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The Skycycle: A Plan for the People?




Skycycle 1 3

Is this the answer to London’s cycle safety woes? Source: Space Syntax

 by Julia Thayne

Headlines in London this November were grim. Six cyclist deaths in less than a fortnight. All but one cyclist killed in accidents involving trucks, buses, or coaches. People were understandably concerned. From 3,000 miles away, my mother sent me a fluorescent coat and another set of bike lights, and as a cyclist commuter, I avoided roundabouts that I had previously sailed through, noting that cars seemed to be driving more slowly and other cyclists thinking twice before flouting traffic laws.

In response to the deaths, the public and public sector alike launched a “cycling state of emergency.” Officers patrolled the streets to ticket both vehicles driving unsafely and cyclists disobeying road rules. A thousand citizens gathered for a candlelight vigil at the roundabout where three cyclists’ lives had been claimed. Another thousand staged a “die-in” outside of Transport for London’s headquarters, in which protesters lay down in the streets, using their bicycles to block traffic. Newspaper columns, magazine articles, and blog spots examined and re-examined the safety of cycling routes around London. Mayor Boris Johnson’s Cycle Superhighways (four blue-painted, supposedly safety-enhanced cycling routes around London) became a particularly contentious topic of discussion, as three of the six cyclist deaths during those two weeks (and of the 14 deaths thus far in 2013) had occurred on or near one of these routes.

From the conversation about cycling and safety, the Skycycle has emerged.

I know what you’re thinking. The Skycycle is an amazing name. It recalls a childhood desire to enter the worlds of Star Wars, evoking images of Darth Vader teaching a young Luke Skywalker to cycle in a gravity-free galaxy far, far away. That image is not so far divorced from the idea developed by three London-based firms (Lord Norman Foster’s eponymous architecture firm, Foster + Partners, Exterior Architecture, and Space Syntax) in 2012, which re-surfaced in the media over the holidays this year in response to the recent score of accidents.

The Skycycle is a proposed network of cycle paths elevated above London’s railway lines. Stretching 220 km across the city, the Skycycle could be accessed at more than 200 entrance points, vertical, hydraulic platforms located next to existing railway stations. Six million people would fall within the Skycycle’s catchment area, three million of which would live and work within 10 minutes of an entrance point. Further, the Skycycle’s 10 routes would accommodate 12,000 cyclists per hour – an important factor considering the estimated 1.5 million cycle journeys per day in London by 2020. Importantly, the Skycycle would provide the ultimate response to issues of cycle safety by doing the safest thing of all: removing cyclists from London roads altogether.

SkyCycle_Invitation-images.pptx-1024x801 copy

Proposed routes for the Skycycle network. Source: Space Syntax

Although I can’t argue the name (it really is a masterpiece on its own) or the modelled use of the routes (I haven’t seen the details), the remainder of this article debates the Skycycle’s approach towards roads safety of segregating cyclists from the city – and does so in two main points, which draw on both theory and practice of sound urban design.

1)    The Skycycle diverts energy and resources from more important projects regarding transport and cycling in London – and from more important projects, period.

In my initial description of the Skycycle, I mentioned its basic concept: an elevated car-free route, which builds on the existing rail infrastructure to create a new set of environmentally-friendly transport routes. What I neglected to mention was its potential cost. The London-based design team has proposed – and Network Rail and Transport for London have purportedly supported – a trial route of the Skycycle. The 6.5 km pilot path would stretch from Stratford to Liverpool Street Station, lying above the overground train connection between East and Central London. [Note: For those of you unfamiliar with London, this route would essentially connect the Olympic site in East London to a very busy, very central rail station near the heart of London’s finance district]. The estimated cost of the trial route is £220 million (nearly £34 million per kilometre).

Source: The Sunday Times

Source: The Sunday Times

To put this amount in perspective, a few numbers.

  • Mayor Boris Johnson’s Cycling Vision from March 2013 put forth a £913 million budget for cycling over the next 10 years, including road safety projects, segregated lanes, education, promotion, and training, among other initiatives. The estimated cost of the Skycycle’s trial route is almost 25 percent of that budget.
  • By contrast, the Cycle Superhighways (the blue-painted, safety-enhanced cycle paths across London, which I mentioned earlier) are purported to cost between £1 million and £3 million per kilometre, which means you could put in between 75 to 200 kilometres of Cycle Superhighways for the same cost as the pilot route of the Skycycle.
  • Crossrail, one of the largest transport construction projects in Europe, is estimated to cost roughly £15 billion for 118 km of routes. This is approximately £125 million per kilometre, or four times the cost of the Skycycle. That said, Crossrail will carry a projected 200 million people per year, with capacity on just the Central London lines of 36,000 people per hour during peak hours – three times the number of people accommodated by the Skycycle on routes roughly one-fifth its length. Furthermore, Crossrail is expected to generate £52 billion in economic impacts in the United Kingdom, whereas a recent report from the London School of Economics demonstrated that the UK cycling economy was just £3 billion.
  • On a slightly different, but still essential topic, due to London’s unprecedented population growth, the city is facing a shortage of more than 90,000 primary and secondary school places in the next three years. Meeting this shortfall is estimated to cost £2.3 billion, or £25,000 per student/place. Even if the Skycycle’s pilot route operated at max capacity (12,000 cyclists per hour), 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it would still cost approximately £2 million per cyclist to construct. Twenty-five thousand quid to guarantee a child’s education versus £2 million to cut a cyclist’s commute time by 29 minutes – now that’s something to think about, especially when each of those children could likely not only be educated but also given a bicycle for a fraction of the cost to construct just one kilometre of the Skycycle.
Source: flickr/ motorblog

Source: flickr/ motorblog

Where public money is considered, tough decisions have to be made. When congestion threatens efficiency, transport initiatives may triumph; when people are priced out of the city, housing may take precedence on the political agenda; and when the urban economy is flagging, ribbons are cut on new schools to train the next generation of skilled employees. Perhaps I am too idealistic, but I generally believe that local policymakers at least try to make these tough decisions based on which projects will serve the most (and potentially most vulnerable) people.

The Skycycle is not one of these projects. In London, cycling trips represent an impressive 16 percent of road transport and 25 percent of morning commuters, according to recent statistics. However, in London, as in other cities, cyclists are mainly young, white, male professionals. Women, minorities, the elderly, and the young are vastly underrepresented on the cycling scene. Although car-free cycling paths may appeal to those underrepresented riders, I can’t imagine that mothers taking their kids to school would prefer hopping on a hydraulic lift to an elevated cycling route packed with Spandex-clad professionals on fancy bikes speeding their way to work to riding in segregated cycle lanes on traffic-calmed streets. As much as I’m an advocate of cycling in cities, I don’t think the cycling culture in London is at a point where anyone but the usual suspects would frequent the Skycycle. And with those two images of the mother cycling her kids to school in mind, my vote would be to spend the public’s money on the public – on those measures more likely to be used by the majority of the people.

To be fair, the Skycycle’s designers have acknowledged that the use of public money should be limited in the construction and implementation of the cycle routes. They have proposed that the Skycycle operate on user charges. However, given the estimated cost of construction, I am hard pressed to believe that some public funds wouldn’t be tapped, at least initially, for the Skycycle. Once constructed, my guess is that additional public subsidies would be needed for operating costs – not to mention as incentives for underrepresented groups in the cycling scene to utilise the Skycycle. Once again, my vote is to use public funds for the public.

Source: flickr/ motorblog

Source: flickr/ motorblog

2)    The Skycycle may have unexpected, negative consequences.

I have lived in London for a year and a half now, as a student and as a professional, in Central London and north of the city. Due in part to my training in (and love of) urban design, I have spent the better part of the last year and a half exploring different London neighbourhoods. I have compared Mare Street to Marylebone, Chatsworth Road Market to Portobello, Mount Street Deli to De Beauvoir – the list continues.

Despite this steady exploration of London, I didn’t feel at home here until I borrowed a friend’s bicycle. Finally, instead of viewing London’s high streets from the top of a double-decker bus, I began seeing it at street-level from side streets. It was an entirely different city. In my mind, London was no longer represented by the clash of buses and pedestrians on Oxford Street. It was, at its best, a series of quiet, but populated roads shared by pubs, small stores, kebab shops, libraries, council estates, terrace homes, parks, playgrounds, and schools. While cycling, I found new places to frequent: restaurants to try, stores to shop, plays to see, parks to explore. And I never felt unsafe due to other people. The cycling routes were on populated enough streets that other passers-by, whether on foot or on cycle, could easily have assisted me, had I been in need.

These two anecdotal realisations lead me to my main point: the presence of cyclists on streets is good for the city. Cyclists are likely consumers, as the architect Jan Gehl points to in many of his publications and projects (and as my own bookshelf, crowded with purchases made en vélo, can attest). They generate local economies in fields related and unrelated to cycling endeavours. Furthermore, having more “eyes on the street” as one of the keys to safety in cities is well documented (read the “The Uses of Sidewalks” chapter of Death and Life of Great American Cities for evidence of this, if you haven’t already). Removing cyclists from the street, as the Skycycle’s elevated cycle ways might, threatens some of the benefits cycling offers simply because cyclists are less exposed to what’s happening on the ground, pun intended.

I agree with the Skycycle’s intentions: cycling is one of the most tenable, sustainable solutions to urban issues with health and transport, and therefore has to be a priority in policy and infrastructural investments. But I disagree with its methods. I don’t think investing in cycle safety should cost upwards of £7 billion (a back-of-the-envelope calculation using the estimated costs for the 6.5 km-route), especially when it results in infrastructure, which may take years to integrate into the existing transport system. And I also don’t think cycling should be an isolated activity, separated from the rest of the city by hydraulic lifts.

Instead, I believe that the money proposed to be used on the Skycycle should fund the implementation tried-and-true cycle safety methods. I have included a selection of these below so that this article doesn’t become just another critique of an urban idea without at least one proposal of what might be better.

  • Lowering speed limits and installing speed bumps (with gaps to allow cycles, but not cars to avoid them) on city roads promotes safe driving and, thereby, safer cycling.
  • Providing segregated cycle ways on busy streets, using sidewalk bulges, islands, or bollards, which differentiate car lanes from cycle paths, makes cyclists feel safer, as studies on urban cycling have shown.
  • Investing in wayfinding, installing signs and, yes, even painting roads can help cyclists find their way through unfamiliar territory.
  • Ramping up existing cycle promotion schemes, including work-based programs like the Cycle-to-Work employee benefits and London Cycle Hire Scheme, builds on successful cycling initiatives in London.
  • Cracking down on bike theft might encourage more people to bike to – and leave their bikes in – unfamiliar places (because nobody likes to see his stolen bike being ridden around by someone who bought it for 50 quid on Brick Lane).

These solutions are not flash-y or trend-y or tech-y, and they certainly don’t have a cool name like the Skycycle. But they have been proven to work. Importantly, they also recognise that cycling should be for everyone, whether they are four, 14, or 40 years old, headed to work, to the grocery store, or to a friend’s flat. As Charles Montgomery wrote in an op-ed to the Guardian, “Your streets say a lot about what you value as a city…It’s time for London to catch up by making space for all riders – not just the kamikazes.”