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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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.