Andrew Wood: Sadiq Khan’s Rotherhithe-Canary Wharf river crossing could collapse like the Garden Bridge

Andrew Wood: Sadiq Khan’s Rotherhithe-Canary Wharf river crossing could collapse like the Garden Bridge

Following the Garden Bridge debacle, which cost £43 million of public money including £24 million of Transport for London’s before collapsing in ignominy, we might assume that lessons would be learned. But a similar fiasco about another proposed bridge across the Thames is quietly gathering pace.

In October 2016 Sadiq Khan announced that a new cycling and pedestrian bridge would be built to connect Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf which “could be open by as soon as 2020”. The structure now proposed will be the largest pedestrian and cycling bridge in the world, and also the largest with the ability to open up and lift in the middle, like Tower Bridge, in order to allow tall ships to pass through the gap.

But the TfL team formed to deliver the project did not start work until early 2017 and it knew it had to deliver it quickly. They began developing the project before they had done any work on looking at other options for making it easier to cross the river at that point.

One of the main arguments for building the bridge is to relieve pressure on the Jubilee line between Canada Water and Canary Wharf, which arose in the first place because TfL decided not to buy ten extra trains on the grounds that they weren’t needed. Meanwhile, it is often forgotten that there is already a pedestrian ferry service connecting Canary Wharf pier and Nelson Dock pier in Rotherhithe. It has never been used to full capacity.

When the Mayor made his original announcement about a new bridge, I wrote to his then deputy for transport suggesting that as an interim step the ferry could stop charging passengers and so enable TfL to get a better measure of pedestrian demand from Rotherhithe. However, TfL refused. This unwillingness to consider alternative approaches that might seem to contradict the Mayor’s public promise to build a bridge has been a fundamental problem all along.

If you believe funds are unlimited, the bridge might still make sense to you. By the cost of it is now becoming the critical issue. As of February 2019, TfL has already spent £9.9 million on the project and its budget suggests another £8 million will be spent this year even before planning permission is sought.

TfL originally said the bridge would cost between £120 million and £180 million to build and £2.4 million a year to run (like Tower Bridge, it will need to be staffed round the clock). Other calculations anticipate it will cost £200 million to build and, privately, some TfL officers have not disputed that the build cost could go as high as £400 million. We should get the next estimate of costs in late April, but for now £300 million seems to be a fair assumption. Remember, the original estimated cost of the shorter and simpler Garden Bridge was £60 million and ended up being forecast at over £200 million.

Would the new bridge represent good value for money? TfL assumes the equivalent of 3,333 pedestrians and 1,875 cyclists will use the bridge each day. But the figure for pedestrians might be optimistic: the bridge will be 800 metres long and the walk from the Canary Wharf side to the main area of local new development at Canada Water takes 27-minutes and it’s not clear how many people would want to cross the bridge on foot on a winter’s night.

If the bridge, which would be free to use, did end up costing £300 million to build and £2.4 million a year to operate, that would represent a capital cost of £57,604 per user and £461 a year to operate per user. This suggests a possible negative benefit-to-cost ratio possibly as low as 0.7, where 1.0 represents value for money.

TfL did model the cost of up to three electric roll on roll off electric ferries and new pontoons, but have since ruled it out as an option, even though it would cost less, be more comfortable to use in the winter and would often be a quicker way to cross the river – the bridge would have to open for ships passing by, normally for ten minutes but for up to an hour for larger ones.

But the main cost problem with the bridge is the opportunity cost. If it did cost £300 million to build, that would amount to around 20 per cent of TfL’s Healthy Streets capital programme between 2019-2024. Couldn’t that money be better spent on a range of smaller projects to encourage more cycling and walking that might deliver more benefits overall?

TfL will say that that there is public support for the bridge, with the last consultation showing that 93 per cent of respondents support it. Even so, only 37 per cent of those respondents said they would use it for commuting and 56 per cent for leisure purposes. And the consultation didn’t mention either the cost of the bridge or the possibilities of using a better ferry service.

The current ferry has very limited capacity to carry bicycles, but that could be expanded. An enhanced ferry service would not mean a bridge could not be built at a later date if demand for crossings clearly justified it. An advantage of a ferry system is that the craft and their pontoons can be easily moved to different locations. But if you build a bridge that turns out to be under-used, you’re stuck with it.

The Mayor should adopt a new approach to making it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the Thames at this point in East London. He should first make the existing ferry service free in order to test demand more rigorously. Then, when more user data is available, he should re-consult, offering two choices: an expensive but permanent bridge and a cheaper, more adaptable and arguably more attractive roll on roll off electric ferry.

There’s a suspicion that political calculations have played too big a part in this project all along. Mayor Khan made his promise to build the Canary Wharf-Rotherhithe cycling and pedestrian bridge on the same day as he announced the Silvertown road tunnel would go ahead, perhaps to appease the green lobby which has strongly opposed the latter scheme. A failure by TfL to consult on the ferry option leaves them open to a formal challenge on the grounds that they haven’t properly considered alternatives and a resulting inability to secure the transport and works order it would need from the government in order to proceed.

Is that even the intention? The bridge is now financially unviable. It would be politically less embarrassing if the Mayor could blame the government for its failure rather than be accused of making mistakes very like those of Boris Johnson.

Andrew Wood is a councillor for Canary Wharf ward and leader of the opposition Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council.

Categories: Comment

9 Comments

  1. TfL have confirmed that they do not believe there are any ‘disbenefits’ to building the world’s largest vertical lift bridge in a highly populated area. This is a staggering omission and further supports the claim that the Rotherhithe bridge could have a negative Benefit to Cost Ratio.

  2. Noah L says:

    Firstly I would like to say Councillor Andrew Wood the author of this article does not speak for the vast majority of locals and businesses on the Isle of Dogs/Canary Wharf. Vast majority of locals and businesses support this bridge in a poll done few months ago, Councillor Andrew Wood has been vocally against this bridge from the start and this entire article seems to have a biased slant pointing out all the wrongs but nothing positive on the bridge.
    Councillor Andrew Wood continually points out to the “ferry” as being the cheaper best option than the bridge but he forgets to mention how few people the ferry. “An enhanced ferry service would not mean a bridge could not be built at a later date if demand for crossings clearly justified it.” – The ferry is expensive and therefore hardly any locals use it as it is, will the government subsidies locals them to use it? No. Never have done before and certainly won’t now.
    “current ferry has very limited capacity to carry bicycles” – What about the disabled and electric wheelchair users? The ferry isn’t suitable for different types of wheelchairs. I tried to take my brother who happens be in a electric wheelchair but was not able to get on the ferry and was turned away. It’s always about cyclists but it seems the disabled wheelchair users are back of the line, and in this article the disabled aren’t even taken into consideration….Even though the bridge would have of been ideal for both disabled wheelchair users and bicycles but no mention.

    1. Andrew Wood says:

      I actually started off as a bridge supporter but as the costs & height increased I switched to being a ferry supporter. The poll mentioned did not mention the ferry option nor the cost of a bridge. It was a classic closed question.

      As you say the existing ferry does not carry many passengers which is why I suggest it be made free to test demand but if demand stays low why then build a very expensive bridge?

      TfL said the ferry would be free to use if that was the option chosen. The bridge would also be free to use.

      An electric roll on roll off ferry would work for the disabled as well as a bridge & would be more comfortable as would not need to gain 12 meters in height nor cross 800 meters of river. But between Canada Water and Canary Wharf the Jubilee line can carry disabled people (not ideal I agree but at least there is some provision).

      Cllr Andrew Wood

    2. Rosemary says:

      For the amount a single bridge would cost several pedestrian/ cycle ferries could be put in place. This is particularly pertinent as North Greewhich which has some of the highest density contruction in the pipeline would also be able to benefit.
      For Isle of Dogs residents (the fastest growing area in the country) the cycle / pedestrian bridge will not add value. Those not working on IOD need transport to central London which is the point CW group make, when they requested more trains in the jubilee line. This vanity project will benefit few at the expense of many. More importantly, if you study the numbers and in particular the BCR figures the numbers do not stack up!
      Everyone keeps saying the current ferry is expensive- the whole point about this is that 600 million could be used to subsidise a cheaper crossing which would certainly be more comfortable for pedestrians compared to the extensive ramps and height of the bridge, particularly in inclement weather.

    3. Angelique says:

      The vast majority of residents in the IOD do not support this bridge. I have lived and worked in the IOD for 20 years, I hold the chair position for the leaseholders association in our development (95 apartments), we are unanimous in opposing this disastrous proposal to build the most expensive footbridge in Europe.
      Furthermore, not a single resident in our development was approached for this apparent consultation which suggests that the figures for pro are clearly incorrect!

  3. Sillier says:

    Andrew Wood is the voice of reason in the neighbourhood of Canary Wharf and what he says makes perfect sense. It is easy to quote public support to back up a politician’s agenda, but that so often depends on the options put to the public originally and the facts or lack of that were disclosed at the time.
    Canary Wharf is getting busier, even at weekends, which those of us who have lived there for sometime can observe. There are several more enormous residential developments in progress. We will need transport to move residents OFF the Isle of Dogs to their work places, not facilities to help people reach the Isle of Dogs and guess what, the residents who do not work in Canary Wharf, don’t work in the area of Rotherhithe where the bridge will land, at least not in any number anyway. Would people cycle to areas beyond? Who knows, but TfL don’t and that just proves that not enough due diligence has been carried out. Must be nice to have this much money to throw around, especially when the Mayor bleats about not having any money to tackle knife crime. So which is it?

  4. Phil369 says:

    This bridge concept is utter nonsense. I really wonder whether the projected number of cyclists is accurate. If it were where are we going to store all those thousands of bikes? This said I am in favor of a crossing but lets build a foot and cycle tunnel next to the Jubilee Line Tunnel between Rotherhithe and Westferry Circus. East London has a long history of foot tunnels (Greenwich/Woolwich). The only reason a tunnel was rejected by TFL is because of cost. But a tunnel lasts much longer than a hydraulic bridge and costs less in maintenance – over time. And while we are at it let us also build a foot & cycle tunnel between Wood Wharf and the O2; there are economies of scale to be realized.

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