River Cycleway Consortium

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of the First Pasadena State Bank building, designed by Texas modernist architects MacKie and Kamrath. It will be demolished on July 21.
    Design

    The Lonely Death of a South Texas Skyscraper

    The First Pasadena State Bank, a 12-story modernist tower inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, has dominated this small town near Houston since 1962.

  2. A NASA rendering of a moon base with lunar rover from 1986.
    Life

    We Were Promised Moon Cities

    It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11 put humans on the surface of the moon. Why didn’t we stay and build a more permanent lunar base? Lots of reasons.

  3. Transportation

    Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S.

    The widespread failure of American mass transit is usually blamed on cheap gas and suburban sprawl. But the full story of why other countries succeed is more complicated.

  4. The Cincinnati skyline and river
    Life

    Maps Reveal Where the Creative Class Is Growing

    “The rise of the rest” may soon become a reality as once-lagging cities see growth of creative class employment.

  5. The legs of a crash-test dummy.
    Transportation

    A Clue to the Reason for Women’s Pervasive Car-Safety Problem

    Crash-test dummies are typically models of an average man. Women are 73 percent more likely to be injured in a car accident. These things are probably connected.

×