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Is the future one of madness? Consider that we are building and building in London and the tallest buildings get higher and higher. But for what? Is it the same as providing Crossrail & HS2 and airport expansion etc? Have we got the resources for all this? More expansion? Have we got the need for Hyperloop? Faster high speed rail? Why do we talk about cheaper tunnelling and sending more vehicles along huge underground motorways? You’ll no doubt realise I am referring to the Boring Tunnel project! Space X where interstellar travel gets cheaper and space craft are finally able to return to Earth instead of being burnt up in the atmosphere. The list goes on and on…. its all very interesting but where does it lead? (Note: I originally wrote this in the autumn of 2019 – months before the COVID pandemic! Some extra text was added in the summer of 2020 with other changes in May 2021)

It is indeed very exciting when we look at the work and great innovation behind many of these schemes and the technology that is emerging as a result, but its not great if we are unable to consider the implications sufficiently. Hyperloop is exciting but at the same time is it what we need in terms of its enormous limitations? Why do we need people to get from A to B in ‘hyper’ time? Teach people instead to think their lives differently and more creatively – and we can be without Hyperloop. The same goes for supersonic flight (and of course for HS2 which was approved some weeks after I originally wrote this post!) Why are we wanting to save time? Why is something like twenty minutes a thing that must be saved in the course of an entire day by way of making a single HS2 trip? I think what it does it it actually illustrates we have no sense of time, in fact we have a huge schism between the demands of our existence and what the world we live on is really about.

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Hyperloop research continues. This is the facility at Toulouse. Source: Twitter

What about cities that consist of gigantic towers? Buildings that get higher and higher. Where does it stop? Think about it putting people in high rises means more materials expended to facilitate this and more energy expended to allow these huge shifts to take place. As well as transporting people to/from these places we need to transport them up and down these towers too! The taller the buildings go the more internal transport systems that are needed! I mean for goodness sake no-one is going to use any stairs save for perhaps a couple of floors or so. Try forsaking the lifts and walking up the stairs of the Burj instead! It doesn’t work because its both physically exhausting and time consuming, and no-one wants to expend an entire day’s energy just to be able to do that. A whole transport and infrastructure system has to be built in order to allow people to use skyscrapers – and the resources and energy for that has to be sourced from somewhere. No matter what there’s always some huge environmental disadvantage.

Its not only that. It means we become totally dependent on other means – trains, tubes, buses, cycling, to get us to work and then totally dependent on lifts/escalators/moving walkways just to access those specific parts within a skyscraper where one may work. There’s a whole gamut of dependencies our lives come to rely upon. As well as the place of work, these are also evident in the home, the kitchen, in leisure, in museums, galleries, and so on. Our interaction with the world is increasingly conducted through a huge firewall of various technological stuff where we are in fact understanding the real world less and less. Do we want to just gawp at monitors, smart phone screens, and experience the world by way of 3D visors and and interactive partitions? What’s wrong with the real world?

Certainly our cities are becoming fantastic and they are spectacular to say the least – but an infinite and constantly growing city of this kind isn’t much use if there is a climate issue or shortages of water, land, food and so on. These cities might be the hot seats of the future but if our focus and the way we have of doing things doesn’t change soon, these cities will instead become the hot seats of despair!

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The Burj Khalifa, Dubai. Source: Twitter

Let’s look at something that happened in London more than a hundred years ago. The first deep level tube railway opened in London during November 1890 and that was the City and South London. Unsurprisingly groups of people expressed their utter incredulity. Why on earth did anyone wish to send people on trains deep underground when one could build tramlines along the same alignments in the streets above? Why faff about going deep down in the earth’s bowels just to get a train somewhere when one could do it so much more enjoyably at street level?

The argument being made at the time (as is often still made even now) was these new deep level tubes were an answer to the horse powered traffic jams in the streets above. Instead of tackling the problems at source, they choose to build a new transport system in the hope it would solve the jams above. Did that happen? Nope! Look at photographs of Bank/Monument where the City and South London Railway terminated and what does one find. Huge swathes of horse drawn omnibuses and carts going nowhere fast! The problem clearly wasn’t solved but a new one had in fact been added!

What was the point of that particular exercise then? A piddling little railway whose locomotives couldn’t even properly ascend the gradients into King William Street? Sending people down in lifts in order to access a railway deep down below ground where almost windowless carriages arrived and felt like a prison on the move. ‘Padded cells?’ Exactly! You had to be mad to use this railway. It was no doubt a strange sort of voluntary incarceration! The point made by campaigners against the City and South London Railway was that these new tube railways were merely a means of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Or as some modern types might have said, using a nuclear bomb to kill a parrot.

Its clear that they didn’t understand things then, and these days things are still not understood! But the quest to build bigger and more than ever before is just as contrived. As is well known new roads mean more traffic and that happens to be one of the most simplest examples of these contrived scenarios! ‘Build demand where none exists’ surely also reads as ‘create problems where none exist!’

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The City & South London Railway. Source: Twitter

Anyway, what those early objectors to the City and South London Railway were saying was the new railway rather expended a lot of resources and effort simply in getting people on the move. Why drag people down into the bowels of the earth when a better solution could somehow be found by changing the way people used the streets themselves? If some of these anti City and South London railway campaigners had lived to the current era, they would have said, ‘see we told you! You continue to build things as answers to problems – but you don’t ever think through the potential side effects of such endeavours!’

Very interestingly Charles Yerkes (the Underground’s very own mogul) himself claimed people had no idea how to use the tube and most needed lots of encouragement. In short Yerkes was saying that Londoners were quite illiterate in the use of these new transport systems. Its sort of like telling people they don’t know how to use theme parks or funfairs! Oh for the irony of that! On the other hand these new transport systems needed to be used or the companies wouldn’t get their dividends! Yerkes was an example of how the new underground railways were most determined to generate demand in order to justify the building of their lines and thus make a profit. Its a technique that has been used by many others since and the best known rail based example of this particular approach was Metro-land.

This is the art of building new places in the hope there will be many people to use the new railways which will reach those new places! The underground railways (and the London Passenger Transport Board too) in fact built extensions and then tried to encourage people to move to these new areas! There wasn’t any huge clamour for living in the wilds of, say Pinner or Northwood, but the Metropolitan Railway and others built a demand into their equations by advertising these new places – and soon everybody had moved into the suburbs! Of course the railways were very happy with their results!

Going back to 1890 it was indeed an early form of environmental concern to be worried about the impact of these new deep level tube railways. On the other hand it was a case of getting people to use these for the purpose of enabling profits to be gained for the company in question. The age old argument of environment versus profit – and that’s a lot of what we are seeing even in the 21st Century. Clearly our underground railways haven’t always looked all that good on paper despite the claims that they now contribute towards a better environment. There’s loads of posters from the past that claimed the tube was warmer, drier and nicer to use. Lots of fantastic, artistic and very clever posters too. They have a niche in the transport world as outstanding examples of their genre, but like a lot of other things the major drive behind this particular publicity was to actually get more people to use the tube!

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The proposed Old Oak development. Source: West London Business

We’re still shifting people into new and major generational locations in a style rather like the Metro-land campaigns of old. But instead of these country places with low transport demand, we’re building huge sites where dense cores of people live and then the only effective means for them to move about is by using new railways or enhanced transport distribution systems. Present sites include Canary Wharf, Canning Town etc and future sites include Old Oak for example (25,000 homes.) Instead of spreading out resources such as food and energy distribution we’re focusing them in very concentrated areas. These areas might be nice to use – canals, parks, boulevards, but again what worries me is how additional resources, materials, and energy is necessary to establish and manage these new locations. Perhaps the way we see things and our desire to solve problems by creating new modal shifts is simply a way we must live. Sadly this in turn creates further problems and it seems to me that we haven’t quite yet understood how this cycle of affairs actually works.

The rationale behind this is quite perverse. If we had a better approach and could envisage future problems better, it might be more of a done thing. As it currently is, its all about build and build, expand and expand, and there’s not much beyond it really – save for the amazing structures and new transport systems that are to be admired. I mean, one can arrive at either Westminster or Canary Wharf on the Jubilee Line and pretty admire much the vastness and design of these huge cavernous structures that pass for stations, as well as admire the towering skyscrapers around Canary Wharf – but on the other hand one could say we’re going overboard not really knowing the full implications of what we are doing.

In short one could say we’re really going mad. Mad, mad, mad! And this madness has no end in sight.

One Reply to “Here’s to a suitably contrived future!”

  • I can understand the feeling behind this, but from my understanding cities are actually quite efficient ways of grouping people and infrastructure. There’s high utilisation and useful/interesting places can be reached easily, often by foot.

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