London is big – but not as big as that map suggests

Whatever could it mean? Find out below. Image: CityMetric.

So, there's a map that's been doing the rounds on city nerd social media, that's annoying the hell out of me.

In an attempt to illustrate quite how big London is by mapping other British cities onto its boroughs. And while it's not wrong, exactly, it is certainly misleading.

Here it is:



Looking at this, the first thought that flits through your mind is, “Wow, London is huge!” It contains the population of no fewer than 19 other British cities - and not small ones, either, but the regional giants like Glasgow, Birmingham and Leeds.

The problem is that, as big as the capital is, it isn’t big enough as that map implies: not really, not if you draw the lines in any sensible way.

To explain why, look at “Manchester”. That map suggests it has the same population as just two London boroughs: Hackney and Haringey. Each of those has a population of 260,000, give or take; the City of Manchester, as of 2013, had a population of 515,000. So, yes, they match up.

Except – the City of Manchester isn't the whole of Manchester, is it? Not in any sensible world. It's just one of the 10 boroughs that make up Greater Manchester, and not even the only one that contains important Mancunian things. Manchester United has its grounds in the borough of Trafford. A chunk of the central business district is just over the Irwell in Salford.

These places, on any sensible definition, are a part of Manchester: include them, as this map doesn't, and you end up with a population of around 2.7m. That’s still less than a third that of London (which passed 8.6m last year). But it’s much bigger than the map above implies.

It's the same pattern with several of the other cities here. The city of Liverpool has a population of around 470,000, on a par with one and a bit London boroughs (Barnet is a biggun); but the entire urban area is around 875,000, so nearly twice that. Barnet is big; it isn’t that big.

Birmingham here looks huge, covering five different London boroughs. But the 1.1m it contains is still way less than the 2.5m that live in the entire urban area.

So, we've drawn up our own version of this map. Here it is:

A note on the figures. There's no way of comparing the populations of different cities that is entirely and obvious fair: any attempt at drawing a line around a British city will cause arguments from those who'd rather be in or out.

But we've done our best by using a single data set – that of urban area populations calculated by Demographia*, published last year, which we wrote about here. That means that Brimingham includes Wolverhampton, and Leeds includes Bradford, among other things. But since London includes, say, Croydon, which would be a fair size regional city in itself, that didn't seem unfair.

Those caveats made, what we found is that, on a fairer comparison, London doesn't include anything like 19 other British cities. It's big, sure, but only big enough to contain four other urban areas – the next three biggest (Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds) and Liverpool, which ranks about 7th**.

That's plenty big enough, surely? London is clearly and self-evidently huge. Do we really need to fiddle the figures to make it look even bigger?

*On their definition, of course, London is a bit bigger than these 32 boroughs but it was the best we could do.

**Glasgow is bigger, and so, if you count it as a single entity, is the Southampton/Portsmouth/South Hampshire urban area; but if we included those, the numbers didn’t add up, so we jumped to Liverpool.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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