A futuristic design idea could solve many transport problems, says James Daley

I caught a glimpse of the future recently - or at least, a glimpse of how I reckon the future should be. I've been on holiday in Toronto, and was keen to do some research into how a large Canadian city treats its cyclists compared to back home in London.

Although Toronto suffers from many of the same problems as big cities in Britain (under-investment in its cycling infrastructure, constant friction between motorists and cyclists etc), one resident has come up with a vision which would not only solve many of these issues, but which also acknowledges the very serious environmental challenge that cities will have to face up to within the next few decades.

Chris Hardwicke, a local Toronton architect, has drawn up a blueprint for a futuristic network of overground tunnels, designed purely for the use of cyclists and in-line skaters.

Effectively environmentally friendly motorways, these tubes would have three lanes running in each direction - allowing bladers or bikers to go as fast or as slow as they like (up to 35mph in the fast lane, Hardwicke reckons, helped by a 90 per cent increase in cycling efficiency, created by the lack of air resistance).

The network would run alongside roads and railtracks, with exit points every mile or so - some of which would be equipped with showers and lockers to serve the commuters, and which would be connected to street level by ramps and bike-friendly escalators. As well as saving their users from having to dice with death on the roads each day, the Velo-City network, as it has been tagged, would also protect cyclists from the elements, ensuring people could take to their bikes even in the most inclement of weather conditions.

The mock-up illustrations on Hardwicke's website ( www.velo-city.ca) that you see here are fantastic - Blade Runner meets the Tour de France - and although such a plan would surely be met with plenty of opposition from those complaining that the Velo-City network would be an eyesore, the pragmatism of the project is compelling.

If rolled out not just in Toronto, but in cities across the world, it would surely go a long way to meeting two of the biggest challenges which the West faces today. The biggest of these is reducing our dependency on oil - both because of the damage that its consumption is doing to the environment and because it is a finite resource. If a network like Velo-City was knitted into the core of a city, it would be so much easier (and arguably more pleasurable) for people to choose to take to their bikes, rather than their cars, for making journeys across town.

The second issue such a project would tackle is the rising levels of obesity. Although its popularity is growing, cycling is still a niche activity. Less than 2 per cent of all journeys in London are made on bicycle. Cities such as Amsterdam - where more than one in four of all trips is made on a bike - show how much more bikes could be used.

Cycling's popularity in Amsterdam is in part down to its excellent cycling network. But even here, I imagine that many more journeys would be made on bikes if there was a weather-protected network running across the city.

The chances of anything as radical as Hardwicke's Velo-City project being committed to in the next 50 years seem slim. He estimates that it would cost C$1bn (£460m) to build the network in Toronto alone - around 250 times more than the city currently spends on improving its cycling infrastructure each year. But more than the money, Hardwicke's project necessitates a complete change in the mentality of governments, local authorities and town planners.

If anyone might manage that shift, however, I can't help feeling it will be the Canadians. From the moment I got talking to a Toronton on my Air Canada flight, I couldn't help feeling there is a much more open-minded approach to tackling environmental issues in Canada. It seemed no coincidence that a project such as Velo-City was born there. Nevertheless, for the time being, Velo-City looks set to continue being just a pipe dream.

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