Milton Keynes celebrates its 50th birthday this year. It was planned for the motor car and no visitor can escape the roundabouts and carriageways. But the story of the city and public transport is equally significant.
When Milton Keynes was begun as a new town in 1967, it did not even have a station, although it is on the East Coast Main Line almost exactly midway between London and Birmingham. Worse: in that same year—1967—the east-west railway line between Oxford and Cambridge was closed. Milton Keynes is almost exactly midway between those university cities too. The message could hardly have been clearer: the car is king.
But soon the throne had to be shared. In 1982 a station opened in Milton Keynes. The city is now a major rail commuter hub. Nothing symbolises this more than the decision a decade ago to move Network Rail’s national headquarters to a site right next to the station. When I was Transport Secretary in 2010, I opened a major expansion of the station.
More is to come. The Oxford to Cambridge railway line is being re-opened, in England’s biggest reversal of a Beeching-era closure to date. It will serve Milton Keynes. The new east-west line is a key part of plans to build more than a million homes in the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge “Silicon Arc.”
The bike is also making a return. Cycleways were part of the original design of Milton Keynes. The cycling infrastructure is somewhat decayed but is now being revamped with ambitious plans for a cycling renaissance in the city.
The development of Milton Keynes tells a national story in microcosm. Nationwide, cycling is back, the railways are booming, new homes are being built near stations—often right on top of them, most spectacularly at London Bridge with the Shard—and the car has undergone a transition from absolute monarch to co-equal sovereign with the bike, the train—and even that undervalued mode of transport of recent times, walking.
This is part of the reason why a key project for the new National Infrastructure Commission, which I chair, is planning transport upgrades and new and expanded housing settlements across “Silicon Arc.” This is important in its own right, but the Commission also views the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor as an important exemplar for urban and rural infrastructure planning nationwide. It is why the Commission is sponsoring an “ideas competition” for new settlements in the arc. Dozens of bold, exciting schemes have been submitted, including plans for new towns based, respectively, on cycleways and waterways. The “bike-opolis” idea has made it to the shortlist and the winner will be announced in the autumn.
“East-west rail, Crossrail, HS2 and London’s cycle superhighway aren’t just transport improvements. They amount to a transport revolution”
Not that the car is in danger of imminent decapitation. An upgraded dual carriageway serving the major cities and towns is another part of the plans for the east-west corridor. Without this, the million-plus homes would never be built. But no longer can one conceive of car only, or even necessarily car-first, developments. A “balanced transport” strategy is now essential for new and expanded settlements, and getting the balance right is a critical challenge for architects, planners and strategists over the next generation.
Increasingly our city centres will be car free—or almost free—with rapid, high capacity rail and bus connections. And I predict that London cycle superhighways will be replicated nationwide over the next 20 years. With this in mind the Commission has engaged Andrew Gilligan, Boris Johnson’s Deputy Mayor for Cycling, who designed and implemented London’s superhighways, to report in the autumn on how to make Milton Keynes, Oxford and Cambridge exemplary cycling cities.
High speed, high capacity transport is also vital between the nation’s major conurbations. In my view Britain made a fundamental mistake in not following Japan and France in the 1970s and 1980s in building high speed rail lines between its major cities. We are putting this right with HS2, due to open between London and Birmingham in less than a decade and to be extended north to Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds in the early 2030s.
Under HS2, Birmingham and London will be just 30 minutes apart—the journey time between London and the vibrant commuter towns of Reading, Woking, Guildford and St Albans. There is good reason to hope that HS2 will bridge the north-south divide more effectively than any infrastructure since the invention of the railways in the industrial revolution.
A key part of HS2 is the connectivity it provides in each metropolis with urban public transport networks. The first HS2 stop out of Euston will be Old Oak Common, just west of Paddington, which will be a major new housing settlement as well as junction with London’s new east-west Crossrail line which opens next year. Old Oak Common is just 10 minutes by Crossrail to Heathrow Airport, going west.
By taking HS2 and changing into Crossrail at Old Oak Common, passengers from Birmingham will, within a decade, be able to reach Heathrow in 40 minutes, London’s West End in the same time, the City of London in 50 minutes, and Docklands and Canary Wharf in less than an hour. This is mind-boggling in its implications.
East-west rail, Crossrail, HS2 and London’s cycle superhighways are not just transport improvements. Taken together with changes to car and taxi services, notably Uber which is sweeping London, they amount to a transport revolution.
The task now is to connect it directly to the provision of mass housing and new communities. England is suffering an acute housing shortage: planning housing and transport together, and getting the cost of new housing down by raising densities in urban areas with state-of-the-art public transport connectivity, is crucial as we address this housing shortage and seek to radically improve quality of life.
A telling footnote. I had long thought that Milton Keynes was named after England’s greatest poet and economist. Only recently did I learn that at the heart of the new city was an ancient village of that name, and the poet and economist were a remarkable coincidence. This is typically English. Even the boldest innovations are built on ancient foundations and respect the past. And we don’t boast about achievements—even when they are world class.
It does help when we have achievements to boast about, however quietly.
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