The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Wed, 30 Sep 2009

Cycling adventures, August 2009

I haven't yet had chance to blog about my cycle trip from Cambridge to Milton Keynes a month and a half ago. As on an earlier trip to Bedford, I began by following the excellent Cambridge--Oxford route by Richard, which took me most of the way to my destination. Instead of branching off at Sandy, for Bedford, I kept on all the way to just before Little Brickhill, then branched off into MK. Here's an embedded map.

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The route is fabulous: almost entirely on very quiet roads through very picturesque countryside. Crossing the A1 at Beeston, near Sandy, is possibly the least pleasant part, but it not as death-defying as I was worried it would be. Rather, you just have to wait---I'd say expect to wait up to 5 minutes to cross each carriageway. You just have to wait for a nice big gap to come up in the two lanes of oncoming traffic, then head across. After waiting for a while to get a feel for the road, it suddenly becomes a matter of common judgement like any other use of the road. To anyone worried like I was: there's no need to be. As long as you make a point of waiting until you feel comfortable before attempting the manoeuvre, it'll be no problem.

The reward for crossing the A1 is a stretch of possibly the most picturesque villages on any of the route that I've seen so far---Old Warden, Ickwell and others are all very beautiful. A little later, Woburn Park with its deer is a great highlight. Also, diverging from Richard's route, the cut through from just before Little Brickhill into Bow Brickhill is blessed with a fantastic steep descent---you emerge from the forest onto a wonderful vista, just as a slight downhill turns into an exhilarating freewheel. I'd misread my map and was expecting a steep uphill, so it was doubly enjoyable.

After this, it's a short hop into the MK grid pattern and, it's fair to say, a nightmare. I was hoping that the MK Redway would see me through to Milton Keynes Central station. I tried printing out the map, but it uses some extra-special Adobe PDF “protection” so resisted my attempts. I should have read the Wikipedia article which warned that “signage is poorly maintained” and “the frequent changes in gradient, and circuitious routing, can be tiring”. But, silly me, I didn't. Relying on the signage quickly gave way to relying on asking people for directions, and that wasn't a lot better. After what I can only assume was a comically circuitous route (I'd love to see a GPS trace) and an hour and a half of wandering lost, I finally found MK Central station and got on the train for Birmingham, completely shattered but with an undeniably great feeling of achievement.

Reviewing the route later, I was reminded that a National Cycle Network route exists between Oxford and Cambridge, passing through MK, Bedford and generally keeping more northerly than Richard's route. It's detailed on this page. Unfortunately it's horribly indirect between Cambridge and Sandy, and given how quiet the roads are along Richard's route, so I'm not sure why anyone would take it. (If you really want to avoid the A1 crossing at Beeston, I think you can cross at an underpass further north in Sandy and then route round via Moggerhanger.)

In fact, I'm not even sure there's much point to the National Cycle Network at all. It sounds like a nice idea, having a national network of cycle routes. But how many do we need? Well, either lots or virtually none at all. The NCN is modelled after the motorway network---core routes have single-digit numbers radiating out from London, and routes feeding these have numbers beginning with those digits. But there's a ridiculous scale problem here. Almost nobody makes motorway-scale journeys by bike. I suppose I've recently become one of those almost-nobodies, but then I didn't use the NCN either. For cycling, people mostly want safe routes between villages and towns 1--10 miles apart, whereas motorways are only really useful for hops of 10--100 miles. So, a motorway-style backbone network is the last thing we need. Rather, we need lots more cycle routes---to cater to shorter trips optimally, the network's connectivity has to be denser, because there's less potential for aggregation (i.e. to Motorway backbone depth). In turn, this means a better analogy for cycle routes would be not motorways or even A-roads, but B and C and D roads. And by coincidence, we already have a great network of B and C and D roads! These are ideal for cycling, and Richard's route is great testament to that.

If there is a problem with the network of B, C and D roads, it's that it's not completely segregated from A and M roads. Instead, we get situations where to get between two points requires either travelling short distances along a busy A-road, or else a ridiculous detour. Clearly this isn't catering to cyclists adequately, and solving this sort of problem ought to be the mission of Sustrans. Instead, despite the “sustainable transport” umbrella term, it seems to be catering only to some sort of “cycling over all” fanaticism. Even though I'm rapidly becoming one of those cycling enthusiasts (well, without the lycra for now) I wouldn't give them my money.

Measures to make the roads better for cycling should include first-class consideration of cyclists on road maps (and general-purpose maps like OS Landranger ones), meaning clear marking-out of junctions or roads which are not suitable for cyclists, and the clear marking of cut-throughs and other byways which are passable by bike even if not by car. We also need bike-friendly signage on the roads to similar effect---we already have signage like “unsuitable for heavy goods vehicles”, “avoiding low bridge” and so on, but not “merging with motorway-speed traffic”.

Another grumble about Sustrans and the NCN is that even NCN routes can be pretty ropey in terms of quality. Both in local “cycle facilities” and in NCN routes there's a tendency for any inconvenience to be overlooked because “they're only cyclists”, the implication being that users are slow and recreational. And this means, of course, that we don't mind unnecessary gradients or inconvenient road crossings or even stretches where cycling isn't allowed at all. I'm thinking about the Sandy--Bedford route here, part of NCN route 51, where there are a couple of annoying stretches were the old railway bridges have been taken out and cyclists are forced to come down off an embankment, cross a road (in one case via some precariously narrow pavements co-opted for the purpose), then climb back up again. I despair for the NCN concept if the level of investment can't even muster a very short wooden bridge. And then there's one stretch where some very polite signposts ask you to get off and push for a couple of hundred yards. Obligingly I did so, and gratifyingly there is even a sign telling you that you can get back on (whose omission would have irritated but not surprised me) but for a national cycle route it's extremely poor.

My final grumble about Sustrans is that their web site is remarkably badly organised---it looks nice, but it's hard to find content (particularly route maps, which aren't even very good quality even when you do find them). Oh, I lied: I have one more grumble. Their women-oriented campaign “Bike Belles” is slightly alarming---to me it seems like an almost comically patronising piece of sexual stereotyping, especially with its “tips to help you look stylish on your bike”but I'd be curious to poll any female readers (any? no, oh well) to see what you think.

One final observation about town planning and transport policy over the years is that there seems to have been a mistaken belief in the 1960s and 1970s, represented in a lot of the town planning of those decades, that quality of life is improved by segregation. This includes segregation of families (as witnessed by cul-de-sac developments like Bar Hill in Cambridge, by the increased popularity of detached and semi-detached houses in that time), segregation of road users (by MK or Garden City-like policy of pedestrian bridges or underpasses rather than towns where the roads were shared), segregation of people in transit (witness the deprecation of public transport, particularly the decline of rail, and the corresponding brave faith in the private car attributed to the 1960s and 70s), segregation of shoppers (witness out-of-town shopping developments designed for exclusive car-to-shop usage) and probably others. It would be foolish to claim that segregation is always bad---perhaps my grievances would be solved if pedestrians and cycles weren't lumped together, if stupid things like dangerous underpasses were avoided, or even if ped/cycle routes were the ones kept on the level and in a grid pattern, with the roads dipping and twisting around underneath. But it seems undeniable that the promotion of segregation exemplified by 1960s planning policy has now been discredited. It's also notable that the latter policy is also the more “right-wing” policy---segregation implicitly advocates “look after the family, screw everyone else” and “individual, not society”. So perhaps I should be feeling buoyed that our planning policy is slowly getting less right-wing.

Back to cycling to finish with: I'm still hoping to do the full Oxford ride at some point soon. I've been “training” a bit by taking scenic routes into the Lab. There's one 7-mile variant via Newnham, Grantchester and Coton, and a longer 12-mile version (complete with hills!) which goes via Newnham, Grantchester, Barton, Comberton, Madingley and Coton. Unfortunately, Google Maps doesn't understand the road layout at a couple of points, nor the various cycle paths (Sheeps Green and the Coton path), but anyway, here's an approximation of the longer route. There are some obvious places where diversions along cycle routes are a better idea---using Sheeps Green rather than the Fen Causeway, and the Coton cycle path rather than Madingley Road--- and that's what I do. The shorter variant just involves cutting across from the Barton Road roundabout, near the junction with the M11, straight into Coton along Grantchester Road, but sadly Google Maps doesn't think the roundabout allows this.

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If I do do the Oxford thing, I need to think about how I'll get back---assuming I don't feel keen for a reverse passage of the same route, I might try a train-and-bike mash-up using the dreaded NCN from Bicester to Bletchley, before training it to somewhere near the dreaded Hemel Hempstead and cutting out London by hopping over routes 57 and 61 to Hatfield for the dreaded slow train to Cambridge. I'm not sure whether the route works yet, but I look forward to finding out... with dread, of course.

(Technical note: the tracks were produced using Netkvik's excellent interface to Google Maps, and exported as a KML file. These were then rendered as traces over Google Maps using the excellent GPS Visualizer.)

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