Turning a crisis into a cycling-first transport plan for Cambridge

Fen Ditton during lockdown. A popular route into the centre of the city now has significantly lower air pollution.

Picture: Mike Scialom

The lockdown has shown us what a traffic and pollution-free environment could look and feel like. It has given us a glimpse of the improved world Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and others were advocating long before the crisis. Let’s now all work together creatively and positively to turn the Covid-19 disaster into a pivotal opportunity to build a healthy future for our city, our children and grandchildren.

The danger is that once the lockdown is lifted there will be a dramatic increase in single-passenger car use as we all return to work, avoiding public transport due to concerns about social distancing. Other cities have already started taking positive measures to encourage walking and cycling, ranging from Milan’s Strade Aperte plan to reallocate 22 miles of city streets from cars to pedestrians and cyclists, to Bogata’s Ciclova, which has closed 47 miles of road for walking and cycling. Before Covid-19, Birmingham published a plan to limit private car access and ban through-trips.

Brighton has banned cars from its seafront during the day. This week Scotland set up a ?10m fund for local communities to widen pavements and create pop-up cycle lanes. Let’s focus on a set of realistic achievable measures that we can plan now in Greater Cambridge for rapid implementation post-lockdown.

We just don’t want to go back to this – do we? Picture: Keith Heppell


Declare a carbon-free zone in central Cambridge This will require very little actual investment. All it needs is for politicians, city officials, advocacy groups and citizens to put their heads together and agree on zone parameters and regulation, including the timelines for local residents and businesses to convert to carbon-free transport modes.

This could be combined with a congestion charge. 2. Transport nodes

Bus routes into the city should terminate at transport nodes on the outskirts of the inner zone and bus operators provide electric mini-bus shuttle services from these to the centre. This would be far better utilisation of investment in electric buses than the empty double-decker dinosaurs that are currently being paraded as a green transport solution. Bike share and other micromobility operators can also provide onward services from these nodes. Some of these nodes could be close enough to the city centre to encourage walking of ‘the last mile’, thus encouraging exercise – especially if the routes are car-free and surrounded by trees, plants, flowers and grass.

This model could integrate with Smarter Cambridge Transport’s proposals for a ring-and-spoke bus system for the city – see smartertransport.uk/cambridge-city-bus-hub. 3. Changes to car parks

Convert city car parking garages to bike, other micromobility vehicle, and e-car parking only, with effective 24/7 security monitoring, and provide space for bike share and other shared micromobility operators. Lost parking fees could be replaced by revenue from a congestion charge. 4.

Quick wins for bikes Identify cycling infrastructure quick wins that can be rapidly planned, funded and implemented. In a report on Cambridge transport two years ago, the National Infrastructure Commission identified two of these: The Mere Way Roman Road path from Butt Lane/Milton Road under the A14 to Cambridge Regional College; and the bridleway from Coton to a point just south of Cambourne.

The first has been included as part of the Waterbeach new town development but needs to be fast-tracked with public support. The second has been bogged down in the Cambourne busway proposals and should be reconsidered as a separate fast-track project.

Sean Moroney, CEO of Cambridge Electric Transport Company. Picture: Keith Heppell

5. Fix the busway cycle path

Before next winter let’s resolve to fix the stretch of the busway cycleway at Fen Drayton Lakes that floods every year in heavy rains, rendering the path impassable. Surely the engineering brains of our universities could devise a cost-effective plan to mitigate a flooding level of less than a meter! 6.

And let’s add new routes At the same time at repairing the path, let’s work out a simple way to create additional new connections to the busway like a link from the Windmill Bridge on the Longstanton-Over road. 7.

Get connected Highways England has included magnificent non-motorised vehicle paths alongside the A14, stretching all the way from Fenstanton. But local authorities have no plans in place to connect villages along the way to this new cycle route into west Cambridge. (Apart from Dry Drayton Parish Council which has lobbied successfully for a link, demonstrating what local initiative and effort can achieve.)

8. Get sharing Quality bike share and pedicab services to be permitted to operate at central station.

Taxi operators fought off the UK’s first ever pedicab service from here in the 90s. Now it is time to bring these back. Electric power makes them even more viable.

Improved bus services from the station could also help reduce taxi traffic. Vested interests and lack of public ownership of the station area will stand in the way. Only bold leadership and action will overcome these hurdles.

Concept drawing of a cycle hub. Picture: Archangel Architects


Keeping out lorries and vans Daytime deliveries in the central carbon-free zone must progressively be by e-cargo bikes and small e-vans. Cambridge is home to Zedify, one of the UK’s e-cargo pioneers.

They have the expertise and capacity to provide a service for the entire city. Regulation that stops fossil fuel deliveries, and requires consolidation to avoid multiple deliveries on the same route by different operators, will boost e-cargo operators, drive down per unit costs and stimulate mass adoption by courier and freight operators. 10.

Smart cycle hubs Create a network of smart multi-purpose cycle hubs around the city, including at Park & Rides and travel hubs, with bike lockers accessed via a mobile app for whatever period of time needed, battery-charging lockers and secure storage space for bike share operators (pictured left).

MP Daniel Zeichner with Sean Moroney at Cambridge Electric Transport’s new Mobility Hub at Cambridge North Station. Picture: Keith Heppell

This is just my top 10 list of ideas for discussion.

A key lesson from the Covid-19 crisis is that we should not leave planning of our futures to our politicians, their advisors and bureaucrats. Constant monitoring, debating and strategising is needed to provide creative, future-proof planning and encourage and support evidence-based decision-making by local government. We should start in Cambridge by forming a public-private sector Transport Task Force which includes representatives from all levels of local government, transport operators, advocacy groups like Camcycle, Smarter Cambridge Transport and others, private sector bodies like Cambridge Ahead, Chambers of Commerce and BID, the universities, and youth groups.

Camcycle‘s current Spaces to Breathe campaign will have generated valuable ideas that can feed into this process. And the recommendations of last year’s Citizens’ Assembly should be a starting point so we can build on work already done. The city’s tech-savvy community could form a civic hacker force to use the Polis consensus-building platform to create a vCambridge process along the lines of vTaiwan.

Of course, other sectors and issues need similar input, but let’s make a start with transport.

This body could become a clearing house for open discussion, building consensus and prioritisation of ideas and projects, formulating a clear transport strategy that sets short-, medium- and long-term projects.

Mega billion-pound prestige projects will have to be put on hold post-Covid and practical cost-effective measures given priority.