The polls are wrong: the Piccadilly is clearly the best tube line

Piccadilly line trains in depot at Northfields. Image: Getty.

It’s official: the Docklands Light Railway is a Tube Line, and a popular one at that. YouGov have polled Londoners about their favourite Tube Lines, and the DLR is in second-place, with the Overground taking the bronze medal. (Top of the pops is the Jubilee.)

For me, the question of which Tube Line is best is both practical and emotional. How much use to I get out of it? What does it say to me about the city I was born, grew up and live in today?

As far as emotion goes, there are six contenders: the Central, Victoria, Northern, DLR, Piccadilly and District lines. Between them, these are the lines that contain: my school, the flat I grew up in, my first job, first girlfriend, first serious girlfriend, and essentially everywhere I’ve lived for a period of time longer than six months.

The Central Line, of course, cannot be anyone’s favourite line, as it is cramped, smelly and at times hotter than an oven. The warm glow of passing by the place I was born is overridden by the warm haze of travelling on the Central line, and the fear that I may die while doing so. In any case, the emotionally resonant stops are also covered equally well by the District line, which has the advantage of being roomier and serving both my current workplaces (the NS offices and the Palace of Westminster).

The Northern Line, too, has to be immediately eliminated from the running, too, although it’s a harder call. There are a lot of places on it that I have a great deal of affection for – Angel, where I have been going to the cinema for basically my entire life; Warren Street, which is exactly equidistant between one of my best friends and me; and is as a result where I go to watch football more often than not; the stretch of stations from Camden Town to Woodside Park, where I spent a lot of time as a teenager, and each of which has a cherished memory attached.

But it also contains the most irredeemable stretch of south London, from Oval to Balham. South London tends to get a worse rap that it deserves, I expect because it hosts so many fans of Chelsea Football Club and also because it’s an easy gag, but that little set deserves everything it gets. It’s increasingly become a holding pen for people who hate London, but are forced to live here for work or other purposes, and are clearly counting the days until they can move out to some improbable commuter village like Virginia Water or Egham. You know, the kind of people who complain that no-one talks to each other on the Tube and are responsible for killing all of the interesting shops in Covent Garden.

That leaves the real contenders: the District, DLR, Victoria and Piccadilly Lines. For reasons of practicality, the DLR has to bow out here: though I used to take it to work, it simply isn’t useful enough to be the best Tube line. It also only really has two flavours of London – the East End and the city’s banker belt, and the two are in any rate increasingly co-terminous – and the best Tube line has to contain all, or at least a significant chunk of the city’s various flavours.


On that metric, the District Line has a good case to be the definitive Tube Line. It has both flavours of suburbia – posh people who’ve lived on the outskirts for ever; people leaving the inner city for more space or fewer black people. All of the city’s great cultural institutions are within walking distance of a District Line stop. It represents almost every bit of the inner city, and, emotionally speaking, my birthplace, secondary school and a variety of emotional milestones that I prefer not to dwell on here, all took place in parts of the city you can reach on the District Line.

But the problem with the District is also its weakness: it is so broad that it takes ages to get anywhere on it and it is riddled with tourists the year round. It’s a line of last resort – if there is nothing better, take the District Line, and very probably a large book to occupy the time. If there is an alternative, take that, it’ll be quicker.

The Victoria Line has the reverse problem: it is quick and convenient but essentially covers a very small stretch of London. You can’t honestly say that the Victoria Line has all of the city on it.

That might make it seem like the Piccadilly takes the crown by default: faster than the District (just about) but larger than the Victoria. But the Piccadilly is my favourite not because it’s the last line standing but because, to me, it’s the best line of all.

Like the District, it contains essentially every one of London’s forms. It could only be more comprehensive if it had a spur to Lewisham, really, but if you want to “get” London, if you got off at every station of the Piccadilly and walked around for a bit, you’d understand it. You can reach most of the city’s big museums and art galleries, albeit with a slightly longer walk than the District; and the various types of inner and outer London are well-represented. From a sentimental perspective, it, too, ticks off where I grew up, where my football team plays, where I went to school – again, with something of a schlepp compared to the alternative, but still, it works.

And, most magical of all, thanks to the Eurostar station at Kings Cross and the airport at Heathrow, it’s the only Tube Line that can genuinely take you anywhere in the world. You could, provided you have enough money, get on the Piccadilly Line with your passport and decide to go to Hawaii or Paris or wherever you wanted, just like that. (And with a quicker interchange than the luckless visitors who try to change from Monument to Bank.)

And that’s why, whatever the polls may say, the Piccadilly is the best of all possible lines.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at our parent title, the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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This article was amended at 1730hrs at request of the author, in an attempt to reduce the grief he was getting for his contention that Chelsea was in south London. 

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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