10 ways of visualising London's growth

London, as viewed from the International Space Station in February 2013. Image: NASA.

This month, so the number crunchers tell us, London hit a milestone: the city's population has finally exceeded the peak it previously hit in 1939. In other words, it's taken 75 years for the city to recover from the impact of the Second World War.

This, then, seems as good a time as any to look at how London's population has changed – and work out how to visualise how 8,615,000 people are crowding into this town these days.

Bouncing back

For much of the late 20th century, London's population was falling: between WW2, and the nadir set around 1981, the city lost over 2m people, nearly a quarter of its population.

You might be wonder whether this was a reflection of broader demographic trends, but no. In the time that London's population fell from 8.6m to just 6.6m, the population of the UK as a whole grew by nearly a fifth (from 47.8m to 56.3m, if you're counting). In 1939, the area that's now Greater London held approximately 18 per cent of the national population; by 1981, it was less than 12 per cent.

Image: CityMetric.

This wasn’t an accident: in fact, it was the result of deliberate policy choices, which involved clearing some high-density housing from inner London, and decanting its former occupants out to a ring of new towns around the capital. In the decades immediately following the war, London was very much not the place to be.

Over the last 30 years, however, the capital’s share of the national population has rebounded slightly (to 13 per cent, since you ask). What's more, if you take the long view, those four decades start to look like a blip. Here's the population of the area that's now Greater London, starting in 1801 and projected into the future:

Image: CityMetric.

Put like that and it looks suspiciously like the city has returned to its natural trend growth.

It doesn't look likely to stop, either. On current trends, London will hit 9m by the end of the decade, 10m by the mid 2030s and 11m by the middle of the century. In other words, over the next 30 years or so, London's population is going to grow by something like a quarter.

One might think it's time we started trying to find places for all those extra people to live – a task that'd be much easier if a whole fifth of the capital wasn't technically classified as green belt:

Image: Centre for Cities.

...but we've banged on about that quite enough for one month, so let’s talk about something else. Let’s ask whether the idea that London has only just returned to its previous peak of population might actually be a touch misleading.

Pushing out

The 8.6m figure that everyone's been touting was the 1939 population of what is now Greater London.

In 1939, though, there was no Greater London: there was the London County Council, yes, but that population figure we’ve been discussing also included most of Middlesex, large chunks of Surrey, Essex and Kent, and a sliver of Hertfordshire, too.

In other words, 8.6m was the population of metropolitan London – a definition of the city that included areas outside the boundaries but within its economic footprint. If we want to compare like with like, maybe we should forget about administrative boundaries, and instead compare that figure with the population of metropolitan London today.

This is fine idea in theory – but working out where London ends in practice is no easy business. One option is to take the continuously built up area: that includes most (but not quite all) of Greater London, as well as various outlying towns that are attached to it. Here's how the Office for National Statistics (ONS) defined it at the time of the 2011 census.

You can click this one to expand it. Image: Eopsid, via Wikimedia Commons.

And here's the same data, this time with administrative boundaries included.

Image: Rob984, via Wikimedia Common, with labels added by CityMetric.

In 2011, this area had a population of 9.8m, which is substantially more than London proper.

But you can question whether this is definition is particularly helpful. Towns like Hemel Hempstead and Harlow are dormitory suburbs, defined in large part by their relationship to London. But the same goes for other nearby towns, such as Brentwood or Slough, which aren’t included in the data. Should they really be classified differently, just because they're don't have the same concrete umbilical cord to the city?

The ONS (which is quite fickle as government statistical agencies go) doesn't always think so. A few years ago, it used 2001 census data to split Britain into 243 “Travel to Work Areas”: the idea was that the 75 per cent of the people who lived in any one TTWA work also work in the area, and vice versa.

Here's what the ONS came up with for London:

Image: MRSC, via Wikimedia Commons. 

That area, by 2005, had a population of around 9.3m. In other words, even 10 years ago, it was substantially bigger than the city proper is today; it's fair to assume it's grown since.

Others have come up with different interpretations of the same sort of data. Last year, regeneration expert and CityMetric contributor Barney Stringer produced this map to accompany a blogpost headlined, “Is London too small?” It basically refines the TTWA concept, using 2011 data:

Image: Barney Stringer.

Then there's the Centre for Cities version, which appears in the Cities Factbook 2015. That defines London like this:

Image: CityMetric, based on Centre for Cities data.

Possibly the broadest definition of the city, though, is the one used by the EU statistical agency Eurostat to define London's “larger urban zone”. That includes basically all the areas included in the Travel to Work Area; the entire continuous built up area; most of the counties of Surrey, Hertfordshire, Essex and Kent; and chunks of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, too. Here's the result:

Greater Greater London. Image: CityMetric, based on Eurostat data.

This area, Eurostat reckons, has a population of just over 13m, making it the largest city in Europe. (Paris, in second place, doesn't quite make it to 12m.)

Which of these definitions is “right” is a moot point (in some ways, they all are). But what we can say is that, when you define London by its economic footprint, rather than its administrative boundaries, the city probably passed its previous peak of population some time ago.

Take the broadest definition, indeed, and you’ll find it includes many of the new towns to which the population of inner London was decanted after the war. Look at things like that, and it's entirely possible that the city's population never fell at all.

This is the first half of a two-part article. Next time: the rise of the suburbs. 


 

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.