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SkyCycle: Will It Ever Get Off The Ground?

No other infrastructure project for urban cycling has been so thoroughly discussed as the SkyCycle proposal for London. The project put forward by a consortium of the design offices, Exterior Architecture, Foster&Partners and Space Syntax has been the cycling-related media blast of the recent weeks.

Everybody has written about it and by now opinion appears to have shifted from optimistical interest for the project to critical comments about SkyCycle's impracticality, or to a 100% dissing of the project. Lately even London's mayor - otherwise visionary on urban cycling - appears to have shelved the project.

Before the frenzy is over and SkyCycle disappears again in the 'projects' sections of the design firms' webpages; I want to see why the project has been so successful in creating this media frenzy and what SkyCycle tells us for future advancement of urban cycling.  


The prominent SkyCycle rendering. Source: Foster&Partners.

Big names and big PR

SkyCycle is excellent promotion for the three offices involved, as the design team has been rewarded for its big thinking by tons of media recognition. The project is an impressive example about how the formulation of a grand idea - regardless of its practicability - can aid your professional profile - and of how timing of information and the project's context is critical for public awareness.

Foster and Partners (F&P) is the professional motor behind the SkyCycle project and the campaign to publicize it. Last fall and early winter cycling has been a hot topic in London because of the sad spike in cyclists' deaths and citizen engagement in reaction to it. The right moment to resurface the SkyCycle proposal.

So F&P published a SkyCycle press release on December 29th 2013, the day many journalists were in their offices and nothing much was happening. Of course you had the SkyCycle rendering in every design-related blog by January 2nd. Done!

A compelling image

SkyCycle is neither a new, nor a unique idea. Many have thought about putting cyclists away from the streets and up in the air. The desire to raise urban cyclists onto a superior level above cars has been around for quite some time.

But the SkyCycle team has formulated this issue of the "cycling-in-the-air" idea in a very professional and sexy way. It is good to have such large design companies involved in creating new visions for urban cycling, regardless the question if their application is practical or financially feasible by tomorrow. Plus, with one image appearing over and over again, the media attention has been created efficiently.

Kolelinia by Martin Angelov.

Kolelinia by Martin Angelov. A bare "cycling-in-the-air" vision.


A grand vision

SkyCycle is (literally) not a down-to-earth, practical approach to solving current mobility issues in London. It is the opposite: a vision designed to create debate and to think ahead about how we can restructure our cities to accommodate urban cycling.

It asks the question: how will a bicycle urbanism look in the future? Images like the SkyCycle rendering resonate with people and elevate urban cycling in the imaginations of people. This is a great contribution by the project.

Why SkyCycle will be shelved (for now)

Of course the SkyCycle project, or only a fraction of it, will be impossible to finance anytime soon. London would rather be re-designing its streets to accommodate more cyclists and push back the still-prominent space for cars. The city has been doing so and will continue on this route.

For now London's roads will be redesigned in a "bringing the small city to the metropolis" approach, aiming to create walkable and cyclable streets for Londoners. I agree with others who have called to prioritize this approach, rather than building crazy expensive megastructures to put cyclists off the streets.

What we need first in our cities is active and livable streetscapes on the ground level before we can think if something is missing up in the air.

A case for SkyCycle 2.0

Yet, with an 80% mode share for public transport in central London and a congestion charge in place, the question is where to put any additional road users in future.

London's population is expected to rise and the city aims to grow inward into a higher density. Additionally an increasing demand for parcel delivery will create up to a 30 % increase in light vehicles in central London by 2030. Imagine if these pressures lead to a (desirable) increase in urban cyclists and pedal-powered deliveries. In that case, the day will come that the streets of London become as clogged by cyclists as some streets in Copenhagen or Amsterdam are already today.

How to go forward in such a situation?

In this context a project like SkyCycle will resurface again, adapted from its current form. That day the extraordinary of today may become the ordinary of tomorrow. SkyCycle has some relevant lessons for us to think ahead about how to create future cities in terms of bicycle urbanism.

SkyCycle network. Source: Space Syntax.

SkyCycle network as proposed over existing London railway lines. Source: Space Syntax.

Large-scale thinking

The project looks at London from a bird's eye perspective, aiming to handle a projected increase in urban cycling by a design intervention on the scale of London itself. It goes full circle with lateral thinking and does not strangle itself to current limitations.

This is what we often miss in attempts to give cycling the place in the city it deserves. Urban cycling is handled to an extensive degree from the bottom up (which I think is essential) but to restructure cities quickly we will also need large-scale thinking. 

Cutting-edge tools

SkyCycle shows how large design companies and highly specialized design consultants approach urban cycling. SpaceSyntax has continued their interest in urban cycling and used their forecast models in this project to determine capacity and flow within the SkyCycle network.

Such a professional momentum for cycling-planning is much welcome, especially if we want to think how we can restructure megacities in terms of bicycle urbanism.

New types of infrastructure

SkyCycle, or rather a derivative of it, may be an approach to put cycling infrastructure into dense Megacities where roadspace is contested and lively streetscapes do not exist as they have been replaced by broadacre-city-like eight-lane urban motorways.

You can think of a SkyCycle-like network for active transport including public amenities, infrastructure, retail and other uses. But do not limit yourself to the image of an empty flyover used by competitive spandex cyclists.

Rather, think Florence's Ponte Vecchio combined with SkyCycle. A longitudinal space lined with all sorts of amenities, retail and infrastructure. Like putting a European sidestreet or an active Hutong alley as a connective elevated layer into the inhumane urban layout of a megacity.

In places like Hong Kong, a concept similar to SkyCycle may actually be an approach to build-in bicycle infrastructure acting at the same time as a new layer for the city.  

"Auto-mobile Beijing" by August Liau

"Auto-mobile Beijing" by August Liau. The project merges commuter hubs programmed with community centers, retail Source: Holcim Foundation.

The real value of the SkyCycle proposal

SkyCycle is a vision for urban cycling which has the imaginative power to inspire people for good or worst. SkyCycle is actually great for urban cycling, especially if it will not be built anytime soon. It sensitizes people for urban cycling and creates a controversy on the place of the bicycle for the future of our cities.

SkyCycle provided a fresh look onto urban cycling and the chance to think out of the box. Why not embrace this opportunity? Let's use this scale of thinking to go ahead in creating real bicycle urbanism for our cities.

We need far-reaching, almost utopian visions for urban cycling so we may start to think in terms of bicycle urbanism. Yes, why not create infrastructure, roads, neighborhoods, quarters with the bicycle as a predominant benchmark, as a central tool for urban design and development?

In that process, let's not forget what makes a city 'urban'. No grand construction or design idea alone can create urbanity by itself. It is the human scale which makes an urbaine experience possible, which creates urbanity.

The bicycle is the exact tool to reference this human scale for urbanism.

So I am curious about the next vision for urban cycling - maybe an idea on a SkyCycle scale but with respect for the human dimension - which will allow us to step-up our incremental thinking to the scale needed for substantial change to our urban realities.