A Clockwork Orange: How Glasgow's Subway system failed to break out of its circle

No train in sight: the Partick stop on the Glasgow Subway. Image: Gary Ferguson/Wikimedia Commons.

Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, has the world’s third-oldest underground metro system. Only London and Budapest boast more experience in lugging people about their merry way below our feet.

And Glasgow manages to do this with a stunning simplicity. Opened in 1896, its Subway route is circular, with two lines (“inner” and “outer”) circumnavigating a loop which twice crosses the River Clyde. The network (a term I use loosely) links 15 stations, and runs from the city centre to the West End, and across to the South Side.

In all, the seven mile route takes approximately 25 minutes to complete. In 2013-2014, the Glasgow Subway averaged almost 35,000 passengers daily – around 12.5m each year.

The existing network. Image: SPT.

So, the network is a simple one. But it could have been a lot more complex if the visions of a few Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) chiefs had come to pass a decade or so ago.

In 2007, a “feasibility study” outlined the SPT’s desire to expand the Subway network before the 2014 Commonwealth Games came to town. The plan would have involved creating a second circle, covering the east of the city, where the newly created Emirates Arena and Athlete’s Village were to be housed.

At the time Alistair Watson, a Labour councilor, released a statement promising:

 “We will deliver the East End extension for 2014. I am being unequivocal about that.”

Unequivocal, no less.

The proposed line would have interchanged with the existing network at its busiest station, Buchanan Street (which connects with the Queen Street mainline station), as well St. Enoch’s station. There would have been seven new stops, too, including Celtic Park. The whole lot was projected to cost £2.3bn.To research the project, in 2007, SPT executives flew to New Delhi to learn more about their underground set-up and transport preparations ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Despite this promising maneuver, no extensions ever materialised beneath the streets of the East End.

An extract from a 2007 leaflet showing the proposed extension. Image: SPT.

That’s a shame. Because Glasgow boasts an abundance of very usable and intact underground tunnels and old railway lines, some of which would have been re-used in an East End extension. Throw in road improvements and some new cycle routes, and there would have been clear benefits for a fairly tattered and beaten up part of the city.

The area certainly did benefit from hosting the Commonwealth Games. According to a post-games survey, the residents of Glasgow’s East End, where much of the regeneration activity was focused, welcomed the physical improvements to their neighbourhoods, and “felt safer living there than they had before” after a post-2014 Games survey.  Venues like the Emirates arena have attracted more events to the city, and an estimated £18m worth of new contracts have already been credited to the 2014 Games’ legacy.

And SPT’s “Subway Modernisation Programme” is very much in full swing. Some £270m has been spent or set aside for improving stations across the existing network, and the introduction of a Smartcard system has proved popular amongst travelers. It looks a lot better, too, with a chunk of the 1970s stylings now gone from the city.


But there remains a widespread feeling of frustration. The Commonwealth Games seemed to be the perfect opportunity – the perfect excuse – to radically upgrade Glasgow’s Subway system. But the city missed it. Only time will tell if this bold and radical idea will rear its head once more.

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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