“Transport has shaped the modern city and will continue to do so,” was Tom Venables of Aecom’s perceptive introduction to ‘The Connected City’, an evening of discussion and debate on the future of London’s transport infrastructure held on March 5th as part of RTPI London’s Centenary Series. The event was aptly hosted at TfL’s modern Palestra offices, just a stone’s throw from some of London’s most recent large transport projects: the new Borough Market Viaduct; Blackfriars station, which now straddles the Thames; and the Jubilee line extension.
Lisa Taylor, Director of Policy Network Future of London, chaired an evening which saw thought provoking presentations from eminent speakers. TfL’s Head of Planning, Michèle Dix, light-heartedly introduced as “teflon-coated”, lived up to this reputation as she confidently set out the organisation’s vision for the future describing what are, in truth, vast challenges to the network. By 2031, the population of London will be 1m higher than predicted in the Mayor’s previous Transport Strategy and continuing to increase. Yet Michèle Dix was buoyant at the prospect of meeting this challenge, setting out a vision which included both ‘soft’ and physical measures, delivered through a bold new funding mechanism designed to unlock growth and address issues including air quality, congestion, capacity and network reliability. Notably, the Mayor’s £4bn package of highways improvements received particular attention, tackling head-on a topic which has been a moot point in recent years. Indeed, Dix concluded with a (now farcical) early 20th century quote, “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a fad”. Perhaps at the RTPI bicentennial planners will look back at our fixation with the petrol automobile in jest!
Presenting recent research findings of the OMEGA centre for excellence in future transport, Professor Harry Dimitrou of UCL provided a contrasting viewpoint. Far from instilling optimism, Dimitrou delivered an impassioned wake-up call to planners to abandon outdated cost-benefit analyses for approving infrastructure mega-projects and look to wider public benefits. Describing the lack of adequate assessment models for billion-dollar projects as “disgraceful”, he called for a rethink of the objective-driven rhetoric by which large infrastructure investments are judged and urged a more organic, transparent process which recognised that project aims can evolve over time. Using cost-benefit analyses to justify a transformative project like HS2 is, in Professor Dimitrou’s view, “nonsense”, and he left the audience with a warning: “Whatever this country does in terms of vision, you can be sure that the rats will get at it”. Though directed towards the HS1 project there is the sense that history is repeating itself with HS2.
Richard Blyth from the RTPI approached the connectivity theme from a more traditional perspective, yet his bleak messages echoed the thoughts of Professor Dimitrou: lack of investment in rail and road in the late 20th century has left us with an outdated network; poor transport is the largest impediment to delivering housing; fragmented governance restricts the development of coordinated infrastructure; and enthusiasm for the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project regime has waned. There is, however, hope. The example of the reinstated Borders Railway out of Edinburgh Waverley provides evidence to suggest that investment is now being justified not purely on transport and economic grounds, but on the wider benefits to society. Richard Blyth encouraged this approach , highlighting that if just 10% of the recent investments around HS1 stations could be accredited to the new rail link, the initial project has already paid for itself. Meanwhile, projects such as Media City UK in Salford are acting as a benchmark for good practice in collaborative work between both public and private sector agencies, whilst local, sustainable funding for infrastructure is being pioneered in Cranbrook. As planners, we need to work together with strategic partners to gather both funding and support for crucial transport investments, in order to unlock wider benefits.
In contrast to TfL’s ambitions for a broad range of interventions, David Leam of London First set out narrower critical priorities for the Capital. David Leam emphasised how vital a positive uptake of the findings of the upcoming Davies Commission was to London’s world city status with direct links by air shown to induce 20 times more trade. Similar weight was given to the potential of Crossrail 2 and improved river crossings in East London for concentrating development in sustainable locations and delivering growth and housing.
Nick Lester of London Councils added another perspective to the infrastructure debate, urging planners and policymakers to think local. Lester emphasised that jobs and homes must eventually move closer together if we are to tackle air pollution and ensure the sustainability of London’s infrastructure (going beyond just transport). Nick Lester explored the term ‘strategic’, reminding his audience that 24% of all journeys in London are by foot, with 50% of car journeys being less than 2km. Small, ‘nerve’ schemes will therefore be crucial to the future of London’s infrastructure, delivering quick-wins and off-setting the disbenefits of planned large scale infrastructure projects on affected residents. They will also help to facilitate crucial local journeys to drive the economy.
A lively questions session followed. What all can agree on is that infrastructure will be crucial to tackling some of the biggest problems faced by planners in London and beyond. Perhaps the key message was the need to successfully balance large scale, visionary investments against smaller, ‘soft’ measures and taking into account wider considerations than normally used in traditional economic cost-benefit analyses. This is clearly something which only be achieved through strong partnerships and cross-disciplinary working.
Special thanks to TfL, our main sponsor and hosts for the evening.