Using Rapid Transit as a Tool for City-building – Shifting our Thinking About Growth

Conservative estimates show that London will grow by about 80,000 people and over 40,000 jobs in the next 20 years.  Consider this – before any of this growth we already generate about 700,000 trips of different kinds in our city each day!  And, the growth we expect over the next two decades will lead to tens of thousands more trips, generating enough traffic to cripple our city with congestion and gridlock.

We know that we can’t afford to solve this problem of moving more people around our city by simply building more roads.  The cost would be astronomical and unaffordable to Londoners and the development industry alike.   Smart Moves told us that rapid transit was a key to our future.  Rapid transit would offer us a different and more cost-effective way of moving within our city – one that would relieve congestion not only for those using rapid transit, but also for those who continue to drive cars. 

Its important that we understand, though, that rapid transit is about much more than just moving people more efficiently and cost-effectively in London.  Its also about City-building.  And, being the Chief City Planner for London, I love to talk about City-building.

Without question, more Londoners than ever have been involved in the City-building conversation.  Through ReThink London, Londoners have collectively set out a vision for how we want to grow and evolve in the future – the city that we want to live in, the city that we believe will bring us prosperity, and the city that will be a positive legacy for future generations to come.

Much of that city which is reflected in The London Plan draft revolves around a greater emphasis on growing inward and upward.  This will lead us to a form of growth that:

  • Regenerates urban neighbourhoods, our Downtown and main streets
  • Breathes new life into heritage districts
  • Gives people really attractive active transportation choices such as walking, cycling, and transit
  • Helps people to live healthier lifestyles
  • Attracts knowledge-based workers and business investment
  • Allows people to age in place within their neighbourhoods
  • Takes advantage of existing infrastructure
  • Relieves pressure on outward growth that can consume farmland
  • Is less car dependent
  • Generates less air pollution and consumes less energy
  • Is more resilient to change over the long time

Rapid transit can serve as a very effective tool for inciting this kind of growth.  Our neighbours in Waterloo have shown us just how effective rapid transit can be at catalyzing transit-oriented infill development.  My colleagues tell me that their light rail rapid transit system created new demand for development along planned corridors and stations even before construction of the system began.  Want some compelling evidence?  Take a look at this link showing seventy different projects along the ION light rail route.

Developers understand that there is a premium to be had on properties that are well linked to rapid transit.  Condos sell for more.  Rental apartments lease for more.  And businesses of all kinds crave those important linkages that can help them attract the best and the brightest to work for them.  With this premium comes the demand for development at these key urban locations – exactly what we planners are looking for from a City-building perspective.

There remain questions as to which form of rapid transit – bus or rail – does a better job of catalyzing development in this way.  However, many believe that rail has the leg up as a fixed form of infrastructure that gives developers the certainty they are looking for to launch a long-term investment.  There are many examples out there confirming rapid transit’s ability to incite transit-oriented intensification projects – my simple call to Tweeps last week landed about a dozen examples.  What we know is that this catalyzing impact is most effective when combined with aligned land use plans that provide opportunity for infill and intensification at rapid transit nodes and along rapid transit corridors.

So, as the discussion about rapid transit rages on in London over the coming months, remember that its about much more than just moving people quickly.  It's also about attracting development and shaping the type of city we all want London to be in the future.


John Fleming, MCIP, RPP
Managing Director, Planning and City Planner
City of London