If American towns were largely shaped in the era of the automobile, in Britain it was the railway which deformed the urban landscape. A town such as Cambridge, with its small medieval core, spread out along the axis of the new railway line which, while it connected Cambridge to other centres of population, disturbed the movement of people within the city.
When you have a railway running into a town, bridges have to be built over it, streets curtailed or diverted around and alongside it, traffic funnelled over it or under it. You can travel very quickly to Norwich or London, but to get from the Newmarket Road to Hills Road takes a bit of imaginative winding. The railway, psychogeographers will tell you, is an irrational, coercive presence.
But Cambridge is now being shaped by the needs of another cutting edge technology: the bicycle. And the railway and the bicycle might just turn out to be friends. To the chagrin of motorists, cyclists are accustomed to utilising the interstices of the city – pavements, parks, towpaths, traffic islands, front gardens, back gardens, and so on – to navigate the city better.
And now a new liminal space is opening up. In the mid 1990s, a Cambridge resident called Jim Chisholm noticed that the railway was skirted on both sides by strips of waste land, and began to understand that turning this land into a path or series of paths for pedestrians and cyclists which followed the railway would in fact link the town in felicitous ways. You could, for example, walk from Trumpington to the Science Park in half an hour (or something similar).
And now the Chisholm Trail is an actual thing, passing through various council planning departments and committees. It will involve the reclaiming of some tracts of land, the building of some bridges, the widening of some existing paths, and so on. But I estimate, for the benefit of the city council, that such a route would shave three-and-a-half minutes off my morning commute. Over a year, that amounts to 14 hours extra preparation time, or 14 hours extra in bed, depending on your productivity coefficient (mine is not high, admittedly). And that’s before you factor in the return journey. You may not be able to drive your dogies along it, but multiply my journey by several thousand, and hey presto!, you have a little bonanza of time in the post-Brexit gloom.