The Wolfson Economics Prize: Here’s how we double the size of Oxford

Oxford: City of the future. Image: Getty.

Last night, the London think tank Policy Exchange announced the winner of its Wolfson Economics Prize. This year, the £250,000 prize was awarded to whoever it was who came up with the best plan to tackle Britain's housing crisis – specifically, by creating "a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular". Given the widespread opposition of existing homeowners to building anything anywhere in this country, this would be no mean feat.

Historically, “garden cities” have mostly meant either brand new towns, or massive expansions of tiny villages. But the winning team, led by David Rudlin of Manchester-based consultancy Urbed, took a different approach. Prevailing wisdom is that the economy of the future will be all about services, technology, knowledge and so forth. If you're going to build a lot of houses, then, it helps to do so near existing institutions that generate those things. Ideally, that means a university.

So the winning team came up with "Uxcester": a template for doubling the size of any city that already has a population of around 200,000. It's not based on any specific place, but is an amalgam of about 40 of them. Specifically, these ones:

Instead of just extending a city in all directions, Uxcester would mean adding "three substantial extensions", each of which would house around 50,000 people. All these homes would be within 10km from the city centre, and within a 10 minute walk from a tram stop (oh, the plan has trams, too, by the way). As a result, everyone should be able to get into town in half an hour or less.

Between these new developments, there'd be country parks and so forth (the “garden” bit of the garden city). So while we would be building on the green belt, in practice, we'd probably end actually making more green space accessible to the public, as opposed to the current morass of pony clubs and farm land that’s there now.

This design, as shown below, is known as the “snowflake” pattern. Awww.

Actually, there’s even more cutesy jargon in the plan. While the government would assemble the land and provide the infrastructure, it wouldn't actually build most of the housing. Instead, it'd sell it as individual plots and let the private sector do that part. This, Urbed says, is the "trellis" and "vine" model.

In theory, this is all very lovely. In practice, no British city actually wants to double in size, and translating theory into practice is going to be remarkably hard, as Urbed admits:

"We are also aware that by working in a fictional place we are avoiding some of the complexities, both political and practical, that each of these forty small cities face. The danger is that each will say 'that's all well and good but wouldn't work here'.”

So, they decided to test it by looking at a real city. Oxford is meant to be one of the great centres of the urban economy, but it's in danger of falling behind (it only has two science parks; in Cambridge, there are 18). To prevent this horrific fate, Urbed has set out how it could expand:

This plan would mean expanding the nearby settlements of Kidlington and Abingdon, and building on empty land to the east of Oxford. (To the west, this would be harder, so this area's been left untouched.) All these new suburbs would be linked by some kind of tram network, and protected from the elements by a new "flood attenuation system".

There's one other problem of course, brought about by high land prices:

"In the UK most of the money and talent in the house building industry is focused on unlocking the land through a contested planning system; on the Continent it is focused on what is built on that land."

Urbed's solution is to begin the process with a Garden City Act, which would give the government the power to make compulsory purchases of land, and then build on them. This shouldn't be expensive:  because it has no development value, green belt land is relatively cheap.

There would no doubt be political battles to fight before introducing any such policy, not least from the aggrieved homeowners, landowners and golf course who’d complain of the damage done by building new homes. But this proposal does at least move us beyond the fight over whether to build at all, and instead delves into how we might do so. It’s worth thinking about.

 

The other finalists were:

  • "Stoke Harbour", a new city of 144,000 people on Kent's Hoo Peninsula (runner up).

Homelessness charity Shelter, architects PRP, with advice from KPMG, Laing O'Rourke, Legal & General.

  • Four garden city "types", to be used to deliver up to 40 new garden cities over the next 25 years.

Consultancies Barton Willmore, with EC Harris, Pinsent Mason, Propernomics.

  • A new garden city south east of Maidstone Kent, to be served by trains on the High Speed 1 rail route.

Chris Blundell, a director of Golding Homes, writing in a personal capacity.

  • An "arc" of 30-40 new garden cities, of 25,000 people each. These would be built around London, from Southampton to Oxford to Cambridge to Felixstowe.

Wei Yang and Partners and Peter Freeman, in collaboration with Buro Happold Consulting Engineers, Shared Intelligence and Gardiner & Theobald.

All images taken from Urbed's "Uxchester Garden City" report. You can read the rest here.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.