20 January 2014

The Ridiculous Sky Cycle by Norman Foster

Retro Design for Covered Cycle Tracks in Holland
Elevated cycle track network - Netherlands 1950s.

There's been a bit of chatter of late about a (not very) new idea for bicycle "infrastructure" in London. None other than architect Norman Robert Foster, Lord Foster of Thames Bank, OM Kt, has dusted off a student's idea and launched it upon an unsuspecting world.

Rendering of the Sky Cycle

Now of course this isn't a good idea. This is classic Magpie Architecture. Attempting to attract people to big shiny things that dazzle but that have little functional value in the development of a city. Then again, Foster is a master of building big shiny things.

Ideas like these are city killers. Removing great numbers of citizens who could be cycling down city streets past shops and cafés on their way to work or school and placing them on a shelf, far away from everything else. All this in a city that is so far behind in reestablishing cycling as transport that it's embarrassing. With most of the population already whining about bicycles on streets, sticking them up in the air, out of the way, is hardly going to help returning bicycles to the urban fabric of the city.

With urban planning, now more than ever before, heading back to the future - back to when cities were life-sized places with rational and practical solutions for moving people around - ideas like these stand out like a sore thumb.

As Canadian author Chris Turner said on Twitter:

"You say that as if Foster and the starchitect league have ever attempted to understand how streets work in general."


Foster grew up on this street south of Manchester, back in an age when Manchester had around 20% modal share for bicycles. Instead of realising that modern urban planning is seeking to return our cities to their pre-car state, he insists on dishing up city-killing, Bladerunner fantasies. You would hope that Foster would seek back to his roots and embrace the kind of city he grew up in.

The first things that popped into my head upon hearing of this idea:

The Price
£220 million pounds for the first 6 km stretch from Stratford to Liverpool Street? Seriously? For that price any urban planning firm could propose a world-beating transport plan for London, the city could pay to implement it and there would still be change leftover for schools, social programmes or whatever else. What an obscene amount of money to spend on Magpie Architecture.

Bicycle Anthropology
I've read that the estimated average speed would be 24 km/h up there in the Sky. The average speed for Citizen Cyclists in Copenhagen and Amsterdam is 15 km/h. That's the speed that a few hundred thousand people sub-consciously settle upon whilst cycling through a city. There are those who go faster, sure, but understanding basic bicycle anthopology should be at the forefront of our thinking.

Bicycles belong at street level. Bicycle users are just pedestrians on wheels, not to be confused with motorised traffic. Creating safe, separated infrastructure on our streets is the way forward. Back to the future. Bicycles are the most effective and powerful tool we have for re-building our liveable cities.

The Sky Cycle seems to focus on the 1%. The spandexian demographic. It will never get built, of that we can be certain, but if play Foster's fantasy game, there would be a few bicycle users using it. But nowhere near the numbers that have been predicted.

The Sky Cycle idea also disregards another basic fact in city transport. Decades of experience in Denmark and the Netherlands has determined that the majority of bicycle users will cycle up to seven kilometres. The number of bicycle users drops dramatically in the 8-15 km zone. Indeed, under 10% of bicycle commuters entering the City of Copenhagen are coming from the 8-15 km zone. The Bicycle Superhighway project in Copenhagen, aimed at upgrading existing infrastructure in this zone in order to encourage more to cycle from this zone is a great idea, but they are only expecting an increase of about 10,000 cyclists when it's completed. A great number, to be sure, but unlike the Sky Cycle project that boasts of the 5.8 million Londoners living within 10 minutes of the Sky Cycle, they are realistic about numbers of potential bicycle users and their behaviour.

Oh, and in doing so they will spend between £45 million and £96 million. Not for a 6 km stretch, but for 28 routes through 20 municipalities of a total of 500 km in length that will span the entire network spanning the entire Greater Copenhagen region.

The Sky Cycle will be the greatest transport flop in history, simply because it fails to understand the importance of bicycle traffic in urban planning. Also because it's a stupid idea, but hey.

New Wine in Old Bottles
It's not a new idea. Look at the drawing at the very top. Stuff like this has been around for awhile. Has it ever been built? No. Rationality ended up winning the day. The California Cycleway in Pasadena, built in 1900, was a similar idea, one that provided an A to B route from Pasadena to Los Angeles, but even it only lasted a couple of years and ended up being sold for lumber.

The City of Calgary has had a pedestrian walkway system in their downtown core since 1970 called Plus 15. Another city-killing idea that strangles street life. I can recommend watching waydowntown, the urban planning mockumentary by Gary Burns, which is unflattering towards the Plus 15, to say the least.

Just Do What Other Cities are Doing
Funny how the rising stars of bicycle urbanism like Paris, New York, Chicago, Bordeaux, Barcelona, Dublin, Seville, etc etc, haven't bothered with lofty starchitect visions. They just rolled up their sleeves, dusted off their rationality and started tackling their urban problems with infrastructure and traffic calming measures.

While Foster and too many others are obsessed with commuting instead of bicycle culture, others cities are on the fast track to going back to the future. Using far less money and getting far better results much quicker.

Absolutely everything we need to reestablish the bicycle as transport and to modernise our cities into more liveable urban spaces has already been invented a century ago.

De 28 ruter på samlet set ca 500 km. rutenet, er vurderet til at koste mellem 413 mio. kr og 875 mio. kr - See more at: http://www.cykelsuperstier.dk/content/faq#sthash.yrYcuNX1.dpuf
De 28 ruter på samlet set ca 500 km. rutenet, er vurderet til at koste mellem 413 mio. kr og 875 mio. kr - See more at: http://www.cykelsuperstier.dk/content/faq#sthash.yrYcuNX1.dpuf
Unlike so many others dazzled by the fact that this idea has been pushed forward by Norman Robert Foster, Lord Foster of Thames Bank, OM Kt, I refuse to be blinded. It's a ridiculous idea that shits all over the efforts of so many of my colleagues around the world who know better.

Remember, this, Norm... you're only as good as your latest idea.


@BehoovingMoving said...

Awesome post Mikael. I've been presenting the counter arguments, out of sequence in a sense, but anticipating you would come through with this post. Okay, I'm a pussy, because I agree with everything you have said, with a few little "buts".
But 1: SkyCycle can be seen as a compliment to street level short bike trips within each of the Copenhagen-sized boroughs of London.
But 2: If Foster thinks to enclose and backdraft those bike highways, they could be an alternative to the tube for London's citizen cyclists who have to commute between boroughs.
But 3. It doesn't steal from street level bike infrastructure budgets, but rather from the next cross-city road tunnel or rail expansion that will cost a lot more and do less.
But 4. elevated and sunken routes have in fact been used for mass-transportation, only never for bikes. They have been used for cars and trains, which have effective speeds of less than 15kph, due to congestion and/or frequent stopping.
But 5. A mass bike transport network will dump thousands of cyclists at street level—because they will invariably have to come down.
But 6. Big shiny things impact the cultural imaginary, hell just look at cars.
6 is enough

Paul M said...

Skycycle does perhaps play to two particular threads in London culture which, while I don’t think they will make it happen, do perhaps make it a viable means of self-promotion for Foster and the small architects’ firm which dreamt up the idea in the first place.

One is Mayor Boris Johnson’s weakness for trophy projects. Create a huge splash which leaves almost no trace afterwards, or work quietly and subtly with a thousand small changes to achieve real results? Our Olympic cycle team went for the latter, and it paid fantastic dividends. Johnson chooses the former: hundreds of millions spent on blue paint on the road which wears off in no time and never even when fresh did anything to protect cyclists from motor traffic. At best, it drew a route line for people to follow to find their way in from the suburbs to the centre, although even then it probably attracted them into mortal danger, as a couple of recent inquests have shown. Another few hundred millions on a cycle hire scheme which has certainly impacted in the London cycling culture, but is woefully under-used and in any case has started to attract lycra/helmet culture rather than the original normal-clothes look. £60m or so on a cable car which is almost entirely unused, perhaps because it charges about £3.50 (€4) simply to cross a river where walking across a bridge would always have been free.

The other is that London does have a weird commuter cycle culture where a significant minority of cyclists get off on the fact that their commutes are really quite long – more than 15km – and fast – 20-25kph. The skycycle seems designed to appeal to people who actually do want to blast through on an extended A to B without let or hindrance or any interaction with their surroundings – in fact these people are probably petrolheads in every other context in their lives, only cycling at weekends on sportives or adrenaline-rush off-road riding, and certainly not on leisurely trips to the supermarket or coffee-bar.

Cycle campaigners who have their feet on the ground want something entirely different – a universal wheeled-pedestrian culture which connects to the heart of the city and make the city a more liveable place for themselves but for everyone else as well. On that last point, perhaps the main weakness of many UK cycle campaigners is that they see too much through the prism of cycling, rather than recognising its role in liveable cities, and so forging alliances with like-minded people such as campaigners for pedestrians and the elderly or disabled.

Watdabni said...

Great post. Pretty much sums up my feelings about this demented idea. I have been cycling in London for 40 years and it is the worst idea anyone has come up with yet - apart from, possibly, the lethal cycle superhighways. If it is implemented it will be proof that politicians value vanity projects over real improvements in cycling infrastructure designed to get ordinary people onto bikes. Things will only get truly better when granny feels safe getting on her bike and this crazy idea is not going to help her do that..

Fabio said...

For the first time cyclists will be similar to motorists as they will interact with the city and with the city, just as motorists locked inside their plates with hyper but sad engines in 1800.

NIKDOW said...

Sky cycle only makes sense as part of an effort to maximise road space for cars. Skycycle won't lead to mass cycling because, as Stephen says, they have to come down to streets, which will be full of cars.

Skycycle would make sense only after the roads are reclaimed by bikes & pedestrians, and then only if a viable case existed for facilitating longer trips.

Dave Holland said...

It's not crazy to think of using the rail corridor as bikeways. It is crazy to think bicyclists are pedestrians on wheels and need to be separated from motor vehicles.
Of course, any idea those profiting from bicycle infrastructure pushes to advocacy will work for the politicians since it garners votes from the majority by getting bicycles off the roads that belong to cars.