Elevated bike highways are not America’s future—nor should they be

Share the road.
Share the road.
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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Confrontation is a familiar part of life for many cyclists, whose daily commutes all too often involve a cocktail of adrenalin, aggression, and near-death experiences. So it’s no surprise that many non-Londoners were envious of the city’s latest urban design fantasy: a network of elevated bicycle highways above the city’s rail network. But urban planning experts—including one of the project’s lead designers—say most cities should keep their cyclists grounded.

The problem, says architect Tim Stonor of Space Syntax, Ltd., who helped design the London plan, is that segregating cyclists just perpetuates the “us vs. them” mentality that drives the current uneasy dynamic between bikes and cars. “I would say that if you’re doing it to avoid traffic, that’s the wrong approach,” Stonor told Quartz. ”You’re just shifting the problem.” Bicycles, he says, provide an important balance between the pace of cars and of pedestrians. They slow down traffic, and invite foot traffic, and can even drum up business and increase property values.

Stonor says planners should take a good look at their city before they get ahead of themselves. “In London, this project exists because the street network has a limited capacity.” Also, the rail network is a ready-made footprint for the plan. Unlike in London, most of America’s urban grid has room to spare, and its public transit tends to be either sparse or underground.

This isn’t the first time big city cyclists have fantasized about improved infrastructure. A year before the London plan was unveiled, Dutch and American designers came up with a bike highway plan for New York City. There was also the bicycle zip line, Los Angeles’ lost future as America’s bike-friendliest city, and of course Bill Nye’s utopian vision where everyone gets their own tailwind. All that speculative energy might be better spent figuring out ways for people in bikes and cars to just get along.