The polls are wrong: the Piccadilly is clearly the best tube line

Piccadilly line trains in depot at Northfields. Image: Getty.

It’s official: the Docklands Light Railway is a Tube Line, and a popular one at that. YouGov have polled Londoners about their favourite Tube Lines, and the DLR is in second-place, with the Overground taking the bronze medal. (Top of the pops is the Jubilee.)

For me, the question of which Tube Line is best is both practical and emotional. How much use to I get out of it? What does it say to me about the city I was born, grew up and live in today?

As far as emotion goes, there are six contenders: the Central, Victoria, Northern, DLR, Piccadilly and District lines. Between them, these are the lines that contain: my school, the flat I grew up in, my first job, first girlfriend, first serious girlfriend, and essentially everywhere I’ve lived for a period of time longer than six months.

The Central Line, of course, cannot be anyone’s favourite line, as it is cramped, smelly and at times hotter than an oven. The warm glow of passing by the place I was born is overridden by the warm haze of travelling on the Central line, and the fear that I may die while doing so. In any case, the emotionally resonant stops are also covered equally well by the District line, which has the advantage of being roomier and serving both my current workplaces (the NS offices and the Palace of Westminster).

The Northern Line, too, has to be immediately eliminated from the running, too, although it’s a harder call. There are a lot of places on it that I have a great deal of affection for – Angel, where I have been going to the cinema for basically my entire life; Warren Street, which is exactly equidistant between one of my best friends and me; and is as a result where I go to watch football more often than not; the stretch of stations from Camden Town to Woodside Park, where I spent a lot of time as a teenager, and each of which has a cherished memory attached.

But it also contains the most irredeemable stretch of south London, from Oval to Balham. South London tends to get a worse rap that it deserves, I expect because it hosts so many fans of Chelsea Football Club and also because it’s an easy gag, but that little set deserves everything it gets. It’s increasingly become a holding pen for people who hate London, but are forced to live here for work or other purposes, and are clearly counting the days until they can move out to some improbable commuter village like Virginia Water or Egham. You know, the kind of people who complain that no-one talks to each other on the Tube and are responsible for killing all of the interesting shops in Covent Garden.

That leaves the real contenders: the District, DLR, Victoria and Piccadilly Lines. For reasons of practicality, the DLR has to bow out here: though I used to take it to work, it simply isn’t useful enough to be the best Tube line. It also only really has two flavours of London – the East End and the city’s banker belt, and the two are in any rate increasingly co-terminous – and the best Tube line has to contain all, or at least a significant chunk of the city’s various flavours.


On that metric, the District Line has a good case to be the definitive Tube Line. It has both flavours of suburbia – posh people who’ve lived on the outskirts for ever; people leaving the inner city for more space or fewer black people. All of the city’s great cultural institutions are within walking distance of a District Line stop. It represents almost every bit of the inner city, and, emotionally speaking, my birthplace, secondary school and a variety of emotional milestones that I prefer not to dwell on here, all took place in parts of the city you can reach on the District Line.

But the problem with the District is also its weakness: it is so broad that it takes ages to get anywhere on it and it is riddled with tourists the year round. It’s a line of last resort – if there is nothing better, take the District Line, and very probably a large book to occupy the time. If there is an alternative, take that, it’ll be quicker.

The Victoria Line has the reverse problem: it is quick and convenient but essentially covers a very small stretch of London. You can’t honestly say that the Victoria Line has all of the city on it.

That might make it seem like the Piccadilly takes the crown by default: faster than the District (just about) but larger than the Victoria. But the Piccadilly is my favourite not because it’s the last line standing but because, to me, it’s the best line of all.

Like the District, it contains essentially every one of London’s forms. It could only be more comprehensive if it had a spur to Lewisham, really, but if you want to “get” London, if you got off at every station of the Piccadilly and walked around for a bit, you’d understand it. You can reach most of the city’s big museums and art galleries, albeit with a slightly longer walk than the District; and the various types of inner and outer London are well-represented. From a sentimental perspective, it, too, ticks off where I grew up, where my football team plays, where I went to school – again, with something of a schlepp compared to the alternative, but still, it works.

And, most magical of all, thanks to the Eurostar station at Kings Cross and the airport at Heathrow, it’s the only Tube Line that can genuinely take you anywhere in the world. You could, provided you have enough money, get on the Piccadilly Line with your passport and decide to go to Hawaii or Paris or wherever you wanted, just like that. (And with a quicker interchange than the luckless visitors who try to change from Monument to Bank.)

And that’s why, whatever the polls may say, the Piccadilly is the best of all possible lines.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at our parent title, the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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This article was amended at 1730hrs at request of the author, in an attempt to reduce the grief he was getting for his contention that Chelsea was in south London. 

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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