambridge; please plan a visit and take your bicycle. Cambridge Cycling Campaign will be delighted to meet you.
- RTPI London is very grateful to Cambridge Cycling Campaign and Paul Drew Design for their generosity of time and knowledge. Thank you very much indeed.
- For further information about cycling in Cambridge and/or to organise a tour of your own, contact Robin Heydon, Chair of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign.
- For a good short video by Streetfilms about cycling in Cambridge, please click here: