Which is England’s second city? When it comes to public transport, the answer is clear

The other Piccadilly. Image: David Dixon at Wikimedia Commons.

The Midland Metro is a light rail network, that connects Birmingham to Wednesbury, Wolverhampton and other bits of the West Midlands conurbation beginning with the letter W. It’s 15 years old this year, and it’s going through a bit of an awkward phase. Here’s an old route map, showing the network as it was when it first opened in 1999:

And here it is now:

In other words, the Metro hasn't grown up, but it has acquired a slightly more pretentious image. I think that's what you'd call "growing pains".

Here, by way of comparison, is the similar light rail network that covers the other conurbation contending for the title of England's second city. That's Manchester's Metrolink network, which is just a teensy bit more expansive:

This is a slightly unfair comparison, of course: Manchester's trams started running in 1992, so have had a seven year head start. And Birmingham, to be fair, is working on a couple of extensions right now, not least one that’ll finally take the Metro into the city centre for the first time.

So, once the Brummie tram network catches up its Mancunian peer, and hits the grand old age of 22, what will it look like then? We haven't been able to find an official system map, unfortunately, so we've been forced to make our own.

In other words, it'll be bigger – but not that much bigger.

And by the time all that's done, Metrolink will include even more routes. A new line, through South Manchester to the airport, is due to open in November (15 more stops). The Second City Crossing, which will allow the network to run more frequent trams by providing a choice of route across the city centre, is also under construction (that’s another stop). An entirely new line, out to Trafford Park in the western suburbs, could plausibly be open by then, too (and that’s another six).

All this means that Manchester Metrolink could quite possibly grow by 22 stations over the next seven years. That’s only one fewer than the whole of the Midland Metro has now.

There is no mechanism for deciding which metropolis should count as England's second city. All we have is public consensus, and for much of the last 100 years Birmingham seemed to have that sewn up. Since the turn of the century, though, the title's become more contested, and a succession of polls and pronouncements have suggested that Manchester was at the very least gaining.

But if you believe that an extensive transit network is an essential component of a modern metropolis, then, at least on this measure at least, there's no competition. When it comes to public transport, Manchester is way, way out ahead. Birmingham doesn't even come close.

Why that should be is a question we'll be trying to answer in the weeks to come. That, though, is a bit of a rubbish cliffhanger, so let’s end on a chart. The two networks, in figures – or why Manchester is better than Birmingham.

Note: We've assumed that where possible new routes will be integrated into existing ones, to simplify service patterns and reduce the number of lines. Extension lengths on the Midland Metro are not available, so we've made estimates by drawing lines on maps.



What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.

“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.