Why is living in a big city so isolating?

Aaaaahhh look at all the lonely people. Image: Getty.

Living in a city means rubbing shoulders with millions of people every day – on public transport, in apartment buildings and on the streets. That might at first glance seem like an antidote to loneliness. Yet cities can be isolating, solitary places where many of us live entirely anonymously – never knowing who are neighbours are or who lives in the flat downstairs.

Case in point: 55 per cent of Londoners said they felt lonely sometimes, according to a TimeOut City Index Survey last year. In Tokyo, loneliness is such a problem that people are “renting” friends to keep them company. And we know loneliness has a dire impact on our health, with a recent study finding loneliness is bad for our hearts and linked to premature death.

So why are big cities so lonely? Here are four possible reasons.

A lack of a sense of community

“It's true that we are commonly surrounded by people in cities, so it does seem a bit mysterious that there is an epidemic of loneliness,” says Colin Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at Canada’s University of Waterloo, who studies the impact of places on the brain and body.

“But it's not enough to just be physically near other people to break down loneliness: we also have to reach out to make contact with them. And this is where the problems arise.  For many of us – most of us, I think – it can be difficult to break down our natural reserve to reach out to strangers.”

It is obviously not possible for everyone in a city to up sticks and move to the countryside, but there is an argument for the “sense of community” that comes with a smaller town or village. James, who is 28 and from the Midlands, says he was “bloody lonely” during his first six months of living in London.

“The food, the clubs, the sights: London, the UK’s only true mega-city, is a potential playground.” But it often stays potential, he says, “because without friends or family, the capital is cold and uninviting. People’s heads are down, they’re busy and they’re in a rush.” Worse: social niceties – please, hi, bye – “seem to have been thrown out of the window somewhere just outside of the M25”.

(That being said, some argue that not saying hello to everyone you pass in a big city like London is a result of “negative politeness culture”, rather than rudeness. We swerve small talk to avoid encroaching on others’ personal space – and the sheer number of people make it impossible to acknowledge everyone you pass by.)

City design

The way cities are designed can also contribute to levels of loneliness, including the ever-growing trend of replacing public spaces with more blocks of unaffordable flats.

“The availability of public space, truly public space in which we feel joint ownership along with other citizens, is decreasing in cities,” Ellard says. “The value of such spaces is that, when they are working well, they afford us with opportunities to mingle with others, hopefully doing something fun, and to recognise our similarities with others rather than our differences.”

Humans are actually adapted to living in small groups with kin, Ellard says. “The trick is to help people to feel a little bit more connected to strangers, and that can be done by generating positive moods in public places.”

The design of residential buildings can also contribute to urban isolation, Ellard explains. “As cities increase in density, many more of us are living in high-rises. Depending on how they are designed, such buildings can be really alienating,” he says. “We are only likely to mingle with our neighbours during brief sojourns on elevators, and we are not overly likely to bump into the same neighbours every day.”

Small changes, such as shared common areas, may hold the answer – giving us more chance of connecting with others.


High living costs

Then, though, there are living costs to contend with. It goes without saying that cities can be hugely expensive, which can impact our social lives. The cocktail of rising rents and stagnating wages makes it much harder to fund socialising with friends in the pub or going out for dinner.

Long working hours and lengthy commutes also make us feel lonelier, too. And it is hard to properly put down roots and build a sense of community when living in the private rental sector means you have to move every year or so.

Being in virtual contact

The jury is still out on whether technology unites us or traps us behind our screens – but it’s safe to say that after a long, arduous commute home across a city, many of us are guilty of sending a WhatsApp instead of meeting up for a pint.

Being in constant virtual contact with friends or family may feel sociable, but research suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. A US study published last year found those who spend over two hours a day on social media are more likely to feel socially isolated.

“Though I think the evidence is mixed on this, it's hard not to think that technology has played a role in our current epidemic as well,” Ellard says. “Lots of tasks, for example shopping, which used to require us to go out into the world and rub shoulders with others, can now be done from home online. It's hard to deny the convenience of these options, but at the same time I worry a bit about what's being lost in human contact.”

Not all cities struggle with a loneliness epidemic. According to the TimeOut City Index Survey, only 10 per cent of people in Lisbon feel lonely. United Nations data shows Danes living in Copenhagen are happy and there are a number of reasons why, including that the city is designed for cycling: exercise is known to benefit mental and physical health.

The answer to the urban loneliness epidemic may lie in better public spaces, lower rents and a better work-life balance, but there is no quick fix to this problem. Rather, it may be better to focus on preventative strategies – renting friends may not seem so ridiculous after all – and the great things cities have going for them. The hustle and bustle of pubs, restaurants, museums, theatres and the melting pot of people is why so many of us moved to urban areas in the first place, after all.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

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