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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Park Life: on John Claudius Loudon, the father of the modern park

Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum: an engraving from one of Loudon’s books. Image: Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

Where did parks begin? Where was the first park? Who created it?

These questions aren’t actually as unanswerable as they might first appear. If you’re talking about purpose-built public parks as opposed to private gardens or common land, there’s an at least plausible answer in Derby, which at the very least is home to what might be the oldest extant example in Britain.

The Arboretum was created in 1840 by Joseph Strutt, a public-minded (ish) industrialist. His intricately landscaped park was designed to give the workers (e.g. the ones in his own cotton mills) somewhere for recreation and exercise on the two half-days off he generously gave them.

Loudon. Image: Royal Horticultural Society/Wikimedia Commons.

Strutt may have paid for it, but the real credit should perhaps go to its designer, John Claudius Loudon: he even provided the name, having been the first person to apply the word arboretum to curated botanical gardens. You thought you were having fun in a park: Loudon was trying to trick you into learning about trees.

Loudon is a now slightly obscure figure, having been eclipsed by those he influenced. A pseudo-self-made Scot (his father was a farmer who was at least successful enough to ensure his kid got an education), by the time he was 30 he’d made a fortune introducing new farming and gardening methods to southern England.

At this point, not dissuaded by – for example – the Napoleonic Wars, he sent himself on a Grand Tour of Europe. This was to, in his own words, cast off “confining coil of insular thought”, but he was especially seeking to increase his botanical knowledge. Along the way he picked up a strain of social liberalism, particularly focussed on the importance of public, ideally green, spaces.


Practical efforts in this area were hindered by discovering on his return from Europe that a dodgy investment meant he was broke, and later through health problems that highly excellent 19th-century medicine eventually attempted to cure by cutting off one of his arms. But he wrote extensively, contributing to the Encyclopedia Britannica and publishing Encyclopedias, magazines and various other works of his own, primarily on the subject of landscape gardening, but also tackling the design of everything from pubs to cemeteries.

The preservation and development of green space within the city was something Loudon thought about throughout his life. In fact, his first published writing was a letter about the importance of public squares in London as “breathing zones”.

One of his most intriguing ideas in this arena was sadly never developed, or at least never documented, beyond an initial thought: a proposal to surround London with a ‘promenade’, a circular route around the city that would link, to his mind, its most important features. It would run from Hyde Park, south over Vauxhall Bridge to the (now vanished) Vauxhall Gardens, then through south London to Greenwich Park. At that point, Loudon got really ambitious, with a proposed Thames crossing consisting of an iron bridge big enough for ships to sail under. On the other side the route would run in some unspecified way to meet what’s now the City Road, run up to Marylebone and back down to Hyde Park.

This proposal, which he charmingly noted would be inexpensive “with the exception of the bridge” (no, really?), would provide a day’s tour (presumably horse-propelled if you actually wanted enough time to stop and see anything) of the most interesting gardens, scenery and objects close to London. He was clearly on to something: not only the importance of urban green spaces in themselves, but the fact that within a city they could act almost in concert. Today London has several orbital walking routes which link its parks – although massive garden-based bridges, not so much.

Loudon’s green belt plan. Image: BuldingCentre.co.uk.

In 1829 “Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on fixed Principles”, Loudon would go on to make an even bolder proposal: not just for what we’d now call the green belt, but green belts plural, alternating rings of city and countryside/garden which as a city expanded could keep going until they hit the sea. Although he accepted the grandiosity of such a plan perhaps made it unlikely (the fact that the following year he married a science fiction novelist feels contextually notable here), he emphasises that the important thing is the basic principle: that towns and cities should be planned in such a way that no-one has to live more than a quarter mile from some kind of park, garden or piece of countryside.

Loudon may have seen his legacy as his writings: three years after completing the Arboretum in Derby, he died having spent almost every penny to his name on publishing various expansive and expensive tomes to share his knowledge and promote his ideas, which might seem to have been a bit of fool’s errand given no-one much reads them now. But it’s at least highly probable that Ebenezer Howard, father of the garden city movement, had read Loudon’s ideas.

And while that Derby park may not be world famous itself, it was highly influential on the parks that came after it – including something called Central Park in somewhere called New York, for which the Arboretum was a direct inspiration. Loudon lives on.