Thursday 14 August 2014

A Bridge Too Far? East London River Crossing Consulation.

Transport for London is currently running a consultation on options for river crossings in East London.

Yes, another London-centric post I am afraid, but it has relevance everywhere of course, as bridges are perhaps the one of the most long-practiced set pieces of civil engineering - long before civil engineering was set as a profession. Those who have been with me since the start of this blog will know that I like a bridge and so what could I object to with TfL's plans?

Whether for trade or military purposes, bridges have always played an important part of city life and even in the modern age where tunneling become possible, some bridges have an air of romance to them, even the most utilitarian. A fixed link between two banks which can be used in (almost) all weathers has seen the demise of ferrymen, but free movement across rivers has always been seen as vital for the economy of a city.

The QEII Bridge (Dartford Crossing).
I have had an on and off relationship with the River Thames during by career, sometimes working near it, sometimes needing to cross it. During my time as a developer, I had the "pleasure" of using the Dartford Crossing twice a day for many years. 

The crossing allowed me to live in one part of London and work in another, although as I drove to work back then, the opportunity would have been denied to me if I didn't have a car - the public transport option would have taken me hours at each end of the day and so my transport choice was essentially take a job where I drove to and from work or don't take the job.

Provision for motor traffic is the fixation for the Mayor's current consultation, pure and simple. There is this concern that growth in the east and south-east boroughs is stifled because of a lack of road crossings of the River Thames. Indeed, between the Woolwich Ferry (connecting Greenwich and Newham), there is nothing until Dartford and the Government is also looking at more (traffic) capacity in that general area too.

TfL is concerned that there is a lack of road capacity across the river in East London because businesses have apparently told them as much and the population is growing. The Blackwall Tunnel also regularly has more traffic using it than its design capacity and so this is why another tunnel at Silvertown is being separately looked at.

The options currently being proposed are:
  • A new ferry at Woolwich
  • A new ferry at Gallions Reach
  • A bridge at Gallions Reach
  • A bridge at Belvedere
The Woolwich Ferry.
As far as the ferries go, I have fond memories being taken on the Woolwich Ferry as a child and I recently took my bike over on a training ride. That would have been the first time in well over ten years with the last crossing made when the whole of East London ground to a halt when there were problems at both Dartford and Blackwall and it took me over 4 hours to drive home for what was usually a 40 minute journey.

The good things about ferries is that they have a relatively low capital cost and they don't need vast approach ramps to clear shipping lanes. The problem with them is that they cost a lot of money to run and maintain and are not always available - this part of the Thames suffers from fog at certain times of the year and the ferry has to be stopped.

The Woolwich Ferry has vessels over 50 years old and so this option would be (larger) replacements which would operate pretty much as now. The consultation suggests that over time the costs of the option would be more than a bridge, but in terms of (motor) traffic impacts, things would be the same because the link is fixed. In my view, larger vessels could mean a slight increase in traffic use, although the traffic queues at some times are off putting and so will not always be a popular driver choice anyway. From a walking and cycling point of view, the ferry is easy to use and there are no steep ramps to deal with.

Next we have a proposal for a Ferry at Gallions Reach (connecting Greenwich and Newham, but closer to Bark & Dagenham and Bexley than the Woolwich Ferry). It has the same pros and cons as Woolwich, but would put more people in reach of the Thamesmead area supporting jobs and housing (apparently). TfL's consultation document shows that this option would perhaps increase (motor) traffic on the A2016 through Thamesmead and also on the A406 North Circular (could any more fit on?). They suggest a decrease might be experienced at Blackwall, Woolwich and Docklands.

An older proposal for the Thames Gateway Bridge.
Then we have a bridge proposed at Gallions Reach. Yes, this is the same as Ken Livingstone's Thames Gateway Bridge which was cancelled by Boris Johnson and the East London River Crossing which was first mooted in the 1960s as the urban motorways proliferated. Indeed, the land needed on either side of the river remains safeguarded to this day and some construction at Beckton took place. A bridge in this location would be very high to clear shipping lanes and for walking and cycling, I am not sure it would be as simple as a ferry in terms of the ramps and being open to wind, fog and rain coming in from the North Sea! 

Traffic-wise, the prediction is for increases through Thamesmead and well out east to the edge of Bexley, the A406 and parts of the A13. Reductions in traffic are expected on the Havering section of the A13, Blackwall, Woolwich and Docklands. The implication is that rather than using the A13, drivers getting to the south would come along the A2016 rather than A13. Doesn't look good for the A406 though! Again, the document cites better access for jobs and homes, but this clearly means better access by car.

Finally, we have a bridge at Belvedere (connecting Bexley with Havering/ Barking & Dagenham). This idea has come out of the blue for me and I don't yet know who has pushed for this behind the scenes. The consultation documents suggest an increase in traffic on the A13 through Havering/ Barking & Dagenham and most of Thamesmead/ Belvedere. Reductions would be expected At Blackwall, Woolwich, the A406 and the western end of the A13. Again (traffic) access to jobs and homes is cited as the advantage. Bexley Council has blown hot and cold over bridges because of traffic fears, but two bridges seems to be favoured to spread the traffic around.

The consultation documents also give some detail various indications of timescales (although who really knows with large projects), costs and (motor) traffic impacts. There is also a suggestion of charging drivers to use the crossings, although the document is silent on Blackwall. There is also commentary on environmental impacts in terms natural habitats, pollution and so on.

In my view, the consultation is flawed. If you fill in the online form, you are asked which schemes you do or do not support and at the end which you think should be taken forward. There are no other options, although you can stick comments in as you go. My own view is that any increase in cross river motor traffic capacity will undoubtedly lead to traffic congestion on the main routes either side and more seriously, the associated local streets. I do think that links are needed for public transport and for walking/ cycling, but not necessarily over the Thames.

For crossings over the Thames, clearly the ferries are best for walking as they don't need one to walk the distance of a bridge and for many people, they are part of a longer journey using buses. Cycling across the Thames might be an option for some people, but it won't be at all attractive unless the cycle routes are fully enclosed from the weather and they connect to proper cycle tracks either side rather than the free for all dual carriageways there are now.

A quiet route over Rotherhithe New Road.
Actually, I think the funding (which is by no means certain) would be better spent on many small bridges. There are plenty of local places where there are significant barriers to walking and cycling which could be overcome with relatively modest bridges. I have been looking at some potential Quietway routes recently and every time there is a railway, major road or river, busy roads converge on often narrow bridges and there is no space for protected cycling.

Other cities spend money on these kinds of bridges, but here, it only seems a worthy investment if it for traffic. Cleverly located bridges can make walking and cycling direct and safe and from the point of view of city and population growth, could negate the perceived need to keep building more roads as these Thames crossings actually are. So, please respond to the TfL consultation and point this out and if you have a missing link which would benefit from a modest bridge for walking and cycling, let me know as these are interesting little projects in their own right.


  1. " My own view is that any increase in cross river motor traffic capacity will undoubtedly lead to traffic congestion on the main routes either side and more seriously, the associated local streets."

    Yes, that's what it is all about . More motor traffic. The Green Party commissioned Prof John Whitelegg to study the Thames Gateway bridge proposal and after he showed this, they used it to force Livingstone to back down.

    Usual massive spend to increase car dependency.

    Oppose it.

    Dr Robert Davis, Chair RDRF

    1. Exactly. If the Mayor was thinking straight, why not further extend DLR to serve both sides of the river with a bridge or two to make looks. Could even run spurs to town centres north and south to link with National Rail.

  2. Also, an increase in road capacity generates new traffic. Why would traffic on the Blackwall Tunnel decrease -- it will run, inevitably, at full capacity, as it always does.If traffic decreases people who are currently put off from using it by the congestion will start to do so

    1. It is more complicated than that (Google "induced demand") and there are competing views on the subject.

      A new road might transfer through journeys from local roads which were being made anyway and some people might make new journeys on the new road which they couldn't or wouldn't the local road.

      The problem is that on the local road, journeys are easier and so people might start make local journeys (by car) which they didn't before.

      So not 100% new traffic, but the impact is essentially the same. Now, if that new road was built and the capacity released (for the short term) on the local road was used for another purpose (walking, cycling, buses) then the local benefit is realised.

      On the new road, yes it might fill up again and that is what happens I guess with the wanting economic growth at all costs.

      With these river crossings, it will seem better to start with and the crossings are likely to see a traffic reduction at Dartford. The trouble is, people will be able to drive further to get to work, business opportunities open up and we are back to square one with the local communities bearing more pollution, congestion and danger.

  3. You're not taking on the real white elephant here (or maybe white pig, all pork for the construction companies after Crossrail) - the Silvertown Tunnel. Increasing motor traffic capacity here (with some of the worst pollution and congestion in the country on either side) is just nuts... Resilience and more capacity in the Blackwall tunnel could be best achieved by re-working the entrances to allow two-way working in both tunnels (though restricting HGVs to only one..).

    As for a bridge that's really needed - there was was a proposal from Sustrans, nixed by Boris, for a bike/pedestrian bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf...

    1. Well, yes, this has been consulted on separately (divide and conquer?). I cannot see how these local areas will be able to deal with the fallout from more capacity.

      The A13 is a good example, the new one took traffic off what is now the A1306 and routed it away from residential areas and of course, the A1306 carries less traffic than it did with the A13. It is still a busy and intimidating road for walking and cycling nontheless!