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London's Car-Free Highway Could Transport Bikes, Boxes, And Energy

Running over existing rail lines, the SkyCycle network could hold up to 12,000 cyclists an hour zipping to their destinations around town and transforming the cityscape.

[Image: Courtesy of Fosters + Partners]

Over the next two decades, London’s population will surge by around 2 million residents, and many more people will commute to the city center from farther away. But instead of squeezing more cars onto already-crowded streets, Londoners might eventually be riding bikes on the SkyCycle superhighway.

We first wrote about SkyCycle in 2012, and now the designers behind the plan—from Exterior Architecture, Foster + Partners, and Space Syntax—have released new details. The network of bike paths would run on a wide platform over existing rail lines, providing over 200 kilometers of car-free routes that can each hold up to 12,000 cyclists an hour.

Image: Courtesy of Fosters + Partners

The routes aren’t intended to replace any of London’s current bike paths on city streets, but instead would be used for longer rides. "We don't want to take anyone who's currently cycling off the roads," says Sam Martin, who leads Exterior Architecture. "We want to take people who take trains, cars, and buses and put them onto bikes."

Martin points out that already many Londoners spend as much as 20% of their income on transportation, and SkyCycle would provide a free alternative. "If London is to grow into a proper city in the future it needs to change so everyone to get around in a more egalitarian way. It needs to provide capacity solutions that don't involve digging new tunnels and building more roads."

Beyond the obvious benefits of getting more commuters on bikes—from better health to less congestion and pollution—the network could also start to transform the city in other ways. "You might think of it as a cycleway, but it’s also a new way of thinking about the compact city," says Huw Thomas, a partner at Foster + Partners.

The network could distribute goods along with people. "The easiest way to describe it is a glorified airport baggage handling system," Thomas explains. Goods could automatically travel along SkyCycle, and be delivered either to homes or offices immediately along the route, or stored in lockers for a cyclist to pick up along their commute.

While the delivery system could be used by retailers like Amazon, the path could also transform local stores. "Cyclists tend to shop locally because they don’t like carrying very much, and they shop more frequently," Thomas says. "Layer on top of that the wider logistics capability for retailers, and you get a completely different experience. The traditional shop will have vastly different storage requirements. They can store at the periphery and have stuff delivered within half an hour, already on its hanger and already tagged."

SkyCycle could also serve as a new transmission line for electricity from renewable energy. "One of biggest problems we’ve got is digging up the street," Thomas says. "This would put everything in a utility dock that was easily accessible." A separate dock could also transfer waste.

Buildings next to the tracks—once an undesirable location—would suddenly have new value, Thomas says. They could also be good sites for perhaps a school, since kids could bike there safely.

For now, the project is very much in the planning stages, as the partners work on securing funding. Martin says that corporations may buy naming rights for particular routes, but ultimately, at least some of the funding should come from the government.

"In terms of people's health, and the lack of energy that will be consumed, I think the benefit to the nation in the long term will be far greater," Martin says.

After the project is funded, he thinks it may take around five years to build a route, and as long as two decades to build a fully connected network.