What challenges will the West of England's new mayor have to tackle?

The Clifton Suspension Bridge, which is basically Bristol's most famous thing. Yay. Image: Rob Humphries @robb__scott

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain's cities.

Meet Tim. 

No, not Farron. This one:

Tim Bowles is the new mayor for the West of England, having served as a local councillor for Winterbourne, South Gloucestershire, since 2010. 

We don't know all that much about him, other than that he used to run an events company, and that he got his phone out in the middle of his acceptance speech to make sure it was switched off. 

He's a Conservative – which might seem surprising for a metro region until you remember that vast swathes of the West of England 'metro' region is just fields and villages – and is now tasked with running a region of around 750,000.

So. Now that Tim and his £62,000 salary are in situ, what's the plan? What are the big problems in the West of England region that Tim Bowles will have to tackle to be a success as mayor? 

Thankfully, the good people over at the Centre for Cities have a shiny 'Metro Mayor Data Dashboard' tool, where you can explore data sets for each of the newly devolved regions. Go play

For the West of England region – centred on Bristol, the beating heart of British wokeness – there's good news, and there's bad news. 

The good news is that the region's population is more skilled than the national average. 

Click any of the following images to expand them. All images: Centre for Cities.

And by quite a large margin, too – the green line is the West of England level, versus the grey which indicates the national average. 

Weekly wages are also rising pretty quickly too, and are now just about on a par with the national average. 

The employment rate for the West of England still sits higher than the national average, though there are signs that may not be the case forever. 

And the West of England's claimaint count rate – aka, the percentage of the population needing benefits – is still slightly lower than the national average. 

At that point, the good news for the West of England pretty much dries up. 

The region may be more skilled than the national average, but its schools are drastically underperforming. 

The 'Progress 8 scores' – a measure, basically, of how much kids match up to the performance they could be capable of – are way down in the West of England, compared to the national average. 

If you look at kids on free school meals – the most disadvantaged pupils – it's just as bleak, if not more so. 

And the new supply of apprenticeships is down on the national average, too. And that gap doesn't look like it'll get smaller any time soon. 

Although weekly wages may be growing faster in the West of England than the rest of the country, the total number of jobs is stagnating a little. 

Admittedly, there is only one year's worth of decline here, as we don't yet have the data for 2016; but given that the total number of jobs has fallen for three out of the five years we do have data for, it's not looking great. 

And in terms of what the economy of the West of England can ship off to other people, the data once again shows a lackluster performance. 

Services exports are less lucrative in the West of England than in the rest of the country, and goods exports tell a similar tale. 

And then there's this. The important stuff – the part of the article that all true CityMetric believers skim down to find. 

Transport. 

Bus journeys in the West of England region have soared since 2013, growing at a much faster rate than the rest of the country – where buses are basically in decline. 


But of course, being the West of England, there's no data on anything like light rail, because there are no light rail or metro systems. The buses are literally it. 

So the important question here is whether or not that growth is really good news. Is it that more people are taking advantage of local bus services, enjoying good, quick, cheap journeys to and from work, clubs, their friends' houses, and the pub? 

Or is it that slow, cranky, smelly, tired old busses are becoming more and more overcrowded and unpleasant, while still charging extortionate prices?

I did a bit of my (continuing) growing up in the West of England, and took the time to sample some of the area's gourmet busses. From my experience, it's very much the latter. 

Game on, Tim. 

Let's see what you can do before re-election time comes around. 

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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.