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.



America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.