AP/Tesla

London's Edward Lister says building basic infrastructure is more important than chasing new technology.

The next great transportation innovation can capture a city's collective imagination, but that's not necessarily a good thing. The recent frenzy whipped up over the Hyperloop, for instance, is far more likely to distract us from improving the current transit system than to actually get built.

At a wide-ranging CityLab panel on the future of urban infrastructure, Sir Edward Lister, London's deputy mayor for planning, spoke of the perils of chasing the next big thing. Responding to a question from transit consultant Jarrett Walker about generating support for a new infrastructure project, Lister cautioned against letting official eyes wander too far from the present.

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"The trouble we always have, especially when dealing with government and trying to negotiate funding packages, is you always get this argument: you don't want that scheme because this next scheme is going to be more modern, much faster, much cheaper," he said. "Therefore you kill off the current scheme but you never quite get to the next scheme because another few years have rolled by. That is a danger. I've come to the conclusion that it almost doesn't matter what you build, just build it. It always gets used and it gets used very quickly and fast becomes overcrowded. In any kind of mass transit operation, get moving with whatever you've got, which is current technology."

Look no further than what London has done with its Overground system to see how simply investing in maintenance can stimulate infrastructure progress. As recently as 2007, that commuter rail network was "in a sorry state," as the Economist wrote just a few days ago. After a series of rather simple fixes — mostly increasing the train frequency and cleaning up the stations — service is booming and people are wondering when the system will expand.

Even the way cities pay for infrastructure should look backward (or, at least, sideways) to move forward, said Lister. In older days, railways in the United States and Britain "were all built with a profit motive" that relied on capturing land value increases that occurred in the corridor, he said. While rail companies in Asia still use real estate profits to pay for high-quality service, Western operators have stopped capturing the value that transit infrastructure creates.

"Somewhere along the journey we split land values away from the railway operation, and the railway operation just became a railway operation, and they lost their property arm," he said. "When you look at cities like Hong Kong, what they've done with their metro system, it's fundamentally a property company. They built a metro system on the side. It's there to increase values. We have to return to that. I think that's what we've lost. That connectivity between the two things."

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