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Driving the future

Rory Olcayto
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Are contractors the only ones who are thinking about tomorrow? asks Rory Olcayto

It’s the right decision given the circumstances, but it’s still not going to happen.’ That was what the chief executive of one of the biggest contractors in the UK told me about Howard Davies’s decision to back a third runway at Heathrow. He went on to slam our risk-averse construction industry, our inability to think big and, in his view, a masochistic tendency to apply ‘yesterday’s thinking to tomorrow’s problems’.

Yesterday’s thinking. Tomorrow’s problems. Interesting. But what does it mean? ‘Take HS2,’ he said. ‘HS2 has nothing to do with reducing travel times between our cities and everything to do with capacity.

‘But it’s the wrong answer to the capacity question. It’s a case of “Build a new line with a slightly faster train”.  That’s a Victorian answer to a capacity problem. Except the Victorians were much faster than us at getting things done.’

Right, I said. Well in that case, isn’t the right solution to the airport capacity problem Norman Foster’s proposal to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary? When Foster first proposed his east-of-London airport and transport hub – you might recall the scheme incorporated a rail interchange linking to cross-country routes, including HS1 and HS2 – the AJ backed his plans and celebrated the big-thinking, future-proofing approach the architect dared to propose.

‘No,’ responded the contractor. ‘It’s too late for that. If we’d done that 25 years ago, yes, it would have been the right solution.’

Crikey, there’s no pleasing this guy, I thought. He’s just pissed off. Full stop. But then he said this: ‘Housebuilders. They’re the worst. They insist on providing one, sometimes two car parking spaces for new homes they build.’

Uh-huh. Go on.

‘And then you have architects arguing with them, saying we should encourage people to use other forms of transport, so forget about car parking and place new homes next to public transport hubs. Or build cycle networks.’

Yes. And what’s wrong with that?

‘What’s wrong with that? Look. These are both reactive solutions. More people are cycling to work today, they say, so let’s build cycle paths. London may have seen a growth in cyclists, but the UK isn’t London. And anyway, people will always need – and want – cars. They will always want fast, personal transport that keeps you dry.’

Right. I’m lost. What are you on about, chief executive of a leading construction firm? Should we plan for cars, or bikes, or both, or what?

‘I’m talking about driverless cars. They are coming. It’s going to happen. Of course it’s going to happen. But we – the industry, our government, architects, planners, local authorities – we’re not planning for that eventuality. The driverless car will utterly change the built environment. And no one is thinking “What must we do to make our towns and cities adapt?” No one is thinking “How do we build the infrastructure that will allow people to access a driverless car from their front door?” ’

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