Video: Cambridge in 1945 – when bicycles ruled the roads

Then as now, bikes were favoured transport to extent not seen elsewhere in Britain

by Simon_MacMichael   May 30, 2014  

Cambridge 1945 Vimeo still British Council

In a week in which plans for segregated bike lanes in Cambridge were put on hold amid concerns over “kamikaze cyclists”, here’s a film from nearly 70 years ago that underlines that then, as now, bicycles were the favoured mode of transport in the city to an extent not seen anywhere else in Britain.

The film, made in 1945 and uploaded to Vimeo by the British Council, is about the University of Cambridge and those who study and work there, and touches on bicycles on a couple of occasions.

Fashions may change, but some of the script could have been written today, such as this extract, two minutes in:

“Cambridge town, where the buses seem so menacingly big and the streets, even the main street, so defiantly narrow.

“Where the people share the streets with the buses, motor cars, horses and carts, and bicycles.

“Cambridge is the place in England to see bicycles. In ones and twos, or sometimes in hundreds.”

Cambridge (1945) from British Council Film on Vimeo.

There are more bicycles on view around 4 minutes 40 seconds in as students head off to their lectures and tutorials.

As blogger and cycling activist David Hembrow has pointed out, Cambridge's flat terrain and compact street plan make it ideal for cycling. But Hembrow also points out a factor that contributes hugely to Cambridge's success in being the only UK city where almost 20 percent of all journeys are made by bike: students.

From a population of 130,000, Hembrow says, Cambridge has 43,000 students. Being as even the relatively affluent student population in Cambridge isn't swimming in cash, it's not hard to see that they turn to bikes as an inexpensive mode of transport.

In fact, the university practically forces them to do so. Except in rare special circumstances, students aren't allowed to keep cars in Cambridge. As The Student Room puts it in its section about getting around Cambridge:

Car (forget it)
Undergraduate students are not normally allowed to keep a car; special permission must be sought from the University Proctor, and is unlikely to be granted unless there are special reasons for having one (such as being a driver for a sports team etc). Even so, parking is sparse and the one way systems/bollard systems mean town-centre driving is nearly impossible. Also, there are so many bikes around that driving is pretty unpleasant.

That last comment's interesting. Cambridge has surprisingly few bike-specific facilities, so bikes and cars are forced to interact far more than in towns where the high proportion of bike journeys is a result of well-designed segregated infrastructure. 

All of which makes even more mystifying the decision earlier this week of the county council's planning and environment committee to effectively scupper plans for segregated lanes, as mentioned at the top of this story.The plans had widespread support, and would have helped make Cambridge a more pleasant place for both drivers and cyclists by removing those "pretty unpleasant" interactions. 

John Stevenson, road.cc's editor-at-large, recently moved to Cambridge, and contributed to this report.

7 user comments

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There appears to be a strong town v gown polarisation going on there.

Locals probably feel entitled to use their cars at every opportunity because they pay local rates, but according to gov.uk, full time students don't, never mind all the other benefits that having a world leading university brings to the town.

posted by congokid [110 posts]
30th May 2014 - 14:30

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Really getting fed up with this 'Cambridge is a cycling city because students' myth.

58% of adults in Cambridge cycle at least once a month. 30% of Cambridge commuters use bikes for the greatest part of their journey (therefore excluding those who train + bike to London, for example). Cycling rates are higher in the outlying villages than most of the rest of the country too, heading into Cambridge for work.

Many of the city councillors cycle. The MP cycles.

Many students don't cycle: when everything you need in your life is less than a mile away, getting the bike out is actually a bit of a pain.

And if a student want to own a car, the universities can't practically stop them. The rule probably dissuades some people, but so long as you find somewhere to park it the universities are unlikely to know.

People cycle here for lots of different reasons, but the fact that you can cross Cambridge by bike faster than by any other mode of transport is a big factor. The road network is operating beyond capacity, and there are many more options available to people on bikes to avoid the congestion.

posted by HKCambridge [109 posts]
30th May 2014 - 15:01

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Interesting film of Cambridge, albeit mostly the university, at the end of WW2. That video only shows a moment in time when cars were less the thing, with rationing due to wartime also having an effect on methods of travel (petrol rationing didn't end until 1950). So it does little to prove that Cambridge can claim historically to have some kind of affinity with cycling, as much as it can be concluded from that film that wooden Cambridge professors always deliver lectures like they are reading from their latest published book, or undergraduates relax and have fun after a hard day of lectures by toasting scrummy crumpets in the fire.

I can remember in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s when bikes weren't particularly in widespread use in the city. The only time when you used to really see more bikes was during the summer used by the visiting foreign language school students aged about 15-18. It's changed somewhat again since then though with more people commuting by bike to and from work, but as HKCambridge points out, a lot about usage and the types cycling is a myth.

posted by Ghostie [74 posts]
30th May 2014 - 15:41

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Hembrow's post from 2011 does indeed mention 43000 students, but doesn't say where the number comes from. One Cambridge uni - Anglia Ruskin - has students split across three cities so we can't use the total on Wikipedia. This 2012 article puts the total at a rather lower 28574, and breaks that figure down in various ways.

In comparison, South Manchester is home to both the largest and the fourth largest universities in the UK by student population* with around 75000 students concentrated in quite a small area of the city. It's also pretty flat, but very few students cycle. The road between the main residences and campuses is apparently the busiest cycle route in the city, but that isn't saying much, and it's also been in the news as the most dangerous route for cyclists (although the figures in the article aren't adjusted for number of cyclists).

So,
lots_of_students + flat_city = lots_of_cyclists
still isn't true if the roads are perceived as busy and dangerous.

And I don't think it's because they're allowed to own cars. Most take the bus or walk.

*Not including the Open University or London which is a collection of 18 colleges spread across a wide area.

posted by pmanc [113 posts]
30th May 2014 - 16:58

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HKCambridge wrote:
Really getting fed up with this 'Cambridge is a cycling city because students' myth.

58% of adults in Cambridge cycle at least once a month. 30% of Cambridge commuters use bikes for the greatest part of their journey (therefore excluding those who train + bike to London, for example). Cycling rates are higher in the outlying villages than most of the rest of the country too, heading into Cambridge for work.

Many of the city councillors cycle. The MP cycles.

Many students don't cycle: when everything you need in your life is less than a mile away, getting the bike out is actually a bit of a pain.

And if a student want to own a car, the universities can't practically stop them. The rule probably dissuades some people, but so long as you find somewhere to park it the universities are unlikely to know.

People cycle here for lots of different reasons, but the fact that you can cross Cambridge by bike faster than by any other mode of transport is a big factor. The road network is operating beyond capacity, and there are many more options available to people on bikes to avoid the congestion.

Entirely correct. The only time I didn't use a bike in Cambridge was when I was a student. As a member of the town I have rarely walked. There is a big difference between a half-mile journey and even one and a half. The only students who definitely use their bikes are the ones that hare down Huntingdon road every morning!

posted by Alan Tullett [1432 posts]
30th May 2014 - 21:54

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Isn't it a shame you can't just stick a wheel in some railings and not have your bike stolen? I wonder when people started stealing them?

posted by CharlesMagne [22 posts]
31st May 2014 - 9:26

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Alan Tullett wrote:

Entirely correct. The only time I didn't use a bike in Cambridge was when I was a student. As a member of the town I have rarely walked. There is a big difference between a half-mile journey and even one and a half. The only students who definitely use their bikes are the ones that hare down Huntingdon road every morning!

Yeah, it's going to be college and subject dependent. A lot of Girton students probably have bikes. Kings' students studying on the New Museums site 100m away probably don't, or at least don't use them very much.

posted by HKCambridge [109 posts]
31st May 2014 - 12:05

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