Cambridge Matters

Here’s a post about Cambridge. What Cambridge does matters for all of us: those in charge of transport policy in Cambridge – the British city with the highest cycling rate, and rising – should be setting high standards. So are they? What can others learn, positively and negatively?

Cambridgeshire County Council is currently consulting on a couple of schemes, in Hills and Huntingdon Roads. They do have some problems – about which see below – but overall, they’ve got some important positive features and some lessons for London and other cities. I’d also of course encourage people who live in, work in, or visit Cambridge to fill in the consultation (Hills here, Huntingdon here). You can skip to my specific discussion of the schemes here.

I’m going to focus on the Hills Road plans, partly because I know Hills Road better, and partly because it’s the more extensive proposal (on both sides of the road, for one thing!) I remember cycling on Hills Road for the first time, when doing research in the city. It seemed odd to me, with cycling being permitted both on a shared pavement and in a narrow cycle lane on the road. Hills Road This, I later discovered, was not that unusual in Cambridge. Which did I chose? Being a regular London cyclist, it’s probably not that surprising that I rode on the road without really thinking about it, only seeing the shared pavement sign later. (Although now, I notice, I do briefly consider the pavement before deciding on the road: this must be the ageing process).

The current Hills Road layout is an example of the dual networks approach. This approach seeks to provide two cycle networks; one to serve the ‘confident’, and another to serve the more ‘nervous’. A somewhat ambitious approach in some respects given that in the UK we have never had anywhere near enough money for half a network, let alone two networks. What it’s usually meant in practice is perpetuating a main road environment that creates fear of cycling, alongside providing some circuitous scraps aimed at the majority who have been frightened off those roads. The direct, scary route, or the wiggly but more relaxed route.

Even where people planning for cycling want to break away from this approach, we are so steeped in it that our language easily slips back into a ‘hierarchy of cyclists’. Superhighways are for the fast and confident, Quietways for less confident cyclists, and so on. We shouldn’t be thinking like this. Our cycle networks shouldn’t exclude any users. If we have high-quality segregated infrastructure on a main road, there’s no reason a twelve year old boy or a disabled grandmother using a tricycle can’t use it, just the same as a 30-year old commuter on a road bike. However, as the Dutch recognise, people from all demographic groups will often prefer a route through a park to the main road, even if the main road’s pretty safe. So you provide that too; but not just aimed at the nervous. It’s called unbundling – providing direct routes that allow people to ride not just segregated from motor traffic, but away from it (which we know most people would prefer, all else being equal).

Unbundling is great – and ideally, much of London’s Quietways and Grid should be unbundled routes – but it’s not an excuse for failing to provide safe infrastructure on main roads. You need both, and then people have a real choice. You get many types of cyclists, whereas under the traditional UK approach, you’ve had the choice of being either the fast-hardy-aggressive-cyclist-happy-to-ride-on-the-road or the slow-nervous-defensive-cyclist-don’t-mind-being-late-or-muddy. Neither great.

Here – with apologies – I’ll quote a journal article of mine that will hopefully be published later this year. It’s relevant because I’m talking about how the DfT justify ‘Dual Networks’ in relation to the system of road classification we have in this country.

The ‘dual network’ approach (main roads with limited cycle provision shadowed by slower, more circuitous alternatives) may initially seem to mimic roads provision, where different categories also exist. The DfT makes this case:

Some cyclists are more able and willing to mix with motor traffic than others. In order to accommodate the sometimes conflicting needs of various user types and functions, it may be necessary to combine measures or to create dual networks offering different levels of provision, with one network offering greater segregation from motor traffic at the expense of directness and/or priority. Such dual networks may be considered analogous to a busy main road carrying through traffic and a service road catering for access to homes and shops at lower speeds.’ (DfT 2008: 11-12)

However, the two cases are crucially different, as for motor traffic routes, distinctions relate primarily to journey length and purpose, rather than driver skill and competence. Cycle Superhighway Two is not analogous to ‘Strategic Routes’ for motorised traffic, because these are not seen as existing for the benefit of more confident drivers. Instead, they exist for the benefit of specific types of journey, primarily long distance journeys with few stops in between. The assumption is that most qualified drivers are happy to use a motorway, and rightly so, as they offer relatively safe and pleasant driving conditions. By contrast, the ‘cycling system’ is seen as a patchwork within which different routes are suitable for different cyclists: so some would use Superhighways (as originally conceived), while some (perhaps due to ‘inexperience’ or ‘inability’, or having children with them) would use slower and/or less direct alternatives for the same journey.

With this in mind, let’s imagine what the current Hills Road approach to ‘dual networks’ would mean if we implemented it for the car system. It’d be a motorway that caters for the ‘nervous’ and the ‘brave’. In the ‘brave’ lane, you’d be sat in your little car, regularly passed closely by HGVs able to use the overtaking lane to travel at 150mph, while your maximum speed is 70mph. M1 The nervous lane, by contrast, is fairly well separated from the 150mph HGVs, but you can’t travel at anywhere near 70mph because this lane has a gravelly surface and is regularly interrupted. Every time there’s an entry or exit sliproad, you have to give way: so although you’re generally away from the fast and heavy traffic, periodically if you’re unlucky you’ll have those HGVs cutting across you from the right, with priority over you. Now imagine that such a ‘dual network’ approach to motoring exists in the most car dependent part of Britain… And for contrast, here’s the M1 as it skirts just East of Milton Keynes.

For cycling though, Hills Road represents a relatively good approach to dual networks, in that the ‘nervous’ – unusually – get a direct route. OK, they have to use a pavement that gives way to every side road, while the ‘brave’ experience close passes from motor vehicles travelling at or above the 30mph speed limit. But it’s better than the more common practice of directing the confident to the nearest main road and the nervous down a badly signed back alley route with multiple twists and turns. The existing layout has probably helped Cambridge maintain its historically high levels of cycling, whereas putting it in place somewhere else probably wouldn’t help anyone much. Still, the Cambridge planners recognise it’s time to move on and do better.

The Schemes

Cambridge wants to move away from dual networks on the Hills Road, towards a universal approach. Rather than (as with the current Hills Road layout) providing two unsatisfactory options, the Hills and Huntingdon Road plans seek to provide one good option. Here’s the video about the schemes:

The Hills Road plans remove the currently existing right to cycle on the pavement, which is a clear benefit for pedestrians. Good; however, it means that the cycle infrastructure has to be excellent, and suitable for all abilities, because the people who are currently using the pavement will not now have this option. (By contrast, no one’s suggesting that the road be legally prohibited to cyclists.)

First, the positives for the plans:
1. This is clearly an attempt at proper segregation, and to maintain it throughout the scheme area. Like TfL’s CS2 extension, while it’s not perfect, you can see what the designers are trying to do, and it’s the right idea. Bus stop bypasses are slowly becoming less controversial in this country. Obviously they need to be done right and won’t always be appropriate, but this sort of infrastructure is widely used in The Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, which all perform well in relation to the UK in terms of levels of walking and cycling, and injury rates for both modes.
As an aside, David Arditti has pointed out that in this country we often have bus stop bypasses for cars, where pedestrians must cross motor traffic lanes to get to a bus island. Here’s one in Dalston (the bus island is just visible behind the van).

Kingsland Road

2. The proposed tracks/lanes are over 2m, which is a luxury in the UK context although – and I’ll return to this later – I don’t think this is enough given the Cambridge flows.

3. There is clear priority over side-roads for people cycling (although, in my view this should be extended to pedestrians – see below).

4. There is a focus on making the main roads safe – and in Cambridge, that’s where the clear gap is (there are a fair few nice secondary routes through parks and side streets)

There is a choice offered on both routes between kerbed and level segregation (or a mixture). The plans acknowledge that the latter is more vulnerable to poor driver behaviour, and that it will provide less subjective safety. These – given what we know about driver behaviour and cyclist preferences, and the nature of these roads – are for me very convincing reasons to choose the kerbed segregation (which must of course be done well – for example, using angled kerbs). If we’re taking away cyclists’ current rights to use the pavement, we have to provide something that (a) feels really safe, and (b) doesn’t rely on the British driver doing the right thing. If we provide something that’s not good enough, we’re going to have cyclists on the pavement, cyclists on the track, and cyclists in the road – and no one’s going to be happy.

However, I don’t think that the 2.1m width offered is sufficient. I believe that at present, the plans are for the Hills Road carriageway to be 7m wide (I think Huntingdon varies, but some of it has more space, some slightly less). Would it not be possible to cut the main carriageway width down somewhat, say to 6.2m or 6.4m, also perhaps reducing the segregation width slightly from 0.6m to 0.5m, to provide a segregated cycle track of 2.5m width? 2m might be ok on Stratford High Street (Cycle Superhighway 2 extension), but in a city where one in three commuting residents cycle to work? On an arterial road with schools and workplaces as key trip attractors? There needs to be plenty of space for commuters to overtake children safely, and along with clear segregation this demands in my view minimum 2.5m widths, not 2m.

Both schemes, but particularly Huntingdon Road, contain some seriously problematic junctions. For Hills Road, side roads generally (although not always) are shown with relatively tight junction geometry, which helps enforce cycle priority, because motorists have to slow before they turn. (The Huntingdon Road plans are less good on this point). But why stop there?


Pavement continues over side road, in Clapham Old Town.

This scheme affects pedestrians; why not make it as good for pedestrians as possible by giving them priority too? I noticed recently in Gent that pavement continuation over side roads is routine there, as it is in Copenhagen and many Dutch cities. I even saw it in Clapham recently. These plans could include pavement continuation alongside the cycle priority at many of the side roads. This treatment would help pedestrians and help support cycle priority, because motorists would be expected to give way both to cycles and pedestrians.

The major junctions either end of the Hills Road scheme are unpleasant for people on bikes and on foot while universal design disappears. The Huntingdon Road scheme contains very problematic junctions within the scheme area itself; for example, at Girton Road.

Girton Road

Courtesy of Cambridgeshire County Council

The flaring of this junction is a concern, with two lanes of traffic entering Huntington Road and a very wide entry to Girton Road. It’s not going to be easy for pedestrians to cross either. While the Clapham picture above makes the driver feel they’re entering a pedestrian realm, here the worry is that people on foot and on bikes feel like the guests – and unwelcome ones, given the road geometry. While the main carriageway is made narrower with hatchings and islands, ultimately this space could have been better used creating more cycle and pedestrian priority.

Lawrence Weaver Road is a particular problem. Here it appears that left hook risks are maintained, with cyclists mixing with motor traffic at the junction. After Whitehouse Lane (just to the left of the section shown), cyclists wishing to continue straight on (back on the segregated track) are expected to get into the middle of two motor traffic lanes. Those who don’t do this (either because they’re nervous of pulling out into motor traffic, or they just don’t realise that’s what they’re meant to do) will find themselves trapped in the track, with drivers expecting them to turn left.

Lawrence Weaver Road

Courtesy of Cambridgeshire County Council

Given that we’ve just had approved a cycle segregated junction in Camden, surely this junction’s an ideal opportunity to do something similar. Without a right turn, and with two motor traffic lanes, it wouldn’t be difficult. Rather than forcing cyclists going straight on to merge into motor traffic and then back to the track, you just keep them in the track, and then use the signals to separate the cyclists from the motor traffic. Basically, you let left-turning and straight ahead cyclists proceed at the same time as straight ahead motor traffic, with a separate phase for turning motor traffic. I’d probably separate straight on and left turning cycles within a widened track – using the space now allocated for a centre cycle lane – and allow left turning cycles to continue during both phases. It’s a bit of fiddling with signal timing but should be possible, while eliminating the left hook risk and not expecting cycle track users to suddenly mingle with motors. I’d also improve the pedestrian crossing there which is currently an uninviting pigpen.

These schemes are a step forward. It’s good to see plans developed that take on the main road issue – and these main roads do require difficult decisions. They’re not six lane highways with lots of room; they require some thoughtful trade-offs. There are – in the UK context – some innovations here. Bus stop bypasses, while safe and tested in other countries, are new to Cambridge, and will necessitate learning on the part of planners as well as users. As something new to us, they need to be done carefully with particular concern for disabled people (as pedestrians, and also as cyclists).

Please respond to the consultation, if it affects you. I will be broadly welcoming the proposals, expressing a preference for the segregated options, while making points about lane width, junction safety, and pedestrian priority at side roads. (At the end of the survey there is the option to make such comments). Those links again – Hills Road consultation here, Huntingdon here.

Those of us based outside Cambridge can take the lessons back to London or to our local context. One of which, for me, thinking about it, is that pedestrian and cycle priority over side roads should go together. If pedestrians are going to need to cross cycle traffic to catch a bus, then as well as making this work as smoothly as possible, planners can also compensate pedestrians by giving both groups priority over motorists at side roads. Finally, the plans – however imperfect – are a clear sign that universal design is slowly gaining ground in the UK cities that are leading on cycling, but improving junction design remains a priority.

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4 Responses to Cambridge Matters

  1. Hester says:

    Couple of points using local knowledge:

    One thing to note is that beyond the edge of the scheme at the Girton Road junction the road joins the A14. There will be very few, if any cyclists on Huntingdon Rd beyond this junction: you would expect everyone to be coming from Girton Rd. Girton College, I believe, has exits onto both Huntingdon Rd and Girton Rd. However the council officers are aware that this could change if better provision for non-motorised transport is made as part of the A14 upgrade, but this will be years away.

    Lawrence Weaver will remain a problem. This is not a proposal, but rather the existing junction, unchanged, and a relatively new one at that. The only thing to note is that this is a design which exists in a few places in the city (Hills Rd bridge, Trumpington Rd, East Rd to name a few) so although far from ideal, it is at least familiar to people. For interest, here is this design at Hills Rd bridge, also showing the 2.1m wide painted cycle lanes, which do allow for two lanes of cycles

    I like the idea of continuing the pavement across the side roads, but first I think some of those side roads should be closed to through-motor traffic. But this is not something which should be part of this scheme: such politically sensitive matters need to be done in collaboration with residents, and not used as a reason to sink the rest of the proposals.

  2. Sam Davies says:

    Summary of my response to consultation (as local resident, cyclist mother of cycling children, etc).

    1. iniquitous to prioritise further expenditure on north/south routes when east/west routes (Long Road, Brooklands Ave, Lensfield Road) are all massively substandard

    2. failures of connectivity at the Long Road junction mean this scheme will do very little to improve access to/from Addenbrooke’s/Biomedical Campus which is one of its main objectives

    3. many cyclists make right turns on this stretch of road (heading southbound, turning into Luard Road to access Long Road VIth Form College; heading northbound, turning into Glebe Road & Blinco Grove to access schools, or any of those r-h turns to access Cherry Hinton Road). The ‘improvements’ proposed will inhibity these movements. Making a right hand turn across the traffic at a gap in the kerb off a raised cycle lane will be hard to time and require skill & concentration. Cyclists will end up stopping on, and blocking, the outside of the cycle lane and then making the right turn from a standing start. Not ideal.


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