London travel: what’s the plan?

The UK's capital lacks both the forethought and the political will to develop a decent transport infrastructure. An architect writes.

John Smith

Topics Science & Tech

I was recently told a story about a professor of English: a man with a rather sceptical view of the educational achievements of the students who had recently arrived at the university. In his first lecture, the professor observed that writing generally benefited from having a beginning, a middle and an end. In that order.

Transport infrastructure could be described in similar terms.

The beginning would be a masterplan that includes all forms of mobility – rail, cars, buses, bicycles and pedestrians. This masterplan would have a clear vision of how all these transport systems should be integrated into the planning of the city.

The middle would be the implementation of the masterplan, with various projects being constructed in a sensible order and to an appropriate timescale. And the end, of course, would be an efficient, convenient and comfortable transport system.

Transport strategy in London, however, clearly fails to follow such a helpful structure.

If the new central London congestion charge is designed to force drivers out of their cars, what has been done to persuade them to use public transport? Very little indeed. There simply isn’t the capacity in the Underground to take any more passengers – certainly not at the times most of us need to travel. Also, for many people, the quality of our public transport doesn’t really provide an attractive alternative to the car.

By way of comparison, it is useful to look at Singapore, where congestion charging was introduced years ago – and where the government has thought a lot about the way people move around the city.

My company has been working on the design of a new underground line in Singapore; and when we started on the project, I went to meet a civil servant in the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The first thing you notice when you arrive at this government building is a series of exhibition spaces, aiming to inform the public about the city and its future.

The most impressive exhibit is a very large model of the entire city. I noticed that many of the buildings had been modelled in some detail – with windows, doors and colours – but many other buildings were simple white blocks. The civil servant explained that the white blocks represented future buildings: that they were in fact part of the 50-year masterplan for the city.

The masterplan gives a lot of attention to transport and other infrastructure, because the Singapore government considers that infrastructure is the one thing they absolutely must take responsibility for. Implementation of this infrastructure has been underway for many years.

So in Singapore, the congestion charge operates in the context of major investment in public transport. There are good roads, buses, and light rail. The aim is to cater for all forms of mobility, including the pedestrian. And it has a superb underground system: trains are clean and comfortable; the stations are spacious, and built with the kind of high-quality materials that will still look good many years from now. All stations have platform edge doors, which not only provide increased safety, but by sealing off the tunnels, save considerably on the costs of air conditioning.

Alongside the development of the rail network, planners have focused on the interconnection between major buildings, and their integration with transport nodes. Take Raffles Place, in the financial district. There, around 30 commercial developments are already linked directly into the underground station.

My company has been working on the design of stations for the new Marina Line. These new stations will be very well integrated into the city, and are being carefully located to serve key urban areas – places like the international conference centre, hotel complexes, museum and cultural areas, and a new university. Each station has been planned to provide a comfortable walk to the main surrounding buildings. In other words, they are dealing with people’s door to door journeys.

Future plans for Singapore are even more ambitious. Marina Bay is a vast area of reclaimed land into which the central business district will expand, and this will have an even more comprehensive approach to planning and infrastructure. Although it will be mainly accessed by public transport, there will be good road connections. Drivers will arrive at large parking complexes on the perimeter of the central area. This dense urban environment will be further improved by a network of parks and landscaped public spaces, giving people a web of mobility across the whole of that part of the city.

From my experience of working in Singapore and Hong Kong, there is a clear recognition of the need to continue investing in the city’s infrastructure – and the political will to see it carried out. This investment is seen as a benefit to the quality of people’s lives, but it is also seen as essential to enable their city to compete with the world’s other major cities.

Many will point out that there are political peculiarities to Singapore, notable in that country’s emphasis on planning and regulation. But when it comes to transport, in fact it is London that is unusual among the world’s leading cities.

The apparent lack of ambition in London and the inability to deliver improvements to public transport is actively damaging. We are just not investing at an adequate level for the future. This is very frustrating for Londoners – and frustrating, too, for transport professionals, who know what could be done, but rarely get the chance to do it.

Take, for example, CrossRail – a project I worked on for several years. Crossrail
Line 1 is a proposed rail system that will link mainline services from the east and west of London by means of a new underground line across the city centre. When we finished working on the project, there was a complete set of working drawings and documents – technically, we were pretty much ready to build it. That was in 1994 – almost a decade ago.

Meanwhile, we do have congestion charging. I am not against congestion charging as an element of a coherent transport strategy. But I am sceptical about a situation where we’re trying to price people out of their cars, without offering them a decent alternative. It could be described as a carrot and stick approach – but without the carrot.

Dr John Smith is principal of John Smith & Associates (JSA Architecture Ltd) and JSA Opus, a transport architectural consultancy. He is also responsible for architectural research at the Royal College of Art.

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Topics Science & Tech


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