This article was written for the research focus section of the Clare Hall website. I am currently studying for a PhD at Clare Hall, Cambridge.

Cambridge is often branded the cycling capital of the UK.  Based on official statistics at least, this label is well deserved. In terms of commuting, the 2011 UK Census reported that 43% of those that live and work in the city cycled to work. This is a staggering figure, especially when compared with the two nearest rivals, Oxford and York, with reported figures of 25% and 16% respectively, figures which are still very high in the context of a UK average of just 3% [1].

The UK stands out beside European counterparts as car-dominated, with generally low levels of active transportation rates. In the Netherlands, cycling accounts for 27% of all trips, while in the UK this figure is a rather disappointing 2% [2]. These low levels of active transportation may be attributed, at least in part, to very low levels of investment in cycling infrastructure over many decades. Outside of London, the average per-capita spend is just £2 annually, while in the Netherlands this figure is £24.

One might assume that high rates of cycling in Cambridge are due to the provision of high-quality bike infrastructure. However, it could be argued that until recently there has been limited provision for cyclists; with much of the city’s bike infrastructure provided since 2001. Prior to this, bike infrastructure was limited to a few narrow roadside cycle lanes combined with shared use paths across parks and green spaces. Despite this, the 2001 census reported that 36% of people living and working in the City cycled to work. Considering that much of the investment in bike infrastructure has happened since 2001, the seven percentage-point increase in cycling rates over the subsequent decade is relatively modest.

High rates of cycling in Cambridge are not well understood. Despite mediocre bike infrastructure until very recently, cycling rates have always been far superior to other places in the UK. Many attribute this to the high student population. Whilst it is true that the highest rates of cycling occur in the University cities of Cambridge, Oxford and York, cycling rates in Cambridge are far higher and occur across most socio-demographic groupings.

It could be argued that slow travel times for both motorists and public transit users, exasperated by increasingly-worsening levels of congestion are a significant contributor to high levels of cycling in the City. Cycling is by far the quickest mode for most trips; Cambridge has recently been named by one data provider as the slowest city in the UK, with an average speed of 13.73 mph, slower than London at 14.59mph [3].

Challenges Ahead

Cambridgeshire’s planners and policy makers should not be complacent. Travel mode patterns and in particular commuting patterns have changed significantly in recent years. While the number of people working in the city is increasing, the proportion coming from outside of the city is also increasing and people are travelling further. At the same time, more people are living in the city and working outside. There is a danger that as workers are pushed further outside the city due to increasingly-unaffordable housing, that the trend for increasing cycling rates will slow or reverse. If this happens alongside the planned growth in population and employment in the wider city region; 33,500 new homes and 44,000 new jobs 4, Cambridge could grind to a halt.

It seems that Cambridge may have competition for the label of UK cycling capital. Cardiff has recently launched a bid to become the UK’s cycling capital by 2021, with the aim to encourage over 50% of commuters to cycle to work. While this is an enviable aim and demonstrates a shift in attitude towards cycling as a major travel mode, it would require a tenfold increase in the number of Cardiff commuters cycling to work. Between the period of 2001 and 2011, London managed a doubling of bike commuters, only through significant increases in per capita investment, which now stands close to £12.50 annually 2.

European Ambition

Cambridge is hoping to become a European cycling leader. The Greater Cambridge Partnership [4] has vowed to be one of the top cycling cities in Europe with a comprehensive programme of improvements in bike infrastructure. While local policy makers and local campaign groups, such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign [5], deserve commendation for the progress that has been made to date, there is a phenomenal amount of work left to do. In order to become a European leader, Cambridge will need to compete with cities such as Copenhagen, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Strasbourg and Malmo; the top five cycle friendly cities according to The Copenhagenize Index, 2017 [6].

My PhD aims to develop methodologies to understand cycling rates across the UK and in particular in Cambridge, with a view to developing a predictive model of active commuting. In order to understand the relationship between cycling rates and bike infrastructure provision I have developed methods to categorise and quantify bike infrastructure from digital mapping data using Open Street Map [7]. The maps show the scale of the task ahead if Cambridge is to become a European cycling capital. While the map of Cambridge shows an impressive amount of bike infrastructure, there are major gaps in connectivity across the City. In comparison, Copenhagen is a city with dense and highly connected cycling routes across the entire urban space. This is a result of continued investment in bike infrastructure over many decades along with prioritisation of active travel modes; in Copenhagen, the car is not king.

Cambridge has a lot of catching up to do if the city is to compete with the best in Europe. Improvements in bike infrastructure are required but there also needs to be a step change in road user hierarchies. Cambridge can learn from European counterparts. Not only from highly successful cycling cities such as Copenhagen, but also those that have achieved significant reductions in urban traffic. The Spanish city of Pontevedra has reduced motorised traffic in the historic centre by 97% since 1999 [8] by prioritising active travel modes. Car free Cambridge anyone?


[1] 2011 Census, Office of National Statistics.

[2] Get Britain Cycling. All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, 2013.