London Cycle Dreams

London Cycle Dreams

Jasmijn Muller looks at the latest utopian cycling solutions for London and finds it all a major distraction from better, cheaper, simpler solutions.As a keen cyclist, I had to use my first blog at Fourth Street to cover a subject I feel so passionate about. Especially when the third in a series of a delirious plans for the capital’s cycling infrastructure was awarded the prize for Best Conceptual Project at the London Planning Awards last week.Architects, engineers, and other placemaking professionals are always keen to demonstrate their ability to ‘think outside the box’ and solve clients’ problems with ‘innovation’ and ‘blue-sky thinking’. Better design is the answer to any problem. But these cycling infrastructure plans aren't just outside the box, they are also well out of physical and financial reach. What’s worse, they distract from cheaper, more rational and more practical solutions.Last January Foster + Partners unveiled plans for the SkyCycle, a 137-mile network of uninterrupted bike paths suspended above London’s suburban railway lines, that would allow cycle commuters a safe and car-free journey to and from work. You can’t fault Foster’s imagination and their exciting approach to finding space in a congested city. However, at an estimated cost of £220 million for the first 4-mile trial stretch alone (and nearly £8 billion for the entire network), these plans have been rightly dismissed by many as ‘Pie in the SkyCycle’.In October, along came another piece of ‘magpie architecture’ for cycling – a perfect term coined by Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize to describe architecture that is more glitter than gold. Thames Deckway, the brainchild of River Cycleway (a consortium including engineers Arup and London-based Hugh Broughton Architects), is an 8-mile floating tollpath between Battersea and Canary Wharf that would cost a whopping £600 million to construct. It would be privately financed and users would be charged a flat rate of £1.50 per journey. I strongly doubt that many City workers would want to pay to bob over a floating bike path on the choppy waters of the Thames.If the SkyCycle and Thames Deckway are far-fetched and expensive, the Gensler plan for The London Underline is just absurd. This one proposes to take cyclists off the road and stick them in underground tunnels instead. Apart from the cost and practicality of the idea, it sends a hugely conflicting message about sustainability and the cyclists' place in the world. Why should cyclists and pedestrians be banished underground – deprived of daylight, fresh air and views – while polluting cars are free to bask in the sunlight of city streets?No doubt space is at a premium on London’s streets. But we really could do with fewer of these preposterous ‘game changing’ solutions. Stop the blue sky thinking. The simplest solutions are usually the best. While London has been distracted by magpie architecture and fanciful visions, other cities like Paris and Bordeaux have developed a strong culture of bicycle urbanism, using less money to get better results more quickly.Every great place is about the people that inhabit it. Why are we constantly trying to relegate cyclists from the streets – sticking them up in the sky, or out on the river or in tunnels underground? Why do we always look for a physical solution to what is actually a legal, cultural and policy issue? We would go so much farther, so much faster with simple – but less visually exciting – measures, like traffic calming and better laws to protect more vulnerable road users.Growing up in the Netherlands, I took all of these things for granted. It wasn't until living and working in London that I started researching the history of cycling and infrastructure development in the Netherlands and discovered that until the late 1970s a similarly short-sighted, anti-cyclist/pro-car attitude prevailed there too. It took bold policies, legal measures and rigorous implementation, joined-up efforts and political consensus, to make the Netherlands the benchmark cycling nation that it is today. There was no architectural silver bullet.I applaud Boris Johnson for giving the green light to the latest cycle superhighways with properly segregated bicycle lanes bisecting the city both north to south and east to west. We are even promised international standard cycle lanes with coloured tarmac rather than blue paint. The suggested 'mini-Hollands' may still be a far cry from the carefree experience of cycling in Amsterdam, but they are all steps in the right direction.Once the simple solutions are in place, we can turn our thoughts to SkyLines and tollpaths. Until then, if we really must have Utopian visions to fill the pages of the architecture press, then my vote goes to Studio Roosegaarde’s Van Gogh Bicycle Path. This one uses solar power to illuminate the path in the swirling patterns of Starry Night. At least it's pretty.Feature image @ Daan Roosegaarde & Heijmans

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