Lab | Log

Taking a Closer Look at SkyCycle

SkyCycle harks back to Norman Bel Geddes's Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair. Photo: Richard Garrison, from Magic Motorways, Norman Bel Geddes, 1940

SkyCycle harks back to Norman Bel Geddes's Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair. Photo: Richard Garrison, from Magic Motorways, Norman Bel Geddes, 1940

As readers of Lab | Log know well, I am a dedicated and enthusiastic cyclist. During the New York Lab, while the controversy around the city’s bike lanes raged, I weaved my way through honking taxis, my cortisol levels at an all-time high, to the Lower East Side each day. My favorite routes in Berlin were the first to populate Lab Team member Rachel Smith’s Dynamic Connections map, and I even attempted, at great peril, to commute by bike in Mumbai—a city that could use lanes, period, let alone bike lanes. So when it comes to almost any dedicated bicycle infrastructure, I’m usually a cheerleader. Never would I have expected to find myself snubbing a proposal to invest millions in a project dedicated to cyclists.

However, when plans were unveiled last month for London’s proposed SkyCycle—a raised cycle superhighway situated three stories above London’s existing suburban rail lines—I couldn’t help but balk. It wasn’t just the £220-million price tag for the first four-mile stretch of the 135-mile network (which would spoke outward to London’s distant suburbs) that bothered me. It was the entire underlying message: that ground-level road space is for cars, not bicycles; that the solution to a city’s safety and congestion problems lies not in reining in and reducing vehicle traffic, but rather in getting cyclists off the roads and out of their way. It’s almost an eerie throwback to a time when we believed the best planning was that which enabled cars to get around as quickly and unencumbered as possible—a fun-house version of the infamous General Motors-sponsored 1939-40 New York World’s Fair exhibit, Futurama (expanded on in Magic Motorways, the 1940 book by the exhibition’s designer, Norman Bel Geddes), that envisioned a future with pedestrian life taking place on raised walkways above a vast network of multi-lane high-speed highways leading straight to the ’burbs.

There are other, more logistical problems with the SkyCycle idea. A cyclist would have to be commuting pretty far out of the city to make the three-story slog up to the SkyCycle on one of its proposed 209 on-ramps worth the effort. Also, removing cyclists from the street level where they can stop to run errands along their commute and interact with the city effectively removes some of the most practical and joyful incentives the mode share offers in the first place. Add in the fact that it still doesn’t make things safer for cyclists who do stay on the ground. Indeed, it may make it more dangerous, as it has been proven that the more cyclists are on the road, the safer it is for everybody.

Then, as mentioned earlier, there’s the obscene price. I could be wrong, but my hunch is that you can buy a heck of a lot of green road paint for £220 million.

But at the end of the day, it’s really a question of goals: if the end goal is to build a city friendlier to cyclists, why design them out of it?