Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Update on Cambridge and off to Copenhagen

I've left this blog for some time, and quite a bit has been going on. There's been the publication of the Get Britain Cycling report from the all Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, quite a decent document written by Prof. Phil Goodwin, on the basis of which which The Times (who paid for the enquiry) is urging everybody to sign a petition urging the government to act. I recommend signing it, though if you read this blog, you will probably already have done so. It currently stands at 52,000 signatures, only half of what it needs to potentially trigger a debate in the Commons.

I attended the impressive Cycle City Expo conference in Birmingham, at which Goodwin launched his report, to an audience of 500 transport professionals and cyclists. At this event there was much interesting discussion, with real signs of quality Dutch and Danish approaches to cycling infrastructure gaining ground amongst those who run transport in the UK beyond London. On the other hand, there is still absolutely no sign of meaningful action from central government. David Cameron's response to a question put by Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, on Get Britain Cycling, was weak, merely pushing the issue back to (under-resourced and under-coordinated) local authorities, and has raised justified anger.

Transport for London has continued to set the pace of development, getting a Dutch-style roundabout build experimentally and also testing low-level bike signals and designing into junctions the continental method for cyclists to turn left (their right). It's nice to see ideas that until recently were the exclusive domain of frustrated blogs, such as this one, at last seemingly being taken seriously by UK transport professionals. On the downside (there's always a downside), the City of Westminster has produced a deeply disappointing draft Cycling Strategy, that touches the comical with its talk of "Westminster Chimes": I kid you not: their idea is to alleviate safety problems on the city's roads by issuing cyclists with free bells. And last week, Brent got a visit from the Cycling Commissioner at which he restated the principles and anticipated practice of the Mayor's Vision for Cycling (which now appears to be in conflict with Westminster's strategy).

But I've left on hold the follow-up to the Cambridge infrastructure safari, which has not been good of me. And now I'm off to Copenhagen imminently, with a large group of designers, consultants and transport people from various parts of the UK. This will be a tour of the cycling infrastructure of that fabled city, which I have never visited before, on bikes, led by Danish guides, one guide coming from the Municipality of Copenhagen, one from a Danish consultancy firm, and one Dane who now works for TfL. I'm going on behalf of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, and I'll be the only participant not professionally involved with transport. I'll be the representative blogger. So I will have all manner of wonders to report on soon, and so I had better get Cambridge out of the way.

I must admit that I was pretty harsh on Cambridge, and by implication on Cambridge Cycling Campaign, in my previous blogpost. Well I'll to a certain extent make amends now. The city's cycling environment has changed in the 22 years since I lived there. It has changed a lot, and the cycling culture has changed with it. No longer is cycling solely the preserve of students, but a broader culture is starting to emerge, with parents with children, cargo bikes, and older people starting to be a significant part of the mix.

This is clearly linked to infrastructure changes. When I lived there, you couldn't get from the city to the village of Milton, to the north, on any route except the main road, which crossed the ring road at an appallingly dangerous roundabout. The river always flowed in that direction, of course, but there was no way through on its banks. It was just fenland. Now all that has changed. There are new ways through. There is a cycle path all along the river (to Ely indeed). There is a new route through the science park on the Milton Road, allowing you to avoid the latter, and there is a magnificent bridge for cyclists over the ring road so you don't have to use that roundabout any more. It's just like Holland. Well, very locally it is.

In the city, you used to have to get across the barrier of the railway either on busy, hostile Hills Road, or on narrow, congested Mill Road (always home to many bike shops). Since 1989 you have been able to cross on the Tony Carter Bridge – at time of its construction, the longest covered cycle bridge in the world. It even has heating in the ramps leading up to it.

A third new bridge of note links from Midsummer Common to the north side of the river, facilitating a good many vital cycle connections that were simply not possible 22 years ago. The city has now exploited the tremendous asset of the chain of parklands and commons along the river, through the city centre, to considerable effect, in enabling cyclists to avoid main roads. All this, I repeat, was quite impossible when I lived there.

Around and leading up to the Midsummer Common bridge there is quite a network of connecting cycle paths...

...and some excellent filtered permeability: quiet roads giving residential motor access then turning into bike paths.

That view actually quite reminded me of this, from Assen, in the Netherlands.

There's the guided busway path, which provides a link to Huntingdon and St Ives over 16 miles (we didn't actually try this out on the infrastructure safari, we wouldn't have had time on a freezing biizzardy March day)...

...and quite an impressive route between the Cavendish Laboratory and the city centre on access-only roads and cycle paths, easily as wide as good Dutch cycle paths, surfaced rather similarly, and with automatic cycle priority signals where the route crosses the road.

Routes across the parks which you used to have to kind of squirm into, and cycle on apologetically, have now been linked properly with the road network.

And there are huge underground bike parks.

Of course, it's not the Netherlands. It's nothing like the Netherlands really. There's not the comprehensiveness of provision. It's totemic of the cycle provision in the Netherlands that you don't need to know where you are going, you don't need to know the town, you just point your bike in the direction you want, and you find beautiful, safe infrastructure that takes you along. It's all obvious, self-explanatory, and self-finding. You can't get into nasty places, where you think "what the heck am I supposed to do here?" as you will do constantly in the British environment.

Cambridge is still very much Britain. You have to know where the cycle routes are. You have to find them, and they only work for some possible journeys. Practically nothing has been done to the arterial roads to make them cycle-friendly, and this massively limits choices. There's a route on quiet roads signposted to take you from the station towards the city. I've marked this for you to see, in purple, on the official Cambridge cycle map.

It's the classic problem. It's subjectively safe, but it's a zig-zag route with low priority. And it just leads back on to the main road again where there's no decent provision, after all that faffing about. It's not what we need to make cycling efficient, obvious and mainstream. We need the main road, the route that I criticised in a series of pictures last time. It's a recipe for permanent failure to mainstream cycling in the UK to always be trading off subjective safety against directness, priority and convenience. We need the direct routes to be easy, efficient and safe. That's the whole problem of UK cycle provision in a nutshell. Cambridge exemplifies it very well. Despite the significant progress that has been made, that fundamental barrier has not been got through. We can't have zig-zag backstreet routes for "unconfident" or "beginner" cyclists only. That sends the message we are not serious about cycling. Cycling is still fundamentally second-class, even in this city of cycling.

I'm grateful to Sustrans and the city for implementing the path along the Cam, but, really, why couldn't they have surfaced it properly, with tarmac? This hoggin material that Sustrans seems to love is not the stuff of serious transport infrastructure. It turns into a red mudbath when it rains (or, as on this occasion, snows).  Nobody wants to do a commute where they have to clean their bike every time, and launder their trousers. Again, this just isn't serious in the way that Dutch cycling infrastructure is serious.

I don't wish to be overly critical of Cambridge Cycling Campaign. They have achieved much. There has been controversy over the issue of Gilbert Road, and the design that they accepted for it, after a long campaign. They ended up with advisory cycle lanes on a fairly busy road with the speed limit reduced to 20mph: actually very good conditions for the UK, but far short of Dutch. But I can see the reasons for the compromise, and I agree with their campaigning decision, having had the background explained in detail. They could have lost the scheme entirely and ended up with the road completely unimproved for many years. They recognise that it isn't perfect, but it is a step in the right direction.

They showed us the cycle lanes on the Hills Road bridge, which allow cyclists to go straight on while motor traffic is turning left by placing the cyclists in a lane to the right of left-turning traffic. This is a fundamentally un-Dutch solution which I am not at all happy with, but certain members of CCC seemed rather enthusiastic about. It's demonsatrated in this video, taken on the safari, by Shaun McDonald.

As you see from the pictures, it wasn't the nicest of weathers in March when we did the safari. It was only about 11 miles, but it took six hours! It needed this time for all the explanations from CCC, which were very valuable and enlightening. But my fingers and toes were in agony most of the time. The background and the local politics are important. And, having lived in Cambridge in less happy times, I appreciated how far they had come, while observing the very significant problems that remain in allowing cycling to achieve its true potential in the UK's leading cycling city.

I'll be in Denmark from today, Tuesday 7 May, until Saturday, filming, photographing and riding in Europe's second most successful cycling nation. I'll report on what I learn there when I return.


  1. Gilbert Road is still 30mph in fact, though there are some current proposals that may change this.

    1. It may be 30, but very few stick to that. A motorcycle passed me yesterday about 60. Buses regularly hit 40 going downhill to Milton Rd. No police, no enforcement, no hope for 20.

  2. According to the wikipedia page hoggin can actually be better for drainage, as it's water-permeable to a degree. So maybe Sustrans favour it because they don't have the resources to install proper drainage? Puddles can be found on tarmac too, where they may be more likely to cause damage in winter, although they might not be as messy.

    Either way, I'd save my ire for politicans who think it's reasonable to leave the country's cycle infrastructure in the hands of a charity.

    And those bridges look cool.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on Copenhagen.

  3. Do you know for certain that Sustrans selected the material for the riverside path or were they required to use it, by the landowner, due to the location?

    1. No I don't know the details of this case, but I am aware that Sustrans have often proposed themselves these soft surfaces for other locations. They seem to view them as a compromise between the needs of walkers, horse riders, and cyclists. This is fair enough, except it means they are not creating proper bicycle infrastructure, which is what I believe the country most desperately needs.

    2. The Sustrans policy is basically tarmac. If the surface is anything else that generally means that there was a compromise required to get any sort of route. Sustrans usually don't own the land so have to compromise in particular on old railway lines, bridleways, sensitive eco sites etc. There could well be funding constraints as well. Besides which why shouldn't the needs of walkers & horseriders be taken into account? Not ideal I know and very frustrating, not least for those who work for Sustrans.

      In the end the fact there has to be a compromise or no route illustrates the fact that cycling hasn't embedded itself in the wider public psyche as a viable means of getting around rather than a way of getting splattered in mud as part of a leisure activity.