What does a better deal for the north actually look like?

Manchester town hall. Image: Getty.

It’s been great to see northern leaders pull together recently around transport funding, and there’s no doubt that they’ve caught the attention of policymakers. The worry, though, is that while they have gained the ear of national politicians, their central request for better intercity transport links will have little impact on the fundamental challenges northern cities face.

The idea of a high speed rail link is based on the idea of people being able to live in one city and work in another, opening up jobs in Liverpool to residents of Leeds for example, and vice versa. But this is unlikely to happen to any great extent for a number of reasons.

The first is that commuting is a cost – people don’t enjoy doing it. Workers commute long distances into London both because the pull factor of high wages and the push factor of expensive housing, which appears to push young families out into London’s hinterland in particular.

These push and pull factors are nowhere near as strong around northern cities. Lower wages reduce the attractiveness of travelling long distances, while lower housing costs mean that people are able to live much closer to their job, cutting down their commuting time and the cost of it.

The second is that people tend to choose to live in the same city region that they work in. For those that don’t, their choice is revealing – they don’t choose to live in another city region, but choose a rural location instead. This is most likely because a rural location offers something different to living in their place of work. The figure below shows this for Greater Manchester, with those living outside of the conurbation choosing to live in rural Cheshire or Lancashire, rather than in Liverpool or Leeds.

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The third is that a high speed rail link is just one line, serving a small number of commuters. This is compounded by the ‘high speed’ element, which will necessarily mean that there won’t be a number of stops to pick up commuters along the way. If increasing commuting is the aim, we should be looking at improving transport connections within city regions and to their surrounding hinterland, better linking residents in and around cities to the jobs within them.

This is exactly what Crossrail and Crossrail II are doing in London – adding to London’s transport network to ferry commuters in the suburbs and hinterland to jobs in its centre. Crossrail for the North is something different – a link between cities. We should be asking questions about transport provision in the north. But these questions should principally be around Crossrail for Manchester and Crossrail for Leeds, not Crossrail for the North.

There is no doubt that the North requires policy support – the North-South divide is at least 100 years old. While conversations have honed in on transport, what has become a little lost is that transport isn’t even the biggest challenge to attracting business investment in many northern cities.

Looking at skills shows that northern cities perform poorly not just in a UK context, but in a European one too. This is a big problem – high-skilled businesses are likely to invest in places where they can get the workers they need. Northern cities aren’t competitive on this front, and this is reflected in the types of businesses they have been able to attract.

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The skills issue seems to have been lost for two reasons. The first is the lure of the grand projet – building infrastructure captures the imagination much more easily than actions to improve skills.

The second is an issue of fairness. On face value, the statistics that underpin this argument are shocking. But there are a number of issues with how they have been presented, as shown by Henry Overman and more recently the mayor of London.

Despite these reservations, London has been given unfair preference. This isn’t around transport infrastructure spending, but around its other policy privileges, benefiting from having a mayor, a degree of devolution and Transport for London (and its associated powers) for almost two decades. Our strongest city is also our most powerful.

So what does this mean for northern leaders as they look to get a deal out of Westminster? The specific policy interventions will vary from city to city, but there are some basic principles that they should be looking to do or gain:

  • For those cities that don’t have one, strike a devolution deal and get a mayor over an appropriate city region geography.
  • Address the skills issues in their cities, focusing on reducing the number of people with no or few formal qualifications.
  • Get Transport for London style powers to help improve the transport network within their city regions.
  • It’s right for northern leaders to gather together to lobby Westminster for funding and powers to improve their economies. But for them to get the outcomes that we all want – greater prosperity the North’s residents deserve – we must make sure we’re focused on solutions that tackle the North’s biggest challenges.

Paul Swinney is senior economist at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article was first published.

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What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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