Britain's fastest growing cities are all in the south – and its shrinking ones all in the north

Milton Keynes, Britain's boom town. Image: Priory Man/Wikimedia Commons.

This is the latest instalment of our new weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

You know, we've got into a bit of a pattern with this series. “People talk about the north south divide,” we’ll say. “But when you look at the numbers, actually, it's a lot more complicated than that.” What can we say, we're as prone to repeating predictable narratives as any other media organisation.

This week, then, when we crunched some numbers and discovered that divide was still alive and well, it was almost a surprise – albeit not a particularly pleasant one.

This map shows the percentage change in the population of Britain's cities between 1981 and 2013. (We chose those dates for no other reason than they were the earliest and latest on which data was available.) You can see the figures for any individual city, just by hovering the mouse over it.

The north-south split is already pretty clear, but it becomes even clearer when you go to the extremes of the league table. Here are the 10 cities which grew the most in those 32 years:

Not coincidentally, four of these cities – Telford, Northampton, Peterborough, and Milton Keynes – are “new towns”, designated by the governments of the 1960s as areas of growth. The largest of these has grown so much faster than the others that its lead on this measure is effectively uncontested.

Milton Keynes, the giant new town in Buckinghamshire, has only existed since 1967. In less than 50 years, it's grown to become a fair sized city, with a population of 256,000, and between 1981 and 2013 the number of people who lived there grew by 103 per cent. The second fastest growing city over that period was Swindon: that grew by just 41 per cent.

Anyway, we’re getting off topic here. The main point to notice is that only one of Britain's boom towns is above the line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash: that's Telford, in the Midlands. All of the others are pretty comfortably within London's orbit.

Now check out the bottom 10, all of which have shrunk. (Just FYI, every other city on this list has grown.)

Two in Scotland, eight in the north, and basically all of them once famous for heavy industry – docking, shipbuilding, manufacturing. This is economic change, making itself known through demographics.

In the name of completism, here's one last map. This one is absolute, rather than relative, changes in population.

 

The individual cities at either end of the map are different (for obvious reasons, larger cities are more prone to numerically large changes in population). The north south divide, though, still very clearly holds.


These maps show a third of a century’s worth of change. It's an entire generation, including three recessions and three booms.

So in the weeks to come we'll be breaking this down a bit – to see whether the story changes at all when you look at shorter time periods. You lucky people.

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

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.