Getting on the map

BBC Two’s The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway has mesmerised viewers with insights into the huge engineering challenge of building Crossrail. The three-part documentary series follows the technical complexities of constructing Crossrail, from the 140m tunnel-boring machines to treating archaeological finds unearthed along the way. The programme captures the sheer scale of the £14.8bn project, much of which is being delivered below London’s feet – and its radar.

Of course, Crossrail isn’t only materialising underground. Its transformative effect at surface level was the focus of New London Architecture’s recent breakfast talk ‘Crossrail: Delivering better public spaces’, where panellists discussed improving urban realm around stations along the line. One key point panellists agreed on was the importance of high-quality stations and their surrounds in shaping public perception of an area.

This point echoes findings from Future of London’s Crossrail as Catalyst report. Released in April 2014, the report built on in-depth case studies and interviews to explore how communities across the Capital are grasping the regeneration potential of Crossrail – and of future infrastructure projects.

Area perception was identified as a key issue for boroughs along the route, but especially for lesser-known Outer London communities where Crossrail’s arrival will mark their inclusion in London’s iconic tube map. This point is explored in the Crossrail as Catalyst excerpt below (p 72):

Getting on the map

Across all the stations examined in [Crossrail as Catalyst], the wider perception of an area was consistently identified as a step-change in realising actual impact. And no single benefit in receiving Crossrail was brought up as much as its simplest one: making it on to the Tube map.

Abbey Wood is not on today’s conventional Tube map, and the same is true for a majority of London stations receiving Crossrail. 17 other stations do not make the current version of the Tube map: Acton Main Line, Chadwell Heath, Forest Gate, Gidea Park, Goodmayes, Hanwell, Harold Wood, Hayes and Harlington, Ilford, Manor Park, Maryland, Romford, Seven Kings, Southall, West Drayton, West Ealing and Woolwich.

Crossrail map - new stations to Tube map
Click on image to expand.

In part, being on the Tube map is about creating brand recognition, as the first step to attracting inward investment is getting an area on investors’ radars. It’s also an exercise in place-making for the existing community, creating a sense of connection with other parts of London.

There might be a further impact related to the map itself. One study [PDF] suggests that London Underground passengers’ travel decisions are heavily shaped by the schematic transit map, even more than they are influenced by their own previous experience on the network. Passengers trust the distorted map distance more than their own memory of actual travel time. How transfers between lines were presented on the map also had an influence on path choice.

Whatever the psychological importance, there’s certainty that this simple intervention will make a real-world difference once Crossrail begins service. Stakeholders need not wait until 2018 to consider perception, though; a range of communication tools and public relations strategies can help boroughs take advantage of an attitudinal shift sooner than later.

Public relations has a role to play in improving perceptions; so do urban realm and design quality. Proposed public space and development designs for stations are an important first step, but the Crossrail experience shouldn’t stop at the station exit. Taking area investment further into the community means attracting and engaging with cross-sector partners – a topic we’ll get into later in this series.

Interested in the urban realm and development proposals outside Crossrail stations? Designs are currently on exhibition at the Building Centre until 15 August 2014. See Places and Spaces: urban realm and development on the Crossrail route for details.