“I want to ride my bicycle – I want to ride it where I like!”

In 1975, Cambridgeshire County Council published a study on cycling in Cambridge. It has been digitised by the Cambridge Cycling Campaign – of which I am a member.

You’ll be familiar with Bicycle Race by Queen, who released the track a few years after this report was released. Though I can’t say that it was inspired in any way.

You can read the Cambridge Cycleways Report Sept 1975 here

Bicycles and cycling are political

I read it on the internet – must be true!

Actually, one of the special advisers to former Prime Minister Edward Heath, William Plowden wrote this detailed book about the impact of the motor car on politics – and the conflict with cyclists started not long after the motor car was invented.

…and it has been going on ever since.

Which is why when planners first realised the limits to more roads for cars, we got…more roads for cars.

And privatised buses in the following decade which academic research now tells us that things got even worse. But the astonishing bit in the 1975 report given what we know now, almost half a century later, is the issue set out in print.

“There has been a growing realisation in recent years that the unrestrained use of the private car is no longer a feasible option in most cities and attention has therefore been focussed on alternative forms of transport, notably improved public transport and the greater use of the bicycle, as a means of reducing congestion and over-use of the motor car.”

Cambridge Cycling Report 1975, p4.

Half a century later and central government is only beginning to make the long overdue changes to promote walking, cycling, and active transport more generally.

It was the town that drove the cycling culture as much as gown

Again, read it on the internet – must be true.

Actually, it was the case before the Internet was we know it was invented. Just under half a century ago, the Cambridge Transportation Study of 1972 (which I don’t have a copy of) stated the following:

“Cambridge’s bicycles are associated with its function as a University town, but it would be a mistake, however, to neglect consideration of the use of bicycles in other parts of the City and by other than the residents of the University. Household residents account for 71% of daily cycle trips and about 76% of daily cycle miles.”

Cambridge Cycling Report 1975, p5.

So not only were we (The town) accounting for a greater percentage of cycle rides, we were also cycling further. But then the students by and large lived in that small university quarter with perhaps the exceptions of Girton and Homerton. Since then, student numbers and student accommodation has expanded significantly. In the decades that followed in my childhood, the language students would be ones to take up cycling in a very big way. Sadly the language schools did not make provision for educating their students on how to ride cycles safely, leading to many a close miss (and accidents) when they cycled through red lights, oblivious to the presence of traffic lights. Angry letters to the newspapers complained about the behaviour, but with hindsight I’d like to think that a more enlightened generation would hold the institutions accountable and say that many families have gifted us (Cambridge) with the presence of their young people here to learn. We have a [collective] duty of care to look after them and look out for them while they are here. Hence my generation at primary school in the 1980s all did cycling proficiency run by the county council. I still have my certificate somewhere!

Fewer people cycling to work as motoring took over

The table above, further down the page from the previous quotation is striking. Not one of the local authority areas shows an increase in the percentage of residents cycling to work between 1966-71. In Norwich alone the percentage points almost halved – from 21.6% of journeys to work by cycle to 12.8%. Cambridge’s fell from 36.5% to 30.0%. In Cheltenham, it collapsed from 21.8% of people cycling to work, to just 5.6% in five years. Incredible.

It’s very difficult to explain those figures without knowing the local history of each place. For some, the figure might have been due to the completion of a large edge-of-town housing development that had lots of people moving in. For others it might have been the closure of a large, labour-intensive employer that forced people to look much farther for work. For others, it might have been increased affluence – noting that this was just before the oil price shocks of the 1970s.

Thousands of cyclists per day on Cambridge’s main roads

Only there are more residents and more tourists today – yet even back then, these are strikingly high figures. By Travers & Morgan in 1967 for Cambridgeshire County Council. These were the same consultants that carried out the 1972 and 1975 studies.

Above – note the 6,000 cyclists per day crossing Mill Road Bridge every 24 hours.

“What was the existing cycle network like?”

What cycle network? There wasn’t one worthy of the name!

Below – this piece of modern art is actually a detail of the existing cycle network on page 9 – in dotted (not dashed) lines.

Above – Ibid p9. The cyclepaths by-and-large are over the existing green spaces. There are no segregated cyclepaths through the residential areas. This is still broadly the case today with the residential areas that date from the 19th and 20th Centuries. The 21 Century estates tend to be better for cycling and traffic calmed streets to reduce speeds of motor cars.

Accident black spots – shown as black spots on the map

Technically concentric circles that reflect data, the more accidents recorded at a given geographical point, the proportionally larger the black spot on the map is. I’m assuming this is where the term ‘accident blackspot’ came from.

…though someone will need to explain to me the consultants’ choice of scale!

Above – ibid p11. No, I don’t understand it either.

Stubborn issues

Think our generation is the first to be dealing with things like cycle lanes vs roadside parking? Nah! The issues set out below were all to do with segregated cycle tracks, not painted on cycle lanes on existing roads.

Above – ibid p15

They’ve listed six (I’ve screengrabbed four) :

  • Competing needs – If lots of lorries use the road, should priority be given to cyclists in a new wide cycle lane?
  • Car parking on streets – bringing in cycle lanes painted in on main roads such as Perne Road means banning street parking. Fine if houses were designed and built with off-road front garden parking. Less so if it’s a 19th Century terrace.
  • Impact on congestion – will removing one traffic lane and replacing it with a cycle track have the desired impact?
  • Trees vs cyclepaths – Which takes priority?
  • Continuity – the big positive lesson we learnt from the guided busway access path that doubles as a footpath and cyclepath between Cambridge and St Ives along the old railway line, is that cyclists have demonstrated they are willing and able to cycle far further if there is a long, segregated cycleway with few interruptions between origin and destination (home-work-home). But then this report told us this a long time before.
  • Cost – this according to the report is the reason why it did not recommend a city-wide segregated cycle network. It was 1975, Central Government finances along with the economy were still reeling from the oil price shock, and the Prime Minister was to resign the following year.

Below – quotation on continuity of cycle paths

All of these are just as important and relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

“What did they say about cycle lanes? The painted on ones on existing roads”

This was the cheap solution.

Above – ibid p17

Again they go into detail of the pros and cons. In particular on the latter:

  • Painted on lanes can’t stop motorists from driving over them – making them unsafe for cyclists
  • Motorists will park their cars over cycle lanes unless there is a realistic chance of them being caught and penalised by law enforcement, or unless there is a more convenient place to park.
“What about side streets?”

This was considered – and implemented in some parts of Cambridge. Think the cycle route between the railway station and Parker’s Piece that goes past the Bodyworks dance studio on Glisson Road.

Above – ibid p19

Parts of Queen Edith’s Ward also have these. The way these were set up were cheap and cheerful too: Small blue road signs. Few road markings, but at least something to tell the general public that you might see cyclists using this route.

Junctions and underpasses were also considered in detail – in particular design. This was because of the number of accidents that occurred at busy road junctions – and still do.

“What did they propose?”

In a perfect world…

Above – ibid p26

Which is basically ***ban all cars, and hand over the main roads to cyclists!***

They knew that this was not going to happen, but at least someone said it. They also shaded some of the areas in which it was safe to cycle. So not my neighbourhood then! Actually when you look in more detail, the areas shaded tend to be ones where the post-war housing estates were built, which would make sense vs say the narrow terraces of Petersfield and Romsey Town.

“What was their long term plan?”

Remember that none of the dual carriageway and motorway bypasses had been built. So part of the solution was to have been the M11 and A14 (or A45 as was).

Above – Ibid p29 <<– Click here and scroll to p29 and zoom into the detail.

***Mill Road!***

Yes – that makes for interesting discussion given recent political events.

Above – Detail of proposals for improving traffic junctions along Mill Road and bringing in traffic restraints all along the entire stretch of the road.

You can read the final recommendations from page 32.

Note 7.4 in particular – they rule out a single network of segregated cycle tracks. Inevitable given the built up nature of an historic city.

Furthermore, the carbon emissions involved with comprehensive redevelopment mean it is very unlikely we’ll see entire rows of buildings demolished to make way for wider streets as happened with Bridge Street in the 1930s, and East Road in the post-war era.

The importance of local history to contemporary transport planners and politicians.

Above – Busway Briefing – video commissioned by the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations. 22 Sept 2016

“I want to make sure that mistakes that were made in the past are *not* repeated again”

Antony Carpen to Greater Cambridge Partnership / City Deal Officers

And if we don’t learn from our local history, we risk being condemned to repeat it.

Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in the history of Cambridge the town and the people who made our modern city, please support my research in bringing their records of achievement to wider audiences. Click here if you would like to make a donation or take out a small subscription to support my ongoing work.


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