The seminal architect Jan Gehl took a pot shot at Norman Foster’s vision for cycling in London last night.

Speaking to a packed Hackney theatre after the showing of a film about his work, the Dane argued Lord Foster’s designs of elevated cycleways running above existing railway lines was not the way to go about creating a more liveable London.

You want to ride through the streets, see everything that’s going on and be part of the city, he proposed.

Making cities more people friendly has been the thrust of Gehl’s work for decades.

Having graduated in the 1960s from a traditional architectural training, he says he went back to the drawing board after marrying a psychologist.

Architecture and planning was too obsessed with bird’s-eye views, grandiose projects, space efficiency and the boom in private motoring, he realised.

What it seemed to have forgotten was the perspective of the very people cities were built for.

As he redefined his trade, Gehl asked what were the physical scenarios that offered a city’s inhabitants a happier, healthier and more rewarding quality of life?

Inevitably this led him back to working on a more human scale – a couple of words that make for the title of Andreas Dalsgaard’s film.

That over 1000 people -including Labour mayoral hopeful Christian Wolmar- had chosen to spend their evening in the ornate Empire to watch The Human Scale, is telling of the resonance Gehl’s approach has.

Many world cities from Copenhagen to New York, Melbourne to Moscow are increasingly subscribing to this outlook, creating public spaces that invite inhabitants to enjoy their environment more. But while the Big Apple has gone as far as pedestrianising much of Times Square, Gehl observed that London had maybe lost its way.

Cycling can inevitably be a big part of transportation in a city that functions on a more human scale. But poking fun at Lord Foster’s futuristic suspended superhighways, Gehl noted that cycling should not just be seen as a means of getting from A to B.

However, the way London is currently lived, worked and economically shaped, getting from A to B, then often onwards from C to D, is so very often the objective.

Prior to the screening in Hackney yesterday, I had a number of meetings dotted around eastern parts of central London.

As manageable as all the distances between these would have been by bike, I was discouraged from chucking my leg over a crossbar at every turn.

Stepping out of a coffeehouse near Farringdon, it took me just one glance at Clerkenwell Road to conclude I’d rather walk to Brick Lane than go by Boris bike.

Coincidently, it was further up the same stretch of road that this incident -uploaded to YouTube yesterday- happened.

As for the next leg on to Hackney, the cycle hire scheme doesn’t extend far enough out for me have avoided making the journey on a horribly crowded bus.

Of course, if I’d come into town on my own bike rather than train, I would have ridden everywhere.

But such is the nature of the roads -the stops, the starts, the lumps and the bumps, the traffic and general sense of inconvenience- between my home deep in south London and more central parts, I barely ever ride in.

Would I if there was a smooth direct, uninterrupted, peaceful cycle route, say, above the line of the mainline railway I normally take?

Yes, absolutely.

Looking at the bigger picture, though, Gehl’s (and others’) objection to Foster’s pipedream is well reasoned.

In a blog on his practice’s website, some of Gehl’s colleagues acknowledge value in Fosters’ thought provoking mock-up, but also identify problems that his SkyCycle would create.

Things like exposure to the elements, accessibility and personal security.

Moreover, it is a proposal that does nothing to address the current dysfunctionality, screwed priorities and inhuman scale of the rest of current day London’s urban environment.

It bypasses and builds over those problems and Gehl would likely argue that packaging people away in the sky has never done anything to tackle urban issues.

As far as Gehl’s concerned, cycling in London is not just a way certain people might choose to get about.

Cycling has a far bigger role to play: one that helps make the place more pleasant and enjoyable for everyone.

  • Ken Evans

    A pilot section on a busy route for commuting cyclists could provide some useful data and feedback. It could be much more lightly (and cheaply) contructed than a flyover for heavy traffic of trucks. It should have less air pollution than a road, and not suffer all the wear, tear, and damage, caused by heavy vehicles. It is worth a try.

  • The other Jon

    Well said Jon, for anyone interested in architectural history, it is a little reminiscent of Corbusian planning – line and node based on a super grid. Manchester still has parts of the elevated walkways that were never fully built out following the 1956 plan – a Eutopia built in the sky, where people walked free from the car. Cities are more exciting and vibrant at street level and walking / cycling speed – human scale. At this speed culture survives (shops , restaurants, cafes etc etc – the local), at 50miles an hour nothing survives but drive throughs and petrol stations. Put the cars back in their garages and invest in proper public transport and affordable housing that means people don’t have to live miles away from where they work just to afford a house (rented or owned). Now that would be a transport revolution. On the other hand – “every town needs a mono-rail” right?

  • Jon

    My main objection to this ‘vision’ is that it is rooted in the mentality that the solution is to remove the cyclists from the roads, an opinion that goes hand in hand with the belief that roads are for motor vehicles and cyclists are to be either grudgingly tolerated or intimidated by aggressive driving and verbal abuse. It also offers very limited opportunity to enter or leave the thing, so is of little use to most cyclists making door to door journeys.

    London hasn’t lost its way – it is just beginning to find it, but it is hampered by a moto-centric culture and a legal system which doesn’t adequately protect its citizens from lethal drivers.

    Also it reminds me of the sales video for the monorail in the Simpsons and look how that ended up.