Here are brief reviews of 10 UK cities from an opinionated French immigrant

Brighton, England’s Cartaret. Image: Getty.

Happy Brexit week, my friends! To celebrate this momentous time for Britain, I, a European immigrant, have decided to make a top 10 of your best cities, based on nothing but the time I have spent there, which ranges from a total of ten days to seven hours.

In order to help usher in this new chapter of your relationship with Europe, I thought it would be useful for you to let yourself be judged by your continental neighbours, and, specifically, by me.

I have not included London because it is where I live and I do not wish to be biased – this is serious work – and I must send my apologies to the good people of Wales as I have never visited and cannot judge what I have not seen.

With those caveats aside: here, in no particular order, are my reviews of 10 of your best British cities.


Manchester’s alright isn’t it? I have been there five times and each time has been solidly alright. Huge fan of the big red brick buildings and the smaller red brick buildings also, but not much else to report besides that.

Well: I did have a cheesy omelette and chips in a caff in Hulme last year for £3.50. That feels worth noting. You’re alright, Manchester.


I find Birmingham a bit odd, if I’m honest with you. The first few times I went I really didn’t enjoy it, thought the city centre was quite bland, but then I went to stay in the Jewellery Quarter and I properly enjoyed it.

In conclusion: if you have never been to Birmingham I would recommend hanging out away from the centre, which is the least nice bit of the city, and then you will have a pleasant time. I mean, I assume. Don’t come to me for advice.


First of all, I resent the fact that it is supposedly “Brighton and Hove” because I only ever really go to Brighton when I go to Brighton and Hove, and I also question the practice of sticking seaside towns together for no apparent reason.

We do it in France too. In my family’s neck of the woods, Barneville and Carteret got merged literally decades before I was born, but it is still such a controversial topic that I grew up with nothing but contempt for the people of inferior Barneville.

But anyway, “just Brighton”, as I call it: it’s good but it’s no Hastings, isn’t it? Also: too many hills. Absolutely no need for all those hills. Still, there’s a beach, so I remain a fan.


Powerfully into it. That posh bit that has virtually no people in the streets and absolutely stunning buildings and little parks? What all cities should be like. Empty and pretty. People call it a museum city like it’s a bad thing. Fools.


Listen, I went to Leeds once. Ten years ago. For one night. My French friend had moved to Bradford for an exchange and was homesick so I went to see her and on the Saturday night we went to an illegal rave on the outskirts of Leeds, the ones you had to receive cryptic texts about to find out where it was because it was 2009.

We went to get the train back to Bradford at... something am? Something pm perhaps? And we walked through the campus of Leeds University and because it was fresher’s week there were some people handing out free Domino’s pizzas.

This was my time in Leeds and I give it a solid, heart-rending 10/10. Great place, would be 17 there again.


A very good city, in my opinion. When I went there for the first time I saw a dot on Google Maps that said “The Big Fish, the Salmon of Knowledge”, which is objectively the funniest thing you can spot on the map of a city you do not know.

Anyway, I went to see The Big Fish, the Salmon of Knowledge and it is a ten-metre long blue statue of a fish, and you can text her questions about Belfast and she’ll text back. Brilliant.

Also: the architecture is nice.


Extremely good buildings, far too many idiots on bikes. Every time I’m there I stop walking to look at a nice building and nearly get run over by a cyclist. A beautiful but stressful place.


Was not looking forward to this one because, if there is one thing you learn relatively quickly as a foreigner in Britain, it is that Liverpudlians take their city powerfully seriously. I respect that, but I fear it.

As a result, what I will say about Liverpool is this: it’s a very lively city! Clearly young and full of life and once I found myself in the city centre at 1am on a Saturday night and it honest to god looked like a war zone. I sincerely do not think I could ever go properly on the lash in Liverpool without dying. To Liverpool I say: I fear you and I respect you.


Yes to Glasgow! It’s pretty, it’s alive, the people are nice, and once I went to pet a dog in a park and the old lady at the other end of the leash talked to me for a solid ten minutes and I didn’t understand a word she said because her accent was so thick, but she’s my best friend now. If I weren’t a Mediterranean-blooded coward I would 100% move to Glasgow.


Okay yeah we get it York, you’re nice. You’re very old and so much history has happened within your walls and you’re very beautiful. Fine. Whatever. You’re “Fit But You Know It” by The Streets, York, that’s what you are.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.