SkyCycle

London’s proposed SkyCycle, from starchitect Lord Norman Foster / Foster + Partners

This year, two designs – one proposed and one built – for elevated cycletracks, which create bicycle highways above street level, have gained considerable media attention. They highlight questions at the heart of urban design: Should cities blend or separate transportation options? How can cities best mitigate the hazards created when cars, bikes, mass transit, and pedestrians mix? How can cities create low-cost transportation networks in increasingly dense urban cores?

In January, Exterior Architects and Foster + Partners unveiled their design proposal for the London SkyCycle, a 220 km (136 mile) network of elevated cycletracks following existing rail services with over 200 entry points (see image above). The design team claims that each route will be able to “accommodate 12,000 cyclists per hour and will improve journey times by up to 29 minutes.”

This vision even extends beyond London and even its suburbs: “The dream is that you could wake up in Paris and cycle to the Gare du Nord,” says Sam Martin of Exterior Architecture, quoted in an article in The Guardian. “Then get the train to Stratford, and cycle straight into central London in minutes, without worrying about trucks and buses.”

The plan was proposed during a particularly tense time for cycling in London after a spate of traffic accidents in November 2013 resulted in six cyclists killed over a two-week period. But while the project is reportedly backed by the Network Rail and Transport for London, it’s had plenty of criticism.

Notable critics include Mayor Boris Johnson, according to cycling blog Road.cc, and Copenhagen-based urban design expert Mikael Colville-Anderson on his blog Copenhagenize. On the London radio call-in show “Ask Boris,” Mayor Johnson called the plan “fantastically expensive. I don’t actually think as a cyclist it is what the city needs, what we need is more safety measures, we need better roads, we need better protection for cyclists of all kinds, we need better investment in our streets and that’s what we’re doing.”

Colville-Anderson, less diplomatically, calls the plan “Classic Magpie Architecture. Attempting to attract people to big shiny things that dazzle, but that have little functional value in the development of a city. Ideas like these are city killers. Removing great numbers of citizens who could be cycling down city streets past shops and cafés on their way to work or school and placing them on a shelf, far away from everything else. All this in a city that is so far behind in reestablishing cycling as transport that it’s embarrassing. With most of the population already whining about bicycles on streets, sticking them up in the air, out of the way, is hardly going to help returning bicycles to the urban fabric of the city.”

With the costs for just the first 6.5 km trial stretch estimated at a whopping £220 million (approx. $365 million) and the Mayor’s criticism slowing momentum, SkyCycle’s future is unclear.

Actually completed earlier this summer, though, is Copenhagen’s Cykelslangen, or Cycle Snake, which has received widespread critical acclaim. Designed by architects at Dissing and Weitling, the 235-meter (770-feet) long cycletrack curves and winds gracefully over the harbor and one-story above a busy waterfront shopping area.

Cycle-Snake-Rendering

Cycle Snake, Illustrated / Dissing and Weitling

Thirteen-feet wide with two lanes, the elevated bike route connects Bryggebroen pedestrian-bike bridge to parts of the city beyond busy waterfront area Kalvebod Brygge, at a cost of just $5.74 million.

Cycle-Snake-under-harbor

Cycle Snake over the harbor / Ursula Bach for Dissing+Weitling Architecture

Rather than a glitzy panacea to solve a city’s transportation woes on an outdated urban renewal scale, Cycle Snake targeted a specific problem area: a tricky staircase with heavy pedestrian traffic that didn’t mix well with cyclists trying to pass through.

Cycle-Snake-Entry-Ramp

Cycle Snake entry ramp / Ursula Bach for Dissing+Weitling Architecture

“There was a missing link that forced bicycle users to use the stairs or make a huge detour around a shopping center,” says Colville-Anderson in a FastCo.Exist article. “This solution provided a fast A-to-B from a bridge to a bicycle bridge on the harbor, while freeing up the harbor front for meandering pedestrians.”

The ride offers a nice bit of downhill coasting in a very flat city, and cyclists can enjoy views of the harbor without worrying about crashing into pedestrians. Copenhagen also plans on building six new bike-pedestrian bridges over the harbor.

Cycle-Snake-Lanes

Cycle Snake lanes / Ursula Bach for Dissing+Weitling Architecture

As cities continue to increase in density, we’ll continue to run into practical, logistical challenges, writes Sam Jacobs in Dezeen. “How can the variety of road users – pedestrians, bikes, cars, trucks – co-exist in a safe and civilized way? But it’s also a philosophical and political issue: who is the city for?”

Tourists? Urban bike commuters? Professionals coming in from the suburbs? Cars, trucks, and buses? All of the above? No easy answers, but these designs certainly raise plenty of questions.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.