London has numbed me to everything and I have lost all sense of wonder

Sunshine over south London. Sort of. Image: Getty.

London is weird. Living in London is weird. I know it intellectually, and I’ve definitely lived in some of the absolute weirdest ways in London, and it’s not like I can’t have noticed that recent period where I was living on a boat with no door in a tidal creek or anything.

But you can get used to anything – especially with the blinkers-on observational shutdown of city life. So even if everyone I know from everywhere else knows that London is an alien concept, and even if when I actually stop to think about it the dissonance does creep a bit, I mostly don’t notice. Like when the rent comes out and you just think, “ah, the immutable force that makes me poor despite earning well over the national average has visited again, like the tooth fairy”. And then get a six quid pint to soothe it all over.

I’m a motorsport journalist, and I travel a lot for work. Covering Formula E, you get to see cities – and I’m interested in cities. My work involves a lot of mysterious wandering around Eastern Europe, taking dramatically grim photos of concrete, and I own more books about bricks than most people, especially most people who write about driving in circles for a living.

Some of it sort of smacks you in the face. I went to Monte Carlo last year; it’s a staggering, high-rise ode to being filthy rich, so sumptuously and comfortably presented on the Mediterranean coast that, like a Tory who keeps buying you rounds of drinks, you feel your ethics being so very pleasantly eroded by every second you spend there. Obviously, I paused to look in an estate agent’s window to laugh at how many millions of pounds I’d need to rent a shoebox, ready to be vicariously stunned by the lavish costs around me.

It was about the same as a posh flat in London Bridge. For some reason, my reaction to this was to question why living in the 2km2 of Monaco wasn’t more expensive, not what on earth London had done to itself. I mentioned it to a fellow Formula E person from London and they agreed – how was this tiny haven of tax evasion so darned cheap? Haha, how we laughed.

Not that I can afford a flat in London Bridge. But if I could, the weather’s definitely nicer in Monte Carlo – and the air doesn’t try to murder you.

I just got back from Mexico City, which has the most traffic of anywhere on earth. Oh sure, you notice it – the roads are constantly jammed and the two taxis I took were the result of laziness that I instantly regretted, taking fifteen times longer than the excellent tube network. (Like, er, London – albeit with more accessible stations.)

People had warned me about the smog because that’s a thing you know about Mexico City; it’s at high altitude, there’s smog, and something about tacos. I cheerfully announced there wasn’t any, on a day when apparently there was an air pollution warning – because my black-gunk-filled, wheezing respiratory system is so used to London. I was genuinely finding it easier to breathe.


Equally, I had a sort of guilty meltdown three days in when I finally remembered I was in a city that had a devastating earthquake only last year. How could I forget or ignorantly not notice that? It wasn’t because I had some idea of Mexico City as half-demolished, some colonialist snoot about a poorer country: it’s because I’m so utterly numb to Crossrail-or-whatever-it-is-now digging enormous craters across everywhere that I just took reconstruction work or semi-crushed buildings to be background signs that Developments Were Taking Place.

Naturally, like any good Londoner I have long ceased looking directly at the Developments as I know they are not for me. So I hadn’t even glanced over the fences of the multiple sites I walked past, frantically raising a city from the earth that had floored it.

In Hong Kong I didn’t notice the high density. Staying in Chungking Mansions, famed for being threatening and warren-like, I reminisced in blasé fashion about the period I worked in Hannibal House, the condemned carbuncle whose concrete decay threatens the Elephant & Castle shopping centre. At a champagne-brand sponsored after party, I enthused to a colleague that the drinks were very reasonably priced at a mere £13 for a gin & tonic. I’d expected it to be much worse.

In Singapore, I found myself idly thinking about the fact the police weren’t very heavily armed, and that I hadn’t seen many of them for this supposedly repressive regime. Which is at least absolutely because Singaporean police weren’t the ones that have menaced me into keeping my passport on me at all times in the city I live in, because I am so scared by repeated requirements to prove I’m allowed in the country that I just numbly homogenised it into the field of ‘normal’.

I’m not stupid, or ill-informed about the places I’ve been, and very occasionally something does still strike me, like my naive observation that buildings in Montreal are really big. And in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I sickened myself by thinking I hadn’t seen any really shocking poverty – just because I am so used to seeing it in London. Returning to work when I got back, it was the families sleeping on the streets of the UK capital that shook me after the respite.

On a lighter note, I do often notice that cities are quite small. Berlin, Montevideo, Marrakesh – all tiny. Copenhagen, Toulouse, Turin – microscropic. Nothing seems further than 45 minutes’ walk away in Berlin: I don’t think I’d even hit Zone 2 in the same time, setting out from my home in East Ham.

Which is a neat summary; London has blown all my senses of scale. It’s galactic-brain-style, big-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness expanded my concept of price, size, construction, pollution so totally that I have no ability to even quantify them anymore.

Sipping wine in a UFO-shaped restaurant suspended precariously above Bratislava, I found the shaking every time a tram went over the bridge below didn’t bother my vertigo as much as it should. “Just like a tube train, really,” I said to my companion. Before wishing I could punch myself in my stupid Londoner face and get back some kind of sense of awe.

 
 
 
 

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.