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.


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.


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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Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

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

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