The Greater Cambridge City Deal is a project that gets a significant amount of funding to improve Cambridge and its surroundings.
Having looked at some of the proposals they've come up with, I was pretty concerned that they didn't seem to be heading in the right direction. Or even close. There's a real possibility that the urge to be seen to be "doing something" will fritter away this investment, make things worse in the short term, and compromise the region's ability to improve in the longer term.
I'm clearly not alone. There have been demonstrations, petitions, and a whole range of activity on social media.
I went to the Rebooting the City Deal event run by Smarter Cambridge Transport, and it was packed. The organizers seemed surprised that so many people turned up; given the furore over the proposals it wasn't at all surprising.
One of the talks covered the proposal for Light Rail. Now, I'm intrinsically a fan of rail-based solutions, but I can't see this being a success. It's too expensive while simultaneously offering little benefit because it has fairly limited city coverage and doesn't really link up to the wider transport system. Not only that, we're talking 15 years out, so we're going to have to live with the mess and congestion that is Cambridge until then, at which point we don't know whether it will be solving the right problem. If you are going to go down the light rail route, you need to go full bore, creating a denser mesh with better coverage, and do it quickly.
However, it's important to have proposals like this being put forward. Working through their pros and cons gives you a much better understanding of the real issues.
Then we had Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport talking about better bus journeys. Much of the material is based on this document. While I agree with the list of what the bus needs to do to be a favoured mode of transport, I think there's an item 0 that's missed - there must be a bus that gets you from your starting point to your destination, and back again. If there isn't a bus route, or it doesn't operate at the times you need to travel, then it doesn't matter how good you make services, people will have to find alternative modes of transport.
I'm reasonably fortunate in living a few minutes from one of the most densely trafficked bus routes in Cambridge, but even that is a frustrating business. Not only are the fares horrifically expensive, if the frequency is every 10 minutes, why do I end up with common 30 or 45 minute waits? And if I want to go straight into central Cambridge, then it's fine, but there are large areas of the city that have essentially no bus service at all. Want to go into some of the lovely villages near Cambridge? Not by bus, you won't. Many of the places I might think of going to work or shop really aren't accessible by bus at all.
The third talk was a little odd, in that a lot of numbers were presented without a clear explanation of their meaning. But as I understood it, it goes like this. We think Cambridge is a cycling hotspot. Compared to many places in the UK, it is, but if you compare it to The Netherlands then it's clear we're doing really badly. So the talk basically looked at what cycling in Cambridge would look like if cycling followed the same pattern as The Netherlands - in other words, if the same proportion of journeys of a given type and length (or difficulty) were made here as are there. What didn't really come out in the talk was that you would see a dramatic increase in cycling. The conclusion I would draw from this is that there's huge untapped potential.
We then had a short panel discussion. Our current and previous MPs were pretty scathing in their comments. One thing I took away from Daniel Zeichner's comments is that, regardless of what the City Deal itself might want to do, the fact that we have multiple independent councils involved, each with their own agendas, isn't helping matters - a unitary authority would greatly simplify matters. And then there's the fact that certain elements of any plan are dependent on private companies - ok, Stagecoach - that are a law unto themselves and aren't really involved in the process. (Looking elsewhere at places that have managed to make progress in improving local transport, it's clear that the more control the local authorities have over transport, the better they can make progress - simply because the left hand and the right hand are connected rather than fighting each other.)