Crossrail is also in the news, and here the figures are far more daunting (even if they have yet to attract the same level of publicity). The facts are as follows. It is a £7-10bn project that will shift up to 150 million people a year. Assuming these passengers are the same people travelling each day, and that each makes a return journey, we have 300,000 people doing this each day (150 million/50 weeks/5 days/2 journeys) which, assuming a project cost of £9bn, makes a cost per seat of £30,000. Unlike the stadium, however, it is likely that this investment will be enjoyed by the same people each working day.
Quite obviously, we need a national stadium, but it is not so obvious that we need Crossrail. We could choose instead to invest the same money in significant housing projects in areas closer to the centre of London. Assuming that the potential passengers for these homes are all couples, we need to find dwellings for 150,000 people within striking distance of work and, of course, we must not forget that we have to get them there. A quick check reveals that there are about 2500 homes in design within 15 minutes' travelling time from Westminster. An educated guess would be that there might be 50,000 in total. Some sites are not financially viable, but imagine the effect if £60,000 were to be given as a subsidy in order to make them so …
There is, of course, the problem of transport. Last year, the Northern Line collapsed. I cycled for three days and then it rained and I resorted to the bus. What I had imagined was going to be a nightmarish journey became a pleasant surprise. Congestion charging, bus lanes and some aggressive policing got me to work within 10 minutes of my journey time on the Tube. It would have been better but for a few delivery vans that insisted on blocking the route.
This week we celebrate the first anniversary of congestion charging. A year ago this was billed by our press and our government as a surefire disaster that would spell the end of Ken Livingstone's political career. Now, of course, it is generally regarded as a pioneering triumph. Hardly in all political history have we had a project that was so egalitarian, that could generate an instant step change in the way our city works and that could deliver economic, social and environmental sustainability. Ironically, its very success has brought into question its economic assumptions – revenue is substantially less than anticipated. But when compared with the proposed per capita investment on the stadium or on Crossrail, it still makes astonishingly good sense.
Traffic has ripped the heart out of many of the places we might have lived in and enjoyed, and created pollution on levels that have poisoned generations before us and will continue to kill and maim pedestrians
It also raises a tantalising possibility. The London Underground system has sought to resolve overground congestion, caused first by horse transport and, latterly, by motor vehicles. Traffic lights and parking restrictions were inventions that served only to increase traffic and deny the people their right to the public street. Traffic has ripped the heart out of many of the places that we might have lived in and enjoyed, and created pollution on levels that have poisoned generations before us, and will continue to kill and maim pedestrians.
It is possible to imagine things differently. We could have a city that, over the next 10 years, develops a densely populated core as incremental increases to the congestion zone boundary release more and more of the inner city brownfields to housing. In the same period, all that Crossrail would deliver would be mess and disruption – as well as starving other projects of cash.
Crossrail is the engineer's solution to a problem that has not been properly understood. Big engineering is in our blood, whether we think of nuclear power stations to solve the world's energy needs or channel tunnels to link cities. Each is promoted by construction lobby groups with vested interests, and who orchestrate smear campaigns against a less well-resourced opposition.
Mark Whitby is the founder of engineer Whitbybird.