Jake Sumner: The light at the end of the tunnel

In the first of our articles from the latest edition of New Ground, SERA Executive Member Jake Sumner considers the history of public transport and where it takes us.

'A developed country is not one where the poor use cars but where the rich use public transport.' Enrique Penolosa, Mayor of Bogota, 1998-2001.

This year the Tube - London’s iconic underground system - celebrates its 150 year anniversary, the first underground public transport system in the world. Those pioneers laid not only the public transport foundations but an idea that shapes this city today - the shared experience and identity from the system they put in place.

 This is what the former Mayor of Bogota encapsulated in his now virally retweeted quote and should be uppermost as we consider the urbanisation of the world and the inexorable growth of cities. Good public transport not only makes our lives more liveable but, as I will argue, brings wider benefits to an economy – direct and indirect – and to society through identity, shared space, and manifestation of the power of the collective.

While many US cities are finding to their cost the lack of public transport through the failure to invest, new urban centres are recognising the benefits. From Bangkok to Lagos, cities are putting in place new systems: light-rail to metros and buses.

London itself is being renewed with the construction of Crossrail, the largest engineering project in Europe. While I was at Transport for London, working on the campaign which secured Crossrail funding and putting in place the communication programme to launch construction, I saw what was at stake – a new rail service under London’s streets with 24 air-conditioned trains an hour boosting capacity by 10 per cent. Combined with the new London Overground services, the upgrade of Thameslink and the revamp of the Tube, the city, with a population slightly smaller than Sweden’s and with an economy significantly larger than Portugal’s, is getting the renewal it needs.

I apologise for being London centric, and I will not solely focus on the capital, but in looking at the benefits of public transport as I seek to do, London provides case study number one.

We all know that public transport enables us to travel between A & B more easily, quickly and in a more sustainable way but the benefits are much wider.

Public transport connects people to jobs and supports economic and business development – an enduring ferrying of people and key infrastructure for thriving cities and towns. Crossrail will generate more economic benefits that it will cost to build. And it is not just grand projects – bus services are often vital, particularly for young people, to get to jobs.

Stations and transport hubs can support a thriving ecology of small businesses. The remodelled St Pancras station has become a destination to go to, not merely a somewhere to pass through. And it is not just retail. Light-industrial premises are often created along train infrastructure providing much needed space for small businesses.

Public transport is not just a connector to but a driver of employment opportunities, providing employment through the running of the services, supplier businesses, and the construction and manufacture of the kit. We do not capture enough of this benefit in the UK but we should and could.

HS2 and the world-wide development of high speed rail provide opportunities for those willing to align government support with industry to secure the global manufacturing jobs and the supply chains through this new generation of railways. China is looking at this prize. We and other European nations should too.

As well as economic gains, public transport has a positive role in shaping the lives we lead. In a successful transport system like London’s, people from all walks of life and communities travel on it. It bring people together, creates surprising connections and strengthens the common bond.

When the London Overground line opened, it connected the capital’s two largest Vietnamese communities in Hackney and Deptford.

From Blackpool or San Francisco’s trams to Paris’s Art Nouveau Métro, iconic public transport systems can help define a city or town. London’s red buses and the Tube system, with its copyrighted Johnson font, the roundel and Beck map, is one of the strongest public sector brands in the world. It is part of why people feel proud of and connect with their city.

Urban transport systems can give definition to neighbourhoods through local stops. Histories have grown through them. Camden, where I live, is integrally linked to the development of its railways, canals and Tube stations.

In London there has been a very strong sense of design underpinning the Tube. The Holden designed stations like Southgate are landmark buildings, defining and shaping the town centre as well as arterial routes into the city.

Lagos in Nigeria, the sixth largest city in the world, has recently introduced a new Bus Rapid Transit system. The idea is not just a new bus fleet but to provide a different type of service. With segregated right-of-way lanes and a focus on customer service it aims to create an oasis in the bustle and complexity of Lagos, the sixth largest city in the world. The authorities have recognised the effect of the transport system on how people see their city and relate to each other.

Public transport can help broaden minds, such as supporting the reading of books and newspapers, when travelling. The Metro newspaper exists primarily because of the readership through the morning London commute. And on the Tube we have Poems and Art on the Underground, widening cultural experiences.

Once we begin to understand the full benefit and value of public transport, it can move from the silo it is sometimes located. Public transport is investment not just in mobility but in economic and public value. Like the NHS it is a manifestation of the power of the collective. It stands in contrast to the atomised view of society, that the individual is always best. There are those that argue that car driving is liberating – it can be, but also restrictive. Public transport unleashes a much stronger, deeper power.

We have considerable experience of public transport systems and we should align this to the global growth of cities and new opportunities. China sees this. Last year when I was in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, it was China that was putting in place the city’s first bus service.

150 years ago we showed the world a new vision. Today we can renew this but let’s have the confidence to realise the full value of public transport, not leave it in the sidings.

Jake Sumner is a SERA Executive Member

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