Pie in the Skycycle; modernism and the anti-street cycle track

Will Londoners on bikes soon be soaring over the city on elevated cycleways, unencumbered by motorised traffic snarling and clogging below them?   More than a year after it was first mooted by a small architectural firm keen for funding, the "Skycycle" concept is back in the news having received the backing of Britain's most prolific architect, Sir Norman Foster.  And how do the ideas of bike lanes in the sky stem directly from modernist thinking of the 20th century?

Skycycle proposal via the Fosters + Partners website

Foster's firm has given us buildings such as the Gherkin, Stansted airport, Wembley Stadium and London's City Hall.  Their engineering know-how has delivered projects including the Thames Millennium Bridge, the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square and Canary Wharf Underground Station, to name just a few.  When Foster gives his backing to an idea, the world listens, as evidenced by the renewed flurry of media interest in the Skycycle idea once again.

The "Skycycle" proposes to 'clip' cycle tracks above existing elevated train lines, giving commuters a high-speed two-wheeled option for getting in and out of the city, whilst negating the need to cope with traffic congestion or soaring train fares.  

Lord Foster - who told The Guardian newspaper that cycling is one of his great passions - describes the plan as “a lateral approach to finding space in a congested city.”

“By using the corridors above the suburban railways,” he said, “we could create a world-class network of safe, car-free cycle routes that are ideally located for commuters.”

The idea was first pitched to Mayor of London Boris Johnson in a City Hall elevator by the scheme's original proponents, Oli Clark and Sam Martin of Exterior Architecture.  Since then they've been working with Foster + Partners on developing the details of the scheme, meeting with Transport for London's cycling team and representatives from Network Rail, who manage the track bed on which the cycleway would be built.  The designers say their latest proposal is for over 220kms of car-free routes installed above 10 radial suburban rail lines, accessed at over 200 entrance points.  Each 'track' would be 15 metres wide, and could improve journey times with a capacity of 12,000 cyclists per hour.

Wandsworth Roundabout, London. No space for cycling here?

My concern with the Skycycle is that it sets off from the point of believing that there is no room for cyclists on London's existing streets.  Mark at As Easy As Riding a Blog explored this argument in detail last year, and does a good job of finding holes in it.  He writes;

"You don’t need to knock buildings down to get a modal share [of 5%], let alone one of 30-40%, which is consistently achieved in Dutch cities, where, you won’t be surprised to hear, no buildings have been demolished, and no tracks for bicycles have been put up in the air when they could quite easily have been put on the ground.

It’s a simple question of priorities. The amount of motor traffic isn’t immutable (the experience of Games Lanes during the Olympics has shown us this). It will adapt and adjust to the amount of road space allocated to it. Prioritise cycling by giving it space and making it safe, pleasant and convenient, and plenty of those 50% of trips in London that are under 2 miles will switch from being made by car to being made by bike. That’s a sane solution to the traffic problem.."

Sanity is something often lacking in these sorts of Christmas silly season announcements, especially when you see that the designers predict a 6km route from Liverpool Street to Stratford is projected to cost £220 million and that the ten routes would take some twenty years to implement.

Still, the project should not be written off entirely.  Fortuitously timed pitches to the Mayor led to the construction of the essentially useless ArcelorMittal tower in the Olympic Park, and the splurging of £60 million of public money on the Emirates Cable Car in London Docklands from nowhere in particular to somewhere even less so (with panoramic views of a scrap metal yard along the way).

Most interesting of all is Foster's personal backing of the Skycycle plan.  As highlighted, his firm are responsible for some of the greatest contemporary buildings in the world, but Foster's background is distinctly modernist.  He took the best principals of architectural modernism and incorporated them in to his designs when the rest of the genre was descending in to 1970s boxy cliches or downright dangerous designs for collapsing tower blocks on sink estates in Newham.

 Le Corbusier's urban plan for re-building central Paris

But the modernist's approach to the cityscape has always been contentious.  Swiss / French architect Le Corbusier believed in the city as a machine, and each of its buildings as a city in itself.  His plans to bulldoze most of central Paris and replace it with rows of tower blocks set in city block-sized green spaces didn't come to fruition, but the ideas behind his planning ethos live on.  Corbusier frequently stated "We must destroy the street!", advocating separating out the movements of each transport form; with railways lines running below ground, cars and lorries at street level, with pedestrian plazas and walkways above this, and higher still "skyways" connecting adjoining towers.

His influence can be seen in the planned city of Brasilia (which Danish urbanist Jan Gehl describes as being the consequence of "bird shit architecture") where autonomous buildings stand apart from each other in lifeless and empty expanses of grass 'parkland' connected only by heavily congested roads. 

Closer to home, the City of London adopted a post-war plan to reconstruct large sections of the city with pedestrian space elevated above the roads.  Planning consent for new buildings in the city was dependant on the first floor being accessible to pedestrians in the hope this would help to create a network of "pedways".  Today, this is most evident within the still-contentious Barbican estate, and the primary entrance to the Museum of London is on the first floor above a large trafic roundabout.  Special City Byelaws outlaw the very possession of a bicycle on the pedways; there was simply no space for cycling in this vision of the future.

Plans for Oxford Street, London, in the 1963 Colin Buchanan report "Traffic in Towns".

In the 1963 seminal planning text Traffic in Towns, which led to the wholesale redevelopment and expansion of the UK's road network, the authors proposed demolishing London's famous Oxford Street shopping district, placing pedestrian and shopping movements on walkways above regional distributor roads and goods routes at street level.

It's from this planning tradition that Foster has emerged.  Whilst many of the elements of modernism he has incorporated in to his work - such as modular buildings, open plan workspace and the use of pre-formed and factory-produced construction elements - are to be applauded, the modernist's approach to the street is still problematic.  A cross section of the streetscape of Foster's emission-free "Masdar eco city" in Abu Dhabi is almost identical to 1913 proposals for "Cities of the Future" from early modernist thinker HW Corbett.

 "Cities of the Future", 1913, HW Corbett (left) Cross section of Masdar City streetscape, Foster + Partners, Abu Dhabi, 2008. (Click to enlarge)

Where in these proposals are cyclists supposed to fit?  On the pedestrian decks, where their progress will be impeded by wandering souls and where faster cycling is simply not practical?  Or down below, in the dark depths of the "street" where motorised traffic can move quickly, unimpeded as it is from having to look out for pedestrians and other irregularities.  Other than those behind wheels, what "eyes on the street" will exist down there, to ensure a mutual code of respect and safety is played out between competing transport priorities?  

Foster + Partners building street fronts in London; (above, via Google Maps) 10 Gresham Street in the City of London, and (below, detail via Flickr with thanks) More London pedestrian precinct by Tower Bridge.  
Pleasant places in which to walk and cycle?

Foster's Skycycle proposal is simply a new 'layer'' in the stacked and separated city, but sets out to solve a problem that simply does not exist in the first instance.  There is more than enough space for pedestrians and cyclists in the centre of London (see here for yourself if you don't believe me).  What there is clearly not enough space for is everyone to drive a car in the centre who would like to; this is why London did not build more Westways and ring roads.  It's why it introduced a congestion charge.  The city knows that it has to limit the growth of motor traffic in the city in order for there to be sufficient space for everything else a city is supposed to do (like provide education and seats of learning, places of commerce and economic space, centres of connection and knowledge exchange etc)

The subjective experience of cycling should be a critical consideration for everyone involved in planning for more riding in an urban environment; what will it actually feel like to ride a bike is the key indicator as to whether more people will be prepared to do it or not.  Just as the pedways of the City of London were lambasted by critics for being wind-blown, soulless and dangerous feeling expanses of concrete in which to walk, so the Skycycle will attract similar concerns.  

A conducive environment for riding a bike?

What will it feel like to ride on a Skycycle so high above the streetscape?  How will the safety of participants be monitored?  How will emergency services access it in the case of incidents?  If lifts or escalators are broken, how will cyclists get on and off the track?  Will it wobble in the wind? How will exposure to noise and dust from the busy rail lines below be mitigated? 
How will it feel to ride alone, late at night?

In short, what will the physical experience of riding the Skycycle entail, and will it be pleasant enough to entice riders away from the existing routes and roads they are currently able to use for free? (Answer: I doubt it)  And will revenues from on-site advertising and pay-as-you-go usage offset the likely substantial constriction costs? (Answer: No.)

There are times and places where it makes good sense to separate cyclists, pedestrians and motorised traffic.  The Dutch example shows best how and when to mix modes and when to separate them out using design and infrastructure.  Cyclists can be kept away from traffic either by discouraging it, such as with filtered permeability, or with kerbs and side path cycle tracks in place of car lanes.  But unlike the Skycycle model, the separation is not happening in cities like Rotterdam in order to allow the traffic flow status quo to remain unchallenged, but to allow the city to make a choice that promotes the solution that is best for itself.  Namely, the cycle space in the centre of Dutch cities is there instead of using that space for storing and moving cars, as oppose to the side of it (or in the case of the Skycycle, up above it.)

Separating cyclists the Dutch way.

Like too many modernist plans that precede it, the Skycycle might look good on paper, but the finished reality of how it actually feels when you experience it shows why it should not be built.  The architectural principals that have shaped our cities for the past sixty years are clearly as prevalent as ever; indeed if we're turning to the proponents of these principals for ideas on how to make cycling safer and more attractive then I would argue that we are turning to the wrong people.  When it comes to coming up with ideas for a truly "cyclised city", London has a long way to go.

What are your views on the Skycycle?  Noble plan, on the right track, or big white elephant in the sky?  If you could build cycle infrastructure where you live what would you build first - safe streets or flying cycle tracks?

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Paul M said...

Mayors, local authorities, planners, architects etc ignore the elephant in the room, ie should we confront excessive car use, because that elephant could stomp on them quite easily. The motor industry in its many manifestations is an immensely powerful and wealthy lobby - this despite the fact that there is hardly a single motor vehicle manufacturer in the world which has survived over the last century, or could survive the next one, without massive amounts of public subsidy (nationalisation followed by privatisation, industrial grants, dodgy procurement contracts for military vehicles etc) We have seen even in the great capitalist economy of the USA how Obama felt he had no option but to rescue General Motors from bankruptcy.
Actually, is it "despite" OR "because"?

It is provable fact that if you reduce road space available to motors, they will adapt so that congestion reverts to its previous steady state. We saw that with the Olymics lanes, and we have seen it with temporary road or bridge closures, and indeed some permanent schemes like the pedestrianisation of the north side of Trafalgar square. I used to think of it in my own term of the "futility/frustration ratio" - at some point your frustration with the delays overpowers the futility of your trip. If the trip is important, like a plumber who has a job across town but really needs to use his van to carry all the pipes and joints and tools etc, you persevere. If it is trivial, like going to a garden centre with no clear idea of what you are going to buy, or even if you are going to by anything at all, because it is an "outing", and you end up going home empty-handed, then you will more quickly change your mind, and enjoy sitting in your garden instead. Anyway, I have now learned that there is in fact a professional term for this, the "Marchetti Wall", oft cited in works by Prof Jeff Kenworthy and his colleagues at the Curtin Institute at the University of Western Australia in Perth.
The motor lobby, lead by its attack dog Stephen Galister of the RAC Foundation, would no doubt riposte that those journeys you drive off the roads generate economic benefit, so reducing traffic reduces GDP. I think we all know that this argument is baloney - if a journey really is necessary, people will find an alternative way of making it, like catching the bus, for example, or cycling. I don't know how much research stands behind my faith in this, but Prof Kenworthy emerges again with a review of traffic growth and GDP growth in 50 major world cities, and shows that in a majority of cases GDP has grown more (or shrunk less) than traffic, suggesting that the two are not as related as Glaister et al might have you believe.

rickrise said...

Another view similar to this one, exploring the opportunity costs of a skyway scheme:

The Skyway Ain't My Way

From Los Angeles.

congokid said...

Great post.

I don't think Foster's Bladerunner visions of the future (which aim to remove cyclists but do nothing to make surface streets safer or reduce pollution) border on the nightmarish and are something which we ought to reject outright if we want our cities to become more liveable.

Dave H said...

It's actually a curate's egg - there are some parts of the concept that are good - clear routes to cycle through certain junctions which are grade separated would remove completely the hazards of large vehicles turning on paths which conflict with the paths taken by cyclists, and there would be time and effort saved by eliminating the controls required to stop crashes from unregulated conflicting movements.

One key location already has an informal skyway in use - by over 60% of the cyclists going East-West between Stratford and Bow. Unfortunately TfL has put in a cycle route which is inherently dangerous, and despite only around 30% of cycle traffic using it there have been 3 deaths in 2 years, in near identical types of crash. So yes let's have a skyway here for a faster and safer route for all cyclists and pedestrians.

So there are a few targetted locations where a current high flow of cycle traffic (or growing flow) can be taken through a junction in a way that keeps the cyclists moving and gets a high volume of cycle traffic through without conflict with other modes, pedestrians, drivers etc. Some may be skyways, others, given that the length of ramps to go under a road will be half the length required to go over, will go under, or have the road level raised (just like the Oxford Circus 'umbrella' for those who can remember the construction of the Victoria Line).

One I'd like to see is Waterloo to Whitehall & the West End, using the existing Hungerford Bridge, but with ramped approaches from Northumberland Avenue, and the Victoria Embankment and connecting back at the same level as the railway viaduct to gate 3 at Waterloo. This would remove a huge volume of pedestrian and cycle traffic trying to cross York Road, and with a ramp down to Upper Ground, offers a way East avoiding the IMAX roundabout and Stamford Street, and avoiding Waterloo Bridge, saving substantial time on many journeys, as well as avoiding busier roads.

So yes lets have some grade separation but sensibly targetted to deliver faster and safer cycle journeys, on the city's roads network.

Jim Moore said...

Great post and great film (except for the implicit endorsement of Mondermanism). Obviously cycling is one way to make these white elephant walkways more usable, and the link you provided explains why and how that could and should happen. Some very good comments on your post too.

Michael Willoughby said...

Great post. I think you have hit the nail on the head, above. I'm sure bike accidents occur on an 80/20 ratio. So let's tackle the problem areas first.
Coincidentally, I'm hoping a letter of mine about cycling and Bow Roundabout will appear in today's Evening Standard.