A hundred years ago, which English cities were most vulnerable to economic change?

She’s probably an iPhone now. Image: Getty.

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. 

One of the more fascinating subplots in this year’s Cities Outlook report, published back in January, takes the form of a flashback. Back in 1911, just as in 2018, a significant share of the workforce had jobs that were at risk from technological change.

Back then, the biggest threat was automation: over the next few decades, the rise of labour saving devices like washing machines would wipe out an entire class of jobs in domestic service. Over the same period, better communications technology would wipe out assorted porter and messenger jobs, while the rise of the supermarket would kill off various door-to-door delivery jobs.

The idea that, say, telephones or tumbledryers are a bad thing looks distinctly silly from a modern perspective. If you were one of the people whose income was at risk, though, you may have had other ideas. This chart shows some of the jobs under threat:

By my count, that’s nearly one in eight of the workforce, whose jobs were about to get wiped out by new technology.

It’s also worth looking at a map showing where these changes would be felt most. On this map, dark green dots represent English cities which would see the highest numbers of job losses due to automation. What do you notice about it?

Click to expand.

At first glance this is pretty surprising. In many southern English cities – which even in 1911 were pretty prosperous, and now are leaps ahead of the north – between a sixth and a quarter of jobs were at risk from automation, far higher than in many northern industrial centres.

Think about this for a moment, though, and it makes sense. Rich southern cities were more likely to have households stuffed with domestic servants. But those cities did not stop being rich just because they replaced maids with washing machines.

Here’s another map, showing which cities had large numbers of jobs in another vulnerable sector, mining and manufacturing:

Click to expand.

This time it’s a more familiar pattern: it’s in the industrial cities of the midlands and the north where the threat was greatest. The numbers are also much bigger than those on the first map. Every city was looking at losing over 10 per cent of its jobs; for most in the industrial heartland it was over a third, and in some it was nearly 70 per cent.

There are, best I can see, three takeaways from all this. The first is that not all job destruction is bad: the rise of the modern home put an entire class of domestic servants out of work, but it was also clearly positive for the society as a whole. Nobody today seems likely to swap their washing machine and tumble dryer for a live in servant, let alone the opportunity to take a job as one.

The second is that some job destruction is much more traumatic. The cities that lost jobs to washing machines are largely fine today; many of those which lost jobs in mining and manufacturing aren’t. The cities on that second map where the job losses were greatest are, with few exceptions, still struggling today.

The third lesson requires another map. Almost everywhere, there were more jobs overall in 2016 than there were in 1911:

Click to expand.

This trend isn’t quite universal, and several of the cities which have lost jobs are among those whose dependence on manufacturing made them most vulnerable in 1911. Nonetheless, the trend is clearly towards more jobs rather than less.

The British economy is once again – or perhaps, more accurately, still – facing radical change. The future is unpredictable, and the past is not always a guide. Nonetheless, I do remain suspicious of those who argue that new technologies which destroy jobs today will automatically mean fewer jobs tomorrow. They haven’t before.

You can read the whole of Cities Outlook 2018 here.

Sources of data: Census 1911 (England and Wales only); University of Portsmouth, A Vision of Britain Through Time.

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

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.