The Last Place You'd Look for a Bike Lane Might Be the Best

Architecture firm Gensler's 'London Underline' project could make getting around the congested metropolis a lot easier.
Feb 10, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Encouraging people to get out of their cars and ride a bike to work or to run errands is such a priority in some smog-choked cities around the globe that folks are being paid to bike or getting coaches to teach them how to be an urban cyclist. But there’s no denying that those bikers run the risk of being hit by a vehicle, are inhaling exhaust fumes, and might show up to work soaked to the skin if a storm rolls through during their commute.

All that makes a proposal from global architecture firm Gensler for an underground cycling tunnel in London seem like common sense. Last week the firm won the award for Best Conceptual Project at the London Planning Awards for its “London Underline” project. As you can see in the video above, the London Underline would transform out-of-use subterranean spaces into a safe, clean, and efficient transportation network for the bustling city.

The proposal comes at a time when London’s population is booming. Nearly 8.62 million people live in the English capital, more than at any other time in its 2,000-year history. All the rest of us seem to really enjoy paying Queen Elizabeth II a visit too. London was the world’s top tourist destination last year.

The sheer number of people in the city has made getting from one end of London to the other pretty difficult. Only so many people can be squeezed into a subway car or bus, and adding more cars to the roads will only worsen traffic and smog. The fear of being struck while navigating London’s narrow, congested streets might also be too much for tourists who are thinking about getting around on a rented bike.

In comparison, the car-, smog-, and rain-free bicycle tunnels would efficiently connect commuters to main public transporation hubs and tourist attractions across the city. But these wouldn't be lifeless tubes of concrete. Instead, Gensler’s designers envision that anything from art installations to small shops could be included in the tunnels. And they'd be self-sufficient. To reduce the energy the project would require, electricity for the tunnels would come from special tiles that harnessed kinetic energy from people walking around. If you’re not into biking, no worries, the proposal also includes walker-friendly tunnels.

The end result could be an underground version of New York City’s High Line that’s functional as a legitimate, eco-friendly transportation option. Sure, you miss out on all the sights when you're underground, but Gensler’s video shows how people cycling in one of the now-abandoned tunnels can get to their destination faster while significantly reducing their carbon emissions.

Whether the London Underline becomes a reality remains to be seen. Some critics across the pond are disputing the idea's feasibility, and a Transport for London spokesperson told BBC News that although the agency is eager to get more people cycling, "there are no disused tunnels of significant length that are not part of our operational railway." A lack of tunnels is a sizable challenge, and here's another one: Gensler lacks the cash to make the project happen, and London officials have yet to commit any funds.