The Thames Deckway floating cycle path is the most ludicrous London transport plan yet

Yeah, right. Image: Arup.

The Thames Deckway, proposed this week, would be a floating cycle path, running for eight miles along the River Thames between Battersea and Canary Wharf. It’s the work of the “River Cycleway Consortium”, a bunch of architects, artists and (most significantly) Arup, the global engineering consultancy.

It's also a quite outstandingly stupid idea.

a) It's pointless

The whole purpose of the plan is ostensibly to solve London’s traffic problems, by allowing cyclists to go about their business without getting in the way of cars. Obviously, then, you'd expect it to parallel existing streets.

What you wouldn’t expect, though, is that it would parallel existing cycle routes. And yet, there it is, running almost right next to a succession of existing cycling highways (the CS8, the CS3, the East-West cross route), all of which are either already there or are on their way.

The half-mile stretch running from Lambeth Bridge to Westminster is literally the only bit that isn’t duplicating something that’s already there. Still, I guess if it’s cheaper than re-jigging existing roads, then...

b) It's pricy

From Dezeen:

“River Cycleway Consortium Ltd – currently including engineering giant Arup and London-based Hugh Broughton Architects – estimates that construction costs would amount to approximately £600m, which it would seek from private investment.”

...ah.

£600m, for any narrow-minded bean counters there might be among you, is just over 12 times the price of the two segregated cross-town cycle paths that Transport for London already has in the works. It’s about two thirds the cost of the entire East London line extension project. It's a lot.

But it’s coming from private investment, so that’s good, I suppose. And how would those investors recoup their capital? Well, using the route would set you back £1.50 a turn. So, a mere 400 million journeys and then, next stop, profit.

c) It's precarious

The artist's impression shows the new cycle path floating on top of the river, just a few feet from the South Bank. Where, it so happens, quite a lot of boats dock.

And while the picture shows the cycle path passing under the jetties which allow those boats to dock, it's not clear how the former (which would move up and down with the tides) would interact with the latter (which wouldn't). I mean, you'd bang your head, wouldn't you?

More than that, though, quite a lot of boats dock there, and the odds that the cycle path would never get at least a little bit bumped seem small, to say the least. So do the odds that nobody will ever bang into anyone else. Sooner or later – by which we mean sooner – somebody's going to end up in the drink.


d) It's a ploy

So, it’s impractical, it’s expensive, and it only makes sense if you're a billionaire with an unquenchable desire to watch cyclists tumbling hilariously into the River Thames.

The Thames Deckway's designers claim that "London needs to think outside the box of conventional solutions to solve its deep-seated traffic and pollution problems". But this doesn't do any of that. It's a cycle path. Cycle paths are good, yes, but the idea that one of them, which parallels ones that already exist, could actually solve a city-wide congestion problem is ludicrous.

So what's the real point of the exercise? At risk of tipping over into cynicism, it's just possible that some architects and an engineering consultancy are thinking outside the box to solve their “deep-seated lack of press coverage” problem.

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.