The Park Terrace Rat-Run (and Other Stories)

Transport is a big topic in Cambridge these days. The County Council (don’t ask why transport in the City is not the responsibility of the City Council) is pondering whether or not to agree to introduce a congestion charge in return for £500m from central government for transport improvements. A no-brainer if you ask me.

Even with half a billion, though, the problems aren’t easy to solve, as rather too many people think they have a right to drive on the cramped medieval streets in the centre of Cambridge. Weird and wacky ideas are therefore being floated.

I don’t think the principal problem is a lack of money, nor that cutting-edge technology is the whole solution. What’s lacking is a clear strategy. Joined-up thinking has clearly been continually thwarted over the years by a political system (first past the post in small council wards) that favours those who pander most effectively to local interest groups; by bizarre and unclear divisions of responsibility between different levels of government; perhaps by a lack of political courage; but above all by an electorate with an astonishing belief in its own entitlement to do exactly what it wants whenever it feels like it, regardless of the effect on everyone else.

Before spending £500m, what is needed is simply determination to minimise traffic in the centre of Cambridge. Without this, the money will make no difference.

Consider the area which I use as a pedestrian on a daily basis, as shown in the map below:


1. Close the Lion Yard car-park

Top left is Lion Yard, a covered shopping mall, recently extended in a project known as the Grand Arcade. There are a lot of shops in the centre of Cambridge now, a few hundred yards from one of the nation’s most historic buildings, King’s College Chapel. It is no longer practical for all shoppers to drive right into the centre, so Cambridge is ringed by Park’n’Ride carparks, subsidised by those of us who never use them, incidentally. So why, oh why, are some shoppers allowed to park in the new multi-story Lion Yard carpark?

I was showing someone around Cambridge last weekend, as I often do. We walked along Downing Street and Pembroke Street (not labelled on the map, but below Lion Yard, where the legend “University of Cambridge” appears), towards the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street, looking around the area where DNA was discovered, not to mention the electron. But, spoiling the ambience and spewing fumes in this historic part of Cambridge was a slow-moving line of traffic heading north along Trumpington Street, turning right to head west along Pembroke Street, into and later out of the Lion Yard car-park, emerging to continue west along Downing Street, before causing a nuisance turning right at the newly installed traffic lights into St Andrew’s Street.

In our new mood of determination, the Lion Yard carpark should simply be closed. Build some flats instead. The shoppers and others using the Lion Yard car-park would then have to use the Park’n’Ride car-parks instead, improving the economics of the Park’n’Ride service.

But let’s see how much further we can get with our new mood of determination.

2. Close Park Terrace

Look again at the map. Just right of centre 4 roads form a tilted square: Gonville Place, Regent Street, Park Terrace and Parkside. Inside this square is Parker’s Piece, which I walk across or around (depending on the weather) nearly every day, from the end of Gresham Road (where there’s an infamous pedestrian and cycle crossing – more about that another time).

One reason for writing this post was to play around a bit with Google Maps! (Anyone know how to get rid of the annoying drawing-pin symbol, by the way?). What I’ve learnt is that there’s resistance somewhere to embedding two maps in one post. I therefore urge readers to switch between satellite mode and map mode to follow my description – the map simplifies matters a little too much.

The mess is in the north-west corner (top left) of Parker’s Piece. Heading north into town, you first encounter cyclists heading in all directions: crossing Parker’s Piece diagonally; turning left and right from Regent Street where there is a cramped dual-use crossing – that is, one for both cyclists and pedestrians, who trip over each other trying to reach the other side of the road before the lights change; heading both ways down the road on the left (Regent Terrace) behind the row of shops, restaurants and pubs fronting onto Regent Street; and – remember this point – heading east-north-east along the side of Parker’s Piece. These cyclists are not, as may be clearer in the satellite photo than the map, cycling along Park Terrace, which is actually the other side of the University Arms hotel.

At this point too, the pedestrian flow crossing Parker’s piece becomes a mere tributary. On Regent Street, you join a mass of often large groups, many from overseas, for you are now on the main route from Cambridge Railway Station into town.

After negotiating the melee at the corner of Parker’s Piece, the intrepid pedestrian has to keep their wits about them. The next hazard is the University Arms hotel car-park, which for reasons lost in the mists of time spews Sunday drivers up [23/3 CORRECTION: down, doesn’t memory play tricks on you?] a steep ramp across the busy Regent Street pavement. A lack of clutch control, or any other sign of the driver being fully in control of their vehicle, is often evident, so the wise pedestrian stays alert.

Barring major engineering works, the exit to the University Arms hotel is likely to remain in Regent Street. But this is a minor inconvenience compared to the next hazard – the dreaded Park Terrace.

As you cross Park Terrace, both cars and buses swing into the road, from both directions along Regent Street (Park Terrace itself is one-way). None appear to realise that they should be giving way to pedestrians.

Today I had the temerity to glare at a driver who swung round the corner as I was already crossing the road. What drivers fail to realise is that pedestrians do not share their knowledge of the precise trajectory their car will follow as it turns, nor indeed the same faith in the grip of their tyres, nor knowledge of the state of their brakes, nor, it has to be said, the same confidence in the skill and concentration of the person at the wheel. What the pedestrian experiences is a threat of serious harm if they should slow – or speed up, depending on where the car passes – their pace crossing the road, or, in the worst cases, if they fail to slow or speed up their pace. In short, the driver may know he’s not going to hit the pedestrian, but the pedestrian doesn’t know this. The pedestrian’s experience is simply of being on the receiving end of a form of intimidation. Hence the glare.

Believe it or not, today the driver actually stopped to discuss the issue! I should have studied sociology – hey, what am I saying?, I did study sociology! – because I felt this was a great opportunity to find something out. So when he pulled up I went and had a chat. And, sure enough, the driver, if I interpret his words correctly, felt he could not possibly be in the wrong, as he was on a road, and I was not another vehicle!

Now, later this afternoon, I pondered the Park Terrace phenomenon. I don’t drive with such aggression – well, only to other drivers, who of course deserve it, not to pedestrians – and am treated on average far more politely at other junctions. In fact, the buses using Park Terrace are noticeably more considerate than the cars, even allowing for the fact that sudden stops are not quite so easy for them. Heck, some of the buses even signal! Of course, I’m more considerate to the buses too – more prepared to step back onto the pavement to allow them to turn – not just because they are even more intimidating than cars, but also because I feel a few seconds of my time is outweighed by that of 20 passengers and a driver.

Pondering away, I developed a hypothesis – it’s Cambridge, after all. My hypothesis is this: the users of Park Terrace are mostly taking a short-cut.

The driver who didn’t care enough, for my liking, whether or not he took me out while I was crossing Park Terrace, was turning left. At the other end of Park Terrace (see map), most cars, I’ve noticed, turn right onto Parkside, and then likely left into East Road or straight on into Mill Road. One point is that there are few other places to go: straight on leads to a residential area with no exit (theoretically – it seems some anti-social drivers ignore various no thru road signs, weave through back-streets and emerge on East Road at Dover Street, no doubt very pleased at saving themselves time at the expense of other drivers and local residents). So drivers turning left into Park Terrace are mostly avoiding the traffic jam (and two pedestrian crossings) along Gonville Place. They are in the rush, rush, rush state of mind. They are not those who, I’ve read, treat car journeys, such as the daily commute, as quality time, an opportunity to relax between the stresses of work and the pressures of family life.

[23/3 NOTE: It turns out to my surprise that drivers can also turn left at the end of Park Terrace, drive round into Emmanuel Street, right into the pedestrian zone of St Andrew’s Street and then to King Street and Jesus Lane via Hobson Street. [26/3 CORRECTION: Sorry, this traffic doesn’t enter the formal pedestrian zone, rather it bears right into Hobson Street just before where a gate blocks St Andrew’s Street at some times of day, but it does add to the buses and taxis congesting an area where there are a lot of pedestrians, many crossing St Andrews Street where there is a passage leading to the bus station and the Grafton Centre.] I suspect traffic is entering Regent Street at the Lensfield Road/Gonville Place junction in order to take this route, avoiding having to use East Road and Maid’s Causeway. The same argument applies: if we want a pleasant city centre for the benefit of a large number of people, we should simply stop being so kind to a small number of motorists!].

No, the reason Park Terrace is such a pain to cross is that its being used selectively by those who are trying to save their own precious minutes. Close it, I say. We have designated which are the main roads. Why should a few avoid the queues on them, in the process slowing people down when they slot back in to the traffic procession in advance of where they left it?

If Park Terrace were closed to traffic at the Regent Street end it could be used as a two-way cycle route, though minimal residents’ traffic would still have to be permitted, thereby relieving the Parker’s Piece melee 20 metres south along Regent Street.

Potentially, too, a new exit from the University Arms underground car-park could be constructed into Park Terrace (to exit to the east). This would add little to the residents’ traffic along Park Terrace.

3. Close Regent Terrace

If you think Park Terrace is a joke, you won’t believe Regent Terrace. Regent Terrace is on the west side of Parker’s Piece, a cul de sac behind the buildings on that side of the park. Like Park Terrace, Regent Terrace is an access road that just happens to be there. It wasn’t created for the purpose to which it is being put.

And Regent Terrace – no more than 150 yards from the Queen Anne multi-story on Gonville Place – is being used for parking. Completely unsegregated cyclists and pedestrians (especially when Parker’s Piece is muddy) compete for road space with cars cruising the narrow street looking for a parking space. Ludicrously, cars have to turn round at Melee Corner. And, for much of Regent Terrace’s length, there is no room for two cars to pass. I’ve seen arguments break out over who should reverse – once with a woman (sorry, I’m afraid it simply was a woman, saying “person” would seem a little odd) nearly in tears, refusing to reverse, despite several cars in front of her coming the other way, for fear of scraping her car.

Regent Terrace should simply be closed to all except residents. The parking places are more trouble than they’re worth and should all be removed, allowing a pedestrian path and cycle lanes to be marked.

4. On the buses

Where are the buses going to go, I hear you ask, now that I’ve closed Park Terrace?

Why are the buses using Park Terrace in the first place? I retort.

At this point it might be worth listing some of the interacting traffic problems in the centre of Cambridge:
– too many private cars;
– too many buses;
– too many taxis;
– lack of cycle lanes;
– cyclists using the pavement endangering pedestrians and themselves;
– dangers to pedestrians who risk being hit by traffic when spilling off narrow, overcrowded pavements and from bus wing mirrors even whilst on the pavements.

So far we’ve addressed the private cars and provided new quiet routes for cyclists along the north (Park Terrace) and west (Regent Terrace) sides of Parker’s Piece.

What we really need to do with the buses is keep most of them out of centre of Cambridge, which is too cramped for London-style double-deckers. We could do this simply by creating a decent bus terminus at the railway station (not just a few more stops), in place of some of the acres of car-parking there, and building a high-capacity transport link from the station to the centre of town – a monorail, an underground rail link, or even the Heathrow-style pods that have been proposed.

But, even without such major improvements we can make a big difference in one fell swoop. Why don’t we simply create a one-way route for buses (and all other motorised vehicles)? The bus station, such as it is, is in Drummer Street (at the east end of Emmanuel Street, see map), and, controversially, National Express coaches wait on Parkside (space should be made for them at the central railway station, which would then operate as a more effective transport interchange). A one-way loop, (either way) could be created from Emmanuel Street, along St Andrew’s Street, Regent Street, Gonville Place, Parkside and Drummer Street, back to Emmanuel Street. Simple.

The advantage of creating a one-way loop for buses and all other vehicles would be to create space for cycle lanes in both directions, and wider pavements, on all these roads – but especially Regent Street.

People will object to making Gonville Place one-way, because it is part of a major east-west route, but I say: bite the bullet! Traffic is stationary in Gonville Place much of the time, simply waiting for the lights at either end (often blocking the pedestrian crossing at the end of Gresham Road – but it’s hardly news that so few these days know how to drive with the courtesies laid down in the Highway Code, is it?). Simplifying the traffic sequence at these junctions would speed up the traffic flow. OK, traffic in one direction would have be diverted some way round, but remember what we’re trying to do. We’re determined to minimise traffic in the centre of Cambridge.

5. Taxi, taxi

There have always been a lot of taxis in Cambridge, but now that there’s a recession on it’s like Moscow in the early 1990s, except that the Cambridge taxis don’t double as currency bureaux and kiosks for black-market goods.

Now, I’ve nothing against taxis, but they should be for the occasional difficult trip. They are not an alternative to buses. They are an incredibly inefficient form of transport, using more fuel and road space per journey than private cars – because the vehicle is empty when it returns to a rank or goes to the next pick-up. Why then, are taxis given such privileges?

In Cambridge, taxis can go everywhere buses go, not just to make pick-ups or drop-offs that would be impossible otherwise, but en route. There are certain roads – for example, Sidney Street and St John’s Street (scroll up on the map and, because these streets are so small, zoom in) – where people walk in the road and have to jump back onto the pavement when a taxi wants to pass through. This is madness. Inconveniencing dozens for one passenger makes no sense. Unless picking up or dropping off where private cars can’t go, taxis should have no more rights to drive through Cambridge than you or I.

And the siting of taxi ranks is hilarious. There’s one for 6 vehicles in St Andrew’s Street in the absolute busiest part of town, where space is at a huge premium. Today I noticed about a dozen taxis queuing back past the rank and a couple of community police officers moving them on. As soon as the police left, the queue was back, of course, causing a nuisance. Yet round the corner in Drummer Street, the rank next to the bus station was empty. Totally unused space. Just get rid of the rank in St Andrew’s Street and put a sign up pointing to where taxis can be found.

Incidentally, I once read that pollution levels along Regent Street and St Andrew’s Street are extraordinarily high. Funny, that.

6. Take pedestrians seriously

If we are determined to give cyclists and pedestrians priority over cars – and remember, this is our policy – then give cyclists and pedestrians priority over cars. I must have spent hours waiting, for example, to cross Gonville Place at the crossing at the end of Gresham Road. I stand there watching cars either edging along in a jam (often stopping on the crossing – please, please send a traffic cop to book them, even if it’s just the once!) in one or (better, because you can sometimes nip across) both directions. Now, if the lights have been green to traffic for even 10 seconds, switch immediately to pedestrians and cyclists. The same no-brainers occur all over town.

So, various tiers of government, if we’re going to have a transport strategy for Cambridge, let’s have one that makes sense. We want to use the space as efficiently as possible. That means minimising the traffic in the centre of town. And if we want to minimise traffic in the centre of Cambridge, then that’s what has to be done. Don’t fudge the policy by sticking car-parks where some people would like you to do that; don’t leave sneaky little short-cuts and parking places for drivers in the know; create a sensible traffic circulation even if people whinge; don’t kow-tow to lobbies, such as the taxi-drivers; don’t try to cater to a minority at the expense of anyone else (even bus users – take those stupid stops outside John Lewis, you know, where the queues block the pavement, and put them in Drummer Street); and, above all, make life as easy as possible for pedestrians and cyclists, because they’re exhibiting the behaviour you’re trying to encourage.

You can’t keep everyone happy all the time. And if you keep trying to do so, you’ll end up making someone very unhappy indeed. For example, in this small part of Cambridge I’ve focused on, which I know intimately, cyclists have taken to using the pavements – because space hasn’t been allocated to them in the form of cycle lanes (or they can’t be bothered to sort lights). Cyclists often travel at high-speed on the pavement. It’s only a matter of time someone – likely frail and elderly – is seriously injured. Or worse.