Friday, 11 March 2011

B1049 Cottenham to Histon cycle path: a detailed analysis (part 1)

Note: The Cottenham-Histon cyclepath has now been upgraded and this post does not reflect its current state.

Part 1 - Cottenham to Histon boundary

I have been using the B1049 Cottenham to Histon cycle path for six years. It's bad for cyclists. This has been recognised, it is being upgraded, but unfortunately only some of the problems are being solved.

In its current state, a cyclist feels compelled to use this cycle path, even though it adds inconvenience and danger to their journey. If you use the road, you will be hooted at in anger by a small minority who obviously feel that because there is a sign that says cycle path you should be using it.

Of course, once the upgrade has happened, there will be even more pressure to use it, even if it still adds danger. Those drivers who don't use it, will not understand the issues and will be trying to intimidate cyclists off the road even more than before.

What follows is a detailed break down, from a cyclists perspective of the cycle path. As you follow, think about the different users, confident adult cyclist, timid/inexperienced adult cyclist, and teenager. Would you want your child to use this cycle path ?

The cycle path starts at the edge of the 30mph zone, also the end of the village.

Before the cycle path starts, you must cycle on the road within the 30mph section. However, you do get close overtakes from frustrated drivers. Twice now, I have managed to speak with drivers who were dangerously close (actually one threatened to run me off the road) and they both thought I should have been on the cycle path - except there isn't one within the 30mph zone. It an easy mistake to make, the shared use cyclepath looks like a footpath, and to be honest, it is a footpath with a blue sign erected.

When arriving in the village, a lot of cyclists continue on the footpath because it can be difficult and dangerous to cross two lanes of rush hour traffic. Because you have to do this twice (first in Histon), it can be safer to avoid crossing and take the road.

The initial plans for the upgrade to the cycle path had a traffic light crossing. These were removed from the plans due to cost.

The path continues in a straight line next to the road. Something you notice as a cyclist is that the surface is not as smooth as the road, and this sapps your speed and makes cycling harder work. On a bike with racing-thin tyres it can be uncomfortable. On the way into Cambridge it is rare to see a cyclist on the road - you feel compelled to use it.

One of the rare times I cycled on the road, a woman wound her window down and swore many times at me. You would imagine from her anger that she was held up for a long time but this was not rush hour and there was no oncoming traffic. This kind of behaviour is somewhat like racism but sadly is not that uncommon.

The path continues in a straight line past Cottenham Skips. Here, the path is often dirty.

When wet, it can be a little slippery. The slipperyness isn't a great problem, until the day you have to make an emergency stop.

Even with mudguards, your feet and panniers can end up splattered with mud. When dry, large vehicles kick up dust as they pass.

Prior to this post, it has been uncleaned for about three months. A few weeks ago, I notified the council, but this is obviously a lower priority than pot holes and other maintenance.

Between Cottenham and Histon it is unlit and sometimes pitch black. Standard bicycle lights are very inadequate here. More on this later.

Notice the ditch to the left. I know of one person who has ended up in that ditch whilst cycling ... but he was drunk at the time.

Here we reach the thinnest section of the cycle path. Along the whole path it is difficult to pass other cyclists and pedestrians. Sometimes, people try to pass without one party first stopping. If they were to clip, one could end up falling into the road.

A second problem is that the road is also fairly thin. Sometimes, you get the 50mph wing mirrors from buses and HGV's overhanging the cycle path on this corner - at head height.

For comparison, compare my wheel to the wheel in this cycle path in Holland and you can see how thin our cycle path is. If overlaid, it would cover only a tiny strip of the Dutch cycle path. This is a small part of how cycling in Holland has been made so popular.

The picture is borrowed from a fascinating post in another blog I follow by David Hembrow: How wide is your cycle path

At night

You've seen above how thin the cycle path is. Now try to imagine cycling this at night, perhaps with only a weak spot from your cheap light illuminated in front of you. Now there is oncoming traffic giving you temporary blindness. For extra fun, its raining and you are wearing glasses. Occasionally a totally invisible pedestrian or road works sign will appear from nowhere.

It is really hard to capture this on film. This is the best I have done so far.

[ continues in Part 2 - Histon boundary to the A14 ]


  1. Well done for highlighting this shared use path. I used it myself when I lived in Cambridge, and it's just as awful as you describe it. The video shows a situation which few people would enjoy, and virtually no parents would want their children to be a part of.

    Cottenham is just 2.5 miles from Histon. However, it may as well be a hundred for how much unpleasantness is packed into this short distance for cyclists.

    Some people might point out that the cycle path which you used my photo of is in an urban setting, while Cottenham to Histon is a rural route. They would have a point, but actually conditions are much the same in the Netherlands in rural settings as well.

    You might be interested in some other posts on my blog showing conditions that Dutch children have to cycle to school. For instance, I made a video a while back showing the route taken by Dutch school-children from Vries to Assen each day. This is a distance of 8.5 km which is covered on a very good quality cycle path, 2.5 m wide in each direction, smoother than the road (continuous concrete vs. asphalt) and separated from the road by 4.5 m. It also has priority over side roads at junctions. Vries is a smaller village than Cottenham, with a population of around 4300 vs. 5600. However a good quality cycle route is still seen as essential.

    This is the sort of infrastructure needed if British people are ever going to cycle as much as the Dutch do, and in particular if conditions will ever be subjectively safe to the extent that parents will be happy for their children to ride long distances to school.

    I use the same path as part of my commuting route.

  2. Thanks for the comment David. The cycle routes of Holland are always held up as the ideal but impossible to acheive in the UK. The primary excuse is always lack of money and as a secondary, land aquisition.

    We quite often end up with several inadequate cycle paths when then money would have been better spent on one ideal cycle path.

    The upgrade promises a 2.4m wide path. It's a big shame this has not have been routed away from the road. It's some progress at least.

  3. It makes no sense to use that shared path. Riding on the road, far out from the road margin is faster and safer, as far as I can see, and therefore preferable.

    Riding that path at night is just too much.

    Well, I guess you know this, since you're also a CycleCrafter.

  4. Yep, I totally agree. The problem is the amount of (psychological) abuse you get for not using the shared path when you cycle next to it heading southbound.

    The faster local commuters, including myself have fallen into the pattern of using it southbound in the day, and use the road on the return journey (especially at night). Most cyclists still use the path for the return journey.

    I always switch back to the road upon reaching Histon where there are houses, driveways and a 40mph zone. For some reason you never get abuse there. I think there is an expectation that a driver can put their foot down between villages and they then get very frustrated if they are unable to - especially if they think a cyclist should be on this awful footpath.

    Having just written that, I have had a fair amount of abuse inside Cottenham's 30mph zone where there is NOT a shared use path but drivers think there is. The mind boggles.

  5. I'm not normally the sort of person to comment on these forums or blogs but the comments here are so outrageous that I felt compelled to intervene.

    I am a cyclist first, driver second.

    The path between Cottenham and Histon is not perfect however please feel free to select the worst part of the path and then compare it to the best part of the road. Path wins, hands down.

    The shared path is there for cyclists to use, we should use it. Period.

    I see cyclists using the road, you are causing an obstruction and force drivers to overtake when they shouldn't need to. These in considerate cyclists make it worse for the rest of us cyclists who are considerate and accept that the public highways and pathways are not our own personal speedsways and accept that there are areas which are less than perfect.

    I accept that you are trying very hard to improve the situation for all road users which is comendable and I aplaud you for however I would also urge a reality check.

  6. Hi Anon,

    Do you realise you are looking at a posting that is now over a year old ?

    That page shows what the path looked like over a year ago and it was dangerous, especially at night - that's why the council have upgraded it, and is now much wider and smoother.

    Since the upgrade I am personally using the path all the time, but if a cyclist is on the road it does not make them inconsiderate, here's a couple of reasons why:

    If you can ride fast, say 18mph+, it can be dangerous to mix those speeds with unsuspecting pedestrians. In Histon where the houses are, pedestrians are common, but are more rare between villages. I see no reason to ask the cyclist to slow down and get off the road so motorists can go faster.

    In the peak of the rush hour it can be tricky crossing the B1049 due to the number of vehicles coming through. Should a cyclist cross to the cyclepath, use it for a short amount of time then cross back? That is potentially two risky crossings, plus the inconvenience. The decision is something that should be left for the cyclist to make as they are the ones who have to look after their own safety. With the path now safer, the balance has tipped in favour of using the path. A crossing at the Cottenham end was in the original plan but dropped due to cost.

    There are still many short and poor shared-use cycle paths around, trying to use them on longer journeys makes your trip unviable. Expectations of cycle paths are low amongst those who cycle to many different places, and so I would understand if a non-local used the road. It requires local knowledge of cycle paths to know if they are safe and convenient enough.

    I've heard the argument about cyclists in the way and inconveniencing motorists before. Sure, in that small stretch of road it does look like that, but I look at the bigger picture. Just down the road is Cambridge and I see a whole load of people sitting in cars queueing to get through Cambridge. If you can encourage enough people to switch to bikes (or buses or feet), it will keep the roads moving for those who really need them. Having a few motorists (including you and I) inconvenienced is a small price to pay for less congestion.

    If we had cyclepaths that are safe and convenient for all abilities and ages, then I would support compulsory use of them.

  7. That "cycle path" is terrible. In Australia, there is no way they'd call that a cycle path. (chances are they'd paint a line on the road and be done with it).