The life (and potential death) cycle…

I’ve read an interesting blog post that talks about a recent cycle journey the writer (the Cottenham Cyclist) did along Mill Road and the various safety issues this highlighted to them. This, coupled with a cyclist/car collision I heard about on the corner of Argyle Street/Mill Road a couple of weeks ago, has got me thinking about just how safe it is (or indeed isn’t) to cycle in Cambridge…

BicycleEven though I have lived in Cambridge for many years, I don’t own a bike and certainly wouldn’t call myself a cyclist. But this is not because I can’t or don’t want to cycle – it’s because I daren’t. I love cycling (or at least I used to) but I’ve seen all manner of near misses on our roads and feel that cycling is not safe enough for me to consider as a transport option in Cambridge. I have been on several buses and in taxis over the years where the drivers are right behind a cyclist – if the cyclist doesn’t keep up their pace even for just a second, the vehicle behind could end up crushing them. There have been incidents where the bus driver has driven off after hitting a cyclist and I was even witness to one of these myself. This may sound like I am blaming taxi drivers and bus drivers for our cycle-safety woes – but I should point out that the majority are (thankfully) considerate road users, and in any case it’s all types of road/pavement user that I feel need to look at their behaviour.

I have seen cyclists turn into Argyle Street from near Mill Road bridge, only to be confronted by a car driver going the wrong way. I have also seen drivers turn into the same street, only to be confronted with a cyclist going the wrong way. Some years ago I did suggest clearer signage on Argyle Street to show that it is indeed one-way, but was told that other residents had complained that there was already too much signage locally. I think Mill Road itself would be safer if the 20 mph speed limit was enforced, although I have to admit the existing signage isn’t very clear at all – I have lived around Mill Road for many years but only became aware of the new limit when a local   councillor pointed it out to me (many months after it had been implemented!). The 20 mph signs are small in diameter and even though they ‘technically’ fit with legal requirements, I feel they are not big enough. Also, some of the signs are at the wrong angle and so it is not clear which road/bit of road they apply to. If it’s confusing for me as a local resident, it will no doubt be confusing for visitors and those that don’t use Mill Road very often. I would actually like to see a designated cycle lane on Mill Road and think this would enable many more people to use bikes (instead of cars).

Thinking about it, I realise that not being able to cycle safely in Cambridge has had a notable effect on my social life. For example, the Portland Arms is a great gig venue (quite possibly Cambridge’s best, especially after the sad demise of the Boat Race…) and I like to go along when I can. However, I do not want to be walking back late across town and even though I do occasionally get taxis or buses, the costs can soon mount up. If I felt that cycling on the roads was safe I would probably go to more events there (and the lovely landlord and landlady would no doubt be happy to receive more of my amiable Guinness-drinking custom!).

Cambridge City CentreThe same is also true of shopping. Luckily I can get just about anything I want or need on or around Mill Road, though there are times when I want to pop into town for something yet I end up not going. Of course the walk is healthy, but sometimes I am short for time and just want to do a quick visit – however, I know a walk into town will be at least an hours round trip. Parking charges are prohibitively expensive and in any case driving into town just doesn’t feel very environmentally aware, and buses are too unreliable and also expensive. I remember one occasion where I was just about to walk into town when a friend arrived on my doorstep. When the friend suggested I take their bike into town whilst they put the kettle on, I duly set off. However, after just a few metres I found myself walking on the pavement with the bike (cycling on the pavement is illegal if you’re over 15 – unless you’re accompanying a child) as I was too scared to cycle on the road. The round trip to town took an hour and a quarter with the cumbersome and unridable bike, and that was the last time I cycled in this country.

It’s also worth noting that not being able to cycle safely in Cambridge has had an effect on the local jobs market – driving by car in rush hour is seemingly pointless (not to mention not very green), buses are too unreliable (I used to work in Histon, but this would take up to an hour and a half each way, as buses were regularly late/cancelled) and cycling is too much of a hazard. In fact I have even discounted some fantastic jobs simply because I couldn’t get there safely and within a reasonable amount of time each day. In a city that’s now seemingly expected to spearhead the UK’s economic recovery, this is worrying.

I know there are many others who are scared to cycle in Cambridge, and if it’s stopping me from visiting shops and businesses in the centre and on the other side of town then it is more than likely stopping others from visiting Mill Road too. In fact I mentioned on Twitter that I would be writing a blog post about local cycling and some people responded to say that they too avoid certain shops and areas (including Mill Road)specifically because they are not cycle-friendly.

BicyclesI know I am not the only one who is too scared to cycle (a quick poll of friends and neighbours suggests there’s many)   and I think the issue is one that needs to be recognised. The fact that we are (rightly) trying to reduce people’s reliance on the car and encourage greener travel makes it all the more important that we do something now. I note that Graham Bright (the new Cambridgeshire Police & Crime Commissioner) is putting cycling at the top of his priority list. Whilst this is admirable and we certainly need to take action on those that break the law, I feel that the necessary long term behavioural changes that we need will come from a more strategic view of cycling; and strategy is the responsibility of Cambridgeshire County Council (who are responsible for our highways, transport and streets). The County Council’s strategy and plans certainly include cycling and it seems that safety is now on the agenda – which is good. There is also a voluntary group called Camcycle, who are already doing some very admirable work on improving cycling accessibility and who are proposing a designated cycle route called the Chisholm Trail. I think the trail is a fantastic idea (though admittedly the finer details of its exact path may need a little work, as a not-to-scale map I recently saw appeared to route it through my house…) and I think this could actually get me cycling again, though it is likely to be some years yet before we see this come to fruition. A joined up approach to improving cycling safety – though with each group focussing on its main area of responsibility – will hopefully result in some much needed changes.

Thankfully most people use care and common sense on our pavements and roads, but the number of people that don’t is still significant. So I have drawn up a (wish) list of actions that we can all take that I feel would go some way towards improving cycling/road safety in our city, right now. The list is based on my own experiences of using our city’s roads and pavements.

  • Cyclists: Please be aware that one way streets are also one-way for cyclists, unless specifically stated otherwise.
  • Cyclists: It is illegal to cycle on the pavement unless you are under 16 or are accompanying a cycling child.
  • Cyclists: Please make sure your bike has a bell and that you use it if the person you are about to pass doesn’t know you’re there, especially on pavements. You do not have right of way on the pavement.
  • Cyclists: Even though you are a cyclist, 20mph speed limits still apply to you.
  • Cyclists: Please don’t use your hand-held mobile phone to have a conversation (or even worse – text!) whilst cycling. This makes you a danger not just to yourself but others too (hands-free devices are not actually much safer either, but I won’t go into that here).
  • Cyclists: Traffic lights also apply to you – please don’t cycle through pedestrian crossings when there is a red light.
  • Drivers: Please don’t drive so close behind cyclists. If there’s an accident it will be your fault and your conscience.
  • Drivers: If a cyclist makes a mistake or even downright inconsiderately cuts you up, please don’t beep your horn repeatedly/shout and swear at them, this is intimidating (to observers too, not just the cyclist) and only increases the chance of an accident – which will likely be your fault.
  • Drivers: Please don’t drive right up behind a cyclist after they’ve cut you up, to try and teach them a lesson – this is extreme road rage and quite frankly you shouldn’t be on the road yourself if this is your attitude.
  • Drivers: Please look out for cyclists coming behind you from the wrong side, they may be in the wrong but you still have a responsibility to be aware of hazards.
  • Drivers: Please don’t rev your engine when behind a cyclist – it’s intimidating and could cause an accident.
  • Drivers: If you are driving over Mill Road bridge, or indeed any ‘uphill’ journey, please don’t drive right behind cyclists. Sometimes the uphill is too much for a cyclist and they have to stop – if you’re right behind them when this happens you could well kill them.
  • Taxi drivers: When a passenger points to a sign saying a street is one-way, please don’t ignore them by driving the wrong way because you think it’s quicker.
  • Bus drivers: If a passenger says they’re pretty sure you’ve just hit a cyclist, please don’t ignore them and just carry on driving.
  • Pedestrians: Please look out for cyclists cutting across pedestrian crossings, even though they are meant to stop.
  • Pedestrians: Please look out for cyclists on the pavement – they shouldn’t be there (unless they’re a child or accompanying one), but often appear anyway.
  • Pedestrians: Please don’t walk in cycle lanes, it’s dangerous and could cause a collision.

BicycleIt may sound as though I am giving cyclists, drivers and indeed pedestrians a  hard time. I suppose I am, but it is in all our interests and all the points I’ve made are based on my own personal experiences and observations here in Cambridge. I know there are cyclists who will say that drivers are to blame for the unsafeness and I know there are drivers who will say that cyclists need to change their behaviour – I actually think everyone needs to be considerate and I don’t think ‘blame’ can be pinned on one particular group. Tackling the issues needs a joint effort. I have heard the idea of bike licencing suggested, and whilst I’m not sure how desirable/practical this is I do think there needs to be some (re)education of both drivers and cyclists.

Cambridge is far behind other European cities (such as Copenhagen) – when I go abroad I see dedicated cycle lanes on most roads and cyclists can travel across cities without having to go on-road at all. It’s also interesting that Cambridge is one of the best known UK cities for cycling, yet came only 60th (!) in a survey of the UK’s most cycle-friendly towns and cities.The Chisholm Trail will thankfully address some of the issues we have here in Cambridge, but as far as I can see from the proposed map, there’s no cycle lane/s proposed for Mill Road itself – I think this is needed. It should also be noted that Cambridge is a tourist destination and has many visitors from other parts of the UK and abroad, and many of these people won’t be used to seeing the sheer number of bikes we have here – so it’s important to bear this in mind when using our roads. In the same token, I think many of our visitors aren’t necessarily aware of our rules about cycling on the pavement (especially as we don’t have many cycle lanes) so I would like to see the universities, colleges and other similar establishments that host residents/guests reinforce this message to those that stay/study with them.

In terms of action I would like to see:

  • Cambridgeshire County Council make it a priority to look at strategic and behavioural changes that are needed to improve cycling safety. I know they are already doing some good work, but I feel we need more – for example, I would like to see dedicated cycle lanes on most of our roads in Cambridge. Whilst I don’t like surveys for the sake of surveys and I suspect I already know some of the answers, I wonder if there’s any mileage in doing a resident survey on cycling? – it’s not just cyclists that feel cycling isn’t safe enough, it’s would-be-cyclists like me too. Also, I think they need to improve Mill Road’s 20 mph signage before the police can realistically enforce it.
  • The Police & Crime Commissioner make it a priority to tackle those that break the law. My list above contains plenty of examples (both of cyclists and drivers) but as a starting point I would suggest enforcement of the 20mph speed limit on Mill Road (though only once the signage has been improved), police patrols so that all those (both cyclists and drivers) who drive the wrong way on one way streets are tackled, a clamp-down on cyclists using hand-held devices whilst cycling (and of course on car drivers too) and also tackling drivers who intimidate cyclists.
  • Camcycle are already doing some great campaigning work in promoting better and safer cycling, but they are a voluntary group and the responsibility for implementing necessary changes should not fall to them. I do hope they are able to get Cambridge to push forward with the Chisholm Trail proposals, as this will make a huge difference to us all.

I just want to be able to cycle safely, in Cambridge – it would make my life a lot easier and would probably increase business at all manner of shops, pubs and lovely places I want to visit in and around Cambridge, not to mention increase business here on Mill Road.