TRACKING THE FUTURE OF CITIES
By: Pierre Herman
While there’s no doubt we need more and better public transport, we must be aware of the way it impacts not only on the liveability of a city, but also on the opportunity to live there.
I was reminded of this when reading an article about London’s Crossrail project, a £14.8 billion rail link that will consist of 40 stations spanning the city (and the suburbs) from east to west, supplementing the city’s already massive spider-web of underground and over-ground trains, “tubes” and buses with a 10% capacity boost.
There will be up to 24 trains per hour, carrying 200 million passengers a year, placing 1.5 million more people within a 45 minute commute of London’s key business districts, and bringing additional transport options to many neighbourhoods.
On the surface there is nothing objectionable so far, or so it would seem. But we must remind ourselves that transport is inexorably tied to other measures of community health such as employment opportunities, affordable housing and tied into that, equality.
What I initially found striking about what I was reading was not the facts in themselves, but that I was reading them in the “Homes&Property” section. The article in London’s Evening Standard was written not with the tired, overworked commuter in mind, but the savvy investor and “forward-thinking home buyers” looking for opportunities.
According to the newspaper, home prices along the yet unbuilt route have risen by 20% more than “underlying capital appreciation in London”, and consultants predict another 13% rise (amounting to £60,000) over and above general appreciation by 2018. In central London, the 20% predicted increase will add £100,000 to the value of a home.
It will come as no surprise then that Crossrail, owned by Transport for London, is being partly funded by home developers. Some, like Berkeley Homes, have contributed 30% of the cost of building the stations (or in this case £30 million), intent on ensuring that the homes it builds, like the station and the retail space in and around it, become profitable investments.
Crossrail is the first transport project in the UK to integrate comprehensively with other developments, helping to create new neighbourhoods and commercial zones. It’s also hoping no doubt to replicate the success of the King’s Cross station redevelopment which saw a somewhat insalubrious area with a seedy reputation turn into a desirable address. “The scheme will lift the veil on some areas while bringing others in from the cold,” claims the article.
The formerly dilapidated Stratford district in east London is one prominent example of an area regenerated by transport infrastructure, not to mention the building of athelete villages and stadiums in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic games. Stratford experienced a massive home construction boom during and following the games and a grudual rise in home prices.
But what about in districts where new builds are less likely? London is already one of the world’s most prohibitively expensive cities to buy a home or rent (we can assume that rents will equally rise along the route and nearby) so while benefiting the property-investment crowd and home developers, where do home-buyers and future renters fall? Is Crossrail not really a case of government subsidising home-owners and developers, at the expense of commuters or future home-buyers and renters?
With averages wages falling and economic growth stagnating in the UK, the benefits of which reach only a tiny few, who will be able to afford the rising cost of homes along the Crossrail project and indeed in London generally?
London over the past several decades has already witnessed a documented gentrification of inner-city neighbourhoods and displacement of lower-income residents to the fringes of the city.
As projects such as Crossrail intensifies the demand to live within commuting distance of London (both from Londoners and those from abroad), the city is gradually becoming inaccessible to only the relatively well-off, a growing proportion of whom will be members of the international elite shopping for second or third homes. This latter phenomenon has been widely documented in the city’s poshest districts including Chelsea and Notting Hill.
The lower-middle and working classes, minimum wage workers, service-job employees and those otherwise trapped in the falling-wages predicament, will eventually be relegated further and further from the city, or to areas well away from glamourous transport projects such as Crossrail while the the upper and international mobile class will reap greater and greater benefit from “proximity”.
Rents for shop-space along the Crossrail line will also rise, translating into the shutting out of small entrepreneurs who will be unable to afford the up-front capital costs, leaving just the large chains and retail conglomerates who already dominate UK high streets to a frightening degree.
Crossrail’s slogan is: “Supporting London’s Growth”. But growth for whom? In the end, Crossrail is a case of government subsidising development and construction, corporate profits and property speculation, not the general health of communities or long term sustainability of London as a place to live for all lifestyles and incomes.
We could also critique the sense in building transport that consolidates the position of central London as a place to work at the cost of more sustainable transport and development models which houses people at closer distance to their place of work. Instead, we perpetuate a neoliberal planning model which sees home and work separated by long distances, albeit more conveniently for some, where the well-to-do have the opportunity to experience the joys of living close to work (i.e. “sustainable living”), and those with lower earnings have no choice but to endure a longer and more tiring schlep.
Transport has the potential to make or break our sustainable future, but it must be built responsibly with equality of access and opportunity in mind. Crossrail and similar mega-transport projects look good on paper and certainly have the power to shape communities and add wealth to a city, but as with any public-private partnership where profit is the main motive, there will be an increasing number who bear the burden of inequality.