Bikes in the sky and Gypsies in a tree
Why should we make room for bicycle lanes up there in the sky instead of simply laying them down on the ground? Can this not so sci-fi vision about transport efficiency put an end to all serendipity on two wheels? London might provide us with an answer.
The legend says that in the early 20th century the ‘lăutari’ Gypsies in Romania, while playing for weddings and other family ceremonies, were forced to sit in a tree, to be invisible to the guests. Their music was always enjoyed by the rest of the community, yet they were constantly rejected from fully participating in it.
I heard this peculiar and almost lost story a few years ago from Sanda Weigl, a Jewish jazz singer born in Romania that now lives in New York. Most of her songs are inspired by this ‘lăutari’ music that she collected while still in Romania. They have an unique mix of vitality and melancholia that only the Gipsy music can produce.
I remembered this encounter with Sanda Weigl and her story when I read the news about the plans to build a network of cycle paths high above the streets of London. The project, called SkyCycle, proposes ‘a network of elevated bike paths hoisted aloft above railway lines’. Biketopian as it may seem, I felt a sudden discomfort with the idea of riding on such a SkyCycle in London or elsewhere. A truly two-wheeled Gipsy on a tree.
According to the designers, the network will provide over 220 kilometres of safe, car free cycle routes, which can be accessed at over 200 entrance points: ‘Almost six million people live within the catchment area of the proposed network, half of whom live and work within 10 minutes of an entrance. Each route can accommodate 12,000 cyclists per hour and will improve journey times by up to 29 minutes’.
The Guardian provides another example of a past project from the 1890s to ride bicycles up in the sky in California that has been started but never finished because it was at a time when the car took over. A couple of years ago another idea was around, this time only as a paper concept, Kolelina, to ride the bicycles on a steel wire, but apart from being heavily shared on different design websites, nobody really saw the utility of such a reality.
Well, SkyCycle seems more palpable than all of the above. For several reasons, of which the most important seems to me the commitment London has made for becoming the next ‘Bicycle Capital of the World’.
It is interesting how different future cities dystopias decades ago envisioned people will move around in flying cars (see Blade Runner for example). This didn’t happen and it seems at this point that the bicycle seems more likely to get where the car never did. But should we be happy with this future vision?
I understand the economic (even though it is hard to imagine where will all the money for such a gigantesque project come from), even the safety reasons, for why such a project seems to have gained the hearts and minds of seemingly everyone around. But there are still a few things that, in my view, should raise questions about this much hyped project. In some cases they conflict with some idealistic views of cycling in the city, but I find them important when assessing how such a system will be embraced by the Londoners. Here they are:
The paradox of the toys of Biketopia: The bicyclist is a vulnerable road user, he shouldn’t be riding on the street. When he’s there on the tarmac, surrounded by cars, he’s playing some confusing games that the serious and visibly annoyed others cannot understand. Instead, he should ride on segregated bicycle lanes or, money permitting, on a SkyCycle. The bicycle is a ‘toy’ unless it is regulated. Having its own lane or ‘flying’ away from the sight of motorists, up in the sky, is the way society must regulate these ‘toys’ if they want to be taken seriously. Once they are ridden in the designated spaces, they are no longer ‘toys’, but useful ‘tools’. Their users-players become rigorous as well. But something essential might be lost along this ‘let’s get serious’ process.
Sensescapes in an era of speed: In modern societies the bicycle must become a functional part of a system and this seems to be the promise of all cycle lanes and even more in the case of SkyCycle. Once up there in the air, almost all forms of mobility frictions will disappear, the ride will be smoother than ever. But this will happen at the expense of really sensing the city, a privilege the cyclists enjoyed while riding their ‘toys’ at ground level. There they could experience the rustle of the city without much mediation, hear the street, smell the street, enjoy all the sensescapes of the city. Moreover, they could stop at any time for a coffee. There has been a lot of research on how cycling in the city contributes to local businesses, to socializing, to wellbeing and so on. How will these be affected by the fast-paced SkyCycle remains to be seen. For now, the modernist myth of speed and seamlessness continues to devour more and more the urban cycling. As a result, this ‘toy’ constantly associated with slowness and serendipity is losing some of its promises.
The future bicyclists on the SkyCycle are some sort of 21st century gypsies in the trees, they are threatening to become the contemporary ‘Other’. But this expensive ‘civilisation process’ may be hiding some unexpected costs.