Green Light for Go Cycle

A recent piece of transport and infrastructure design in Kingston, at the edge of South West London, illustrates how cycle infrastructure is beginning to seep into UK urban design.

Kingston’s ‘Go Cycle’ Hub - Photo Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

Back in what feels a lifetime ago, but already a year into Covid, I arrived and switched platforms at Richmond Station – a well-to-do outer suburb and standalone town within Greater London’s South West pale – onto another suburban service to Kingston, a similarly sizeable town a short further train ride out to the capital’s edges. Twenty minutes later I was stepping out of the train and down the stairs towards the exit. All around were other passengers milling about: commuters, those on short-hop journeys, longer distance travellers and others, but what I didn’t see was anyone with a bike.

How ironic this was, soon became apparent. Round the corner, as the traffic sped past, was one brand new response to upping sustainable transport presence across the metropolis.

Cycle pathway and landscaping – Photo Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

Standing on the south side, fifty yards from the station entrance, was Kingston’s recent Cycle Hub: the most immediately visible highlight in Kingston Council’s larger Go Cycle infrastructure programme, providing a new green-way link between the station and the River Thames shore-pathway a quarter of a mile away. The Cycle Hub was difficult to miss, even by those in fast moving cars on a one-way double lane gyratory. Other core elements to the programme are the newly landscaped forecourt extending from the rail station and around the cycle facility and, a couple of hundred metres on from the hub, the pedestrian and cycle bridge over the same busy road. The latter provides the pedestrian and biking link towards the river and has been extensively re-landscaped, with tarmacked path and cycle ways and newly planted beds running alongside the path to the bridge. The Cycle Hub, a handsome two-storey steel and timber structure was designed by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects (SWArch) and engineered by Buro Happold. Wigglesworth (who is a keen cyclist) and the studio spent considerable working hours developing the design brief.

Photo Oliver Lowenstein

Stark yet simple in design, Wigglesworth’s hub is essentially a multi-storey box, crisply strapped together by boldly-repetitive, sawtooth V-shaped pylons running from the ground up to the foot of the top floor’s railing grillage. Wigglesworth describes the V motif as a reference to a king’s crown and came from researching Kingston’s history and uncovering the source of the town’s name, ‘Kings Stone’, as six Saxon-era kings had been crowned there. The sawtooth V has been worked into much of the design, including along the rail grillage, and as part of the ply and steel triangles on the upper deck’s rear face. The distinctly industrial patina is softened somewhat by ground-floor and staircase use of wood: a mix of western red cedar cladding for the cycle hub and workshop facades, oak balcony handrails and plywood on rear walls. Seen from the station platform, the industrial grillage, with the V’s turned into diamond lozenges, is total, undimmed and hinting at something slightly textile.

Depending on whose information one decides to believe, the Cycle Hub can store 398 (SWArch’s press release) or, approaching double that number, 700 (Buro Happold website) bikes. The ground floor is an open space and includes repair facilities, storage for ‘non-standard’ bicycles and other bike-centric activities. A coffee-stop hub, cargo bike rental and a cycle workshop were promised as the next steps back in late May 2021, although, as of early 2022, project architect Josh Marner noted in an email, both still needed to be taken up as business concerns. The forecourt area around the hub has received a makeover, creating a more coherent and legible immediate station forecourt, and supporting efforts have been made to draw down traffic speeds to the mandatory 20 mph.

Landscaping the larger picture – Photo Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

Steel is also at the heart of the bridge over the gyratory one-way system. Wigglesworth’s team haven’t pursued the sawtooth crown motif on this separate piece of infrastructure. Rather, the inspiration here is the experimental photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his camera documentations of moving figures. Wide enough to accommodate pedestrian and cycle traffic in both directions, SWArch’s modular bridge design was manufactured offsite before being dropped into place over two days and nights by main contractors – transport engineers Dyer & Butler – replacing an older bridge by setting the new bespoke structure onto the remaining foundations.

 

Under construction – Photo Kingston Council

The other side of the bridge pathway continues down to the river to connect with various local cycle routes. One of the two groups the Go Kingston infrastructure looks to set to encourage and indeed help, are those cycling into town from nearby by bike especially useful and thought-provoking when set against two transport stats: over half of all journeys are just two miles or less, and cars produce over 55% of environmental emissions. The second group that the new route will particularly benefit are leisure cyclists arriving by train and wanting to explore the locale, and particularly the prime attraction – the river. There are also commuters, although here, while the situation is still playing itself out, Covid has changed the dynamics and estimates of commuter use of both the hub and cycle routes made at the time of commissioning the project are now out of date.

Recipient of a ‘Mini-Holland’ GLA funding and with a budget of £32 million, the Cycle Hub and bridge were high profile items on the infrastructure shopping list, yet Go Cycle was as much about creating and developing joined-up cycling and active transport, which involved the redesign of road space, upgrading crossings, signals and pedestrian thoroughfares. An earlier part of the project, along the Thames riverside, was cut out of the project in 2020.

Platform too – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

Whether that was to do with Covid isn’t clear. But what remains a big question is the extent to which things have changed during Coronavirus’s two-year hiatus. Covid upended not only the rules of city life: something comparable rippled through urban travel. If the amount of people using private cars and public transport has been returning, after 18 months of surreal acclimatisation to some form of new normal, cycling, bicycles and bike culture as a whole have experienced a massive boost, with numbers in major Western metropoles increasing exponentially, and city authorities trying to move nimbly enough to aid the modal shift happening on the ground as best they can. In Europe, cities like Paris, Milan and Madrid were quick off the blocks to introduce extra space and dedicated cycle lanes for huge spikes in new cyclists. In Britain, similar moves were introduced, and in London – like elsewhere – new bike lanes often hived off by protective guards began to spring up. At times controversial with some drivers, the bike lanes were one response to not only new demand but the need to accelerate the take up of zero carbon travel. As architect Marner points out, “places like Kingston and their Go Cycle infrastructure will be essential in supporting sustainable transport methods for local residents and workers, as well as accommodating for future population growth in boroughs while rectifying reliance on polluting transport. This is what the Kingston Cycle Hub is all about, keeping Kingston moving sustainably for a prosperous future, which offers a great example to other boroughs.”

Bermondsey Bicycle Store – Photo Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

Yet for those familiar with the challenges of implementing sustainable travel in the British context, the changes happening in London, while completely encouraging, must seem like only the tip of a particularly large and fearsome iceberg. If there have been repeated good news stories, for instance, of the surge in cycle sales – which there was and is – what is all too evident is that these are relatively modest changes in public behaviour. Despite the hype around the arrival of both electric automobiles and bikes, the level of change needed in travel behaviour is only in the early stages of the beginning. Much of it is about provision to enable relatively small changes in everyday behaviour, and to make active travel – i.e., walking and cycling, and what is also termed human-powered travel – more appealing. Marner originally acknowledged the studio were hoping that Kingston would precipitate further projects, though when asked earlier this year he only noted that, so far, the project had received civic awards and was being used as a reference exemplar. Still, Wigglesworth and Co have form in this department: her Bermondsey Bicycle Store (2009) is a similarly winning meeting of design language and the functionality cycle infrastructure requires. She also insists her team travel as much as possible to site and to meetings etc, by bike. If this sort of example could be scaled to a wider network, cycling would have a whole other string to its bow, and the needed modal shift would likely feel a lot more attractive. The sorts of infrastructure found in Kingston’s Go Cycle project illustrates what could – and should – be coming next.

 

Photo Sarah Wigglesworth Architects