What is the UK’s worst city?

London, land of inequality. Image: Getty.

Careers have been built and friendships shattered debating the UK’s top cities – the biggest, best, happiest, healthiest and so on.

But what about the other end of the spectrum? What about vacuums for culture and graveyards for human endeavour? It’s time to clear up a controversial subject: the UK’s worst city.

Of course, one man’s miserable metropolis may be another’s treasure trove. For parents London is a well-established Hades, but for beekeepers there’s no city more supportive.

So we should probably look at multiple metrics. Demography, economics, transport, crime, popular opinion and culture, while contentious, all provide a meaty launchpad for analysis. Let us plumb the depths of UK urban centres to expose once and for all the most abysmal and abhorrent.

Demographic

Population flows seem as good a place as any to start. Stagnation alone immediately puts Dundee (the UK’s slowest growing city) squarely in the frame of despondency.

But perhaps a better indication of a city’s fundamental grotesqueness comes in the form of life expectancy. Glasgow has a triumphant tradition of coming bottom; its male occupants are scarcely able to manage 73 years before dropping dead.

Just as interesting, however, is inequality within cities. London is the outstanding example; men born in the plush western borough of Kensington & Chelsea average 83 years, while those unfortunate enough to have been born a mere tube ride away in Tower Hamlets see this cut by 5 years to 78.

So, that puts three cities in the danger zone – languishing Dundee, mortal Glasgow and polarised London.

Economics

Despite decent GVA, a measure of productivity, employment rates put Liverpool (63.9 per cent) and Birmingham (64.2 per cent) at the bottom of the pile, alongside existing crap conurbation contender Dundee (63.5 per cent).

The Gini coefficient – which measures inequality – sees Birmingham recover its reputation slightly. But Cambridge is publicly humiliated with a whopping 0.46, while Oxford (0.45) and London (0.44) follow closely behind. The latter three are also by far the worst offenders when it comes to the increasingly acrimonious divorce between earnings and house price, another measure on which serial bastard Dundee outperforms the national average.

A pattern seems to be emerging: Dundee undercuts everyone, then London blows the field open with its trump card of rampant inequality.

Transport

Quality versus quantity is the big issue here. Government research from 2015 suggests that, of the 10 most overcrowded peak hour trains, four were in Manchester and six in London. The two also dominate rankings for most delays.

This seems a bit unfair. Operators like Thameslink may dismally fail to match the satisfaction ratings of their smug northern cousins Hull Trains, but the function of the two railways is entirely different. With dozens of stations in inner London alone, compared to a mere one in Hull, Wolverhampton, Oxford, Cambridge and Leicester, the quest to find the UK’s worst city must go on.


Crime

A serendipitous measurement: not only is crime clearly undesirable (unless you’re a criminal), it also gives small cities a chance to escape ignominy.

Direct comparison is not easy, and clearly the Oxford criminal’s propensity for bike thievery contrasts with Birmingham’s concentration of murderers. But, despite honourable mentions for Sheffield, Bradford and Manchester,

London dominates the rankings in UK Crime Stats’ analysis of overall crimes committed by constituency. North of the border, the crime rate in central Glasgow is over twice that of Aberdeen city centre, its nearest competitor.

Cities containing a larger number of people naturally contain a larger number of ne’er-do-wells. Nevertheless, the proliferation of crime in major municipalities leaves them with ground to make up.

Popular opinion

Perhaps the best way to uncover the UK’s worst city is to interrogate the body politic. Provident’s biannual “unbroken Britain” poll seeks to do just that, appraising cities based on eight key criteria.

Interestingly Sheffield, skirting beneath the radar thus far, emerges as an undiscovered circle of hell. Its beleaguered inhabitants rank it bottom for happiness, trust, area upkeep, safety and politeness.

There are some other surprising results – London, Portsmouth and Oxford are consistent bottom-5 finishers. Glasgow residents have awarded their city a respectable mid-table finish for safety despite its high crime rate.

But although interesting, popular polls are reliably unreliable. TGI 2017 suggests a higher percentage of Londoners are “perfectly happy” with their standard of living than those who live in Manchester, completely contradicting Provident.

The Sheffield-London-Portsmouth-Oxford nexus of despair, then, while revealing, is worth taking with a pinch of salt.

Culture

Regularly touted as the cultural powerhouse of the whole world as much as the UK, London’s concentration of theatres, restaurants, museums and attractions is unequalled.

The RSA’s Heritage Index provides some more detailed insights. Ranking regions on their cultural assets, Derby is the lowliest city while London boroughs dominate the top 3. Data for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales is a lot broader, but Edinburgh, Dundee, Belfast and Cardiff all manage strong top-5 finishes in their respective regions.

But wait! Even disregarding methodological disputes, the Heritage Index exposes profound cultural inequality. Inner London does indeed top the table, but Newham only manages 316th out of 325 regions. The same is true of Manchester: the city has wangled a top half finish, but Trafford ranks two places below Derby.

Thus cities performing well have not done so evenly while those performing evenly have not done well. Although near the bottom, Derby is in good company.


The results

A caveat – making ham-handed declarations about the poorest performers across a few randomly selected metrics, while exhilarating, doesn’t prove inherent infamy. Factors determining a city’s rise and fall are often beyond their control: lack of inward investment, political change, economic pressures and so on. Whatever it means to be bad in this land of demographic division and iniquitous inequality, I am not qualified to say.

But I do think the worst can be grouped into two main categories: the dreadful and the deceptive.

In the former go the usual suspects – not the one-off calamities embodied by Sheffield or Derby, but the hardcore repeat offenders. Birmingham is full of unemployed murderers and doesn’t do too well on culture; Dundee is a cultural hub, but its economic struggles are reflected in its stagnant population; and, while the inhabitants of Glasgow are fairly upbeat about their city,  relocating to Kuwait, Cuba or Honduras would bump up their life expectancies.

The latter is more interesting. London and Oxford aren’t conventional candidates for the UK’s worst cities, but their incredible economic and cultural clout comes at a price. You could sell a kidney at the market rate in either, and still wouldn’t be able to afford a flat. And both are egregious in their own way – see the Oxford dweller’s purported misery, or the average Londoner’s woebegone transport travails.

What is clear is that headline statistics only tell half the story. The jaunty veneer of Britain’s best-loved cities masks gristly innards diseased by injustice. My anticlimactic conclusion is that it all boils down to personal preference: would you rather be jobless in Birmingham or homeless in Oxford? Stabbed in the front in Glasgow, or stabbed in the back in London? There are many strong candidates among the UK’s cities – but the debate over their nadir must rumble on.

 
 
 
 

How do North Koreans get to work? A guide to transport in the DPRK

Buhung station, on the Pyongyang Metro. Image: Jodie Hill.

Like so much else in North Korea, the country’s transport can be divided into categories: Pyongyang and not Pyongyang.

In the capital, centrally-run transportation is, compared to other extremely poor countries, efficient, cheap and well maintained. Outside Pyongyang, by contrast, the state has withered away – albeit not quite as Marx imagined it would. The near total collapse of state run transport infrastructure has left room for a wide range of enterprising North Koreans to make their living in the transport sector – provided, of course, a chunk of those proceeds makes its way back to the party.

So how do North Koreans get around Pyongyang?  

Here’s a homemade map of the city’s transport section:

A homemade map of the Pyongyang transport sector. Image: Michael Hill.

Some notes on all this. The names for Subway stations are translations of the Korean names, but bear no relation to their location. I filled in the (unnamed) trolley bus and tram stop names myself, with reference local landmarks; in fact, those systems both stop way more than my map implies.

What’s more, the Gwangmyeong/Bright Future station is closed, and has been for years – out of respect for Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Sung who are in a nearby mausoleum, which used to be Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang pad. The tramline to Gwangmyeong/Bright Future is also not really part of the public transport network, but is just for visitors to the mausoleum.

Getting about

A subway ticket costs just 5 North Korean Won (9,500 won to the dollar at black market rates). If you need to transfer you will have to buy another ticket, there are no travelcards or season tickets. You can check the best way to get where you are going at most stations (possibly all) contain interactive maps.

Pyongyang subway interactive map. Image: Jodie Hill.

Just press the name of the station you wish to travel to from the list along the bottom, and the route from your current station to your destination lights up. This may or may not be overkill for a network with just two lines and 16 stations.

Incidentally, the logo has the word 지 (ji) which is the first syllable of 지하 (jiha) which means underground. The title just means “Information board”, and the question is, ‘Where are you going?’

Some stations are 360ft (110m) deep, double the depth of the deepest station (Hampstead) on the London Underground.

The escalators at Buhung/Revival station escalator. Image: Jodie Hill.

While this bomb shelter might be useful one day, for now it just means Pyongyangites add ten minutes to their planned journey time – which encourages many people to take the tram or trolley bus instead. When you finally get down to the platform you won’t have long to wait – at most 5 minutes during peak times, 10 minutes off peak.

The North Korean government never misses a chance to propagandise: every station has a theme. For example the station name Gaeson means “Triumphant Return”; it’s situated near where Kim Il-Sung gave his first speech as ruler. Inside the murals depict crowds attentively listening to him. The style is not dissimilar to the grandeur of subways in the former Soviet Union, but with much less emphasis on the workers and modernist art and a lot more on the rulers.

The trains themselves were made in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s. There are allegedly some new trains – but they look suspiciously like their older counterparts given a lick of paint and an electronic information board. The old East German stock has been moved onto the national rail network. While these days powercuts are much rarer than in the 1990s (when, for long periods of the day, the subway didn’t operate at all), a torch and something to read might be advised just in case you get stuck.

The central figure is Kim Il-Sung. Image: Jodie Hill.

The ‘showcase’ station is Buhung (“Revival”):

Images: Jodie Hill.

The others are much the same only without the chandeliers and with much dimmer lights.

Above ground

While electricity is hardly plentiful in North Korea, compared to oil it is pretty abundant. Therefore, buses have gradually been phased out: now trolley buses and trams then form the backbone of the transit network in Pyongyang. As regular as the subway, but with a bigger network and not requiring a long escalator ride – or walk, as the escalators often break down – this is the most popular way to travel around Pyongyang.

The ticket price is again just 5 won (about 0.4p). The trolley bus vehicles were mostly manufactured domestically, while the trams are second hand from communist era Prague. Power cuts are much more frequent on the trolley buses and trams than on the subway: passengers on an affected service are expected to push.

The rail network is rarely used for commuting. Even for those way out in the plush satellite town of Ryeongsong (at the far north of the map, and home of Kim Jong-Un and many other top party cadres), those not high enough ranked for a car take the trolleybus rather than the train to commute to work.

Venturing out of the capital, the official transport network shows signs of near collapse. As far as I am aware, the only other city with a tram network is Chongjin, but it’s hardly extensive – a one line system, eight miles long. It suffers from much more regular power cuts than its Pyongyang counterpart, and relies on hand me down trains from the capital. Many cities have a trolley bus service on paper – but most have no service at all or, at best, a skeleton peak hours service only.

The national rail network is worse. Before you can even get a ticket you must apply for permission – a process that can take days – though nowadays this can be circumvented with a bribe. Tickets are cheap, usually just a few hundred won (a few pence), but with frequent power cuts, journeys take even longer than the 12mph average speed suggests they will. While Kim Jong-Un’s travel habits are unknown, both his father and grandfather liked to travel by private train, and this would lead delays of 24 hours for people travelling in the same area. Freight takes priority over passenger rail, and virtually the entire network is single track and with no sophisticated signalling equipment, meaning trains often have to wait for a long time to let others pass.

A map of the network. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of these problems lot of passenger traffic has moved onto the roads. Enterprising Koreans who have obtained licenses, as well as state operated enterprises (particularly people associated with the police), have bought second hand buses from China and now use them for inter-city transport.

Reports vary about whether travel permits are required for bus travel, and about how hard they are to obtain. Prices fluctuate due to changes in the oil price and vary wildly by region. A journey from Nampo to Pyongyang (about 30 miles) costs $5. A journey of similar length between two cities in the north east costs around $15, while in the north west just $2.

Journeys are not comfortable. North Korean roads are often unpaved, always potholed, and the buses were not in great condition even when they left China. Nevertheless they link the emerging market economy together.  

North Korea road map:

A map of the network. Blue routes are all paved, others mostly unpaved or paved a very long time ago. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

For shorter journeys, taxis are now an option in most medium sized cities and even in some rural areas. There are at least four taxi companies operating these days in Pyongyang.

North Korean won won’t get you very far though: taxi drivers want dollars (two of them), to take you anywhere plus another 50 cents for every kilometer you travel, about three times the cost as in North East China. The only network outside Pyongyang I know in detail is one run by a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin, which recently imported dozens of almost new taxis from China. Payment is accepted in North Korean won, Chinese RMB and US dollars; a 10 minute journey costs 1 dollar.

Taxis are beyond the means of most North Koreans, though. The backbone of North Korea’s transport infrastructure is formed by bikes.


Bicycles were illegal in Pyongyang until 1992, and this ban was strictly enforced – but since it was lifted, bike use has really taken off. In smaller towns they often serve as a status symbol as much as transport, much as cars do for many in the west. The wealthiest now ride electric assisted bikes imported from China, though the Ford of North Korea is the Pyongjin bike company, which has cornered 70% of the market according to the leading North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

It is still technically illegal for a woman to ride a bike, but this ban is not strictly enforced. (I know of one woman who used to ride her technically illegal bike to her technically illegal small business, a bicycle repair shop.) Legally, every bike needs a license plate, and each rider needs take a test and get a license – but this too is mostly unenforced.

It is illegal to ride on North Korea’s mostly empty roads. This ban is not enforced in most cities, but is in Pyongyang, where the government has started creating cycle paths on the pavements as well as a bike hire scheme. If you can’t afford a bike yourself, a ‘bicycle carrier’ will give you a lift for about five US cents per kilometre – although, like a land based Ryanair, you have to pay more for bags. Both customers and workers in this sector tend to be very poor.

North Korea’s transport mirrors the North Korean economy. Pyongyang just about manages to present itself as a communist city. Outside the capital, though, secret policeman, state-operated enterprises and sole traders make a living – and sometimes a fortune – keeping the country moving among the remains of a communist economy which never delivered.

With thanks to Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange and Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours for helpful conversations.  

Michael Hill wants you to be his third twitter follower so you can see more versions of the Pyongyang transport map.