A Brief History Of Bike Superhighways

Norman Foster, the British starchitect who recently proposed a new cyclist-only highway in the sky, isn’t the first to suggest a better way to commute on two wheels.

When a cyclist battles it out for road space with a multi-ton truck, chances are, the guy on two wheels is going to lose. So it’s no wonder that bike advocates around the world want a way to elevate the status of cyclists with design that prioritizes their needs. In London, architect Norman Foster has unveiled the concept for an urban cyclist’s dream: a sparkling, car-free stretch of elevated highway made especially for biking. Futuristic as the rendering (above) makes it seem, Foster’s proposal hardly the first of its kind. Hopes for superhighways that let cyclists bypass city traffic safely and quickly have been around for almost as long as the bicycle itself, though few cities have been willing to implement such plans. Here’s a brief history, and what Foster–and the rest of the world’s bike advocates–could learn from it:


Los Angeles
At the end of the 19th century, a wealthy businessman in Pasadena, Calif., named Horace Dobbins proposed an elevated bicycle freeway to connect Pasadena with nearby Los Angeles, where bikers could wheel above the masses for 10 cents a journey. This was during the bicycle craze of the 1890s, before private automobiles became commonplace, when millions of Americans hopped on newly purchased bikes. At that point, the risks of cycling came from trolleys, horses, and stray dogs in the street, rather than cars.

As magazine writer T.D. Denham wrote in 1901:

Southern California-with her delightful climate and beautiful country, verdant and radiant with wild flowers in the midst of winter-should be a cyclist’s paradise. There is only this drawback-a really good cycling road cannot be found in all the country!

And this was decades before L.A.’s first freeway was ever built. Alas, before Dobbin’s grand vision could come to life, Los Angeles had embraced the automobile wholeheartedly, and the cycleway project never fully got off the ground. Less than two miles of the proposed route were built. A century later, architects would propose similar systems for cities around the world, with varying degrees of success.

Image: Toronto Velo-city, Courtesy Chris Hardwicke

In 2004, Toronto-based architect Chris Hardwicke proposed a project called Velo-city, an elaborate network of enclosed glass tubes where cyclists could race throughout the city comfortably in any weather. No cars, no snow, no wind resistance. Awesome, but maybe a little too visionary for investors. Hardwicke got plenty of press for his concept, which he says anyone is free to use, but years later, it’s still just a proposal.

In early 2012, a Swedish proposal called for a $7.1 million for a 12.5-mile superhighway to connect the cities of Lund and Malmö. This two-lane supercykelväg would separate cyclists from traffic by fences and landscaping (which would double as wind protection) and be flanked by bike service stations. The city of Malmö has committed to funding $4.1 million of the highway, but no word yet on who will provide the rest of the money.


Later in 2012, a consortium of architects and engineers pitched the Australian city of Melbourne another iteration of the elevated bike highway, one that would run alongside (but separated from) an existing railway between two stations in the city’s downtown.


The designers behind the Veloway have run into funding issues already, though. The state government declined to pay for a feasibility study to move the project forward.


Unsurprisingly, one of the few successful, large-scale highway investments for cyclists has come from a region where there are more bikes than people, and 50% of commuters already cycle to work. In April 2012, Copenhagen unveiled its first superhighway for bikes, hoping to further encourage what is already a popular method of commuting.

This promo for the system is in Danish, but traffic frustration is universal:


The 11-mile path lets bikers avoid roads with heavy traffic, and coordinates traffic lights for their benefit–not for cars’. It’s designed to let commuters riding 20 km per hour coast through green lights all the way to work, with plenty of bike pumps and footrests on the way.


Boris Johnson, London’s mayor and an avid cyclist himself, has long pushed for a “cycling revolution” in the city, launching a series of new superhighway bike lanes aimed to help encourage more people to cycle. The Barclays Cycle Superhighways, though, which are expected to provide 12 bright blue cycle routes along main roads into central London by 2015, still force bicycles to share space with cars and trucks, and have been criticized in connection with recent cyclist deaths.


Unlike the Barclays Superhighways, the SkyCycle, which cyclists would pay to access with the city’s Oyster farecard, would be completely segregated from other traffic. It’s designed to span more than 130 miles running above suburban rail lines throughout the city–if the designers can get the backing to build it. Norman Foster’s firm Foster + Partners, along with collaborators Exterior Architecture and Space Syntax, proposed the concept on spec and have presented it to various London transportation agencies, but have yet to get official approval. Network Rail, though, has said that it welcomed the proposal and “will continue to liaise with all involved,” and according to Exterior Architecture’s Sam Martin, the mayor is into it. “Boris was all over the idea,” he told The Times last year.

The Takeaway
So what’s standing in the way? As always, money comes to the foreground. “Most governments have a hard time simply building and maintaining transit,” as Hardwicke, the designer who envisioned a superhighway for Toronto’s bicycles, tells Co.Design. People aren’t likely to pay much money for access to routes like these (SkyCycle has proposed charging £1) and in places where cycling isn’t already integrated into the culture, it can seem like an insane new infrastructure investment.

Especially since, in the case of most of these proposals, the bicycle superhighway isn’t necessarily about the existing bicycle commuter–in fact, some avid cyclists oppose cordoned-off concepts like Hardwicke’s, arguing that cycling should be part of the city streets, rather than relegated to bridges in the air. It’s for the commuter who might want to bike, if only it felt easier and safer. It’s for suburban commuters, who want a fast, direct path into the city, one without the frustrations of stop-and-go traffic. For cash-strapped cities, it’s hard to envision investing millions into infrastructure for potential users.


Yet even though each mile of Copenhagen’s superhighway will cost the city in the ballpark of $1 million, it will save the health care system an estimated $60 million a year. Officials have estimated that 15,000 people will ultimately switch from driving to biking on Copenhagen’s superhighway, saving gas, reducing car congestion, and improving people’s health along the way.

By prioritizing bicycle infrastructure over cars, and making even casual bikers feel safe setting out, the city made cycling the least frustrating way to get around. Build the highway, and the cyclists will come.


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut


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