Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The River Cycleway Consortium would build an expensive, buoyant bike path on the choppy Thames. But where's the money for Londoners who are actually in need?
The odds were tough, but we did it: London has just come up with what must be the silliest cycling infrastructure idea in the world. Put together by a motley group called the River Cycleway Consortium, London is fielding a new proposal for a new central cycle path that will stretch eight miles and cost £600 million ($965 million) to construct. Quite a lot for a pair of bike lanes, isn’t it? Ah, but these are not ordinary paths. These babies would float. On the River Thames.
The answer to London’s cycling problems, the consortium argues, is a bobbing pontoon strung along the Southern side of London’s river. This aquatic cycleway would stretch from Battersea, just west of Central London, to the newish business district to its east at Canary Wharf, protected by what appear to be waist-high walls. Given the construction cost of over $65,000 per yard of path, using the cycleway wouldn’t be free. Cyclists would need to pay a £1.50 ($2.40) toll before entering.
The proposal isn’t just wrong. It’s a whole club sandwich of wrongness, made up of many delectable layers of stupid. For a start, there’s that cost. For that kind of money, London could create a whole network of properly protected cycle lanes on its streets; as things stand, the city already has some imperfect cycle routes covering the same stretch. It’s also arguable whether this project is needed. Certainly there’s still life in the aging saw that if you build it, they will come. Still, to build a path connecting two business centers to each other, rather than either of these centers to more heavily residential districts, is to ignore what many Londoners want to use their bikes for: commuting.
The path would also rise and fall with the waterline. It would have to, of course, because the Thames is tidal—so tidal, in fact, that boats moored on the waterside are set into a perpetual jiggle by small waves. Boat wakes also lash the quayside, including those made by fast river ferries that dock at piers that the cycle path would need to thread past. This could turn a daily commute into a drunken cakewalk on a path wriggling like an eel—not to mention opening up the possibility of biking through the end result of cyclists' seasickness on rougher days.
Not that the path would attract many people, of course. That toll would only push the idea that urban cycling is a fancy fad for the wealthy, designed for the sort of person who would look down on you for poisoning your kids with non-organic vegetables. If that sounds an extreme reaction to a few dollars’ outlay, bear in mind that the U.K. is a country almost entirely without tolls. They’re charged on a tiny clutch of bridges and on no roads. Given all these obvious flaws, why is anyone even trying to float this preposterous idea?
Because London’s current attitude to both cycling and its river is somewhat messed up. Messed up enough, at least, to give projects like this a slim chance of making it off the back of an envelope. Granted, the city is trying to push through some serious new cycling infrastructure at the moment, including a highway of properly segregated lanes bisecting the city. Trying is the operative word here, however, as plans risk being scuppered by fierce resistance from a powerful lobby including motorists' associations and the only indirectly elected officials, who govern the city’s financial district. In the meantime, the city is embroidering elaborate fantasies that could square the circle, providing new cycle routes without daring to reduce the precious road space left for cars.
Chief among these is SkyCycle, a plan from high-tech architect Norman Foster to build elevated bike highways above railway lines in and out of London. This plan would also be hugely expensive, difficult to connect to regular roads, and do very little to reduce general pollution levels or pedestrian safety. But despite Foster rightly labeling it a “Utopia,” it looks positively sober compared to the river path. At least it would follow established commuter routes.
Meanwhile, the Thames itself is also silting up with spectacular but essentially functionless projects, such as the chronically underused cross-river gondola that goes from one random point to another. I love this gondola, I really do. I go on it sometimes just for the view. Still, if I’d known the city was essentially spending a shower of cash on me alone, I think I’d have rather just had a check.
Upstream, the river has yet another look-at-me crossing on the way soon: the Heatherwick Garden Bridge. An expensive, possibly charming folly, its superfluous eccentricity might be charming if it wasn’t happening at a time when low-income Londoners were being evicted in the name of sensible bookkeeping, and the city’s most vulnerable kids being pushed into hunger and even prostitution. In this zany, smoke-ring world—where basic services are a luxury but the sky is the limit for spectacular white elephants—the River Cycleway plan makes sense. Sure it’s hilarious, but it’s also the sort of sideshow that’s distracting from meaningful attempts to make London a better city to live in. For people who actually care about this city, this matters. To paraphrase the Sex Pistols, there’s no future while London’s dreaming.