I spent an afternoon exploring Milton Keynes. Here’s everything I learned

Milton Keynes Village Church. How quaint. Image: Jonn Elledge.

For much of the last two and a bit years, I’ve been trawling the Centre for Cities database, looking for stories to tell about Britain’s cities. In that time I’ve learnt that the north-south divide is way worse than I thought. I’ve learnt that the rich south east is actually the rich south middle. And I’ve learned that, whatever way you cut it, Sheffield is stuffed.

Throughout this experience, though, the name of one city kept popping up in strange places. Milton Keynes has among the best paid workers in the South East, outside London:

Wages in the cities of Greater South East, excluding London. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Yet it has surprisingly affordable housing:

House prices as a multiple of wages in the cities of Greater South East, excluding London. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

All of which means that – in a country where most of us are forced to choose between a city where we can have a well-paying job, and a city where we can afford a house – Milton Keynes, remarkably, may be able to offer you both.

It’s possibly both a cause of and result of this that the city has roughly doubled in population since 1981, making it by far the fastest growing city in the region:

Population growth in the cities of Greater South East, excluding London. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

What was this land of milk and honey?

I’ve never been to Milton Keynes. I decided it was time to correct this oversight.

On arriving at the station (just 30 minutes by train from London Euston, fact fans) the first thing I noticed was an enormous plaza, surrounded by office buildings on three sides. You’d think the sense of space this creates would be nice, but for reasons I have never quite understood, wide open spaces in cities often feel desolate rather than spacious, and this was no exception.

 

The second thing I noticed was that none of the trains to London were running because of a nasty incident at Bletchley, and that it was possible that I lived here now.

Luckily, I also spotted this sign, reassuring me that – whatever I may have heard – there are plenty of things to do in Milton Keynes.

There was also this slightly confusing map, warning me that the commercial centre was a good 15-20 minutes’ walk away.

Oh well.

I decided to set off up Midsummer Boulevard, a name which I fear was rather overselling the reality. It’s a wide multi-lane highway, wih a tree-lined central section. On either side, there there are office blocks, with a sea of cars before them.

Oh, lovely. Image: Google Maps.

The whole thing felt oddly un-British to me: everywhere you turn in central Milton Keynes (“CMK”, as the maps and signs brand it, for some reason) there are hotels and office blocks and restaurants, set behind seas of cars. These commercial plazas are a sight common along the suburban highways of most American cities, but one which looks strange and alien when transposed to a city a few dozen miles from London.

There should be a bagel bakery in one of these, surely.

This sense of a vaguely American form of urbanism was only increased by the shopping district, which is built around a covered-but-open mall. Here’s the central square, back when it had a tree:

Image: Chris Nyborn/Wikimedia Commons.

And here’s one of the side... what do we even call this? It’s not a side road. A side alley?

Then there are the street names, and the smaller entertainment districts, which in one case combine to form this:

Even the city hall – no sorry that's Christ the Cornerstone Church, my bad, thanks to Tom Ryan – and the park-like path leading up to it, looked like something which would fit right in in upstate New York.

 

Sorry about the thumb.

The most striking building in CMK (honestly, guys, that’s not a place, it’s a brand of perfume) is The Point, an entertainment complex shaped like a pyramid. It used to be a cinema, but is now a bingo hall, and frankly, it’s seen better days:

Sadly, Historic England has refused to list it on the grounds that it is “in essence, a light industrial shed”. Spoilsports.

One thing to be said for Milton Keynes is that it has good facilities for pedestrians: an entire system of protected paths paralleling the street, which drop into subways so that you never have to cross a road. One thing to be said against it is that everything is bloody miles away from everything else: it had taken me an infuriatingly long time to get this far and I felt like I’d barely seen anything.

Luckily, despite the fact it’s obviously been built around the needs of the car, Milton Keynes is also a surprisingly good city for cycling in. It has a 273km system of shared cycling/walking paths called “red-routes”:

A map of Milton Keynes cycle routes. The red routes, confusingly, are not all in red. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Open Street Map.

It also has a system of hire bikes. So, to cover more ground, I hired one, and went off into the residential bit.

And suddenly, I could see the appeal. Most of Milton Keynes is made up of quiet, pleasant streets, with lots of different architectural styles and plenty of green space.

There’s a nice big park, Campbell Park, right next to the city centre, where you’ll find this view:

There’s even an old bit. Milton Keynes was formed by the merger of three existing towns (Bletchley, Wolverton and Stony Stratford) and a bunch of villages. It’s from one of these which the city took its name, and Milton Keynes Village is still surprisingly pretty:

I know, I know, thumb again.

Oh – and it’s still building houses

None of this was my thing, exactly. I prefer cities to suburbs; I don’t live in central London because of all the clean air or space it offers. But I could see why it might appeal. In Milton Keynes, you can get a decent size house with a garden and streets your kids will be safe playing in, at a relatively affordable price. Of course there’s a market for that.


It was only after I’d abandoned my bike by the Xscape indoor skiing and skydiving centre (yep, really) and gone back to the station, that it hit me. The thing I’d liked about Milton Keynes and the thing I’d hated came from exactly the same place. It has a horrible, spread out city centre full of bland offices and parking lots. But it also offers big houses in quiet suburban streets with lots of neat parks. It’s basically a midsized American city – Lexington, Kentucky, perhaps or Akron, Ohio – dropped into the landscape of southern England.  

It’s not my thing. But I can see why it’s other people’s.

I managed to fight my way onto a train doing its best impression of the last flight out of Saigon, so I didn’t have to live there after all. If I did, though, I think I’d choose to live in the district of Monkston Park. No reason.

If you’d like me to come and poke aimlessly around your city, for some reason, drop me a line.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.   

All uncredited images courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.