Mobility in the economic powerhouse of historic Cambridge – a need for infrastructure vision and bold implementation

May 2017 is a crucial time for transport in Cambridge. Because the transport issues that are being considered and decided now, as well as the transport infrastructure schemes that are being implemented this month, will have huge implications for the development of this unique city. A city that is both a national heritage jewel and also an economic powerhouse, hugely important to the economy of the whole UK.

Following the agreement of the local authorities in the area to the setting up of a higher-level Combined Authority, part of the government’s devolution agenda, a new Mayor for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough was elected on 4th May. The new Mayor, James Palmer, has responsibility for leading on planning, allocating and delivering a new annual fund of £20 million for the next 30 years to support economic growth, development of local infrastructure and jobs: this will include new transport infrastructure. He has now announced that he will be launching a feasibility study into a light rail and underground transport scheme for Cambridge. These concepts had previously been considered too expensive by the board of the Greater Cambridge City Deal, an earlier devolved budget for a family of transport infrastructure projects that is currently being planned in detail after lengthy consultation.

Secondly, the current Cambridge railway station is being supplemented by a new Cambridge North station situated quite near several extensive business parks, including the well-known Cambridge Science Park, on the northern edge of the city. This opens on Sunday 21st May, and will have four trains an hour to London and regular services to Cambridge and Ely, for onward connections, and to Norwich.

This follows the opening in August 2011 of the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway, which improved journey reliability significantly for certain journeys. The lengthy northern section reduced travel times between the communities north west of Cambridge and the Cambridge Science Park, while the southern section links Cambridge station to the huge Addenbrooke’s Hospital site, to a Park & Ride site (one of 5 such for the immediate Cambridge vicinity) and to major new urban communities to the south of the city.

These developments are important because Cambridge is unique, with both major opportunities and significant challenges. It has a hugely growing economy through being a centre of innovation in several high-tech ‘knowledge’ industries such as biopharmacy, semiconductors and software: LSH's UK Vitality Index 2017 has given it the best prospects for economic growth of any UK city outside London. Several major international companies have either relocated there or established major labs there (e.g. Microsoft Research and AstraZeneca).

It has large new business and technology hubs either within the city area (e.g. CB1 at Cambridge Station, and Cambridge Biomedical Campus adjacent to Addenbrooke’s Hospital) or situated in the surrounding countryside (e.g. Granta Park, Cambridge Research Park, and Wellcome Genome Campus). It has new towns being built around it, such as Northstowe and Cambourne. It has a city centre dominated both by the beautiful historic University with its unique Colleges, and by major green areas; and whilst this has created a huge tourist economy it also means very narrow streets and no space for road expansion. This leads not just to traffic ‘pinch points’ but to lengthy lines of congestion in various areas all over the city. Some of these deliver huge delays for transport services in key 'normal' sections of what are otherwise ‘rapid transit’ public transport corridors with bus-only roads, guided busways and other bus priority. Similar extremely lengthy traffic queues appear in peak hours on the major approach roads to and from the city, while the dispersed pattern of business hubs in the city area makes motor travel around it often both essential but also very challenging.

At the same time Cambridge has a huge and unique cycling culture, with cycling more important than for any other city in England, and with one in four Cambridge residents cycling to work. It has articulate and well-informed interest groups both for residents and business interests, including Smarter Cambridge Transport, Cambridge Ahead, and Cambridge Cycling Campaign. And of course a huge capacity for creating ideas, including in possible transport solutions.

An example from elsewhere that is perhaps relevant for Cambridge is Perugia, the regional capital of Umbria, Italy, which I had cause to visit earlier this year. This is a major centre for the arts, has a historic city centre situated on a hill, a unique cultural heritage and two universities. In 1971 bold decisions were taken to make the centre traffic free and to build major mobility infrastructure: a network of escalators, some underground and emerging spectacularly into parts of Perugia’s ancient heritage. These access the city centre from car parks and public transport stations. Later, in 2008, it opened a 7-station automated people mover (Minimetrò) linking the east side of the city centre with the rail station, western suburbs, and major car parks, and including a lengthy underground section. Some aspects of the delivery could be criticised - for instance the people mover has no station in the city centre itself - but the vision and implementation has produced good results, with over 10,000 passengers on the Minimetrò per day, for instance.

So what’s needed for Cambridge? The Vision needs to be bold and imaginative, and covering not just travel within Cambridge but also links to Oxford, another major ‘city of ideas’, through a rapid progression of firm plans and then delivery of the Bedford - Cambridge section of the East-West Rail concept.

The vision also needs to be robust, taking into account the interests and needs of all key stakeholder groups in the city. Intelligent Mobility needs to be a centrepiece of this vision, with the use of ‘big data’, Internet of Things and smart technology firmly at its heart: automated vehicles should also be a key part of this. As has been pointed out by David Metz in his book ‘Travel Fast or Smart?’ this may require new tools for assessing business cases. The DfT’s WebTAG has been criticised as giving too high a priority to physical transport infrastructure - important though this is for Cambridge, as this article stresses - compared to the infrastructure needed to maximise the value from digital technologies. Thirdly, the vision must be backed up by ambitious and creative but firmly realistic finance and delivery plans. The hugely healthy Cambridge economy must surely be capable of facilitating a successful response to this particular challenge.

Lastly, planning and delivery must have attention to detail and must cover all aspects that users need. The new bus and cycle routes to Cambridge North Station from the north-west and from the northern city suburbs throughout the day, and from the northern villages at peak times, using a new extension to the northern section of the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway, are much to be welcomed. However, whilst there is good car parking (450 spaces – more than at Cambridge station), my understanding is that there are no improvements to traffic priority from adjoining main roads leading to the station access road, so I fear that there will be significant traffic congestion on its approach, as there is in that area at present.

On the delivery side publicity by transport operators prior to the 21st May opening date could be described as ‘patchy’, though there has been extensive coverage in the local press, and Greater Anglia, the train operator managing the station, has had good pre-start coverage on its website. But good passenger information, and consistency between what the user sees in different media, are essential if transport improvement schemes are not to lead to travellers' frustration and ultimately to them changing to alternative modes. I’ll be covering that particular topic at a more general level in a forthcoming blog post.