Robots could make the UK’s north-south divide even worse

Robots at work in a Japanese warehouse. Image: Getty.

Technological progress is normal. A steady flow of new developments enables a gradual increase in prosperity. But sometimes – and perhaps now is such a time – that flow is not so steady. Synchronous fundamental developments allow leaps forward to be made in multiple dimensions.

Progress in artificial intelligence, robotics, and genetics all promise change that is unusually wide ranging. The benefits – which include improved gadgets, health and food security – are easy to appreciate. Equally, though, there are challenges posed by rapid change – especially for workers who have invested in skills that are set to become obsolete.

To some extent, these implications have already become evident over the last 20 years. The labour market has been “hollowing out”, with more jobs available at the top and (to a lesser extent) bottom of the skills distribution, but fewer jobs in the middle. And the recent dramatic changes in technology are likely to exacerbate this over the next couple of decades.

Some observers have argued that a large proportion of current jobs in developed economies are at risk. But alarmist predictions of this kind likely fail to recognise that jobs morph over time. And so do the skills required to undertake particular jobs. Nevertheless, the changes we are seeing do pose unusual challenges.

Economic divide

In a recent report, the Centre for Cities has investigated the likely geographical impact of these changes in employment, across urban areas within the UK. In doing so, it combined predictions by Nesta on the demand for skills in 2030, with information about the current spatial distribution of jobs requiring these skills.

The results are striking. More than a quarter of jobs in many northern conurbations are in occupations where employment is likely to decline. The highest proportions are in Mansfield, Sunderland and Wakefield. These are areas with economies dominated by specific manufacturing – such as drinks production in Mansfield and car production in Sunderland – and retail activity.

By way of contrast, only around 16 per cent of jobs in London are in such occupations. London also has a much greater concentration of jobs that require the type of creativity only humans, rather than technology, can provide. And in Oxford and Cambridge – whose economies are dominated by the universities – the proportion is below 13 per cent.

Some of the areas where workers are likely to experience most turbulence are also those that were similarly hit by the decline of coal production in the 1980s.


Preparing humans

How best then can people prepare for these challenges? The offer of retraining will help some, particularly those workers with intermediate skills – an extra push could help them negotiate the hurdle separating low skill from high skill employment. But that said, if history is anything to go by, retraining often fails to deliver.

But the promise of a world in which intelligent robots undertake production for the benefit of humans has led many observers to be attracted by the idea of a universal basic income. This is the idea that, by taxing the fruits of improved technology, we could all, it seems, get something for nothing. Those who wish could live a life of ease, while others could top up their basic income by working.

At a fundamental level, this amounts to replacing current social security arrangements with a flat rate income that is paid to all – regardless of whether or not they are in work.

The realities

But given current technology, the level of such a payment (at the moment) would not be high – perhaps enough to cover private health insurance, pensions and other needs. That said, in future, as the gains from technology increase, it could rise. But the attention given to the universal basic income is a bit of a red herring – and it is not the only solution that should be on the table.

The real issue here is more general: how do we ensure the gains from technological change are distributed fairly across society?

A true property-owning democracy – where people hold equity in technology – would protect against inequities. But owning property means that people also own the right to sell it.

The ConversationIt is clear then that there are future tensions that society has yet to get to grips with. And of course there is always the concern that, if robots are smart enough to do all this, for how long will they stay stupid enough to remain slaves to idle humans?

Geraint Johnes, Professor of Economics, Lancaster University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

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:

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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.