Cambridge: Cycling at Scale

We interrupt this moving tale with a brief reprise of my trip to Cambridge for the Cycling Embassy AGM because if I don’t write it up now, I never will, and that would be a terrible tragedy.*

Cambridge is interesting for cycling not so much because it’s got brilliant infrastructure (it hasn’t compared to – to pluck an example out of the air at random – almost anywhere in the Netherlands, although it’s got lots of things that are way better than anything else in the UK) but because it’s gives a glimpse of what cycling in the UK might look like if we actually started to move towards mass cycling in this country.

football team

Hard to see but that’s a team’s worth of bikes piled up behind the goal

Your typical Cambridge cyclist is a gent of advanced years in a linen suit and bicycle clips, his panama hat replaced by a bicycle helmet at a jaunty angle. Or it’s a young woman on a swooping-framed bike with a wicker basket on the front. Or then again, it may be a small girl in a sparkly frock on a pink bike following her mum to the park. Or a gang of teens out Pokemon hunting. Or an entire football team, if the pile of bikes behind the goal is anything to go by. It’s genuinely everyone and there are bikes – and bike parking – everywhere.


Plenty of room – as long as everyone cycles

It makes sense to cycle, frankly. Cambridge is tiny, its centre is fairly cramped with a narrow grid of streets where cars are actively discouraged from driving through while people on bikes can (mostly) just go where they please, as long as they can remember the way (as our host for the weekend remarked on giving us directions to the shops, ‘first left, first right, first left, then first right’ is pretty much how all directions in Cambridge go).

guided busway

For lo! I saw a city upon a hill …

Cambridge is also under construction – the university and associated high-tech industries are building like mad and they and the city seem to understand that the only way to expand and still maintain some quality of life will be to encourage people to use bikes and public transport rather than the car. There are still the usual UK-issue dreadful fast roads and roundabouts where it’s a choice between taking your life in your hands among the traffic or pressing about 17 buttons for a green man to get you safely across. But there is also the guided busway, an old railway line converted for fast buses, with a maintenance track alongside that doubles as a wonderful smooth wide cycle path, albeit also shared with pedestrians, this is the UK after all. In fact there are lots of shared-use pavements and paths, most of which are pretty dubious, as well as lots of random bollards and chicanes to slow cyclists down – I couldn’t help but think that your typical Cambridge cycling accident must consist of a drunk cyclist hitting an unlit bollard (or possibly an unwary pedestrian), but to be fair, the council have also included some for cars as well, which is at least even handed.


One in the eye for all those bike bloggers who complain that they’d never build roads the way they build cycle paths

And it turns out that when more than half of your electorate – or customers, or employees – cycle regularly, then the powers that be can actually make sensible decisions about cycling without having to be nagged into it. Like supermarket bike parking that consists of something other than three Sheffield stands installed so close to a wall that you can’t lock your bike to them (I wish I’d taken a photograph of the massive covered bike park outside the Sainsbury’s on the edge of town but we were cycling back from the pub and I was frightened if I lost sight of our hosts who were guiding us back, I’d never find them again, as I’m not very good with directions that go ‘turn left, then right, then left, then right’ after about the third turn …).

bike parking

Covered university bike parking

Or if there’s no room for both bike lanes and cars on a road – just keep the bike lanes, and leave out the cars

no room

It’s even got a covered bridge, so you don’t have to get wet in the rain, at least for some part of your journey.

covered cycle bridge

Oh, and side by side cycling. At last, acknowledgement that cycling two abreast isn’t just legal, it’s actually the best part.

side by side cycling

This is not a mistaken sign for a two way bike lane. There’s another one on the other side going the other way

In short, Cambridge is an example of what can happen if a UK city actually starts catering for cyclists’ actual needs – even if it’s a bit of a bodge or a bit grudging in places. As opposed to the Bigtown approach of ignoring cycling altogether unless someone makes a huge fuss, and then creating something that was apparently designed by someone who had never seen a bike but had read about them once in a magazine.

orange warning lights notice

Note not only the over elaborate need for orange warning lights in the first place – but the wonderfully pedantic grammar of this sign

It is also a cautionary example of what happens when you let dons write warning signs, but that’s a matter for another day.

* OK, maybe not. Others have done it better anyway

11 Responses to Cambridge: Cycling at Scale

  1. Paul Gipson says:

    When I was there, too many years ago, undergraduates were not permitted to have a car so everyone happily cycled without any of the above infrastructure. It worked well until it rained, generally.

  2. disgruntled says:

    I think it’s still the case now, but we were there outside term time, so cycling isn’t just confined to the students, clearly

  3. Lolablogger says:

    I visit friends in Cambridge pretty regularly, and cycling is definitely the default option. And, pedantically, I can’t help commenting that you’ve made a spelling mistake in the very title of this blog…

  4. Autolycus says:

    Tsk, Not a don’s notice. Never forget who has the real power in the university – the porters.

  5. Matthew says:

    I go past that sign on the door every day, I’m glad for the warning lights because otherwise I might get doored!

    Btw, those bollards forming a pinch point in the road turn out to be dangerous for cyclists. The right turn is a busy cycle route, but the cars squeezing thru the pinch point have priority. So the drivers suddenly pop out and stamp on the pedal when cyclists are trying to turn right across their path. It’s frequent, I even saw a close call today!

  6. Gareth Rees says:

    Good report — when you live and cycle in Cambridge you tend to focus on the negatives (this road is hostile, and that cycle route has annoying barriers, and there’s not enough cycle parking at the other) so it’s nice to see an outsider’s perspective.

  7. disgruntled says:

    @Matthew – it did seem a mad arrangement all round
    @Gareth – Cambridge, least bad cycling city in the UK…

  8. Matthew Phillips says:

    That sign is ungrammatical. You wouldn’t say “a person with a hat are about to exit”.

    Nice article. I remember Oxford being very similar when I lived there: quite a lot of poor design, but some really good stuff too, mostly resulting from the decision in the early 1970s against accommodating more and more cars.

  9. […] the big bike. Frustratingly, that doesn’t make it any easier to get home than if we were in Cambridge, Leicester, Brighton or any of the other places where we’ve had our AGMs over the years. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: