Why you should care

Because if more cities copy London’s model, our urban landscape is about to look a whole lot different.

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Seventy-nine minutes: That’s how much time it takes for the average Londoner to get to work and back. Sure, 79 minutes is time for a podcast or two, or time to make solid strides through a Dickens audiobook collection. But it’s far from ideal.

When it comes to size, “London is like New York City plus New Jersey,” says Stephen Joseph, CEO of U.K. environmental pressure group Campaign for Better Transport. London is bigger than you’d guess: The entire city of Paris could fit inside the U.K. capital’s innermost boroughs … but London would keep sprawling beyond, by 25 miles.

Which is why people in London are excited about a new, futuristic train that promises to slash the commute time between work and home. The $23 billion project on the horizon: a 73-mile, east-west rail service called Crossrail. Until its launch in 2018, there’s much to do, but the transit world is hankering to see how London will pull it off. At a time when huge cities, from Dallas to Jakarta, are becoming the norm, many urban planners are looking for a new model to cop. And it’s all particularly important in Europe, where the dearth of good transport has banished poor populations — especially immigrants — to the suburbs, trapping them on the outskirts of the city and keeping them far from decent jobs. It’s a “very appropriate” solution for growing cities, says Camilla Ween, architect, urban planner and director at Goldstein Ween Architects (who is not involved in the project). She predicts Crossrail will be a beacon worldwide.

A 200-meter Crossrail train runs almost twice the length of a Tube train, able to carry 1,500 people from countryside locations to new stations 40 meters beneath London’s streets. The promises are big: providing East Londoners access to jobs in the West, and vice versa. The organization Transport for London, which administers all forms of transit in the capital, predicts the scheme will boost the U.K. economy by $66 billion. Howard Smith, director of Crossrail operations at Transport for London, says it’s “the biggest single infrastructure project in Europe.” Commutes will be cut in half, he claims, and more people will be able to ride: 72,000 passengers will be able to hop on every hour — a 10 percent increase to London’s current rail capacity. That’s a big deal for anyone who’s ever tried to pack into a Central Line train during rush hour. Already, Crossrail has provided 10,000 jobs, and Transport for London claims it will support 55,000 full-time workers when it’s up and running.

Certainly, this is great news for homeowners within walking distance of the 40 new Crossrail stations, where housing prices are already shooting up. But it is terrible news for renters, and even worse news for first-time buyers hoping to find affordable housing. According to real estate agency eMoov, the average cost of an apartment near the new $1.5 billion station at Tottenham Court Road, right in the heart of London, has gone up by 439 percent in a decade. In Brentwood, Essex, the penultimate eastern stop 30 miles from central London, average detached houses are $1.25 million — twice what they cost in 2004. Russell Quirk, eMoov CEO, predicts a further leap of at least 60 percent between now and launch day.

Pharmacist Gemma Burton recently bought her first apartment, which is a 10-minute walk from the new station at Woolwich Arsenal. “I’m so glad I bought when I did. In a couple of years, everything round here will be way out of my price range. The area will totally change.”

Another contentious issue is that Crossrail won’t make traveling any cheaper. Cost of living surveys already name London the 12th most expensive city on earth — worse than New York. A monthly travel pass for Zones 1 and 2, which covers all areas within roughly 5 miles of the city center, costs $185. In Berlin, a similar pass is $97; in Warsaw, just $29. Roger Wade, CEO of Price of Travel, which compares destinations all over the globe, says if you’re not a regular customer, it’s even worse; the prices are ludicrous.

The caboose isn’t stopping here, either: Crossrail 2, a similar scheme running north to south, is due in 2030. Joseph questions the wisdom of yet another major project focused on the capital. “There’s a much larger issue floating around, which is whether the dominance of London in the U.K. economy is healthy.” Other regions, he says, need some love too. Some projects are in the works: There’s major investment around Manchester, in the north of England, aimed at creating what’s known as the Northern Hub. But that’s a mere $900 million project. Still, Joseph believes London is already “way ahead of other cities.” It’s still not a car city, and people are biking.

One potential customer is already sold on Crossrail. Mark Ingles, 34, commutes from Harold Wood in Essex to London’s Docklands every day, spending more than two hours on trains and the Tube. “The traveling’s killing me,” he complained, as we hunched together on a packed Docklands Light Railway train. But Crossrail promises to get him to work and back in half the time. And if it weren’t for that, he told me, he’d probably resign. “I’m only hanging on because there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

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