Cleantech Market Intelligence
London’s Tube Hits 150
Imagine a megacity so congested that traffic makes it “almost insupportable for purposes of business, recreation and all ordinary transit from place to place.” A city where the working population faces an arduous and difficult journey to the centers of business and employment, and vested interests and concerns over over-ambitious engineering plans for new transport links are delaying radical solutions to a problem that is choking economic growth. The answer is to build a new mass transit system that will open up the city and enable it to continue to be an economic powerhouse for centuries to come. And that’s what happened a century-and-a-half ago, in London. (The description quoted above is by William Malins, one of the founders of the Metropolitan Railway, quoted in London in the Nineteenth Century by Jerry White.)
January 9, 2013, marks the 150th anniversary of the day the world’s first underground railway was opened in London. The next day, January 10, 1863, saw the first rush-hour crush, as 50,000 people turned up for the first service (only half could find places).
Running 4 miles from Farringdon Station to Paddington, the Metropolitan Railway, the predecessor to today’s Tube, was the world’s first underground railway and the first urban mass transit system. The trains were pulled by steam engines. The idea of an underground railway powered by steam sounds like an image out of a steampunk novel, but as shown by a recent trial for January’s celebration of the Underground’s birth it was, and still is, feasible.
I am not going to suggest that the cleantech industry should take a back-to-the-future look to steam and coal-power for new approaches to urban transportation, but it’s worthwhile reflecting on the ambition and the vision of those London engineers. Perhaps more than any other element of its infrastructure, transportation networks define a city: what’s possible, what’s impossible, how the city can grow, and what it feels like to live and work and move around in that environment. Transport policy is also one of the main levers that city leaders have to shape the future of their city. As I was researching our new Smart Cities report, to be published in January, it became even clearer that the way we look at transport (and its links to energy policy, building services, and various public initiatives) will determine the success of many of our current plans for smart cities. As London found, and as have many other cities since, the decisions we make today about transit in the city will have repercussions far into the future. So city leaders in our new megacities, and straphangers around the world, should take just a moment on January 9 to acknowledge those bold Victorian engineers.