Bikes and Cambridge – an idyllic relationship? Not so, says Priyasha VaderaMario Sánchez Prada

To an outsider, my commuting habits may seem counterintuitive: rather than enjoying my cycle down King’s Parade every morning, I cycle as fast as possible, trying to make my 9am lecture and to escape the hundreds of bicycles that surround me. It took me two years to realise that the reason I sought to minimise my time surrounded by beautiful architecture was simply that travelling in Cambridge is stressful.

There are too many people, too many bikes, and too little pavement. There just isn’t enough space in a town built for horse and carriage to accommodate all the pedestrians and vehicles that now fill the roads. Cars blame road woes on cyclists, cyclists blame clueless tourists (why can’t they just look before they cross the road?), and pedestrians are either oblivious or live in fear of being run over. This three-way conflict triangle isn’t going to go away any time soon because, even if all cyclists take a compulsory road safety course and tourists magically stop stepping out into the road, there still won’t be enough space.

“Cars blame road woes on cyclists, cyclists blame clueless tourists (why can’t they just look before they cross the road?), and pedestrians are either oblivious or live in fear of being run over”

Most of the pavements are optimistically wide enough for two people, not a group of tourists, punt touts, regulars trying to go about their day, and students who are late for a supervision. Pedestrians are terrible at looking before crossing, cyclists recklessly speed through red lights, and cars don’t seem to understand how roundabouts work. We’re all partly guilty here, and I include pedestrians because the pavements are so narrow in the centre of town that the roads are practically an extension of the pavement. Cambridge is known for its bikes but it doesn’t really make sense as a cycling town at all. It’s too small for buses to be of much use like in Oxford but just slightly too big to walk on a Cambridge schedule.

One of the biggest culture shocks for me coming to Cambridge was the difference in travelling. I used to walk past fields of horses on my way to school every day. There were six quiet residential roads I had to cross, and if a car ever appeared, they would usually stop and let me cross, even if I was on a bike. The concept of waiting to cross a road just didn’t exist. Fast-forward to Cambridge: there was one time I was stuck in the middle of the road at the Madingley Road – Queens Road – Northampton Road roundabout for five minutes because I couldn’t cross.

I didn’t even know it was illegal to cycle on the pavement because that’s all we ever did at home (most of the pavements were actually cycle paths) and cycling on the road was reserved for lycra-clad people with a death wish. I was so terrified of cycling on Queens Road that, despite living on it, it took me until Lent to actually brave it on a bike, and even then it was by accident as I was following someone else.

At home, there were barely any traffic lights, and now I have to factor in an extra five minutes to my journey just in case I hit all three red lights and the zebra crossing on my way to lectures. At home, we would race down the redways (wide red tarmac paths made for cyclists and pedestrians, separated from the road) and then meander around a lake. Cambridge turned what was relaxation into stress.

That said, the Cambridge cycling scene has broadened my transport horizons. Being able to jump on my bike and go anywhere I want, at any time, gives me agency and independence. At night, it’s safer to cycle than to walk. In the past at home, I would be lazy and just ask my parents for a lift, but now, I’ll cycle to the supermarket and get groceries for the family dinner. My grandparents’ house, which used to seem so far away, feels like just around the corner. Best of all, I can bike down an idyllic tree lined path to the coach station, stick my bike in the luggage rack, and get to Cambridge all by myself. I now appreciate the incredible network of cycle paths I have at home, and the world feels a little bit bigger.

And of course there are my Saturday mornings, sailing down King’s Parade on my bike at ten to nine. Us NatScis may have to go to lectures on Saturdays, but for that moment, it’s worth it