1. Governance
November 17, 2014updated 02 Aug 2021 9:16am

New York's mayoralty has the power of a god-emperor – London’s doesn't. So which works best?

By Jon Stone

New York City has some of the most recognisable boroughs of any city in the world: Manhattan, the Bronx or Brooklyn all have more global cultural cachet than many fully-fledged cities double their size.

But the subdivisions of America’s biggest city are also politically weaker than those of any comparable global city. The Mayor of New York has supreme executive authority over the whole city, with a council acting as a legislature and oversight body. Unusually by both American and European standards, the only real power delegated to borough level is that of the district attorney, who prosecutes crimes and runs the court system.

The city’s five boroughs do directly elect their own “presidents” – but these are effectively ceremonial local advisors competing for the affections of the city government. Turnouts for their election are miniscule. In 2013, the winning candidate in Manhattan won with 58,771 votes; the borough’s population is 1.6m.

There are some significant advantages to this kind of concentration of power. London’s cyclists look enviously across the Atlantic at NYC’s fast-growing network of protected cycle lanes, most installed at the behest of Mayor Bloomberg. Since 2006 the city has more than doubled the mileage of its cycle lanes from 200 miles to 450 miles. 

It’s a dramatic reversal for a city that has long been hostile to bikes: in 1987, Gracie Mansion moved to ban cycling from main roads in midtown Manhattan altogether. But the swift change in attitudes has been possible onlybecause NYC’s transport authority controls all of the city’s streets. In NYC diktats come from on high, and the city grinds into action.

That’s a sharp contrast to London, where the central authorities only control trunk routes; most streets are in the hands of 33 different boroughs, each of which is its own highway authority. As a result, mayor Boris Johnson has struggled for three years to build a single cross-town protected cycle lane stretching from the city’s East End to its western fringes.

The proposed route passes through two different highway authorities, the City (London’s financial district) and Westminster (the seat of national political power). Both have raised objections to the scheme, accusing the Mayor of railroading it through; both have put forward alternatives that campaigners say are just red-herrings.

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Johnson’s cycling tsar, Andrew Gilligan, recently appeared on television and bemoaned that “only in Britain” would a bike lane that took three years to build be said to be rushed through. He may well have a point.

New York’s model doesn’t always mean quick results. The centralisation of the city’s governance comes hand-in-hand with the city’s financial independence from the federal and state authorities: NYC raises a significant proportion of its own taxes, not least a hefty 4.5 per cent sales tax.

Such fiscal autonomy is something local government in Britain has been demanding for decades, but it does have its downside. As with all units of government in the United States, NYC can go bankrupt. Indeed, it spent a good portion of the mid-20th century teetering on the edge of default, most notably in the 70s under Mayor Abraham Beame, when it relied on a $2.3bn federal loan to stay solvent.

The result of this is that major infrastructure projects that actually require large amounts of money, rather than just political will, are more difficult to get off the ground in NYC. The most notorious of these is the Second Avenue subway line, the first phase of which is finally under construction as of 2014. The line was first approved by the city’s Board of Transportation in 1929 – but it’s been postponed because of the state of the city’s finances too many times to count.

By contrast, London, stripped of any fiscal clout of its own, enjoys a more direct relationship with the British Government’s national treasury, which pays for anything that is plainly too large for the city to finance alone. Since the approval of the Second Avenue Subway in 1929, London has completed countless extensions to London Underground lines and built entire new passenger railways practically from scratch. The Victoria and Jubilee lines, the Docklands Light Railway and Tramlink; Crossrail should arrive before the decade is out, and Crossrail 2 already at the consultation stage.

 In London, political will and negotiation between different stakeholders plays a very large part in determining what gets built; in NYC money has historically been the limiting factor. State and federal government in the US can turn a blind eye to NYC being unable to afford anything because the city can, at least in theory, finance things itself. If you were wondering why the spendthrift Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is starting to warm to the idea of devolving more powers to cities, this might just explain everything.

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