To fix the north south divide, we need to talk about human capital

Derelict houses in Rotherham. Image: Getty.

There are many names that get thrown around to characterise the emerging political currents of our times: populism, nationalism, or what some genius in a moment of ironic onomatopoetic brilliance endearingly labelled Trumpism.

The comforting story that the “equalising” market forces of neoliberalism will invariably lead to efficient and equitable growth has been debunked as a fairy tale. We find ourselves at a crossroads where we know that our current system is failing but don’t really know how to exit this complex mess.

Inequality is also what many see as being the key to understanding the vote to leave the EU. It’s often said that Brexit has split the country – but actually it has made more visible a long-existing rift, the deepening divide between the south and north of England, and the increasing economic and political disconnect Northerners feel from the rest of the country. This divide manifests itself along various dimensions, including economic productivity, educational outcomes, and even life expectancy at birth (a shocking two years lower up north).

Ever since George Osborne’s famous speech in Manchester, reviving the “Northern Powerhouse” has become the focal point of the government’s policy to address these regional inequalities. His plans includeed massive infrastructure projects and investments into a handful of advanced industries as a way to revitalise the economy and build competitiveness. Osborne’s policies were based on a concept known as "New Economic Geography", which theorises that clusters of economic activity around urban areas can lead to knowledge spillovers that may potentially spur endogenous processes of productivity growth. In essence, this is a typical “the sum is greater than its parts” argument.

In a more fatalistic interpretation of this theory, however, Policy Exchange has warned against spending resources on an already sinking ship. The North’s dissolution is an irreversible fact: population movements to the more productive South should not only be allowed, but actively encouraged, in order to improve those peoples’ productive capacity.

Last December, “The Big Sort”, a paper by Greg Clark and Neil Cummins questioned the effectiveness of either of the proposed policies, claiming that they disregard the underlying driver behind the regional divergence. The paper argued that the root cause of the distinctly lower productivity in the North does not lie in its inherently worse location characteristics, but instead in the selective migration of individuals. The findings illustrate that for more than a hundred years, Britain has been experiencing “brain-drain”: the selective migration of individuals with high capabilities from the North to the South and that of low-skilled individuals in the opposite direction.

Based on these insights, the authors make an appeal for the government to take a backseat altogether and, above all, limit “unproductive” investment into the North.

However, this recommendation entirely disregards that the question of how much money should be channelled into the North remains an inherently normative one. It has as much to do with economic considerations as it has with social concerns. As the failure of neoliberalism to deliver on its promises has laid bare, economic efficiency should never be treated as the panacea for our problems, nor as an end in itself. Ultimately, do we want to allow for northern regions to descend into irrelevance or do we strive for a more decentralised distribution of economic and social activity?

If one were to deem the latter worthwhile, the paper can still provide valuable insights into which policies may be the most effective. The key takeaway here is that, if the North is to survive, it needs to find ways to invest in, create, and particularly retain talent. Yet in order to prevent skilled people from leaving, the North must become attractive to professionals not only in economic but also in cultural terms. Attractiveness, however, is not something that will be built overnight but is itself the product of organic processes.

As urbanist Jane Jacobs put it: development is stifled in an environment of efficiency but thrives in one of diversity. Hence, the answer to the revival of the North likely does not lie in the investment into a handful of major industries but instead in the emboldening of diversity within social and economic life. This also includes making the North attractive for entrepreneurship and creative industries.

The relocation of Channel 4 to Leeds may represent a step in the right direction. Whether this can guide the way towards the creation of a decentralised and more equitable society, only time will tell.


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.