The young boy, his face creasing into a frown, was anxious to remind his mum that he did have asthma and that fewer cars would be a good thing. “Yes, you’re right,” the mum conceded, before replying that, having initially been in favour of reopening the bridge to all vehicles, public transport, cyclists and pedestrians only would now be their choice.
This was just one of the 120 or more interviews I recently conducted regarding the closure of London’s Hammersmith Bridge to motorised vehicle. The survey suggests that the closure has led to a range of benefits for bridge users, and that they are open to alternatives for how the bridge could be used in the future.
That future is to be decided by the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, which owns the bridge. The council, working alongside Transport for London, which operates the bridge as part of its Strategic Network, has reaffirmed that it will be re-opened within three years and restored “to full working order and to its Victorian splendour”.
Despite the council’s proclamation, there remains much uncertainty — not least, as to who will foot the bill for the repair work. One thing that is clear is that the bridge does need to be repaired. But is reopening it to all modes of transport really the only option?
Whilst it cannot be denied that the closure of the bridge to motorised vehicles has had a negative impact on some, a greater number of those surveyed (48 per cent), acknowledged that it did bring some benefit. One Barnes resident reflected that the bridge “feels very natural as it is”, while an elderly lady confided that “before I felt nervy crossing on foot, with vehicles constantly going past”.
Those who believed that there were some benefits cited improved air quality as being the single biggest (38 per cent). Others believed the biggest benefit was an improved experience of crossing the bridge (29 per cent), whilst one in five (21 per cent), identified that the closure of the bridge to motorised vehicles as something which had encouraged a positive lifestyle change.
A young couple explained that, although the closure of the bridge to motorised vehicles meant ordering a takeaway, or getting an Uber after a night out was problematic, it had encouraged them to make positive lifestyle choices. “Yes, we’re trying to cook and he’s definitely walking more now.”
Foregoing luxuries such as taxis and takeaways may not resonate with those who depend on the bridge for essential day to day activities, although the way in which respondents want the bridge re-opened in the future just might. Almost as many people (41 per cent) believe that the bridge should be reopened to public transport, cyclists and pedestrians only, as those who believe it should be reopened as it was previously used (43 per cent).
The former choice was the preferred option (48 per cent) among those aged 29 years and under. One teenage girl explained that, although re-opening the bridge to cyclists and pedestrians only was her first choice, she believed that it was public transport which would help “provide for the elderly”.
Many respondents suggested smaller electric buses, whilst others are clearly concerned that returning to a high-volume traffic flow is a threat to the future of such an iconic structure.
In a new-found appreciation of the bridge, one respondent seemed to echo the thoughts of many; stating that the bridge had the potential to become a “sublime public space”.
When respondents were asked whether they could see any benefit for the use of the bridge as a community market one day a month, three quarters (76 per cent) answered yes. This figure rose to 8 out of every 10 respondents (83 per cent) of those aged 29 and under. Two boys suggested that “a market would bring the two sides of the bridge together”, whilst a nineteen-year-old beamed that a street performance space “would be next level”.
With London holding its first Car Free Day last weekend, it certainly seems that there is an appetite among city users to reconsider how we use our streets. Although the wheels are already in motion for motorised vehicles to be rumbling over Hammersmith Bridge within three years, it seems that the young are already imagining alternative ways in which this iconic structure could be enjoyed by future generations.
Charles Critchell is the founder of Fare City, a city transport think tank. You can find it on Twitter at @fare_city.
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