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By Land or by Air, Bicycles May Soon Rule Britannia

Aerial view rendering of the Skycycle scheme, which includes the Network Rail in Greater London
The Skycycle scheme, which is separate from the mayor’s plan, would use the elevated decks of Network Rail in Greater London to create pay-as-you-go routes that would spare cyclists the need to deal with traffic intersections and signals. Foster + Partners and Sam Martin

One plan under consideration would add safe bicycle lanes to highways throughout London; another would create dedicated bike flyovers high above the city.

April 2, 2013—If Mayor Boris Johnson has his way, the bicycle may soon replace the Tube and the classic black taxicab as the symbol of transportation in London. A nearly £1-billion (U.S.$1.5-billion) plan backed by the city government would create a network of bicycle routes throughout London, including lanes that followed such familiar paths as subways and a 15 mi long segregated “cycleway” that would align with the new Crossrail train route.

Entitled the Vision for Cycling, the plan announced by the colorful mayor follows by several months a proposal by the London-based architecture firm Foster + Partners to create a raised cycle network on decks that abut London’s elevated railways. The backers of the so-called Skycycle project are exploring possible routes, partners, and funding, according to Huw Thomas, a partner of Foster + Partners, who spoke on behalf of Skycycle.

Both plans promise a bright future for bicycle transportation in one of the world’s largest cities. According to the mayor’s office, cycling on London’s main roads has risen by 173 percent since 2001 and is expected to double again by 2023.

The centerpiece of the mayor’s plan is the 15 mi “Crossrail for the bike,” which would extend from London’s western suburbs through the center of the city and on to Canary Wharf and Barking, in the eastern part of the city, which is seeing rapid redevelopment. The route would largely consist of segregated, or protected, cycle tracks, particularly along the Victoria Embankment and the Westway flyovers, that would be similar to those in the Netherlands.

Over the next four years, a network of segregated and semisegregated bicycle routes would be designed to run parallel to Tube and bus lines and, as an aid to cyclists, would have the same names as those lines.

Other features of the mayor’s plan include the following:

- Fully segregated bicycle lanes that would follow the Dutch example of using barriers or raising the lanes several inches above the roadbed;

- Semisegregated lanes on streets that would be formed by using markings or movable barriers;

- A network of “quietways”—that is, demarcated bike routes on lightly traveled side streets that would extend into the suburbs and offer options to cyclists wishing to avoid vehicular traffic;

- Improvements to the existing bicycle “superhighways” sponsored by Barclays; 

- A “Central London Grid” of bike routes in the heavily trafficked business district and West End that would feature protected lanes, quietways, and two-way cycling on one-way streets to create links within the grid.

Johnson’s goal, he said in a press release issued on March 7, is to make bicycling “something you feel comfortable doing in your ordinary clothes. Our new routes will give people the confidence to get in the saddle.” Although London has a long way to go to match Amsterdam’s commitment to bicycling, these plans mark “a profound shift in my ambitions and intentions for the bicycle,” the mayor said. Apart from reducing the number of cars on the roads, the plan would make the air cleaner. If 14 percent of car trips in central London were replaced by bicycles, the main pollutant from motor vehicles, nitrogen oxide, would fall by almost a third, he said.

The mayor said he hoped to open the first quietways next year and to deliver the east–west “Crossrail for the bike” by 2016. Over the next three years, segregated lanes and other safety improvements would be phased in at some of the most dangerous intersections.

Transport for London, the city’s principal transport agency, has been directed to conduct trials of such cyclist-friendly innovations as Dutch-style traffic circles and eye-level traffic signals for cyclists. The agency will work with the city boroughs, which control the majority of the capital’s roads, to determine the best cycle routes. No design or engineering firms have yet been selected, according to Sarah Gasson, a spokesperson for the mayor.

And while these street-level plans move forward, Londoners who gaze upward can gain an insight into Skycycle. First announced in September 2012, the Skycycle proposal calls for a series of elevated, pay-as-you-go commuter bike routes supported by London’s existing railway structure and reached by ramps or vertical lifts. The plan was conceived by Foster + Partners together with the London-based landscape architecture firm Exterior Architecture. The international engineering firm Buro Happold was involved in early planning but is no longer part of the project team, according to Thomas.

Thomas says the team believes there is a way to create additional capacity for bicycle transportation by using the Network Rail system. “If you add additional decking around these railway lines, not only can you create arterial capacity, [you also have] a new opportunity to re-create the city and create a network that cyclists could use,” Thomas said.

Thomas says the Skycycle scheme was independent of Johnson’s plan, “but they raise the same question: how are you going to free up space for cycles at the arterial level?” As he sees it, the charm of Skycycle is allowing cyclists to avoid the “energy sapping,” stop-and-go riding on city streets. “The idea is to create routes where cyclists can just go without interruptions,” says Thomas. “That’s a lot more efficient and attractive.”

Thomas is vague about the next steps in the process. “We’re looking at the larger system and how we begin to implement something. Is it in short, key stages? Does it have to be part of the national planning?” he asks. “If you have a ten-year view of this, you can create an extraordinary opportunity.”



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