The need to decarbonise our economy means the pace of infrastructure development is going to accelerate - we are going to have to get a lot better at project management
I will try to ensure this blog post does not read like one long whinge, but in the interests of full disclosure I'll warn you now that I am unlikely to succeed.
Like tens of thousands of other commuters my first week back at work has been severely disrupted by the public transport chaos centring on London Bridge station. For those of you living outside the capital, the past week has seen one of London's busiest station descend into shambolic and dangerous levels of over-crowding and confusion as long planned work to upgrade the platform and concourse entered a new phase. Trains were cancelled at a moment's notice, appalling planning saw information boards stuck in a corner of the concourse leading to genuinely dangerous levels of overcrowding, severe delays have become endemic as operators somehow failed to anticipate what would happen when the number of tracks in and out of the station was halved. The changes had been months in the planning and yet the chaos has now been going on for three days with little confidence that there is a simple solution available.
For me, a commute that typically took just under two hours each day has been extended to the point where it has been pushing three hours for a return journey of under nine miles. With some reports suggesting the disruption could extend into 2018 my wife and I are currently resigning ourselves to the sad fact that when our soon to be born first child appears I may struggle to make it home for their bed time. Self-pity is not a great look, and I am fully aware I am lucky to have a job to commute to and a flat to commute from. But I can't help but find the looming reality of these precious lost hours both upsetting and infuriating. Those fellow commuters facing disruption to journeys that are already longer than mine will have it much worse.
As I write Mayor Boris Johnson is reported to be meeting with Network Rail to demand an explanation as to why this chaos was not avoided and attempt to work out what can be done to tackle the problem. Perhaps he'll tackle the mounting fear that public transport riots could actually become a thing by proposing a £60m cable car for each and every delayed commuter.
Why am I venting about all of this on a blog dedicated to environmental and business issues, beyond the obvious desire for a cathartic rant? Well, the scandalous mismanagement of the London Bridge upgrade is an infrastructure issue in the same way that climate resilience and the low carbon economy is an infrastructure issue. In fact, as part of the UK's wide-ranging national rail upgrade programme the project is part of efforts to shift to a lower carbon transport model.
The problem for the UK, not to mention many other countries, is that the chaotic scenes at London Bridge are anything but an isolated incident. From energy to transport, infrastructure is creaking across numerous industrialised nations, further fuelling understandable hostility towards the fares, bills and taxes needed to pay for increasingly essential upgrades. The net result is everyone is left facing a miserable set of choices: Rail network, over-crowded and over-priced? Try getting in a car and adding to toxic air pollution and congestion. Or why not get on a bike and risk traffic accidents and breathing that toxic air? Fed up with commuting altogether? You could try working from home, but that assumes you can actually get a mobile phone signal and live in an area with half way decent broadband. Our collective infrastructure needs an overhaul, and yet no one, myself included, wants to pay for it, nor endure the disruption that comes with new projects.
However, if we are to deliver the long promised financial and lifestyle benefits that should come with a more sustainable economy our inter-related infrastructures urgently need transforming. Meanwhile, climate change looms like a multi-headed hydra threatening to make complex infrastructure challenges ever more daunting. The combination of the need to make essential infrastructure resilient to climate impacts (and bear in mind that some of the disruption to London commuters this week was a result of ice on rail tracks) and the need to deliver new low carbon sources of energy and forms of transport means the pace of infrastructure deployment is going to have to accelerate drastically over the next two decades. And yet almost every attempt to deliver much needed upgrades risks disruption that further erodes public support and confidence in these essential services, at the same time as dealing yet another blow to already worryingly low levels of economic productivity.
There is ample evidence to show modern, clean, sustainable, efficient, and life-affirming metropolises are both possible and desirable. Over the next few decades it should be possible to build green cities where people travel manageable distances from comfortable green homes to ultra-efficient and inspiring workplaces using zero emission transport - all of the necessary technologies already exist. But such a vision is only possible if we get a lot better at the kind of long term, integrated planning and astute project management that has been sorely lacking in the capital (and plenty of other cities) in recent years.
As the London Bridge chaos proves, much greater value needs to be placed on the basic project management, public engagement, and contingency planning skills that help minimise disruption from infrastructure construction and maximise satisfaction with the end result. Sometimes that may mean taking longer to deliver projects, other times it may mean dishing out compensation or offering stakeholders investment opportunities. It definitely means having the foresight and common sense to modify rail timetables whenever you close a load of platforms and lines.
It may also require customers and affected businesses being more directly involved in the planning and project management process. None of this is easy, but it may prove essential if massive disruption is to be avoided. To this end, Green Alliance's recent call for a new approach to infrastructure planning that invites the public to take much greater ownership of the projects they rely on represents an important development that demands political and business support.
Truly green and sustainable cities are not about vanity cable cars, sky gardens, and forest bridges, nice as they may be. They are about clean and low carbon transport and energy networks, connecting green buildings and spaces, and delivered in a way that supports and engages businesses and communities. With the right management and investment green cities can become a reality, and what is more they can be delivered without pushing current infrastructure to the brink of collapse - but only if we heed the lessons learned as angry commuters are this week once again forced on to delayed and overcrowded trains.
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