London should be a wonderful place to get around by bicycle allowing tourist, resident and commuter alike the chance to enjoy its sumptuous mixture of architecture, culture and heritage at a civilised pace. The bicycle should reduce the pace of city life to a level that people can actually compute, and be able to hear their own thoughts. Lord Foster thinks the same way too, but a solution that he has come up with along with Landscape Consultants, Exterior Architecture Ltd and Transport Consultants, Space Syntax seems to misunderstand the problem somewhat and then come up with an extreme solution that manages to completely disengage bicycle riders from London by elevating them above it.
Here is Lord Foster’s quote from their Press Release..
“Cycling is one of my great passions – particularly with a group of friends. And I believe that cities where you can walk or cycle, rather than drive, are more congenial places in which to live. To improve the quality of life for all in London and to encourage a new generation of cyclists, we have to make it safe. However, the greatest barrier to segregating cars and cyclists is the physical constraint of London’s streets, where space is already at a premium. SkyCycle is a lateral approach to finding space in a congested city. By using the corridors above the suburban railways, we could create a world-class network of safe, car free cycle routes that are ideally located for commuters”.
There’s already a slight contradiction in his statement. Cities are certainly more congenial places in which to live without as much motor traffic. But then, like an expert conjurer, he pulls out the old ‘but space is at a premium’ nugget from his sleeve and with the wave of his wand (or rendering) promptly makes bicycles vanish from the streetscape.
Here is a statement from Sam Martin & Oli Clark of Exterior Architecture Ltd, also from the Press Release..
“SkyCycle is an urban cycling solution for London. A cycling utopia, with no buses, no cars and no stress. We are incredibly excited at how together with Foster + Partners our idea has been developed and now more recently turned into a truly world changing scenario by Space Syntax for revolutionising cycling in London and possibly the world”.
The original idea to which they allude is when they first touted it in 2012. Below is the original video.
Anyway, back to last month. Here is an image depicting the latest iteration
It certainly looks like the cycling Utopia that they describe, but two things immediately elevated into my mind on stilts when I saw this striking image;
Firstly, one must always bear in mind that this is an architectural realisation. When the shared space scheme for Exhibition Road was first touted, there were equally Utopian images put forward such as this one..
To be fair to the designer, they are trying to sell a positive concept and I’d be even more alarmed if they had presented to their client an image of a still traffic clogged street with some people huddled outside a new Wetherspoons whilst snouting a packet of Superkings.
My second thought was one of the 1950’s-1970’s when architecture was brutilising it’s cold concrete tentacles into the public realm through such luminaries as Sir Denys Lasdun, Basil Spence and Richard Siefert. Planners invisioned specific schemes for specific transport modes to be elevated for comfort and convenience, be it the [thankfully aborted] Pedways in Central London with the hoi polloi of smooth flowing traffic on dual carriageways below to elevated roads such as the Westway, part of the [thankfully aborted] Ringways Project, which is brilliantly covered in this short film by Jay Foreman..
I certainly get what they are trying to achieve and I like the fact that designers are trying to think laterally – indeed think about the bicycle at all. But the bicycle doesn’t need lateral or ‘out of the box’ thinking. It needs simple dedicated space as, along with walking, the bicycle doesn’t get simpler as a transport mode, which is why it is potentially such a great key to unlocking British towns and cities. Maybe that’s why this country has a fairly appalling record of dealing with it. We consistently make the complicated modes of transport simple and the simple modes more complicated. Another thing to consider is that the bicycle should never be treated in isolation within the urban realm. It is part of a far bigger and complex societal jigsaw and all the other pieces stand to benefit.
On the plus side, the SkyCycle scheme could offer fast, continuous, direct routes from suburb to centre, it would indeed unlock space in the centre of London in an innovative way and could indeed be a prototype for other cities. It even allows cyclists to feel, not only the ‘Bradley Wiggins Effect’ but also the added advantage of ‘The Mary Poppins Effect’ as they waft through London. However it’s when I started to think of the negatives that it starts to stumble off its stilts. I started a rough list and please feel free to chip in with your own positives and negatives:
The land grab necessary for the 200 entrances and getting people up to that height.
Access/egress for emergency services should an accident/incident occur
You still have to get all the way up to the deck and that is going to take effort, and I am built more like Chris Biggins as opposed to Chris Hoy.
Local/Metropolitan/National Transport Authorities will be tempted push cycling even further down the pecking order (if that’s possible) in streetscape design as they can now point to schemes such as this.
It reaffirms the nonsense of ‘Dual Network’ where there’s different types of infrastructure for different types and abilities of rider, instead of just creating a decent coherent standard for all.
It will (whether the Designers deny it or not) divert precious funds from schemes that can work at ground level.
The Police will need resourcing to patrol this new form of infrastructure (and does this fall under the jurisdiction of the British Transport Police?)
Security, particularly for more vulnerable sections of society and especially in the off-peak.
On the Street:
Motorists will pay even less attention as they now expect cyclists to be a couple of storeys up in the air.
Anyone getting hit by an HGV in the shadow of this scheme will only have themselves to blame, in the eyes of a society that would see this as conveniently tidying cyclists away.
Local business on the street will not feel the benefits of the bicycle as this is in essence a massive bypass and, as a result, will probably scream for more car parking.
The British Weather:
The trains below will enjoy better protection from precipitation than the cyclists above who will also be particularly exposed to the wind,
In short, this really is a country that will do ANYTHING and pay any price to avoid designing a decent sodding junction.