All change for our urban way of travel

Don't despair of disruption on rail and Underground: modern cities may not need them
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Underground trains are, if you think about it, one of the most ludicrous, wasteful inventions of the modern world. They are the most expensive single investment that a city makes. Yet they are used at full capacity for only two one-and-a-half hour periods out of the 24. They require subsidies to build them and (usually) subsidies to run them - in other words, money has to be taken by force from people who do not use the system and given to people who do. Yet the users do not particularly enjoy spending this money, for Tube travel does not seem a particularly uplifting experience. Yet, as Londoners discovered courtesy of yesterday's strike, it is difficult to operate a large city without the Tube.

But wait. If something is inherently irrational - and putting people into crowded, swaying steel containers underground for quite long periods is at best a sub-optimal solution to urban transport - then something will come along that changes it. This could be a technical fix, just as the first underground trains under the Marylebone Road fixed the problem of extreme congestion above ground. Or it could be a functional fix so that we do not need to travel around so much.

There is no obvious technical fix on the horizon. We can all envisage an urban Disneyland where people are whisked around by a variety of cable- cars, chair-lifts and "eggs", rather like a ski-resort, and of course it would be much more fun to go to work in an egg than in a tube. The trouble is that no other technology yet invented can match the combination of capacity and speed of an urban rail network. And none can be installed with as little evident damage to the fabric of the city as an underground one.

If it is not going to be a technical fix it has to be a functional one. Mercifully, there are at least four reasons to believe that, while we will still be using Tube trains a generation from now (and even using some of today's rolling stock), we will not subject people to the sort of discomfort, overcrowding and pressures that we do now. The rush hour will be a distant memory.

Change one is the substituting of telecommunications for physical travel. Take with a pinch of salt the utopian visions of us all sitting at home, pecking away at our computers and having virtual coffee breaks over video phones with distant colleagues. Offices and factories will still exist and people will still travel to work at them. But some of us will be able to spend some of our time away from our regular workplace. The advent of telecommunications will liberate many of us from regular commuting. We will still travel to work, but we will not be condemned to travel during those one-and-a-half hour windows.

Change two is the coming change in job structure: not whether we do jobs at home or in the office, but what those jobs will be. We have already seen a rapid run-down in manufacturing in all large cities in the developed world; now we are likely to see a similar run-down in employment by large- scale service employers like banks and insurance groups. The technological revolution that substituted capital for labour in the factory is starting to do the same in the office. Instead the new jobs will appear in more personal services, areas like entertainment or care for older people. The key differences are that these new jobs are by their nature not nine- to-five, are not necessarily concentrated in a down-town central business district, and are in small workplaces rather than large ones. All these changes reduce pressure on the urban transport system.

Change three is a transformation in where some people want to live. Many are moving back into city centres, often taking up space vacated by the run-down in commercial activity, and helping to supply a market for the new entertainment services being developed. Victorian warehouses make ideal living space. As a result London's population is rising after decades of decline and the fastest growth is in areas such as Clerkenwell, slap bang in the centre, between the City and the West End. No need for a Tube: you can walk to work.

Finally, we can just glimpse a trend in giant cities of a movement to develop multi-centres. The easiest way to explain this is to look at the world's largest urban agglomeration, Tokyo. You can make Tokyo work, just, by spending vast amounts on urban transport, putting people in tiny houses and making them commute for a couple of hours each way. But how much better if you could split the city into four or five zones, each with a business centre, but more important, each with all the cultural and social excitement of what would still be a giant city of five or more million people. Then you could cut commuting times by a half or more. This strategy is being seriously considered by Tokyo's planners.

Now apply the same thought to London. How can the city develop into a multi-centred region, with strong "centres" on the fringe? It is already becoming a three-centred area, with a central business district in the West End, the City and Docklands. Take that thought further. Croydon and Hammersmith could become new cultural magnets as well as office centres. If Slough were in America, it would be calling itself the world's next great city.

In Dickens's time, city-dwellers walked. They walked to work; they walked to the theatre; they walked to dinner. Then came the urban train. More than a century on, we are feeling our way back to a society in which we will not rely so heavily on this Victorian invention.