Building Around Transit: Lessons From London

By the late 1970s, London and New York were cities that many believed were in terminal decline. Since then, both London and New York have experienced a remarkable renaissance. And both cities have much to learn from each other as they plan for their future.

At RPA's recent Regional Assembly, a panel discussion entitled "Building Around Transit" focused on what the U.S. Northeast could learn from London's extraordinary experience since 1980 in creating large urban development districts around transit investments. Participants included Martin Buck from the U.K.'s Crossrail, Peter James Heath from Atkins, a London-based infrastructure firm, Caren Franzini, CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and Emil Frankel of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and an RPA board member. The panel was moderated by me and sponsored by the U.K. Department of Trade and Industry.

London's revival began 40 years ago when much of its East End and Docklands districts had yet to recover from wartime bombing and were suffering from the loss of shipping and manufacturing activities in the period of post-war deindustrialization.

Enter Margaret Thatcher and her environment secretary, Michael Heseltine, who created the Docklands Development Corporation and the Thames Gateway program, which laid out bold plans for the reclamation of the whole East Thames corridor stretching from Tower Bridge east for 30 miles into the Kent and Essex suburbs. Heseltine's vision was that if these areas, which included tens of thousands of acres of derelict former port and industrial lands, could be made accessible to the major population and employment centers of London, they could be pulled into the mainstream of the region's economy. He promoted the development of the Docklands Light Railway and the extension of the Jubilee underground line, which connected much of this forlorn area with the City of London, Britain's financial center. The Canary Wharf office district, developed by Toronto's Olympia and York and designed by New Haven-based Cesar Pelli and Associates, created a new financial district in Docklands.

More recently, other major transit projects have been completed or are being planned. The HS1 high-speed rail link from the Channel Tunnel to London was rerouted through the Thames Gateway corridor stretching more than 40 miles east from the capital. Stations are transforming former industrial sites into major redevelopment areas. In addition to the high-speed Eurostar trains from Paris and Brussels, and, soon, Deutsche Bahn HSR trains from Germany, HS1 carries frequent Javelin high-speed commuter trains from Southeast England into London. Dozens of communities that formerly had tenuous transit connections to Central London are now within a 45-minute commute.

One of those stations along the Thames corridor, in once-downtrodden Stratford, is also the site of London's Olympic Park for the 2012 Summer Games, which in turn is anchoring new housing, commercial buildings and the U.K.'s largest shopping mall, surrounding the Olympic Park. And HS1's London terminal is in St. Pancras International Station, a restored 19th century terminus that is now the center of its own revitalization district.

London also is rebuilding the Underground system and replacing the bus fleet, financed in part by Central London's congestion pricing system instituted in 2003. And it is now proceeding with construction of Crossrail, a 13-mile, $22 billion, 37-station transit link that will run across the entire urban core of London. Crossrail was funded partially with a special tax assessment on properties within zones that are expected to benefit from the new line. In a few places, property owners expecting to see significant increases in value have funded the construction of actual stations, in lieu of paying the special tax.

When completed, this project will bring an estimated 1.5 million additional workers within 45 minutes of central London. And despite its austerity budget, the U.K. is also proceeding with the HS2 High-speed rail link from London to Manchester, a project similar in scope to the proposed Northeast high-speed rail line between Boston and Washington.

We have much to learn from the U.K.'s experience. Development of Britain's second high-speed rail line will offer a guide on successful strategies — and potential pitfalls — as the U.S. looks to bring high-speed service to the Northeast. New York's three current megaprojects — East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway and the #7 subway line extension — have the potential to promote a transformation similar to London's in large areas of our own city and region. We now need to complete these projects and also find a way to expand trans-Hudson commuter capacity between New Jersey and New York. Doing so would add room for NJTransit trains as well as Amtrak regional and Acela service, and pave the way for future high-speed rail between Boston and Washington, with a revitalized Penn-Moynihan Station complex at its center.