|Cyclists disappearing into the mist in a park in|
The city generally claims a cycling rate of about 25%. However, this is a rate for commuters only, including students, and not the proportion of all journeys which are made by bike. Estimates of the percentage of journeys by bike for all purposes are harder to find, and often hover around 18-20%. In a rather glowing article in the Guardian earlier this year it was claimed that "one in five" journeys are by bike.
This is not bad at all for Britain. In fact, Cambridge's modal share for cyclists is almost certainly the highest in the English speaking world. That's one of the reasons why we moved to the city in 1991.
We lived in Cambridge for 16 years and we wouldn't have stayed so long if it were not a pleasant place to live. However, the conditions for cycling are really only so-so. The reasons for Cambridge's relatively high cycling rate are unusual, specific to the city, and not easy to copy elsewhere.
What's happened since we left ?
We visited Cambridge briefly in October to visit some friends. After becoming used to the rapid progress and dramatic changes to cycling infrastructure in Assen in four years, it was interesting to see that essentially nothing much had changed for Cambridge cyclists in four years. Speed limits remain high, cycle-lanes remain narrow, cyclists are still expected to share lanes with buses and few residential roads are designed to limit rat-running.
Cambridge cyclists still find themselves riding on rough surfaces in narrow cycle lanes on busy through roads to the left of obstructions in the middle of the road in places where the speed limit drops from 40 mph to 30 mph (64 km/h to 48 km/h). It's not much fun if a bus or truck passes as you come to pinch points like this:
Huntingdon Road, Cambridge. Narrow cycle-lanes past unpleasant and dangerous central islands. View Larger Map
We also went along the much celebrated Gilbert Road. This looked less like somewhere which had recently received attention and more like somewhere which still desperately needed work. It still relies on narrow on-road cycle-lanes to separate cyclists from motor vehicles.
Since we returned to the Netherlands, there has been another story in the local paper about the utter chaos caused by people driving their children to school and parking in the very road where we used to live. It's a long way from what the school run looks like in Assen.
Cambridge still feels like a city where quite a lot of people cycle despite the conditions, and not one where the entire population is invited to cycle because of the conditions.
Students cycle a lot in Cambridge
Cambridge is an atypical city, with unusual demographics. Cycling is largely split along demographic lines.
While Cambridge's population is around 130000, the two universities cater for about 43000 students, making up a substantial proportion of the total population.
Students are a particularly easy demographic to attract to cycling. They're young adults, well educated, more confident than average and have to be fairly careful with money. Cambridge is not alone in having a higher proportion of trips by bike because it is a university city. In fact, the top cycling cities in most countries are university cities. This includes Groningen in the Netherlands, Copenhagen in Denmark, Davis and Portland in the USA as well as Cambridge in the UK.
It is not possible to copy the extra proportion of trips by bike due to the large student population to other similar cities which don't have a large student population.
However, Cambridge goes further than most and almost forces students to cycle. Few people from outside the city, and not all within it, realise that "Undergraduate students are not normally allowed to keep a car", or as it is put elsewhere, "it is a Regulation of the University, agreed with the City Council, that students are not allowed to keep a car or motorcycle in Cambridge". There are exceptions, for instance for physically disabled students, but most students don't drive in the city.
Enough students are banned from keeping a car in Cambridge that if just half of them made all their journeys by bike, no-one else would need to cycle at all to achieve the headline cycling modal share of the city.
Who else cycles in Cambridge ?
Cycling in Cambridge also benefits from the fact that many students remain in the city after graduating in order to work for one of the high-tech companies in the area. Also, many people move to the city to work for these companies after graduating at other institutions.
The city is home to a higher than usual proportion of graduates and many people have noted that those who form the cycling habit at University tend to continue to cycle afterwards, especially at the start of their careers when they're still young and don't yet have responsibility for children. Cambridge is a very young city due to the recent graduates as well as the students.
Cambridge Cycling Campaign committee members are also predominantly from the "University and high-tech" end of local society1. Many members of the campaign are the same2. Cyclists in Cambridge are predominantly people who identify themselves as "cyclists", or at least are a member of the university and high-tech demographic that cycles. They've taken the unusual step of doing something which the majority of the British population now never does: riding a bike.
This is great, but with such a source of commuting cyclists, it's surprising that it is still only a quarter of journeys to work that are made by bike.
Just as it is not possible to copy the extra proportion of trips by bike due to the large student population to other similar cities without a large student population, so it is not possible to copy the extra proportion of trips by ex-students who kept the habit of cycling.
Note that I am not saying that everyone who cycles in Cambridge is either a student or works in a high-tech company as of course there are some cyclists who fit into neither of those groups. However very many of those who cycle in Cambridge are part of one of those two groups.
A social divide
There has long been a divide between "town" and "gown" in Cambridge. This is perhaps less severe than it once was, but it is still real. Even now it still occasionally breaks out into violence.
People from families which have long been in the city and who are connected with neither the university nor the high-tech businesses and who you might classify as "working class" don't cycle at a particularly higher rate than they would in any other British town. Amongst the "town" people, car usage is very much higher and riding a bike can be seen as a reflection of being poor.
That people linked with the university and high tech industries are more likely than average to cycle does not have much influence on the "town" people as they don't identify with that other group. Rather, cycling has become one of the ways that the two groups, of "local people" and "students" can be identified. As I cycled in the city, drivers shouting abuse (something which happened all to often) would often refer to me as a "student" or as "poor". They were not interested in that I never studied in Cambridge and only moved there in my mid 20s to take quite well paid jobs for computer companies. To them, I was definitely "gown". I made this clear to them in part by cycling.
It's not just cycling. The two sides of the town / gown divide have different priorities in other ways too. For instance, take the shops in Cambridge. The city has high retail rents. As a result, shops which sell low cost goods are relatively few and far between. Campaigns have been run by against new supermarkets opening in "gentrified" areas, even though many of the locally born people who live in the same area value the possibility of cheaper food and other bargains which the new shops may bring rather higher than having boutique stores which sell organic produce for higher prices.
The results of a social divide
The divide affects attitudes of both sides. It is part of the cause of a relatively high level of intolerance experienced by cyclists in the city even though cyclists are not such a small minority as they might be in other parts of the UK.
When cyclists experience trouble from drivers in Cambridge, the result tends to be quite similar to other parts of the country. They are unlikely to get much sympathy from the police or the public. I once had an experience of a Cambridge taxi driver driving into me deliberately as I rode along a counter-flow cycle-lane (very near where something similar happened to this cyclist). This driver also turned his vehicle around, chased me up the street, got out of his taxi and assaulted me. When I went to the police, the very first words spoken by the officer who interviewed me were "cyclists cause a lot of problems in Cambridge". The local newspaper in Cambridge quite often reports conflicts, with van drivers, runners, bus-drivers and youths all finding a reason to dislike cyclists.
It's a huge contrast with the Netherlands where cycling is something that the whole of society finds to be normal and there is no social divide between cyclist and non-cyclist. The response is very different should anything untoward happen to a cyclist.
The Cambridge Cycling Campaign was formed when shopping streets in the centre of the city, essential as part of many direct and relatively safe routes across the city, were closed to cyclists. This was a popular change amongst non-cyclists, and was possible to implement only because the public at large didn't cycle, didn't understand cycling and didn't support cycling as a means of transport. These streets have only partly been restored as cycling routes, and some of the one-way restrictions on them, which make sense only when driving, still apply to bikes. They are occasionally enforced with much publicity.
These restrictions in the centre make cycling routes in Cambridge less direct and force cyclists sometimes to have to use busy and dangerous roads.
The local newspaper in Cambridge often includes the same kind of articles and letters from outraged non-cyclists (red lights, one way streets, pavement cycling) which you see in other areas in Britain. These letters, and the attitudes which go with them, are unknown in the Netherlands. The conditions which cause cyclists to ignore red lights, ride the wrong way down one-way streets and ride on the pavement are to a large extent eliminated in the Netherlands by infrastructure designed to benefit cyclists, so they are not an enforcement issue. The occurrence of these problems are symptoms of a greater planning and design problem.
What about the infrastructure ?
I'm not the only person to have noted that cycling happens in Cambridge not because of the infrastructure but despite it.
There are a few high points. The paths through the parks, though narrow, shared with pedestrians and often crowded, are relatively pleasant to ride through. Recently a good new path opened which heads North from the Northern edge of the City to some villages. Also there is a nice cycle path about 600 m long which heads to the University buildings on the West (it was chosen for the cover of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign's 2016 document).
However, the better examples of infrastructure are not joined up. You can't make any journey only using these few good paths away from motorists. This is quite typical for the UK. Cyclists spend much of their time on roads which are "shared" with large numbers of cars. Also, the bans on cycling in shopping streets in the centre which originally were the catalyst for the formation of the local cycling campaign group in 1993 have only been partly repealed, leaving a useful link from the centre to the east unavailable to cyclists.
|Cyclists go left, pedestrians go right.|
Carlton Way in Cambridge
|Kings Hedges estate in Cambridge.|
It's far from perfect, with bumpy
narrow paths and bad sight lines.
However, these paths do provide a
traffic-free route to a primary school,
swimming pool, and a few shops.
There was also an attempt to build good cycling provision in the East of the city. However, this also doesn't really link up with anything in a useful way.
Newer developments are far worse in design. No longer are there significant green spaces, no longer is there an attempt to provide a network of motor traffic free paths.
|"The Quills" - a new housing estate which offers this view of|
the world. The result of trying to limit car ownership by
limiting car parking is to make car parking more of a problem.
Also I wrote in the past about another new development, the multiply named Arbury Camp / Arbury Park / Orchard Park. The plans for this place were alarming enough, but the reality was worse. It caused many problems for cyclists before it had even been built, even if you were merely trying to pass nearby.
Outside the city
A few cycle-paths stretch outside the city of Cambridge, but they don't provide anything near to a comprehensive network of efficient routes. The local newspaper recently reported that another cyclist had been injured riding along the A14, a road with a 70 mph ( 113 km/h ) speed limit which might well have been classified as a motorway in other countries:
The A14. A motorway in all but name with a 70 mph speed limit and no hard shoulder. This runs across the Northern edge of the city and provides the most direct route to some nearby villages. Some people actually do cycle here, but we've known for a long time that it's not safe. View Larger Map
Britain does not provide convenient and safe routes paralleling "motorways" like this, and cycling on an A-road like this is legal in the UK. You might wonder why anyone would choose to use such roads. The answer is simple. Doing so avoids a long detour along busy narrow country lanes with 60 mph ( 96 km/h ) speed limits and blind corners.
Children from villages at a distance from school which would be routinely cycled in the Netherlands cannot routinely cycle to school in Cambridge.
The cause of the higher than average cycling rate in Cambridge is not something that can be replicated in other British cities. Where could you convince a third of the population to agree to be banned from owning a car ?
On the other hand, what makes cycling attractive in Dutch cities, including here in Assen, 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. They've followed the principles of sustainable safety and have created conditions which:
- Keep cyclists away from cars absolutely as much as possible.
- Make all residential streets no-go areas for through traffic (preserving segregation of modes without cyclepaths).
- Provide bikes with more direct routes than cars.
- Remove cars from minor rural roads.
- Produce a high degree of subjective and social safety everywhere.
We had three different houses in and around Cambridge, and it's notable that in none of them were any of our neighbours particularly enthusiastic cyclists. In fact, most of our neighbours never rode a bike in the entire time we lived in those houses. This is in sharp contrast with where we live now in Assen. All of our current neighbours cycle for at least some of their journeys. Due to cycling having been made the preserve of the many instead of a hobby activity for a few, there are few "non-cyclists" and no anti-cycling sentiment.
Assen is in most respects is quite normal by Dutch standards. Car parking here is the cheapest in the country, and no attempt has been made to limit the ownership of cars. New build homes here have adequate car parking as well as compulsory cycle parking. There is also no university in this city to boost cycling numbers. These things could be seen as disadvantages where encouraging cycling are concerned, but the cycling rate here is more than double that of Cambridge. More importantly, the people who cycle here come from the whole spectrum of society and are not taken predominantly from a particular demographic.
A video from Cambridge which has become popular on youtube:
Many people who view this think little more than to note that there are quite a few cyclists. Let's look deeper into it. The most dense cycle usage in Cambridge is in a few streets in the centre like this one, on routes used by many students. The conditions for cycling in this location are neither especially pleasant nor especially safe. The bulk of the cyclists that you see in the video are students. They ride for the reasons that students everywhere ride, but there are more of them in Cambridge in large part because they are not allowed to keep a car.
What can be done ?
Several unfortunate things have happened recently. The local government scrapped the much needed post of cycling officer and also while Cambridge was briefly in receipt of extra funds as a Cycling City, this initiative has also been scrapped. Investment in cycling in Cambridge has never been adequate.
It's important not to lose focus and not to be complacent. Cambridge's leading position in the UK, and in the English speaking world, is the result of unusual and fortunate circumstance, not of cyclists being particularly well provided for. With investment in decent cycling infrastructure, the city has the potential to do much better. For this reason, I was recently surprised to see a proposal to rename the main campaign group in the city with a more passive tone. Your work is not finished yet.
People elsewhere who look to Cambridge are looking in the wrong direction. The things that make cycling popular in Cambridge are not easily duplicated elsewhere. Instead of looking to one town which is exceptional for reasons that cannot be duplicated you would be better off looking to the Netherlands where a far higher cycling rate has been achieved even in towns with none of these special circumstances. The difference is the infrastructure above all else.
August 2013 update
socio-economic patterns and their relevance to commuting in the UK supports my argument above.
The chart on the right. Anna's research confirms that there is a correlation between cycling in Cambridge and affluence - precisely the point that I make above re "town vs. gown".
Note that Oxford and Hackney have similar demographic bubbles in which cycling is correlated with the lifestyle of a self selected and relatively prosperous section of the population.
A personal note about Hackney
I used to visit Hackney quite often just over twenty years ago. I met my (then) future wife, Judy, in Hackney as she lived there for a time. Hackney was then a very different place demographically to how it is now. We have to recognize the effect of social change on peoples' chosen modes of transport.
Hackney has been through a period of gentrification. The population is now more similar to Cambridge and Oxford than it used to be and that's the primary reason why cycling has grown in that area. The infrastructure is still dreadful and Hackney still achieves nothing like its potential for cycling.
Read other posts about Cambridge.
January 2015 update
Since I wrote this piece, people from Cambridge have often claimed that great changes have been made since we left the UK. Their claims have not as yet stood up to much scrutiny. I made a very short work trip to Cambridge for work this month, arriving by coach and leaving by train. As a result Most of my view of the city on this visit was through a coach or taxi window. I saw a good part of my old commuting route from a village south of Cambridge, and two different routes to the Science Park. Nothing much had changed. Cycling remains difficult in Cambridge. In response to the conditions, many of those people who do cycle dress like canaries. I took some photos while waiting for buses and trains:
|This cyclist decided he'd had enough of the road at this point.|
|Pleasant conditions for cycling by the station ?|
|Road vs. pavement.|
|A very narrow cycle-lane leading into to a bus stop. Those who can turn left here, mounting the kerb and riding through a park.|
|Making short connections by riding on the pavement is an understandable reaction to the conditions.|
|I was only here for a few minutes. Quite a lot of people prefer the pavement here.|
I took the photo at the top in 1998 as I cycled to work in Cambridge in the fog. Jesus Green is one of the nicer bits of Cambridge for cycling, but those shared use paths were always too narrow and too bumpy, and access to them is not what it could be.
The University of Cambridge continues to be charged with elitism. They have problems with admitting people from less advantaged backgrounds, even though they've supposedly been trying for years. This is noticed even by newspapers which show the same elitism.
1 This is not in any way a criticism of the campaign committee. These are wonderful people giving freely of their time to try to encourage cycling. Cambridge Cycling Campaign is very well organised and the people in it try to do a good job. I was once a member of the committee myself. However, like everyone else their ideas are inevitably shaped by their position in society.
2 Cycle campaigners around the world often point out that cyclists are on average better educated than non-cyclists or that they have on average higher incomes. This is all very well, but it also reinforces the difference between "town" and "gown".
A history of exaggeration
Readers from elsewhere may be amused to hear that back in the 1990s, the local council in Cambridge produced literature which said that Cambridge was second only to Amsterdam. This was of course a smokescreen. Portland now makes the same claim. It's still a smokescreen. Indeed, Portland is boasting even more. They only have about 5% of commutes by bike which isn't close even to Cambridge, let alone average Dutch cities. We have to always be wary of nonsense like this. There is a lot of exaggeration about and it's not helpful.