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.
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.
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).
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.
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 …).
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
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.
Oh, and side by side cycling. At last, acknowledgement that cycling two abreast isn’t just legal, it’s actually the best part.
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.
It is also a cautionary example of what happens when you let dons write warning signs, but that’s a matter for another day.