“If 2016 was the Year of Bullshit, then the Garden Bridge could be its monument”

That bloody bridge again. Image: Heatherwick Studios.

There have been many articles dedicated purely to criticising the Garden Bridge.  This is not one of them. This piece is also about bullshit.

Back in February 2016, I wrote an article that the editors at CityMetric boldly titled, “On Bullshit and the Garden Bridge”.  In critiquing the project’s business case, the article borrowed liberally from philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 essay, On Bullshit. Frankfurt’s essay was reprinted as a bestselling book in 2005 and was followed in 2006 by its companion piece, On Truth.  Both works warned of the creeping danger of a society that could no longer distinguish between fact and fiction, and which was rapidly losing its traditional respect for truth and accuracy. 

Shortly after that article was posted, the Brexit campaign gathered steam.  Soon, we were buried in an avalanche of bullshit from both sides. Next, we could only watch in stunned disbelief as the United States elected  a President whose whole campaign was built on a platform of unapologetic bullshit.  Bullshit became so pervasive in 2016 that it had to be re-badged and normalised as “post-truth politics”. For all the dead celebrities and political cataclysms, I will remember 2016 as the year in which Frankfurt’s horrifying prophesy became a daily reality.

And if 2016 was the Year of Bullshit, then the Garden Bridge could be its monument.  

Now, look, I’m not suggesting that you can draw a line from Joanna Lumley through Boris Johnson to Donald Trump.  I’m not so foaming-at-the-mouth opposed to the Garden Bridge to think that these are issues of comparable importance.  To suggest any equivalency between a Garden Bridge and a Trump presidency is like comparing a minor aggravation with Armageddon. 

But to consider the concept of bullshit in the context of Brexit or Trump you’d have to dive headfirst down a rabbit-hole of nuance and complexity.  By comparison, the Garden Bridge is nice and simple.  It’s a bridge with a garden on it.  There is nothing remotely complex about it.  The bullshit is there for all to see.

If the Garden Bridge was, at the beginning of 2016, a signal of the almighty monsoon of bullshit that was about to rain down on us, then it is entirely fitting that the project should provide, by year’s end, a textbook example of the stuff.  An instructive bookend to a bullshit year.

A conflict of interest

That’s what happened on 20 December 2016, when the Architects’ Journal published the allegation of a huge conflict of interest at the heart of the project.  Through the intrepid sleuthing of editor Will Hurst, the AJ obtained correspondence between the Garden Bridge Trust, Transport for London (TfL), and the Department for Transport (DfT) during that critical period between January and February 2016 when the Trust chose to sign a construction contract for the Bridge.  The execution of that contract released a further £7m of public funding and would eventually expose the taxpayer to another £9m of cancellation costs.

Central to the story was Richard de Cani, who was TfL’s managing director of planning at the time.  The correspondence shows De Cani assertively trying to persuade a hesitant official at the DfT that the Trust had satisfied the conditions needed to trigger the next tranche of funding.  The conflict of interest stems from the fact that De Cani was simultaneously serving his notice period, having already informed TfL that he was leaving to take a senior role at Arup – the engineering firm that is also a major contractor for the Garden Bridge.

The most sinister aspect of Hurst’s article, however, was not the revelation itself, but the resulting response from Transport for London.  Here is TfL’s full comment:

“Richard de Cani, as managing director of planning at TfL, led our involvement in the Garden Bridge and was required to continue doing so during his notice period. Any suggestion of improper involvement in relation to the Garden Bridge is completely unfounded.

“The bridge’s construction contract is a matter between the Garden Bridge Trust and Bouygues TP Cimolai.

“Our funding agreement with the Trust requires us to make grant payments once certain milestones have been reached, one of which was the signing of the construction contract. We have kept the DfT informed of these payments because of their financial contribution to the project.”

Right there.  That’s bullshit.

And you have to call it that because it is technically not a lie. It’s actually 100 per cent accurate.  It’s also completely misleading.  It’s a clever bit of misdirection – a robust, unequivocal answer to a question that nobody asked.  It’s a terrific example of what Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post famously described as the “non-denial denial” – a carefully crafted statement that sounds like a clearcut denial, but really isn’t. 

The TfL statement alludes to a clause on page 38 of the Funding Agreement with the Garden Bridge Trust that reads as follows:

“Sums to be paid by TfL to the Trust for construction activities will be paid in yearly instalments as set out in the payment profile.  Payments will commence upon award of the main construction contract…”

On the face of it, TfL’s response to the AJ article is technically true.  Execution of the construction contract for the Garden Bridge did trigger the automatic release of the next tranche of public funding.  The impression created by the statement is that, irrespective of any perceived conflict of interest, De Cani could not have acted improperly because his actions were determined by the terms of an existing agreement. Once the Trust took the critical decision to sign the construction contract, TfL was bound to honour the terms of the agreement and De Cani’s employment status was therefore irrelevant.

The trouble with TfL’s statement – what makes it dishonest even if it is technically accurate – is not in what was said, but in what was judiciously left unsaid.  Because the quoted excerpt above – the bit that TfL wants us to focus on – is not the complete wording of the relevant clause in the Deed of Grant. 

This is how that section reads in full:

“Sums to be paid by TfL to the Trust for construction activities will be paid in yearly instalments as set out in the payment profile.  Payments will commence upon award of the main construction contract subject to the following Conditions of Payment:

  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has secured, or is able to secure, a sufficient level of funding, including the Grant from TfL, to cover the costs of construction of the Garden Bridge;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has secured, or is able to secure, all the necessary consents needed to deliver the Project;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that an appropriate project ‘go/no go’ gateway review has been passed, including proper assessment and management of risks;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has appropriate plans in place for the operation and maintenance of the Garden Bridge;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has secured a satisfactory level of funding to operate and maintain the Garden Bridge once it is built for at least the first 5 (five) years of operation; and
  • The Trust has demonstrated that these funds will only be used in respect of the construction of the Garden Bridge.”

These conditions discredit the idea that the decision to release another £7m of public funding was a merely procedural action that was beyond manipulation by an official that may have been in a conflicted position.  Repeated use of the phrase “to TfL’s satisfaction” gave TfL the authority and the responsibility to make subjective judgements as to whether or not the Garden Bridge Trust had done enough to de-risk any further investment in the project.

The conditions were there to protect the taxpayer. They were meant to ensure that the taxpayer's exposure to potentially abortive pre-construction costs was limited. Indeed, their intent was to avoid precisely the type of public spending debacle that we are now witnessing.

Under the circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate to query whether individuals at TfL were acting in the best interests of the taxpayer or in the interests of the project and its contractors.  That’s the nub of the issue that Transport for London dodged with its bullshit statement.


A New Year’s Resolution

I could write a whole other article explaining how the Garden Bridge Trust was not even close to meeting all its funding conditions and why it should never have signed that fateful construction contract in the first place.  But my New Year’s resolution is to stop being so mouthy about the Garden Bridge.  I’m pretty sure the project is all but doomed already and all the criticism is starting to feel a little bit churlish.  Like I said: this article isn’t really about the Garden Bridge. 

It is the practiced fluency with which Transport for London tried to bullshit its way out of an embarrassing corner that is the real cause for concern at this point.  The allegations made by the Architects’ Journal are serious and damning and TfL’s response was wholly inadequate.  Although technically truthful, career journalist Dan Froomkin of The Intercept still describes the non-denial denial as “fundamentally an act of deception”.

It is symptomatic of an organisation that trivialises public trust and fails to take responsibility for its actions.  A government agency that controls such large budgets and oversees such an important aspect of London’s economy should be held to the highest standards of honesty, transparency and accountability.  It should not be allowed to skate through any crisis with a hollow and misleading statement that goes unchallenged.

If we can salvage anything from the political wreckage of 2016 it should be a better nose for bullshit – and a zero-tolerance policy for those who deal it.

Dan Anderson is an economist and a director at destination consultants Fourth Street.

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.