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<On to September 2012

29 August
Being brave about airports

My favourite story in the August issue of Environmental Engineering magazine (I’m allowed to have favourites, as I write about three quarters of the mag) is the one about the American entrepreneur who is trying to build a whole new city in the desert of New Mexico. One reason I like it is that, having got fed up with not getting much info about it, I sent a rather testy email to the entrepreneur’s corporate inbox, and the multi-squillionaire phoned me back almost instantly. That’s a nice direct way of doing business. I recommend it: just pick up that phone.

Another reason why the story is nice is the scale of the ambition. Basically the entrepreneur, Bob Brumley, has knocked around the engineering world a bit and found that “big ideas” often struggle to prove themselves because there’s nowhere to test them safely. For example, you wouldn’t really want Ford to be testing ideas for driverless roadtrains of trucks in convoy on the M1 – yet that’s where you need to test them, because that’s where they’ll operate if they’re to be a reality.

So Brumley’s idea is to build a fully-wired-up city, with roads, water systems, power and all the other kinds of modern infrastructure, but with no inhabitants, so big companies can test big systems. And New Mexico being largely empty, that’s where it’s to be built. You can run your traffic experiments without fear of casualties. (Some of the testing will, of course, be defence-related, but I’m not going to get sniffy over that: I’d rather, if those things need to be tested, that they were tested in a desert somewhere rather than in my back garden or on the streets of some war-torn city.)

I’ve no idea whether this artificial city will actually happen – there’s been some doubt in recent months. What I do know is that it’s an example of the kind of thinking that could (should) be applied elsewhere. Much of the time, we seem to potter along, patching up and squeezing more capacity out of systems we set up years ago. But once in a while, we need to break out of the constraints and do something radically new and different in order to make real progress. That is, I think, what Brumley is about.

This thinking could usefully be applied elsewhere: especially in transport. Currently, as part of the silly-season lack-of-news that afflicts us every year at this time, there’s big debate about whether the UK government should reverse its opposition to the expansion of Heathrow Airport. There seems little dispute that more airport capacity is needed; less certain is whether Heathrow is the right place to do it.

My view is that it’s not the right option. You can’t uninvent Heathrow, and I’m sure it will remain the main airport for a generation and more, but as a location for the UK’s main hub, it’s in the wrong place. The wise but brave thing to do would be to start elsewhere with a new airport that can have modern infrastructure built in and will have room to expand: shove all the tourist flights out there to start with, and then gently it might take on other roles.

Like Brumley’s testing city, you have to recognise that squeezing more out of existing ideas has limits and a big leap forward is needed. And that requires a bit of bravery. Maybe that’s easy for maverick entrepreneurs to do, but more difficult for governments. But we’re doing it with high-speed rail, and airports need the same kind of brave thinking.

>Back to July 2012