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.

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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. 

 
 
 
 

This interactive map of the Swiss rail network is just really, really cool

The first train crossing the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world's longest rail tunnel during the opening ceremony near the town of Erstfeld, Switzerland, on 1 June 2016. Image: Getty.

After 500 years of democracy all Switzerland has produced is the cuckoo clock: so said Harry Lime, Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man.

This is terribly unfair – so I’m going to leap to the defence of the proud Swiss people, and disprove Lime’s claim right now, by showing you a mind-boggling map of the country’s rail system.

Made by self-described hacker, trainspotter and map addict Vasile Coțovanu, it uses data from the federal railways organisation SSB to show the movement of trains across the country in real time. If you’re too impatient to watch the trains crawl across the map, you can speed the whole thing up. If you feel the need to follow a particular train, you can do that, too.

The map is not actually live, as such: it uses timetable data to show where trains are meant to be, so doesn’t show delays and so forth. But Swiss trains have such a reputation for punctuality that the joke is the locals set their watches to the trains – so we can be fairly sure what we’re seeing is spot on.

The map also, indirectly, shows both the physical and human geography of the country. You’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic duo than Switzerland and mountains: the country’s topography has allowed the small republic to keep out of Europe’s wars for centuries.

But as well as providing a natural barrier that would make Donald Trump go green with envy (what colour does green and orange make?), the mountains have been a huge obstacle for the engineers tasked with building the country’s rail system.

This map shows the rail network in its entirety: note the concentration of red to the north, representing the Swiss Plateau. Hemmed in to the north by the Jura Mountains and to the south by the mighty Alps, this stretch of relatively flat land was an obvious choice for settlers, and although it only covers 30 per cent of the country, two thirds of the total population lives there.

In the rest of the country, though, rail coverage really thins out. Tunnels and difficult spiral climbs are necessary for trains taking on the mountainous south.
Despite its difficulty, the route through the Alps along the Gotthard Pass has been an important trade route for centuries. It is the shortest route between the Po and Rhine Rivers, and control of it has been a key objective for the Swiss state.

Two years ago a new rail line opened along this north-south route, known as the Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT). The tunnel can be seen in the more faded red, running from Erstfeld to Biasca:

This tunnel was built quite a bit after Harry Lime’s time: he had seen it, I doubt he would have been quite so rude about Switzerland. It’s the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world running for 57km under the Alps. At its deepest point, the GBT is 2,450m deep. This incredible feat of engineering allows faster and more frequent journies through the mountains and onto Italy.

Here you can see the 19:09 for Como go through the tunnel:

The Alps aren’t just an obstruction, though: where railway lines have managed to wind their way through you can find some of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.

The Bernina Express is the sort of old school Alpine train where you imagine you could find James Bond in the bar carriage. It travels along two World Heritage railways, the Albula and the Bernina, which are among only a handful of rail lines whose importance has been recognised by UNESCO. Sweeping past glaciers and lakes, the train goes through 55 tunnels and across a mindboggling 196 viaducts and bridges.

Here’s the 13.48 to Tirano going through the eponymous Bernina Pass:

I was thinking of asking Vasile Coțovanu, the man behind the map, to try mapping out the UK rail system in a similar way. The problem is the difference between actual running times and those timetabled is so great that any map would be less of a practical tool than a work of utopian fiction.

Let’s leave these interactive maps to a country that can build a world class rail system in the middle of a mountain range. Harry Lime, eat your heart out. 


Images: Vasile Coțovanu.