Why can’t London cope with extreme weather?

Yes, we know we should have run this last month, sorry. Image: Getty.

When the BBC warned that another cold snap could hit London over Easter weekend, you could almost hear the population’s collective groan.

We were all thinking back to the bad old days of just a few weeks ago, when snow ground the city to a halt. Trains were cancelled and replacement buses crawled through the slush at a snail’s pace. Water pipes cracked, leaving thousands of Londoners without of water for several days.

In all, Transport for London estimates that one in five commuters stayed at home as the Storm Emma and the “Beast from the East” battered the country.

So – why weren’t we more prepared? Snow isn’t exactly unprecedented in the UK – so why can’t the government pull its finger out and weather proof the country?

Even if moaning voters can’t convince, you’d think the economic costs certainly could: the disruption of the recent winter weather is thought to have cost the UK economy up to £1bn a day.

And yet, this argument is far from a slam-dunk – because the costs of weatherproofing against snow are pretty enormous, too. The Canadian historian Judith Flanders explained the complexity of the whole de-icing procedure in a recent twitter thread. In it, she detailed the 11 step process needed to clear just one side of a street, involving at least seven different specialised vehicles. Not only is the actual snow clearing time consuming work: before you can even do that, the equipment has to be bought, maintained and stored for the other non-snowy days.

This was in Montreal, a city that experiences over 200cm of snow a year. In country like the UK where we might see 20cm of snow, is the cost of all this weather proofing really worth it?

After all, in icier countries, everyone switches over to winter tyres when the weather demands it. At £60 to £140 a tyre, it could cost upwards of £9.1bn just to fit out the 38m vehicles registered on UK roads. Suddenly that £1bn of lost activity on snow days doesn’t seem so bad,

Another issue with British snow is that is fairly unpredictable due to our island climate. It can sometimes hit hard early in the winter. Other years, though, it may hit towards spring – or never arrive at all. This all makes it far harder, and more expensive, to predict a cold snap and prepare accordingly.

So maybe if climate change throws us a curveball and South England ends up buried under three feet of snow for months a year, then we can go all in with the weather proofing: Swiss army snow plows, under pavement heating, winter tires on all the vehicles. But otherwise it’s just not worth it.  

Unless, that is, we got a really cool interactive live map of where the snow plows are, like they have in Montreal – but that would mostly just be a bonus for the CityMetric editorial team.

Much better to just to grit our teeth, rather than our roads, and get through the three days of misery a year. By all means moan with the other stranded commuters, but don’t start petitions for weather proofing. There are far better ways to spend our taxes.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.