While new innovations in automobile technology may grab the headlines, it’s easy to forget that the bicycle, which predates the motor car by decades and assumed its basic design by the 1880s, is one form of transport that just refuses to go away.
At one stage, it was even thought to be the transport of the future. An elevated cycleway connecting Los Angeles and Pasadena was mooted as early as 1896 by Pasadena’s far-sighted mayor Horace Dobbins, but only one mile of the white-elephant structure was ever built.
By the time its truncated route was completed, the motor car and the street car had begun to eclipse the bicycle.
By 1900, even its chief investor had lost faith in its future.
“I have concluded that we are a little ahead of time on this cycleway. Wheelmen have not evidenced enough interest in it…” Dobbins opined in 1900 in the Los Angeles Times.
Old technology with a bright future
We might not be returning to the horse and cart anytime soon, but cities are beginning to realize that bicycles are an old technology with a very bright future.
Clean, inexpensive and in many cases faster than road transport, cities that were once turned over to the motor vehicle are making more space for bicycles. And some of the solutions – in terms of infrastructure and bicycle technology – are as surprising as they are innovative.
London is one city that has perennially struggled with its transport infrastructure. Densely populated and with a streetscape that owes more to its medieval layout than to the grid patterns of major U.S. metropolises, London is looking at the bicycle as a future transport solution rather than a recreational pastime.
The city is currently poised to spend £900 million ($1.4 billion) on one of Europe’s most ambitious bicycle path infrastructure projects. Called the East-West Cycle Superhighway, the separated bicycle path would connect Acton in West London with Barking in the east – a journey of more than 18 miles.
“Bikes already make up 24 per cent of all rush-hour traffic in central London - hundreds of thousands of journeys every day that would otherwise be made by car or public transport,” said London mayor Boris Johnson.
“Because this isn’t just about cyclists. Getting more people on to their bikes will reduce pressure on the road, bus and rail networks, cut pollution, and improve life for everyone, whether or not they cycle themselves.”
Other plans for London include a SkyCycle pathway – designed by the famous architecture firm Norman Foster – of 220km of bike paths suspended above railway lines and one proposal for a floating bike path that would be anchored to riverbed along the Thames.
One plan even proposes using some of London’s disused underground railway stations and tunnels as part of a series of subterranean bicycle paths. “Our concept proposes repurposing underutilized infrastructure to provide quick links between existing tube stations and key London landmarks and destinations,” said Ian Mulcahey, managing director of Gensler London, the architecture and design firm behind the idea.
Despite a support rate of 84% for the cycle superhighway, however, the city’s cycling lobby is often at loggerheads with other interest groups.
Opponents – including the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association - say segregated bike paths will take too much space from motor traffic and will bring gridlock.
Lobbyists from the London Cycling Campaign, in the meantime, say it will take more than a few glossy proposals from architecture firms before they take their fight off the streets.
“London Cycling Campaign’s solution to city cycling is to redesign our existing street network to create space for cycling,” campaign manager Rosie Downes told CNN.
“Ideas to put cycles in the sky, or underground, are completely counter to the principle that cycling should be made an attractive and convenient option, and perpetuate the incorrect notion that there isn’t enough space above ground to provide Dutch-style solutions.
“The greatest potential for cycling is for local journeys such as to school or the shops – and the way to enable such journeys is to make the existing street network safe and inviting for cycling.”