Skip to main contentCambridge University Reporter

No 6581

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Vol cl No 23

pp. 379–413

Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

A Discussion was held in the Michaelhouse Chancel.1 Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dame Fiona Reynolds was presiding, with the Registrary’s deputy, the Senior Proctor, the Deputy Senior Proctor and five other persons present.

The following items were discussed:

Topic of Concern to the University: Enabling accessible, safe cycling and sustainable transport

(Reporter, 6575, 2019–20, p. 306).

Dr M. R. Danish (Department of Computer Science and Technology):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I was pleased to see the publication of the University Transport Strategy but there are several issues to be raised.

Commitment CP2 says that the University will ‘lobby for the delivery of increased Park & Ride capacity’. However, Park & Ride can be a poisoned chalice because it has the potential to ruin the viability of local bus routes. Once those are cancelled, people will be forced to drive to the Park & Ride to access public transport. This creates congestion and pollution around those sites, and excludes people who cannot drive at all or do not have the use of a car for any reason. Therefore, the Council should substantially revise Commitment CP2 to note that Park & Ride should be supported only at substantial distances from the city where it will not impinge upon the viability of local bus routes. Another improvement would be to support travel hubs instead of car-centric Park & Rides. Travel hubs are different from Park & Rides because by design they are multi-modal, linking foot, cycle and on‑demand or shared transport services with train and/or express bus services.

With regard to Commitment CP4 the Council should consider that a fair way to charge for parking is to return the revenue to increased wages, or to use the money for other sustainable transport purposes such as improving cycle parking and subsidising bus services such as the Universal route. Another way used by some districts is to offer the concept of ‘parking cash‑out’, where employees can be paid for not using parking, as a specific and positive means of incentivising sustainable transport. However, if parking charges are introduced, it will be important to ensure that it is assessed either on an hourly or a daily basis. In other words: a ‘pay as you drive’ basis. We do not want to see people thinking of parking as a sunk cost, where they pay for a week or a month in advance, and then feel obligated to use it every day because otherwise they feel like they are ‘losing money’. If somebody has to drive on a particular day that fact should not influence their decision on a different day.

The cycling and walking commitments do not include any mention of accessibility nor support for people using cargo cycles, trailers, tricycles or cycles adapted for disability. In light of the recent inaccessible barrier fiasco near the Biomedical Campus, the University should firmly commit to ensuring full accessibility for all people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act, and should aim to provide infrastructure that is usable by people of all ages and abilities. This must be spelled out explicitly, even though it is already enshrined in law, because it should not be necessary to drag the University to court in order to enforce inclusiveness that it should be actively achieving and celebrating.

Furthermore, the University should take steps in its provision of cycling routes and cycle parking to ensure that people using cargo cycles or towing trailers are well supported, as those types of cycles are good options for reducing car usage on the University Estate, especially for parents doing the school run as part of a commute. Yet, currently, I see evidence every week that people with trailers or cargo cycles are having difficulties with University-maintained barriers on cycle routes, especially at Adams Road where the brick wall barrier was substantially worn away from the force of repeated collisions. It is absurd that these barriers still remain and have not been removed long ago, as they are clearly massive violations of health and safety protection, and have failed at whatever purpose they were meant to achieve. That these barriers have not been removed, and that a new one was installed this year at the Biomedical Campus, is a demonstration of completely inappropriate contempt for the safety of people cycling. It should never have been part of any University policy and must be rooted out entirely.

On a more positive note, a way to encourage the use of cargo cycles, not mentioned in the Transport Strategy, is to establish cargo cycle sharing or a pool scheme for University members.

Partnerships are clearly important, whether with Colleges, local authorities or other partners on shared campuses. However, Commitments P2 and P3 only mention ‘benefits to all parties’ without clearly stating what those benefits are. They could be anything. Instead, it should be spelled out: the benefits are specifically about improvement to sustainable transport modes. I am especially concerned, though, about the University’s apparent support for the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s scheme to run dozens of buses per hour on Adams Road. As we now know, Adams Road carries about 6,000 people cycling per day, many of them University students and staff. The expansion of the West Cambridge site will significantly increase that number and depends upon Adams Road being a safe and convenient cycle route. Public transport will also be very important to the future of the West Cambridge site, however sustainable transport modes should complement each other, not be put in conflict as was proposed. I hope the Council will re-evaluate their position on this matter and consider the safety risks of mixing that many buses with one of the busiest cycle routes in the country.

Now I would like to pivot to a larger issue.

I would like to raise the profile of a major danger that is looming on the horizon but not mentioned so far: the Oxford–Cambridge Expressway scheme that is currently being promoted by government.

The University’s Carbon Reduction Strategy wisely reminds us that:

The long-term estate plan for the University must consider the carbon footprint of the University. This will necessarily include travel to work and thus must take into account where staff live, how the University’s estate is developed and policies to influence the development of the Cambridge region.

With regard to people commuting to University sites, the University Transport Strategy says:

The last ten years have seen a slow but steady increase in driving alone, from 22% in 2008 to 31% in 2018. There has been a slight reduction in cycling (40% to 37%) over the same period.

In other words, we are already slipping.

We cannot sit back and be passive about what is happening at the regional and national level.

If we truly care about reducing carbon emissions, and prioritising sustainable transport, then the Council should write an open letter to the Secretary of State for Transport to oppose the Oxford–Cambridge Expressway and the A428 expansion scheme currently being developed, and demonstrate leadership by bringing together a coalition of partners also opposed to the schemes and backing East/West Rail instead. It is bad enough that the A14 expansion went ahead, however the Oxford–Cambridge Expressway would be even worse due to the larger area of land that it passes through.

The Transport Strategy correctly notes that: ‘Planning decisions by local government regarding future housing development will have a profound impact on our transport strategy’ and that ‘Our strategy should be targeted at reducing the number of [single-occupancy car] journeys’.

The core problem of the Oxford–Cambridge Expressway is the land development that will be associated with the road building scheme. The government has threatened to open up dozens of new sites for house building along the proposed Expressway, and every single one of those sites will inevitably be filled with completely car-dependent households. Those new developments will lock in high carbon emissions, air pollution and congestion for generations. It is impossible to design good public transport in developments that are expressway-oriented because the patterns of land-use for successful public transport are completely at odds with car‑centric development. Sustainable transport has to be designed in from the start. Without that, the people living in those developments will never be able to access any decent public transport options, therefore they will descend on Greater Cambridge in their cars and demand more parking, more roads and more priority for car driving in Cambridge. Their combined political force will slow and possibly thwart any attempts to find sustainable transport solutions for Cambridge and the University. Infrastructure is destiny.

You don’t have to look far to see this disaster unfolding already. Cambourne is a prime example of expressway‑centric development, attached to the A428 dual‑carriageway, where many University employees already live. It is a place where nearly everyone drives everywhere and it is isolated from decent public transport. It has been a complete failure in terms of planning and sustainable transport. The local authorities have spent years fighting over ideas to retrofit a questionable busway onto this car‑dependent town, and even if they ever did come up with something, it would not be able to compete with Cambourne’s car‑centric land‑use patterns. Even East/West Rail will only be able to make a small dent in the problem, because the proposed Cambourne station will inevitably be located inconveniently on the outskirts of town.

If the Expressway goes ahead along with these development sites, then we will just get more intractable problems like those that Cambourne already faces, but even worse due to greater distances. When people buy houses out there and show up at work here with their cars, it will be too late. They will attract sympathy, having been pushed out of Cambridge by high prices, while just trying to access jobs and opportunity. They will have no choice but to drive, they will say, because public transport in an expressway-centric development will always be a slow, inconvenient and inferior option. And they will be right.

I come from the United States, where such disastrous outcomes are commonplace. It has warped the cities and destroyed the countryside there. I grew up with it and left; believe me when I say that you do not want to do this to yourselves.

It does not have to be this way, but we have to act now.

The East/West Rail scheme offers one potential solution. If there is a need for new development sites, then planners can make sustainable transport options work well by designing sites that are compactly centred around railway stations, with street networks designed to ensure that local journeys are made primarily on foot or bike, similar to towns like Houten in the Netherlands. The details will still require a lot of work, but at least the possibility will be there. The University will not have involvement in the details, except insofar as we may train a new generation of urban designers and civil engineers in our courses, but successful opposition to the Expressway will enable planners to focus on channelling development into locations that can be efficiently served by sustainable transport.

You cannot have it both ways on this issue by claiming to support both road and rail. Should the Expressway go ahead, it will most certainly be available earlier, and in any case, developers will quickly jump on the easy expressway-oriented development sites. Most developers are not concerned with the wider picture: they are accountable to their shareholders, and the easiest way to make money is to copy their usual template and build the same old pattern of car‑dependent development connected to a big road. They will not be held accountable for the negative effects they push onto others, such as pollution and undermining the viability of the railway. The planning system in this country has demonstrated time and time again that it is not strong enough to stand up for important but dispersed public interests such as preventing carbon emissions and prioritising sustainable transport. I refer you to the recently released Housing Design Audit for England by UCL’s Professor Matthew Carmona, et al. for further evidence of that.

The University Transport Strategy says: ‘Ensuring [staff and student] travel is as sustainable as possible plays an important part in reducing congestion in Cambridge’.

The University is a major employer and it has influence amongst the other major employers in the region. Our future employees are the people who will be demanding transport options one way or the other. It is not somebody else’s problem. It is our problem, and we are not helpless to solve it.

We can help prevent this dystopian future of people locked into high-carbon lifestyles by whole-heartedly expressing opposition to the Oxford–Cambridge Expressway and the A428 expansion project, and further major road-building schemes as they arise. Right now it is as simple as writing an open letter to the Secretary of State for Transport and publishing it. In the future, it will not be so easy, and will become intractable once people start buying homes in car‑centric developments and using the Oxford–Cambridge Expressway to commute to the University and other jobs.

Electric cars cannot save us; according to a recent report:

Unless battery technology can be developed, tested, commercialised, manufactured and integrated into electric vehicles and their supply chains faster than ever before, it will be impossible for many electric vehicle targets and internal combustion engine bans to be achieved.

And, in any case, electric cars just shift the carbon emissions to the grid unless that is also sorted out.

Park & Ride cannot save us, because the numbers far exceed anything it can ever hope to absorb and, in any case, usage of Rark & Ride still involves a high-carbon trip component.

East/West Rail can only be effective as a transport solution if future development sites are designed to be centred around railway stations with sustainable transport built in from the start, and that will not happen if the sites are oriented around the Expressway instead.

Now is the time to use the University’s considerable influence to start achieving the Carbon Reduction and Transport Strategy aims, and I hope that the Council takes this advice and acts upon it.

Dr D. R. Thomas (Peterhouse), read by Dr Danish:

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, in my years of trying to improve sustainable transport at the University there are five issues I repeatedly ran into which made progress difficult.

One, was the lack of interest in modern design standards. ‘We don’t need to comply with modern standards as this is an existing development’. True, it is not legally necessary but we should be striving for quality not making excuses as to why quality is not necessary.

Second, was the lack of awareness of what good design standards were. I attempted to solve this by listing known good standards within the draft Cycling and Walking Transport Strategy produced by the Cycling and Walking Working Sub-group but regrettably this was ignored. I have even encountered old withdrawn standards being used to justify bad designs elsewhere by practitioners who are just doing what they have always done. We listed CROW, CD 195, London Cycling Design Standards, and John Parkin’s Designing for Cycle Traffic in our draft.

Third, was the lack of consideration of the health and safety risks associated with health and safety measures. This particularly came up in relation to bollards and barriers. Illegal (under the Equality Act) installations would be justified on the grounds of health and safety with no consideration given to the danger caused by the bollards or barriers. Evidence of barriers being broken or chipped by repeated collisions with cyclists was ignored on the basis that no incidents had been reported via the official forms. However, sometimes unofficial reports were actively suppressed to avoid embarrassment, so it is not surprising that they did not make it onto official forms. Elsewhere in the city dangerous bollards have been replaced with less dangerous ones, one blood sacrifice at a time, with someone having to break a collar bone or similar to justify each upgrade. The University should take a more proactive and evidence-based approach. The aforementioned design standards and Camcycle’s extensive experience will help here.

Fourth, was a lack of political will on behalf of the University to do the right thing even when that meant doing things differently from how they had been done before. For example, the Eddington outline designs were compromised when it came to the detailed design because the University was not willing to ask the councillors to approve at the detailed design stage the designs they had approved at the outline stage because cycle priority was new to the UK (but proven abroad) and the council officers did not like it.

Fifth, was a lack of experience of good design on the part of both University officers and its contractors. Some University officers (I can’t name them in the Reporter) have gone to great lengths to educate themselves. However, the University’s contractors even when they think they are good are often rolling out 1970s designs without taking account of any of the advances in designing for walking and cycling from the last 50 years. Ensuring international standards of excellence in the designs the University uses requires more than employing contractors who think they are good.

The University needs to actively promote and fight for good quality design to achieve its sustainable transport aims. To date it has not done this and while there are some promising signs, true leadership is required and that is what has been lacking.

Mr M. V. Lucas-Smith (Department of Geography):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the University urgently needs to improve its performance in the area of sustainable transport, not just in current day‑to‑day travel, but the planning of future estates. I was pleased therefore to call for this Discussion. I regret having to speak on a strike day, which may explain the low turnout today.

I echo and wish to associate myself with the points just made by Dr Danish and Dr Thomas, in particular the need to adopt far more modern designs for highways in its future estate.

As long ago as 2005, the University commissioned a local expert consultant to review cycle parking on the central sites, but almost nothing has been done since then. It came up with clear recommendations for increasing current provision and eradicating insecure cycle parking. My own Department, Geography, still has 1960s concrete blocks and 1970s wheelbender stands to which the frame cannot be locked. These are literally the worst types of cycle parking in Cambridge – in the Department that might most be expected to be the ‘greenest’.

I was therefore pleased to attend a meeting of the Downing Site committee a few weeks ago, where the University’s new Transport Manager presented plans for significantly improving cycle parking on that site, with a reasonable timescale and an assigned budget. This is excellent news, and shows progress quicker than I thought might happen when I last spoke in this place in October.

The same needs to happen on other sites, to enable cycles to be parked securely and tidily. This is an obvious ‘quick win’.

At the last Discussion, I raised the issue of the entrance to the University’s new estate at Madingley Road being designed as a hostile junction clearly designed for high car throughput leaving or entering the site. The Council’s response to Dr Danish’s similar point on this at the previous Discussion dismissively states that while the University ‘works closely with the local councils to encourage them to proceed with projects which will benefit cycling, walking and public transport, and to prioritise sustainable transport modes’, in practice the University’s role is more active.

Planning applications submitted to the University in relation to its new estates such as Eddington actively include junction designs, which the University’s consultant has designed. The University has direct influence in what is designed and submitted to the City Council’s planning department, and can exercise leverage against the conservative (small ‘c’) tendencies of the County Council’s Highways department to push down designs to lowest common denominator designs.

The Estates Division should undertake a simple tendering exercise to identify and hire modern transport consultants who have the knowledge to design streets according to Dutch principles. We must not accept highway designs that design for the 2% levels of cycling in Birmingham, but instead for the very high levels of cycling in a cycling city. If cycle provision is not something that a parent with a small child can use, it is not designed properly.

The policy of free car parking also needs to change. I recognise that there are many employees who are forced, because of house prices, to live outside Cambridge and that their needs and the equity issues arising must be considered. But this does not make free parking the automatic solution. Subsidised bus passes and Park & Ride spaces would enable staff to access their employment while protecting equity issues.

Car parking on sites is a hidden subsidy. It prevents redevelopment of the University sites for more or better buildings and conversational spaces. It prevents the creation of green spaces, which would contribute to addressing the poor mental health situation of many staff affected by the stresses of working here. It prevents a much safer pedestrian environment.

The Downing Site is a classic example – it is chock full of car parking, with every little corner used up by 220 car parking spaces. Not only is this detrimental to the provision of cycle parking and leaves no safe space for walking at all, it means there is almost no space whatsoever for green space. The University should set a clear target for making the estates car free (except deliveries and disabled spaces), beyond merely a ‘review’ of the policy by 2020–21.

In the case of the Downing Site, if the University really feels unable to retain car parking for staff, it should negotiate with the City Council to ‘buy out’ spaces in the Grand Arcade during weekdays, when it is under-used. This would make the subsidy very, very explicit. I am not in favour of any such subsidy, believing Park & Ride is a better option, but it would at least convert the current hidden subsidy to a real cost that we can all debate the merits of.

Report of the Council, dated 19 February 2020, on the partial demolition of the Atlas Building, West Cambridge, and the erection of modular storage and staff welfare facilities for the University Safety Office

(Reporter, 6578, 2019–20, p. 350).

No remarks were made on this Report.

Report of the General Board, dated 18 February 2020, on the establishment of a Professorship

(Reporter, 6578, 2019–20, p. 351).

No remarks were made on this Report.

Footnote

  • 1The venue for the Discussion was changed due to access restrictions implemented earlier in the day across the Old Schools site.