A few days before the Sky Ride comes to our home town of Ipswich has prompted a revisit to the website and ideas of renowned architects Foster + Partners, who proposed a project called SkyCycle just over 3 ½ years ago.

They developed, in conjunction with Exterior Architecture and Space Syntax, plans for a 220 km network of cycling corridors that would be constructed over suburban railway corridors. Much like motorways for vehicle use, there would be entrance and exit points, with 200 proposed. The calculation at the time was that almost 6 million people lived in the catchment area of their routes, with half of that number living and working within 10 minutes of an entrance. Each of the routes could accommodate 12,000 cyclists per hour and improve journey times by a remarkable 29 minutes, taking virtually exactly 1 hour off daily commuting times.

Lord Foster explained “Cycling is one of my great passions – particularly with a group of friends. And I believe that cities where you can walk or cycle, rather than drive, are more congenial places in which to live. To improve the quality of life for all in London and to encourage a new generation of cyclists, we have to make it safe. However, the greatest barrier to segregating cars and cyclists is the physical constraint of London’s streets, where space is already at a premium.”

While their project got initial support from the office of the Mayor of London and Network Rail, it was eventually rejected on cost grounds, and in the meantime the cycling superhighways of London have gone into use.

Nevertheless, their early studies showed that these raised, secure decks would provide capacity at a much lower cost than building roads and tunnels.

But what about the towns and cities around the country, especially those with just a rail route in and out rather than an suburban network, or no rail connection at all. Isn’t it conceivable that this type of raised network could be above some of the urban arteries?

Foster & Partners note that cycling in London has grown by 70 over the decade to 2013. The growth in smaller towns and cities is usually substantially lower, but then we have not had the carrot of investment of the last few years in cycling that London has received, nor have we had the “stick” of the congestion zone and its charging.

We either need to take back some of the road space for cyclists and pedestrians or require a raised, wind-sheltered deck to get people able to cycle to work and the shops safely away from vehicles.

This isn’t the first time that such raised cycle routes have been suggested. The earliest would appear to have been proposed by Horace Dobbins, a businessman in Pasadena, California, who put forward the idea of an elevated bike freeway to Los Angeles; he proposed a charge of 10 cents per journey, compared with SkyCycle’s £1 payable by Oyster card. This was when cycling was very popular in the 1890s, before the majority of people had a car. Not quite 2 miles of the network got built and the route never got off the ground (no pun for an elevated network intended!). Then mass production of cars came along and dominated for decades, only recently seeing a revival of cycling in L.A.

Canadian architect Chris Hardwicke proposed a network of routes for Toronto in 2004, but with the key difference of having cyclists inside a glass tube well away not just from vehicles but also the winter weather in particular of Toronto. Unlike Dobbins who got nearly 2 miles built, Hardwicke’s concept has remained just that with nothing built.

The common factor blocking these ideas has been money. The regions outside London spend anywhere from a low of £193 per capita per year in the East Midlands to a high of £375 in the East of England. But reaching £10 per capita on cycling infrastructure remains an elusive target, let alone higher values such as £20; and this is despite the multi billion annual saving to the NHS if we were to reach the same level of cycling as Denmark.

Are you old enough to remember the Goons and their song “I’m walking backwards to Christmas”? It seems to me that our elected representatives are walking backwards to the future, focussed on delivering what people thought they needed years ago – more and more roads for cars so their electorate could drive everywhere, when looking to the present and the future would make them realise that pollution and obesity have to be fought and the best way to do this is to get people out of their cars and either walking or cycling.


Bike & Cycling News – SpyCycle

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