Hundreds of people have signed their name to an online petition calling on city hall to keep London’s historic Blackfriars Bridge closed to vehicular traffic for the foreseeable future.
The city blocked vehicular access to the bridge in April of 2020 in a bid to provide pedestrians and cyclists proper physical distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The bridge is set to be reopened to eastbound vehicle traffic on Nov. 8 for the first time in more than a year and a half.
While the move may come as a positive for some motorists, local active transportation advocates argue the bridge has flourished during the pandemic as a popular way for pedestrians, runners and cyclists to cross the river while utilizing the entire bridge as opposed to a single walkway and painted-on bike lane.
“It’s been a great way to enjoy a historic bridge, a heritage asset for the city, up close. Being able to walk on the deck of the bridge is really wonderful as compared to getting squeezed to the sides while cars whiz pass,” said Chris DeGroot, who started the petition.
Just over 500 people had signed the petition as of Monday afternoon, and DeGroot said he had received positive feedback both through the petition’s comment section and through social media.
“A lot of people would be excited to have a link between the Blackfriars neighbourhood and downtown, (and) a link between the path systems on both sides of the river,” he said.
“Specifically one that is safe and is easily passible for kids (and) people of all ages and abilities who are riding a bike, (who) maybe find it very uncomfortable to cross the bridge with cars going past.”
Motorists have been barred from using the bridge for 18 months, longer than they were able to use it following its multi-million-dollar restoration.
The year-long project began in November 2017 and saw the bridge dismantled, and refurbished at an off-site location. The bridge was reassembled across the river in December 2018, and a grand ceremony was held to mark the crossing’s reopening.
“People are concerned, myself included, that having the additional wear and tear of cars will mean we’ll have a similar type of maintenance coming along sooner,” DeGroot said.
The April 2020 closure was the second time the city had closed the bridge to vehicles in less than a decade. From 2013 until it was hauled away for restorative work in late 2017, pedestrians and cyclists were the only ones allowed to use the bridge due to structural concerns.
“That makes me, and other people as well, question how important is it as a motor vehicle connector between Blackfriars and downtown if it’s been largely closed for eight years and people have been finding their way across the river via Oxford or Riverside,” DeGroot said.
City officials say the return of vehicle traffic comes in response to a decline in COVID-19 cases, high vaccination rates, looser pandemic restrictions, and a return to more normal activity on the city’s active transportation network.
“Early in the pandemic, we did see a lot of folks out using the parks and the trail network in that area. That’s really what led to the closing at that point in time,” said Garfield Dales, the city’s manager of transportation planning and design.
It’s very possible that the bridge could revert back to the way it was during the pandemic. Dales notes that city council has discretion when it comes to changes to the use of the bridge, should they feel a change is necessary.
DeGroot says he has been in touch with Coun. Elizabeth Peloza about his petition, and says the hope is for it to be presented to Tuesday’s meeting of the Civic Works Committee, which Peloza chairs.
Dales also notes that under the environmental assessment process relating to the 2017-18 restoration, the city is required to conduct a study of the long-term use of the bridge. Dales says he believes that the work is required to be undertaken before 2023.
“That would certainly involve the community and residents as well as looking at traffic patterns associated with the bridge… The final decision in terms of the use of the bridge in that approval would rest with the city council,” Dales said.
“Really at this point, we’re just monitoring the COVID restrictions, and as we see some of those restrictions lifting or being reduced, that’s really where we felt it was the appropriate time to reopen it back to its pre-pandemic configuration.”
The wrought iron bridge, erected in 1875, was designated a heritage structure in 1992 and is one of a small number of bridges like it that are still in active use.
In 2016, the bridge was recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering.
— with files from Jake Jeffrey
MORE: Photos of Blackfriars Bridge