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Taking Cyclists Off Roads Is No Way to Improve Transit

London's obsession with flashy "magpie infrastructure" solutions is short-sighted.

A rendering for an entrance to the proposed London Underline. (Gensler)

London's latest overture for new cycling infrastructure might be its silliest yet. Just don't tell London that. Last week, the city gave the so-called London Underline the prize for Best Conceptual Project at the London Planning Awards.

A proposal from the global architecture firm Gensler, the London Underline would transform abandoned London Underground tunnels into subterranean cycletracks and pedestrian paths. The plan calls for reclaiming disused infrastructure, along the lines of New York's High Line or the proposed Dupont Underground in Washington, D.C. Plus, the London Underline would ostensibly provide a few connector routes for cyclists (and pedestrians, and even tourists).

The whole thing certainly sounds far-fetched: For example, it would be powered to some degree by "crowd-sourcing Londoners' kinetic energy," according to promotional materials. But converting energy from people walking or riding the paths into electricity isn't the only dubious element in this scheme. The plan's flaw isn't in the details. Rather, it's the dream of taking cyclists off the roads that's so misguided.   

Stations and exchanges in "Boris' Bike Underground" would be occupied by retail, pop-up, and event spaces. (Gensler)

Lately, London finds itself enamored with all sorts of magpie infrastructure. That's the term that Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize coined for a certain kind of architecture or planning that's more glitter than gold. Ferris wheels, streetcars, and plenty of high-profile, high-design building plans fall under this rubric: Shiny things that catch the eye but can't be taken seriously.

Several recent London cycling initiatives fit the bill. There's a simple litmus that none of these proposals pass: Does the plan take cyclists off the road? If the answer is yes, then the answer the project deserves is likely no.  

Take for example Norman Foster's SkyCycle proposal for London. This is a plan to supplement city roads designed for cars and drivers with a network of elevated paths meant for bikes and cyclists. The elevated cycletrack would follow existing rail lines, for the most part, complementing infrastructure that's already in place. Built out completely, the SkyCycle would comprise 137 miles of uninterrupted bike lanes.

A rendering from a proposal for the London SkyCycle (Foster+Partners)

Put aside the monumental costs—$12 billion (!) for the entire network; almost $400 million for a 4-mile proposed trial stretch alone—and it's still a concept that does more harm than good. This is deckbuilding, and at a scale only Robert Moses could love. While it would potentially curtail deaths from auto accidents and hasten long commutes for speedy cyclists, it would do so by segregating cyclists and drivers altogether.

That's close to what columnist Courtland Milloy had in mind when he ventured in The Washington Post last month that Washington, D.C., cyclists should have their own roads—"wooded bike paths" connected to the city grid by special buses. What Milloy really wants is cyclists off the streets. That way, drivers like Milloy won't need to drive so carefully around corners or intersections and won't feel compelled to strike cyclists with their vehicles when they get mad.

Solutions that take cyclists off streets—whether they're cool-looking or merely grumpy—do nothing to improve safety for pedestrians or drivers (or cyclists, for that matter, who would still need to use roads even given a SkyCycle super-highway). When cyclists share the roads with drivers in great numbers, they develop a sort of herd immunity, which boosts the visibility of cycling from courageous transportation alternative to standard transit option.

A rendering for a $965 million plan to build a bike path over a river (River Cycleway Consortium)

Not every Londoner is so taken with magpie cycling infrastructure. CityLab's own Feargus O'Sullivan deflated a proposal to build a floating cycletrack in the Thames River. The River Cycleway Consortium's scheme would cost nearly $1 billion and serve as a tollroad between one business center (in Battersea) to another (Canary Wharf), which, as O'Sullivan points out, isn't where commuters need to travel to or from—especially not for $2.40 per ride.

There's a good chance that none of these projects will ever pass the rendering stage. Two of them are phenomenally expensive, after all, and aspects of the third—namely the kinetic paving in the London Underline—don't sound cheap. That they're up for discussion at all is distressing. None of these plans promises to reduce traffic congestion in London, even if they make certain trips for certain cyclists bound for specific destinations safer or faster.

These magpie programs can't solve congestion because bikes are not the cause of congestion. Cars are. Reducing traffic means taking cars off the road, and the way to do that is by building better public transit and infrastructure options along the paths that drivers use.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.