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Cambridge Greenways cycle paths: ‘A tragedy waiting to happen’

A flagship project that would see 150km of red Tarmac cycling and walking paths running from villages into Cambridge has been described as “a tragedy waiting to happen” and like “putting a motorway down a high street”.

The Greenways are a Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) scheme to build a mostly 3m-wide path along 12 routes to enable people to travel into the city by bike or on foot.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter with fellow residents who are concerned that three greenways will converge on Riverside. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter with fellow residents who are concerned that three greenways will converge on Riverside. Picture: Keith Heppell

Although broadly welcomed at first, now the designs for the schemes have begun taking shape, communities along their routes have voiced safety concerns.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a city resident and University of Cambridge academic, has questioned the wisdom of allowing three of the planned greenways routes to converge on a narrow street by the River Cam.

Meanwhile, residents in Newnham have warned pedestrians will “come into conflict” with cyclists on the fast red cycle paths on the Barton Greenway and others have warned that people sharing a path meant for bikes, horses and pedestrians in Swaffham Bulbeck could fall into oncoming traffic on the Swaffhams Greenway.

Now cycling charity Camcycle has called for the GCP to set up a scrutiny committee to oversee the work of the design teams on the project to ensure it is of a high quality.

They told the GCP at a meeting of its joint assembly last Thursday (June 8): “It is clear that the design teams employed by the GCP to do this work are not being held to a high enough standard. We therefore ask the GCP to create a scrutiny panel to review the design work at a much more regular interval. The current level of engagement with key stakeholders is simply not enough.”

Peter Blake, transport director at the GCP
Peter Blake, transport director at the GCP

Peter Blake, the GCP’s transport director, said all safety rules were followed in the designs, explaining: “I think it’s important to recognise that we follow very clear design guidance and there’s a lot of it in terms of development. And also all of the schemes and all of the elements go through various stages of the safety audit process, which ensures that they are safe for all users.”

But residents of Riverside, a narrow road beside the River Cam, fear pedestrians will not be safe when the Bottisham, Swaffhams and Horningsea greenways converge outside their homes.

Prof Spiegelhalter, speaking for the Riverside Area Residents’ Association, said: “We of course welcome the idea of greenways, but having three of them converge on Riverside… this does not appear to have been given sufficient attention.

“Riverside is a wonderful place to live, but it is already busy - not with cars, but cyclists, pedestrians and e-scooters, and increasingly, the space is contested. There’s not really sufficient space for pedestrian traffic, particularly at busy weekends. And of course we’d expect more if three greenways converge on Riverside.

“There are clear pinch points at the moment by the bridge and one between Saxon Road and River Lane and it’s not clear how a proposed separate cycle path made of red asphalt could actually be provided in this space in a safe way, particularly because a red asphalt cycle path does encourage a feeling of entitlement of being able to cycle fast.

“I know this because I’m sure I respond like that as well when I see a dedicated cycle path. The image we’ve got is this could be like putting a motorway down the high street with fast cycle and e-scooter and e-bike traffic in a seriously contested space with pedestrians. And so our feeling is that this should be taken very seriously and in all the planning there should be an absolute prioritisation of pedestrian safety and free access to what is a really wonderful resource, not just for residents of Riverside but the residents of the city and, increasingly, visitors.”

Riverside in Cambridge
Riverside in Cambridge

The renowned statistician, who spent 11 years as the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk in the Statistical Laboratory at Cambridge, put a question to the GCP’s joint assembly last week, which urged planners to look again at Riverside and whether it was the right place to install the red ‘active travel’ routes.

He sought guarantees that at the preliminary design stage they would “seek out and consider all available research on the respective effects of 1) dedicated cycle paths and 2) shared space approaches on cyclist and e-scooter behaviour”.

Secondly, he asked for that research to be made available publicly and thirdly, he sought a guarantee that “appropriate speed-reducing measures” will be incorporated into the design. Finally, he asked the assembly to guarantee that decisions on surfacing along with advice will be informed by such research, and that the issue of managing greenways user behaviour “to maximise pedestrian safety” is given “absolute clarity in design decisions”.

Cllr Jean Glasberg talks to Josh Grantham, of Camcycle, in Barton. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Jean Glasberg talks to Josh Grantham, of Camcycle, in Barton. Picture: Keith Heppell

A GCP spokesperson said: “The Greater Cambridge Partnership – as set out at the joint assembly meeting – has committed to continue to look at and refine the greenways design to best meet the needs of local communities. We have met with the residents’ association to discuss this. A detailed paper setting out the final design will be put before the GCP’s executive board in 2024 as part of the full business case for the schemes. The GCP follows Cambridgeshire County Council’s Active Travel Strategy, which puts pedestrians at the top of the road hierarchy.”

However, Martin Wheatley, a housing association chair and resident of Swaffham Bulbeck, told the Cambridge Independent he believed a “tragedy” - like the recent case seen in Huntingdon where a cyclist fell into the road after meeting a pedestrian on a shared path – “could easily happen again” if designs were not changed.

He said several older or less mobile villagers in Swaffham Bulbeck used trikes to get around, while some residents use cargo bikes to transport shopping or young children. He warned the proposed path’s narrow width would mean someone coming the other way would be forced into the road to avoid them.

He took issue with the proposal to “make a barely 1.5m pavement in Swaffham Bulbeck right next to the busy main road with poor sightlines due to a hedge and bends into a shared walking/cycling/horse rider route.”

Martin explained: ”This defies government guidance for shared routes. It is dangerous and seems to learn no lessons from the recent tragic fatality in Huntingdon on a shared path following conflict between a pedestrian and cyclist. It would be completely unsuitable for users of non-standard cycles - such as trikes or cargo bikes – as they would barely fit on the path, and there would be no way of passing anyone coming the other way safely.”

He added: “If a trike’s wheel fell off the path they could tip into the road where lorries, buses and heavy farm vehicles regularly drive past.

“Cycling all the way into Cambridge from the Swaffhams will always be a minority interest,” he said.

“But people would like safe cycle routes between villages to go to the doctor or to church and the assumption by the GCP is that everyone who wants to cycle is young and able bodied. That’s just not the case. People may want to use a trike if they are a bit older and this pathway will not be safe for them.”

In 2019, the GCP proposed to run the route away from the road by upgrading an existing footpath away from the road.

“They have not been open about their reasons for abandoning this,” Martin suggested.

The same issue was brought up by Camcycle, the Cambridge cycling campaign, which said it had submitted a Freedom of Information request “to understand the reasoning behind the proposal for an unsatisfactory and dangerous section of route along Green Bank Road in Swaffham Bulbeck” instead of sending the greenway along the route of an existing off-road footpath.

Camcycle spokesperson Josh Grantham said the GCP did not have a detailed document about the decision, only an “issues log”.

He added: “The issues log mentions some potential downsides to that route, things like ‘the Ramblers might object’, but they are both speculative and hardly decisive. This strongly implies that no serious work was done on progressing the proposal since the 2019 consultation for a route along the existing footpath.”

He told the joint assembly meeting: ”It has been clear throughout this stage of the greenways consultation that the previous work done has not been fully understood, considered and acted upon. For example, where challenges were previously highlighted, little has been done to resolve the concerns. Furthermore, many of the major infrastructure elements have been removed, any decision-making process behind their removal apparently arbitrary.”

Josh added that opportunities for “game-changing” improvements such as building an underpass at Ditton Lane or widening the route on Barton Road through compulsory purchase of adjacent land were being missed.

“We have also heard in the response that an underpass on Ditton Lane would ‘represent poor value for money’ with the feasibility work identifying issues such as utilities, flood risk and land acquisition and safety of underpasses. These are typical constraints for infrastructure like this and are very similar to those of the Chisholm Trail underpass on Newmarket Road, a piece of infrastructure that has transformed cycling in the local area. Where is the detailed review of alternatives (including those previously suggested) to the underpass?” he said.

Responding to Camcycle’s suggestion of a scrutiny panel to review design work on the greenways, a GCP spokesperson said: “The GCP already has a non-motorised user forum that includes Camcycle and other non-motorised user groups. These groups are given early sight of designs to help inform the development of different projects and Camcycle, alongside other NMU groups, were engaged with regarding the Swaffhams Greenway project. The greenways were also subject to detailed public engagement and consultation.”

And when asked whether the GCP would act on any of these concerns raised, the spokesperson replied: “The GCP carries out extensive public consultation and engagement across its schemes, which are all subject to an independent road safety audit. This work is fully considered, and reports on each greenway are put before the joint assembly and executive board setting out our response to any issues raised.”

Meanwhile, consultation is under way on the Grantchester stretch of the Haslingfield Greenway, with a virtual public event due on the evening of Tuesday, June 20, and an in-person event on the afternoon of Thursday, June 22 in Grantchester Village Hall. The eight-week consultation is due to close at midday on July 28, 2023.

The greenways, paid for by City Deal money from the government, are due to be in place by 2025.

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