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This Clever, Strange Design Could Become London’s First Car-Free Bridge

The key to improved transportation for thousands of British commuters could be innovative design.

Right now, it’s nearly impossible for someone living in southeast London to bike to work in the financial district of Canary Wharf, even though it’s just across the river. It’s equally hard to walk to public transportation, since the sprawling local district of Rotherhithe, about half the size of London, is only served by two bus routes.

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A clever new bike and pedestrian bridge might soon change the way thousands of people commute.

“Cycling has grown hugely in London in even the last 10 years…it’s incredible the number of people you see at junctions now cycling,” says Nik Randall, chairman of architecture firm ReForm. “It’s not well provided for. We want to actually give cyclists–and pedestrians–a safe designated crossing point.”

On each side of the bridge, two boomerang-shaped masts pivot open to let ships through. “It’s a bit like a pair of scales, so just with a very small amount of energy, it’s possible to tip it one way or another,” says Randall.

© Nik Randall and Reform Architects Limited

Typical “bascule” bridges that open for ships are bulky and a little awkward-looking. But by placing 100-ton counterweights in the masts of the bridge, rather than in the rest of the structure, the design takes up little space. “It seemed to be such a simple idea . . . but I don’t think there are any that operate like this,” Randall says.

The elegant shape makes sense for the location, he says. “For such a significant setting, which is the gateway into London for cruise lines and other ships, it needs to be a bridge which shows that London is at the forefront of design and business, rather than just an engineering-driven piece of infrastructure.”

If it’s built, the bridge could dramatically change the number of commuters in the area who want to bike or walk to work. The architects recently completed a feasibility study with the sustainable transportation nonprofit Sustrans, and now plan to raise money to do more testing, work with the communities on both sides of the river, and potentially bring it to life.

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“It’s not just pedestrians and cyclists using it who will benefit,” says Randall. “The Tube and the other rail routes into Canary Wharf are already very congested, and the working population there is due to double by 2030. This hopefully will take some of that pressure off because people will choose to take a safe cycle route to work.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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