Cambridge is a city of bicycles, or cycles, as they say here. One in five people in Cambridge walks or bikes to school or work, which doesn’t factor in those parents who cycle their children to school and then continue on to work. When it comes to the use of bikes in the Western world, Cambridge, with the exception of Holland and the Scandinavian countries, is in a world of its own.
In the UK, although only 2 percent of people regularly ride their bikes, here in Cambridge bikes are everywhere: on the astounding number of established bike lanes; on well-traveled routes that can take you all over town, on designated bike lanes on wide pavements, on the road on specially marked cycle lanes, on the paths across the Fens by the river Cam.
Unless you have to, it’s best not to have a fancy bike; these tend to get stolen (as mine did, when its rider (not I!) left it unlocked overnight outside a busy store). A clunker that gets you around but doesn’t advertise itself as being worth anything is best.
Great big wicker baskets (which cost around 35 pounds) are de rigeur, as are panniers for students who have to cart around a lot of books and papers. Most bikes are black or silver, with a few painted dazzling colors, presumably to deter theft and serve as an easily identifying mark when you’re trying to find it in the midst of all the hundreds of other bikes (see the first photo above).
Almost all young children, and some adults, wear helmets; teenagers wouldn’t be caught dead in them. I asked a man who owned a cycle shop why helmets aren’t mandatory in this bike-overrun town, and he said that the British government didn’t want to mandate the use of helmets for fear of putting people off cycling, and pushing them back into cars, thus losing the health benefits of cycling.
Bicyclists here are generally very well behaved. So far, I’ve seen only one bicyclist go through a red light. But as you can see from the following article, the rest of England is nowhere near as advanced as Cambridge when it comes to promoting cycling.
Of course, accidents happen, but I have yet to see an accident between a bike and a car–it’s considered “very bad form for a car to hit a cycle,” my friend the Cambridge don says, and the police come down hard on drivers who run into cyclists. You don’t see a lot of sloppy or aggressive driving here.
I’ve seen two accidents in which children fell of their bikes on the sidewalk and were hurt (scraped, but nothing broken), and each time people came running to their assistance and two men (who had nothing to do with the fall and were just driving nearby) actually stopped their cars and went over to help.
I’ve seen children as young as three, and people as old as in their 90s, happily bike around town, getting exercise while they get to where they need to be. My daughters and I had particularly lovely rides through the Fens and along the Cam or its tributaries to Meg’s school on Trumpington Road and to the centre (that’s how it’s spelled here) of town.
Bad weather doesn’t deter most cyclists; they put on a waterproof anorack and cover their children that they are transporting with a plastic sheet, which is just as well as English weather can be unpredictable.
Sometimes the congestion due to bikes can become rather overwhelming, especially on King’s Parade by the colleges and near the marketplace, and it’s easier to walk your bike. But in general, if there’s someone ahead you who is walking, or cycling more slowly than you, there’s always the cheery little tinkle of your bicycle bell to get them to move aside.