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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.