The Mersey recently got a new road bridge. But is it any good?

Driving north across the new bridge. Image: Bazonka/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been an exciting autumn in the Liverpool City Region. Just after midnight in the early hours of Saturday 14 October the new £600m, 1km long Mersey Gateway Bridge, in our very own Halton, opened to traffic for the first time.

It’s part of an extensive local road investment programme within this part of Liverpool City Region, and what a fine and useful monument it is. The opening ceremony, on the preceding Friday evening, consisted of a spectacular light show and firework display. It’s also been said that there may be a more formal opening ceremony in the new year. 

The bridge is a part of the wider Mersey Gateway project, the largest infrastructure project in England outside London. It consists of a 2.2km elevated route, 12 new bridges and seven new or upgraded junctions over a 9.2km route. It will, for example, make access to the nearby Liverpool John Lennon Airport much easier and more dependable for people travelling across the river from that direction.

Now, I don’t want to rain on the parade, but there is an important issue here. The new bridge will be tolled, whereas the bridge that it has replaced was not. This means that the nearest toll free River Mersey road crossing to the official Liverpool City Region will now be in Warrington, which (bizarrely) is not within the official Liverpool City Region. Since the new bridge opened, there has not been a single toll free River Mersey road crossing within the official Liverpool City Region. 

An artist’s impression of the new bridge.

The good news, however, is that there are plenty of options for crossing the River Mersey within the official Liverpool City Region, as long as you are prepared to use tolled crossings:

  • The Queensway Tunnel, opened in 1934 by King George V, as the longest road tunnel in the world at that time. It consists of four pseudo-motorway road lanes and runs between Liverpool city centre and Birkenhead on the Wirral peninsula. The standard cost for a car is £1.70 each way.
  • The Kingsway Tunnel, opened in 1971 by Queen Elizabeth II, consists of four pseudo-motorway road lanes and runs between Liverpool city centre and Wallasey on the Wirral peninsula. The standard cost for a car is £1.70 each way.
  • The new Mersey Gateway Bridge, which is effectively a six lane motorway and runs between Widnes and Runcorn in Halton. The standard cost for a car is £2 each way.  
  • The Silver Jubilee Bridge, opened in 1961 by Princess Alexandra and then opened again in 1976 by Queen Elizabeth II after it was laterally expanded. This has now been superseded by the Mersey Gateway bridge and is being repaired and re-purposed to become a two lane road for local use in Halton, between Widnes and Runcorn – although it will still be subject to a standard toll for a car of £2 each way when it re-opens.

That all equates to eight road lanes of tolled tunnels between Liverpool city centre and the Wirral peninsula less than a mile away, and eight road lanes of tolled bridges between Widnes and Runcorn, again less than a mile apart. That is a grand total of 16 cross river road lanes that exist within the official Liverpool City Region, all tolled, all told.

The new bridge, shown in context. Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

Many people around here have been campaigning against the Mersey tunnel tolls for years, to no avail. Partly that’s because there is still outstanding debt on the tunnels. But it’s also because the Mersey tunnel tolls are one of the few relatively unencumbered sources of revenue that the Liverpool City Region government has – money which can be used by, and at the discretion of, our local leaders with minimal interference from the nosey and bossy people in far away Whitehall. No such luck with the new bridge tolls, which will be returned to the private investors which built the bridge for the next 30 years.

So, how much does this 21st century highway robbery damage the Liverpool City Region economy? I’ve been unable to find any substantial research into the question based on the current configuration – but back in July, the Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns said that the recently announced removal of the Severn Bridge tolls would benefit the local economy of South West England and South Wales by £200m.

Now, I appreciate that a couple of pounds each way is not a particularly large toll. But I would suggest that it does restrict free movement of people, goods, services and capital within the metropolis, in that it puts people off just crossing back and forth across the river at will, multiple times each day, which they may well would do if it was toll free.

Also, if you are not part of an electronic payment scheme, then you have to pay the correct amount of cash into an automatic toll booth basket when using the tunnels. This inconvenience slows you down, and woe betide if you are a bad shot. ( You have to pay online if you use the new bridge.) On balance then, and given that, as locals, we all live in the same metropolis, I do think that the tolls are a problem.


Coincidentally, the new, third Forth bridge, connecting Edinburgh and Fife, called the Queensferry Crossing, was opened to great fanfare by Queen Elizabeth II on 4 September 2017, and it was even broadcast live on a national BBC news programme. That 2.7kms long bridge will not be tolled and was paid for by national government at a cost of £1.4bn

Generally, though, Liverpolitans seem to be excited by, and impressed with, the new bridge. And the investment of such a significant sum, reported to be £1.9bn in total, into Liverpool City Region’s transport infrastructure indicates strong optimism about the economic prospects of our metropolis, which is very positive.

There are actually a number of other big investments going on in Liverpool City Region currently. For example, there’s the £100 million Liverpool Shopping Park, which also opened in October. That’s described by its developers as “the UK’s biggest, new retail and leisure destination”, who note that there are “1.8 million people living within a 30 minute drive time“.

For now though, let’s enjoy the impressive new Mersey Gateway bridge. After all, more than 1m vehicles crossed it in its first 16 days of operation 

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.