The young people of West London want to keep Hammersmith Bridge car free

Hammersmith Bridge. Image: Getty.

The young boy, his face creasing into a frown, was anxious to remind his mum that he did have asthma and that fewer cars would be a good thing. “Yes, you’re right,” the mum conceded, before replying that, having initially been in favour of reopening the bridge to all vehicles, public transport, cyclists and pedestrians only would now be their choice. 

This was just one of the 120 or more interviews I recently conducted regarding the closure of London’s Hammersmith Bridge to motorised vehicle. The survey suggests that the closure has led to a range of benefits for bridge users, and that they are open to alternatives for how the bridge could be used in the future. 

That future is to be decided by the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, which owns the bridge. The council, working alongside Transport for London, which operates the bridge as part of its Strategic Network, has reaffirmed that it will be re-opened within three years and restored “to full working order and to its Victorian splendour”. 

Despite the council’s proclamation, there remains much uncertainty -- not least, as to who will foot the bill for the repair work. One thing that is clear is that the bridge does need to be repaired. But is reopening it to all modes of transport really the only option?

Whilst it cannot be denied that the closure of the bridge to motorised vehicles has had a negative impact on some, a greater number of those surveyed (48 per cent), acknowledged that it did bring some benefit. One Barnes resident reflected that the bridge “feels very natural as it is”, while an elderly lady confided that “before I felt nervy crossing on foot, with vehicles constantly going past”. 

Those who believed that there were some benefits cited improved air quality as being the single biggest (38 per cent). Others believed the biggest benefit was an improved experience of crossing the bridge (29 per cent), whilst one in five (21 per cent), identified that the closure of the bridge to motorised vehicles as something which had encouraged a positive lifestyle change. 

A young couple explained that, although the closure of the bridge to motorised vehicles meant ordering a takeaway, or getting an Uber after a night out was problematic, it had encouraged them to make positive lifestyle choices. “Yes, we’re trying to cook and he’s definitely walking more now.”  

Foregoing luxuries such as taxis and takeaways may not resonate with those who depend on the bridge for essential day to day activities, although the way in which respondents want the bridge re-opened in the future just might. Almost as many people (41 per cent) believe that the bridge should be reopened to public transport, cyclists and pedestrians only, as those who believe it should be reopened as it was previously used (43 per cent). 

The former choice was the preferred option (48 per cent) among those aged 29 years and under. One teenage girl explained that, although re-opening the bridge to cyclists and pedestrians only was her first choice, she believed that it was public transport which would help “provide for the elderly”.  

Many respondents suggested smaller electric buses, whilst others are clearly concerned that returning to a high-volume traffic flow is a threat to the future of such an iconic structure.

In a new-found appreciation of the bridge, one respondent seemed to echo the thoughts of many; stating that the bridge had the potential to become a “sublime public space”. 

When respondents were asked whether they could see any benefit for the use of the bridge as a community market one day a month, three quarters (76 per cent) answered yes. This figure rose to 8 out of every 10 respondents (83 per cent) of those aged 29 and under. Two boys suggested that “a market would bring the two sides of the bridge together”, whilst a nineteen-year-old beamed that a street performance space “would be next level”. 

With London holding its first Car Free Day last weekend, it certainly seems that there is an appetite among city users to reconsider how we use our streets. Although the wheels are already in motion for motorised vehicles to be rumbling over Hammersmith Bridge within three years, it seems that the young are already imagining alternative ways in which this iconic structure could be enjoyed by future generations.  

Charles Critchell is the founder of Fare City, a city transport think tank. You can find it on Twitter at @fare_city.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.