“Greyer than John Major's underpants”: Manchester's new Metrolink map

Metrolink in action. Image: Getty.

“Metrolink is always looking at ways to improve information about services.”

Is it? That's good.

“A new-style Metrolink network map – designed to be more accessible, easy-to-understand and include more information – is now being rolled out to all tram stops.”

Exciting!

“As the tram network expands with more lines and services, the new map design will allow us to include more information for passengers.”

Oh, wow, we *love* information! I bet this new map is going to be better than ev-

“The name of stops is more prominent and – instead of using coloured lines – the map identifies services using a combination of letters and colours alongside arrows to show direction of travel-”

-What.

So it is that the new Metrolink map – actually, new is a misnomer; it's been out since August, it's just that we've only just noticed it – rather breaks with venerable metro map tradition.

Most such maps use a variety of bright colours to illustrate their different lines. Thus, you can see at a glance, say, that the District line heads east to Upminster, or that the A train goes from Harlem to Far Rockaway.

Until recently, Manchester's tram network followed a similar pattern. Here's the old map:

Click to expand.

Look at those calming pastel shades. Isn’t that lovely?

The new version, though, eschews this long established practice. And these various pastel shades have been replaced by, well, this:

Click to expand.

Grey. Grey, as far as the eye can see. Greyer than John Major's underpants on the morning of laundry day.

Metrolink say the new map is “more accessible for the people with colourblindness”. And making transport, and the information  that accompanies it, accessible to people regardless of disability is a noble aim.

But it's not entirely clear why this meant the colour had to go altogether. Couldn't these...

...simply have been added to the existing map, without losing the line colours?

One possible explanation for why they weren't: the changes aren't – or at least, aren’t exclusively – about accessibility after all. Unlike the trains on London's tube or New York's subway, all the trams on Manchester's Metrolink are crowded into a small number of routes across the city centre.

The colour scheme means you end up with a bit that looks like this:

Five coloured lines along the same stretch of track. As more branches have opened, more colours have been added, making the map prettier but increasingly unwieldy.


What impact the opening of the Second City Crossing through Exchange Square will have on all this remains to be seen. It’s not yet clear whether different routes will use different bits of track, or whether most will use both. (The two crossings are only a few hundred metres from each other.) If the latter, though, you’d end up with two adjacent multicoloured strips, making the map almost unreadable.

So, the colour scheme has gone, and all that is left is grey. Pity. 

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Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.