In full flow - Issue 114 - Magazine | Monocle

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Ambition can look very different from one place to the next – particularly when it comes to mobility. After all, each city has its own unique transport issues to contend with and its own barriers to solving them. But it should be noted that not every grand design with a big budget represents a true drive to remake a city and, by that same token, not every inspired plan requires billions of euros and the latest in futuristic technology.

So how do we define ambition then? At its heart, it can be as simple as a city authority or a business executive taking a close look at the way things are being done and saying, “Oh but we could make this so much better.” Of course, turning that desire into a plan and then executing it requires a lot more work after that. But the best projects need to begin with a vision.

Each of the mobility projects found on the following pages was conceived with a purpose beyond a quick fix to an entrenched problem. Rather, they are all forward-looking schemes that not only assessed what was needed now but also looked to address distant problems. We take a look at the city building a bridge so that future public-transit additions are possible; rail lines that cross borders (city or national) and will boost business for decades to come; and a city that’s building cycling infrastructure in order to create a cycling culture (rather than playing catch-up when the bike-riding hoards come clamouring).

Not everything will age well. And some plans certainly have additional motives above and beyond improving mobility. But each of these projects was sparked by a drive to be bolder and better than the status quo. Climb aboard.


Express rail link

Hong Kong to China

After a two-year delay, the much-heralded HK$67bn (€6.9bn) high-speed railway connecting Hong Kong to the world’s largest high-speed rail network is set to open this September. The Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link will be the latest addition to China’s bullet-train network, which currently consists of 20,000km of tracks and connects 667 cities in China. The addition of another 15,000km of tracks by 2025 is also planned.

“The plan is to connect all the cities with a population of one million [or greater] across the country,” says Zhou Jiangping, an associate professor at Hong Kong University who specialises in China’s mobility developments and has consulted for Chinese regional governments on transportation projects in the past.

“The state-owned China Railway Corporation shoulders all the costs, whether it is profitable or not, and that’s why the network coverage can be this vast.” One imminent benefit for Hong Kong will be halving the travel time to Guangzhou (currently at two hours) – with all the obvious economic benefits of attracting well-heeled business travellers who value their time.

Yet the rail link to the mainland hasn’t been without controversy. Pro-democracy activists have called the line a “Trojan Horse” as an immigration checkpoint in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon district will be manned partially by Chinese officials, imposing mainland Chinese laws in parts of the terminal.

Monocle comment:
There’s no doubt that the rail link will be the cherry on top of one of the grandest bullet-train networks in the world. But is it an ambitious rail connection or a political inroad? Perhaps it is a bit of both.


Light-rail project


The Australian capital Canberra has long had the dour reputation as a place of government, bureaucracy and little else. But it’s quietly moving ahead: the city of 400,000 people is also home to Australia’s two fastest-growing districts. Officials are now working hard to ensure infrastructure keeps up with demand.

In 2016, work started on a AU$707m (€442m) light-rail project connecting the city centre with the northern suburbs. Expected to become operational by the end of the year, the railway will have 13 stops along a 12km corridor.

The project is a welcome addition to Canberra’s meagre existing public transport, which currently features just buses. Duncan Edgehill is the deputy director-general of Transport Canberra and has been closely involved with the project since its inception. “We’re keenly aware that to maintain our lifestyle we need to plan ahead,” he says. “Part of that is investing in mass rapid transport so we can avoid some of the congestion issues that plague other Australian cities.”

Canberra has already started work on the next phase: extending the light rail down to the southern suburbs, most likely including stops at government department hubs and the interstate train station.

While the light-rail project might be smaller in scope than other undertakings in larger centres, Canberra’s plan offers inspiration for other cities of its size. Edgehill says it’s a shot in the arm for the city. “The light rail is already helping to change the conversation about Canberra.”

Monocle comment:
Not every bold project takes place in a megacity. By thinking of how Canberra will function in the future as its population swells, the Australian capital shows sound insight.


Commuter bridge

New York

New York’s newest bridge – temporarily known as the New New York Bridge but soon to be known as the Governor Mario M Cuomo Bridge upon completion later this year – spans one of the widest points of the Hudson River. A main artery for those commuting from the outer reaches of the suburbs into New York City, the twin cable-stayed bridge will serve as a much-needed replacement for the ageing Tappan Zee Bridge it’s being built beside.

The original cantilever bridge, built on a shoestring budget following the Korean War in 1955, had only been designed to last 50 years, prompting concern over its structural integrity. It had also been plagued by congestion for decades as the structure struggled to accommodate the 140,000 vehicles traversing its lanes each day.

The new bridge, on the other hand, will have eight general traffic lanes, as well as extra lanes for emergency vehicles and breakdowns, which will help prevent jams. Besides being designed and built to last at least double the Tappan Zee’s lifespan, the new $3.98bn (€3.25bn) bridge will be outfitted for more than just cars and lorries. “The bridge will also feature a shared path for pedestrians and cyclists, featuring six scenic overlooks,” says project director Jamey Barbas, adding that the Mario M Cuomo Bridge has also been designed with space to install a light-rail line sometime in the future.

The first span of the bridge opened last summer, followed by the official closing of the Tappan Zee in October. The second – and final span – is slated to open to traffic later in 2018. And what’s to happen with the remnants of the Tappan Zee? The old hulking chunks of the bridge will be turned into artificial reefs to help rebuild New York fisheries.

Monocle comment:
As New York’s MTA woes continue, some commuters will soon have a smoother ride. The car is still king in much of the US but the design to accommodate a future public-transport option is smart.


Plan for pedestrians


When a progressive coalition won Oslo’s municipal elections in 2015, it quickly announced a plan to make the city centre car-free by 2019. The decision was hailed internationally as another forward-looking Nordic policy to create a more liveable environment. But even Scandinavians, it turns out, have their limits.

Intended as a response to the city’s growing population and high levels of air pollution, the initial scheme barred all cars from Oslo’s innermost centre. But backlash from conservative parties and the main trade association forced the government to scale back the plan: instead of banning cars, the city has made it impossible for them to stop anywhere.

Last year, it repurposed 300 parking bays for benches, flower beds and art installations; this year, the remaining 400 will be similarly transformed. “Our main goal is to reprogramme how public space in the city centre is used: for people, not cars,” says Hanna Marcussen, deputy mayor for urban development.

Oslo is also trying to encourage more bikes in an effort to reach a 25 per cent modal share for cycling by 2025. To help, Oslo built 10km of new cycle lanes in 2017 and is on track to build another 15km this year. In mid-April the city council approved what deputy mayor for environment and transportation Lan Marie Berg calls “a coherent grid” of 530km of bike lanes in total. “We are scaling up and building cycling paths and lanes more rapidly than ever before,” she says.

So far changes to the city centre have been largely successful. “We’ve experienced a lot of engagement in our project and of course some concern too,” says Marcussen. But, she adds reassuringly, “the areas in Oslo that are car-free already are the most popular.”

Monocle comment:
Oslo has long lacked the cycle culture of Copenhagen and getting people to give up their cars has been tough. Sometimes, the most ambitious plans require changing mindsets, rather than infrastructure.


Railroad revamp


Much of Turkey’s existing rail lines were laid down during Ottoman times. The vast network remains largely functional but slow and ageing infrastructure has come to clash with the needs of the nation’s 80 million residents.

Since 2003, the government has invested €12bn to modernise the railroads, renovating old tracks and unleashing a fleet of high-speed trains to accommodate commuters between major cities. In March, the first rail was laid in the project’s next phase, which will see the Ankara-Sivas high-speed link open in early 2019. This line will eventually stretch all the way to the Aegean coast city of Izmir.

The lines that are already up and running have proven their worth: travel time between Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, has been halved to 3.5 hours, putting rail speed on par with air travel. Each train between Istanbul and Ankara departs at near full capacity, suggesting that there is high demand for more rail, says Serdal Kuyucuoglu, who serves on the parliamentary Commission for Public Works, Construction, Transport and Tourism. “As traffic and congestion increased, we realised that roads were not the ultimate solution,” Kuyucuoglu says. “Now we are investing in rail projects that should’ve been built a long time ago.”

The government is aiming to double the existing 12,500km of tracks by 2023. Its goal? To facilitate greater commuter and cargo traffic between the Caucasus and Europe, securing Turkey a crucial spot on the new Silk Road.

Monocle comment:
From boosting business to enhancing tourism, making travel between cities swifter will unify Turkey. It will also allow visitors to consider making Ankara, rather than Athens, their post-Istanbul stop.

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