While countries focus on developing airport-cities, they should turn to train stations instead. A change in mindset could transform the way we commute and live – says Tyler Brûlé
Much has been made lately about the rise and rise of airport-cities (or the “aerotropolis” if you’re that way inclined) and the impact they’re having on global commerce, communications and urban planning. The tower blocks rising around Seoul’s Incheon airport promise to be havens for “knowledge workers” and “global enablers”, as well as living, breathing and money-spinning examples of how urban centres might end up looking in the years to come.
While I’m all for a quick ride to the airport, I don’t want to reside next to anyone with the word “knowledge” or “enabler” on their business card. And Korean tower-block living leaves much to be desired – like landscaping, good interior design and a sense of community.
For those who want to be connected to city life and the rest of the world, the more interesting place to set up home, shop and office is above or beside the bahnhof, stazione, eki or gare. Every time I pull in or out of Zürich’s main station, I look up at the various blocks being built and contemplate how simple life could be as a resident on the doorstep of one of the world’s best transport hubs. Add to this the quick journey time to Zürich airport and the whole proposition becomes even more attractive. The only thing that holds me back is the fact that I’m happily settled in London most days. I’ve also tried Zürich before and the locals make better curtain-twitchers and snitches than they do neighbours.
The world’s most switched-on rail operators recognise they’re as much in the business of real estate as they are in the logistics of moving people and products between markets. SBB, Seibu, JR-East, Tokyu and Tobu have all created brands that deliver a complete consumer experience – now it’s time for the US, Canada, Australia and Canada to follow suit.
The fact that none of these countries have fully embraced high-speed rail travel is not only a missed opportunity, it’s also a disgrace. During a recent visit to Ottawa I had to wonder what went so wrong between the private sector (Bombardier) and public (federal governments through to local), that the country’s main cities are not linked by world-class rail with full- service stations. The same questions can be asked about Sydney-Melbourne, DC-Boston and Glasgow-London.
Imagine the ease of being able to roll out of bed and going for a run on a rooftop garden built above a station and then settling down for a hearty breakfast, fetching your laundry, buying your favourite papers and magazines and then taking the lift up to your flat. Following a bracing shower, think of the joy in travel if taxis were queued up for a short hop across town, a peppy commuter train left every 10 minutes to the airport and every 30 minutes there was an exquisitely- appointed bullet-train service to the five most important business cities within a three-hour radius.
At weekends the same station-city could host farmers from across the region with their produce and expand the locally grown footprint. Smart mayors and enlightened leaders need to put this type of development at the top of their urban agendas. While the Turks are turning a new canal between the Black Sea and the Med into a key election issue, they should be capturing voters’ imaginations with plans for twin hubs on either side of the Bosphorus with high-speed links to Baghdad, Beirut and Amman on the eastern side and Vienna, Munich and Berlin from the western terminus. We’ve long been advocates of living above the shop, but if we can live above the station even better. For our transport survey showpiece we’ve sketched out a rough idea of what our dream rail-city might look like and how it would function. We actively encourage rail operators, developers and politicians in London, Toronto, San Francisco and Brussels to take note.
As this issue ships off to press, down in Dorset street we’re shipping ourselves off to over 50 cities to start running the numbers for our annual quality of life survey – the results will appear next issue. Should you want to do any last minute lobbying for your hometown, then drop me a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have other tips, ideas or comments then Messrs Mills and Matthews are all ears and fingers at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org respectively.
For more from our editor-in-chief, read his column in the FT Weekend.