I’ve got a reality check for politicians and civil servants in London: be aware that changes in your local area or city – positive and negative alike – are not always a result of your policies. The reality is that some changes in the capital are down to external effects beyond your control. And one of those is the weather.
As Brits, we love talking about the weather. It changes what we wear, how we travel, and our moods. But we don’t think about the broader implications for the city. And now new data shows the alarming impact that extreme weather events can have on things like crime, transport and air quality. The ‘Beast from the East’ also impacted our economy, with sectors like construction and retail hit by a lack of activity.
With climate predictions suggesting London is increasingly likely to experience more extreme weather patterns moving forward, how should we understand and respond to its impact on the day to day functioning of the city?
Crime in the capital is top of both politicians’ and the public’s radar given the spate of violent attacks and murders in the first few months of the year. A recent poll showed 67 per cent of Londoners thought that crime had got worse – a figure rising to 79 per cent for knife crime.
But figures for March suggest that the cold weather had a significant dampening effect on crime across the capital. Intuitively, this makes sense: in the cold, people are less likely to go out and less likely to be involved in crime of many types, especially violent ones. After years of rising, often at quite an alarming rate, total crime, violent crime and knife crime all fell in March this year, compared to the same month in 2017. Experience from international cities which typically get more snow than London, such as Boston, suggests this is not a statistical anomaly. And the hot bank holiday weekend, which saw several violent attacks in the capital, has led some commentators to suggest rising temperatures means more violent crimes.
There might, however, be seen to be a ‘peak temperature’ for crime. Analysis of Greater Manchester Police data suggests that, when the mercury rises above 18°C, crime rates begin to fall. So, while many people may complain about the increasing extremes in London’s weather, cold snaps and heatwaves may end up slightly dampening any increases in crime.
But changes to crime were not the Beast from the East’s only impact on the city. London’s transport network, despite some degree of preparation, also had a tough time.
The number of journeys on the tube and bus networks during February and the beginning of March was down compared to the previous year. Undoubtedly some of this was due to people staying at home during the snowy spell, as well as deficiencies in the network’s service as many train lines and bus routes ground to a halt.
And the roads fared little better, perhaps unsurprising given that the capital’s local authorities have cut winter service spending from their highways and transport departments by a quarter in the last seven years. The RAC suggests the snow will have longer term impacts, with a legacy of potholes developing as water froze in cracks on the road, a significant challenge for Transport for London and the boroughs. This effect of the snow was not good news for TfL, given its ongoing budget troubles and reliance on fare income – particularly the profit derived from tube passengers.
While recent cold weather has affected crime and transport, a longer-term view can show how weather affects other things in the city. One of Londoners’ top concerns is the poor-quality air in the capital, and Sadiq Khan has begun to introduce a range of measures to tackle the toxic fumes that come from London’s transport system and built environment.
While these policies are starting to take an effect, the monthly pollution levels continue to fluctuate, often down to the weather. High pressure and low wind tend to make London’s pollution worse, as damaging particles are not blown away from the capital, whereas low pressure can bring pollution from elsewhere into the city.
As Professor Frank Kelly points out, many of the mayor’s policies may fail to reduce pollution concentrations to legal and healthy levels, without complementary effects from national and even international legislation. London is not an island – the weather proves that.
So what can we learn from this? Policymakers at all levels should attempt to better understand how extreme weather will affect demand for services and their ability to provide these services, among a raft of other things. This is especially important given London’s likely volatile future climate, and can help them to better prepare for a more uncertain future.
These lessons are not just limited to modelling how the weather will affect the city, but can also be applied to areas such as population change or changing lifestyle habits. Some things will be easier to understand and prepare for than others. But the more we know, the less damaging their effects on everyday Londoners are likely to be.
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