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Illustration of proposed London Underline bicycle and pedestrian system.
Illustration of proposed London Underline bicycle and pedestrian system.

Will Cycling London's Underground Be a Haunting Experience?

London is about to embark on a £160 million project to construct 18-miles of cycling superhighway in the very heart of the city... or it could move the enterprise underground into a warren of abandoned tube lines, some of them purportedly haunted.

On February 4, 2015, the board for Transport for London approved a £160 million ($240 million) plan to build the cycling equivalent of a superhighway through the heart of the city, an 18 mile-long segregated system of bikeways, the first segment to which would run from near Tower Hill, site of the infamous Tower of London west to Acton. A separate segment would run roughly north-to-south. Public polling found 64% of the population in favor. A separate survey of 21,500 people, found an 84% approval rating. The scheme is part of a much larger $6 billion road modernization plan that includes road and street improvements and revamping tunnels.

Despite its popular appeal and the fact that it impacts just 4% of the modernization plan's budget, there is opposition from several groups, one of them representing taxi cab drivers: another, a real estate development group. It is likely they will take legal steps to slow or block construction.

The purpose of the 'superhighway' is two fold: reduce the number of cyclist/vehicle collisions and encourage more Londoners to get out of their cars and ride bikes instead. Recently released statistics underscore the need for segregating people riding bicycles from those in motor vehicles, especially heavy lorries, which while constituting only 5% of traffic in the city are responsible for half the deaths and injuries.

According to UK Cycling Weekly:

In the space of 12 months, between September 2013 and September 2014, the figure of cyclists who were killed or seriously injured rose by 8 per cent with 3,500 reported cases.

That transcends into an increase of 38 per cent more incidents compared to the 2005-2009 average where a cyclist was killed or seriously injured.

Additionally, the British government estimates that 80,000 Brits die prematurely each year from coronary heart disease; at least 20% of them attributable to physical inactivity according to a 2002 World Health Report.

That people riding bicycles need to be segregated from automotive traffic for their own safety seems pretty obvious. But instead of spending millions of pounds on above ground infrastructure that may or may not lead to traffic "chaos", as opponents contend, why not move them underground?

It turns out that there's a number of abandoned subway lines, aka "Tube" or "Underground" that snake through the boroughs of London. US-based design firm Gensler recently won a 'Best Conceptual Projects at the London Planning Awards' for proposing converting some of those tunnels into pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths. See their London Underline concept video below.

Taking their cue from underground networks that link buildings in downtown Toronto and Montreal, Gensler envisions similar commercial development, as well as having the pedestrians and bicycle riders who use it, also power it kinetically, presumably using piezoelectric paving grids.

It sounds like a sort of promising idea, though the reaction up to now as been more 'pie-in-the-sky' than anything else. Two of the proposed lines would revitalize a disused segment of the Piccadilly line and an abandoned portion of the Jubilee Line.
Costs have not been spelled out.

But one aspect of the project that didn't get highlighted was the ghostly aspect of the project: as in paranormal. It turns out that when London began working on its Underground early in the reign of Queen Victoria, its tunnel diggers were continually uncovering mass graves from the bubonic plague that devastated London in 1665.

One of the proposed stations in Gensler's plan is Aldwych. Originally opened in 1907 as Strand Station, it was finally closed in 1994 when the costs of refurbishing the lifts and escalators were deemed too costly. The station has appeared in a number of big budget films, the most recent being 'V or Vendetta.'. It is also featured as Level 12 of the Tomb Raider video came.

Because it was built on the site of the old Royal Strand Theater, it is claimed to have a resident ghost: an actress who "numerous people have claimed to have seen her agitated ghost wandering the Station’s deserted platforms and eerie tunnels late at night."

Two other stations, both currently in use, but still connected to unused portions of track, have their own 'hauntings'. Embankment station, which is the access point for Pages Walk under the Thames, reportedly elicits "strange feelings" and "unusual experiences" among workers and contractors. Reports the Unexplained Mysteries web site:

Witnesses claim to have heard and seen doors in the tunnel opening and then slamming shut without any human assistance and that they have been watched by unseen eyes.

They have also reported the presence of “cold spots” and that that the atmosphere inside the tunnel is oppressive and menacing…

Many other of London's Underground stations and tunnels have similar paranormal stories associated with them: from ghost trains to invisible workers who noisily disturb the gravel in the roadbed as they walk past startled line employees.

All this, of course, could just be people's imaginations and may even serve to draw tourists into the system. But let's hope that if the Underline ever gets built, they use plenty of bright lights… just in case.

More pragmatically and realistically, the Angry Architect, offers maybe the best criticism of the Underline concept, writing:

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.

Posted By: Bill Moore [10-Feb-2015]

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