How railways shaped a modern metropolis: Evidence from London

Stephan Heblich, Stephen Redding and Daniel Sturm write on how Railways shaped City of London:

In new research, we use the mid-19th century transport revolution from the invention of steam railways, a newly created, spatially disaggregated dataset for Greater London from 1801-1921, and a quantitative urban model to provide new evidence on the contribution of the separation of workplace and residence to agglomeration (Heblich et al. 2018). The key idea behind our approach is that the slow travel times achievable by human or horse power implied that most people lived close to where they worked when these were the main modes of transportation. In contrast, the invention of steam railways dramatically reduced the time taken to travel a given distance, increasing average travel speeds from around 6 mph for horse-drawn vehicles and 3 mph for walking to around 21 mph, which permitted the first large-scale separation of workplace and residence. This separation enabled locations to specialise according to their comparative advantage in production and residence. Using both reduced-form and structural approaches, we find substantial effects of steam passenger railways on city size and structure. We show that our model is able to account both qualitatively and quantitatively for the observed changes in the organisation of economic activity within Greater London.

London during the 19th century is arguably the poster child for the large metropolitan areas observed around the world today. In 1801, London’s built-up area housed around 1 million people and spanned only five miles East to West. In contrast, by 1901, Greater London contained over 6.5 million people, measured more than 17 miles across, and was on a dramatically larger scale than any previous urban area. By the beginning of the 20thcentury, London was the largest city in the world by some margin (with New York City and Greater Paris having populations of 3.4 million and 4 million, respectively, at this time), and London’s population exceeded that of several European countries. Furthermore, London developed through a largely haphazard and organic process during this period, which suggests that both the size and structure of the city responded to decentralised market forces. Therefore, 19th century London provides a natural testing ground for assessing the empirical relevance of models of city size and structure.

……

The results show Greater London’s population would have been 30% lower in 1921 without the railway network. The findings and the quantitative urban models employed highlight the role of modern transport technologies in sustaining dense concentrations of economic activity.

Must be the same for most other metropolis as well such as New York, Mumbai, Calcutta and so on. But then as Fogel showed in case of US, impact of railways was overstated.

What is also interesting is what explains the decline of some of these metro/megapolis as in case of Calcutta?

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