Here’s a whole fantasy metro network for, er, Aberdeen

South and St. Nicholas Kirk Spires viewed from Union St. Image: Ragazzi100/Wikimedia Commons.

Here we go again: another letter from a reader with some crayons and a map.

You want overly ambitious transit plans? Allow me to oblige…

Today we’re taking a look at Aberdeen. Just shy of a quarter of a million people live in Scotland’s energy capital, and its transport system is clearly creaking at the seams.

The Beeching axe fell heavily on the city, and with horrendous timing. The oil boom began a mere three years after all the suburban and local lines were closed, so all subsequent growth has piled further pressure on a congested road network. In addition, the Don and Dee rivers to the north and south of the city create bottlenecks as all the resulting traffic is forced across too few bridges.

The new Western Peripheral Route bypass, which took over 30 years to plan and build, is about to give the city the usual lesson in induced demand. So I instead present my alternative six-stage plan of increasing ambitiousness to relieve the Granite City’s gridlock.

1. Using the existing railway infrastructure, institute a dedicated service between Stonehaven and Inverurie.

Scotrail has already started extending Aberdeen-bound trains to Inverurie to give the beginnings of this service – but dedicated trains on this route would be able to serve Stonehaven, Portlethen, Aberdeen, Dyce and Inverurie at a reasonable frequency. Adding stops to the current long-distance services is an improvement, sure enough, but doesn’t give anything like the level of service that a true metro rail system needs to be reliable enough to get people out of their cars.

2. Add additional stations on the existing line at (from south to north), Newtonhill, Cove, Tullos, Kittybrewster (for Aberdeen University),Woodside, Bucksburn, and Kintore.

The next stage is to resurrect most of the axed suburban stations between Stonehaven and Inverurie. This lets us connect the swathe of commuter suburbs that have grown up in the south of the city, the industrial areas at Dyce, Tullos and Altens, and several neighbourhoods and suburbs in the north of the city, all of which need better connections.

3. Built a rail spur from Bucksburn to the airport

Look at this. Just look at it:

Image: Open Street Map.

Aberdeen has a rail line running right beside its airport, but it’s almost impossible to use the railway to get there, because the terminal is on the wrong side of the site from the station. This means that the 3.1m passengers a year who use the airport – which is also the UK’s largest heliport – almost all end up in the same traffic jams on their way back into the city. Who did this? Who looked at these plans and thought that this would make sense?

Oh. Apparently it was the same people who designed almost all of Scotland’s airports, as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Dundee airports all have railway lines adjacent to their airports, but no direct rail link to the terminal. The only airport in Scotland to have a rail link with a dedicated station serving it is Prestwick, which makes up for this oversight by having hardly any flights from it instead.

Seriously, a short spur line to connect the airport, and the new Exhibition Centre, with the main line could slash journey times into the city, and make this layout a whole lot less infuriating for everyone who has watched in despair as the taxi meter ticks ever upwards while sitting in a queue at the Haudagain roundabout.


4. Re-opening of the Royal Deeside line

To the south-west of the city, there’s another problem area. The route into the city from the towns and suburbs along the north bank of the Dee is the crowded, single lane, not-very-great, Great Western Road.

The solution? Resurrect the old Deeside line as light or heavy rail. The alignment of the track bed is still mostly intact, it’s just been converted into a scenic footpath. With a bit of work to restore bridges and stations, this route could provide much needed relief all the way out to Banchory with stations at Aberdeen Joint Station, Ferryhill, Holburn Street, Garthdee, Cults, Milltimber (where we could site a new park & ride facility by the new Western Peripheral Route), Peterculter, Drumoak and Banchory.

Extending the line to Aboyne and Ballater would be a little trickier, and harder to justify. The population density is lower out here, and a new track bed would need to be constructed, as the original route takes you miles out of the way, in a Victorian-era fudge that avoided the property of a local landowner who didn’t want the line crossing his land.

However, extending the line would complete the historic route to Ballater, the traditional gateway to Balmoral, allowing tourists and locals alike to access some of the most picturesque parts of the country.

5. Dyce-Newmachar-Ellon branch re-opened with option to extend to Peterhead/ Fraserburgh.

The north-east of Scotland is home to one of the country’s rail deserts – with the closure of branch lines north of the city leaving a chunk of the country cut off.  

Re-opeining the Buchan branch line to serve Ellon, Peterhead and Fraserburgh (with a straighter and more direct route than the meandering Victorian-era line) would bring over 40,000 people back within reach of the rail network.

With new technology, the resurrected line can be straighter and faster than the pre-Beeching line, which took a route far inland. Happily, the route of the old lines is more or less intact once you get to these three towns, which means that reconstructing tracks and stations won’t be too difficult.

6. Bridge of Don light rail connection

The northern suburbs of the city are a real transport planner’s headache. With only three bridges over the Don, journey times can double during rush hour, as the sheer weight of traffic holds everything up. Unfortunately, geography is not on our side here, as a steep climb on either side of the course of the river, plus extensive, car centred development makes it very difficult to find a route to relieve the hold-ups.

Therefore, my final, and most ambitious suggestion is to build a tram-train service which uses the main rail line as far as Dyce, then branches off to bridge the river, and describes a wide loop north of the Don, utilising the wide avenues of the Parkway, and threading new routes between existing developments to provide an alternative public transport connection for the north of the city.

So here’s the final completed route diagram, in all its glory:

Image: created with Metro Map Creator.

If you have an over-ambitious rail proposal for your city, why not get in touch?

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

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.