23 February, 2016 - 08:59 By Tony Quested

Smart infrastructure: a Tale of Three Cities

This won’t take long. In terms of infrastructure and transport strategy, which of these cities is the odd one out: Cambridge UK; Boston US; Providence, Rhode Island?

The answer for a great many reasons but particularly for the purpose of this exercise is Cambridge. The reason is respective spend allied to the will and commitment to change the status quo.

Boston in terms of the city itself is larger than the other two, with a population of 655,884 and covering 48 square miles but has a similar B2B profile to Cambridge UK; Providence has a city population of 179,154 over 18.5 square miles of land and Cambridge compares favourably with a population bordering on 130,000 over almost 16 square miles.

Now here is the real difference: All three cities have been faced with the need to improve infrastructure for its own people in terms of business, housing and facilities but Cambridge is the one that has palpably failed to come to grips with the problem.

The city fathers and mothers in Providence spent several billions of dollars  physically re-engineering rivers around key trading and residential areas of the town to optimise the infrastructure – notably re-invigorating a downtown area that had been in decline and was resurrected as a buzzing business hub.

Boston spent $14.6bn on the Big Dig to reroute the central artery, Interstate 93, into the 3.5-mile Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Tunnel. Imagine how underwhelmed we were, then, to receive the latest news on Smart Cambridge and allegedly revolutionary plans to transform journeys for people living and working in the UK’s science & technology capital.

I was awaiting news that a tunnel was to be built under the city to ease congestion; that a prohibitive congestion charge was agreed to ensure only essential traffic trespassed on an otherwise pedestrianised, bike bonkers city centre. That the multistorey car parks were to be revamped to include business meeting hubs; that the park & rides would be expanded so they were fit for purpose and shuttle schedules extended and ran at more frequent intervals.

But none of it. The first three projects in development are apparently – digital screens to guide visitors arriving at Cambridge railway station, ‘Motion Maps’ plotting the best transport options, and better real time bus updates. “And there’s much more to come, as Smart Cambridge is exploring how data, innovative technology and better connectivity can be used to transform the way people use the city’s transport network, reduce congestion and boost the local economy,” promises the press release. Discussions are underway to agree a spend of – wait for it – £280k on this riveting set of proposals.

Well, I’m sorry but this just won’t do. It is a typically small-minded, some might say pathetic, response to the challenges of the hour – and they are many – especially when one considers how much revenue is wrenched from council taxpayers’ pockets by the local authorities.

Some less polite than I might venture that Cambridge’s city eunuchs – they do not qualify as fathers in my view – are taking the mickey. But the really distressing fact is that they are not; they are deadly serious; they think that putting up digital signage highlighting which areas of Cambridge to avoid is a revolutionary strategy.

Never mind that the people viewing these signs in a cross-border future might not speak English or, even with satnav, have a clue where X and Y road are – let alone how to access them. While I greatly admire the efforts of organisations like Cambridge Ahead to fight for a unitary authority for the Cambridge cluster and lobby the Government to unlock greater spend, one cannot ignore the fact that the city remains largely governed by self interest.

The cash rich university colleges each have their own agenda and the planners seem no more enlightened to me now than they were when Business Weekly opened its doors in May 1990 and the stock answer to most significant new development was ‘no thank you.’

Cambridge businesses continue to set their own commercial agenda – scaling globally well aware that they can expect little effective help from government. For its part government – local and central – adopts the ostrich position with the added benefit that it emerges with so much sand in its ears that it remains conveniently deaf to cries of protest and calls for action.

Private enterprise, given a reasonable trade-off, would pay for better transport and infrastructure in Cambridge as long as they are permitted to develop their own growth agendas for housing, transport and services within a pre-agreed and reasonable framework.

But that would mean loosening a grip on questionable greenbelt; the NIMBY stance is no longer defensible and frankly borders on the incomprehensible. 
Meanwhile more global corporates bring thousands more bodies into our businesses – a tide of humanity forced to seek a needle of living accommodation in a fully-occupied housing haystack while tipping hundreds more cars onto our jam-packed roadways.

With an upcoming referendum on our EU status, no doubt swiftly followed by another Scottish independence vote – all allied to a growing need to find cash to prop up the dead man walking that is the NHS – what price unlocking meaningful government spend on infrastructure in the new to medium future?

As Cambridge Ahead is striving hard to demonstrate to Whitehall, Cambridge business leaders have the wit and the will to find solutions but the wallets and wherewithal are wanting. I am assured that attitudes among local government planners are changing and that the Treasury and BIS are keen to help.

We have heard it all before over the last quarter-century. While one lives in hope, it would seem sensible to advise those interested in driving change not to hold their breath – especially given the aforementioned state of the National Health Service.

There are two kinds of currency required to fund a transformational transport & infrastructure strategy for Cambridge. One emanates from the Royal Mint in large quantities; the other is a united, unwavering will to ensure meaningful action that renders any more hot air redundant.

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