7 other things we learned from the US army’s plans for invading megacities

Dhaka. Image: Getty.

Last week we wrote about "Megacities and the United States Army": a fascinating yet terrifying report in which the world's top military thinkers solemnly explain that they're going to have to invade somewhere really, really big one day.

The document didn’t just stun us with the essential OMFG-ness of its cheery vision of US tanks casually rolling into Lagos: it also contained a huge raft of interesting facts and figures about life and government in some the world's biggest cities.

Since we couldn’t find room for them in our original piece, we’ve put them here instead.

  • Every day, the report says, an estimated 180,000 people migrate to cities. Scale that up, and you’ll discover it’s about 1.3m week. Or 5.4m a month. Or roughly the population of the UK every year. It's a lot.
  • By 2030 60 per cent of urban dwellers will be under 18. This startling statistic highlights quite how much of the urban growth is coming in developing countries where life expectancy remains low.
  • In 2011, four feet of rain hit Thailand in a single week, flooding an area the size of Kuwait. Many of Bangkok's eastern suburbs were under water for weeks. So were several major industrial estates and the runway at the city’s second airport, Don Mueang, which was closed for nearly five months. Egads.

A Thai woman paddles a makeshift raft through the Bangkok suburb of Rangsit, Novemer 2011. Image: Getty.

  • Talking of flooding, sea-level rises will hit Bangladesh so badly that over, by 2030, Dhaka is expected to absorb 20m refugees. (The army at least believes in climate change.) Its current population is just 15m.
  • Whether they'll have anywhere to live, though, is an open question: the Bangladesh Department of Disaster Management estimates that, in the event of an earthquake of 7.0 on the Richter scale, a minimum of 76,000 of the city's buildings would collapse. A minimum.
  • Rio has 600 favelas (the Latin equivalent of slums). In November 2010 a riot that started in one of them led to city-wide violence; it took the intervention of over 3,000 police officers and military personnel to restore order.
  • While we're on Brazil's less carnival-esque features, the First Command of the Capital is a drug gang that was formed in a Brazilian prison in 2001. By 2006 it was strong enough to co-ordinate 1,300 attacks across the city and launch riots in 73 different prisons, forcing the government to negotiate with it. "More disturbing than its emergence," the report says, "is the fact that a nation possessing the world’s eighth largest economy has been unable to uproot the gang despite building an enormous police force."

If you're wondering why the US army decided to work out how to invade and occupy a major city, this is as good a reason as any.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.