People in Britain like to moan about their commute almost as much as they do about the weather. So I can only imagine the relish with which people responded to the latest Guardian piece about how terrible it is to work / live / play in London (delete option as appropriate). This time the topic was commuting.
The comments echoed some of the often heard complaints and solutions to the ‘problem’ of London – including the need to move jobs out of London, improve transport connections between other cities, and encourage home-working. But the truth is that that the travails of London’s commuters are not as bad as many readers seem to think – and that there are no easy fixes when it comes to moving more jobs and people out of the capital, to other parts of the country.
Here are five reflections in response to the complaints and solutions proposed by the Guardian’s readers:
- Commuting is a choice, and no one is forced to do it. As individuals, we have to decide whether the costs of commuting (time, stress, congestion) outweigh the benefits (access to a particular job / career, higher wages, time to read / listen to music / sleep etc). While it may not be a lovely experience, for many people the benefits clearly outweigh the costs – otherwise they would do something else.
- There are lots of alternatives. People often respond that they have no choice because all the jobs are in London, but this is clearly not the case. Yes, there are lots of jobs in London (especially high-paying ones), but Manchester, Birmingham, Reading, Brighton, Cambridge, Slough, Milton Keynes and Exeter also have lots of jobs. Sure, moving to these cities might mean a reduction in wages compared to London (or a shift in career) but this financial loss would be off-set by the benefits of a stress free commute, a bigger house and – in some instances – living and working surrounded by beautiful scenery.
- People want an ‘enjoyable’ commuting experience (having a seat, no delays, no crowding, etc.) but don’t want to pay for it. A space on a train coming from Guilford or Hertford at 8am on a Tuesday is a classic ‘rival good’ – that is, if I get a seat, someone else can’t use it – so as a result, that place has to be somehow rationed. How should we allocate a scarce resource (space on the train) between competing interests (lots of commuters)? There are several options: the current system (first-come first-served); using variable prices much more to manage demand, particularly around peak hours; adopting a lottery system to randomly allocate commuting tickets (we could let winners sell on their tickets as well); and introducing an auction system (blind or otherwise). If people don’t want to pay more for their transport, these are the options available.
- It’s very difficult to push jobs around the country. Governments have tried this in the past – for example, the Brown Ban in the 1960s restricted office expansion in London (and later on in Birmingham) with the assumption that these firms would move to somewhere else in the country. They didn’t, however, and neither did many people. And we’re still trying it now. By fetishizing the green belt around London, Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol and other cities, we are choosing to limit the building of much needed new homes in already expensive areas to the detriment of those on low and middle incomes that currently live in these places and the firms that rely on these people for their labour. Despite the much hyped claims around home-working, the reality is that only a small proportion of workers actually work from home most of the time. For the innovation and knowledge firms and workers that drive the UK economy, being in a city for at least some of their working life is more important to their success and productivity today than at any time in the past. Restricting access to these cities or trying to push them to places they don’t want to be in will harm not only these firms and workers, but will also damage the national economy.
- Improving transport infrastructure elsewhere in the country is no silver bullet. People need to have reasons to travel. In many cities in the Midlands and the North, low levels of skills, innovation and entrepreneurialism are the weaknesses that hold back their economies, rather than the lack of public transport infrastructure. As the What Works for Local Economic Growth review of transport clearly highlighted, better transport connections in and of themselves do not boost growth and job creation, they tend to follow it. Addressing these pull factors – by improving the attractiveness of these cities to knowledge firms and workers – is a much better approach for government policy than trying to push economic activity out of London via subsidies, tax giveaways and restrictions.
It’s ironic that this conversation is focused on the plight of London-bound commuters, where despite its problems the public transport network is exceptional – with tubes every 2-3 minutes, suburban commuter trains every 5-10 minutes, buses every 5 minutes, and a contactless payment system – compared to every other city in the UK and many other cities across the globe. It might not seem like it if you’re reading this on a packed tube train, but Londoner commuters have a better deal than they think.