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December 4, 2013 12:02 am
Commuters in London in 2050 will still jump on the Tube, catch a bus or hail a taxi but advances in technology and the pressing need to free up space in an ever more congested city look set to transform both the travelling experience and the face of the capital.
The transport planners cannot afford to stand still. The growth in London’s population over the past decade, adding 2,000 people every eight days, has forced them to rip up projections that it would hit 8.5m by 2030. There are already 8.3m inhabitants in Europe’s largest urban conurbation, a figure that is now expected to reach 10m by 2030 and could jump to 11.5m by the middle of the century.
Two big variables will influence future transport planning decisions, says Michèle Dix, head of planning at Transport for London (TfL), the body that runs the capital’s public services.
“One of the big issues that we face here ... is how much longer can it continue to grow as a radial city, where most of the commuting is from the periphery into the centre,” she says.
Alexander Jan, head of transport, strategy and economics at Arup, the engineering consultancy, points out that central London is the biggest “journey to work area” in Europe, with more than 1m people commuting daily.
Planners are trying to manage this by establishing “transport hubs” to stimulate regeneration, of which Stratford, the site of the Olympic Park in the east, is the first real example. The commuter town of Croydon, which became part of Greater London in the mid-1960s, is another likely candidate – it is already a focal point, with a large rail interchange and the only tram network in the UK capital.
In northwest London, planners have identified a site at Old Oak Common, currently a railway depot, as a likely interchange station between the proposed but controversial high-speed train line to the north, dubbed HS2, and other lines, including the £16bn Crossrail line that will connect west to east under London when it opens later this decade.
The other important issue that needs settling is the location of London’s main hub airport. The government is not due to make a decision on whether to expand Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, or move the hub elsewhere, most likely to the east of London, until after the next general election in 2015.
Something that will not change, says Ms Dix, is the demand for travel. “One thing is certain: people are going to continue to want to travel. We are social animals, we may shop online but we still like to go to the store to browse.”
The population explosion has increased fears that London’s transport system will grind to a halt irrespective of the projects already planned.
“London’s population growth is the fastest in modern history,” says Mr Jan. “It will be a real challenge for planners as it is hard to ensure the transport system can grow at the same rate.”
Ms Dix agrees that there is no time to lose. “Thirty years in planning terms is not that far ahead. Much of what we think will happen is what we think we can make happen.”
Billions of pounds is being spent on upgrading London’s underground rail service and that is set to continue.
Improvements to signalling and rolling stock have raised the capacity of lines already modernised, with train frequency rising from the mid 20s an hour to the low 30s.
Over the next three decades, frequencies will have to rise to 40 trains an hour, says Ms Dix. The only way to achieve that is to move to a fully automatic metro, following cities such as Paris, and letting computers, rather than drivers, manage the shorter distances between trains.
London’s first orbital railway, the Overground, has recently fully opened, spreading the load by helping people avoid passing through the centre just to make connections.
TfL is not only breathing new life into existing infrastructure. After more than 20 years on the drawing board, work finally started in 2009 on Crossrail, Europe’s largest infrastructure project. When completed, the line will run for more than 100km from Reading to the west of London, dipping beneath the centre of the city in tunnels, and on to Essex and Kent in the east. When it opens fully in 2019, it will lift London’s rail capacity by 10 per cent.
Lobbying has started in earnest for a similar project, dubbed Crossrail 2, that would run from the south-western suburbs underground to the northeast of the capital. TfL wants work to begin near the start of the next decade to ensure the line opens by the early 2030s. Again the impetus behind it is HS2, with TfL warning the extra passengers would overwhelm its proposed London terminus at Euston.
More controversial than any of the rail projects are proposals to bury some of London’s main arterial roads under the city. Ms Dix says such a move would free up land for redevelopment, both for building and to create more green space.
The obvious candidate is the North Circular, part of the capital’s hotch-potch inner ring road. Route A501, which links the A13 from east London to the A40 in the west, could be another.
There are precedents, including the so-called “Big Dig” project in Boston in the US, which ran massively over budget. It is the huge cost of tunnelling that Sarwant Singh, a consultant at Frost & Sullivan, believes will stop the roads from going underground. Instead, he says the more cost-effective way of achieving the same thing would be to copy China, where triple-deck roads are under construction.
“Building anything under the city is very expensive,” he says. A triple-deck road would carry local traffic on the lower level and long-distance traffic at higher speeds on the upper level – the middle tier would have turn-off ramps and interchanges linking the other two layers.
One technology being developed that is expected to make a significant difference to road congestion is automation, which will allow driverless cars, buses and lorries to interact with a traffic management system. Commuters using public transport will similarly benefit from being linked to the network via their mobile devices. Phones or tablets will act as smart tickets, allowing the user to plan and pay for journeys, while rerouting their owners to avoid delays.
Should a weary commuter decide a train or driverless bus is not for them, they will be able to hail a cab at the touch of a key on their phone. The difference is that by 2050, there will be no chatty cabby behind the wheel.
“The job of taxi driver just won’t exist any more,” says Mr Singh.
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