Why cities need public transport to be competitive

Just imagine Paris without this lot. Image: AFP/Getty.

Try to imagine for a moment, difficult as it may be, a major European city – London, Paris, or Madrid – without public transport. Picture the chaos as the whole city grinds to a halt: the congestion, the pollution, the noise, the stress...

It’s easy to take it for granted, as we go about our daily lives. But public transport is one of the key ingredients in making our cities both environmentally sustainable and economically competitive.

However, while the social advantages of public transport are well known, its economic benefits are less often discussed. In fact, the sector accounts for €130-150bn of the EU’s GDP each year, as well as providing 1.2m jobs and indirectly creating the conditions for an estimated 2-2.5m more. In other words, public transport is in fact a significant motor for economic development in itself.

That’s why, in London, one of the major advocates for the soon-to-be completed Crossrail project was the business sector: it realised that investment in public transport is key to matching employers with appropriately skilled employees, and retailers with customers. Indeed, public transport helps to increase labour force mobility, thus opening up a wider variety of employment and learning opportunities.

Public transport itself is also a major contributor to both national and local city economies through the diverse range of skilled, high-tech jobs that it offers directly. In many European cities (Brussels, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris), public transport operators are in fact the largest employers. These companies offer employment to local people at the service of the local community. They also provide jobs that cannot be outsourced or “off-shored”.

The capital investment in projects such as Crossrail sparks a chain reaction in business activity up to three of four times the initial investment, enabling and promoting urban densification and greater urban productivity. Investments such as these can also provide up to twice as many local jobs than investment in other areas, such as roads, due to their complexity and thus the variety of competencies required.

Such projects can also help to act as a catalyst for wider urban development, helping to attract businesses and private investment to cities. The opening of a new metro line in the French city of Lyon, for example, quadrupled the rate of urban regeneration in the corridor it served; the proportion of new buildings developed along the route that are used for commercial purposes stands at 60 per cent, compared to just 13 per cent elsewhere in the city.

While large-scale public transport investment projects are undoubtedly expensive, they are actually significantly less expensive than the direct cost of congestion. Traffic congestion can seriously harm the competitiveness of cities, affecting travel time reliability and business productivity. About 50 per cent of the cost of traffic congestion is borne by business; it is estimated to cost the EU economy a staggering €100bn per year.

By transporting large numbers of people more efficiently, public transport has a major role to play in alleviating congestion and smoothing traffic flows. If the external costs and social impacts of congestion, such as pollution, are factored in, it becomes even clearer that investing in public transport is actually good value for money.

There’s one last element in how public transport helps make cities more competitive: that’s what we call the “global appeal” of a city. Public transport networks and infrastructure play an essential role in city tourism development, as it is often the prime means for visitors – whether on business or for leisure – to get about the city, to access heritage and cultural sites, and to access local businesses. Research from the American Public Transportation Association has shown that cities with rail transport from nearby airports to the city centre are more attractive for both business travellers and international conferences and meetings, thus benefitting local economies.

Public transport therefore generates a wide range of benefits for cities, well beyond just the mobility sphere. By directly contributing to the competitiveness of cities, public transport enables savings and creates value for individuals, businesses and public authorities, notably through higher tax revenues. When public transport schemes are integrated into economic development strategies – urban development and housing policies, education and employment strategies, as well as the tourism sector – cities are able to truly flourish.

 Alain Flausch is secretary general of UITP, the International Association of Public Transport.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.