SkyCycle - reincarnation of failed ideas or future-thinking solution?

Yet another ambitious proposal from Norman Foster has hit the press. This time its an elevated cycling super-highway that connects the far corners of London to create what has been termed by Exterior Architecture, the original proponents of the idea, as a cycling utopia. The proposed network is truly comprehensive and ambitious, with the configuration and access points optimised by network analysis courtesy of Space Syntax.

As a long-time commuting cyclist and advocate for cycling, I've followed the reaction with some interest, which has predominantly been positive. There appears, however, to be an increasingly concerned contingent comparing it to historically failed projects like London's attempt at the Pedway. These concerns are driven by hard-learned lessons from the past, where freeways ripped cities apart, elevated pedestrian walkways separated people from the street-level diversity that fuels them, and mobility networks that have often been engineered to bypass and exclude the less fortunate.

So, is the SkyCycle doomed before take-off? The reality is that this is one of those projects where success or failure will boil down to implementation. And given the team and the enthusiasm behind the proposal, I think it fair to give it a chance. Here are my reasons for saying this:

  • As the subway is for pedestrians, the SkyCycle would be for cyclists. Unlike many forms of elevated transportation infrastructure created in the past, the proposed network does not compromise existing street-level connectivity. In fact, in some ways it could enhance connectivity and creates potential hubs of activity at the network access points. It is important to remember that bicycles can actually travel quite fast, and so, for longer distances, bicycles function less like pedestrians and more like vehicles. The strong-point for bikes is that it is so easy to transition between these two states.

  • Long-time cyclists generally don't have issues cycling in traffic. But the reality is that for every cyclist out on the roads, there are many more that would cycle if they had a safe network that is A) connected, and B) segregated from motorised vehicles. In many cases, the safety benefits of segregated cycle ways are perceived, not actual, but it still matters tremendously to the cycling experience and its adoption by the greater public. Short of preventing all vehicular access to London (which I would happily support), there are realistically few other options for achieving the same sense of connectivity and perceived safety without creating dedicated routes above the hubbub of motorised vehicles.

  • As much as I enjoy cycling at street level, it can be a hugely frustrating experience for longer distance trips on congested routes for a few simple reasons: vehicle fumes; getting stuck behind busses and taxis; and having to stop for a traffic light (for what seems like) every few feet...and this has a nasty habit of happening each time you've just gotten going again. Short of being a bike-courier or lycra-clad alpha-male, the SkyCycle would make cycling the hands-down fastest and most convenient way to get around London.

  • Now for the downside: The proposed concept is hugely ambitious, and for the same reasons it could be very difficult to implement in reality. The engineering logistics are complex, and while certainly not impossible, will be costly to implement elegantly without substantial design effort and cost. The SkyCycle presents a plethora of logistical challenges, like the amount of distance that would be required for access ramp gradients, access for ongoing maintenance, and issues of public safety. While not small issues, I'm inclined to think that they can be solved by the right people if given the necessary political and public support.