I cycled the length of all London’s Cycling Superhighways. Here’s what I learnt

Safe, bruv. Image: Getty.

The blue lane. The blue lane is what you concentrate on as you ride the cycle superhighways: the one or sometimes two metre thick painted channel between the pavement and traffic, between safety and danger. Sometimes the blue lane is segregated from the road; more often, you’re just part of the road, but with your own space clearly designated.

Sadiq Khan has promised to spend £770m on cycling over the four years of his term - £17 per Londoner, a record amount for the city – part of which will go on two new cycle superhighways. Ahead of that, it’s seemed reviewing the current cycling infrastructure in London. So I decided to cycle all of the superhighways, and take in just how much they’ve changed London.

I love cycling in London: there is something thrilling in going so fast in a city, especially when there is traffic congestion all around. This is what the superhighways are supposed to do: allow the cyclist to speed by, separated from the main road traffic and all the danger that entails.

There are seven current cycle superhighways, helpfully numbered CS1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8. The network stretches from Tottenham in the north to Colliers Wood in the south, and Stratford in the east to Lancaster Gate in the south. The missing CS4, heading from London Bridge towards Woolwich, is supposed to go into consultation this year; there are also plans for CS9 from Hounslow to Olympia, and a CS11 heading north west from the West End, through Regent’s Park. (What was planned as CS10 may end up as a western extension of CS3.) The point of the new routes is to make cycling safer, faster, and more appealing in the capital.

The plan as of 2012: not all these routes survived. Image: TfL.

The jewel in the crown is CS3, especially the section from Tower Hill to Westminster, which snakes around the curve of the Thames and completely segregates the bike rider from the main flow of traffic. Cycling along it, one can really appreciate the majesty of the Victoria Embankment – something that was previously impossible as you focused on dodging buses and lorries.

The best parts of the network are always those with separated cycle lane: CS3 along the Embankment and into Wapping, and the north-south superhighway CS6. What you soon learn though, riding the blue lanes, is that it is not always like this. For every safe, well built stretch of superhighway, there is a poorly managed part.

On CS7, as it passes through Balham towards Tooting, there are cars constantly parked in the cycle lane, along with drivers who don’t appreciate the sanctity of your metre-wide blue haven. On stretches like this, the superhighway might as well not exist. You find yourself needing to dodge buses anyway – what’s the point, when all that is different is the colour of the tarmac and a name?

While the scheme is a mayoral project, the infrastructure is actually put in place by each individual borough. That’s what creates this fantastic mismatch as you hurtle through London, and CS7 is the perfect example: Southwark and Lambeth seem to care about the cyclist; Wandsworth, on the other hand, seems to think the cycle lane is an afterthought, something to be shoved onto the side of the road.


CS1 is the newest route to be fully completed, running from Tottenham to the City. But it doesn’t seem to be very ‘super’: it’s more like a glorified Quietway (another form of London cycle route, linking up quieter back roads), only with blue branding. It’s also a genuinely confusing route, requiring careful checking of signs and road markings.

Superhighways are easy to follow when they are just a blue lane; a bit trickier when there are only occasionally reminders of their existence. The sight of someone stopping just to attempt to decode a blue sign isn’t a particularly edifying one, especially when you’ve had to pull over to the side of a main road to do so.

Cycling infrastructure in London still has a long way to go to make cycling safer: cars still turn without checking, or drive straight into the cycle lane. This is something that can be solved with segregated sections and separate traffic lights for cyclists, like there are on other parts of the network. Nonetheless, according to the London Cycling Campaign, 6 cyclists died on CS2 between 2011 and 2014; since then the route, formerly of the blue paint variety, has been largely separated from the traffic.

CS2 highlights another problem: how to cope with pedestrians blindly wandering into the cycle lane after they are disgorged from buses at bus stops. Inevitably, all they want to do is swear at you, and explaining that they’re standing in a cycle superhighway doesn’t particularly help. The route also features signs that can take a long time to understand – “turn right in two stages only”, “go left in order to go right” – all very entertaining as you attempt to cycle quickly into the wind.

The best superhighway has to be what used to be CS6, now more often termed the “North-South superhighway”, which at the moment  runs from Elephant & Castle to the Holborn Viaduct. The route is clear, the cycle lane stands completely apart from the traffic, and the dedicated traffic lights work without a hitch. You even get a fantastic view of St Paul’s as you cross Ludgate Circus. It is no wonder that Blackfriars Bridge resembles the peloton of the Tour de France on a weekday morning.

Cycle Superhighways are in their infancy, and there is no doubt that those that exist leave a lot to be desired. Yet everyone should have a go at riding within the blue line and explore London. It made me go to Colliers Wood for the first time in my life: there’s no reason why others can’t do the same.

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.