10 objective reasons why London is better than New York

Subliminal messaging: Boris Johnson at an event earlier this month. Image: Getty.

Last night, the think tank Policy Exchange launched a new, baby think tank called the Capital City Foundation, "devoted to the continued prosperity and progress of London". Which is nice.

More importantly, however, the event featured a discussion of why, after years of post-war dominance, New York may be losing its crown as the unofficial capital of the world to London. 

Ed Glaeser, native New Yorker, cities economist, and the delightfully named "Fred & Eleanor Glimp Professor" at Harvard, took to the stage, and explained why, in his opinion at least, London now has the edge over its rival. Granted, he was standing on a podium at the top of the Shard surrounded by Londoners at the time, but we like to believe he was being genuine nonetheless. 

Here are a few of his main points.

1. Population

Source: London Infrastructure Plan.

Over the last few weeks, London finally reached its pre-war population peak of 8.6m. The last available population figures for New York in 2013 estimated its population at around 8.4m.

Now we know that urban populations can be hard to compare, because boundaries and definitions vary from city to city (seriously, we go on about this all the time), and the official definition of London is far more inclusive than the official definition of NYC: compare unofficial metropolitan populations, and New York almost certainly still has the edge.

But London's loss of status accompanied the loss of nearly a quarter of its population after the end of World War Two. The reverse in the population trend, then, implies a reverse in status, too. 

2. Financial Sector

London's financial services sector is ever-so-slightly larger than New York's: it has around 340,000 employees to New York's 322,000. New York currently holds the top spot on the Global Financial Centres Index, however, with a two-point lead on London. 

3. Education

Inner-city school normally have a reputation for poor results and crime, but London's schools are actually better than the national average. In the US, Glaeser says, "I can't think of a single major city in the states where this is the case". Cities including New York also have a far lower high school graduation rate than rural and suburban areas.

4. Geography

From a piece Glaeser wrote for the Evening Standard yesterday: 

The world has shifted in London’s direction. In 1950, New York was perfectly positioned between California and Western Europe. Nothing else mattered much economically. The rise of the Arab World in the Seventies, the emergence of Eastern Europe in the Nineties and India’s post-2000 successes have all improved London’s geography relative to New York. 

5. Government 

This is a bit of a contentious one. Glaeser argues that the presence of central government in the UK's largest city is a good thing, not a bad one. He argues that Parliament's location means it's "friendly" towards big London infrastructure projects like Underground extensions or Crossrail.  

On the other hand, London's city government has relatively little spending power compared to New York's. Only 35 per cent of New York's budget comes from central government grants; the rest is directly collected by the city through tax. Government control over London's finances is far stronger – it controls around 93 per cent of the capital's budget. 

6. "Fun"

"London is just a fun place to be". Thanks, Ed. 

7. Job Growth

Between 2001 and 2012, the number of people working in London grew by 17 per cent, while in New York it grew by only 3 per cent. Ha.

***

Glaeser did end his panegyric with a warning, however: "London is too expensive... we need to build lots and lots more housing" (we completely agree). 

Next to the stage was London mayor Boris Johnson (also, as it happens, born in New York), who had some rather punchier stats on why London has the upper hand:

London has twice as many bookshops as New York.

We also have a quarter of the murder rate.

London has 240 museums to New York's 83. 

Boris also tried to argue that London is home to more billionaires, but according to Business Insider, this isn't the case – London has 72 to New York's 110. To be honest, we'd rather have museums than billionaires anyway. 

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.