Sunday 21 April 2013

A virtual study of Coldhams Lane, Cambridge

In the good old days, before Google, I used to make large sheet maps of London by photocopying pretty much the entire contents of an A-Z, at various zoom levels, and then cutting and pasting the photocopy pages together. Because this involved a lot of fiddling about, I would keep this "master copy" separate, unblemished by lines of coloured ink. Rather, I would photocopy A3 pages of this, ten at a time usually, paste these together as I needed them, and then draw my lines all over these second generation copies.

Making a mistake was, on the whole, excruciating, though sometimes, as with any evolutionary process, a copying mistake actually resulted in something better than before.

Since Google have done their thing with the maps, however, those days are long gone. Indeed, thanks to Satellite and Street View imagery, I don't even need to get up from my chair to see what the conditions are like on the ground. This means that I am able to code the routes for cycle networks in places that I have never even been to before!

I tend to refer to the Street View imagery quite a lot, and during the course of this research, it has of course occurred to me that what I am seeing is a series of snapshots that capture events during the course of a typical day.

Image from

There are a couple of disadvantages with using Street View. The first is that you cannot venture too far away from the road. True, you can get some idea what is going on from the satellite imagery, but even so, you still need a bit of imagination to fill in the gaps.

The second problem is that the imagery we see is not necessarily the result of a single day's shooting. In the built-up area the Street View cameras capture a set of images in one direction, and then another set of images on the return journey. Because Google don't want any gaps in the Street View imagery, these pictures are then "stitched together" to create a "seamless" image. However, you have only to look at the weather to realise that some of these pictures must have been taken at different times (see at 1' 03" in the video below, for example).

A small independent team at Teehan+Lax have developed a user interface
for creating interactive Google Street View hyper-lapse animations

Any road up, the point is that the Street View imagery fairly reflects what we might expect to see on a normal working day. And it's not selective. It doesn't look over its shoulder, see a cyclist coming its way, and think to itself, "Right, I'll just wait for this cyclist to pass in front of me so that he (or she) appears in my shot." It just tells it as it is.

Of course this may mean that we might not necessarily like what we see, as this comment posted on a website for British expats serves to demonstrate:

Hi, I have been looking on Google maps as part of my research for where I'm going to move to, but when I use the Street View it appears that life doesn't exist!

I'm looking at various streets in Cairns (Queensland), which I know is small anyway, but surely there must be more life than what is shown. The roads seem empty and the people are non-existent. It's like a ghost town - or is that what Cairns is really like?

Hmm. Please reassure me that I'm not moving to a town of 10 people with one car between them.

About a month ago, I finalised a proposed design for a City of Cambridge Cycling Network. Most of what I know about cycling in Cambridge is gleaned from what I have been able to pick up from Street View and from what I have read in the blogs. I have seen that one blogger talks about cycling in Cambridge as being "very much a gown-versus-town thing", and whilst I am not at all in a position to controvert this, I have also seen that another blogger insists that, whilst Cambridge is still two different cities, "it's not 'town' and 'gown' anymore".

Whatever the truth, I decided to take a virtual journey on a route which is very much on the 'town' side of the City. I am talking about Coldhams Lane, beginning north of the river and heading south.

I am going to follow the blue route ... please come along.

Our journey begins!

On the south side now.

Looking back towards the bridge.

We're going to turn left here, up River Lane.

Looking up the hill.

Looking down the hill.

Back on the flat.

A cyclist turns right up ahead.

River Lane junction with Newmarket Road.

Newmarket Road. Coldhams Lane is to the left, River Lane to the right.

Coldhams Lane junction with Newmarket Road (looking east).

Coldhams Lane junction with Newmarket Road (looking west).

Looking up towards the junction with Newmarket Road.

Looking back down Coldhams Lane.

New Street at the junction with Coldhams Lane

Coldhams Lane at the junction with New Street. 

As one woman cyclist sails past the entrance to Henley Way, another
woman cyclist cautiously crosses, accompanied by a young girl.

An elderly couple go to cross Silverwood Close. Note that up ahead
the carriageway is considerably wider.

Looking back towards the junction with Henley Way.

Approaching the junction with Henley Road / the Beehive Centre.

The junction of Coldhams Lane and the Beehive Centre, as viewed
from the entrance to Henley Road.

Henley Road.

The junction of Coldhams Lane and Henley Road, as viewed
from the entrance to the Beehive Centre.

As above, except a little further back.

Looking towards the Beehive Centre. The shared-use path is to
the right.

Back to the junction of Coldhams Lane and Henley Road. The woman
who is using the shared-use path has a trailer in tow.

Coldhams Lane (looking south)

Approaching the bridge over the railway line. To the right, a separate facility
has been specifically constructed for use by pedestrians and cyclists. For
southbound cyclists, access to this facility is via the toucan crossing.

A father and his young daughter amble along.

As we will see, the problem for southbound cyclists is not so much getting
onto the shared-use path as getting off it.

Instinctively, these "badly-behaved" cyclists want to keep out of the
motorists' way. In my opinion, this does not make them lawbreakers.

On the bridge.

Continuing south.

Approaching the junction with Cromwell Road.

There are two cyclists in this shot. Both have come from Cromwell Road.
One has turned right and is heading away from us, the other has turned
left and is heading towards us. Whether by accident or not, the left-turning
cyclist has gone past the entrance for the shared-use path.

[Looking back] Perhaps the cyclist in the last shot has disappeared
into the industrial estate on the right.

This pedestrian has evidently just come from there.

The shared-use path comes to an end. In order to continue their journey,
southbound cyclists just need to cross back over the road.

No problem.

No really, it's no problem at all.

It is intended that a new bridge across the River Cam will be built one
day, and from here the most direct route would be to turn right.

[Looking north] Note the sign on the left, and recall that there was no such
similar instruction at the other end. I might also add that a few repeat
markers laid down on the road would serve as a less obtrusive and no
less effective "interim" measure.

The road is busy with traffic.

[Looking north] Two children carelessly chat to one another.

[Looking north] These two cyclists, a schoolboy and a woman, prepare to
squeeze past each other. Although illegal, one could argue that
this is still 'better' than a huge great lorry - like the one coming towards
us - squeezing past a cyclist.

[Looking north] Coldhams Lane at the junction with Ross Street.

Pootling along.

Another pootler.

[Looking north] At the junction of Vinery Road.

Approaching the junction with Barnwell Road.

A quick look back.

The shared-use path heads off to the left ...

Approaching the roundabout from the other direction.


Of the cyclists

In the photos above, we saw four people pushing their bikes - one of whom was a young girl - and 34 people riding their bikes, 21 on Coldhams Lane. (The resolution in these photos is not as high as in the original Street View imagery, so you'll just have to take my word for it.) Of the 21 on Coldhams Lane, one was a child under ten, and three were children under sixteen: all four were riding their bikes on the pavement and not one of them was wearing a helmet.

Of the 17 adults on Coldhams Lane, nine were male and eight were female. Only one of the adult cyclists was wearing a helmet, and not one of them was wearing hi-viz. In fact, the most popular colour by some considerable margin was black.

Six of the adults were riding their bikes on the pavement, only one of them legally (she was on a shared-use path). Of the five "illegal" cyclists, one was accompanied by a child and two were crossing the bridge over the railway.

Only one of the adults on Coldhams Lane was what you might call a "cyclist" (as opposed to a "bicyclist"). Possibly this might be explained by the time of day, but what these people lack in terms of a visible presence on roads like this one, they more than make up for in terms of an audible presence at council meetings.

Of the road

Coldhams Lane can be separated into three distinct parts:

(i) Between the junction with Newmarket Road and the junction with the Beehive Centre / Henley Road

There are three side streets (two of them cul-de-sacs) between these two junctions, each of which has its own filter lane for right-turning traffic. says that for right turns, "when the road is wide enough you will often have filter lanes to use, which help to keep traffic flowing by allowing traffic to pass on the left."

In the new vision of town planning, ensuring that the traffic is kept flowing on roads like Coldhams Lane would no longer be regarded as a high priority. 

(ii) Over the railway bridge

The value of the only purpose-built infrastructure on Coldhams Lane to benefit cyclists is somewhat diminished by the fact that it is not very easily on-and-offable, particularly for southbound cyclists.

(iii) Between the junction with Cromwell Road and the junction with Barnwell Road

An advisory cycle lane is in place for the pretty much the entire length of this stretch of road.

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