‘Slow travel’ is all the rage in the Sunday colour supplements, but has less of a pull when balancing up how to get from Cambridge to Huntingdon on an overcast Wednesday morning in October. We know there’s an urgent need to reduce the number of journeys made by private car, which means making the change a realistic option for more people. So it seemed like a good idea to remind myself what the bus journey was like.
Unsurprisingly, the trip showed how much more investment and imagination is needed in public transport.
The first thing to say is that I acknowledge that I’m lucky enough to have a choice about how to travel. That’s not just about access to a car, but also about having the time to use other methods. Drive time is (in theory at least) about 30 minutes; public transport options take at least twice as long.
Once I decided to take the bus, I had to choose between a Guided Busway service (which needed a change in St Ives) or the through service via Cambourne and Papworth. I opted for the latter, the X2 run by Whippet Bus, the ‘X’ rather optimistically standing for ‘Express’: 1hour 15 minutes, for a journey of 20 miles.
I cycled to pick up the service at Cambridge Railway station, because that fitted better with my plans for later in the day. This of course necessitated a weighing up of where it was safe to leave my bike parked if I wanted it to still be there when I got back. Rates of bike theft around the city are escalating and the 3000 space CyclePoint is one of the most notorious hot-spots for this. Neither the police nor Greater Anglia follow up theft reports. I now refuse to leave my bike there.
I’ve commented before on the failures of the station redevelopment to deliver the high-quality integrated transport interchange we were promised as part of the Brookgate masterplan: bus stops distributed around the corner from the station exit, while taxis take pride of place immediately outside; and cyclists and pedestrians equally disadvantaged in a ludicrous ‘shared space’ experiment.
Sadly, we’re unlikely to get any major re-arrangement of space around the station soon. But what really rankles is that we can’t even get the little things right. According to the Whippet Bus timetable, I was to join the service at Stop 8. Do you think there’s a clearly visible Stop 8 sign on both sides of the bus shelter? Of course there isn’t. It’s just another small but telling indication of how little thought is given to users’ needs and the respect they can expect.
A return ticket was £7, which I thought was reasonable value. However, to start with I was the only passenger on the bus. We picked up another couple in the city centre and then the three of us headed out into the countryside. At no point were there more than four passengers on the bus until we reached Godmanchester, which was after 9.30am and so accessible to holders of free bus passes.
Several free pass users got on as we wound our way round housing estates, and they clearly valued the service. The timetable indicates that there are only two local 478 services an hour – but if you are elderly or have limited mobility, that offers too little security that if one service is late, you won’t be stranded, so routing the ‘express’ services through the estates is a pragmatic way for the operator to supplement that. But it is also a big deterrent for anyone wanting a genuinely fast connection between Cambridge and Huntingdon.
At least the bus users of the older Godmanchester estates have bus shelters at which to wait. What was depressing about wending our way through the newer developments at Cambourne and Roman’s Edge was how few shelters there were. Thousands of new houses, thousands of new residents, but no attempt to do even the bare minimum to persuade them that public transport is an attractive option. This is the public transport infrastructure in the central shopping area of Cambourne:
The vehicle itself was equally unlikely to persuade anyone that bus travel is an attractive, let alone aspirational, option. Yes it was clean inside, but also noisy, especially on the rural sections where it got up speed. There were no visual or audible ‘next stop’ announcements, let alone value added features like wifi. Given all of this, it would be very difficult to use your time in an economically productive way – and given that the journey takes twice as long as by car, if that matters to you, then of course the car is the only rational choice.
This matters, because the justification given for encouraging growth in Cambridge is that it will diffuse out into the wider geography of Cambridgeshire. This is the central tenet of The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review (2018) commissioned by James Palmer, then Mayor of the Combined Authority. Huntingdon and surrounds are highlighted as an obvious location to accommodate that growth – but where will the new residents work, and how will they travel around?
Huntingdon town centre has beautiful bones but it has to be said that it felt like it was struggling when I visited.
CPIER argues for both a market town masterplan to reinvigorate places like Huntingdon as successful settlements in their own right, and significant public transport upgrades led by the Combined Authority. Both of those are policies I’d love to see delivered, but I remain sceptical about the likelihood of them being achieved in any reasonable timeframe because of all the governance and financial barriers I’ve detailed in previous posts.
If they cannot be achieved though, what then? The city and the region’s carbon budgets continue to sink under the weight of private vehicle journeys for both employment and leisure purposes to Cambridge and South Cambs. Air pollution increases. Gridlock.
Remember that the upgrade of the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridge completed last year was funded to the tune of one and a half billion pounds. Where is the equivalent ambition and funding to get people out of their cars?
My slow homeward journey was delayed by a lorry parked on the cycle lane at the junction of Downing Street and Regent Street (above). My bus couldn’t squeeze through between the Park and Ride bus in the lay-by outside John Lewis and the illegally parked lorry. Cyclists were using the pavement in both directions to get round the blockage. The enforcement officer in attendance couldn’t get the driver to move. I concluded that – even having been issued a parking ticket – parking at that pinch-point immediately outside his destination was the economically rational choice for the driver.
We need to give people better choices. And fast.
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I am so impresssed by the careful thought behind this very clear blog, but also how depressing that the transport services are so inept.
Sam, your great analytical approach is wonderful. I just want a lot more people to support your commitment.
Totally agree with Margaret’s comments, well done Sam for telling it like it really is. Pity the decision makers don’t do what you’ve done and see the nitty gritty reality.
As a regular bus user, having worked in Cambourne and Papworth, I felt like a second class citizen, compared with the ease of car use. Thanks Sam for revealing such truths, the difference between strategic concepts and the reality on the ground, especially for those on low incomes without a car.
Thank you again Sam for your tireless work. I too have experienced that journey from Cambridge to Huntingdon and can confirm that it is yet another example of the dismal lack of planning over public transport. As you and many of us have been saying for years: how can people be persuaded to reduce car use if the alternatives are so poor? This is precisely why we hope for forward-thinking leadership from local politicians, but are constantly disappointed. Despite all the lip-service given to reducing carbon emissions, Cambridge and its environs are going to stay addicted to cars unless and until there is determined and intelligent action, plus of course an adequate amount of funding directed to sorting out the sorry mess of public transport. As you say, those who depend on it tend to be treated as of very little account. Their time and convenience is disregarded, i.e.
disrespected. Buses, transport policy seems to say, are for the lower orders.
There are no feasible options for using public transport for anything much except a trip into the centre of town (whichever town). Using buses for anything else is not a sensible use of time.
You are right: we need real options to reduce use of cars, but at the moment there aren’t any.
Note the further education colleges have been raising the cost of having to provide separate services – at a cost of £1.8m – as a very serious issue to the County Council & Mayor. https://cambridgetownowl.com/2021/10/18/cambridgeshires-further-education-colleges-spend-1-8m-on-providing-transport-bus-services-that-should-be-provided-for-by-local-government/
Very shortly, The Mayor Dr Nik Johnson will publish his draft Local Transport & Connectivity Plan. There are some very tough challenges for him to address. But history is not on his side – his predecessor’s scheme from 2018 becoming obsolete not just with the elections but a change of national government policy, and the county council’s 2015 LTP which was supposed to run to 2031 being made obsolete a year after publication again due to a change of government policy.
Good points. I imagine this lack of priority and investment in public transport also reduces peoples opportunities: young people wanting to get to sixth form / further education in Cambridge (e.g. from Cambourne), people needing to get to jobs, especially low wage staff where the extra hours travelling a week make a dint in the hours they could work and the jobs they can seek out.
As a society we “save” money on public transport by not investing, but the cost goes onto every household in needing to buy and run a car, which we pay for again in congestion and air pollution.
Thank you for highlighting.
Thanks for the blog. China have over 400,000 electric buses in operation and Cambridge has 4 on trial. I wondered if a City with a technically advanced worksforce had dropped the ball but then I remembered that the GCP had it under control. GCP quote “The future bus network could mean buses running every ten minutes in Cambridge and from larger towns and villages, along with new hourly services in rural areas, to improve opportunities for people living and working in the area”.
Keep up the good work. It is good to have an independent view of the current situation.
The point about the employment you can look for is really crucial. In my last job (in a village) I was paid by the hour. I could offer my employer 12 hours a week because I could get there in 15 minutes after dropping my kids in childcare (which is paid for by the hour). Had I done the journey by train, I would have used up 6 of those 12 hours every week just traveling and the job would have been unviable PLUS add on the fines for picking up children late from childcare because services are unreliable. It doesn’t work. There is also very poor service between different areas of the city unless you live on one of the “spokes” and your bus route happens to connect with one of the other “spokes”.
The need for better travel choices will be in great demand with future residents of Northstowe who will be faced with half a car parking space per dwelling according to Cambridge News. Who decided that half a car was better than no car?
Excellent article on your bus journey to Huntingdon.
Thanks Sam, used to get the bus regularly to Huntingdon and only ever used this service once. I am lucky now in that I take the guided bus from Histon. This is great and no need to change at St Ives.
The run from Histon to St Ives is great, less so once your are off the busway getting to Huntingdon. My frustration was that the timetable only ever seemed like a suggestion and it was amazing sometimes how long you waited for a bus that was supposed to be every 20 minutes (I think).
Sam: The Civil Enforcement Officer (CEO) has (currently) NO powers to issue a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) to any motor vehicle stopped in a Mandatory Cycle Lane (MCL). Outside of London only the police can enforce. This should change when the County has more Civil Enforcement powers some time next year, but due to an error in the legislation, for Traffic Regulations after 2017 it ‘may’ still remain the responsibility of the police!
At this specific location, a planning condition for the bar here is that loading and unloading is not permitted from Downing Street. It is a breach of the planning consent if such unloading takes place.
How much longer would your trip have been were you going to the new County Council HQ?
[…] This, along with the ambiguous phase ‘rapid transit’ come up again and again. When I started working in the Civil Service as a junior admin officer, I remember lots of senior-looking-types going into meetings about CHUMMS and doing lots of talking. It was only later on did I find out this was all related to central government wanting to find somewhere to test out a guided busway. Which is how Cambridgeshire ended up with it – The Department for Transport offered a lump sum, and the county council accepted. That was just the start of the trouble! The legal action some 20 years later is still ongoing between the county council and the main contractor BAM Nuttall. Furthermore, Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s) recently took the bus from Cambridge to Huntingdon to see if the journey had gotten better over the past century or so. You can read how she got on via her blog here. […]