Oxford, Cambridge and Milton Keynes are some of Britain’s fastest-growing, most productive places – and a key focus for the Commission. They could be Britain’s Silicon Valley. But they are, quite literally, running out of road.
Unless we can find an answer to these cities’ often severe traffic congestion, their and our growth plans are at risk. The usual answers, however, do not work. In Oxford and Cambridge, at least, there is no possibility of building new roads, and no desire for them. Gone are the days when plans could be made for a highway through Christ Church Meadow. A metro or tram would also be destructive, enormously expensive, and fail to serve much of the conurbations. There isn’t even much room in the centres of these cities for more buses.
Luckily, one simpler, cheaper, and less obtrusive answer is staring Oxford and Cambridge in the face. It is something which already epitomises both places; which, in Cambridge, already has a greater share of journeys than any other mode, and in Oxford not much less. It is, of course, the bicycle.
For the last two months, I have been preparing a report for the Commission on how the bicycle can help meet the transport needs of Oxford, Cambridge and Milton Keynes. If these cities cannot create new roadspace, they need to make better use of the roads they already have. Cycling is the cheapest, least disruptive way to do that.
Although Oxford and Cambridge are already Britain’s only true cycling cities, it has happened without much encouragement from the authorities – who often still treat cycling as marginal, and give it far less attention than it deserves. Those commuting in to the cities from outside still overwhelmingly drive, even though many of those journeys, too, are also eminently cyclable.
What that means is that there is still considerable potential for increasing cycling in both places. My report will suggest a number of ways to bring that about, and some policies to help people who do not want to cycle, as well.
In Milton Keynes, in many ways different from the other two, the issues are less pressing, but will end up the same. There is still capacity on MK’s roads. Not for long, however, given the growth envisaged. Cycling can keep it ahead of the congestion crunch – and the city has the basis of a reasonable cycle network if it can improve its currently neglected and difficult-to-use bike paths.
Almost wherever I went in these three cities, I found significant local political support and will to do more for cycling. But our plans will also need money, and a change in the national view that cycling is unimportant and unworthy of serious spending.
The case for the bicycle is not just narrowly economic, though. The way we travel now makes our cities, including parts of all these three cities, ugly, dirty, noisy and dangerous. More people cycling would make them safer, cleaner, quieter and more desirable. The way we travel now makes us miserable and ill. Every bike lane is a giant, free, outdoor gym, and most cyclists enjoy their commutes. More people cycling could be the single biggest way to improve the nation’s health and happiness.
None of this is complicated; it has already happened, years ago, in other countries. Given the head start which cycling has in Oxford and Cambridge, they are the best places to show how Britain, too, can make this kind of future.
I look forward to publishing the report next month.