Redesigning major infrastructure projects for a post Covid19 world

As lockdown measures ease many people are wondering what will life be like post Covid19. Will there be a new normal in which society operates in profoundly different ways with less travel for example, more online meetings and working at home. Or will it be a little like when we take a holiday, we return full of good intentions to live differently but quickly return to our normal patterns of behaviour before we went away? I don’t know the answer to these questions. However, on balance it seems likely that long after the health risks of Covid19 have subsided, the world will be left with a big economic headache.

In the 20th century and indeed even in the first twenty years of the 21st century governments across the world funded infrastructure projects to help resolve such issues. Infrastructure projects boost economic performance in their construction phases then once built help economies to function better by for example reducing transport times. One example of such an infrastructure project is the Oxford to Cambridge Arc. First imagined in the mid nineteen nineties and latterly promoted by the National Infrastructure Commission this project aims to redevelop infrastructure connecting Oxford to Cambridge in an Arc some 60 miles to the north of London. The logic of this approach is rooted in the view that high value economic activity should be further concentrated at the growth poles of Oxford and Cambridge but housing for employees should be dispersed throughout the hinterland (including the towns Bedford, Milton Keynes, Buckingham and Bicester) in between to reduce pressure on house prices at the poles. To facilitate commuting in the Arc, an express way (dual carriageway road) is proposed to connect Oxford and Cambridge and various branch lines closed as a result of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s are to be reopened to provide a complementary railway link. Before the Covid19 crisis work proceeded at pace on the Arc developments. For example, a new road around St. Neots was authorised and route options for the Bedford to Cambridge section of the railway line have been reviewed and consulted upon and the governments preferred route identified.

Although governments have borrowed large sums in the Covid19 crisis, the costs of borrowing are low and indeed falling. Governments such as the UKs are almost being paid to borrow and it therefore seems likely that shortages of financial capital are unlikely to prevent the Arc or other similar infrastructure projects from proceeding. But will such projects fit into a post Covid19 world? Large infrastructure projects often develop a juggernaut like momentum which ultimately makes them seem inevitable. But is there an opportunity now to pause and think again about such projects? There is little doubt that the infrastructure proposals for the Arc accord with a 20th century transport vision and thus proposals do not include many of the new transport technologies which may be available to augment infrastructures. Even before Covid-19 hit, the government had paused the Milton Keynes to Oxford section of the Arc Expressway. It was facing substantial opposition along its route, cutting through areas already impacted by the HS2 rail development. There were also doubts about how Oxford even fits into the Arc, with its stronger connections to the Thames Valley M4 corridor than eastwards towards Cambridge and East Anglia.

By why an expressway at all? More fundamentally, the Arc infrastructure is conceived in very analogue terms in our digital 21st century world. One thing that the Covid-19 lockdown has demonstrated has been the flexibility and opportunities that digital technologies and new behavioural practices provide. At one stage, there had been proposals to make the Arc a 5G enabled digital corridor, enabling the application of new autonomous technologies together with digitally-based working and living practices. These have formed a major focus for a number of transport projects within the corridor itself, most notably in Milton Keynes, and are set to become a central element in transport strategy nationwide. A digital infrastructure perspective represents an entirely different approach to that of the traditional provision of physical infrastructure. But that was soon ditched. The infrastructure proposed for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc is simply the traditional sort of design with which planners and engineers are familiar – big engineering projects that politicians love. Is there any place for such backward thinking now? A key unrealised potential is for digital infrastructure to manage the physical. For the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor this could be an important action that lifts this corridor into the digital age through a 5G corridor in which the digital infrastructure manages the physical infrastructure to provide an order of magnitude improvement in its economic and social impact.

This is a joint blog post reporting on research by Professor Matthew Cook , Emeritus Professor Stephen Potter and Dr Miguel Valdez.

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