Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai, China)

Roads aren’t an easy subject to squeeze into The Beauty of Transport. They don’t generally make you stop and think, gosh, the sight of that road has really brightened up my day, or wow, the sight of that road has struck awe into the very core of my being. If either of those two things have happened, it’s a racing certainty that a road bridge has been involved.

And so indeed this week’s transport beauty involves a bridge, but only tangentially so.

Yes, I have found a beautiful road. Not just that, I have found a beautiful off-ramp (or slip-road, depending on where in the world you come from).

I’ve never seen it in real life (yet) but I got the shock of 2012 when watching the BBC’s Supersized Earth three-parter on how humans have re-engineered the world. There, for just a second or two, was the prettiest piece of roadway I’ve ever seen.

It’s in Shanghai, China, and it’s the off-ramp for the Nanpu Bridge, located on the west bank of the Huangpu River.

I ought, I really ought, to be horrified at the speed of urban growth in Shanghai. I’m quite sure that concreting over big bits of the planet doesn’t really fit in with one planet living.

But I’m really feeling prepared to overlook my concerns because while the Chinese have been at the whole megacity-in-a-few-decades project, they’ve also managed to engineer an off-ramp that looks extraordinary in the day time, a giant curly-wurly liquorice catherine wheel-construction bringing the roadway down from bridge height to ground level within a remarkably small space. Roads fly off from it in every direction. Am I getting carried away if I say I’m reminded of the ribbon component of rhythmic gymnastics, frozen in concrete form?

Well, I’m not leaving off just yet, because even better than the Nanpu Bridge off-ramp in the daytime is the Nanpu Bridge off-ramp in the night time.

You see, it lights up.

The Nanpu Bridge off ramp, illuminated at night. Photo by jijis [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The Nanpu Bridge off ramp, illuminated at night. Photo by jijis [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page


And that’s what I saw on Supersized Earth. So I’ve been doing some reading up on it.

It’s illuminated by a remarkable installation of rainbow-coloured LED lights (4,000 of them in fact), which run all the way across the main bridge and then right round (and round and round) the off ramp. With the lights of the traffic on the road all on the move too, adding to the light patterns, it’s an utterly mesmerising sight.

If I’m to believe the internet (which isn’t always the wisest course of action, but I’m fairly sure what I’m about to tell you is above board), the LED lighting of the bridge and off-ramp was undertaken for the Expo 2010 Shanghai China, by a company called Inventronics. It has a press release about the work, curiously illustrated with a picture of the Nanpu Bridge off-ramp at night…without the LED lighting, presumably taken before the project was completed.

Well, Inventronics might not want to share the fruits of its labour with the world, but I’m going to.

Imagine if a few more flyovers or grade-separated motorway junctions had lighting designs as interesting as this? How much nicer might the urban environment be? I know floodlighting is bad for astronomy (not least because I have a telescope and enjoy a bit of a look at the planets in a nice dark sky), but decent lighting design can ensure that light shines down, not up (allowing me and all the other proper astronomers to carry on observing). And I know that strictly, it’s a waste of electricity to light up things for no other reason than to make them look pretty. But I’m torn between my desire for everyone to live more sustainably and my desire for more gorgeousness like the above. And LEDs are pretty low power, aren’t they?

You see, the thing is this. I wonder what it would look like if we installed a few thousand multi-coloured LEDs on Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham. I used to live nearby, and if anywhere needs a bit of glamming up, it’s there. Just imagine…

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