Glass towers will be great for Greenwich Peninsula – but it still needs a bridge to Canary Wharf

An artist's impression of Peninsula Place. Image: Knight Dragon.

The plans for a £1 billion revamp of North Greenwich tube station look amazing on paper. A famous architect, 800 homes, a performance venue and 30-storey glass towers… What’s not to love about Santiago Calatrava’s Peninsula Place?

Greenwich Peninsula may finally get a building that replaces the Dome as its symbol. London’s mayor Sadiq Khan even showed up at the launch, purring about “unlocking” the area’s potential.

Peninsula Place is due to replace the Norman Foster-designed bus station that sits on top of North Greenwich underground. The 20th Century Society wants it listed, but it’s no longer fit for purpose. An awkward design leads to buses queuing up to exit the station, particularly during the evening rush hour and major O2 events.

The problems also come from North Greenwich being the only tube station south of the river for miles around. It’s burdened with huge demand even before the 15,000 new homes planned for the peninsula are taken into account.

Peninsula Place won’t stop the battle of the buses

When North Greenwich opened in 1999, few lived nearby. Commuters bussed their way in from neighbouring districts such as Charlton and Blackheath, grateful for an alternative to poor National Rail services to central London. It can be cheaper, too: westbound trips from North Greenwich start in zone 2, neighbouring stations are in zone 3.

That big catchment area now stretches out to zone 4 Eltham, with one bus running non-stop down the Blackwall Tunnel approach to North Greenwich. Unsurprisingly, the 132 is now struggling to cope with demand from cost-conscious commuters.

The bus station is now at capacity. It’s packed and chaotic in rush hour. There are occasional reports of fights among passengers, while police sometimes have to supervise queues. A modest expansion – space to fit 17 buses rather than 15 – has been approved in the area’s masterplan. But this is unlikely to satisfy demand.

Pressure could be eased by improving National Rail services in the area, and maybe tweaking their fares to incentivise people away from North Greenwich. But change seems years off. The UK government is unwilling to devolve these services to the London authorities. So the new facilities will continue to face huge demand from people who don’t live nearby – piling pressure on the Jubilee Line.

The Jubilee Line will soon be at capacity

There’s some room for expansion at North Greenwich station, such as putting new entrances in. But the trains themselves can only hold so many. After the next Jubilee Line upgrade, which should see 36 trains per hour from 2021, there’ll be no more room on the line itself.

With major housing schemes also coming to Stratford, West Ham and Canning Town, it’ll be an almighty squeeze. TfL admitted so much in a submission to Greenwich Council in 2015, when the peninsula’s masterplan was approved, saying: “Jubilee Line crowding is already an issue and is forecast to continue in 2031.”

There are no new plans to provide any significant public transport access off the Greenwich Peninsula – even if Sadiq Khan mistakenly told one TV interview the area is getting Crossrail.

So if the Jubilee Line breaks down, you’ll be stuffed. You’ll just be stuffed beneath some £1bn glass towers, rather than in a draughty bus station.

Greenwich Peninsula needs a bridge to Canary Wharf

But a fair chunk of North Greenwich’s commuters are heading only one stop west, to Canary Wharf. So why not build a pedestrian/cycle bridge over the Thames to the business district? One is already pencilled in for the west side of the Isle of Dogs – but one to the east would relieve the Jubilee Line, provide a bit of resilience and bring the peninsula closer to its neighbour across the water.

Building a bridge that could cope with shipping – including cruise liners – would be a challenge, but it wouldn’t be insurmountable. Architect Sir Terry Farrell has suggested a low-level lifting bridge.

In 2009, TfL estimated the cost at up to £90m – but dropped the idea and built the cable car around the other side of the peninsula instead.

Greenwich Council also turned its nose up at the idea when approving the peninsula’s current masterplan in 2015 – even though the planning gain on Greenwich Peninsula could have covered most of the cost.

Repeating the mistakes of the past

Instead, a ferry to Canary Wharf is being mooted. But it’ll be expensive for users, will be vulnerable to the weather and is unlikely to provide round-the clock access.

The controversial Silvertown Tunnel road scheme (declaration of interest: I’m involved in the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign) is likely to provide some extra buses (watch that bus station capacity). And the much-mocked Emirates Air Line cable car may see fare cuts if the tunnel gets the go-ahead.

But none of these will provide much capacity or resilience for the most popular journeys – and the peninsula will stay isolated from other areas of the capital.

Greenwich Peninsula was meant to be a community of the future. But much of what was built in the late 1990s hasn’t lasted. If Sadiq Khan and developer Knight Dragon want to avoid those mistakes and really unlock the area’s potential, they should think about putting some proper infrastructure in before the glass towers go up.

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How do North Koreans get to work? A guide to transport in the DPRK

Buhung station, on the Pyongyang Metro. Image: Jodie Hill.

Like so much else in North Korea, the country’s transport can be divided into categories: Pyongyang and not Pyongyang.

In the capital, centrally-run transportation is, compared to other extremely poor countries, efficient, cheap and well maintained. Outside Pyongyang, by contrast, the state has withered away – albeit not quite as Marx imagined it would. The near total collapse of state run transport infrastructure has left room for a wide range of enterprising North Koreans to make their living in the transport sector – provided, of course, a chunk of those proceeds makes its way back to the party.

So how do North Koreans get around Pyongyang?  

Here’s a homemade map of the city’s transport section:

A homemade map of the Pyongyang transport sector. Image: Michael Hill.

Some notes on all this. The names for Subway stations are translations of the Korean names, but bear no relation to their location. I filled in the (unnamed) trolley bus and tram stop names myself, with reference local landmarks; in fact, those systems both stop way more than my map implies.

What’s more, the Gwangmyeong/Bright Future station is closed, and has been for years – out of respect for Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Sung who are in a nearby mausoleum, which used to be Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang pad. The tramline to Gwangmyeong/Bright Future is also not really part of the public transport network, but is just for visitors to the mausoleum.

Getting about

A subway ticket costs just 5 North Korean Won (9,500 won to the dollar at black market rates). If you need to transfer you will have to buy another ticket, there are no travelcards or season tickets. You can check the best way to get where you are going at most stations (possibly all) contain interactive maps.

Pyongyang subway interactive map. Image: Jodie Hill.

Just press the name of the station you wish to travel to from the list along the bottom, and the route from your current station to your destination lights up. This may or may not be overkill for a network with just two lines and 16 stations.

Incidentally, the logo has the word 지 (ji) which is the first syllable of 지하 (jiha) which means underground. The title just means “Information board”, and the question is, ‘Where are you going?’

Some stations are 360ft (110m) deep, double the depth of the deepest station (Hampstead) on the London Underground.

The escalators at Buhung/Revival station escalator. Image: Jodie Hill.

While this bomb shelter might be useful one day, for now it just means Pyongyangites add ten minutes to their planned journey time – which encourages many people to take the tram or trolley bus instead. When you finally get down to the platform you won’t have long to wait – at most 5 minutes during peak times, 10 minutes off peak.

The North Korean government never misses a chance to propagandise: every station has a theme. For example the station name Gaeson means “Triumphant Return”; it’s situated near where Kim Il-Sung gave his first speech as ruler. Inside the murals depict crowds attentively listening to him. The style is not dissimilar to the grandeur of subways in the former Soviet Union, but with much less emphasis on the workers and modernist art and a lot more on the rulers.

The trains themselves were made in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s. There are allegedly some new trains – but they look suspiciously like their older counterparts given a lick of paint and an electronic information board. The old East German stock has been moved onto the national rail network. While these days powercuts are much rarer than in the 1990s (when, for long periods of the day, the subway didn’t operate at all), a torch and something to read might be advised just in case you get stuck.

The central figure is Kim Il-Sung. Image: Jodie Hill.

The ‘showcase’ station is Buhung (“Revival”):

Images: Jodie Hill.

The others are much the same only without the chandeliers and with much dimmer lights.

Above ground

While electricity is hardly plentiful in North Korea, compared to oil it is pretty abundant. Therefore, buses have gradually been phased out: now trolley buses and trams then form the backbone of the transit network in Pyongyang. As regular as the subway, but with a bigger network and not requiring a long escalator ride – or walk, as the escalators often break down – this is the most popular way to travel around Pyongyang.

The ticket price is again just 5 won (about 0.4p). The trolley bus vehicles were mostly manufactured domestically, while the trams are second hand from communist era Prague. Power cuts are much more frequent on the trolley buses and trams than on the subway: passengers on an affected service are expected to push.

The rail network is rarely used for commuting. Even for those way out in the plush satellite town of Ryeongsong (at the far north of the map, and home of Kim Jong-Un and many other top party cadres), those not high enough ranked for a car take the trolleybus rather than the train to commute to work.

Venturing out of the capital, the official transport network shows signs of near collapse. As far as I am aware, the only other city with a tram network is Chongjin, but it’s hardly extensive – a one line system, eight miles long. It suffers from much more regular power cuts than its Pyongyang counterpart, and relies on hand me down trains from the capital. Many cities have a trolley bus service on paper – but most have no service at all or, at best, a skeleton peak hours service only.

The national rail network is worse. Before you can even get a ticket you must apply for permission – a process that can take days – though nowadays this can be circumvented with a bribe. Tickets are cheap, usually just a few hundred won (a few pence), but with frequent power cuts, journeys take even longer than the 12mph average speed suggests they will. While Kim Jong-Un’s travel habits are unknown, both his father and grandfather liked to travel by private train, and this would lead delays of 24 hours for people travelling in the same area. Freight takes priority over passenger rail, and virtually the entire network is single track and with no sophisticated signalling equipment, meaning trains often have to wait for a long time to let others pass.

A map of the network. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of these problems lot of passenger traffic has moved onto the roads. Enterprising Koreans who have obtained licenses, as well as state operated enterprises (particularly people associated with the police), have bought second hand buses from China and now use them for inter-city transport.

Reports vary about whether travel permits are required for bus travel, and about how hard they are to obtain. Prices fluctuate due to changes in the oil price and vary wildly by region. A journey from Nampo to Pyongyang (about 30 miles) costs $5. A journey of similar length between two cities in the north east costs around $15, while in the north west just $2.

Journeys are not comfortable. North Korean roads are often unpaved, always potholed, and the buses were not in great condition even when they left China. Nevertheless they link the emerging market economy together.  

North Korea road map:

A map of the network. Blue routes are all paved, others mostly unpaved or paved a very long time ago. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

For shorter journeys, taxis are now an option in most medium sized cities and even in some rural areas. There are at least four taxi companies operating these days in Pyongyang.

North Korean won won’t get you very far though: taxi drivers want dollars (two of them), to take you anywhere plus another 50 cents for every kilometer you travel, about three times the cost as in North East China. The only network outside Pyongyang I know in detail is one run by a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin, which recently imported dozens of almost new taxis from China. Payment is accepted in North Korean won, Chinese RMB and US dollars; a 10 minute journey costs 1 dollar.

Taxis are beyond the means of most North Koreans, though. The backbone of North Korea’s transport infrastructure is formed by bikes.


Bicycles were illegal in Pyongyang until 1992, and this ban was strictly enforced – but since it was lifted, bike use has really taken off. In smaller towns they often serve as a status symbol as much as transport, much as cars do for many in the west. The wealthiest now ride electric assisted bikes imported from China, though the Ford of North Korea is the Pyongjin bike company, which has cornered 70% of the market according to the leading North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

It is still technically illegal for a woman to ride a bike, but this ban is not strictly enforced. (I know of one woman who used to ride her technically illegal bike to her technically illegal small business, a bicycle repair shop.) Legally, every bike needs a license plate, and each rider needs take a test and get a license – but this too is mostly unenforced.

It is illegal to ride on North Korea’s mostly empty roads. This ban is not enforced in most cities, but is in Pyongyang, where the government has started creating cycle paths on the pavements as well as a bike hire scheme. If you can’t afford a bike yourself, a ‘bicycle carrier’ will give you a lift for about five US cents per kilometre – although, like a land based Ryanair, you have to pay more for bags. Both customers and workers in this sector tend to be very poor.

North Korea’s transport mirrors the North Korean economy. Pyongyang just about manages to present itself as a communist city. Outside the capital, though, secret policeman, state-operated enterprises and sole traders make a living – and sometimes a fortune – keeping the country moving among the remains of a communist economy which never delivered.

With thanks to Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange and Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours for helpful conversations.  

Michael Hill wants you to be his third twitter follower so you can see more versions of the Pyongyang transport map.