Cambridge: Cycling at Scale

August 1, 2016

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

Flight of the Bromptons

June 9, 2014

I’ve been down to Brighton this weekend for the Cycling Embassy AGM which, as well as many other things, functions as a sort of annual Brompton owners’ gadding about society.*

Bromptons at the station

Others will write in more detail about the events of the weekend, but suffice it say that the sun always shines on the Cycling Embassy AGM, except when we’re foolish enough to hold it in Manchester, and even though the BBC Terror Centre was predicting that the entire country would be washed away in apocalyptic floods on Saturday, by the time the participants had assembled at Brighton station, the rain had gone and the sun was about to come out for what was to prove a glorious weekend.

Bromptons at the pub

Naturally, we spent most of it in various meeting rooms but there was plenty of time for the pub too and I have to say that all the best meetings end with the die-hard participants (and their Bromptons) eating fish and chips on the beach as the sun slowly sinks into the west.

Bromptons on the beach

Today, all I had to do was get myself and the Brompton home, which meant transferring between Victoria and Euston. I considered taking the tube, but somehow, however daunting London traffic can be, it’s never quite as daunting as lugging the Brompton down the endless corridors that make up the average underground station.

I’ll draw a veil over the full horrors of the cross-London journey: put it this way, it did more in 30 minutes to remind me why the Embassy needs to exist, than the whole of the preceeding weekend. But it did have one high spot as I got to pedal down the length of the Mall on my very British bike, inadvertently photobombing tourists’ snapshots of Buckingham Palace. Indeed, with the Brompton rapidly becoming the London bike of choice, perhaps I was actually providing a spot of authentic local colour. How long before someone on a Brompton – ideally a smart city gent – becomes as much an icon of early 21st century London as a punk in a phone box was in the eighties?

beware of cyclists

* This is unfair. We mainly go on very serious ‘infrastructure safaris’ where we look in great detail at bollards** and only incidentally have informal rolling Brompton races down a particularly tempting ramp.

** indeed we were so busy looking at bollards that we completely overran and ended up missing the World Naked Bike ride***

*** insert your own joke here, I’ve left you plenty to work with

I’m not Here

June 6, 2014

I’m here, in the Guardian again, wading into the murky world of cycling and gender politics.

I’m also in Brighton (well, Hove, actually) for this. And possibly a side visit to this. I’ll be keeping my clothes on though.


peace statue

Brighton to the left, Hove to the right

In other news, I successfully performed percussive maintenance on my Brompton, but that’s a story for another day

Bisy Backson

May 16, 2014

So apart from getting up at oh god hundred hours to attend the Newcastle bigtoonride tomorrow, and organising a popup bookshop next weekend, and my Anniversaire ride the weekend after that for which there is much baking still to be done, and then going down to Brighton for the Cycling Embassy AGM the weekend after that (the sun always shines on the Cycling Embassy AGM), oh and organising the Women’s Cycle Forum (although I say organising, can I heartily recommend Suzanne Forup for all your organising things needs as she seems to have done 90% of the work including securing all the funding, while I’ve just stood around making daft suggestions) the weekend after that – and a small jaunt to the Netherlands at the end of June, I shall mostly be relaxing over the next few weeks. Not. Still, through some slight oversight I do seem to have left one weekend unorganised between now and July … let’s see how long that lasts, shall we?

See you, Jimmy

February 20, 2012

It was an exciting weekend for my bike as it returned to its ancestral home, Glasgow, albeit just for one day. The occasion was the Cycling Embassy’s infrastructure tour, which I won’t bore you with here (I’ll bore you with it elsewhere, don’t worry). Getting there on the train means a 40 minute ride to the station for the once-every-three hours, two-hour long chuffer service (it’s all of 75-odd miles, but never mind that – look at the lovely scenery!). Thus my Saturday started with me waking in the dark and listening to the rain splattering energetically against the window and wondering why I hadn’t taken up knitting advocacy or something equally indoorsy.

Fortunately, a glitch in the Weather Gods’ system meant I managed to ride to the station during the 40 minute break in the rain and was safely under the canopy discovering I’d forgotten my bike lock when the heavens opened again. And amazingly, despite a forecast bordering on the apocalyptic, another 15 or so hardy souls turned up for the event and even though we did get snowed on a little and were visited by the puncture fairy and I discovered that my back brake wasn’t working (I don’t really need to stop the bike much around here, so it doesn’t really arise. Oops), it was an interesting (adjusted for being mainly about cycle infrastructure) day out all round.

Heading back, after an after tour tour of the pubs of Glasgow looking for one that wasn’t absolutely rammed on a Saturday night – a mission akin to trying to find a decent piece of cycling provision in the average UK city – I got on a train that turned out to be full of Rangers fans (do they know that peace has more or less broken out in Northern Ireland, btw? Do you think maybe someone should tell them?) and reached Bigtown at 9pm ready for the 8 miles back – the first time I got to try out my dynamo lighting for real.

So what’s the verdict? Well the first thing is that, if anyone tells you they ‘hardly feel’ the effect of a dynamo on a bike, then they’re either lying or have legs of steel. The second is that it lights up the road like nobody’s business, possibly even better than the light I borrowed last year. The third is that a pint of Newcastle Brown Ale and a bag of chips are not, perhaps, the ideal pre-ride meal for someone who wants to test out their dynamo for the first time, although I’m not sure exactly would have been – maybe spinach?

I woke up on Sunday morning with leaden legs, feeling absolutely shattered. And then the sun came out and as we were out of milk, we did the run again in the afternoon down to the local garage and I remembered that the road back from Bigtown always feels like extra hard work, seeing as it’s uphill and into a headwind.

I reckon on balance, the dynamo adds about an extra 10 mph to the wind in your face, although it does seem to feel like harder work the slower you go; struggling up the final bit of hill at the end of a long ride was just cruel. On the plus side, the way it lights up the road means you can get up to speed on the downhill bits and take a run at the next climb. For people whose brakes have gone a bit kaput, it’s reassuring to know you’ll be able to see what’s up ahead in good time. If I were commuting home in the dark five days a week I’d probably lay out the cash to get a rechargeable system, just because I think it would be pretty wearing every day and I don’t really want to end up with the legs of Chris Hoy. But for the use I want to put it to – the occasional trip into town of an evening, and back and forth to the village, it will be fine. More than fine, in fact, if the night is as black and as starry and sparkly as Saturday was.

And now, I think it might be time to get that bike down to the bike shop for a bit of love and attention to those brakes…


January 31, 2012

Well it turns out that spending two days in intense discussion on cycling policy and infrastructure has the effect of leaving my brain feeling as if it’s been taken out, steam cleaned, ironed on the linen setting and then put back in upside down. Which is my excuse for having lost my mobile phone AGAIN. It’ll be the third time I’ve mislaid this particular model and I’ve got the feeling the mobile phone gremlins are going to be the ones going ‘third time lucky…’

Still, confirmation – if confirmation was needed – of the need for the cycling embassy came at the end of the first day when we were assembling outside, preparing to set off for the nearest pub to continue the conversation there over beer. The woman who’d let us in dashed out because she wanted to see all the Bromptons (it’s not a proper UK cycle meeting if there isn’t a ‘fold’ of Bromptons in the corner). She wasn’t a cyclist and she knew nothing about bikes but she was entranced by the folding ones and she wanted to see us ride off on them. I asked her if she was thinking of getting one herself

‘oh no,’ she said. ‘My boyfriend cycles everywhere but it’s just too scary for me. I would if it was like Holland with those cycle tracks everywhere but here I have to mix with buses and everything and I’m just too frightened. I love the Boris Bikes, but there’s no point for me because where would I ride one?’

I’m about 99% certain that someone didn’t put her up to it … but we couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Back home tonight, or at least that’s the plan, although given the way a single broken down train at Wimbledon managed to bring the entire SouthWest Trains network to its knees last night, I’m not counting on it…

Sunday Gig

November 6, 2011

For those of you who haven’t found it yet, I’m doing a weekly spot on the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain blog, rounding up the best of the last week’s cycling blog posts.  It’s possibly of little interest to those of you who are here for updates on the Weather Gods, chicken wars, and other rural pursuits, but if any of you are thinking that you don’t read nearly enough detailed analysis of cycling infrastructure, then get yourself over there.

That is all