Where is Line of Duty set? On a plausible liminal city

The main cast of Line of Duty. Image: BBC.

Line of Duty has created a plausible fictional city in which AC12 can hunt down bent coppers and corrupt politicians. And it’s taken care over every detail from its geography to its power structures.

The unnamed city has an elected mayor, as well a police & crime commissioner and a city council. It has both a train and a bus system. When Vihan tries to run in season 5 episode 1, he is brought down in front of a bus queue and half of them don’t even look up from their phones.

It’s also got at least three hospitals: City, South Central and St Anthonys. Both Birmingham and Nottingham have a City hospital, but there are no South Central hospitals in the UK. The only St Anthonys is a private one in Cheam. Line of Duty is not set in Cheam.

The unamed city has two local papers, the Herald and the Evening Post, but does seem to be mysteriously free from copies of the Metro scattered everywhere. The names of the two publications evoke local papers perfectly, whilst clearly not being either the Birmingham Mail or the Manchester Evening News. Plymouth has a Herald but Line of Duty is not set in Plymouth.

The neighbourhood names are the really great touch. The phone box in season five is in Moss Heath, which is a name that suggests both Manchester’s Moss-side and Birmingham’s many Heaths. There’s a Moss Heath outside Formby, but that’s an actual heath and is unlikely to have a phone box with cards for Nikki9.

The golf club where Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan was recruited by Huntley into the organised crime group is in Edge Park. It’s a leafy and well-to-do surburb, according to the scripts. There are lots of Edge’s in various cities in the Midlands and the North – I used to live at Netheredge in Sheffield. But there’s no Edge Park. There is Edgsbaston in Birmingham, which is indeed a leafy suburb.

The police station at the heart of season 1 is in Kingsgate: perhaps one of the most generic placenames possible, and which seems very plausible as a English city name. Birmingham has both Kings Heath and a Kings Norton, and a Queensgate. Manchester has a Deansgate. This sort of precisely wrong naming infuses the city with plausiblity: each new name seems probable because it echoes parts of real cities we know.

Details like the roads (the M6, A38 and A51 are all named) and the maps do strongly push towards Birmingham. And so far in season 5, we’ve seen both Midlands Ballistics Forensics Laboratory and a Nottingham Forest scarf. The first season was filmed in Birmingham, and subsequent seasons have been filmed in Belfast. Both cities provide a plausible post-industrial urban landscape. Yet the city remains determinedly “the city”.

Why is it fictionalised? Why not name a real city, with real police forces, real hospitals and real suburbs? Line of Duty strongly recalls ‘Red Riding’ which was explicitly set in Yorkshire, but was also set in the past. It was easy for viewers to create a distance from it using time. The fictional city also means writer Jed Mercurio’s sources are protected, and the show does not accidentally damage any genuine investigations.

By making Line of Duty about a contemporary unnamed but plausible corrupt city, it makes it applicable to any city. It exists in a liminal space where it could be your city, and your officials. Just so long as one of them has a name beginning with ‘H’.


What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave

The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.