The Discourses Behind London’s Next Transport Legacy: Crossrail 2

Credit: Londonist

ondon is not short of discourses surrounding Crossrail. The 18£ billion transport scheme is one of the most consequential infrastructure projects to ever befall London; it will include ten new stations, encompassing the Elizabeth line, and add 10 percent capacity to London’s metro overall. Yet its delayed delivery — now over two years past the original deadline of 2018, coupled with a growing price tag for Transport for London (TfL) — has mired the project in controversy, garnering criticism from across the political spectrum. But this paper is not about Crossrail; rather, it’s about the project lying in its wake: “Crossrail 2,” a new north-south route meant to alleviate congestion on existing lines, and better connect the southern region to the central core. While the two projects are entirely separate from each other, recognizing the fragile environment that Crossrail 2 is unfolding within is crucial. This paper will analyze and critically discuss the discourses that surround London’s next big transport legacy. A proper discourse analysis may help further the city’s sustainability goals by pinpointing any vulnerabilities that the project may have. By incorporating key texts on the technique, this paper will attempt to answer the following questions: what are the main discourses surrounding Crossrail 2? What policies and practices can be surmised through the use of discourse analysis? And how do the aforementioned points relate to a sustainable future for London?

erhaps most simply put, a discourse is a “shared way of apprehending the world” (Dryzek: 9). Rather than mere comprehension, apprehension relies on “assumptions, judgments, and contentions” that form the basis for political debate; namely, information about a given situation is received, then responded to in a particular form or manner. In turn, discourses embody the “politics” of a situation; they are the means by which worldviews or stories are told (Dryzek: 17). Often their names suggest what they entail: for example, John Dryzek refers to the camp that promotes manmade growth over the environment as “Promethean,” an allusion to the human who defied the Greek gods with fire. That said, discourses matter: the language that is used to interpret and address issues holds vast implications for power politics, an increasingly relevant approach to the complexity of these turbulent times. A discourse is based on ontology, or the entities that it recognizes — e.g. transport and a city — and the assumptions made about the natural relationships between these entities — e.g. transport is the lifeline of any city (Dryzek: 17). A discourse is led by ‘agents and their motives,’ which can be either human or non-human; and often deploy keywords and metaphors to relay a message (Dryzek: 18). In a modern context, this may be recognized as ‘slogans’ or ‘catch phrases.’ Of course, this paper acknowledges that factors exist outside of discourses that can affect how certain issues are handled; notably, corporate interest and lobbying can upend traditional democratic decision-making norms. Still, discourses have consequences on society’s politics, policies, institutions, and their social and cultural impact, and are thus valuable to study (Dryzek: 21).

This analysis recognizes three key discourses surrounding Crossrail 2 and has categorized them as follows: ‘London futurism;’ ‘Crossrail cautionary;’ and ‘funding scheme skepticism.’ A ‘not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) discourse held by Chelsea residents opposed to a new station in their neighborhood was deemed too specific and small in scale, and thereby not presented here. Furthermore, a counter-discourse of ‘economic rationalists’ also exists and will be explained later in this paper.

Credit: Crossrail 2

The London futurists are stridently pro-Crossrail 2 and assume that the expansion of this transport link plays an integral role in London’s growth and competitiveness in the coming decades, particularly in a “post-Brexit” world. The discourse is led primarily by TfL, and its Crossrail 2 team; the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who oversees TfL; and the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), a highly influential infrastructure policy group that informs Parliament. Their argument has an aura of inevitability, deploying keywords such as “essential,” “vital,” and “widespread support.” In one instance, Crossrail 2 is referred to as the “heart” of London’s response to future challenges — an important metaphor (Mayor’s Transport Strategy: 169). The second discourse, the Crossrail cautionary, has its mantra abbreviated in its name: urgency for another major transport link is alarming after the challenges posed by Crossrail (henceforth called ‘Crossrail 1’). Its agents include Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who now holds a Conservative majority in Parliament; the House of Commons; and several critics in the media. This discourse, however, isn’t strongly opposed to the project; rather, its proponents believe that a firmer business case must be made in light of Crossrail 1. PM Johnson, who once held Khan’s position, even recently said the project “could be fantastic” (Harris: 2019). The same words employed in Crossrail 1 criticism — “cost estimates,” “overruns,” and “delays” — apply here, and Crossrail 2’s apparent price tag (30£ billion, in 2014) is mentioned often. Finally, the last relevant discourse, ‘funding scheme skepticism,’ posits that the funding mechanisms for Crossrail 1 — where developers and businesses along the proposed route helped pay for costs — will not work to the same effect for Crossrail 2, due to the proposed route. The six-year-old price tag is also a point of concern. Therefore, the project cannot be justified, and needs to be reconsidered entirely; “risk” is the most significant keyword to recognize here. The discourse is led by a disparate group of academics; economically conservative organizations; media critics; and former transport officials. It relies heavily on a 2014 report conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a major UK-based consulting firm (PwC: 2014).

However, discourses do not exist in isolation. In fact, the choice of interaction — which discourses are acknowledged, and which are disregarded, or suppressed — is essential to understanding how ‘discourse coalitions’ come to light (Hajer: 22). The politics of any said issue is determined by the coalitions built between discourses with a “shared definition of reality.” In other words: it’s about compromise. Thus, the strongest coalitions hold the highest degree of multi-interpretability, or different dimensions of argument, within the given setting (Hajer: 8). A discourse coalition that is either able to respond to all remaining discourses, or able to absorb enough discourses to render the remaining discourses futile, is likely to succeed in the political arena. This is effectively done through two devices: the use of storylines, and emblems. Storylines can create a narrative that broadens the scope of participation in the discourse coalition; it paves the way for other specific practices to join, and casts the actors in the coalition as playing a particular role (Hajer: 16–17). Case in point: the automobile’s dominance in cities has long been viewed through the discourses of air pollution, land use, public health, and safety, but the emerging storyline of sustainability, given transport’s role in rising carbon emissions, now widens the tent to include practices of climate justice and urban planning in a much more dire fight against climate change. Here, emblems can be particularly powerful: they help general audiences better understand the extent of certain problems in a digestible format and can lead to discursive and societal shifts (Hajer: 5). Emblems are fluid — acid rain was a useful symbol of environmental harm in Hajer’s time, and now it may be the single-use plastic straw — but are hugely influential in organizing efforts.

In the discourses surrounding Crossrail 2, we find both devices at play. The London futurists leverage the Brexit storyline to their advantage; that Crossrail 2 is not only important for London, but the UK economy as a whole in the future (Mayor of London: 169). With economic uncertainty ahead, the project is one certainty posited to deliver on thousands of homes and jobs in potential regeneration areas. Just as this storyline enlarges the spectrum of support, so too is it bolstered by an emblem of London “grinding to a halt” if Crossrail 2 isn’t built (NIC: 2016). Forget the economic case: with a population of 10 million by 2041, the city itself will symbolically collapse without additional transport capacity that, unsurprisingly, only Crossrail 2 can deliver on. In effect, Crossrail 2 is framed as essential to London’s sustainability. Here the opposition is cornered by the implication that other discourses fail to recognize this ominous reality. The emblem has a paralyzing effect, particularly on the Crossrail cautionary discourse: in one news op-ed, the author asserts that Crossrail 2 has garnered less confidence since Crossrail 1, but because of the mayor’s capacity argument, they admit “it’s not a question of if Crossrail 2 will come to fruition, but when” (Connor: 2018). PM Johnson falls into the same camp, in that he first organized the ‘Growth Commission’ for Crossrail 2 as mayor, and undoubtedly knows the Brexit storyline well (Mayor of London: 34). The House of Commons report follows a similar pattern, recognizing the vulnerabilities of the project, only after listing the economic and transport benefits (Haylen: 2019). This situation suggests that a coalition is possible between the London futurism and the Crossrail cautionary discourses, based on the shared reality that London, in fact, needs Crossrail 2 under pressures of Brexit and transport.

But what about the funding scheme skeptics? The crux of the discourse is that the math won’t add up. Critics point to the 2014 PwC report’s assertion that the project will not spur the same level of development as Crossrail 1 (Lavanchy: 2015). Tony Travers at the London School of Economics (LSE) argues that Crossrail 2 will only happen if TfL is able to raise extra taxes, or the central government pitches in more funds — though both scenarios carry a tone of unlikelihood (Spero: 2018). Other actors, including former transport minister Steve Norris and the right-wing Taxpayers Alliance, float cheaper alternatives to Crossrail 2 that, they argue, present similar opportunities. This is the discourse coalition’s last remaining hurdle: the skepticism is clearly palpable enough to be recognized, and therefore must be dealt with.

With power comes privilege, and often those with greater power — elected officials; heads of state; business leaders — have greater privilege. This dynamic allows those actors the freedom to define reality, or essentially create a future scenario without question; a privilege that local groups or individual actors are not as readily able to do (Flyvbjerg: 229). In Flyvbjerg’s Aalborg, the business community, aligned with the press and police department, is able to disseminate information about a downtown redevelopment plan negatively affecting car traffic due to its amassed power, even if said information is later proven faulty (Flyvbjerg: 223). Defining reality is done in part by defining rationality; a constructed future scenario demands a Cartesian response: X is going to happen; therefore, Y must happen (to either avoid or encourage X). When a rationality is required, it is “miraculously produced,” further allowing those in powerful discourses to define the reality they seek to bring into being (Flyvbjerg: 98). Power politics can be traced to this freedom; the discourse coalitions that are ultimately successful are thus able to define a reality through their power, and also, the iron-clad rationality that comes along with it.

Credit: Mayor of London

Consisting of actors with actual legislative authority (Mayor Sadiq Khan), operational oversight (TfL), and recognized technical expertise (NIC), the London futurism discourse undoubtedly has power. Such power enables this discourse to define the realities at hand, namely post-Brexit economic forecasts and a transport system reaching capacity. If a coalition is then forged with the Crossrail cautionary discourse, even greater authority is granted from Westminster, which ultimately makes the final decision to build. Now contrast this power with the funding scheme skepticism, which is led by actors with little institutional backing. Their access to privilege is diminutive, in comparison; instead, they contend with a reality that other discourses have created. The constituents must also combat a counter-discourse that has arisen since the 2014 PwC report: the economic rationalists. Primarily organized by London First, a group consisting of London’s business leaders, this consortium of private interests has pushed back against charges that the project has no business case. The issues raised in the PwC analysis are addressed in a cohesive manner, through more recent, high-visibility reports outlining potential development sites in central London, and ‘enterprise’ space in the West End (London First: 2018). This counter-discourse is key to the London futurists’ power: it provides a sound rationale; and its language acknowledges vulnerabilities (“lessons from Crossrail 1” is repeated alongside cost-saving measures), which thereby forms a bridge between the London futurism and Crossrail cautionary discourses. Should government officials, business leaders, and technocrats rally under the rationale’s banner, this would help to effectively neutralize the funding scheme skepticism discourse, and other possible discourses that may exist in the future. Not coincidentally, London First stresses the “wide-reaching, cross-party support” that Crossrail 2 has on its homepage (2018).

hile Crossrail 2’s proposed delivery date in the early 2030s is less certain, this analysis clearly posits that the project will very likely happen, given the multi-interpretability, defined realities and rationales, and potential discourse coalitions — all of which are crucial, as the key texts show. This paper sought to critically discuss the main discourses surrounding this controversial project, in order to better understand its political ramifications and provide lessons for its future. By doing so, the analysis raises a number of issues that should be addressed through improved policies and practices. A robust public engagement campaign, especially in light of Crossrail 1, could ensure that decision-making does not occur behind closed doors (Hajer: 23). A consultation period, where existing or future discourses could propose pragmatic fixes to the project, would help stabilize power relations, and not seemingly stifle opposition (Flyvbjerg: 194). Cost-saving measures could also avoid a repeat of Crossrail 1’s overrun, which has led to less funds for important transport projects elsewhere; suffice to say, the current landscape favors restraint and oversight (Topham: 2018).

This paper also acknowledges limits and critiques to discourse analysis. The social settings that, Hajer says, create discourses and coalitions are sometimes tenuous; for example, the Brexit storyline could backfire, discouraging Parliament from spending on public works rather than investing in a “post-Brexit future.” Politics often entail ego more than Flyvbjergian power: a personal rift between PM Johnson and Mayor Khan on a different matter could stymie Crossrail 2’s funding. Discourses also exist within representative frameworks, where electoral politics can shift; perhaps the Conservatives’ recent Northern takeover will diminish attention paid to the capital, and south. Regardless, as Dryzek argues, discourse analysis makes note of these external factors, and still proves integral for convoluted problem-solving (Dryzek: 11).

When considering how this discourse analysis may further relate to London’s sustainability, it’s worth noting three key categories: modal share; mobility; and motility. First, the Mayor’s Office and TfL have laid out a vision of 80 percent non-vehicular modal share by 2040; currently, the city is at 63 percent (TfL: 2019). Although the impending threat of climate change is not a core argument to the London futurism discourse, one could argue that adding a new transport link, like Crossrail 2, will discourage car use in areas with higher rates, like the southern and western suburbs, and thereby lower emissions. Secondly, balancing transport and population demands is key to enhancing mobility, whether the future capacity concerns for London are accurate, or not. And finally, if Crossrail 2 alleviates congestion, as the defined reality asserts it will, the project has the potential to positively contribute to motility by creating more pleasant travel experiences, which could preserve existing public transport users and potentially add new ones. Therefore, assuming better policies and practices are pursued in the implementation of Crossrail 2, the city could benefit immensely.

Going beyond Crossrail 2, this paper calls for further research into the use of discourse analysis in sustainable transport debates; at present, it is used minimally. Reaching the 80 percent mark will not be easy to achieve. It will require modal shifts in travel that have not occurred in London in close to a century. Understanding what it will take to reduce car dependency in the years ahead is highly complex — whether in London, or elsewhere — as it involves a wide spectrum of divergent interests and actors. Amidst this complexity, discourse analysis therefore can be an effective tool for transport planners, elected officials, and community groups to chart sustainable transitions, and futures.


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Streets, space, coffee. Teaching cities reportage @nyujournalism . @nycfuture fella. @BartlettUCL grad. @CityLab scribe. Clips in @nytimes , @VICE , et

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