Above: An exploratory design from 2001 for a repeatable, modular and prefabricated remote working hub for season ticket rail commuters to use and to help railways reduce peak time demand and overall congestion. Image: © BBM Sustainable Design Ltd.
The idea of living in a leafy suburb and travelling large distances to work in the heart of a bustling city has very much shaped large urbanised areas around the world in a very particular way and that mode of life which involves ‘the commute’ is now an entrenched societal norm for millions of people. The town and country idyll however does have its downsides, one of which is that it is incredibly energy inefficient and therefore at odds with our efforts to exist within the ecological limitations and energy reserves of our planet. It is a way of life that was made possible by the machines and technologies of the industrial revolution. We are now very much living in the next epoch, that of the information age. So is it not daft for so many to commute such large distances and using so much precious time and energy each day just so we can sit behind a computer in a building far away from home?
Interrogating the validity of the commuting lifestyle as we entered the Twenty-First Century was for BBM a critical environmentally minded imperative. In the mid to late 1990’s BBM were in turn inspired to launch an initially hypothetical research project called Cityvision. At its core was the idea that information technology could reduce the need for the daily commute and to those ends how buildings and urban structure could play a role in supporting lower energy lifestyles. Out of these studies one idea, nicknamed ‘Comstation’, was targeted directly at the commuter belt where it was hoped it could unshackle the train using season ticket holders and long distance car commuters from the drudgery of the daily commute and help save copious amounts of carbon emissions to boot.
Would it not be great to have a place where one could rent a space to work, to conduct meetings, have a child in a crèche, go for a coffee or a sandwich or even take half hour out to get some exercise in a pocket gym? There could be an I.T. doctor on hand to sort any technical glitches you might be having with your computer and all this could be where you would normally catch a train from. How about if your season ticket also allowed you use of the facility, such that you had no qualms about losing out on the reduced usage of your rail travel?
The rise of commuting
It could be said the British invented commuting. After all where was the first underground railway built? We certainly had great railway engineers and headstrong railway companies to create the means to transport large numbers of people in from satellite villages and towns into the vibrant and dynamic hearts of the big cities but we also invented new planning ideals such as leafy garden cities to capitalise on the new mode of life. Pioneering thinkers and planners like Ebeneezer Howard through is hugely influential book published in 1898, Tomorrow: A peaceful path to real reform (reprinted in 1902 as Garden Cities of Tomorrow), sold a plan that combined the best of ‘town’ with the best of ‘country’. The London Underground sold the idea of ‘Metroland’. The developers and transport companies did the rest and created the cities and crucially the lifestyles that dominated the Twentieth Century.
The carbon cost of the daily commute
Let us analise a typical long distance commute from the point of view of its carbon footprint, for instance Brighton to London Victoria which is a round-trip of 177 kilometres.
Date: December 2011
This is the paradox, why expend (in this case) 2700kg of carbon per annum in simply getting an employee to a computer to do the work from? Yes, it is of course true that there are many jobs that one simply has to commute to and for those, hopefully we can afford appropriate and affordable housing close to those places of employment. Yes, it is also true there is fear of isolation from the employee and fear of losing management control by the employer but such concerns can be addressed. Indeed there are many types of work that, with a change of attitude from employers and employees and perhaps new forms of work management, could easily accommodate less energy hungry commuting patterns.
The economics of commuting
Above: It is not just the cost of commuting which weighs heavily on the minds of those who pursue the live/work balance of a town and country lifestyle but also the stresses of peak time congestion – a real quality of life issue. Image: © BBM Sustainable Design Ltd.
People do a long distance commute for many reasons, lower house prices, possibly better local schools, access to the countryside, better air to breathe and have all this whilst maintaining a job in the heart of a city with a relatively high paying salary and possibly the kudos and fulfilment of working for a leading company in a given field. Most commuters though would concede that they constantly assess if that best of both worlds lifestyle is justified by that bit of the equation that makes it work – the commute or more precisely the cost of the transport and the loss of time in transit. For many too, the stress factor of joining a peak time commute, with its delays, cancellations, tail backs and crowding, must be factored in too.
It is fair to conclude then that the longer and more expensive the commute, the more difficult the justification of having a ‘town and country’ lifestyle is. Add to that assessment the environmental justification of all that high-speed day in and day out travelling and one might conclude that Cityvision ideas might be most receptively received in the commuter belt.
Building on opportunities
In the previous chapter on Cityvision we discussed how teleworking should be used, not to condemn people to work from home on the dining room table (unless they wanted to of course), but that it should provide them with the choice of when to ‘travel up to town’ and when it is just more productive to get the work done at or closer to home. The economic arguments against this though were tough to break down. A company would never contemplate maintaining a city-based office and then renting space all over the commuter hinterland for their employees to work from. Employees were no more likely to afford a rented working space either. Then in the later 1990’s BBM hit on the idea of rail season tickets being made flexible such that it could be used for both rail travel or to work in a brilliantly appointed shared workspace at the station. That was what BBM coined a ‘Comstation’.
Going back to the London to Brighton commute, let us look at how much that actually costs the commuter. In November 2014 that was a whopping £3,972.00.
Either a train operating company who might lease the land at the station could do it or Network Rail themselves. They could also get a company that specialises in the serviced office sector to do it for them. Either way, with this opportunity of using a season ticket cost to help pay for the facility and its management, there is a very workable potential there to exploit.
Above: The main investment issue faced by both Network Rail and the train operating companies is planning for continuing projected increases in passenger demand over the foreseeable decades and this after a range of long term capacity improvements have already been implemented. Image: © BBM Sustainable Design Ltd.
What incentive though would the train operator have to introduce a Comstation? The answer to that lies in the Comstation helping to release peak time pressures which the train operators and Network Rail are constantly battling to attain. It is a technical and management headache that requires huge annual investment. In practice it is catered for by extra trains in the schedule, longer trains with more carrying capacity, super tight and very delicate timetabling and of course carrot and stick pricing structures to encourage off peak travel through differentiated ticket pricing. The slightest glitch to a service can throw a whole morning’s schedule off and when severe enough this leads to customer compensation. Then there is the consideration that rail travel projections are continuing to show increasing demand for the foreseeable future. The Long Term Passenger Rolling Stock Strategy for the Rail Industry, published in February 2013 states that, “The work done to date indicates that the national fleet size could grow by between 53% and 99% over the next 30 years”.¹
How that demand is met will require yet more major investment in the infrastructure with the technical solutions for doing so in some cases not even properly contemplated.
BBM envisaged that Comstations would be built at the stations but more specifically over the car parks used by the commuters. The fact that so many rail stations have large car parks is a boon and it is an asset with an interesting storey behind it. When containerised transport was introduced after the Second World War, the rail companies saw an opportunity to bring shipping containers into town centres by rail. These large tracts of land were set aside for marshalling the containers. What of course happened though is that road haulage took the business and, to accommodate the explosion of car use after the war, the land was instead turned into car parks for commuters. The car parks of course do create a revenue for the train operating or rail companies so the Comstation ought not to significantly reduce the parking capacity. For this reason the workspaces would be raised above the car parks.
How to build Comstations
Above: Comstations could be pre-fabricated at railheads and transported to site on low loader wagons and craned rapidly onto a modular structure allowing the accommodation to straddle the station car park. Image: © BBM Sustainable Design Ltd.
It seemed sensible that with potentially hundreds of these Comstations to build, opportunities for devising a cost saving repeatable, modular and pre-fabricated system ought to be explored. Firstly, if production could be centralised, then real efficiencies in cost of production could be exploited. Such a place of manufacture could be located near a railway so that the delivery of the components could be by rail as well. Secondly, as car parking spaces are modular and that prefabrication and rail car sizes would benefit from a regularised size for production and transport, then it would make perfect sense to adopt a modular construction principle. Finally, by pre-fabricating the components, time on site could be greatly reduced which would be an important consideration for a busy station where ensuring total safety and minimising service disruption are paramount concerns.
Who would run Comstations and how would it be financed?
Among the plethora of essential components needed for getting a project like Comstation off the ground will be finding the right organisations to pay for and run the concern. We have already discussed that it might be the train operating companies who need to be brought on board to offer season ticket holders the ability to offer use of a remote working hub. However, it does necessarily follow that they should be the company that runs the facility or in deed owns the facility.
Network Rail actually owns virtually all the stations up down the country but they do lease out some of the stations to the rail operators.² So maybe it is Network Rail who would actually contract these facilities to be built. Comstations after all would become part of the railway infrastructure and Network Rail are a publicly owned company who maintain the rail infrastructure on behalf of the individual and privately owned train operating companies.
Could Comstations be conceived of like the rolling stock that the train companies run? Train operators actually lease the rolling stock from rolling stock leasing companies like Angel Trains, Eversholt Rail Group and Porterbrook Leasing.³ This would then require Network Rail and/or the lessee of the station to provide permission to build the Comstation on the station land.
Then there is the issue of getting the right team in place who understand the serviced office space market and could best plan and maintain the provision of that service. Companies like Regus specialise in this field and already run a large network of ‘ready-to-go’ office spaces in a number of locations around the UK and abroad. In fact, in 2001, BBM were actively pursuing an initial pilot project with Regus that was sadly curtailed by the terrorist attack on the New York World Trade Centre where Regus actually had setup a serviced office provision.
Taking Comstation forward
To get a Comstation network off the ground will need a massive campaign to win over hearts and minds in many different quarters as well as continue the concept design work. The financial models need to be explored as well as the technical design of a modular, repeatable and prefabricated design. Once a defined package can be illustrated, a wide ranging market analysis would be needed to test the potential for take-up. With the complexity of station property ownership and responsibility, Comstation projects would need all of the relevant stakeholders to be pulling on the same end of the rope. It would certainly help to lobby for political support to help drive that momentum.
As earlier discussed, the environmental and economic incentive for this to happen should be there and the drivers of that imperative essentially revolve around coping with existing and projected rail use. The Government should be interested because of the legally binding carbon reduction targets of 2050 and that Comstations would be a much easier political sell in the interests of curbing transport emissions than raising yet more fuel duty or carbon taxes.
BBM’s work on Comstation continued through the first decade of the Twenty-First Century as project briefs set for students of architecture where BBM maintained teaching links. In 2007, Duncan Baker-Brown and Ian McKay folded the Comstation idea into an even more ambitious investigation into the sustainable built environment with the Unplugged Studio. The objective of the studio looked at sustaining systems along the lines of the Transition Town principles and the ramifications of ‘unplugging’ from an oil-based culture and moving towards a circular economy. Harking back to ideas started with Cityvision, it was a holistic study of how the built environment functions and what architectural and infrastructure responses are needed to support a society that lives within the ‘carrying capacity’ of the Earth’s ecosystem. The Unplugged ideas are the subject of the next chapter.
Ian McKay Dip Arch RIBA
¹ The Long Term Passenger Rolling Stock Strategy for the Rail Industry