SkyCycle: Sir Norman Foster's proposed 220 km network of cycle freeways in London

Citylab writer Kriston Capps reckons the latest proposal for cycling infrastructure in London – turning an abandoned London Underground tunnel into a subterranean cycleway – is the city’s silliest idea yet.

Fellow Citylab writer Feargus O’Sullivan disagrees. He reckons a new proposal for a floating cycleway in the Thames “must be the silliest infrastructure idea in the world”.

And Mikael Colville-Andersen from Copenhagenize describes Sir Norman Foster’s proposed $20 billion SkyCycle project – a 220 km network of bicycle freeways above rail lines – as “a ridiculous idea”.

Mr Colville-Andersen, who really puts the super into supercilious, insists all these proposed projects prove that London is “the village idiot of urban innovation”. He’s not afraid to mix a metaphor to make his point:

The village idiot is at it again. Disrupting the class. Tokyo and Berlin are ignoring him. Copenhagen and Paris are plotting a wedgie at recess behind the bike shed. Buenos Aires, New York and Dublin are just pointing and laughing.

Although not quite as glamorous as London’s ideas, we’ve had a few proposals for dedicated cycling infrastructure in Australia too. Cycling was touted as an alternative use for Sydney’s now demolished 3.6 km monorail track, and a private consortium wants to build a Veloway in Melbourne.

The proposed 1.7 km Melbourne Veloway would be hung off the side of the existing rail viaduct between Flinders St and Southern Cross stations. The proponents are optimistic; they reckon it would cost $25 million to build.

It’s timely, in the light of all the current excitement in London, to revisit my discussion of the Melbourne Veloway from three years ago (see Are ‘veloways’ the future of cycling?) and from last year (Would a Veloway be a smart way to advance cycling?).

The key point I argued then was that big, glamorous projects like those being pursued in London are problematic because they promote the idea that ‘freeways’ are necessary in order for cycling to be taken seriously as a form of transport.

My view is that cycling will only be a significant mode in the foreseeable future if it has access to a dense network of safe cycle routes. Realistically, that vision will be very hard to achieve if it’s conceived as consisting mostly, or even largely, of bicycle ‘freeways’.

A dense, safe cycling grid will only happen if some road space is converted for cycling use, mostly for fully segregated at-grade paths but in many cases as shared space. (1)

That road space will be appropriated at the expense of vehicles, especially on arterial roads and in the city centre (see what the City of Sydney is doing). Other times it can be shared with cars, requiring initiatives in traffic management works, better regulation and improved education of drivers, rather than major infrastructure expenditure.

But if the idea were to take hold that cycling requires an entirely new and relatively expensive infrastructure network that doesn’t impose on road space, then the outlook for cycling as a viable mode of transport would be very dim.

I’m not even sure the idea of freeways, if interpreted too literally, translates that sensibly to cycling. Freeways are a separate system that enables trucks, buses and cars to cover long distances at high speed by limiting access and eliminating intersections.

Cyclists don’t cover such long distances and easy, direct access to main routes is extraordinarily important – limiting access would have a significant negative effect. There are certainly trunk routes that attract a lot of cyclists, especially for commuting, so they require high capacity, but what’s needed at this stage in Australian cities is something in the nature of a road lane (or two) dedicated to cycling rather than something as elaborate as a restricted access “freeway”.

Off-road paths through parks and along waterways have an important place, but cycling on streets, close to people and activities has got to make more sense in a city than being on a bicycle “freeway”. We don’t want or need to make the same compromises with cycling as we’ve made with cars.

As I’ve pointed out before, bicycles aren’t public transport; they don’t need to be confined to a limited number of set routes. Their flexibility is one of their key attractions.

Another attraction is the connection cycling intrinsically provides with street life. It’s a relatively slow activity and it’s unencumbered by a windscreen or a metal body. Cycling offers the opportunity to travel close to people, shops and trees; cycling’freeways’ won’t.

Nevertheless, as cities where cycling has a high mode share have found, there are certainly locations – in addition to bridges – where some expensive freeway-like cycling infrastructure is justified.

But these are usually choke points (like  Copenhagen’s Cykelslangen and Eindhoven’s Hovenring) that arose as a consequence of very large numbers of cyclists. That high level of demand is generated by the extensive network of safe on-road cycling routes that Australian cities still lack.

I don’t have any problem with the idea of ‘bicycle superhighways’ i.e. a consistent network of safe at-grade segregated trunk routes built mainly by re-purposing road space and providing supporting works e.g. bridges. I don’t have any problem with the scale of money involved with some of these projects either; after all, billions and billions have been spent on other forms of transport.

But hundreds of kilometres of admittedly boring at-grade bicycle paths could be built for the same cost as even some of the smaller glamour projects.

At this stage, the priority for funding in Australian cities should go to lower cost at-grade solutions. That applies especially in the CBD and inner city where the argument for reducing car use is strongest.

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  1. A dense grid of safe urban cycling routes is a necessary condition for cycling to grab a substantial mode share but it’s not a sufficient condition; it will need to be competitive with other modes too.