The government of Jersey once tried to build its own bridge to France

Jersey: not that far from France. Image: Google.

If you’ve been keeping up with the latest shenanigans from what we must currently call the British government, you might have heard that Boris Johnson would like a bridge to France.

Ignoring his desire to pull the country as far away from the European continent as he can in every sense except geography (at least, for now), this isn’t the first time somebody has proposed that the Isles be linked to France by sea. About a decade ago, the Channel Island of Jersey (New Jersey’s estranged parent) saw the prospect of a fixed-link between the European mainland and a British island to be a real possibility.

The scheme originally arose as a proposal from the former president of the island’s Chamber of Commerce, Peter Walsh. A 16-mile bridge would have linked the island with northern Normandy, most likely ending at one of two Normandy communes; Blainville-sur-Mer or Granville. Walsh even went so far as to write to then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with the Élysée Palace writing back with positive thoughts on the matter.  

The Danish-Swedish Øresund Bridge takes much of the credit in terms of inspiration. Opened in 2000, it connects the Danish Capital of Copenhagen with the Swedish city of Malmö, the latter of which has since undergone significant growth. With Øresund as a template, its backers envisaged that the bridge would be able to function as an offshore energy farm that would generate power from both wind and tide. In total, it was estimated that the bridge would coast around £1bn (just under £1.2bn today).

This in turn prompted meetings between Jersey’s environment minister and representatives from Sund & Bælt, the company responsible for the construction of the Øresund. Further assessments were set to be conducted later. Two solutions were considered: either a tunnel link, or a full-on bridge.

And after that? Nothing. The project never got off the ground. No real effort has been made since 2009, thanks to the global economic crisis and a financial black hole, alongside general skepticism from most of the island. To inflict further damage, one of the plan’s most notable proponents, the then-assistant minister for planning Robert Duhamel, lost his seat in the 2014 elections, thus muting any chance for it in Jersey’s States Assembly (its equivalent of the UK Parliament).

It’s doubtful that the bridge would have been able to replicate the economic benefits that the Øresund Bridge has brought to Denmark and Sweden. Whilst Jersey is an offshore financial centre, and carries with it a hefty GDP per capita, a connection to a town such as Granville would be unlikely to merit a great deal of economic benefits. Granville’s economy is primarily based around its port and fishing, whilst Jersey is far more services-driven: as an autonomous jurisdiction that allows it to avoid the fiscal regulations in place in the UK and France, the island specialises in financial and legal services and offshore banking. Its only real exports are cows, potatoes and Superman.

But a bridge might have helped relieve the island’s population pressure. With around 100,000 people spread out over 35 square miles, Jersey is the fifteenth most densely-populated region in the world, and that density looks likely to grow. The bridge would have created closer links between the Jersey and French populations, thereby providing a greater range of options to those working in the island – and potentially dilute the astronomically high house prices.

The energy production elements of the plan would have been plausible, too. Reports published by the States of Jersey from that period demonstrate a strong potential for harnessing tidal power, whilst wind power has long been an idea pursued, but never realised, in the region.

So what does a decade-old concept have to do with Boris Johnson, aside from serve as a bit of niche history? Simple: it’s the Customs Union, stupid. Whilst the Channel Islands are not themselves members of the European Union or the Single Market, they are part of the Customs Union. Their membership hinges entirely on Protocol 3 in Article 355(c) of the UK’s 1972 ascension treaty.

Unlike Gibraltar, the Crown Dependencies – the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man – were never afforded a vote on Brexit in the first place. Nor has there been a great deal of debate on their futures. The only substantial discussion of their future was a House of Lords Report from March last year, highlighting the need for them to be recognised in the negotiations. Since then, it’s been radio silence from Westminster.

It’s now been ten months since Article 50 was triggered, and the Dependencies are still effectively in the dark about the consequences of the 2016 Referendum.

For these and many other reasons, it seems that Jersey’s Bridge is unlikely to happen. But this is also something it has in common with Boris Johnson’s Garden Bridge. Or his Channel Bridge. Or his ambitions to become Prime Minister.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.