Monday 17 December 2012

Cycling in Cambridge - The Good Stuff

This blog has been rather negative of late, so I ought to redress that rather with some of the reasons why cycling in Cambridge is actually pretty good.

Here, therefore, are my top 10 reasons why cycling here rocks:

10. The Weather.
It might seem barking mad to say this on a dark, cold December day, but this is one of the driest places in England. And yes, we get what they call in the Fens the 'Lazy Wind' that doesn't blow around you, it goes right through you (when it comes from the East we don't get gusts, it just blows). Really, even when its cold its rarely the biting cold associated with my native North East. Its a joy - you're never really braving the weather here. There probably isn't a better climate for cycling in the UK - we're colder than the South West of course, but a hell of a lot drier.

9. The Eccentrics.
In case you ever wondered, this City is crazy. I don't mean 'yeah we're mad we are like, totally crazy!'. No. I actually mean that I think a large proportion of the populace of Cambridge would, in other cities, be treated as if they're border-line certifiable.

Want to find a bloke who rides around the city centre with a stereo in a plastic bag playing twiddly guitar rock? Come to Cambridge! Naked cyclists? Yeah, Cambridge. Unicycle commuters? Yep. Take your pick, we've got it. And thats just the cyclists; wander round the market and watch the people who feel compelled to pick up each and every apple for inspection. Or the ones who go into the bakery and need to closely interrogate each cake before buying one. Or the busker in a bin. Behaviour that would be viewed as crazy in any normal City is indulged here (which regrettably means that aggressive behaviour is sometimes passively condoned here, but thats another story). Would you rather ride in a crowd of pleasantly potty people or in the nasty crowds of London?

8. The Bikes.
Every kind of bike you could hope to see lives somewhere in Cambridge. Every single one.
A tricycle. With a frikkin bike computer.
Epic level awesomeness.
From the amazing carbon frame techno-machines through to solid steel double-bar-framed solidmobiles. From electric bikes for to great big cargo bikes. Tricycles, tandems, 'cumbents, hand cranked bike like things attached to the front of wheelchairs (I find that one particularly fascinating - awesome bit of engineering), rowing machine bikes, ridiculous mini penny farthings... Thats not to mention the relentless rise of fixies and single speeds, clunking old mountain bikes, road bikes of every flavour, ancient and modern touring bikes, Dutch bikes... There is a bike representative of every style, every price range on the streets of Cambridge.

And because there is every kind of bike ridden by nearly every kind of person, they're moving at almost any cyclable speed you'll see.

7. The Peloton
In other cities you're a cyclist. You're just in the way. Depending on where and when you're riding in Cambridge you're part of an un-stoppable peloton. Watch this speeded up view - the traffic has to go at our pace. Admittedly we have to go a bit slower than many of us would wish...

6. Cycle Routes
You know what? The cycle lanes in Cambridge are, on the whole, entirely inadequate. But by utterly unambitious British standards they're great. We have better cycle lanes than you get in most cities, and fewer barking mad ones. We do our best to make up for that with a few howlers that we irrationally enforce, though.

Add in things like the guided bus cycle route, the cycle bridge over the A14, and its evident that cycling provision is an afterthought in Cambridge, whereas elsewhere in the UK its not considered at all...

5. Bike Parking
We have two underground bike parks in Cambridge. Park Street is a bit grottier than the Grand Arcade, but I can live with that as its on the doorstep of one of our finest pubs, the Maypole; both have bike repair places (although absurdly Station Cycles in the Grand Arcade seems to not specialise in doing the kind of 'on the go' jobs you want in a place like that). We're getting another whopping great big multi-storey cycle park down by the railway station, apparently, but I'll believe that will be as good as they're saying when I see it.

There is also lots of on-street cycle parking on on Fitzroy Street, Burleigh Street, the Market Square, on Regent Street, and across much of the rest of the City. There isn't enough, but its a heck of a lot better than in other towns. I've been known to have to ride about a bit to get a space, I've ALWAYS found a space though.

4. Local Shops
Lots of little bike shops in Cambridge. And big bike shops. Station Cycles, for example, down by the station (and in the Grand arcade, and I think up in Histon) have a superb range and offer good value if, perhaps, not the most knowledgeable staff. Ben Haywards  have well informed staff and far too little stock in a cosy little shop (way more if you can ride out to Horningsea). The guys on Cambridge Market can generally fix a puncture if you give them an hour, and there are numerous other middling to excellent little bike shops in the city. You can pick up a second hand bike at nearly any of the little shops or stalls for a hundred  quid or so, you can get something you actually want to ride for under two hundred. And I don't care how good you are with a wrench, there'll be times you get a puncture on the way to work and all you want to do is go back and pick the bike up again later. Its a joy to be able to do so here.

3. Local Companies
The British are an enterprising people, and when you drop them in to a city with a thriving bike culture they'll make the most of it. Take a look at these sweet bikes, I defy anyone not to smile when they see a Light Blue. Then have a saunter over to what Sally is doing with the Cambridge Raincoat Company. And if you're settling for a night in get Outspoken to deliver cheese to you, or maybe even get them to drop off stuff from Ark. Cyclists here are entrepreneurs, customers, and the middle-men connecting the two. Seriously, how cool is that?

2. Strength in Numbers
This is not a blog post about the 'safety in numbers' hypothesis of cycling safety. Want to read that? Look elsewhere.

There are a lot of us here, but this is still the UK; don't kid yourself that Cambridge is some happy cycling nirvana, it isn't. But if you come off your bike the odds are good another cyclist will be there to assist you. If you've got a motorist sounding his horn to make you get out of the way on Sidney Street, you'll find other cyclists will slow down to help (I've seen that twice at that location). We're simply less of a pushover here when there are more of us; I've stopped to help injured cyclists, I've stopped to stand up for cyclists being given a hard time. This is something I've very rarely seen or heard of elsewhere in the UK. Bluntly, a lone cyclist gets bullied far more easily than a hundred do.

1. The Cyclists are just peopole...
Half of the population of Cambridge cycle, and while the figure for modal transport share within the city is variously stated as 20%-28% (said figure being of less use than how many cycle in to Cambridge, and thats a hard number to find...) its obvious that the people riding bikes here aren't such a narrow sub-section as you see in most British cities. Cyclists here are just folk - this morning I spotted some who looked like students (they've gone home mostly, it being nearly Christmas), one I know to be a professor, several people wearing the work clothes for the shops they work at, some sweet old dears, a chav with his phone playing annoying music, a couple of roadies, fixie riders with caps on, families taking kids to nursery in great big Dutch bike hoppers... We're just folk getting around. And all discussions as to what unites or divides cyclists in the UK aside, what really makes Cambridge for us, what makes it a Cyclist City, is that here we're not cyclists.  We're just people getting about by bike. And no amount of ranting and raving from the dwindling ranks of blue-rinse cyclist haters in this city is going to change that.


  1. This is delightfully uplifting - thank you! Have posted it on our Facebook wall as The antidote to the horrible "War on Britain's Roads" pretend documentary.
    P.S. Thanks also for mentioning The Cambridge Raincoat Company - which opens at Somerset House this Thursday. So much to do it's scary!

  2. Ah, it's nice to be reminded of the good bits too; and they are good. Any time I go to other parts of the country I'm reminded just how good (isn't it nice that all the supermarkets have bike parking for instance; where my parents live none of them do, wretched!).

    1. yeah, its really worth keeping the woes of cycling in Cambridge in perspective; there are things here that need to be better, but we must also remember we get some things just spot on right.

  3. Thank you for this! You echo a lot of how I feel about it too (though some of the cycle lanes *are* awful). Currently 6 months pregnant and still cycling to work and back from Shelford :)

    1. From Shelford? I quite like the off-road route along Trumpington Road. I wish it were all that good!

  4. Do you remember a little while back a post which appeared on the Keep Pushing Those Pedals blogspot entitled What is the problem? This prompted a number of comments, which for me was summed by Jamie's concluding remark, as follows: "Piecemeal aptly describes the provision for cycling in Cambridge."

    You mention above that by utterly unambitious British standards, the cycle routes in Cambridge are great, but even so, "it's evident that cycling provision is an afterthought".

    According to the Dutch National Information and Technology Platform for Transport, Infrastructure and Public Space (CROW), the five main requirements for bicycle-friendly infrastructures are:

    1. Improved traffic safety;
    2. Directness: short, fast routes from origin to destination;
    3. Comfort: good surfaces, generous space and little hindrance from other road users;
    4. Attractiveness: a pleasant, socially safe environment, without smell or noise nuisance;
    5. Cohesion: logical, cohesive routes.

    Jim Davis from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain has previously suggested that unless we start to think in terms of a network, instead of piecemeal solutions, the bicycle will continue not to be taken seriously as a mode of transport.

    Further to my previous comment, I have updated the design of the Cambridge Cycling Network (proposed), here and here. Leaving aside for the moment any question as to how this network might be developed, I'd be interested to know what you think?

    1. The concept is clearly sound, but you're leaving off a few key routes (e.g. Arbury Road).

      I think that such an approach should work to get us a long way to where we need to be with regard to cycling in Cambridge, but we need to think in broader terms too; with the best will in the world specific provision will not exist on every route, and we need to make sure that we feel (and actually are) safe on the suburban roads that take us to arterial routes too.

    2. Thank you for your reply. Actually Arbury Road has been included, but never mind, there'll be something else missing, I am sure.

      You write: "I think that [a network] approach should work to get us a long way to where we need to be [...], but we need to think in broader terms too." Broader than a network? I am not sure what you mean.

      One question I keep asking - never get an answer - is, network first and then a separation of functions, or isolated bits of quality infrastructure first and then join up the pieces? I wondered if you had an opinion about this? Only asking, that's all.

      Specifically, should the authorities approach the development of the cycling environment from the top-down (global or holistic approach) or from the bottom-up (adjustment policy)?

    3. London is improving, Oxford (argh dark blue) is much better for cycling and pedestrians than 15 yrs ago, Cambridge is slowing down. Cambridge should be leading, then calling for good train links with cycle provision to the capital, this allows rural users in the villages like myself to get on the train, cycle as much or little as we want/have time for and get much more out of the system. - Grow out or centres of excellence/need with good links between (e.g. Royston - Cambridge A10 cycle corridor currently being re-worked on)

    4. A good summary. Cambridge is basically stagnating while other places in the UK improve.

  5. "The key word," Steffen Rasmussen from the City of Copenhagen told the GLA's Investigation into Cycling, "is an holistic approach and then a separation of functions." Say you were building a house from scratch, how would you set about it? Firstly you would determine where you would want it go. Then perhaps you would draw up your plans, and once you had confirmed that these plans were feasible, you would begin construction. The first thing you would do during the building phase would be to lay the foundations, all at once probably, and thereafter, from this solid base, you would build upwards. I hope that sounds reasonable. I am suggesting that the development of an amenable cycling environment should proceed along similar lines.

    The two most important pieces of advice I would like to share with you are:

    (i) Think in terms of a network

    "We need an intelligent, systemic plan. This plan should connect the dots with a rational network of bike lanes that not only guide cyclists between the places they want to travel to, but also along the routes that are best-suited to absorbing large numbers of bikers and interfering the least with pedestrians and motorists. This plan cannot be developed piecemeal. Bike paths need to flow like bloodstreams: we need networks, not snippets." (New York Daily Times, 17 September 2012)

    (ii) Introduce the network to a minimum level of functioning
    You can't change everything at once, but you can do as much as possible at least bureaucracy first (as here, for example). As I explained above, you would lay the foundations all at once if you were building a house, so why would you do different if you were building a cycle network?

    The foregoing is an extract from my submission to the All Party Cycling Enquiry. In writing these words, I was largely influenced by my experiences in and observations of London.

    I have been to Cambridge only twice in my life, and never on a bicycle, but Syd Barrett said of it, what with nature and everything, "it's so clean". I have no doubt that it would make for a very good cycling city, but how many of the five main requirements for bicycle-friendly infrastructures can it honestly lay claim to? How many of the cycle routes therein are safe, direct, comfortable, attractive and cohesive?

    Identifying routes that are direct, attractive and cohesive is something that can only be done during the 'planning' phase, and creating routes which are safe and comfortable is something that can only be done during the 'development' phase; so there ought to be no debate about what comes first.

  6. Bloody hell .... you really do believe what you are saying? cambridge is a cycling city because of 40,000 students! I ride a bike but blimey it's not a sad obsession. What are you people like - get a life! It;s a bike, what is so out of this world about that? Answer: Internal combustion engine haters!

    1. Oh, get over yourself.

      Other cities have huge student populations without the number of cyclists we have here. Go up to the Science Park and count the cyclists. Wander round Kings Hedges - very few students there, lots of cycling.

      Sorry to be the one to point this out to you, but your comment seems to be a confused attempt to be angry at something that isn't worth being angry about - I'm being pro-bike in this blog article, I'm talking about why its good to ride a bike here. If you can't differentiate being pro-cycling from being anti-motorist, thats your own affair.

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