I know Cambridge pretty well, as I lived and cycled there for a year 26 years ago. I've been there for the odd day on more recent occasions, the last time two years ago, but not re-explored extensively. It will be interesting to see if this ride can show me that much has changed in the last 26 years. My impression, from my more recent visits, is that is has not, unfortunately. As with other British towns, in stark contrast to Dutch and German ones, the infrastructure changes only extremely slowly. There seems to be a general problem we have in the UK in changing our environment for the modern world, which, it seems to me, it does not bode well for either our environmental or our economic future. The level of investment in our infrastructure and environment is just too low to keep it up both working efficiently and up to date. This manifests itself at the level of the obvious crumbling of our road surfaces, that everyone can see, the poor performance of our rail network, and of the London Underground, as well as at the strategic, policy level that causes, to a Dutch or German person, our cities to look just like theirs, but 50 years in the past, in terms of the way that the roads and public spaces are used.
I had the good fortune to visit, in 2008, Germany's top cycling city, Münster, in North Rhine-Westphalia. Münster makes a good comparison to Cambridge. I was struck by how close the similarities are, in fact, in atmosphere, and architecturally. (Münster was very badly damaged by bombing in 1944, but has extensively rebuilt its old buildings, such as the cathedral, university, and the Rathaus, or City Hall, in which the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648.) Münster has the third-largest university in Germany, with 50,000 students. It is a much larger city than Cambridge, and less isolated, having itself a population of 270,000, and being the centre of the Münsterland semi-urban area, with a population of over two million. However, it has a tight historic centre very reminiscent of Cambridge, with a large market square, the Domplaz, surrounded by small streets which are encircled by the ring defences of the mediaeval city. The mostly post-war suburbs are arranged around straight arterial roads heading out of town. It is flat, it is full churches, pubs and restaurants, and it is full of cyclists.
Over the past two or three decades Münster's leaders have made a deliberate, explicit effort to make it the greenest city in Germany, and indeed the most liveable city in the world (an accolade they received in 2004). Contributors to this status are the beautiful and well-maintained public spaces and facilities, including the many parks, and the excellent public transport, but the most obvious part is the cycling. Cycling accounts for 38% all journeys made in Münster, up to the levels in the highest-cycling Dutch towns. You see all kinds of people cycling in Münster, for all kinds of purposes, in specialised clothes and in ordinary clothes, on all kinds of human-powered vehicles: parents transporting young children, children cycling to and from school on their own, people moving goods with cargo bikes, bikes used as tourist taxis, people racing around on recumbents, elderly people out for a social ride. It looks quite different to the Cambridge cycling profile, which is still mostly, to my observation, just the students.
|Münster rush hour; schoolchildren cycling home in the background
|Old gentleman with bike and child trailer in a Münster park
|Shared space in Münster's Domplaz: inessential motor traffic has been eliminated from the city centre
|The (rather insecure by UK standards) bike parking at the station
|Another style of segregation, where the road is narrow, getting out into the Münsterland countryside
|Excellent signposting on the parkland cycle routes, showing also the general separation from pedestrians
|Here, by the beautiful lake, the Münstersee, a Fahrradstrasse, a cycle path, and a path for pedestrians only all run in parallel
|This short section of cycle track, introduced only at a major junction, cannot legally be reached by the cyclist because entry is blocked by queueing traffic, so he has to ride on the pavement
|Cars have been parked on the cycle track
This lack of relative cycling achievement in Cambridge is, as I say, down to the lack of proper cycling infrastructure there. You might have expected that with the highest "natural" cycling level in the UK, Cambridge could have developed a cycling campaign powerful enough to demand and get the changes required, but this has not happened, probably because of the transient nature of the student cycling population, most cyclists not being committed to the place on a long-term basis, and because of the town-gown split. So we find that Cambridge has no network of segregated cycle tracks on main roads, it has only poor provision in parks, poorly integrated with provision on the roads, there is little motor traffic exclusion in the suburbs, connections between suburbs and estates are poor, there are no subjectively safe routes connecting the city to the surrounding villages and towns (apart from the new one provided "accidentally" as a result of the guided busway project), and even the city centre, which should be a cycling mecca, leaves a lot to be desired in terms of its cycling environment.
|The first thing you see, arriving in Cambridge by train, is the mess of bikes outside the station. I believe this is soon to be improved with Dutch-style multi-level parking, and it will not be before time.
|The second thing you see is the pathetic semi-provision on Station Road: the usual UK illogicality, with an advisory cycle lane just running out at a totally arbitrary point
|Heading into town, on Hills Road, the half-hearted provision continues, with an advisory lane shared with buses
|On Downing Street we find this absurdly narrow bike contraflow entrance
|In the centre, at St John's Street, cyclists are not excepted from a no-entry that they need to use. There is therefore law-breaking and general ill-feeling.
|Elsewhere on Madingley Road we find this insulting less than 1m wide track, that regularly floods, doing dutry as both cycle and foot path.
|And yet elsewhere on Madingley Road, where the driving can be terrifyingly fast, an advisory cycle lane gradually emerges, parts of it being little wider than the double yellow lines and the drain cover
|More design confusion reigns at the entrance to the Intitute of Astronomy opposite, where everybody seems to need to give way
Münster, and the cycling achievements of other German cities, remain surprisingly little-known and little-understood in the UK. Cyclists in the City covered Berlin's aspirations for 20% cycling in the next decade yesterday, but nobody has bothered to translate the Münster Fahrradstadt Wikipedia article into English.
I hope to see some readers on Safari tomorrow, and to find out how the Cambridge cyclists think their city can progress.