SkyCycle is brilliant. It just needs a roof.

Last week  Foster + Partners‘ iteration of  Exterior Architecture‘s SkyCycle proposal, to run bicycle highways above London’s rail network, occasioned a flurry of objections from the bicycle advocacy community. What is interesting is these aren’t the objections to segregated infrastructure that we have been hearing for decades from vehicular cyclists [described here], who think off-road bike trails and road-side cycle-tracks dilute their collective presence when sharing space with motorised traffic. No, it is advocates of segregated infrastructure who are complaining.

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Discussions have highlighted some one-eyed assumptions about cycling by architects, but also some quaint notions about urban design among bicycling advocates, some speaking as though Dutch city planning and its history can be repeated elsewhere in every detail. A little background from both sides might help the team there at Fosters fathom their scheme’s steely reception in quarters from which they would expect praise, and warn bicycling advocates about the dangers of staring too hard at the Dutch and the Danish: it could make you go blind.

You can’t compare any Dutch or Danish city to London. The cities in those countries are more comparable in size to the boroughs of London (Camden, Greenwich, Enfield etc.). Like London’s boroughs, the cities of the Netherlands are connected by trains, in that case to make the whole country function as a big city. It isn’t the same though. No family living in Amsterdam will have their daughter taking ballet classes in Utrecht, their son studying a few days each week up in Groningen and mum doing business in Rotterdam, the way a family in London can send its members to other boroughs each morning. While ever transportation works well, and people aren’t trapped in their boroughs (renamed “urban villages” to lessen the sting), the massiveness of a city like London gives it its competitive edge.

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London should join its boroughs with bicycle expressways, because it can. Let the Dutch chain their beater bikes where these might be stolen outside of train stations in their home cities, and use OV-fiets share bikes in the cities they travel to on fast trains. With the SkyCycle, Londoners will be able to cross a city of 8,000,000 people, on their own bikes without any mode change.

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Their staring at the Netherlands has made a lot of bike advocates blind to the impact that elevated bike highways will have on the number of cyclists at street level. The fear is cyclists will be raptured from earth and not seen again until the apocalypse. But ask yourself, have elevated or sunken motorways ever reduced the numbers of cars at street level? The opposite happens. Cars start being used a lot more, and suddenly the streets that were meant to be relieved of car traffic are filled with more cars than ever before. SkyCycle will instantly recruit 400,000 cyclists, who will all have to come back down somewhere. That will lend more political weight to the “Love London; Go Dutch” campaign to build the cycle tracks London needs at street level. A greater proportion of London’s annual infrastructure spending will be apportioned to cycling, because many more voters will be using that mode.

SkyCycle will make this come quicker

SkyCycle will make this come quicker

It also seems as though the bicycle advocacy community has been unduly alarmed by architects’ sales pitches. They need to know that these are intended for mass consumption. Although I can’t vouch for anyone at Foster and Partners, I can tell you that if I were writing a spiel for SkyCycle I would likewise be appealing to the unsympathetic. Remarks about elevated bike highways being good news for drivers, should be viewed as polite fiction.

Cyclists should be likewise unfazed by any mention of tolls. They are unlikely to happen, but even if they did, where is the harm? The worst that can happen is a facility might come into being that someone who is already cycling decides not to use. The idea that some loss to cycling must be lurking in the fine print, assumes the business of intervening in cities must always be a zero sum game.

Other bicycling advocates are worried that elevated bike highways are being built for fast cyclists in lycra, as though anyone not keeping pace will be fined. Have you noticed the kind of people complaining? Most often they live in hip inner suburbs, with no need to leave. I’ve never heard anyone from a poor part of town complaining about people on road bikes.

One good criticism of segregated bike routes, is they deny cyclists the same image of their city to the image held by drivers, pedestrians and bus riders down at street level. This witty blog post, Foster in the Sky with Lycra, runs with this line of critique. The author’s sentiment can be traced to Kevin Lynch’s seminal argument that forging communities depends on everyone in a city finding their way by the same edges, paths, nodes and districts. Jane Jacobs said similar, as did Lewis Mumford, Gordon Cullen, and anyone in any way connected with Josep Sert’s urban design symposia at the Harvard GSD in the 50s and 60s. Aldo Rossi and Leon Krier persisted with this brand of urbanism through the 70s and 80s. Since the 1990s we’ve been hearing much the same message from exponents of the New Urbanism and the urban theorist Jan Gehl.

The street is so dandy

The street is so dandy

Post-urban theorists try to be more pragmatic. We don’t cling to the romantic visions of cities we got watching Sesame Street, because these ignore a geographical shift toward urbanized regions, where, depending on how you look, there are no centers, or there are centers everywhere. The post-industrial city is further complicated by subcultures claiming liminal spaces, half of us having our heads in the ether thanks to mobile devices, and the inevitability of arcades, subway entries, highway off-ramps, and now bicycle highway off-ramps dropping people down anywhere. This makes for cities that are entirely legible to each of us individually, but not to all of us in the same way. At this point we should note Foster’s partnership on the SkyCycle project with Space Syntax Network, led by Bill Hillier, who pioneered space syntax analysis.

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Viewed in this light, the problem with SkyCycle is not that it adds yet another spatial layer to an already mad city, but that it is presented as such a rational, antidote layer. We can thank Fosters for their time in flagging the concept. However, when it comes time for implementation, it might be better to have the project divvied up between a lot design firms. The brief could be expanded to reflect the diverse cultures of various boroughs and include some shared spaces, as has been done with BIG’s new Superkilen park in Copenhagen. The brief could also incorporate some adaptive reuse of derelict structures flanking the train lines.

 

Superkillen bike route and park in Copenhagen

Superkillen bike route and park in Copenhagen

What concerns me far more than the sterility of the images, is that users of the SkyCycle will ride in the rain. The stoics of the bike world (who I whinge about here) will be fine in their Brooks canvas rain capes and overshoes, but what about people who have spent their whole lives commuting under some kind of roof? On an e-Bike or with a few weeks to gain some base fitness, new riders can quickly overcome their fear of riding ten miles. Getting accustomed to long rides in the rain can take years. I’m surprised Fosters haven’t borrowed from Transglide2000 or architect Chris Hardwick’s Velo-City proposals, and looked at covering and backdrafting cyclists.

The ugly but practical Transglide 2000

The ugly but practical Transglide 2000

Mary McLeod’s contribution to a book of feminist articles about cities, The Sex of Architecture, offers an insightful critique of heterotopian spaces (shut-off utopias in the real world, such as SkyCycle). She says they always entrench power relations favourable to the white male elite. We’ve always known Foster’s office is blokey; that was the architectural critic Charles Jencks’s very first criticism of the hi-tech movement, when he started writing against it back in the 80s. They can build a great corporate bank, but need help with public facilities that will also be used by women, children and people from other cultural backgrounds.

But problematizing the brief can come later. Right now the concept needs the support of bicycling advocates. London’s size, topography and intergenerational madness for cars means Dutch and Danish history will not be repeated precisely. Received wisdom from those bicycling nations will need to be mixed with innovation, that I believe the British invented.

When I posted an earlier draft of this piece one week ago, I was surprised and dismayed that it wasn’t as well read or retweeted as my typical blog post. I put it down to a tendency among bicycling advocates (who make up most of my readers) to barrack for one side or another around binary arguments. It shits me no end. 

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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15 Responses to SkyCycle is brilliant. It just needs a roof.

  1. Matthew says:

    It would be lovely to have sky cycle as well as other options, but in my experience of the real world, a few kilometres of minimally useful sky cycle would be built, the rest put off due to budget constraints of a new government. It would use up all the money allocated to cycle infrastructure and car drivers (meaning the right wing press) would complain no one uses it and blame cyclists for it .

    Surely one of the strengths of cycling is that cheap pedestrian style facilities is all you need to get around, not vast expensive flyovers.

  2. Lukeke says:

    Agree wholeheartedly on the need for a roof. There is no point spending a large amound of money on a project like this unless you can get a huge number of cyclists, most of which don’t currently cycle for transport, to use it. London… weather… helloooo!

  3. JP says:

    I love your blog, Steven, but I think advocating for elegant, expansive, extensive, exPENsive infrastructure is a mistake. To be practical as transportation, bikes have to be able to go everywhere, and there will never be enough money or space for fancy infrastructure to go everywhere. If new cyclists need this kind of massively expensive infrastructure to be coaxed and wheedled onto a bike once in a while, it is money very inefficiently spent. Much, much more effective is making cars themselves expensive and inconvenient. For starters, no parking allowed anymore on any street anywhere. Public storage of private property is absurd, wasting colossal amounts of space, and I am baffled as to how it ever became the expected norm. Stripping away all that parking instantly inconveniences driving while inexpensively opening up huge road area for basic, simple bike lanes. Simultaneously we have to lower maximum speed limits to 20 mph inside any city limits, everywhere. If a person can’t get where they are going in a reasonable amount of time at that speed, it’s time to re-evaluate whether the trip is really necessary. It’s a daily consideration for me, for years, and really, adapting is just not a big deal. Doing these simple things which are affordable and doable, right now, would have a huge effect getting butts on bikes. It’s like insulating your house before you go for solar panels, we should do the high payoff per dollar sensible things before any elaborate improvements are considered.

    • Steven says:

      You’re too focused on council road maintenance budgets. There are other sources of genuine capital for visionary projects, such as SkyCycle, and Foster and Partners are brilliant at inspiring investment on such a scale. Why would you want to white ant that process?

    • JP says:

      White anting? That’s hardly fair. If anything, it’s megabuck projects like this, should they get built, that white ant real progress. There’s only so much money to go around. We all want more bikes on the road, and practical and efficient use of very limited monies is vital no matter what the funding source. It’s the same argument I have with high-speed rail. I’m a big train fan, but to be truly useful they have to go everywhere, and sinking all the funds into a few massively expensive showpiece projects is detrimental to real rail progress. Ideally we could do both, the elaborate and the mundane, both for bikes and trains, but the reality of funding is that mundane is more effective and efficient.

    • Steven says:

      Aren’t there some proposed new train stations in the UK that you could be objecting to? Or children’s hospitals? This is a bike blog.

    • crank says:

      “For starters, no parking allowed anymore on any street anywhere” – this would also be massively expensive, and also something that just won’t happen anytime soon. Obviously in the past we did not think it was absurd.

      I was recently in a council meeting regarding a bike project that will cull 117 parking places. You’d think we were strangling puppies or something. Removing the only feasible place millions of people have to park their vehicle (although I’m on board with you) is totally unrealistic except in the long term. Further to Steven’s point, I think Skycycle can help that critical mass accumulate – people have a fast, viable and fun alternative than a frustrating car ride, that feeds more bicycles into local districts, and providing a bridge from car ownership, hopefully freeing up local streets.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Dr. Crank. I’d love to be playing monopoly with opponents to SkyCycle. They’d land on Mayfair and not buy it.

  4. cyclesnail says:

    Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, our politicians pander to “car love affairs”.

    For a fraction of the cost of roads we can move people on bicycles, a convenient and healthy form of transport for shorter distances. The London a 220 km network of elevated cycling routes is proposed at a cost of less than $A2mio per km, with a design capacity for 12’000 bicycles per hour. A single highway lane has a capacity of 3000 cars per hour, and thus 12’000 bicycles per hour are equivalent to a four lane highway which would cost billions to construct.

    And adding a roof to the skyway would be inexpensive….

    Where we spend money today determines how we commute in 25 years – but the political horizon is restricted to 4 years …

  5. Sam Martin says:

    Thanks for the blog post Steven it does hit on quite a few good points as to the ancillary opportunities that SkyCycle would generate – namely shared spaces & additional usage of otherwise derelict or under utilised land adjacent to railway lines. London has it’s own unique issues with regards space & the built environment & SkyCycle is a unique London solution. We managed to get a lot of support within Foster + Partners for our idea & more recently from Space Syntax, the vision has always been to make it more than just commuter cycleways but also a new public realm & experience for London that is connected as multiple points to the streetscape & provides opportunity for all sorts of new urban life to sprout up & occur. Yes this will need money & the steps we are undertaking now are for an economic study against property values, route creation & how it will ultimately ease the capacity issues on the already creaking road & rail networks. As you quite rightly point out most people who dislike/distrust this concept do so as existing cyclists. The ultimate ambition is for Central London to be a cycle dominant City, what we need is a series of safer conduits for more people to bring their cycles into the Central City – hence SkyCycle. It is not about taking those who choose to use the roads off the roads it is to add a massive % more of the commuting population from road & rail modes to the bicycle. If a lid is deemed necessary as we take it through a feasibility study process then so be it. Once again thanks for the post. & if you want any more information then please feel free to contact me about it. This link helps perhaps explain more background as to what the genesis & the focus for our idea is all about. http://www.bdonline.co.uk/news/analysis/skycycle-what-it-takes-to-turn-an-architecture-students-idea-into-a-major-infrastructure-proposal/5065608.article?sm=5065608#comments

  6. Luke says:

    One of the things I like about this blog (and the great book) is pointing out what is obvious when you think about it. In this case, that London is quite big, and that motorways haven’t stopped local traffic. So skyways will probably be OK for bikes. Also roofs. One of my regular car trips is Islington to Ealing – a pain in car, not practical by bike though only about 7(?) miles, but would be a joy by covered Skytrack. Bring it!!

  7. Luke says:

    Steven, I had to look up that phrase. In case I’ve misunderstood it, can I just say that the great crime is not stating the obvious, but ignoring it. That’s where you win.

    As an aside, the Evening Standard today says Transport for London has underspent its cycling budget for each of the last 6 years -£150m. So there’s some spare cash. Just imagine the joy of cycling over London…..

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