Boris Johnson’s channel bridge would be a car crash in more ways than one

Boris cycling. Image: Getty.

As Boris Johnson’s Churchillian dream of a road bridge across the Channel Tunnel emerged and then quickly disappeared, it got me questioning a logistical issue. The French drive on the right, and the English on the left; so what would happen in the middle of Boris’s hypothetical bridge? If it was going to be the high speed connection that he hoped for, it wouldn't do to have an automobile mosh pit in the middle.

The UK has the privilege of being an island, so the two systems don’t ever meet. The same sadly can’t be said for the rest of the Left-Hand Traffic world – largely countries which were, at one point, a part of the British Empire. Just as we exported our uniquely difficult range of units to the colonies, so too did we insist they drive on the left.


Blue = Left Hand Traffic, Red = RHT. Image: Benjamin D. Esham/Wikimedia Commons.

As empires collapsed and the world globalised, the left driving countries trended towards driving on the right. Sometimes this was just to spite their previous colonial oppressors, but there were also local and regional considerations as well. After all, if your larger, more economically powerful neighbours used a different system, you might align with them to encourage cross border trade etc (looking at you, Canada).

Pakistan considered swapping sides in the 60s but couldn’t because of the wide use of camels. The camel trains had been trained to keep to the left so that riders could get some shut eye during the long journeys, and it was considered too difficult to retrain them, so the whole country kept with Left-Hand Traffic (LHT).

So, thanks to a weird mix of history and local context, we now have borders across the world where Left- and Right-Hand Traffic meet.  Poor LHT Thailand and Kenya each have three land borders with countries that drive on the other side of the road. Most of these border points manage the change over with traffic lights, which works when there are only small numbers of vehicles making the switch. But for the billions of cars that Johnson envisions using the Channel Bridge (Chidge?), traffic lights just won’t cut it.

Lotus Bridge in Macau. Image: BurnDuck/Wikimedia Commons.

The Lotus Bridge manages the swap from RHT China to LHT Macau far more smoothly. Macau was a Portuguese colony and as such developed a different system to its larger neighbour. In the same year that the small island was ceded to China, the bridge opened, complete with a clever interchange on the Chinese side to ensure those coming across from Macau ended up on the right side (in both senses of the word). As its title would suggest, the bridge supposedly looks like a lotus flower, although ask a teenage boy and you may receive a different comparison. 


So traffic lights won't cut it for BoJo’s mythical bridge, but neither would an interchange akin to that of the Lotus Bridge. Not only would the British school system collapse under immature giggling, but the project would sink under arguments over which side of the Channel should play host to the interchange, and, thus, on which side you drive on while actually on the bridge. Which is exactly the type of issue that would matter almost nowhere else in the world other than Whitehall and the Élysée Palace, where it would matter greatly.

Therefore, I propose that about half way along this bridge – which will probably never be built anyway probably – the traffic coming from England slowly drops down before looping under the oncoming traffic and coming up again with the opposite lanes on their left. No slow traffic lights required, no phallic interchanges, and no damaged national pride. Boris, where’s my consultation fee?

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.