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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook



Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook