Joining Seville (Spain), Ferrara (Italy), Berlin , Munich (Germany), and Zurich (Switzerland), the 2014 EU BICI turns to England this week; the post benefits from reactions of Eva Heinen, a past collaborator on bicycling research, a transport scientist at the Center for Diet and Activity Research at the University of Cambridge, and now a Cambridge resident.
There is one place in the United Kingdom that reports more than two times as much cycling relative to its closest competitor: Cambridge (~31% of all trips). Many consider this high-tech and bioscience oriented town of 123K people—also home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world—to be the haven for cycling in the U.K. It’s easy to rationalize such based on the cycling culture. The overall cycling infrastructure, however, is a different story.
What’s impressive here is the amount and diversity of cycling on the streets. Students dominate the sheer number of cyclists—not surprising since they represent more than a one-third of the town’s residents when classes are in session. But multiple types of cyclists are prevalent—and types of bikes as well. Bromptons (the British fold up bike) and family cargo bikes (both Dutch varieties and the Danish Christiania styles) are seen all over town, joining the usual mix of standard two-wheelers. Google maps tell me there are more than 30 bicycle shops in town—impressive because, per capita, this may be more than my hometown (Boulder, Colorado)—whose number of bike shops I thought was ridiculous.
Advances in cycling infrastructure, however, move slowly here. For the leading cycling city in England, Cambridge only recently installed the first advanced signal traffic light for cyclists. This single traffic light heading into town along Regent Street is reportedly the first and only one in all of Britain! Gratuitous cycle lanes appear all throughout town. There’s something to be said for quantity. It’s their quality that is at issue. Most cycling lanes are tired, inconsistent, weathered, and they terminate on a whim—many times at intersections where space is devoted to an auto left-turning lane. Roundabouts are troubling here for cyclists (but, this is true in most cities). Cambridge likes bike boxes a lot; they are everywhere. But accessing them when the cars are queued up behind a red is an issue; one hopes the light won’t turn green while overtaking cars to reach them. Bike parking is clearly inadequate in the city center—a demand that is absorbed somewhat by two bicycle parking “stations”. I saw bikes locked up to fences two rows high or parallel to building walls, sometimes three deep. The bike parking problem here is more acute than anywhere I have seen. A new deluxe facility next to the rail station with 2,000 spaces is in design. All bets, however, are that it will overflow on its hour of use. One solution, which probably deserves more consideration in the city center is to address bicycle parking needs at the expense of auto parking. [see below 3+ min video cycling around town, apologies for the shaky filming at times]
It’s impressive that cycling use is as strong as it is in Cambridge. I heard from some people that cycling happens here owing in part to the bicycle facilities. But from an outsider’s perspective, it seems that cycling happens here not because of the infrastructure, but despite it. A healthy mix of four modes—autos, pedestrians, cyclists, and yes, the relatively large, signature double decker busses– clamor for limited right-of-way. The company line I heard is that most drivers double as active cyclists for other trips, therefore showing signs of courtesy; this was far from my experience. During my two days cycling around town, I got honked at more than during my entire past year in Italy. Bus and other delivery drivers have even less concern. It’s imposing to see these large double decker buses barreling down narrow streets and even narrower bridges. The buses source many pinch points. And, they insist on using these key streets into the city center, threatening to curtail service if their desires are not permitted. The City is currently in the throws of redesigning several main arterials. Solutions are in the midst of deliberations and all of them propose much needed separation of cyclists from cars and pedestrians. Floating bus stops are also in the mix, though some influential voices refer to such as “ludicrous”.
Overall, two golden nuggets stand out here from a transport systems perspective:
(1) Most streets are signed for 30 mph. There is an impending policy change for all streets to be 20 mph. This is a commendable move that will go a long way to making more streets that much more cycling friendly.
(2) More importantly, cycling’s success here stems in large part from the relative cost and difficulty of driving. Students are generally not issued car permits. Parking, I am told is expensive in key areas within town. Direct driving routes are often stymied owing to bollards and dead ends (what is affectionately referred to as “filtered permeability”). Traffic congestion during rush hour simply makes driving uninviting; notwithstanding the tenuous cycling environment, cycling is an attractive alternative for most people here.
Still, those searching for insights about how Cambridge’s cycling infrastructure itself advances its cycling success will be left wanting. There is a rich legacy cycling tradition here and the challenge lies in replicating it elsewhere.
Thanks much to the following individuals who provided information contained within this post: Pablo Monsivais, James Woodcock, James Woodburn, Oliver Mytton, Patrick Joyce, and Simon Manville.
 This report says 43% (http://www.ctc.org.uk/resources/ctc-cycling-statistics) but local officials concede more around 31%.
 see: http://cambridgecyclist.blogspot.co.uk