“The wheels on the high quality rapid transit vehicle go round-and-round…”

Said no nursery rhyme ever.

So why do Greater Cambridge’s transport officials insist on this name when to the general public it’s a bus?

Turns out you have go back a long way.

Above – a slide show from around the Millennium on what ultimately led to the Cambridge Guided Busway

“OMG – get out of the 90s!”

The late 1990s – Cool Britannia, dial-up internet at 56k, the Millennium Dome, Railtrack, Posh n Becks, tabloid kiss’n’tells, Diana-mania, I can’t say I’m nostalgic for that age!

Below – from Nov 2001, a previous iteration of a Cambridge Metro from the slides here

At least this name had the merit of being sing-a-long-able-to the theme tune of Billy Connelly’s SuperGran!

Note the SuperCam Metro proposal looks almost identical to the proposals from former Mayor James Palmer – just without the tunnels. Could Mr Palmer’s Scheme have worked without tunnels and with a congestion charge or other motor traffic restriction? I guess we’ll never know.

Other presentations

Turns out there are quite a few presentations from that era sitting on Slideplayer long forgotten. Such as this one making the case for PFI to fund Cambridge’s transport improvements. Someone made a mint from those schemes and it wasn’t me.

The importance of contemporary local history in shaping current local transport policies

“Who holds Cambridge’s corporate memory?” was a question that came up in a conversation not so long ago. Good question. Traditionally it has been informal older, experienced members of staff that have done so, and in my experience it has been in almost random fortuitous conversations where an old hand will say “Oh I remember when we tried that in the 1980s. Didn’t work because A, B & C…” Anecdotally this is one of the reasons why so many internal corporate initiatives fail – so many have been through similar that their starting point is being very cynical (and with good reason) about the whole exercise.

Fast forward to today and after a decade of continuing austerity in local government, much of that corporate memory has gone. In particular in Cambridge, the senior transport officer behind the first guided busway, Bob Menzies, formerly of Cambridgeshire County Council, has retired from the post he held.

“Has an evaluation been done of previous plans and proposals? Did we get what we were promised? Did the proposals get built?”

For me this has to be front and centre before proceeding with anything policy-wise. “How did we get to here?” This is one of the drivers behind my research on the history of Cambridge the town. If you know the history behind a local place it makes it that little bit easier for communities to preserve. They can make the applications for preservation – whether designating buildings of local interest to listed building status. Cambridge has lost far too many of its former civic buildings over the past half-century – and needlessly so.

What was predicted:

Above – Slides By Tony Hargreaves for Cambridge Futures 2 in the early 2000s. Were these numbers delivered as planned? If not, why not? How will future plans have to compensate for any short-fall or over-delivery?

“What should Cambridge have achieved?”

According to one presentation, this:

Above – from this presentation from the early 2000s on the Cambridgeshire Structure Plan

There’s more from that presentation that leads to further questions

The announcement by Central Government in June 2001 confirmed the plans for both the A14 improvements/re-routing, and the Guided Bus proposal for the old Cambridge-St Ives Railway Line. (Read how the costs doubled over the years that followed). Again, I think proponents for the additional GCP busways need to refer to the impact of the first busway in terms of traffic reductions on the A14 and the number of new journeys that have been created from the new route. Note the bits we have not got including Addenbrooke’s Station, the enhanced bus and local rail services, and traffic restraints by whatever means. We’re still talking about all of them nearly 20 years later. During that time, some of the people I was at school with in the mid-1990s have not only had children, but those children are now adults themselves, driving and voting.

The current Cambridge Local Plan 2018 hardly touches on the ‘how we got to here’ bit in its introduction. Had it done so, the story it would have told would have been one of very contrasting ages. The grandiose plans of Gordon Logie, the planning blight of The Kite, the slum housing removal and the construction of large low density housing estates with few facilities, and the construction of new bypasses all would have featured in the age between the end of WWII and the early 1990s. The age we have just lived through is one reflected by the massive rise in land and property prices, along with the polarisation of wealth and incomes across the city. For some it was a time of huge prosperity. For others it was a struggle against the worst elements of disaster capitalism on a global scale. The age we have just entered into is the one of global emergencies – climate and public health/pandemic.

Reading past plans from a less technologically-advanced age

Reminding myself that the decision-makers at any given time did not know for certain what the future would hold is something I have to keep doing in this field. While history can and does give very important insights into the past, it cannot be the only consideration that policy-makers look at. Although at the moment it feels like too little consideration is given both to historians and those working at the cutting edge of innovation in their fields on things that could utterly transform society. Have a look back at the 1990s in the USA and how new technologies affected society, politics, and even elections.

Fast forward to today and our local councils are using methods to engage with residents about future local housing and transport plans in ways that even a few years ago would have been utterly unthinkable. (I should know – I was one of the people asking the questions!)

The Cambridgeshire Structure Plan

Anyone remember this document? You can read it here.

Above – the Cambs & P’boro Structure Plan 2003 – which covers the period to 2016. That was published after an extensive examination in public in 2002, which you can read here.

“You’re asking people to read over 370 pages of public sector documents”

I know.

“Are you mad?!?”

Something like that.

No one said public policy on town and transport planning was easy. Unless you believed that slogan on the big red fun bus.

I also note from the Cambridgeshire Structure Plan (p121) that the authors stated:

The programme will encompass:
• transport;
• affordable and key worker housing;
• education;
• health care;
• other community facilities;
• environmental improvements and provision of open space;
• waste management;
• water, flood control and drainage;
• other utilities and telecommunications

How many of what for each of these was delivered, at what cost, to whom, and who is in charge of maintenance in the long term? In addition the plan calls for:

In addition to these transport requirements the following locations will also require:
North of Cherry Hinton:
• New access road/distributor;
Cambridge Airport:
• Rapid transit link to city centre as a second phase of the project described
in the strategy above.

Rapid Transit…that phrase again, regularly cropping up. Interspersed with the phrase ‘High Quality.’

For one homework in Year 7 French in the early 1990s, we had to find words/objects with each letter of the alphabet and state whether we liked it or not. I struggled with the letter Q. So I wrote: “J’aime la Qualitie”. That stuck with me for years – especially with all of those that went around saying: “Yeah….don’t like that quality stuff. Much prefer that rubbish stuff over there.” Something is high quality by virtue of itself, not because someone sticks a label on it. Quality Street is not a splendidly maintained avenue. It is a box of confectionary, and quality is a very subjective label with which to describe its contents.

By labelling it “High Quality” over and over again, it raises the public’s expectations. So there better not be any chugmobile vehicles making use of those lines or some transport executives will have some serious explaining to do.

Rapid Transit that makes use of existing roads is also a hostage to fortune *unless* measures are taken in advance to clear the existing motor traffic beforehand. Which will require a significant enforcement operation the likes of which I can’t see the present Government delivering on. The moment a vehicle gets stuck in traffic it ceases to be rapid. It simply becomes another bus.

Which is one of the reasons why I prefer the light-rail that goes underground on the edge of the city through a pair of tunnels as proposed by Cambridge Connect Light Rail. But given where we are, the only people who can make that call are ministers.

The 2015 vision from Cambridgeshire County Council

This was the vision presented by Simon Hughes in 2015.

Note the re-opened stations at Cherry Hinton and Fulbourn on a much-needed improved rail corridor. Had the town councils of Newmarket, Haverhill, Saffron Walden, and Royston been included at the start of the City Deal, I wonder how much better the transport proposals would have been.

“Get everyone reading about buses in Buses!

Actually, this is something that local government in and around Cambridge could be promoting to their residents so as to help them become more informed about public policy in these areas. It may even be an idea for said publications to advertise in some of the local media that reports on local government here.

Above – Buses Magazine. Other publications are available!

That’s not the only transport-related magazine that covers transport policy:

The principles of encouraging a more informed public also apply to town planning – as Cllr Sam Davies MBE recently wrote:

“I am encouraging the Council to publicise these material planning considerations much more widely and attractively, in the same way that it spells out the planning process for applicants, as this would save both residents and officers time and effort.”


Even a tick-box for each major planning policy theme attached to a free text box for commenters to describe how the application concerned contravenes a given planning policy, and/or is a valid reason to object to a planning application, would save planning officers a huge amount of time.

In the meantime, keep the responses to the consultations coming in:

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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