British cities have weak governance, limited public transport – and terrible productivity. Coincidence?

A gratuitous picture of the Wuppertal Suspension Railway in the Ruhr. Image: Mbdortmund/Wikipedia.

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

Last week, over at the good ship New Statesman, I wrote about my irritation with the widespread habit among journalists of explaining everything that ever happens in terms of whatever it is they spend their lives writing about. It’s lucky I have no fear of hypocrisy, then, because I’m about to do exactly that.

For the last few weeks I’ve been trawling Centre for Cities data in an attempt to explain a mystery: why are the big British cities outside London so much less productive than cities of similar size and stature elsewhere in Europe?

Click to expand.

Digging through the numbers, I found that less productive cities have a few things in common: smaller services sectors; lower numbers of businesses; fewer patents registered; a lot of unskilled workers. Which way the causality runs is not always clear – a lot of those things could be the result of talented people leaving, to work in more productive cities where career options are wider and wages are higher. Nonetheless, it’s clear that, whether symptom or cause, there are certain characteristics that struggling cities tend to share.

Reading up on the various cities, though, I started to wonder if there might actually be other ways in which the four British ones were unlike their European peers – ways which aren’t captured by this dataset. Here are three.

1) The other countries I looked at all have regional governments

France has regions and, more recently, metropoles (collections of councils, covering entire metropolitan regions). Italy has provinces, Spain has autonomous communities and Germany has states. (Hamburg, indeed, is a state in its own right.)

In England, though, for most of recent history there’s been no administrative layer between local councils and national government. (The three Celtic nations have at least had their own administrations since 1999.) There has thus been no layer of government whose job it is to think about the needs of specific metropolitan regions.

This is, gradually, changing: Birmingham and Manchester now sit at the heart of their own city regions. But there’s still nothing on offer in Leeds, and no democratic body tasked with planning for the needs of greater Glasgow. (The closest is the Scottish Government, but that’s up the road in Edinburgh and responsible for a much, much bigger region.)


2) Mayors are standard on the continent

...but not in Britain, where the council & leader model has historically held sway. So while there are individual politicians whose job it is to speak up for Milan or Marseille or Munich, British cities have had no such representatives.

Again, this is changing: some councils are now led by directly-elected mayors; some city regions now elect metro mayors. There are individuals whose job it is to stand up to central government for the needs of Greater Manchester or greater Birmingham (Andys Burnham and Street, respectively).

This, though, is a very recent phenomenon – and once again, Leeds and Glasgow are still out in the cold.

3) Continental cities have public transport

I looked at 15 continental cities in this exercise. All but one, Hamburg, have tram networks. As far as I can see, literally all of them have heavy-rail metro networks, too – whether subways or S-Bahn commuter rail networks.

Once again, it’s the British cities that are the outlier. Glasgow has its subway, and very nice it is too, but it serves only a small part of the city, and attempts to extend it have repeatedly been abandoned. Manchester’s Metrolink tram network is now pretty extensive, but also very recent.

Birmingham, meanwhile, has only a single light-rail line, and Leeds nothing at all. All four cities are still fairly limited in their powers to regulate the buses or trains on their patch. None of them offer the sort of extensive public transport networks you’d expect when visiting almost any continental city.

Spot the difference. Image: Tom Forth.

You’re getting the point now, I hope. Most continental European cities have visible local and regional governments whose job it is to speak up for their cities and plan for its needs. They also have extensive public transport networks. British cities have not, in recent times, had any of those things.

Correlation is not causation, of course, and as I admitted above, I’m primed to see the world this way. Perhaps these are the things holding British cities back; perhaps they’re not. At the very least, we have to accept that a mayor and a subway is no magical formula for creating productivity, because if it were, Naples wouldn’t be also struggling along at the bottom of the league table.

Nonetheless, it’s hard not to spot a pattern here. The big British cities have had nobody to speak up for their needs. They’ve had limited investment in their transport networks. And they’re not as productive as their continental peers.

Perhaps these things are unrelated – but it’s a bloody big coincidence, don’t you think?

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

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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.