Foster in the Sky with Lycra

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

Image ©Foster + Partners

Image ©Foster + Partners

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..

It can actually look like this with the right mixture of valium,  vodka and Lucozade

It can actually look like this with the right mixture of Valium, Vodka and Lucozade

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.

Transport Authorities:
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.

7 Comments on Foster in the Sky with Lycra

  1. Sarah S
    January 3, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    I’m going to out on a limb and try and defend these things. I have to say that I have been seduced by the latest picture, although I also appreciate the validity of what you are saying about Exhibition Road…

    I think it is preposterous to even contemplate sky cycling replacing ground-level cycling. But I also think that a few of these routes would be a useful adjunct to the general cycle infrastructure network (alongside MANY other much-needed and much more urgently-needed improvements) in much the same way as the odd motorway tunnel can be a useful adjunct to (but in no way a replacement for) the rest of the general roads network. As with most motorway tunnels, these routes would be completely useless for most very short journeys, and therefore for most typical bike journeys. The time saved by using a premium route would all be eaten up again by detouring to reach and access it. But Sky routes could be very useful to the small number of cyclists who make long cross-town journeys, or to the bigger number of people who would make these journeys by bike if it were possible to do so without a large number of stops. Trips of 10 and 15 miles are becoming increasingly feasible for many cyclists, not only the growing numbers with electric bikes. Cycle superhighways worthy of the name that allow cyclists to travel for extended distances with very few stops would promote modal shift to cycling for journeys that are longer than current typical cycling journeys. There’s no good reason to put all those highways in the sky, but there might be good reasons for putting the odd one in the sky.

    I don’t see the issue of access as insurmountable. One of my local cycle routes has a simple, basic lift to get cyclists from a canal towpath up onto a town-centre bridge. Without that incentive, many cyclists might pass through the town (which is on a major cycle route) without stopping to visit. It doesn’t take up much space. The flight of steps next to it takes up a bit more, but still not all that much. So not every single access point to these routes would have to be a huge ramp, and lifts could be provided alongside ramps anyway. I don’t see why cyclists should be forced to use their own muscle or battery power to get up to these high routes when they wouldn’t be expected to perform similar feats of athleticism if they were changing levels in a train station or an airport.

    Nor do I see the social safety issue as completely unsurmountable or surmountable only with heavy and expensive security. If the system is to be ticketed, electronic tags on the tickets could be used to detect prohibited loitering or users not moving smoothly through the system and passing electronic checkpoints. (Users with vehicle malfunctions or sudden changes of plan might need to call security.) Platforms at train stations often have small newspaper kiosks and coffee stalls as much to make people feel safe as to supply a need for newspapers and coffee. Sky routes could also be designed to incorporate a certain amount of this kind of informal surveillance. If they followed train routes, they would also have naturally good sight-lines that would facilitate both social safety and effective surveillance. I’m not saying security wouldn’t be an issue, but I don’t think it would be a key one.

    Finally, I do think liveable streets are very important and that facilitating cycling generally makes streets more liveable. So promoting ground-level cycling is absolutely essential, for cyclists, but also for London and other cities. But not every inch of every journey has to take cyclists through liveable streets in my view – sometimes it’s completely OK for the link function of a route to predominate over the place function and for people to want to get from A to B with a minimum of fuss and delay. A small number of busy streets might even be more liveable if they carried lower volumes of fast cyclist traffic.

  2. Blahckey
    January 4, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    Did someone say “we can’t build cycle paths everywhere”? These Higher Cycle SuperHighWays can’t be built everywhere, either. Certainly, they’d be useful for long distance commuters living along the corridor.

    What about the “last mile” of these commuters? And anyone else? Those not cycling currently? They’d be riding on the streets… or rather not riding.

  3. crank
    January 7, 2014 at 2:41 am

    I tend to think that facilities like this would encourage people to visit other locales by bike, and actually inject more cyclists into local areas, helping to build a critical mass. I also think it may actually elevate cycling in peoples’ minds; as a motorist, I’d probably feel bike riders have some pretty special infrastructure here :)

  4. Bubba Nicholson
    March 24, 2014 at 6:57 am

    Major roadways and bridges are sources of air and noise pollution as well as a danger to cyclists. Enclosing these inside noise insulated long sheds with a bike path on top would more than pay for their construction by increasing the value of property near currently noisy & stinky main arteries. Sheds enclosing roadways could collect and treat polluted air within the sheds. Keeping weather off the road beneath would diminish water pollution, too, as well as save roadways from potholes. The long noise insulated sheds over major arterial roadways would provide a grand surface for solar power stations, too.


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  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] 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 […]

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