No, the solution to Britain’s cycling problems isn’t glowing tubes in the sky

An indeterminate London bridge. Image: Ribble Cycles.

Of all the things that annoy me about the modern media industry – and goodness me there’s a lot to choose from – the one I find most profoundly irritating is the increasingly entrenched belief that advertising should be free; that time-pressed content monkeys like yours truly can be tricked into offering publicity for any old nonsense, providing that the pictures are pretty enough.

Companies that would blanche at the idea of handing over a few hundred quid for an advert will quite happily spend god knows what on graphic design to accompany spurious pieces of “research”, which people like me will write about on the grounds that pics mean clicks. It doesn’t matter if the ideas proposed are a bit ridiculous; indeed, the viral internet being what it is, there’s a case to be made that the more ridiculous the better. It’s the corporate communications equivalent of jumping up and down and screaming, “Look at me, I’m wearing a tea cosy on my head”.

Which brings me to this nonsense by bike manufacturer Ribble Cycles, which imagines that the future of cycling in British cities is to place some mysteriously glowing tubes in the sky above existing highways.

Image: Ribble Cycles.

It’s called “Cycle cities”, either because they spent so much a photoshop subscription that they couldn’t afford branding consultants, or possibly because of SEO.

Anyway:

If governments and local councils worked together to plan a safer, cycle-first infrastructure in two of the UK’s largest cities, what would it look like? In creating our own Future Cities, the team here at Ribble collaborated with its very own expert panel in order to find out.

Did you, though? Did you really? Because I suspect that what it would look like would actually be quite boring and predictable: some segregated cycle lanes, a few traffic calming measures, and a big row with the local driving lobby, generally. What I suspect it wouldn’t look like is this:

Image: Ribble Cycles.

For those who are familiar with this roundabout in Waterloo, this picture raises several questions. One is what happens just to the left of the picture, where the raised cycle path presumably continues onto Waterloo Bridge. I suppose it’s possible that structure could happily withstand having a great big raised cycle lane on top of it, but I’m not entirely convinced anyone on Ribble’s Expert panel has checked this.

And one of the things that makes me think as much is that the picture which shows the path continuing along Waterloo Bridge in fact shows it continuing along Westminster Bridge:

Note the caption (click to expand). Image: Ribble Cycles.

The presence of the Palace of Westminster is a bit of a clue there lads. (To be fair, someone seems to have spotted this and corrected this in the press pack, but it’s still mis-labelled on the main page.)

The other question is what happens immediately to the right of this picture where the cycle lane is about to run slap bang into the middle of this bridge:

Image: Google.

That panel of experts is oddly silent on whether its plan involves ripping up that bridge, and thus severing the main train line into Charing Cross. But since another of the artist’s impressions shows that they’ve literally ripped the roof off Waterloo station to get the cycleway through it, I’m starting to suspect they haven’t really thought this through:

Image: Ribble Cycles.

Perhaps it seems like I’m being unnecessarily grumpy here. The inspiration for the raised cycle-paths, after all, is a real project: the Hovenring in Eindhoven, a raised cycle route which separates bikes from road traffic.

Image: Federation of European Cyclists.

That, though, is a bigger roundabout than the one at Waterloo, and has rather fewer technical challenges which make the whole idea implausible. More to the point, Ribble Cycles’ plan involves extending this overhead cycle paths in all sorts of silly directions that have nothing to do with avoiding busy roads at all. In Manchester, for example, they’d ruin a perfectly good park:

Image: Ribble Cycles.

Given the area’s dim, grey aesthetic, it’s hardly surprising that cyclists, tourists and locals alike have struggled to fall in love with Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens in the past.

Yes, and filling a place with the sort of concrete struts required to support large, dingy overhead walkways that cast the ground beneath into shadow has always done wonders to brighten things up.

Except wait:

Transforming the dimly lit walkways that currently run through the heart of Piccadilly Gardens, we see an area stitched together by a series of elevated, two-way cycle lanes and illuminated paths. Each path is made using modern, eco-friendly materials, including solar panels – which in turn power the lights that give this area its iconic, futuristic feel.

See? Don’t be so judgemental. They’re not dingy overhead walkways, they’re solar powered and illuminated dingy overhead walkways.

Image: Ribble Cycles.

I’m going to stop analysing this here, because I’m in definite danger of putting more thought into this than Ribble’s “expert panel” ever bothered with.

This isn’t the first time someone’s tried to pull this nonsense, and it won’t be the last. Remember Sky Cycle, Norman Foster’s proposal for 220km of cycle paths above London’s railways? In 2014, that claimed to be a real project with official backing, but never seems to have made it as far as a feasibility study, which rather makes one wonder.

Genuine question – why has it snowed under the cycle path, but nowhere else? Image: Foster & Partners.

Then there was Arup’s floating cycle path, which one commentator* described as “the most ludicrous London transport project yet”.

Sure. Image: Arup.

I don’t want to be too down on the idea of thinking big or being radical: when underground railways were first proposed, Punch magazine famously ripped into the idea of running trains through basements. Perhaps some of these schemes are more plausible than I’m giving them credit for.

Perhaps. But what all of them have in common is a press pack, filled with pretty, shareable images, and a suspicious lack of actual engineering research. They’re just out for the free press coverage, aren’t they?

And the media being what it is, we fall for it every single time.

Well. Alright then. I like traffic, so I will write about this stuff, too.

But I’m not going to be nice about it, that’s all I’m saying.

(*Me.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.