Sorry, northerners, but London’s tube strike is national news

Lol, good luck. Image: Getty.

Okay, there’s something that’s bugging me today. By even mentioning it I’m sticking my head on the block very slightly, and I’m sure the social media response to this post is going to be a treat. But I’m going to say it anyway, because it’s really, really winding me up:

Yes, there is a very good reason the tube strike is national news today. And no, it isn’t comparable to a problem with the buses in Huddersfield.

The idea that the strike is just a little local difficulty is a superficially truth-y one. London, after all, is just one city, where the vast majority of the country do not, in fact, live. What’s more, as the political, business and cultural capital of our ludicrously over-centralised state, unnecessary attention paid to London is likely to annoy people in the way a sudden focus on, say, Bradford probably won’t.

What’s more, by any reasonable definition, the British media is too London-centric. It’s an unfortunate but inevitable side-effect of the fact that most of us live here, and CityMetric is very definitely not immune to this problem. (I’m always keen to correct this where possible, so if you happen to be in charge of another British city and would like me to come up and see you, do get in touch.)

Nonetheless, it’s entirely reasonable that the tube strike should be leading today’s national news, for at least two reasons.

One is that London is not just another city. It isn’t simply that all the journalists and politicians live here (though, that no doubt helps, when it comes to garnering coverage). It’s that a whole lot of other people do.

Exactly how many is quite hard to say, because the city has been growing pretty fast, but it can’t be far off 9m by now – roughly one in seven of the national population. If you consider the entire metropolitan area, which includes the commuter belt – as good a proxy for the number of people affected, directly or indirectly, by the tube strike as we’re likely to get – it’s closer to 14m.

I sort of suspect that any other political issue that affected 1 in 5 of the British population would be leading the news today, too.

Population estimates for 30 June 2015.

It’s easy to forget quite how big London is: because it’s just a city there’s a tendency to assume it’s on a level with other British cities. But it isn’t: it’s at least three times bigger than any of its rivals, and at least 40 times bigger than Huddersfield. It’s probably slightly bigger than Scotland and Wales combined, too – on which measure, Sadiq Khan is a significantly more important politician than Nicola Sturgeon.

The other reason why the tube strike is a national matter is related to this, but exacerbated by our old friend, the north-south divide: London represents a disproportionately big share of the national GDP. Estimates vary, but tend to be somewhere between 17 and 22 percent.

In other words, every fifth pound that the British economy is meant to be generating today may never materialise because people couldn’t get onto the Piccadilly line this morning.

None of this means the media isn’t too London-centric: it definitely is. Nor does it mean that it’s ludicrous the economy is so dependent on one giant city: that’s definitely true, too.

But the reality is that it’s genuinely difficult to think of anything else that could be happening in Britain today that would be directly affecting so many people or businesses. With apologies to the “not everyone lives in London” brigade, that’s why it’s leading the news today.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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“Black cabs are not public transport”: on the most baffling press release we’ve seen in some time

An earlier black cab protest: this one was against congestion and pollution. I'm not making this up. Image: Getty.

You know, I sometimes think that trade unions get a raw deal in this country. Reports of industrial action almost always frame it as a matter of workers’ selfishness and public disruption, rather than one of defending vital labour rights; and when London’s tube grinds to a halt, few people will find out what the dispute is actually about before declaring that the drivers should all be replaced by robots at the earliest possible opportunity or, possibly, shot.

We should be a bit more sympathetic towards trade unions, is what I’m saying here: a bit more understanding about the role they played in improving working life for all of us, and the fact that defending their members’ interests is literally their job.

Anyway, all that said, the RMT seems to have gone completely fucking doolally.

TAXI UNION RMT says that the closure of the pivotal Bank Junction to all vehicles (other than buses and bicycles) exposes Transport for London’s (TfL) symptom-focused decision-making and unwillingness to tackle the cause of the problem.

So begins a press release the union put out on Thursday. It’s referring to a plan to place new restrictions on who can pass one of the City of London’s dirtiest and most dangerous junctions, by banning private vehicles from using it.

The junction in question: busy day. Image: Google.

If at first glance the RMT’s words seem reasonable enough, then consider two pieces of information not included in that paragraph:

1) It’s not a TfL scheme, but a City of London Corporation one (essentially, the local council); and

2) The reason for the press release is that, at 5pm on Thursday, hundreds of black cab drivers descended on Bank Junction to create gridlock, in their time-honoured way of whining about something. Blocking major roads for several hours at a time has always struck me as an odd way of trying to win friends and influence people, if I’m frank, but let’s get back to the press release, the next line of which drops a strong hint that something else is going on here:

TfL’s gutlessness in failing to stand-up to multi-national venture capital-backed raiders such as Uber, has left our streets flooded with minicabs.

That suggests that this is another barrage in the black cabs’ ongoing war against competition from Uber. This conflict is odd in its way – it’s not as if there weren’t minicabs offering a low cost alternative to the classic London taxi before Uber came along, but we’ve not had a lengthy PR war against, say, Gants Hill Cars – but it’s at least familiar territory, so it’d be easy, at this point, to assume we know where we are.

Except then it gets really weird.

With buses stuck in gridlock behind haphazardly driven Uber cars – and with the Tube dangerously overcrowded during peak hours – people are turning out of desperation to commuting by bicycle.

Despite its impracticality, there has been an explosion in the number of people commuting by bike. Astonishingly, 30% of road traffic traversing Bank Junction are now cyclists.

Soooo... the only reason anyone might want to cycle is because public transport is now bad because of Uber? Not because it’s fun or healthy or just nicer than being stuck in a metal box for 45 minutes – because of badly driven Ubers something something?

Other things the cabbies will blame Uber for in upcoming press releases: climate change, Brexit, the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870, the fact they couldn’t get tickets for Hamilton.

It is time that TfL refused to licence Uber, which it acknowledges is unlawfully “plying for hire”.

Okay, maybe, we can talk about that.

It is time that black cabs were recognised and supported as a mode of public transport.

...what?

It is time that cuts to the Tube were reversed.

I mean, sure, we can talk about that too, but... can you go back to that last bit, please?

RMT General Secretary, Mick Cash, said:

“RMT agrees with proposals which improve public safety, but it is clear that the driving factor behind the decision is to improve bus journey times under a buckling road network.

“Black cabs are an integral part of the public transport system and as the data shows, one of the safest.”

This is all so very mixed up, it’s hard to know where to begin. Black cabs are not public transport – as lovely as they are, they’re simply too expensive. Even in New York City, where the cabs are much, much cheaper, it’d be silly to class them as public transport. In London, where they’re so over-priced they’re basically the preserve of the rich and those who’ve had enough to drink to mistakenly consider themselves such, it’s just nonsense.

Also – if this decision has been taken for the sake of improving bus journey times, then what’s wrong with that? I haven’t run the numbers, but I’d be amazed if that wasn’t a bigger gain to the city than “improving life for the people who take cabs”. Because – as I may have mentioned – black cabs are not public transport.


Anyway, to sum the RMT’s position up: we should invest in the tube but not the buses, expensive black cabs are public transport but cheaper Ubers are the work of the devil, and the only reason anyone would ever go by bike is because they’ve been left with no choice by all those people in the wrong sort of taxi screwing everything up. Oh, and causing gridlock at peak time is a good way to win friends.

Everyone got that straight?

None of this is to say Uber is perfect – there are many things about it that are terrible, including both the way people have mistaken it for a revolutionary new form of capitalism (as opposed to, say, a minicab firm with an app), and its attitude to workers (ironically, what they could really do with is a union). The way TfL is acting towards the firm is no doubt imperfect too.

But the RMT’s attitude in this press release is just baffling. Of course it has to defends its members interests – taxi drivers just as much as tube drivers. And of course it has to be seen to be doing so, so as to attract new members.

But should it really be trying to do both in the same press release? Because the result is a statement which demands TfL do more for cab drivers, slams it for doing anything for bus users, and casually insults anyone on two wheels in the process.

A union’s job is to look after its members. I’m not sure nonsense like this will achieve anything of the sort.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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