‘SkyCycle’ in London


Just before, we entered into the new year, Foster + Partners, Exterior Architecture, and Space Syntax presented their spectacular, and maybe utopian, project SkyCycle. A project, which would provide over 220 kilometres of safe, car free cycle routes on elevated decks above the existing suburban rail corridors of London. For details of the project visit Foster+Partners website.


Image by Exterior Architecture, Foster + Partners and Space Syntax

It’s not a wonder that this radical suggestion for improving cycling in London has been proposed in the wake of recent tragic cycling accidents in London, and the media attention this has evoked.

The challenge of improving cycling in London was already a hot topic in the Gehl office, so it did not take long before the SkyCycle project sparked a conversation between three of the Gehl partners; Kristian Villadsen, Henriette Vamberg, and Jeff Risom. (Please note that we do not know all of the details related to the SkyCycle project, but would love to know more!).

Here is a peek into the conversation between the three…

The ´Skycycle´ project

Kristian: SkyCycle can been seen as a conversation starter for discussing the topic of cycling in London. Visualizations can be a great way to motivate a discussion as long as they don’t elude people into thinking it’s simple solutions, putting bicycles up in the air isn’t going to solve all conflicts, they are bound to come down at some point and then how do they fit in to the cities network, we need  integrated thinking.

Jeff: In short, I think it is part of a trend of Architects visualizing bold ideas and perhaps exaggerated ideas to start a discussion.  It is great that other major architecture firms help to put focus on bicycling as a part of a sustainable, healthy and economical beneficial model for cities

Henriette: I do not think you should put it off as a crazy idea, because the idea should be understood in its context. Overall bicycles in cities can be used in two ways; The short convenient ride, or the longer commuting ride, the SkyCycle project presents a way of using the railway corridors for efficient commuting by bicycle, going to the city center and then continuing via the cycle lanes, it demonstrate an interesting view on how to commute. Providing people with long tracks for longer and faster transport, and creating an alternative to the daily train ride.

Jeff: It is interesting, but bicyclists are not train riders, and this solution is built on an assumption of what users want when commuting 25 km a day. As opposed to train riders, we have to give bicyclists choice to stop simultaneously, alter their route and interact with their surroundings in another way then you do moving by train.

Henriette: Trains, are overcrowded and break down. This opportunity to cycle provides another possibility that is independent of anything other than you.

Commuting on bicycles?

Kristian: The city of Copenhagen has seen that the willingness of users to commute long distances on bicycles is growing every year, when you make these super quality routes. What is important is that these super cycle highways are a complementary solution, and not a sole solution to the cycling infrastructure of a city. An integrated network into a city, where the flexibility of designing your route every day from your bicycle is still possible. You can diversify your route to incorporate your shopping, visiting the library, or pick up the kids. If you are up on a segregated highway, you are not offered the conveniences that characterize the bicycle ride.

Henriette: In London you have a number of big train stations in the periphery of the city, and it is interesting that a lot of these corridors link the suburb to the city center. I see the SkyCycle network as a possible complement for commuters.

Kristian: But it could be a heavy investment to create this segregated bicycle network.

Henriette: Well not compared to developing the overburdened railway line. The smart thing about using the existing railway corridors in London is that they are continuous, where bicyclists can ride undisturbed by red lights. It is interesting since there are journeys that you just want to use to get from point A to B, a completely different thing than riding your bicycle in a city centre. Important to understand it in that context.

Kristian: There are three aspects related to the height. First, the height itself might exclude children and elderly and people with poor health conditions, simply by being too steep and these are really the groups that needs bicycles to go around. Second, it does seem a little out of the way to put the mode of traffic most influenced by weather conditions up in the air where winds are stronger and there is no protection from climate… they actually end up protecting the trains. Third, of course there is also a safety aspect, when you are up in the air you don’t have the same level of passive surveillance from people in windows and if you meet someone you don’t want to meet, how do you get away if the nearest exit is a mile away, you can’t really jump off…

Cycling in London 2014

Henriette: London has a rising bicycling population, as we know from Andrew Gilligan, Cycling Commissioner for London that accidents are actually going down, there have been a lot of unfortunate accidents.

Kristian: There are lot of other measure you can take other than segregation, when you are aiming for a safe bicycle infrastructure. We had a lot of right turn accidents in Copenhagen, but then a campaign was made and the right turn accidents were radically reduced. It is also about building a culture, not just infrastructure and street. More bicyclists will in themselves generate awareness because car drivers will start to expect cyclists. Still only 2% of people are traveling by bicycle in London, and they still need to get used to the consequences of incorporating cyclist into the city landscape. There are other ways to incorporate cyclists into the city infrastructure without putting them up in the air.

Jeff: It is about creating a joined-up mobility network, with many choices and comfortable, safe viable options where it is possible to go from bicycle to public transport easily and …

Henriette: There is a difference between commuting and city bicycling, the challenge is to integrate the commuting with the bicycling street infrastructure in the city.

Kristian: Another solution is the Green Wave, as in Copenhagen. Where the lights are matched to the bicycles through sensors that will register the speed on the bicycle lanes and adjust the lights. This is not about insisting on being very analog; it is about being smart about using new technologies and ideas for supporting an integrated network.

Jeff: My biggest concern would be a project that invests in mono-functional infrastructure. In 2014, given limited funding and material resources of today, we have to find ways to design and build the next generation of infrastructure that satisfies numerous problems and demands simultaneously. Could investments like this that would be good for cyclists also aid in distributed district heating, trash collection, material recycling,  or work together with regional production and distribution networks to make the ‘last mile’ of supply distribution more efficient.  Or we have to find smart ways to utilize disused infrastructure to satisfy current demands. Could dedicated bicycle tracks run along disused rail corridors?

As the conversation came to an end it was clear, that there is probably not a golden solution to the challenging task of creating a bicycling infrastructure in London. The thing that struck me as the main consideration after hearing the three partners, is their repeated efforts to bring the attention back to the users and their varying needs in the city. What do you think?

On a side note, here is a different type of cycle project in Hamburg that you might enjoy.

And an interesting piece of background to the latest media focus on dangerous bicycling in London.

  1. and don’t forget “the human scale” please…
    This project is totally out of scale!

  2. As electric bicycles lead to higher speeds, but also higher commuting distances, I guess a new form of continuous separated bicycle tracks – don’t know whether highway is the best name for it – makes sense. And also non-electrified cyclist appreciate a non-stop riding experience and higher safety standard that comes with it. But I agree that the elevated form comes probably with more cons than pros and should only be the last resort when designing such infrastructure. But certainly not preemptive to get out of the way of any potential space claiming conflicts with other road users.

    p.s. Nextcity.org published a quite interesting article on it: http://nextcity.org/theworks/entry/norman-fosters-pie-in-the-sky-cycling-plan-for-london

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