A cycling county? In Cambridgeshire there are two big cycle-way schemes built roughly 10 years apart, the Cambridgeshire guided busway to St Ives and the new A14 improvement scheme. Between them they comprise about 24 miles of segregated trackway. These routes are popular for leisure cyclists and offer an alternative mode for travel between Cambridge, St Ives, Bar Hill, Fenstanton and Swavesey.
On the face of it the county has made big investments in active travel, the reputation of Cambridge as not just a ‘cycle city’ but a ‘cycle county’ too, seems to be justified with these high profile schemes. Look a little closer and they are not quite what they appear to be. They are not part of a strategy to link population centres nor are they purpose built as cycle ways.
It is of note that a non motorised user (NMU) link to the new satellite town of Cambourne is absent and that Huntingdon, Royston, Ely and Newmarket, all neighbouring towns inside 15 miles by A road of the City, do not have direct NMU links either. Should any of these routes be constructed they will (or at least the new bits) need to comply with the new standard for cycle infrastructure design (LTN1/20).
I was thrilled to bits when I first found the new route from Girton toward Huntingdon, the blue signs pointing the way and the car free, smooth tarmac stretching out invitingly, this surely must be the future of cycling as a legitimate transport mode. At first this seems to be the case but as the junctions are met, puzzled over and negotiated a different picture emerges. This is more of the same old, ‘get off and walk’ stuff we have put up with since the ’70s only bigger and newer. Shame.
Sadly, non motorised users are a low priority. Every one of the crossings on the A14 NMU routes puts cycle and pedestrian priority below motor traffic. Be it a side road, field gate, farm access, drainage channel or shop forecourt, every single one is a stop, look, listen and wait crossing.
Government guidance doesn’t apply retrospectively but new schemes should comply. The remaining sections of the A14 scheme are being built as I write and they too do not comply with the guidance that has been in place since July 2020.
1.5.1 There are five core design principles which represent the essential requirements to achieve more people travelling by cycle or on foot, based on best practice both internationally and across the UK.LTN 1/20
The 5 principles that must apply are:
COHERENT : is it part of a joined up network? No. Both schemes are limited by the primary modes of the corridors they follow. The routes do not reflect destinations of desire but endpoints of civil engineering convenience. From the point of view of getting into Cambridge from those villages lucky enough to be on the routes this is a step forward, if you live to the North, South or East of the City: tough.
DIRECT: does it go to places you want to go, such as a town centre? We can get to St Ives and Fenstanton (when finished) but improvise from there to Huntingdon. Bar Hill to Cambridge is direct but the Bar Hill end doesn’t get into the village centre without using very busy roads.
SAFE: how exposed to uncontrolled (by speed, signal or separation) motor traffic is it? The busway route is interrupted by some ‘duck and run’ crossings and there are some barriers to run into if the rider is unaware. The A14 NMU routes are risky at side road crossings (particularly at the Lolworth Robin’s Lane junction ramp) and roundabouts, little or nothing is done to alert riders or motorists of each other.
COMFORTABLE: A route without sudden sharp turns, steep ramps or portages up steps? Neither route scores well on this, they do better than riding on the roadway but the A14 routes have far too much over the shoulder peering and hard braking to negotiate the roundabouts and side roads to be wholly comfortable.
ATTRACTIVE: is it quicker to just get on the road and pedal round all the stop/start nonsense? Both routes are better than riding on the road. Riding down the A14 is not an option so the NMU route scores there. As a pleasant way to get to St Ives ( if that’s where you want to go) the busway route is fine.
A bold vision? Above is p21 from the Government’s July 2020 ‘Gear Change‘ document, it shows what the 5 principles mean. The difference with previous containment policies, where cyclists are identifed as a risk to be isolated and controled, is that cycling is to be treated as a transport mode of equal weight to any other. The new approach is a result of a shift toward ‘whole system’ thinking since the Governments first Cycling and Walking Strategy in 2007.
This means detail design should now avoid boxing in the cyclist with forced right-angle bends, blocked sight lines and route devations for the convienience of motor traffic.
What an LTN 1/20 crossing might be like. Negotiating a side road crossing built with the cyclist in mind should follow the same principles as a junction designed for motor traffic: good visibility, gentle transition angles and preservation of ‘flow’. Forcing a rider into a chicane is just as unsafe as expecting a motorist to make sudden heavy braking and slalom manoeuvres; the ability to assess risk is compromised in both. On approach the rider should be able to asses the traffic on the junction and slow down accordingly, if the junction is clear they should be able to move over the crossing without undue heavy braking or swerving to negotiate a sharp angle or a steep ramp. Other than the Fendon Rd roundabout crossings I know of no examples of this kind of crossing in the UK, perhaps it is the sheer novelty of the idea that has hampered its uptake?
There are those who will say ‘so what, the cyclist can just get off and walk’ to negotiate a crossing but this is missing the point of the LTN1/20 principles, the route should be comfortable and attactive to encourage the modal shift, if its easier to clear a side road by riding on the main road the whole point of building a NMU route is lost.
Is it a bad idea? There is resentment that cyclists should enjoy equivalent provision to motor traffic, the Road Traffic Act has treated cyclists and pedestrians as a hazard for generations. The common motorists opinion that a cyclist ‘should not be there’ has deep roots and is the basis of a sense of superiority that is re-enforced by a perception that ‘traffic flow’ is interrupted by ‘the cycle lobby’ while failing to see the cyclist as ‘traffic’ too.
The Cambridgeshire routes are characterised by their design dependence on a dominant mode: bus or trunk road motor traffic. The cycle infrastructure is at best a ‘bolt on’ and more often part of a secondary agenda. The Cambridge to St Ives route was primarily built as maintenance access for the novel bus track. A great deal of the A14 North side route is farm and drainage access. They are not designed to be coherent or direct, they are opportunistic exploitation of a motor traffic corridor. I am not convinced there is a huge demand for a NMU link from Cambridge to Fenstanton or St Ives but these routes are built because they can achieve a leisure function on the cheap: these routes barely accept the cycle as a transport mode.
The new bridge may reflect strong demand for a Boxworth to Swavesey modal shift but the scale of the structure seems out of all proportion with the population sizes connected. The Bar Hill bridge is, potentially, a huge asset linking Fenstanton, Oakington and the new town of Northstowe to shops and services at Bar Hill (the links are not there yet but we live in hope). So far the investment seems to stop at the bridge ends where the coherence of the route broken.
Major ‘iconic’ items, such as overbridges must form part of wider, properly thought-through schemes.There is sometimes a temptation to build costly showpiece structures in isolation without thinking enough about the purpose they truly serve and the roads and routes which lead to them. We will only support such things when they overcome a major barrier on a desire line which cannot safely be crossed in other ways, and where they form an essential, properly-connected part of a wider network of good, safe routes.Gear Change: a bold vision. Summary principles 12.
Can’t get there from here. A network of direct cycle routes from Cambridge to neighbouring towns is yet to happen but slowly the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place, after years of campaigning a route into Royston is looking likely and community action on cycleway maintenance is underway.
The Cambridge Greenways project, aims to add spur links to villages from the existing routes rather than get links to neighboring towns.
Ely and Newmarket seem to be off the radar at the moment, the national cycle route (NCR) tangle to Ely remaining a huge detour and not very likely to offer a modal shift any time soon.
From fine beginings in July 2020 when the Prime Minister himself launched the Gear Change campaign the support for active travel seems to be diminishing and the promises of a bold vision are fading away. We now have a minister with responsibility for a national walking & cycling strategy but very little has been heard of action on delivery from his office. The ambition was made clear enough:
Actions, not just words
To make England an active travel nation, we need to take action to tackle the main barriers. We need to attract people to active travel by building better quality infrastructure, making streets better for everyone, and we need to make sure people feel safe and confident cycling. To deliver this, we need to ensure active travel is embedded in wider policy making, and want to encourage and empower local authorities to take bold decisions.Gear Change: a bold vision for walking & Cycling: Stepping up a gear. p13
As the county expands the population of the Cambridge satelites the need for a shift toward active travel modes is recognised where developments are close to NMU routes but the existing population centres seem to be largely ignored. Designs remain stuck in the past and strategic network planning remains absent. We wait, as we have for years, for the ‘gear change’ in attitude from Highways England and our County Council. If we want to get on a bike and get to the next town the best route is still the roadway, things may change but attitudes at the Dept. for Transport, Highways England and the County Council need to shift first. Actions not words indeed.
A petition to get improvements to the A14 NMU route is here http://bit.do/SignA14Petition