While a lot of the conversation relating to the Garden Bridge concentrates on public finance, huge risk of massive over-spend and nervousness of politicians to say NO to Joanna Lumley and press the stop button it is important to remember that it is a bridge we are talking about. That is, something which should serve a demonstrable transport purpose and be led by function, rather than vanity, cronyism and greed.
This post is written by “Ranty Highwayman“, a professional highway engineer with interest in improving the public realm for walkers and cyclists. His blog may at first seem geeky and niche, but it’s well worth a look to see how real, sometimes small, changes can have a direct effect upon community, safety and individuals.
Here he considers the Garden Bridge for transport purpose, shared use, transformative potential and aesthetic. It doesn’t come out well….
As a civil engineer, it’s probably no surprise that I like bridges. Most are extremely functional in that they carry transport links across geographic features (valleys and rivers) or over other transport links. There are hundreds of bridges in London and most are not pretty, they are not flash, they are nondescript; but they do an important job every day of the week and mainly without anyone noticing them.
This is not to say that I dislike bridges with a flourish, on the contrary. Look at London’s Millennium Bridge. Despite its (expensive) teething problems, it was an instant icon and has provided an excellent walking link between The City and South Bank. It’s design was and remains cutting edge; and it has earned its place along the Thames.
I’m also a fan of the Green Bridge at Mile End. This is less about day to day transport and more about reconnecting places, notably the two halves of Mile End Park, but it admirably creates a single uninterrupted chunk of urban park.
At the local end of the scale, there are small road over rail bridges such as East Avenue in Waltham Forest which has had motor traffic removed and so have so been transformed from being rat-runs to walking and cycling links, including space for people to stop and watch the world go by.
So what about the proposed Garden Bridge? What is it’s function? We’re told it will provide a “beautiful new garden floating above the Thames” is that a useful function? My own view (which is shared by an awful lot of people) is no. London is blessed with parks, open spaces and squares which have beautiful gardens within (to varying degrees of course). If a new garden is so desperately needed, then how about returning land to the people of London to enjoy? No, land is worth lots of money and so creating space from nothing (over the Thames) is a wheeze to create a platform of prime real estate.
OK, how does the plan stack up as a transport project? We are invited to “imagine a morning commute through a peaceful garden” and on the face of it, it sounds wonderful. But think about bridges along the Thames and indeed transport bridges all over London; they are busy places. They are busy because with limited crossing points, people are funneled into those crossing places. If the Garden Bridge does become a popular commuter route, then by definition, it won’t be peaceful. But there’s more. The bridge will only be open to pedestrians between 6am and midnight and so that essentially makes it a park and it will also be closed for 12 evenings a year for fundraising events. The use of parks in London for transport is a problem when they are closed as the detours are rarely pleasant (otherwise the detours would be the prime routes).
The other failure for a modern bridge is that the Garden Bridge will not permit cycling and people will have to “push their bikes as they have to on the Millennium Bridge.” Yes, the lack of cycling on the Millennium Bridge makes it less of a transport project than it could have been and I’m certain that today, it would have been designed to be wider to accommodate cycling which is at last becoming a mainstream form of transport in London. In essence, this rule makes the Garden Bridge a relic of the past before it is built given how few Thames crossings provide safety for people cycling.
We are told that £60m of public money is being fronted for the scheme with £20m being a repayable loan from Transport for London. I don’t believe this for a second, but taken at face value, this is £10m more than the budget for the East-West cycle superhighway which, in the few short months after (partially) opening, is already a transformative transport project. On the same theme, a bridge which is really worth backing is the proposed Brunel Bridge between Canary Wharf and Rotherhithe which will connect a vast area of east London for safe walking and cycling.
A further intense dislike is the aesthetic form of the Garden Bridge. Because it needs to contain trees and vegetation, it ends up looking like a couple of massive of futuristic plant pots stuck in the river; and by futuristic, I mean what the future looked like 100 years ago when flying cars and rocket-powered backpacks were the transport of tomorrow. It can’t be a slender footbridge because of the mass of soil and planting, so the function drives the lumpy form and that’s not to mention the views it is going to block.
What we have here is the privatisation of public space (helped by public money) to create a crossing of the Thames where a dubious part time transport offer takes a back seat. London doesn’t need the Garden Bridge, it needs dozens of smaller bridges to deal with the walking and cycling pinch points across our city. But when did the mundane and routine attract so much coverage?
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