Connecting Cambridge…

While Cambridge is a wonderful place to live in in many ways (plenty of interesting and skilled jobs, wonderful countryside is never far, a disproportionate amount to see and do), it is not without its fair share of problems. One of the most distressing things, other than the cost of renting and/or buying somewhere to live1, is that getting around the city is more difficult than any other I’ve lived in. Below, briefly, I shall discuss the problems with existing transportation modes before discussing potential solutions, concluding with my support for one solution above the others.

Cambridge is well known as the cycling capital of the UK. Is this because of better provision of cycle lanes and parking facilities? Is it because the roads are little-used and/or wide? No. Indeed, cyclists suffer from the same roads ill-suited to 21st century use that motorists do (see the paragraph about cars, below) – recent settlements and new parts of old settlements have far better cycling facilities. There are not many relatively new parts of Cambridge – one of the few I can think of is the West Cambridge site, which does have good cycling facilities. Cycling is so popular in Cambridge because it’s because it’s one of the few transportation modes that currently makes any sense as you shall shortly see: it’s probably the fastest for getting around and the whole of the city is within the range of a reasonable cyclist. Importantly, considering the high costs of living in Cambridge and the high costs of buying, fuelling and insuring a car, cycling is virtually free.

The frustrating thing about buses in Cambridge is that, unless you live on the outskirts of the city or a bus happens to do the correct cross-city journey, it’s probably faster to walk and certainly much cheaper. The frequency of buses in Cambridge is little different to most places: 5 to 30 minutes depending on the route, day and time2. However, much of the city is within a 30 minute walk of the centre where, if you were getting the bus, you would either be getting off or likely have to change bus to get to another part of Cambridge.3 Unfortunately, Cambridge is just too small for buses to make sense for getting about within it. They make more sense for journeys of longer than 5-10 minutes – indeed, despite the grief caused during construction, the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway is actually much more useful than the buses within Cambridge itself4.

I also mentioned that it was cheaper to walk than get a bus, which highlights another point: the cost per mile of bus journeys in Cambridge is ridiculous. For example, returns cost more than a Dayrider (unlimited bus use for a day). It can cost less to get a bus that crosses a large area of London for 90 minutes than it does for a trip of a few minutes from the suburbs of Cambridge to the centre5. Admittedly, the cost of getting an unlimited number of buses for a day in Cambridge is less than the cost in London, but it makes little sense to get more than 2 buses for any given journey within Cambridge whereas in London it often does make sense to get more buses, and there are far more places to go.

Cambridge is over 800 years old and is full of very old listed buildings. This means that the roads in the centre are too small for significant modern use (indeed, rising bollards keep most traffic out) and, unfortunately, the roads outside the centre are not particularly big nor do they seem to have been planned in a coherent fashion – the Cambridge ring road, for example, is reminiscent of the South Circular Road. On top of this, the surplus of work6 and the dearth of affordable accommodation7 in the city creates a disproportionately large cohort of people commuting into Cambridge8 which puts particular strain on the main roads into the city and car parks (hence the Park and Ride scheme, which alleviates the problem to some extent).

Thus far we have established that there are, at best, poor transport options within the city of Cambridge. Due to the lack of proposed significant improvements, we have also established that the existing methods of transport have reached their natural capacity and usefulness without the most significant changes to the layout and/or size of the city that Cambridge has ever seen: bicycles, cars and buses all suffer from the city’s antiquated road system and the latter two suffer significant cost issues within the city (becoming the preferred methods of transport beyond cycling range, outside the city). We shall now consider solutions.

First, I’d like to get some of the more unrealistic proposals out of the way. Though nobody has suggested they be brought back, Cambridge once had trams – these would be subject to the same old road system as existing transport methods and probably make it even more complex. As much as I would like to see a monorail system, I do agree with the arguments that an elevated monorail is likely to be an eyesore that would detract from the character of Cambridge. However, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a fiendishly clever route, via some big pockets of buildings (e.g. the Grand Arcade), being devised. It could even provide some views of landmarks and make the monorail a tourist attraction too.

Before I continue it is worth noting that, as one of the significant drivers of growth in the UK today, it has been recognised that infrastructure investment in the Cambridge area is both important and needed. Improvements to Cambridge’s transport links further from the city are both being suggested and built. It is therefore to the city itself that attention should turn and ambitious proposals should be pursued to maximise the value of investment outside of the city.

The only solutions that don’t involve destroying much of the value of Cambridge through demolition or elevation of the transport itself are those that seek to go under the city. Professor Robert Mair, Professor of Geotechnical Engineering, Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering and former Master of Jesus College (all at the University of Cambridge itself) has been closely involved with the Channel Tunnel, Crossrail and the Jubilee Line extension of the London Underground. In 2008 he lead a team that drew up a scheme for a network of tunnels underneath Cambridge, linking important sites of employment with both the rest of Cambridge and surrounding major towns and villages. The leaders of Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council have both suggested that such plans merit consideration due to the unusual circumstances of Cambridge (in my observations, anything like agreement between the two entities is rarer than most precious stones and metals) and could form an important part of the city deal that Cambridge is pursuing. Prof. Mair, familiar with such matters, has countered perceptions that Cambridge’s soil is too wet to tunnel through, claiming that it is ideal for rapid and cost-effective tunneling. While I don’t think the style of tunneling has been mentioned, I would guess from Professor Robert’s involvements that a boring machine would be used.

I don’t think Cambridge is short of potential station locations. While I am not familiar with the requirements for a building that provides access to a tunnel system, there’s certainly plenty of space in the generally green and idyllic employment sites around the city and plenty of space at relevant locations in the city (e.g. beyond platform 8 at Cambridge station, empty stores around the historic centre of Cambridge, part of the car parks or unoccupied stores at the Cambridge retail parks and the pool hall on Mill Road9).

Of course, it’s not entirely clear what method of transport the tunnels should be devoted to. While cycle tunnels would further encourage a healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyle, they are likely to be too dangerous due to the isolation of cyclists and darkness. Car tunnels would exacerbate the car parking problems that already exist. This leaves two feasible options: buses and trains.

It would be possible to equip any tunnels to accommodate both methods of transport – this has already been done in Seattle. This might be a sensible option if trains were preferred, as it would allow the guided busway and existing bus routes to extend into the tunnel system, providing a more seamless link. However, this would most likely cost more than building tunnels for any individual transport method and would introduce road-related delays to the buses and timetable disturbances to the whole underground system.

If the tunnels were designed for buses only the underground bus system would, as noted just above, be subject to road-related delays. I have also yet to have a pleasant experience in an enclosed space with a bus due to their exhaust emissions, though a particularly forward-looking plan could involve electric or hydrogen-powered buses.

While an underground train (most likely light rail) system would probably be more expensive than tunnels for buses (even if only because the buses already exist), it wouldn’t have the delay and emission issues of buses. In the long term, it may even prove feasible to retrofit or even replace the guided busway with the light rail system (some opponents of the guided busway would be pleased), providing a seamless transition from intra-city commuting to inter-settlement commuting. Indeed, we need only look 50 or so miles south to see how an underground rail system can be a massive success and immensely useful. The soil in Cambridge has been much studied10 and is not overly dissimilar to London Clay from what I can gather11, and Cambridge and London have not dissimilar low elevations above sea level (6m for the former, 24m for the latter), demonstrating that such a system would not only work but also giving a considerable headstart with techniques and equipment.

In conclusion, if it can be economically justified (for I have not attempted to analyse the costs of the proposed solutions, though it is worth noting that such an infrastructure improvement is likely to increase travel overall through increased convenience and decreased journey times), Cambridge needs tunnels dug underneath it to solve its transport issues for the foreseeable future. A light rail system would most likely be the best use of the tunnels (and is certainly a less risky option), though it may be easier to fund this later and use the tunnels for buses initially. What do you think?


  1. Current residents are busy making this worse, though one can’t blame them – they’ve spent a lot to live in a nice, small city. []
  2. I shan’t discuss it here, but the hours over which the different routes operate are quite bizzare and frustrating also []
  3. . Timing your trip based on the bus timetables? Unfortunately, the buses aren’t normally reliable enough for this to make much of a difference – see the parts about the road system in the paragraph about cars. []
  4. As demonstrated by its success. []
  5. Unfortunately, I can’t find any reliable source of Cambridge bus fares more specific than the Dayrider other than the buses themselves, so you’ll have to take my word for this. []
  6. Cambridge has one of the lowest if not the lowest rate of people claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance in the country. []
  7. Accommodation prices in Cambridge are already high and keep increasing at quite a rate. []
  8. There are fuller details of causes, effects, numbers, etc. here. []
  9. Indeed, eyesores such as this (if the planned building does not go ahead) could be targeted. []
  10. See this and this for further information. []
  11. A brief search hasn’t lead me to any comparisons of London Clay and Gault Clay and I am not well-informed on this matter, so I’m just basing this on the fact that they are often mentioned together and are both clays. Please seek expert advice before digging tunnels. []

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