TfL has a tool that lets you map travel times to anywhere in London, and it is brilliant

This one shows travel times to Soho. Image: TfL/WebCAT/Google Maps.

“We use WebCAT to provide information on London's transport system to the professional planning community,” explains a rather unpromising page on Transport for London's website. “This connectivity assessment toolkit allows planners to measure public transport access levels (PTAL) and to produce travel time reports.”

I mean, no, that's not exactly doing it for us either, to be honest. You know the voice Steve Coogan uses in The Day Today, when he's a swimming pool supervisor? (“In 1975, no one died. In 1976, no one died...”) That's the voice we're imagining that last sentence in. Try reading it again, but this time, imagine him saying it. In that voice. All nasal and stuff. See?

Anyway. The reason we mention all this is that checking PTAL values and creating time travel maps is just about the most fun thing we’ve seen in weeks.

Let's start by translating this blurb into English. WebCAT stands for “web-based connectivity assement toolkit”. It allows planners to look at maps of particular locations anywhere in London, and see how well connected they are to public transport – something that’s vital, if you're planning new homes or offices.

To do that, it uses two related measures. One is the Public Transport Access Level, or PTAL. That ranks locations on a nine-point scale based on how well connected they are. The best connected places, where you have a choice of high frequency train services and buses, are rated 6b; the worst, where you really might as well walk, are zero. (There are nine points on the scale because values 1 and 6 are both split into two.)

The result of this ranking is this brilliant map:

On the TfL site, you can zoom right into that, and check the transport accessibility of an area as small as 100m square.

That, though, is a fairly blunt instrument. Central Croydon gets a high ranking because it has lots of trains and buses. But it's clearly a bit much to say it's “more convenient” than, say, the Bermondsey riverside, which has a much lower ranking, but from which many people would be able to walk to work.

In other words, PTAL shows where there are good transport links, but it doesn’t show where there are links to.

So, WebCAT also provides another tool: travel time mapping, which does exactly what it says on the tin. It can show you travel times from any point in London as they were in 2011; or you can look into the future, to see how they'll have changed by 2021 or 2031. You can also throw other variables into the mix: time of day, for example, or using step-free modes of transport only.

Using these maps (isochrone maps, to give them the technical name), you can instantly see that CityMetric Towers in London's fashionable Farringdon is – we don’t like to brag – pretty well connected. This map shows average travel times to and from the office in the afternoon rush hour:

Here's travel times from Canary Wharf in the morning rush hour. Unsurprisingly, it's quite well connected to the eastern suburbs, but a pain in the backside to get to or from the west:

That'll change a bit thanks to Crossrail and other initiatives, though. Here's the same map, for 2031. See how the yellow has spread:

Since the Guardian's Alex Hern was nice enough to point us towards this thing, here's a map showing how long it’ll take him to get from his office to everywhere else in London these days:

Our happy hour with WebCAT has taught us one lesson above all others: whatever you do, don't live in the Bromley village of Downe.

All in all, this is really, really cool. Go play.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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