Atlantic Cities

Is London Serious About Building a Network of Elevated Bike Lanes?

Is London Serious About Building a Network of Elevated Bike Lanes?
Sam Martin/Exterior Architecture

The bicycle infrastructure arms race has moved forward once again with the news that London is toying with the idea of elevated bike highways.

The project is the work of Sam Martin, of Exterior Architecture, who's spent the last two years developing a concept for bike lanes truly separated from traffic. Martin doesn't bike anymore for safety reasons. But he would get back on two wheels to ride the SkyCycle, his proposal for elevated bike lanes that's already piqued the interest of London Mayor Boris Johnson.

"It came as all good ideas do," Martin says, "walking to the pub." London's outer districts are threaded with overhead railways, erected during the Victorian era and still used daily by commuter trains. Passing under one such viaduct, a young colleague of Martin's, Ollie Clark, mentioned to his boss an idea he had to use that infrastructure for something else -- why not bike lanes, they reasoned. Two years after hammering out a concept, Martin and co. got the chance to pitch it to Johnson and affiliates of Network Rail, which owns the city's overground rail infrastructure.

The meeting, he says, went well. "There’s a huge appetite and desire to make this happen, but it needs to be thoroughly tested and we need to identify potential sites." Exterior Architecture is working now on assembling a more concrete proposal. Contrary to reports in the Daily Mail, Martin says, no location has been chosen. It would probably be somewhere in North London.

Made of steel and glass, the SkyCycle pathways would provide an above-ground path for long-distance bicycle commuters. Entrances and exits would be placed at regular intervals, perhaps at stations, and users would pay a swipe-in toll of one pound with their Oystercards. Because overhead rail links suburbs to the city and runs between London's biggest stations, such a network could serve all types of commuters. With a corporate sponsor, SkyCycle could avoid dependence on public funding. Londoners are wary of the latter option, particularly with a project as fantastic as this one.

Johnson has said he's interested, and has a record for realizing biking infrastructure. "The Mayor is committed to leading a cycling revolution in London," a spokesman for the mayor told the Times of London. "The use of railway land or elevated cycleways to provide fast and direct cycling routes around the capital is an exciting idea that his team are looking into."

That said, Johnson's flagship bike lane project, the network of Barclay's Superhighways, has come a few spokes short of a revolution. To the mayor, the new lanes formed "a magic blue carpet," but most have taken to calling them, disdainfully, "paint on the road." The lanes were not separated from traffic and, like all such bike lanes, are home to parked cars and delivery vans.

If the GLA takes on the Sky Cycle project -- with 19th century trainways due for renovations soon, the timing is good -- it could mean a change of tactics, a retreat from the policy of shared streets. For years, transportation advocates have tried to promote the idea that streets are not only for cars, with slogans like "share the road." The Dutch concept of the Woonerf, a street where cars, bicycles and pedestrians move together, has been held up as an ideal, as has the Copenhagen system of an independent traffic network for bicycles, including bike lights, separated lanes of the road, and bicycle highways (on the ground). There's a reason, after all, that cyclists like streets: they allow flexible routes, access to retail, and keep cycling's profile high among the general population. A skyway could be seen as a concession of the road to automobiles, pushing cycling out of the mainstream.

Martin has already heard complaints from cyclists who believe that the focus should be on bringing bicycle infrastructure to roads, not away from them. "I completely agree," he says, "but the streets of London are not going to get any bigger, and you have retail and other activity, so you need trucks, buses, taxis -- you can get rid of cars, maybe, but vehicles are a reality."

Transport for London, the city's transit authority, says that the number of cyclists in London has doubled since 2000, and is expected to triple again by 2020.  SkyCycle would be a big-ticket item -- tens of millions of pounds -- but Martin sees it as an "essential ingredient of infrastructure" if the city is serious about promoting cycling. "The roads are only going to be able to take so much capacity."

Not to mention that riding the SkyCycle, with the breeze in your hair (despite renderings released this week that appear to show a covered system, Martin says it wouldn't actually be enclosed), would be a pleasure. "There are many arguments for being separate from the city," Martin says, "not only a different view, but different sounds, a different feeling of the city -- a heightened experience. Excuse the pun."

All images courtesy of Exterior Architecture.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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