Have we passed peak London?

Clouds over London. Image: Getty.

London has grown steadily for the past 30 years, in people, jobs and self confidence. Population growth has been driven both by in-migration (more people moving to London than moving away) and by natural change (more births than deaths). International migration – both EU and non-EU – has been a major factor in the city’s growth, outweighing domestic migration, where London has been a net exporter of people.

For some, London’s growth should be celebrated as evidence of its success as a global city: it’s a jobs machine; an economic powerhouse; a gateway to the UK; a generator of fiscal surpluses for the whole nation. For others, London is a “dark star”, draining the rest of the UK of people, talent, public spending and media attention. Its growth is seen as unnatural and unbalanced, leading to a large and increasing gap in opportunities, wealth and income between London and the rest of the UK.

These debates are familiar and entrenched – but perhaps they are becoming out of date. There are already some indications that London is at the edge of a major inflection point: could it be that, rather than continuing to grow, London is about to stall, or even go into decline?

Prime and decline

For much of the 20th century, London was in decline. After World War II, the city’s manufacturing and goods-handling economy faltered. Between 1966 and 1974, London’s manufacturing employment fell by 27 per cent - a loss of 390,000 jobs. Planning and economic policy favoured dispersal, more balanced regional growth and the creation of New Towns and Garden Cities outside of London. The capital’s population declined most rapidly in the 1970s: over the decade, the capital experienced a net loss of 740,000 people – that’s 10 per cent of the city’s population.

Few, if any, commentators foresaw the change that came in the mid-1980s, as the long decline in both population and jobs slowed and then reversed. Sentiment began to shift; London began to look like a place to be, rather than a city to flee. The completion of the single market, freedom of movement and EU expansion helped London to develop a specifically European economic and cultural role, alongside its status as a global city.

Globalisation – the easier movement of people, goods, services, money and ideas across borders – boosted London’s role as a centre for communication and control, and as a meeting place within the world economy. Language, time zone and cultural assets all helped. English became the global business language. London’s working day helpfully overlaps with Asia in the morning and with North America in the afternoon. And the city’s liveability, cosmopolitanism and cultural offer all made it attractive as a location for decision-makers, skilled workers and students. Complementing this economic growth, by the turn of the 21st century policy shifted to favour cities.

Without the benefit of hindsight, it is much harder to decide if we are now approaching a move in the opposite direction. There is some evidence of this: in the year to mid-2017, London’s population experienced the slowest rate of growth in over a decade, at only 0.6 per cent. International migration to London has declined to a net gain of only 83,000 individuals in 2016-17, though it remains the largest contributor to growth in the capital.

National Insurance Number registrations by people coming from overseas to work are dropping, with EU registrations falling 25 per cent year-on-year to the first quarter of 2018. Net internal migration saw a balance of 107,000 people leave London for the rest of the UK, more than 14 per cent higher than the previous year. Over 4.7m international visitors came to the capital in the final three months of 2017 - a noticeable 5.7 per cent fall compared with 2016.

Slowing down? Image: Merlijn Hoek/Flickr/creative commons.

Passenger journeys on public transport are also decreasing slightly. Falls in ridership may be an early sign that London is at or close to reaching peak growth. Or they may be driven by other factors – for example by changing work or commuting patterns, generational differences in housing choice and lifestyle or the rapid rise of ride-hailing apps.

Still the main attraction

Yet despite concerns over the impacts of Brexit, London’s economy has proved resilient, with unemployment continuing to fall and job numbers increasing. The number of jobs increased to 5.863m in the final quarter of 2017, a 98,000 (1.7 per cent) increase from a year earlier and a new record-high. The employment rate in London stood at 75.2 per cent in the three months to March 2018, also a record high. Job growth is predicted to continue, as job vacancies in the capital have reportedly increased by over 14 per cent in the year to the second quarter of 2017.


London continues to be the most productive region in the UK, although many new jobs have been created in low-pay and low-productivity sectors. And it’s still a very competitive destination for investment. In the EY 2016 European Attractiveness Survey, 57 per cent of almost 1,500 business leaders sampled put London among the top three cities for foreign direct investment in Europe.

So is London’s long boom finally coming to an end? Like any demographic or economic turning point, this one will be easier to spot in hindsight. If current trends continue, then London’s growth may slow considerably - or even perhaps reverse - over the next 30 years. Brexit could affect this in unforeseen ways - although the economic impacts of Brexit are likely to be worse outside London than within. And for the time being, London is still growing in terms of people, jobs and economic activity.

The Conversation

Mark Kleinman, Professor of Public Policy, King's College London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

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.