Infrastructure Views: Reimagining metropolitan transport hubs

In a nutshell

Partner and Head of Infrastructure, Toby Ashong, ruminates on the role of transport in a rapidly changing technological and economic environment.

Toby Ashong


Toby Ashong

Posted February 3, 2023

What is the role of a transport hub?

One should probably start by asking what the role of transport is, which at face value is simply to provide a means of getting people to places. Often though, the place itself is incidental and so it is actually about getting people together. It is in this sense that transport hubs are particularly interesting and are more than just nodes on a network; they can in themselves become the place at which people come together. More on that later…

So when is a hub a hub?

The ideal transport hub brings together multiple routes from multiple modes to provide a seamless transition point from one leg of a journey to another. If it can be a nice place to be as well, all the better! This sounds wonderful but presents significant challenges, logistical and otherwise, that result in compromises and trade-offs. Moreso in a country whose transport has evolved over decades and centuries.

Fundamentally, three overall factors define a transport hub:

  • Scale – at what scale does a node become a hub, and at what scale does a hub become too big? A city the size and scale of London could not practically have a single hub, but how many should it have and how big should they ideally be?
  • Location – should transports hubs be at the centre of conurbations or on the periphery; should they be focused on cross-city travel, inter-city travel, rural connectivity or a combination?
  • Integration – by definition a hub must bring together multiple lines and/or modes but with this comes complexity around ticketing, interchange logistics, allocation of space, experience, prioritisation; and where there are interfaces, there is inefficiency!

In all of these respects the goalposts are constantly shifting and arguably always have been. London Bridge station, for example, is the amalgamation of what was originally three different termini, one of which was itself relocated towards the centre of town from its original location at the top of the Old Kent Road. Similarly, the modern vision for places like Stratford and Old Oak Common represents a very different model from any that precedes these uber-hubs, which seek to better integrate and manage the flow of passengers into and out of the city with those moving around the city, and to do so by deliberately bypassing the already over-crowded and space-limited central zone. In doing so, they naturally create high density conurbations at the periphery of the city and as such become destinations in their own right.

All of this poses a few chicken and egg questions: does transport merely respond to demand or does transport shape demand through its very existence by enabling journeys and making them more attractive, affordable and/or practical? Furthermore, do hubs through their very existence create new, well-connected places and hence increased opportunities and venues for people to get together; and if this is the case, how does a hub balance and prioritise its dual roles as transit node and ultimate destination?

Does transport merely respond to demand or does transport shape demand through its very existence by enabling journeys and making them more attractive, affordable and/or practical?

So what is the future of these ever-evolving chickens and eggs?

Not only have these considerations always been somewhat intertwined, but their relationships are also constantly evolving, not least in the wake of the massively disruptive impact of a global pandemic, the legacy of which is a long way from being clear. Amongst the key areas of change are:

Changes in the type, nature and pattern of demand, especially related to work. The impact of post-covid work patterns can’t be ignored in any discussion about transport. The simple headline is that lots of people who used to commute work either don’t anymore or at least don’t as often. But it’s much more nuanced than that. After decades of what seemed like limitless growth spawning the sponsorship of Cross Rail and then Cross Rail 2, the wheels on the London commuter bus fell off after hitting the brick wall of multiple covid lockdowns. On the other hand and despite the fall in commuter traffic, less than a year after finally opening, demand on the Elizabeth Line is already far exceeding expectations (~3m pax/wk against a projected 2m pax/wk!).

This apparent contradiction leads one to wonder whether we have been inherently constraining our own behaviours and possibilities through a lack of imagination and investment. Perhaps a post-covid London Underground, with 10% shiny new capacity in the form of the Elizabeth Line but running at 90% of its pre-covid demand, is a nicer place to be with some of the previous time and place bottlenecks smoothed out and several newly upgraded transport hubs on the network. On this basis we can’t be getting on with Cross Rail 2 fast enough!


Timescales and technology. The major transport hubs that we are currently building are based on very proven technology to serve well-established needs. Many of them will take a decade to become operational and we are building them to last for decades beyond that. How do we get this right in the face of the vast technological, social and behavioural changes that seem inevitable but unpredictable over this timescale? How will we cater for, never mind integrate the new technologies and needs that will arise along the way? How do we balance the risk of paralysis with the risk of building white elephants? Or will the human tendency towards habit mean that we, rather than the transport technology, are the constraint to what is possible?

Who pays and how? In contending with all of this, the question arises of who transport and transport hubs exist for: today’s passengers, tomorrow’s passengers, commercial entities enjoying improved access? Residents? Workers? Local, regional or national interests? Optimising for any combination of these, leads to a different set of priorities and hence solutions. Is it more important to help people get around Manchester; to help people get between Manchester and Liverpool; or to provide better connectivity between the greater Manchester area and another regional hub such as Birmingham or London? And in each case who should pay? How do the needs of a dominant and globally connected capital meet with those of various other important cities, each different and most with a significant regional role and their own variant of the local, regional and national perspective.

The UK has historically been very centralist in the allocation of public money, partly as a result of the wartime imperative to centralise key strategic resources, but in the new age of devolution with Transport for London, Transport for Greater Manchester, Transport for the North and Transport for Scotland, how do we ensure that this doesn’t just result in more parochial and less integrated outcomes? Devolution changes where decisions are made, where politics happens, how local, regional and national interests get traded off and how and where funding flows. The UK also has a great legacy of financial innovation from privatisation to the incremental tax models employed for the likes of Cross Rail. Is there more potential in such mechanisms that seek to extract investment from those that ultimately profit from the creation of new transport and transport hubs? And if so, how can this be balanced with the wider social considerations?

This apparent contradiction leads one to wonder whether we have been inherently constraining our own behaviours and possibilities through a lack of imagination and investment.

But what is it actually for?

Transport has always been about enabling people to connect, and transport hubs act as the pulsing nodes on the network as well as increasingly also the connection points themselves. In a world where the patterns in which people work, rest, play, commune, collaborate and connect are all evolving faster than ever, designing and delivering the transport hubs of the future is harder than ever before.

It’s also important to recognise that in an increasingly diverse world of possibilities, the choices people make (whether to travel, how to travel, when to travel and why) are as-ever influenced by the choices available to them. Transport is always self-perpetuating. Railway folk will ask where we need more and/or better railways, roadbuilders will ask where to build the next road and cyclists will argue for more cycleways. But if we were to completely reimagine the way a transport hub in the UK might work, how different would it look to what we already have? Transport authorities, regulators and planners have an important role to play in creating new opportunities and enabling new social and economic possibilities through improved connectivity.

All this rolls up to the biggest question, which is why and when do people need to get about and how can we enable them to do that in ever better ways? Whether better means faster, easier, greener or all of these, if we keep coming back to the central question of what transport hubs are for, we have to constantly re-evaluate the needs of people and the changing trends of our society.