The case for long-distance greenways

By Brian Robertson

“We have nothing like this in Oxford”. A young PhD student from Oxford was admiring the excellent cycle track facilities at York University where we had just completed a day of racing. But what if – instead of going around in circles – cycle tracks were built that connected our towns and cities? Imagine the benefits of a safe high-quality continuous track, especially to commuters, school children, and vulnerable road users. I live in Cambridge, but often visit Oxford. I have cycled the journey a few times, so I know the roads between the cities well. 

In Europe, such long-distance greenways have already been built, with more on the way. Shining examples are the Donauradweg (Danube Cycleway) which runs for over 2000 miles to the Black Sea. Cycle tourism has exploded in popularity creating thousands of jobs and boosting the economies of towns and villages along the route. Encouragingly, there are large parties of OAPs, many riding electric bikes.

Back in the UK an obesity time-bomb has exploded. The good news is that if we take regular exercise, especially as we get older, we can vastly improve the latter years of our lives.

Safety considerations are reported to be a major barrier to the take-up of cycling. The Oxford – Milton Keynes – Cambridge corridor is strewn with tragic black spots where vulnerable road users have lost their lives in crashes with motor vehicles. But if dedicated cycle and walking tracks were built they would encourage people to use active travel for shorter journeys. Large numbers of families with young children can be seen using the greenways beside the Cambridgeshire guided busways. Just as encouraging are large parties of handcycle riders who come down from towns such as Kings Lynn, just to use their cycles in safety. Greenways have great appeal for people who may not wish to share a road with motor vehicles.

What benefits could a long-distance greenway bring to the centre of cities like Oxford, Milton-Keynes, or Cambridge? Firstly, increased safety for all users. Secondly, reliable and fast point-to-point journey time. Active travel time compares well to a queue of one-occupant cars. The average speed of car journeys in general has plummeted, and between Oxford and Cambridge, now stands at 30.6 mph even under the best traffic conditions. Car drivers in these cities now regularly report journeys of 4 miles taking up to 2 hours to complete. A greenway to city centres offers zero pollution, increased capacity, and almost no noise. Active travel is resilient during emergencies, which can halt other modes of transport.

We need political will and the creation of an organization such as Greenways England (similar to Highways England which builds roads for motor vehicles) to build these long-distance greenways but as yet our politicians have a poor understanding of the benefits greenways can bring.  Clearly few people would cycle end-to-end in the same way that most passengers on the X5 bus are only going a few stops. Best of all, for a large proportion of the route we could use the old railway line between Oxford and Cambridge.

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