“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 And these various pastel shades have been replaced by, well, this: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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“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.