Bemoan the MacBooks – but the rise of the coffee shop workspace is a reminder of public service cuts

This man should be in a library. Image: Getty.

There’s are many reasons why watching Friends in 2018 feels like such a blast from the past: the poorly-aged fat jokes, the landline phones, the screaming lack of diversity for a show set in central Manhattan.

But watching the gang hang out at Central Perk during a recent Netflix binge, a new thought suddenly struck me: this was the last time coffee shops were just for, well, getting coffee. Before the age of scrambling for power outlets and stretching one small americano over several hours of research, coffee houses were simply places to meet, date – or, in the case of the Friends, spend every waking hour of your life socialising. (Seriously, when do any of them actually go to work?)

In the Costas, Neros, and bare-brick hipster roasteries of today, you can barely move for laptops. Some, like London’s Shoreditch House and Forge & Co, have capitalised on the trend by offering meeting rooms, skype booths and even spa services for a hefty annual fee. Others see the macbooks and ipads as an anti-social blight on coffee shop space, erecting smug “no wifi – talk to each other” signs with increasing frequency.

But in the rush to condemn laptop-users for inflicting their stony silence on the regular clientele, the troubling forces behind the coffee shop’s unstoppable transformation are often ignored or forgotten. With the UK’s public libraries threatened by cuts and closures, freelancers, students and other remote workers often find themselves with little other choice when it comes to workspace.

An estimate from last year put the number of self-employed people in the UK at 4.8m. The number of freelancers alone in the UK increased by 43 per cent between 2008 and 2016. The demand for a quiet environment providing desks, chairs, toilets and power outlets is greater than ever – yet library access continues to dwindle, with more than 478 closures recorded across Britain since 2010.

Even if your local library hasn’t closed, it’s probably experienced a squeeze of some kind. Volunteers are rapidly replacing paid staff to keep up with budget cuts, shortening opening hours in the process. Cafes and charity shops have been forced to move in, limiting available desk space and resources. Whatever is free often gets snapped up quickly and early in the day.


Part of the overcrowding problem, of course, is that libraries are just one area in which the UK’s public services are floundering. Since 2015, state schools have lost almost £2.7bn in funding. Recent research from the University of Oxford estimates that as many as 1m000 “Sure Start” centres – introduced to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged children – have closed since 2009. In a survey last year, 84 per cent of local councils blamed government cuts for the UK’s soaring homelessness problem. For school children with no place to go, cash-strapped parents, and homeless people simply looking for warmth and a toilet that won’t cost them, libraries have become the next port of call.

This isn’t to say that vulnerable people, children, and low-income families shouldn’t be welcome in libraries: the monumental role they play in enabling social mobility cannot be overstated. Rather, it’s to say that, when people are forced to use their local library as a replacement for child care, social care, or services for the homeless, something’s gone seriously wrong.

With over 22,000 coffee shops in the UK, it’s little wonder that workers-from-home flock to them in their droves. In many cases, they’ve got a much better shot at desk space, long opening hours and a hushed atmosphere than they could bank on at their local library today.

The sad thing is, many accept this situation without ever wondering what a generously funded library system could look like for them. You only need to visit the home page for Stockholm’s public libraries for a stark comparison: bookable group study rooms, homework help, librarian appointments and well-stocked shelves. There’s even, bizarrely, an electric piano available in one of them.

With funding returned to the right places, our libraries could look this way too. Without it, lower-income families will have their access to computers and literature slowly eroded, whilst freelancers and students will routinely pay for the privilege of a workspace in their local Costa.

Libraries represent some of the last truly public space in the UK today; it’d be a tragedy for every section of society if we lose them.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.