The River Cycleway Consortium would build an expensive, buoyant bike path on the choppy Thames. But where's the money for Londoners who are actually in need?
By Feargus O'Sullivan, October 8, 2014
The odds were tough, but we did it: London has just come up with what
must be the silliest cycling infrastructure idea in the world. Put
together by a motley group called the River Cycleway Consortium, London
is fielding a new proposal for a new central cycle path
that will stretch eight miles and cost £600 million ($965 million) to
construct. Quite a lot for a pair of bike lanes, isn’t it? Ah, but these
are not ordinary paths. These babies would float. On the River Thames.
The answer to London’s cycling problems, the consortium argues, is a
bobbing pontoon strung along the Southern side of London’s river. This
aquatic cycleway would stretch from Battersea, just west of Central London, to the newish business district to its east at Canary Wharf,
protected by what appear to be waist-high walls. Given the construction
cost of over $65,000 per yard of path, using the cycleway wouldn’t be
free. Cyclists would need to pay a £1.50 ($2.40) toll before entering.
The proposal isn’t just wrong. It’s a whole club sandwich of
wrongness, made up of many delectable layers of stupid. For a start,
there’s that cost. For that kind of money, London could create a whole
network of properly protected cycle lanes on its streets; as things
stand, the city already has some imperfect cycle routes covering the
same stretch. It’s also arguable whether this project is needed.
Certainly there’s still life in the aging saw that if you build it, they
will come. Still, to build a path connecting two business centers to
each other, rather than either of these centers to more heavily
residential districts, is to ignore what many Londoners want to use
their bikes for: commuting.
The path would also rise and fall with the waterline. It would have
to, of course, because the Thames is tidal—so tidal, in fact, that boats
moored on the waterside are set into a perpetual jiggle by small waves.
Boat wakes also lash the quayside, including those made by fast river
ferries that dock at piers that the cycle path would need to thread
past. This could turn a daily commute into a drunken cakewalk on a path
wriggling like an eel—not to mention opening up the possibility of
biking through the end result of cyclists' seasickness on rougher days.
Not that the path would attract many people, of course. That toll
would only push the idea that urban cycling is a fancy fad for the
wealthy, designed for the sort of person who would look down on you for
poisoning your kids with non-organic vegetables. If that sounds an
extreme reaction to a few dollars’ outlay, bear in mind that the U.K. is
a country almost entirely without tolls. They’re charged on a tiny
clutch of bridges and on no roads. Given all these obvious flaws, why is
anyone even trying to float this preposterous idea?
Because London’s current attitude to both cycling and its river is
somewhat messed up. Messed up enough, at least, to give projects like
this a slim chance of making it off the back of an envelope. Granted,
the city is trying to push through some serious new cycling
infrastructure at the moment, including a highway of properly segregated lanes bisecting the city. Trying is the operative word here, however, as plans risk being scuppered by fierce resistance
from a powerful lobby including motorists' associations and the only
indirectly elected officials, who govern the city’s financial district.
In the meantime, the city is embroidering elaborate fantasies that could
square the circle, providing new cycle routes without daring to reduce
the precious road space left for cars.
Chief among these is SkyCycle, a plan from high-tech architect Norman
Foster to build elevated bike highways above railway lines in and out
of London. This plan would also be hugely expensive, difficult to
connect to regular roads, and do very little to reduce general pollution
levels or pedestrian safety. But despite Foster rightly labeling it a
“Utopia,” it looks positively sober compared to the river path. At least
it would follow established commuter routes.
Meanwhile, the Thames itself is also silting up with spectacular but
essentially functionless projects, such as the chronically underused
that goes from one random point to another. I love this gondola, I
really do. I go on it sometimes just for the view. Still, if I’d known
the city was essentially spending a shower of cash on me alone, I think
I’d have rather just had a check.
Upstream, the river has yet another look-at-me crossing on the way soon: the Heatherwick Garden Bridge.
An expensive, possibly charming folly, its superfluous eccentricity
might be charming if it wasn’t happening at a time when low-income
Londoners were being evicted in the name of sensible bookkeeping, and the city’s most vulnerable kids being pushed into hunger and even prostitution.
In this zany, smoke-ring world—where basic services are a luxury but
the sky is the limit for spectacular white elephants—the River Cycleway
plan makes sense. Sure it’s hilarious, but it’s also the sort of
sideshow that’s distracting from meaningful attempts to make London a
better city to live in. For people who actually care about this city,
this matters. To paraphrase the Sex Pistols, there’s no future while