Old Oak Common - a big hole in London's infrastructure
Hats off to Terry Farrell for challenging some of the perceived truths about travel and communications and for questioning Foster's Thames island airport proposal.
In an article in Planning in London he argues that big ideas, like the new airport, are expensive and take a long while to come on-stream, while smaller projects can solve the problem in the short term, without compromising the big idea. He calls it incremental planning and I'm sure he's got a point.
He's also to be applauded for putting forward a very neat solution for increasing access to Heathrow by linking the check-ins to a new High Speed 1 and 2 interchange at Old Oak Common. When I was doing a masterplan for Swindon more than ten years ago we were told that there would soon be check-ins at Hayes to link Heathrow directly to the West Country Lines and to the Reading-Swindon Silicon Vale. That never happened. Though it was a condition of the construction of Terminal 5 to reduce car access to the airport I see no signs that this has worked.
But I think both Farrell and Foster are missing something in their future gazing. The premise of both schemes is that air travel will continue to grow. This assumption should be questioned.
I was advising the Gatwick Diamond Development team the other day. They almost fell off their chairs when I asked the question, "What if air travel decreases in the future?" But it's a question we should be asking.
Air travel is one of the most carbon extravagant things we can do. Just one trip to the USA every year will cancel out any benefit you gain from living in a state of the art eco-house (1). As carbon taxes kick-in then air travel will be hit more than most. As governments expand the high speed rail system around the UK and Europe, more and more people will (I hope) decide to go by train. That option just isn't here at the moment. It could well be that internal flights become prohibitively expensive. And I'm never convinced that a jerky flight between close locations isn't the mugs way of travelling anyway. Show me a comfy carriage and a view of the countryside any day and I'll show you a place where I can work, send emails and relax!
The assumptions are that everything will always get bigger. This is the sub-text of Terry Farrell's article. But I just don't think that an unfetteredincrease in air travel is either desireable or inevitable. If you work on policies to reduce air travel to the minimum and increase travel by other means (good old modal shift), then the projects that government needs to support would be quite different.
All that money could be spent on a series of smaller interventions, including the Old Oak Common interchange, and would mean spreading the benefitsto a wider public. Even though Mayor Boris Johnson supports the airport scheme, his opponent, Ken Livingstone does not. With mayoral elections coming up this spring, we may find that Farrells solutions will curry favour with a new administration.
The clincher for me is that it's easier to get twenty smaller schemes on the go than one big one. Given the history of developing airports in this country, anyone who puts all their regeneration eggs into an airport basket is in my view - just that - a basket case!
I think we can be pretty sure that world populations will continue to rise. The need for travel and communications will also rise, but whether that has to be linked to air travel is not definite. For starters lets try to encourage people not to take internal flights, but to travel by train instead.
1. BioRegional assessments of occupants in BedZed found that those who travelled by air cancelled out the benefits of the housing.