Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Testing Cambridge's Safer Cycle Nework

This post contains a lot of road names, one of the following map sources will help you follow:

OpenCycleMap (opens on Cambridge)
Cambridge City Cycle Map (pdf)
CycleStreets Journey Planner (Cambridge)

I hate cycling in traffic. Even with every driver overtaking you perfectly, I've always got my hearing tuned for unusual behaviour from drivers behind and ready myself for evasive action. For every 99 drivers who are excellent, there will be just one who overtakes badly, or worse gives you a close pass. This is why, when there are safer routes I want to use them.

Histon Road

Avid readers will know that I no longer take Histon Road, Cambridge as part of my commute. At the times I travel, the traffic flows freely through the worst pinch point, with inadequate 1 metre on-road cycle lanes next to a traffic lane that is the same width as a bus.

Southbound, destination city centre, I prefer to avoid the worst part of Histon Road and divert down the parallel route just to the East, along Kings Hedges Road, Arbury Road, then Mere and Carlton Way. Upon reaching Gilbert Road I take the route into town via Gilbert Road, Milton Road and Victoria Avenue. There is a safer route that continues over Gilbert Road, into Stretten Avenue and over Jesus Green Lock.

If I hate traffic so much, why do I not take the safer Jesus Lock route? I am balancing additional time and safety. The direct route from Cottenham to the city centre takes me 24 minutes. My safer route takes around 27 minutes. Going via Jesus Lock, 33m00s. Actually, when I am in a rush, I find myself having to take Histon Road to save time - a forced but pragmatic decision. To put this into perspective, the same journey by motorcycle during rush hour takes me 25 minutes. I've never done it by car.


You can already see that on my usual commute route I am trading safety for time and extra distance.  Some of us who are very skilled in traffic (Bikeability 3, CycleCraft) can save time. For normal people these routes can be safer but force them to go further. I don't expect Granny will be too happy going the extra distance in a headwind.

The more fiddly routes require effort to learn.  This is fine for a regular journeys or trips close to home but becomes a pain for cross-town journeys.

You should know that my safe route along Mere and Carlton Way turns into a tricky and dangerous route at 8:45am as the school drop-offs turn the road to chaos. At this time, Histon Road is safer because the traffic is moving slower than bicycles.  Choosing a safe route can be hard.  Not all routes are consistently safe throughout the day.

The obstacles we put in the way are a straw-that-broke-the-camels-back problem. The more obstacles we make, the less journeys people are going to take by bicycle. Many of us have a car and it competes with the bicycle on physical effort, convenience and journey time. Not many people question CO2 when you need a loaf of bread in a hurry. Need to pop across town quickly and safely? Some will choose the car because its hard to find a safe route. You really do have to be a committed cyclist to make regular journeys.

Gilbert Road via Jesus Lock to City Centre

The safer route used by many normal cyclists from Gilbert Road into the city centre arrives via Jesus Lock and crosses Jesus Green towards Park Street car and cycle parks.

The legal route across town (green dots) feels like you are fighting the one way system. The natural desire-line is past Sainsbury on Sydney St, but is illegal due to a one-way system (for motor-vehicles) and is often Policed with PSCOs handing out fines to cyclists.

A legal route Southbound from Jesus Green.
Cambridgeshire County Council's cycling map.

Mill Road

I occasionally need to do errands to the far end of Mill Road. I've previously written about it being a cycle casualty black spot.

Cambridge City Printed Cycle Map
Mill Road has a safer parallel route which is quite popular. Last time I was at the far end I wanted to take that parallel route but I'd come unprepared. I was sat on the ring road at the junction of Brooks Road and Natal Road wondering how I could pickup the safer parallel route to the city centre rather than take Mill Road. Unbelievably, I was at the exact junction where the safer route started and had no idea. I gave up and used Mill Road.

I returned with a paper map in hand determined to test the safer route, from Parkers Piece to Natal Road and back. From Parkers Piece, I started my stopwatch and headed East picking up Gresham Road, following blue signs for Cherry Hinton. It's a wiggly route but I followed my nose and another cyclist. Signs for Cherry Hinton were lacking around Tenison Road but recognised Station Road was the wrong way and followed my nose into Devonshire Road. I just missed the ramp up onto the Carter Bridge but solved by a quick u-turn and over the railway I went. On the other/east side I reached a T-junction where I was stumped. My paper map saved me and I turned left then right into Greville Road and followed a reasonably obvious route.

Off Coleridge Road there was a comically thin cut through to Marmora Road. Funny because this is a classic route that mixes cyclists and pedestrians on pavements that have been legalised for dual-use just like many locations in Cambridge, but in at other locations you can receive a fine if enough locals badger the Police with their irritation.

The final off-road link was a pavement cut through from Mamora/Hobart Road to Natal Road. I rode this route in the dark and this location was unlit with a dark corner in a quiet location. I can't imagine women cycling alone would be happy here at night.

Arriving at the ring road, I realised I'd passed just a handful of moving cars. The route took me 11m20s over 2.6km.

I returned to Parkers Piece along the direct Mill Road route, with light traffic at 7:30pm, taking 6m10s over 2.1km. The safer route had cost me 5 minutes, and 500 metres.

Would I take this route again? If I lived in the area, without a doubt. For my occasional errand, perhaps not. It's a trip that I'm always squeezing into a busy schedule and the extra delay over such as short distance is hard to swallow.


Cambridge has some very adult friendly cycle routes. The Mill Road area in particular has many one way streets for drivers and closed through routes. This does provide a useful secondary cycle network, but does require effort to learn. Improved signage would make their use much easier.

Some of the newer shared-use routes in Cambridge are far better than their previous generations - Madingley Road for example, and new off-road routes keep popping up such as The Tins towards Cherry Hinton. One of the greatest successes in Cambridge is limited motor vehicle access to the bollard protected city centre. The history of this precedes my time in Cambridge, but I bet it was highly controversial and required bold and courageous decision making - it's paid off.

But, outside of the bollard protected central shopping area, Cambridge suffers from a lack of direct and safe cycle routes. Cycles are allowed to use wide bus lanes, along routes such as Hills Road, Milton Road, and Newmarket Road, but these always end just before difficult junctions. The direct routes come into play for cross-city journeys and those commuting into Cambridge from outside the 'radial corden'.

In this city of cyclists, we still have to balance safety and journey time while traffic flow on the main routes takes priority over cyclist safety. Better junction design and re-allocating road space from motor-vehicles to bicycles are the current debates. These ideas will again require bold and courageous decision making from our local politicians.

Further reading:
Ely Cycle Campaign on Cambridge's Cycling Infrastructure and the use of a secondary network.
Cambridge Cycle Campaign's criticism of the Catholic Church junction design decision.


  1. It is a fundamental failure of policy that people are expected to choose between safety and convenience. The convenient should be safe and the safe should be convenient. That's how cycling is made accessible to all.

    1. I completely agree, David. But let us bear in mind as well that mobility is not just about getting from A to B safely and conveniently, but also, "more importantly", about knowing how to get from A to B.

      I have found your blogs on Cambridge most useful. A couple of comments caught my eye:

      "What makes cycling attractive in Dutch cities [...] could be replicated in British cities if only the will existed to ask for it. What has been done is very simple. Long term planning is key - the same policies have been followed for many years."

      "I have argued for many years that there needs to be a more strategic view amongst cycling campaigners. That people need to be shown what is best so that a decision can be made with more information. Campaigners need to have vision. Fighting little battles over minor issues repeatedly does not make progress."

      "Perhaps most importantly, because [the Chisholm Trail] is a "one off", it's not part of a plan to build the one thing that made cycling really take off in the Netherlands. i.e. a tight grid of very high quality cycle paths. Because of this, the positive effect of this path will be limited only to people whose journeys are sufficiently lined up with its route."

      When I first published my proposed design for a strategic cycle network for Cambridge, you wrote: "The problem with your suggested network of routes is that there are not nearly enough of them." There were just 16 routes on that first version. The latest incarnation incorporates 26 routes, which I hope you would agree is much more like it.

      Ideally, this network (or something like it) would be developed to an appropriately high standard overnight, with just a click of the fingers, but as Schroedinger's Cat has recently noted, "That's not feasible, is it?' Given this, presumably this is why Cycling: the way ahead suggests that "introducing" this network of routes to a minimum level of functioning "is a prudent course to follow".

      In practice this means installing interim measures first, and this causes a great deal of angst amongst cycle advocates. They worry that these temporary measures would become permanent, that accepting these measures would set a bad precedent, and that it undermines their campaign for segregated cycle facilities.

      I accept your view that, in the worst cases, inadequate improvements can set bad precedents. But the development of a cycle network, albeit one which functions at a minimum level to begin with, hardly strikes me as an inadequate improvement. Rather, it seems to me to be "a basic precondition".

    2. I think you're misquoting me there, Simon.

      I wasn't using that argument to back up the "cycle network before infrastructure" concept, I was using it against your insisting that nothing should be done anywhere until we have adopted a notional cycle network "to the minimum level of functioning" (whatever that means).

      I went on to say: "So the answer is: isolated bits of infrastructure where they’re most needed (junctions, fast/busy roads) then join up the gaps, in order of neediness."

  2. You're quite right about the link between Mamora and Natal Roads. I don't even like to use it during daylight.