By Chris Whiting / @ChrisRWhiting
CURA is proud to publish outstanding student contributions pertaining to pressing issues facing cities today. In today’s blog, @DMUPolitics MA student Chris Whiting discusses an innovative solution to transport problems in Leicester, asking whether a monorail system, based on the city’s forgotten tram network, could address a wide range of issues in the city.
Leicester’s Urban Transport Problems
If you have anything to do with Leicester, you will know one thing; being beaten by Nottingham at literally anything is totally unacceptable – yet it is the reality on transport.
The seven miles from the outskirts of the Leicester urban area (UA) to the city centre takes around 58 minutes by bus. In Nottingham, where public transport is more readily provided by an extensive tram network, the same journey will take just 32 minutes. As well as this, Nottingham-dwellers can use these service roughly every 10 minutes whereas those in places like Cosby are forced to wait up to 45 minutes between journeys.
In fact, it isn’t just Leicester’s regional rival having an easier time with transport. Of the thirteen major urban areas in the UK, Leicester is one of only two to not have an urban rail system, with the other being the incongruously centred Southampton-Portsmouth UA. This deprivation in reliable public transport means Leicester is the 9th most congested city in the UK and in the top 100 worldwide.
With this lack of available transport comes a myriad of issues for Leicesterians; little affordable housing, even less suitable housing stock, a disassociation with the urban community and concentrations of wealth and deprivation. As the city council ploughs ahead with its flagship waterfront redevelopment project, concerns over working class displacement and detachment with the city centre have mounted, as was warned in 2017.
Worse yet, with other transport solutions, such as the new A46 expressway connecting Hinckley with Charnwood via Eastern Leicestershire, there are concerns that green space on the urban fringe could be sacrificed to accommodate for lazy solutions to transport capacity problems. This problem alone should encourage the city to look to less environmentally destructive, and more innovative transport solutions.
Monorail – solution and challenges?
With these things in mind, it is crucial that the city addresses the issue of poor connectivity to its urban centre, without limiting urban space or undoing the council’s admirable push for pedestrianisation – but how? Simply, Leicester should reconsider the visionary idea of 1960s city planner Konrad Smigielski and construct an urban monorail system.
The benefits of this specific type of urban rail system compared to others are two-fold; one, its elevated operation means that already limited street space does not have to be surrendered to install it and, less importantly, its uniqueness among UK UAs would make it marketable from a touristic perspective.
More generally, however, A 2007 ESPON report gave Leicester score of 3.33 (out of 10) for transport, embarrassingly less than much smaller towns like Ipswich, Newbury and Rugby. In fact, Leicester’s transport rating was the joint-worst of the aforementioned ‘big thirteen’ UAs, and third-worst among the country’s 16 largest metropolitan areas (see Figure 1).
Whilst increasing the road capacity of Leicester’s metropolitan area may be the most conventional response and recovering the forgotten Leicester tram network (see Figure 2) would be the easiest, the installation of a monorail system would address more of the multi-faceted problems of modern Leicester where the other two ‘solutions’ cannot. For instance, a monorail would be less disruptive to the preservation and future expansion of Leicester’s limited green space.
Better yet, Leicester and Leicestershire’s Transport Board only scores two out of ten points for providing choice in modes of transportation, and 4.4 out of 10 for sustainability. An electrified rail system would make great strides to addressing both of these shortcomings. However, what is the most debilitating hindrance to such a project is the lack of funding for local transport. In the 2015-19 period, the central Department for Transport budgeted just £16.1m for Leicester and Leicestershire’s transport schemes, a tenth of Greater Manchester’s budget.
Of course, the confidence to pursue such a radical re-imagination of a city’s transport network is contingent on examples of success in other cities. In the pacific north-west of the United States, Seattle has reaped tremendous rewards from the introduction of its own monorail system. The rail’s newest line generates an 8% economic return, is more than twice as fast at peak times than the bus, and because of its elevated status reduces disruption to road users, and costs less in land acquisition than other forms of urban rail, like a tram.
The cost-effectiveness of their scheme even expands to reductions in costs associated with road accidents, parking charges and returning more time for users to be economically active elsewhere. Given, it would be a huge public investment, Seattle’s success was contingent on winning public support for the project, as the report showed. Leicester would need a similar seal of approval from its citizens but examples of monorails in similar sized urban areas like Wuppertal and Dresden indicate that it is achievable.
After all, Leicester’s city centre population has risen by 145% between 2002 and 2015 – the sixth highest rate of growth in the country – and is now home to 14,700 people. This has several substantial effects; namely, the reduced capacity in the city centre means many residents are either pushed away from the urban centre or, to accommodate for them, space in the city is severely restricted instead.
And as city centre living becomes the only viable choice for those making their lives in Leicester, the price of housing booms and displaces those on low incomes – a monorail would go some way to lessening those impacts by making the idea of commuting from outside the UA far more viable than it is currently.
Whilst, Leicester itself is locally infamous for its often frustrating design, a monorail would promote the formation of an integrated hub of intelligently designed towns, suburbs, and the city itself. This radical congestion solution is exactly the sort of innovation that encompasses the thinking behind 1993’s Congress of New Urbanism.
The theory of New Urbanism is premised on the idea that amenities and culture be almost immediately accessible to all urbanites no matter their income bracket. The resurrection of Leicester’s urban rail system would offer that and even provide incentives for greater cohesion between the city’s often fragmented points of interest instead of digressing with the ‘geographies of nowhere’ that have informed Leicester’s urban sprawl.
Where amenities are not immediately accessible to the urban population and commuting in and out of the city centre to access them is considered too much of a chore, Leicester begins to fail on several metrics. A monorail system is not a one-size fits all solution for Leicester’s extensive issues, but would be far from a marketing gimmick in turn.
New Urbanist thinking calls for cities to reform as ‘regionally important’, ‘culturally diverse’ and ‘transit-oriented’ – Leicester is only lacking in the latter category.
Of course, in the age of austerity, a new urban rail system will be hard for local authorities to devise but should financing arrangements be made by a purportedly supportive central government, Leicester could make real progress in alleviating some of its crucial problems with a single word – that’s right, monorail!
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