How seriously should we take the ‘Skycycle’ idea?

The idea of attaching routes for cyclists to the sides of railway lines in London – the so-called ‘SkyCycle’ – has again appeared in the press, this time featuring in the Daily Mail. The article contains a number of fairly strange claims, principally from the man responsible for the idea, Sam Martin of Exterior Architecture, who we are told argues that

the raised network was the only option left to expand cycling in London.

The reason being, in his words,

TfL estimate the number of journeys made by bike will treble to around 1.5 million by 2020. Where are they meant to go? SkyCycle is the next logical step, because you can’t realistically build more cycle lanes on ground level. You have to start knocking down buildings and there will always be the problem of traffic. It will be less safe than it is now and you can’t persuade people to get on bikes as it is even if you keep raising taxes on cars.

Given that this target of 1.5 million journeys, while sounding impressive, actually amounts to only around 5 to 6% of all trips in London being made by bicycle, this is patently wrong. You don’t need to knock buildings down to get a modal share that small, let alone one of 30-40%, which is consistently achieved in Dutch cities, where, you won’t be surprised to hear, no buildings have been demolished, and no tracks for bicycles have been put up in the air when they could quite easily have been put on the ground. (Indeed, ironically, buildings were demolished in Dutch cities, but only to make way for motor traffic. They have in many cases subsequently been rebuilt once the cars have been kept out.)

Oddly, however, Sam Martin believes that

London is not blessed with spare horizontal space….. It’s streets pre date those of any of the cities you mention [CPH/AMS] & there is simply no capacity to include pedestrians (who are poorly serviced enough); buses; vans & eventually perhaps not cars & TfL’s projection of tripling bike journeys from the existing 0.5mill per day to 1.5mill by 2020 to me speaks of an issue that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.

The age of London’s streets is irrelevant, and the idea that London is somehow cramped for horizontal space by comparison with Amsterdam is unserious. Its streets are wide; very wide in comparison with the medieval centres of plenty of Dutch cities, which don’t seem to have any problems at all in accommodating high numbers of bicycles.

This brings us, of course, to the root issue – what Sam Martin calls ‘the problem of traffic’, presumably the reason why we ‘can’t realistically build more cycle lanes on ground level’.

Well, of course we can. It’s a simple question of priorities. The amount of motor traffic isn’t immutable (the experience of Games Lanes during the Olympics has shown us this). It will adapt and adjust to the amount of road space allocated to it. Prioritise cycling by giving it space and making it safe, pleasant and convenient, and plenty of those 50% of trips in London that are under 2 miles will switch from being made by car to being made by bike. That’s a sane solution to the traffic problem; it doesn’t involve expensive engineering structures attached to railways; structures that cyclists will, apparently, have to pay to use, and which don’t do anything to address the issue of excess motor vehicle capacity.

Needless to say, I think there are several further problems with the concept of these tubes, despite their superficial appeal. The first, and most obvious, is how you get on and off them. This would surely involve ramps, which depending on the height of the tubes, will be long, and consequently quite land-hungry. If you’re not going to waste the space on the land that you’re attempting to ‘free up’ by building tunnels in the sky, then presumably you are only going to have a few access points along the length of the route (another consideration here is that limited access points are beneficial from the point of view of charging for use). So that immediately places a constraint on the usefulness of the tubes for people who might want to make trips that don’t intersect with the access points.

With long distances between access points, we have a further problem of safety and security. There is, presumably, going to be no way to get on and off these things mid-route – otherwise how would you charge for it? And with a railway to one side, and a drop to the other, it’s not something you’re going to want to do anyway. What this adds up to are long stretches with no option of escape should you be confronted at night, or at times where there are fewer people about. The effective equivalent of very long subways. Not a great recipe for the more nervous.

And finally, there is the issue of where these ‘highways’ are going to go, and how expensive it is going to be to fit them onto the sides of railways. As Cycalogical has written,

there isn’t a huge amount of spare room on the elevated tracks in London. It’s not like they were built with a wide strip of surplus land on each side. (That’s the great thing about railways – they are extremely compact in terms of space used per passenger journey.) You can’t have cyclists riding a foot away from trains whooshing by at 60MPH, for the same reason you’re advised to stand back from the platform’s edge at a station, although Boris would probably tell you that it’s perfectly negotiable if you keep your wits about you. I suppose you could have some kind of cantilevered arrangement to hang a cycleway off the side of existing viaducts and bridges, but that would be very complex and cost a fortune. Some parts of the railway do have enough spare land to form a cycle track, but there are so many bridges and points where the spare width isn’t sufficient.

At a guess, such a scheme would be very expensive indeed; without the surplus land, the SkyCycle is effectively going to be an enormously long bridge (indeed, this is what the artists’ impression looks like).

So my concern is that this isn’t a very realistic solution to a problem that could be solved much more cheaply and sensibly at ground level, and with much greater benefit for the city of London. Namely, the construction of cycle lanes and tracks, on the street, which would allow people to make journeys where they want to go, without being constrained in tubes or on bridges, without having to go up and down ramps, without great concern` about being mugged, and without having to pay for the privilege of use.

Just how on board with this scheme are Transport for London and the Mayor? You might think, on a quick reading of both this article in the Mail and an earlier one in the Times of the 16th August, that this is something they are seriously involved in. The Mail article, after all, is headlined

stunning vision of Boris’ planned elevated London bike network

giving the impression that this is his pet project; an impression reinforced by his image appearing prominently in the article, and a brief quote from him.

But if we look a little closer, we only have an assertion that Boris is ‘considering’ ‘an architect’s proposals’. And what does Boris himself actually have to say?

‘There is a proposal, which is very interesting, to hook up mainline stations in London along the side of raised railway tracks, with a new cycle path.’

This is, in fact, the very same quote that appeared in the earlier Times article; it’s been recycled here. The Daily Mail apparently didn’t bother to phone up Boris to ask him for his opinions.

The quote might sound like an endorsement, but all Boris is effectively saying is that there is an ‘interesting’ proposal which he is aware of. This impression is further reinforced by what a spokesperson had to say in the Times –

“The Mayor is committed to leading a cycling revolution in London. The use of railway land or elevated cycleways to provide fast and direct cycling routes around the capital is an exciting idea that his team are looking into.”

‘An exciting idea’ that is being ‘looked into’.

I could be wrong, but to me, this is suggestive of little more than some glossy pictures and videos that have arrived on Boris’s desk, perhaps with a ‘pitch’, and which journalists – with or without prompting – have phoned up to ask him about.

Exterior Architecture – the people behind this proposal – are a garden design and landscape architecture firm. Their latest project appears to be a garden for the New Zealand Kiwi House at the Olympics. They have completed other gardening and landscaping projects.

They certainly don’t seem to have a background in the kind of structural engineering involved in designing and attaching bridges to the sides of existing railway viaducts. I put this to Sam Martin on Twitter, asking him if his company had ever designed anything like this before. He replied

it will be a world first. So no one has. I have the support of Buro Happold & a very good architecture firm too.

I’m not entirely sure that nobody has ever designed structures like this before. But I was interested by the support of Buro Happold. I asked him who he might be involved with at the engineering firm, and how they had helped him with the design. He didn’t answer my question, responding instead

feel free to call me or email, you have found our website obviously. We might help you with your garden needs!

I didn’t need any help with gardening, but I did send him an email the next day, setting out why I was interested in his scheme, and whether he could give me the details of the department at Buro Happold who were supporting him. He replied –

Hi Mark,

i would be more than happy to discuss this with you once I have met you & understood from which angle you are approaching this.

the reason why this was released now was to ‘de politicise’ the entire discussion as Boris made mention of it a bit earlier than i had expected, because ultimately if it is political it has less chance of happening.

so any cynicism & doubt you have about it needs to be addressed by myself before i set you off talking to the people i have been engaged with as this has evolved.

so feel free to call me to arrange a meeting as this idea & the momentum behind it is solely myself & Oli whose original idea sparked this all off over 2 years ago.  we have invested a lot of time & money into this.

I’m not sure this version of events is correct; certainly, I can’t find any reporting of Boris discussing these elevated routes before the stories started appearing in newspapers in the last couple of weeks, although I am ready to stand corrected.

I also rang the London press office of Buro Happpold in an attempt to gain some information, but they didn’t even know what I was talking about. They hadn’t heard of any scheme to build infrastructure alongside London’s railways. Now, to be fair, they are a big firm, and I didn’t have a name or a department, but this did strike me as a little odd.

A further attempt by email to get some answers from Sam Martin remains, at present, unanswered, so this is as far as I can take it. He seems reluctant to give me any more facts until he has addressed my doubt and cynicism, or at least ‘my angle’.

My impression is that this is a scheme that, for whatever reason, is being spun as something that is far more advanced, and officially endorsed, than it actually is. I would be more than happy to have that impression adjusted.


I spoke to Sam Martin on the phone this afternoon, and he very kindly spent some time giving me more detail; detail that is missing from the news reports that have appeared thus far.

He admitted that the whole scheme is very much at an early ‘conceptual’ stage, and that discussions with Network Rail are ongoing. Indeed, the impression I got from my chat with Sam is that if there is any impetus here, it is with the aim of easing the burden of congestion on overground trains.

I asked him how far apart he thought entry and exit points would be, and he suggested they would of the same order of distance as the (rail) stations themselves – kilometres apart. This reinforces my impression that the scheme is a supplement to rail travel; aimed at getting people to switch from the train to their bikes, and thus to free up space on the trains themselves. You would use your Oyster card to touch in as you enter the tunnels, and £1 would be deducted from your account (although I suspect this sum could of course be higher, should the bridges be built).

Sam maintains that the scheme would be privately funded, in entirety, with National Rail land leased to the company building the structures, and TfL then operating it once it is open.

I suspect it is on the issue of charging that the scheme might fall apart; if you have pedalled your bicycle to an access point, for free, I imagine most people would be disinclined to pay for the continuing use of their bicycle, when they can just use the roads for free; roads that they have, after all, used to get to the access points, and will also have to use to continue their journey once they have arrived at their most suitable exit point. Some people (myself included) might be willing to pay £1 to have an entirely traffic- and stress-free journey; but you won’t get that for your £1. I can’t see much demand from cyclists willing to pay to eliminate the stresses of traffic from only a part of their journey.

Sam did make it clear that he is in favour of improving the streets themselves for bicycles; something that wasn’t immediately apparent from his comments in the press. He also said he was strongly in favour of the reduction of private motor vehicle use in central London. He is in favour of ‘cycling without putting himself at risk’, if I have quoted him correctly. So his aims are, I think, laudable.

He is, however, convinced that capacity for bicycles on the arterial roads into and out of London has to be boosted by his kind of scheme. I don’t agree, as I hope I have made plain here. My concern is that useful money – money that could be used to improve the London streetscape – could be diverted into these bridges, which, if one has to pay to access, could end up being seriously underused. That could prove to be the sticking point.

This entry was posted in Boris Johnson, Go Dutch, Infrastructure, London, The media, The Netherlands, Transport for London, Transport policy. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to How seriously should we take the ‘Skycycle’ idea?

  1. of all the “artists impressions” of this whacko idea, the one I love the most is the one you’ve used at the top- with the cycling tube (and, I’ve only just noticed, railway) somewhere over 20 stories up above the central London streets

  2. andrewtravels says:

    It’s a load of crap and does nothing for our urban environment. It’s like the aerial walkways of the 21st century.

    Doesn’t encourage bike use for short trips. Doesn’t encourage shopping by bike or stopping off “on the way home”. Doesn’t help if your destination or home isn’t near a ramp (or are they going to have an on/off ramp every 1/2 mile… can’t see that)

  3. monchberter says:

    I can hear the laughter from the other side of the Channel from here.

    Like plans to deregulate planning for home extensions and getting money to major infrastructure projects, this is just a pitch by an agency for a lovely chunk of public cash for an almost entirely pointless prestige project with innumerable issues attached.

    Using falsehoods like “there’s not enough space for ground level infrastructure” is just lobbying bullshit tacked onto the assumption that nothing should be done to redistribute present road space away from motorists.

    A total joke.

  4. Marion Ros says:

    What ideal places to be mugged!

  5. Never mind this – I want my ‘Tomorrows World promised’ Hover-bike and I want it now

  6. Paul M says:

    I am old enough – just – to remember as a child the tail-end of all those publications like “The Boy’s own Book of…..”, “How it works and how it’s done” and, of course the Eagle comic. These would be decorated with bright illustrations of flying cars with folding wings or helicopter rotor-blades, able to take off if the traffic jam got too bad, monorails, cable cars etc. Curiously, the artists always assumed that in this utopian future, men would still smoke pipes and wear trilbys, and children still looked like something off a Weetabix advert. Of course as we later discovered, they got the technology wrong as well as the fashion.

    We did however get all sorts of things which those publications never envisaged – tiny mobile phones and PDAs, a thousand TV channels, and a host of small incremental benefits which we utterly take for granted now.

    I see what you are saying about the skylanes and Boris’ apparent lack of engagement with them but we have to remember he does have “form” in this area. He would far rather blow squillions (on top of sponsorship) on a cable car across the Thames where a foot/cycle bridge would have cost far less and been far more useful, if rather less glamorous. He still nurses his notion of a “Boris Island” airport in the Tames Estuary (although I have to say that, if you accept the notion that we need more airport capacity, which I don’t, adding ever more sticking plasters to Heathrow is barking mad). He is notorious for his lack of attention span and disinterest in detail unless it is the verses of Ovid, so he waxes lyrical about grands projets but has no interest in a thousand small incremental improvements which a coherent on-street cycle plan might be. He can’t even take the lesson of Team GB cycling who proved precisely how a thousand small ideas beats one big one.

    But the appeal to Boris is of course obvious – it is yet another blind alley he can run up in the hope that someone, anyone, will rescue him from the inevitable conclusion that space has to be taken away from cars and given to other, less greedy road users.

  7. Beany says:

    Like Al Storer, I love the artist’s impression. Just how long are the access ramps to get up and down to that height? Perhaps this is a hidden way of training up the next series of British king of the mountain winners for the TdF

    What an absolute pile of unmitigated tosh recirculated as churnalism in overstreached papers (at the end of the summer silly season)

  8. Don’t you just love the way the way they ignore the Elephant in the room (the negative impact of too much motor traffic)? What we really need is a modal shift from motorised travel to active travel, but we lack leaders with the balls to do it.

    • That is so true! Bang on! I think that is the reason why so many new cyclists are previous tube or bus users in London: because they are people already accustomed to active travel so cycling isn’t a big step up. It’s the people that drive or take a taxi everywhere who, as you say, our leaders need to be encouraging to start doing active travel instead.

  9. Peter Eland says:

    Been proposed before, along with the idea of pumping air down the tunnels to give a tailwind – see e.g.
    Critiqued at e.g.
    Non starter IMO.

  10. Toby Adam says:

    I was intending the wade in and defend the right of a fellow architect to dream the impossible and indulge in some fanciful and pointless imagineering. It’s what we do best. Then I realised they aren’t architects at all, so feel free to kick this baloney as far down the street as possible.

  11. Bridges attached to the sides of viaducts? Not a world first. From NCN 1:

  12. timbo says:

    It reminds me of the California Cycleway which they had in Los Angeles in 1900.

    Bike tunnels would be a great resource, but only if they were free. Otherwise, who would bother? Loads of people cycle for reasons of thrift.

  13. This shows that Boris and his cronies are absolutely bereft of ideas as this was lifted directly from an idea put forward by ‘Wheels | Pedal | Person’ back in January 2012:

  14. Pingback: The dangers of blue sky thinking | Notes from a Transport Planner

  15. Pingback: GroundCycle: Because pies in the sky (cycle) require a coffee-perky foundation | Pedaller

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