Streets in the Sky for Cyclists?

Having awoken from a Quality Street induced coma on the 2nd January, I fired up twitter to see with interest a proposal for an elevated cycling network in London from Foster and Partners. SkyCycle, hoisted above London's rail corridors would carry cyclists safely and swiftly through London, segregated from traffic. Like a High Line for cyclists. The mainstream media have picked up the story (GuardianThe Express and The Times) and from a glance appear to have reacted warmly to the proposal. 

Yet the proposals are actually celebrity endorsement of a concept promoted back in the Autumn of 2012 by another architect, Sam Martin of Exterior Architecture (link to article in Daily Mail).

 Foster and Partners vision for segregated cycling in London

Foster and Partners vision for segregated cycling in London

From the lay-persons perspective, what's not to like? SkyCycle offers the vision of being able to avoid potholed roads, not worry about left turning HGV's or having to become an aggressive cyclist as a form of self preservation. Sir Norman has also put a social spin on the vision; that SkyCycle could be used to enjoy cycling with friends as a leisure pursuit.

All of this is an alluring vision. Yet I'm concerned that many commentators are ignoring the cumulative impact of the details that could damage the connectivity and vitality at street level. The 200 access points, many of which will include ramps, will not be the easiest of structures to blend into a city. They are likely to jar against the places around them, whilst the transition points between the ramps and streets could become awkward junctions. This will probably occur because local highway authorities will apply their standard rulebooks to the interactions between different 'highway users' at these points. The results are unlikely to become celebrated places.

The other aspect of SkyCylce that concerns me is that it advocates the segregation of the City. With this we are at risk of returning to 'streets in the sky' (Le Corbusier) or 'graded separation of people and traffic' (Buchanan, Traffic in Towns, 1963).

 Extract from Traffic in Towns 1963

Extract from Traffic in Towns 1963

It was exactly these notions that we have spent the last twenty-five years trying to unravel. (Ironically, it was the publication of Richard Rogers' Urban Task Force report in 1999 that validated the need to remake more British cities to become more humane and integrated).

If we learned anything from placemaking in the 20th century it is that cities work best when they are integrated at street level. 

Admittedly, space at street level in London is at a premium. Lessons from Copenhagen (which I visited on a cycling study tour last May) and Amsterdam can only translate so far because the street widths are often more generous. This means that we need to find new physical solutions that give people the confidence to cycle. Potentially, we might also consider adopting a similar legal framework to the one that exists in Denmark that presumes liability upon the driver in the event of a collision with a more vulnerable road user. The impact of this legal change upon street level interactions between drivers and cyclists in Copenhagen is enormous.

I'll be surprised if the SkyCycle concept is capable of withstanding further scrutiny. I'll be equally taken aback if this vision, beneath the glossy image, offers something that is holistic and in tune with what makes places function. In fact, when it comes to superimposed infrastructure like SkyCycle, history proves the opposite.


By James Brown