The Thames is is the central spine of our capital city. The river is the reason that London exists at all, and its iconic meanders are seared into our brains thanks to a combination of the Eastenders credits, the original London 2012 logo and the default view in Google Maps.
But now if one thing is clear it is that the river has become more of a menace than something we should celebrate. And the reason is simple: Bridges.
The Tyranny of the Thames
The central section of the river is spanned by over a dozen bridges - each of which has a unique history and cultural resonance. They’re important: They enable South London to be, well, London. And they’re interesting too: Sufficiently nerdy Londoners will know all sorts of factoids, such as how the current Waterloo Bridge was constructed mostly by women during WWII, or that one of the previous London Bridges was bought by an American entrepreneur and now in Arizona.
But sail further East, and suddenly the bridges stop. In fact, travel east of Tower Bridge and there’s only the Dartford Crossing before you reach the North Sea. And this is because of one other neat-sounding factoid: The reason the bridges just stop is because historically the river needed to accommodate large ships bringing in goods to London’s original ports. It’s also why Tower Bridge can open up - so that back in the day ships could reach the wharves that lined the river. Today, obviously the inner-city ports are no longer with us, and are instead trendy apartments for rich people. London’s imports can now arrive via the massive new London Gateway container port in Essex.
Unfortunately, though London’s planners have not kept up with events. It might have been a useful rule in the 19th century, but this ancient dictat is now strangling London in the 21st century.
Bridge Over The River Why?
Darryl Chamberlain gives a powerful explanation of the results of this insanity in a recent post on CityMetric. Essentially, the Mayor and the government want to build and regenerate all of the slightly rubbish bits of London. Skyscrapers are shooting up in lots of new places, which will hopefully go some way towards mitigating London’s horrendous housing crisis. There’s just one problem: How will everyone get to work?
As Chamberlain points out, the Jubilee Line - the tube line that links North Greenwich - where people live, -with Canary Wharf - where people work - is practically bursting already. Building new skyscrapers is great, but it doesn’t mean more people can fit inside a tube train.
The solution is obvious given that the two locales are on opposite sides of the river: Build a damn bridge. But seemingly to fit in with stupid ancient rules, it would require a £90m lifting bridge, rather than something simpler.
And no, a ferry shuttling passengers across wouldn’t work well as it would takes ages to cross the river, and would likely not be able to meet demand. It would also be unreliable in bad weather - as the similarly stupid Cable Car demonstrates. In 2015, it was revealed that the white elephant was forced to close 354 times in just 36 months because it got too windy.
“Ah ha! But what about tunnels?”, you might ask. There are already a handful of tunnels running under the Thames further East - from Brunel’s first ever under-Thames tunnel (which now enables the East London Line to exist), to the Blackwall Tunnel and others. There’s also the new Lower Thames Crossing, which was announced earlier this week, which will connect the M2 directly with the M25. Problem solved? No.
Unfortunately, tunnels are not useful for living in a modern city. Not only are they expensive, because digging holes is hard, but they are also only useful if the passengers are inside a car, bus or a train carriage. This means more demand on new hypothetical transport services. By contrast, bridges are easy for pedestrians to use and they can be open 24/7. Bridges also facilitate cycling, which is the closest thing London has to a silver bullet for solving congestion, reducing pollution, improving public health (as we’d get more exercise) and helping mitigate climate change all in one go.
You only have to look at a map to see how disconnected the lack of bridges has left communities - and potential sites of new housing and regeneration on either side of the river. Woolwich remains separated from Silvertown. A trip from Thamesmead to Barking would an hour by car, or 53 minutes and four modal changes by public transport.
All so that slightly taller ships can look pretty passing through Tower Bridge.
What I’m saying is simple: We need to build more bridges. Sod the tall ships. It’s time for the Thames to reflect London’s 21st century needs. It’s time for Tower Bridge to close for good.