What can a map of Big Mac prices teach us about London?

Big Macs by price: green is cheap, dark red is pricey. Image: Tom Ravenscroft.

How much is a pint of milk? A loaf of bread? A Big Mac meal? These are the sorts of questions which politicians are asked to prove that they are regular people.

In reality, of course, many prices vary dramatically depending on where you are and the place you buy a product. Some things, however, are constant.

Or so I thought.

Like many, I assumed that the price of a Big Mac meal was one of these stabile tangibles – identical food served in identical restaurants. Actually though - this may come as a shock to some readers - the price of a Big Mac meal varies from McDonald’s to McDonald’s. And not by a couple of pence, either, but dramatically, even within London .

Inspired by The Economist’s Big Mac Index, which measures the strength of a country’s currency – its buying power – by comparing the cost of a Big Mac across global cities, I determined to survey the price of a Big Mac meal on an urban scale. My theory was that this would provide an insight into economic strength across London.

Although I was certain from my own extensive pre-research that prices at McDonald’s varied, I was unsure as to how great an extent the prices would fluctuate. My assumption was that I would find two prices points that would broadly divide the city into a doughnut: either with reduced prices in the suburbs surrounding higher ones in the centre, or vice versa. My thinking was that either city centre prices are hiked up to take advantage of high footfall; or, alternatively, that outer area prices would be high, because competition for fast food was less intense.

Surprisingly, given the apparent transparency of the Internet, McDonald’s prices are not widely available. So, supported by friends and family, we set out gather the prices of regular Big Mac meals at as many McDonald’s within the confines of the M25 as possible. As of now, we’ve visited 57 of them, around 30 per cent of the total.

Variant Big Mac prices in central London. Green is cheap, dark red is pricey. Image: Tom Ravenscroft.

We soon discovered that the price of a Big Mac meal varies greatly. Within the M25, a Big Mac Meal can cost up to 60 pence more, depending on where you are.

The answer to the question I’m sure you are all asking surprised me. At £4.09 for a Big Mac meal, the affluent suburb of Greenwich was the cheapest location we found (of the McDonalds we visited in the admittedly none-too scientific survey).  

At the other end of the scale, the most expensive McDonald’s can be found in Victoria Station, Romford shopping centre and Cobham, where a Big Mac meal will set you back a whopping (oops, wrong burger chain) £4.69.

Across the city, prices vary between these two extremes. The majority of meals are priced at £4.49 and £4.59, and as a general rule if you are paying more than this, then you are paying too much. Anything less than £4.49 is good value, and if you happen to be in Greenwich then, well, stock up.

Overall, it is almost impossible to determine a board pattern or even rules. Prices do not seem to be more expensive in Zone 1 than the suburbs. While the majority of central McDonald’s are priced at £4.49 and £4.59 many others are not: Baker Street for example is £4.39. And while Peckham and Kingston Big Mac meals are cheap at £4.39, Forest Gate and Southall are £4.59 and at Romford they are charging £4.69.


Varying prices around Victoria: darker is pricier. Image: Tom Ravenscroft.

On a micro scale, prices also vary greatly within very small distances. The three McDonald’s in and around Victoria Station, for example, all sell Big Mac meals at different prices. Within the station itself walking 300 metres to the upstairs restaurant will save you 20p. Walking from Warren Street to Camden will save you 40p.

One might assume that this is due to the exact locale of a restaurant: perhaps restaurants within a shopping centre or station would be cheaper than those on a high street. This holds true at Paddington where there is a there is a 10p premium for eating in the station, compared to the restaurant just outside. However, at £4.39 the McDonald’s in Waterloo is one of the cheapest in central London, and at Victoria, the restaurant in the station food court is 10p cheaper that the restaurant outside the station.

Surprising variations around the Euston Road. Image: Tom Ravenscroft.

The results of the survey have proved two things. Firstly, that, while the rise of the internet has greatly improved price transparency, the prices of some services are still largely unkown. Secondly, it shows that cities are extremely complex places, where numerous factors determine how a chain likes McDonald’s sets its prices.

Of course the size of my appetite meant I was only working with a small sample. More information would undoubtedly give better results and I am continuing the survey – you can contribute here.

View the full results on an interactive map here

Tom Ravenscroft is an architectural historian  and the editor of BIM+. He tweets as @tomravenscroft.



In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.