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These schemes cost a lot and take a while to complete, but they also promise significant transformational benefits, which is why they get the attention they do. There is nothing wrong in thinking big, and projects like HS2 may be crucial for maintaining the competitiveness of UK plc. But at a time when we’ve avoided a triple-dip recession by a narrow 0.3% margin and unemployment is rising again a localised approach to transport policy and investment may deliver more immediate economic benefits.
In 2011 Centre for Cities published “Access all areas”, which examined how transport policy could overcome the mismatch between where low skilled people live and where the jobs that they seek are located. The report suggested that because the economic performance of cities as well as their geographical composition differs, there is a strong case for localised approach to transport policy.
The report looked at four areas in detail, one being the Sheffield City Region. Sheffield is a dispersed city region with a relatively weak economy, and it faces several transport related challenges. Further growth of Sheffield’s economically dynamic core is restricted by congestion. At the same time people living in the deprived areas in the north of the city region are isolated from employment opportunities due to low quality and expensive bus and rail services. And as the map below shows, local jobs are rather scarce in places like Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham.
To overcome these challenges, the report suggests that in Sheffield and cities that face similar issues (including Manchester) transport policy should focus on a threefold agenda:
18 months after the report was published, the devolution of transport powers to cities is becoming more of a reality. In the first wave of city deals, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester have been allocated funding to improve transport across their city regions, and Lord Heseltine’s proposals to introduce a single funding pot for local authorities and additional funding streams for LEPs could provide an opportunity to better connect transport and employment agendas.
However, re-reading ‘Access All Areas’ today reminds us of the scale of the challenges our cities face, and that there are unlikely to be many quick fixes. The spatial mismatch which can isolate individuals at the lower end of labour market from employment opportunities is likely to persist, increasing the importance of cross boarder collaboration between local transport authorities to ensure that inadequate local transport links are not a barrier to people finding work.
And transport should not be seen as the sole means of solving problems relating to economic growth and unemployment. Local transport investment must instead be part of a holistic local approach to economic development that also addresses issues such as low skills, demand in the local economy, and planning. And if we just put money into glossy transport projects, it is likely to go to waste, just ask those lonely riders on Detroit’s People Mover.
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