I was in Edinburgh last week, and was browsing The Scotsman while I waited for a train. This article on cycle paths caught my eye. The government and Sustrans are running a competition, with five different cycle path proposals bidding for funding. One of them will run from the Meadows area of the city up to the centre, and to get people up the hill, it includes a bike lift.
The bike lift is an unusual technology. In fact, there’s only one in the world. You’ll find it in Trondheim, Norway, and they’ve had it since 1993. The brainchild of local engineer and cyclist Jarle Wanvik, the lift trundles along a rail at ground level. Cyclists prop a foot against it and are propelled up the hill without having to dismount. It’s safe, easy to use, and it’s been something of a tourist attraction in Trondheim. More importantly, it’s also encouraged more people to take their bikes.
I live in a hilly town. Luton is built in a bowl of hills, with a steep incline down to the center from almost every direction. There’s no doubt that the hills are a factor in transport choices. Cycling is just hard work, and it’s always coming home at the end of the day that’s harder. Thousands of cities around the world have similarly challenging hills – and that begs the question: why aren’t there more cycle lifts?
The first reason is that it was a local experiment that wasn’t available to order and install from anyone. That’s only changed very recently. When the Trondheim lift was upgraded in 2014, the company doing the work secured a commercial license for the technology and created a brand for it: CycloCable. Now that it’s on the market, there has been some interest from other places, including San Francisco and Pittsburgh. So far nothing has been built.
It’s not the expense. The technology is no more complicated than a ski lift, and there are plenty of those. The company say it costs about the same as building a normal cycle path, and of course you only need it on short stretches on the steepest hills. The Trondheim one is 130 metres long. Operating costs aren’t a concern either. You can ride the one in Norway for free, but the system can just as easily offer a paid service. It can run as a business and pay its own way.
If the experience of those aforementioned US cities is anything to go by, the local cycling community may be part of the problem. The fact that they already cycle shows that they aren’t deterred by the hills, so they don’t see the need for assistance. They have a long list of cycling infrastructure projects that they’d like to see – “there are more important priorities for cycle spending” says a representative from an Edinburgh group called Spoke. That’s probably true, but it misses the point. A lift would make cycling so much more accessible to those less able – from older or less fit riders, children, or just occasional cyclists. Every car left on a driveway matters, and cycling infrastructure can’t be dictated by the enthusiasts.
I suspect that the main reason why there aren’t more bike lifts in the world is that there aren’t more bike lifts in the world, if you catch my drift. There’s just the one, and it’s in Norway. Once there’s a second, or a third, more will follow. Install one in a major city, and everyone will know about it. Since there has been interest from America, various places in Europe, as well as Korea, it’s only a matter of time before somebody builds one.
The city of Edinburgh may be that somebody. The proposed route will bring cyclists up the Mound, and the planners see it as a potential tourist attraction in its own right. There’s stiff competition from some fine alternative proposals, but I hope this one wins. I will ride it myself.
If you want one in your city, these are the people to talk to.