Cities in motion: transport is as key to urban character as buildings or accents
I have been very pleased to see the Guardian add a section on Cities, and I am finding the articles posted there very informative. For instance Alex Steffen writing about affordability and his prescription – build lots of houses. This morning there is a wide reaching review of how transportation defines cities which is written by Colin Marshall who hails from Seattle and thinks London is defined by The Tube. It is an easy mistake for an American to make, and is about as misguided as a Londoner thinking that New York is defined by its subway. He does have a very interesting overview and a wide range of samples, and makes some good points. But both London (and New York) rely very heavily on a much wider network than their inner urban mass transit systems.
The tube, in London, serves mostly the northwestern quadrant – as is apparent from Harry Beck’s geographically distorted diagram. This is the original from the 1930’s. Bank Station – at the centre of the City is over to the right. Note the position of the Thames relative to most of the network. The District Line through East London is not shown as a line, merely a list of stations.
The historical reason for this is that the mainline railway that served this quadrant was initially not very interested in operating suburban services as it made much more money from long distance trains. Including boat trains to Liverpool that connected to liners to New York, as well as the premium Scottish expresses. The tube was originally built by entrepreneurs looking to make money, and what they found was that the short lines under the central area were not long enough to be profitable and cost a great deal to construct. The companies became profitable when they extended out into the fields which could then be built over with houses for commuters. The first underground line (The Metropolitan Railway) was extended in tunnels to Wembley and then out to Amersham and beyond on the surface. Many of the connections into Central London were made by tacking existing branch lines onto the tube. In Beck’s map above the Central Line stops at Liverpool Street. The service now goes out far into Essex on former GE branch lines – and a new tube under Wanstead built just before the war and uncompleted in 1939 which became a factory until hostilities ceased.
There is only one tube line through South London (the Northern Line). That is because the Southern Railway and its antecedents had much less long distance traffic but were early adopters of electrification for the dense network of lines that radiate out from the series of terminals built to serve both the City (to the East) and the West End. The even built their own tube to connect Waterloo to the City (known as the drain and only relatively recently incorporated into the Underground network).
The main line railways were not allowed to build into the City itself, and were kept in a ring along City Road (under which the Met was built). For the Great Eastern (the same company that built what became to be BC Rail) the need for a larger terminal nearer the City meant they wanted to redevelop a notorious slum called the Jago. As a condition of being allowed to demolish that warren of extremely dense – and very unhealthy – housing, they had to provide workmen’s fares at low cost to allow the displaced to relocate to new suburbs in places like Walthamstow and Leytonstone.
London began to sprawl long before there were motorcars. Development stretched out into the country along the railway lines, railway stations became the centre of towns that grew up around them. In the interwar period with the construction of new faster roads for cars and as unemployment relief – the Great West Road, Eastern Avenue – this development started filling in. Instead of the “beads on a string” pattern of the railway towns, there was “ribbon development’. In the period when people were tasked with thinking out what would happen to London after the Luftwaffe were stopped from flattening so much of it, the idea was to prevent this continuous urban area by specifying a Green Belt. The current boundary of Greater London lies within that Green Belt, which marks the limits of how far the ribbons of sprawl had reached by 1939. Post war there were to have been New Towns, that would be both free standing and self sufficient – providing employment to reduce the need for commuting. That did not work out. Basically the suburbs leapt over the Green Belt and kept on going. Boxmoor (see below) is in Hemel Hempstead – near the station – and has a very fast service into Euston that I used to commute on just before I left for Toronto.
One of the stupidest decisions made by the self serving Governor of New Jersey was cancelling the railway tunnel that would have relieved congestion between New Jersey and midtown Manhattan. Penn Station (now hidden beneath Madison Square Garden) is not just the busiest in New York – it is one of busiest passenger terminals in North America. Grand Central is not far behind. Manhattan lies at the heart of a huge megalopolis and depends on railway services to the surrounding region. It would be impossible for the downtown towers to work as employment centres if those people all tried to drive to work. Though Robert Moses did his best to try and accomplish that.
In both Central London and Manhattan most of the people there during the day got there on trains. In the case of London those trains come from an ever widening ring of urban areas – as train speeds have been increased and services improved. I used to think that getting a seat for a 25minute ride into Waterloo so that I could read on my commute was about optimal. Many others travel further and longer. Lord Olivier famously commuted from Brighton (about an hour – and at one time you could get kippers for breakfast on a Pullman train). Those commuters might need to add a short tube ride from a terminal like Paddington (as you will need to if you decide to use Heathrow Express to get into town from the airport) or Liverpool Street. The current construction of CrossRail is designed to reduce the congestion on that route.
For many people the tube is something to avoid. You do not have to suffer from claustrophobia to find the crowding and depth of the station platforms a deterrent. Fortunately there are always alternatives. In fact in Central London it is nearly always quicker to walk than travel between adjacent stations – or even three or four stops. Especially if a change of lines is needed. The need for a rapid increase in transit capacity created by the congestion charge lead to a huge improvement in bus services. For visitors, I would recommend that using a combination of Boris Bikes, buses and walking is going to be a much nicer experience than the tube – especially at Rush Hour (actually several hours).
When I wrote this I had not seen this article in The Independent ” twice as many people ride the bus each day as the Tube” by the Labour spokesperson on infrastructure.