There has been no end of attempts by London’s army of urban planners to address the issues caused by the capital’s burgeoning population, and the traffic that comes with it. In 2003 we were treated to the congestion charge, aiming to deter car users from entering the city’s congested heart, and 2010 saw the launch of the brashly branded ‘Boris bikes,' intended to encourage people to cycle instead.
Despite these initiatives, the streets are as snarled up as ever, and city officials are now looking to architects to come up with fresh solutions. Following Norman Foster's audacious SkyCycle proposal, Gensler received a London Planning Award last week for their conceptual project to repurpose abandoned Tube tunnels for cyclists and pedestrians: The London Underline.
Gensler’s vision employs a hybrid of design concepts that combines the adaptive reuse of existing subterranean space in the center of London with the planning buzzword of the millennium: sustainability.
Their proposal aims to bring unused tunnels back to life in the form of multifunctional rail trails, allowing cyclists and walkers to move unimpeded by the cars, buses and taxis that dominate the roads at surface level. Its sustainability credibility comes in the form of kinetic energy technology: Special foot-activated floor tiles by PaveGen would generate all the power needed to keep the tunnels running, including swathes of LED lighting — and, presumably, a large number of CCTV cameras to reassure the more nervous city dwellers amongst us.
Two primary stretches of tunnels are identified as viable routes for the Underline: Firstly, a defunct branch of the Piccadilly Line running from Holborn to the old Aldwych tube station — abandoned long ago and supposedly haunted — and secondly, a longer stretch connecting Green Park to Charing Cross.
Gensler suggests that the routes could form the beginning of “the first city-wide network of its kind," conjuring a kind of subterranean Shoreditch: possible programmatic offerings include coffee shops, pop-up stores, authorized graffiti areas, and click-and-collect deposit boxes for online shoppers. These multi-use pathways bring to mind the protected passages of Montreal and Toronto in Canada, which allow pedestrians to move from A to B without ever being exposed to the brutally cold air during the winter months.
The winning video below presents an optimistic slant on subterranean living with a dash of futurism, portraying a repurposed remnant of infrastructure that is rather more cheerful than the terrorist lair depicted in last year’s epic episode of Sherlock Holmes.
However, predictably vocal commentators have already poked a number of holes in Gensler’s utopian plan, questioning whether the designers involved actually live in London, or have ever ridden a bike through its tangled network of streets. Their main gripe relates to the speed with which cyclists could travel between the proposed Underline end points: Commenting on The Guardian’s recent article, Paul Jaymes argues that a two-minute ride at surface level along Kingsway from Holborn to Aldwych would take preference, given that “you wouldn’t even make it to the tunnel level in the time you could do that.” Furthermore, the route from Charing Cross to Green Park can be traversed at ground level via a picturesque route through St. James Park — somewhat more scenic than a trip down elevators and along an old railway tunnel…
Most of all though, perhaps we should remind ourselves of the less tangible qualities that get people out of their cars and onto bicycles in the first place: fresh air, a close physical connection to the environment, the social benefits of riding with friends, and that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you glide past all those frustrated drivers sitting in traffic jams on Kingsway or The Mall.
Whilst it is an admirable concept, the Underline does not appear to factor in these cycling truths, and serious questions must be asked about whether people will actually choose to use these tunnels at the expense of the scenic variety and wind in their faces on the surface.
Want to hear my unrealistically utopian alternative to relieve congestion? Relegate all the cars to the underground and pedestrianize every street in central London. That should do it.
The Angry Architect
Images via Architizer