6 questions we still have about London's Garden Bridge

The Garden Bridge: monster or marvel?

London’s proposed Garden Bridge is a bit like the Rorschach inkblot test. To some, it looks like a new piece of public space and infrastructure in central London, littered with delightful greenery. To others, it looks a bit like a suspect waste of money probably motivated by, basically, pure evil.

These different perspectives are possible largely because of the substantial number of unanswered questions still surrounding the plans for the bridge, construction of which is due to begin at the end of 2015. Here are six – plus any answers we’ve been able to unearth so far.  

1. Just how much public money will be spent on it?

Until recently, everyone has been under the impression that the £175m cost of the bridge's construction will split into £60 worth of public investment and £115m of private money. Earlier this month, mayor Boris Johnson assured LBC listeners  that “the maintenance cost will not be borne by the public sector, I’ve made that clear.”

But last week, Architects’ Journal got hold of a letter in which the Greater London Authority appears to agree to underwrite the bridge’s £3.5m maintenance cost. 

We asked the Garden Bridge Trust (GBT) about this, and a spokesperson told us that the GLA had only underwritten the costs because the GBT could promise a “robust business plan” which should cover all maintenance: 

The Garden Bridge Trust fully intends and expects to raise the money required for both the construction of the Garden Bridge and the ongoing maintenance and operations. More than £120m has been pledged so far and we have a clear business plan in place to raise the estimated £3.5m per annum needed to cover the on-going costs.

Answer: Probably only that initial £60m. Probably.

2. Will you have to pay to cross it?

Rumours about the bridge's funding and its closure for private events led some to think passerby would have to pay to cross the bridge. This, however, isn't the case: private events would presumably be ticketed, but anyone crossing during normal hours could do so for free. 

Answer: No. 

3. Does it even count as a bridge?

Back in November, reports emerged that the bridge would not be open to cyclists, would close at night and for private events, and would only be open to groups of eight or more if they let staff know in advance. Also, that picnics (read: joy) would be banned. 

These regulations would hugely negate the usefulness of the bridge as a pedestrian walkway – you wouldn't be able to rely on crossing it whenever you needed to, so it'd be unlikely to form part of anyone's regular journeys. The rules on large groups and eating sandwiches would also make it less of a park or public space. 

On this, the GBT spokesperson said that the regulations on use are still under discussion. On the groups of eight issue, they said: 

Most public spaces have ways of managing large groups to ensure the safety and comfort of visitors. The Trust had to include this in the planning application and put forward an initial figure of more than 8 people... this was a starting point only and we are talking to stakeholders and the local planning authority to confirm our agreed numbers. 

And on the picnics?

The bridge is a place for people to linger and admire new views of the city, but it will also provide an efficient route for commuters... We will ask users to be considerate to others when using the bridge.

So, not massively clear then.

Answer: Yes, if enough of the limitations on its use are taken away. 

4. Is it in the right place?

Even if you do consider a walkway that's shut half the time and closed to cyclists a "bridge", it hasn't been planned for an area that particularly needs one. The proposed site is between Blackfriars Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, to link Temple with the Southbank:

This location only strengthens the impression that this is more tourist attraction than infrastructure project, however. There are already three bridges within 1km of the proposed crossing.

To the east, meanwhile, there's a long stretch of the river which is effectively uncrossable, where a bridge – even a limited one – would have genuinely come in handy. 

Answer: For maximum footfall from West End audiences and Southbank visitors, yes. For actual Londoners, no. 

5. Was Thomas Heatherwick the right designer for the job?

In another exclusive, Architects’ Journal revealed a couple of weeks ago that the bridge's chosen designer, Thomas Heatherwick, was scored more highly for bridge experience by TfL than the other two firms, despite the fact that both have designed far more bridges than him. 

Wilkinson Eyre, one of the firms turned down for the contract, lists 27 bridge projects on its website. Heatherwick, meanwhile, has reportedly only designed one. 

6. Is it a secret Diana memorial?

When Joanna Lumley first dreamt up the idea of a garden bridge back in 1997, she envisioned it as a memorial for the recently deceased Lady Di. We thought it was worth checking whether this was still the case.

According to the GBT spokesman, at least, the project is no longer linked to the people's princess in any way.

Answer: No, thank goodness. She's stuck with that fountain in Hyde Park and Kensington's Diana Memorial Playground. Sorry, Express readers.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.