Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
It has loads of car-free areas in the historic center, for one thing.
The small city of Cambridge in the U.K. is known for its august and venerable university, founded in 1209; its magnificent medieval architecture; and the bucolic River Cam, which meanders through the town. It is less known for being a place where people ride bicycles.
That perception may be changing. The city of about 124,000 has been steadily becoming a friendlier place for those on two wheels. Official reports say 29 percent of Cambridge commuters cycle to work, and some advocates believe up to half of all trips in the city center are made on bikes. Those are numbers that rival some of the most cycle-friendly cities in the world. And as in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany, where overall ridership is high, the proportion of women who cycle in Cambridge is pretty much equal to that of men.
This new video from Streetfilms shows some of the things the Cambridge has done over the last 15 years or so to make itself a place where people choose bikes over other modes.
First off, it has lots of car-free areas in the historic center, protected with a system of bollards that raise and lower to admit buses, emergency vehicles, and some commercial traffic. Second, the city uses an approach called “filtered permeability,” which is a fancy way of saying that it puts up gates to block out cars from certain streets while allowing bike and pedestrian access (these gates can be quickly opened to admit ambulances and fire trucks). Third, about half the streets in town have a 20 mile per hour speed limit—and it’s enforced with speed cameras.
These measures combine to make cycling the easiest, fastest way to move about the city center. That means the historic core of Cambridge isn’t congested with car traffic, and that as the city’s population keeps growing (which it has been), pollution and gridlock won’t be the inevitable result.
Of course, Cambridge also has a large student cohort, and keeping cars on campus is against the university rules. Those young people not only provide a dedicated core group of cyclists, but they also develop cycling as a habit that will probably stick with them in later life.
Drivers in Cambridge are more likely to have experience riding bikes, and thus more likely to be understanding and courteous toward cyclists on the road. “The more cyclists you have who are also car drivers, the safer the roads get,” says one bike shop owner in the video.
The next step, Cambridge cycling advocates say, is to get more dedicated bike infrastructure to encourage those who still haven’t tried getting on a bike. The large base of people already riding forms a strong constituency for such changes. And so the percentage of people who get around town by bike seems likely to grow in the future.
“Really, if you’re not cycling in Cambridge,” says one young man in the video, “there’s something wrong.”