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Carbon-Free Commute in the Sky: Can London Finally be Safe for Cyclists?

The concept of a bicycle-only expressway sounds like a cyclist’s futuristic daydream, but a team in London hopes to make a real-life network of elevated bike paths in a city notorious for dangerous cycling conditions.

SkyCycle began as the student project of an employee at the London landscape architecture firm Exterior Architecture. The company’s owner says the concept became the office “hobby” until an elevator encounter with Mayor Boris Johnson gained his instant support. The proposal, backed by Network Rail and Transport for London, is the joint venture of Exterior Architecture, Space Syntax, and Foster and Partners. The Foster in question is, of course, Sir Norman Foster, the prolific designer of the Hearst Tower in Manhattan and London’s Millennium Tower.

SkyCycle routes would eventually comprise of 135 miles of bicycle-only tracks constructed on platforms above the overground rail line. Fully realized, the 10-route network could accommodate up to 12,000 cyclists per hour. The first proposed route would run from Stratford in east London to the central Liverpool Street Station, a four-mile stretch that comes with a $250 million price tag, arguably SkyCycle’s most difficult imminent hurdle.

Mayor Boris Johnson is no stranger to taking on ambitious bike-friendly projects. In 2013, he publicized plans to spend over $1 billion on cycling infrastructure in the next decade. Johnson oversaw the implementation Barclays Cycle Hire, the city-wide bike share program known colloquially as “Boris Bikes,” though initially proposed by his predecessor Ken Livingston. Much like CitiBike in New York City, Boris Bikes have caused their share of backlash, and even namesake and backer Barclays is planning to step away from the program in 2015.

Another of Livingstone’s proposals expanded by Johnson is the network of “cycle superhighways,” London’s bright blue bike lanes that have garnered a mixed reception. Unlike SkyCycle, the superhighways require cyclists to constantly interact with other traffic and pedestrian activity. Making room for cyclists this way is an often dangerous give and take between pedestrians, cars, construction and public transportation. Some even blame superhighways for creating a false sense of security for cyclists, and the death of a 20 year-old woman riding a Boris Bike in one of the superhighways has done little to quell safety concerns.

It’s not hard to make a case for SkyCycle. The number of daily bike trips in London doubled from 2000 to 2012, according to studies by Transport for London. Like many things in the most expensive city on the planet public transit isn’t cheap. A recent rail price increase means that some London commuters will face annual costs of up to $5700. London is also a notoriously dangerous city for cyclists. The congested streets notoriously claimed six lives in a two-week timespan back in 2013, and Johnson himself experienced what he called a “near miss” while cycling.

Necessity and civic backing aside, innovating transportation in old cities is still an uphill battle. London was recently crowned the most expensive city in the world to build in, and construction crews must account for centuries-old infrastructure and the occasional discovery of ancient artifacts. Though SkyCycle would utilize existing rail lines, it is still an ambitious and expensive solution. The growing pains of bringing metropolitan spaces into a greener and more efficient future can be overwhelming. Progress, as usual, is far from painless.

Image provided by Foster and Partners