Which is England’s second city?

A silver medal. Image: Getty.

I have recently picked up a new bad habit, because obviously I needed one of those. Whenever I mention Manchester in print somewhere, I have taken to describing it as Britain’s “undisputed second city”.

The reason this is a bad habit is because I am, quite consciously, trolling. You can make a strong case that Manchester is the second city; but the fact is certainly not undisputed, as demonstrated by the fact that, whenever I have done this, someone has pretty much instantly proceeded to dispute it. 

So what makes somewhere a second city? And should Manchester really get the crown?

What is a second city?

Let’s begin, as lazy content since the dawn of time has begun, with definitions. Ask our friends/overlords at Google, and you’ll find that second city generally means either a country’s second largest city, or possibly the second most important city after its capital.

Instantly, though, we have a problem, which is that those two definitions sometimes clash. The second largest city in Scotland is Edinburgh, which is also its capital. It would thus be absurd to refer to Edinburgh as the second city of Scotland, but absurd, too, to hand that crown to Glasgow. (Try it in a pub in the Gorbals. Go on, I dare you.)

In the same way, Chicago is sometimes referred to as the United States’ second city, apparently on the grounds that in the 19th century it was second in size to New York (it’s since been overtaken by Los Angeles, but the name persists in that of a well-known comedy club). But neither city is the capital: that’s Washington DC, which is something like the eighth biggest urban area by population.

If we assume that the second city is the largest, most important city that isn’t the capital, then the crown should really go to New York. But again, calling New York – arguably the single most important city in the world – the “second city” of the United States seems self-evidently ridiculous. 

So perhaps the problem here is that the idea of a second city is inherently a bit silly, which might be why I struggled to find a dictionary to quote three or four paragraphs back. But we’re in this thing now so we might as well finish it. 

A matter of politics

The UK’s largest city is also its capital, of course, so you’d think we’d be spared any of this pain. But we’re not because of two other problems.

One is that the UK is probably the most over centralised country in the developed world, but that over centralisation is not consistently applied. The two serious candidates for the title of second city of the UK on the grounds of size alone are, as noted, Birmingham and Manchester, each of which sits at the heart of a conurbation of somewhere over 2 million people. But both of those are in the eye-wateringly over centralised-England, and so neither is the site of any serious political power.

The half-finished devolution settlements of the 1990s meant that three other UK cities – the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish capitals of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – do have a measure of political power. What’s more, this power exists to some degree independently of London (while the Westminster government could in theory revoke the devolution settlements, it is never in practice going to).

So should Edinburgh, as both the largest of the three and the capital of the largest of the Celtic nations, maybe be considered candidate for the title “second city of the UK”? It has more control of its own destiny than either Birmingham or Manchester, after all.

Well – probably not, because it’s about a quarter of the size. But that too is contested, which brings us to our other problem: it’s actually quite difficult to determine how big some cities are.


A question of size

As the middle of last year, the City of Birmingham had an estimated population of 1.1 million, roughly twice the 550,000 people living in the City of Manchester. That seems to be a fairly substantial win for Midlands.

Except those figures are misleading: they only cover the official council areas. Much of what outsiders would think of as Manchester actually lies across municipal boundaries in other boroughs: Media City in Salford, Old Trafford in Trafford, and so on. Both cities actually blend seamlessly into neighbouring councils. And if you think the size of an urban area matters more than who happens to be collecting the bins, which it obviously does, then “municipal population size” is clearly the wrong measure.

Look at the population of the entire urban areas, and the results are very different: Manchester is on 2.7 million, to just 2.4 million for Birmingham. But you can argue that this is misleading, too. Is Wolverhampton really a part of Birmingham, because there are no fields between them? (Again: I invite you to go into a pub and announce it.) Is Bolton really part of Manchester? (As it happens, there are fields between those two, just fields surrounded by houses.)

There are more ways of measuring size still. The West Midlands – the metropolitan authority with Birmingham at its heart – has a population of about 2.9 million, bigger than that of the urban area largely because it includes Coventry, separated from the rest by some fields and an airport. Greater Manchester is also bigger than urban Manchester, but by a much smaller margin, giving it a population of around 2.8 million.

Lastly there are the metropolitan areas – the functional economic geography of these cities, based on commuting patterns and so on. These are inevitably contested, because the results are dependent on what researchers think constitutes a functional economic area. But as of 2017, the EU statistics agency Eurostat had Birmingham on 4.3 million and Manchester on just 3.3 million.

So – which of the two is bigger? Well, it rather depends.

It’s my own fault for trolling, really

It seems worth noting at this point that size isn’t the only way of measuring which city is more important, and that you don’t anyway have to look too far back into history to find a time when neither Manchester nor Birmingham was in the running for the title of second city anyway.

Before 1900, at various times, and for various reasons – size, commercial importance, political influence, number of rich residents – Glasgow and Liverpool were described as the second city of the empire. So, to include cities now not in the UK at all, were Dublin (big and rich), Philadelphia (most important city in the American colonies) and even Calcutta (most important city in the most important imperial possession; although, I’ll be honest, I’m struggling to find a primary source for that one). 

Go back even further in time to before the creation of the United Kingdom, and the candidates for second city of England are places that wouldn’t grace a top five these days (Bristol) or even a top 10 (Norwich, York). 

After all that, though, I stand by my original assertion that, if England does have a second city these days, it should be Manchester. Birmingham may have thought the title its right for much of the second half of the 20th century, at a time when it was still as rich and prosperous as the capital. But these days, it’s Manchester that has the cultural influence, the civic confidence and the energy, if only because it’s by far the less likely of the two to ever compare itself to London. It’s the leading city in a bigger, more populous region. For some time it’s also been more likely to top opinion polls regarding which is the second city which, since we’re talking about perception as much as reality here, seems important.

So yes, the question of which is the UK or England’s second city is a matter of some debate, and yes, I am trolling when I refer to Manchester as the undisputed victor. But the trolling lies in that word “undisputed”. With apologies to Birmingham, I genuinely think you’re losing this one. 

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

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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.