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?

 
 
 
 

It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.