“What is it about London that is making us so promiscuous?” On urban planning and online dating

At it like rabbits. Image: Getty.

He opens my window and lights a post-coital cigarette. To fill the time I ask, a bit late into the date, “So why did you join OkCupid?”

“London,” he replies in a husky voice, blowing the smoke out. “It’s hard to meet people otherwise.”

But he never calls me back. And I am left to wonder whether his online dating habits have less to do with “meeting people” and a lot more to do with accessibility to someone’s pants. OkCupid, after all, is a rather popular and free option.

I wasn't upset. I didn’t feel like calling him either, and besides I too was looking to get laid. But his answer got me thinking. What is it about London that, with or without swiping right, is making us so promiscuous? I look at my single female friends living in the Big Smoke. Over the past year, a handful of us have collectively bedded nearly 100 people. Is the big city making us all big sluts? 


(Disclaimer: I believe this is a good thing. To be able to express one's sexuality freely, comprehensively and prolifically is a right still arduously fought for. And besides, surely the slogan is “peace and love” because nobody would want to go to war if there were other, sultrier options available.)

I ask around for people's views on how moving to London affected their sex lives. "Reckon you shag more now than when you lived in Liverpool?" I text a girl-pal, as you do. She ventures that, while people seemed to date more and more seriously in smaller cities, sex is easier to access in larger metropolitan centres. "In London you can get away with a lot more.”

I turn to a male friend. Big dater, smooth operator, surely he'd give me the lowdown on the town versus big city sex-scene. "Dating in a small town is generally slower paced because the pool of people to date or fuck is generally much smaller," he says.

But while London's density of singletons and Tinder (where London's popularity with the horny is on fleek) has helped my mate get laid plenty, he still thought it was an easier process when he lived in a town in Warwickshire. 

"In small towns it is usually easier to move from a date to sex because of the fact you don’t have to take public transport,” he says. “It’s much easier to say ‘Oh, I just live round the corner, fancy a night cap?’ than in London, where everything is 40 minutes of tube or an Uber ride away.

“In London you feel like you have to make the decision to go home with someone when you leave the bar,” he goes on. “You’re committing to spending the night, really, because by the time you leave, get to theirs, fuck, cuddle and so on, you’re proper far away from home and it’s late at night." He called it the "first date dilemma"; romancers across the pond seemed to face it too.

This lot have a lot to answer for. The cast of Sex & the City. Image: Getty.

I speak to urbanist and researcher Stavros Papavassiliou. He tells me that online dating means the process of getting down and dirty in the big city is not so much facilitated as it is commodified. "When you think highways and buses, and sewers do you think liberating?” he asks. “Sure, all these things allow you to do thing that before you couldn't. But simultaneously, as soon as you are in, you adopt all the material and behavioural systems that allow you to use the infrastructure.” By way of example of such codes of behaviour, he mentions the Oyster card, standing on the right on London’s escalators, and the rule that you can’t ride a bike on a motorway.


Online dating apps work on a similar dynamic, he adds. "It requires material subscription” – a smart phone – “and behavioural subscription” – appropriate/sexy pictures, common friends, chat up lines. Between them, they plug you into an economy. “The bartering of sex,” he concludes, “is the 'sharing economy' equivalent of prostitution.”

I start to worry. Not so much because of his analogy (yay, ethical whores!), but because suddenly I feel like my sexuality is trapped in a capitalist wet-dream. Have I been supporting the patriarchy rather than eroding it with my liberated, free-loving hook-ups?

"The point is that these infrastructures are neither inherently liberating nor inherently repressive," he says mollifying me a bit. "It's like saying, 'Hooray for Crossrail, it's so liberating to be able to cross London very quickly!' – but without thinking of who and how it can also harm and repress, like the people in the eastern suburbs who will be priced out by yuppies who can now take a 15 minute train to the city."

I think back to that naked guy, smoking a cigarette by my window. He was a product of my marketed sex-drive; but it was also a lot of fun. Back in the smaller city I came from, we would have said goodbye at the pub, and not in my bedroom in the early hours, because of a mixture of smaller population density, socio-cultural norms and general awkwardness. I would have been very pent up indeed. 

My privileged, middle-class, big-city dwelling hanky-panky might be a speck in the history of sexual liberation. But I'd like to believe that, as the jingle goes, every little helps. 

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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