Monday, July 31, 2017

Transportation investments and urban development

"Connectivity is destiny", so says a nice NYT article on the ambitious Crossrail project in London. I  am very sympathetic. The article nicely captures the power of planned transportation investments in transforming the fortunes of neighbourhoods and keeping cities chugging as engines of economic growth.

Crossrail, the roughly 70 miles and $20 bn railway project, is Europe's largest infrastructure project, and which would cut crucial travel times by half and carry twice the number of passengers as London subway. Its objectives are nicely summarised,
Crossrail was intended as a kind of democratizing corrective, at once shrinking the city and expanding on a vision of London as a great, inclusive metropolis. While it will whisk bankers at new speeds from their office towers and multimillion-dollar aeries to Heathrow, it will also help millions of now-marginalized, lower-income workers, unable to afford runaway home prices in and around the center of the city, to live in cheaper neighborhoods often far from their jobs... Crossrail now promises to bring six million people and 80 percent of London’s corporations within an hour’s commute of the airport, up from three million and 50 percent today. 
London has been remarkably successful in adapting and even re-inventing itself to meet the demands of emerging economic challenges,
While Londoners love to moan about their public transit network, by comparison New York has barely managed to construct four subway stops in about a half-century and its aged, rapidly collapsing subway system now threatens to bring the city to a halt... During the past three decades, London has been transfigured by wild growth, much of it the consequence of government-sustained megaprojects: Along with Crossrail, there have been the stupendous renovations to King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations, the wholesale invention of Canary Wharf, the addition of the Jubilee subway line, the Olympic makeover at Stratford in East London and the expansion of Heathrow Airport. These megaprojects, in different ways, helped remake London into the great global city-state of Europe, a 21st-century melting pot and Sybaris of culture and free-market prosperity — at the same time that they clearly exacerbated underlying urban inefficiencies and stirred resentment elsewhere in England toward the city... London... is historically poor in the east, rich in the west and along the periphery, although that east-west distinction has eroded as gentrification has seeped outward. Underserved and long-disconnected East London neighborhoods like Shoreditch and Whitechapel in recent years have become chic and largely unaffordable to many Londoners. The city has added light-rail lines to help some of those areas, but only Crossrail is capable of “tying together many of the developments that have transformed London". 
The economic benefits of such projects are high, as the example of King's Cross area renewal has shown,
The area around King’s Cross, once notorious for drugs and prostitution, has metamorphosed after the renovation of the decrepit King’s Cross station and its neighbor St. Pancras, now serving the Eurostar express train to Paris and other cities in Europe. King’s Cross today is home to an art school, The Guardian, a cluster of high-tech medical research centers and Google’s future European headquarters. The point: Major, long-term infrastructure projects support game-changing investments. 
Or the development of the Canary Wharf area,
From Heathrow, riders will need just over a half-hour via Crossrail to travel east to Canary Wharf, the defunct docklands turned world financial hub, which today employs more than 112,000 people. When the site opened in the late 1980s, the aptly named Narrow Street was its only real access road. Canary Wharf went belly up. Then London broke ground for the Jubilee subway line, linking Canary Wharf by mass transit to the heart of the city, and international banks started moving in... Foster & Partners, the celebrated London-based architecture firm, has designed Canary Wharf’s Crossrail Station, a spectacular glass and timber tubular structure, docked like a giant cruise ship beside the firm’s HSBC tower. Nearby, Canary Wharf plans to build thousands of new luxury (and some affordable) homes and other developments by high-end architects like Herzog & de Meuron to turn Canary Wharf into more of a neighborhood.
Even before its completion by end-2019, change is well afoot along Crossrail's alignment,
The final stop on that southeast spur of Crossrail is Abbey Wood, where Sainsbury’s, the chain store and a bellwether of gentrification and commercial investment, has lately opened a shop in anticipation of the train. Streets here are lined with terrace houses now occupied by plasterers and truck drivers. Record numbers of landlords in the area have been filing applications for renovations, believing that Crossrail will attract bankers and lawyers. Property values are expected to rise on average 10 percent around all future stations along the Crossrail route. Change is even more acute one stop before Abbey Wood, in Woolwich. The Berkeley Group, a big British real estate company, is building 5,000 sleek, mostly high-end apartments around the future Crossrail station, which the developer paid millions to help construct. Hugging the Thames River, Woolwich is the former site of the Royal Arsenal and Henry VIII’s dockyard, where Charles Darwin’s Beagle was built. Historically working-class, it, too, used to be all white but has come to attract Caribbean and Asian immigrants, with nearly 40 percent of residents today living in social housing. 
The article does maybe make a simplified and picture-perfect representation of transportation investments in London. But it makes a very strong point about the power of urban renewal built around transportation investments and transit oriented development planning.  

This is something which the largest Indian cities have to embrace. They need urban development authorities and municipal corporations to focus on the critical challenge of guiding densification, expansion, and renewal using the instrument of transportation investments. Unfortunately, not an area which are among the current priorities of these authorities.

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