Billions lost in productivity as Northern cities’ transport networks lag behind European equivalents

Major cities across the North are lagging behind their European counterparts in providing access to quality public transport networks, costing the Northern economy more than £16bn in lost productivity.

Press release published on 22 March 2022

  • Millions unable to reach their city centres within 30 mins in five key cities across the North as car accessibility within 30 minutes is close to 100%
  • Northern cities’ transport networks underperform compared to European counterparts
  • Planning changes needed alongside infrastructure investment to improve connections

Major cities across the North are lagging behind their European counterparts in providing access to quality public transport networks, costing the Northern economy more than £16bn in lost productivity, research from Centre for Cities has found.

Data published today (Tuesday 22 March) shows more than 4 million people living in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, and Newcastle are unable to travel to their city centres via public transport within 30 minutes, restricting them from employment and education opportunities.

Compared to similar-sized cities in Western Europe, including Hamburg, Marseille, Bilbao, Turin and Lille, the research shows just 35 per cent of residents in Northern cities are well connected to their centres on average, while nearly seven in ten are in their European equivalents.

Much of this disparity can be attributed to the differences in population density among these cities. The European cities have more people living in well-connected mid-rise suburbs closer to the city centre, whereas the Northern cities are more spread out, with millions living in low-rise car-dependent districts.

More people living around public transport stops in European cities means their systems are more viable than the UK, where planning rules make it almost impossible to build homes in well-connected suburbs.

Among some of the key findings are:

  • Nearly 2 million people living in Manchester cannot reach their city centre within 30 minutes via public transport. This is equivalent to around 80 per cent of the population and is costing more than £9bn in lost productivity.
  • Despite being 37 per cent smaller than Manchester in terms of population, around 300,000 more people are able to quickly access their city centre using public transport in Hamburg.
  • Only 38 per cent of Leeds’s population can reach the city centre in 30 minutes – a stark difference to similar-sized Marseille, where 87 per cent can.
  • More than 620,000 people in Liverpool are missing out on quality public transport links, with just 36 per cent able to quickly use the network to reach their city centre. This is compared to around 80 per cent of people living in Turin.
  • In Sheffield just 35 per cent of residents can reach the centre within half an hour by public transport, while in similar-sized Bilbao, nearly four in five (79 per cent) can.
  • Newcastle outperforms its Northern counterparts in terms of connectivity with 46 per cent of residents able to reach the city centre in 30 minutes or less. However, this is still much lower than similar-sized Lille, where 70 per cent can.

To improve public transport in our Northern cities and help them compete with their European counterparts the Government should:

  • Continue to invest in new transport infrastructure in city regions where it is needed.
  • Give all combined authorities powers over local bus franchises to set and control bus fares, frequencies and timetables, and specify bus networks. Much like in London and, more recently, Greater Manchester.
  • Reform the planning system to make it easier to build midrise new neighbourhoods in well-connected suburbs.
  • Encourage councils to release small areas of greenbelt land around stations for development and implement Local Development Orders – a little used tool to get more homes built.

Centre for Cities Chief Executive Andrew Carter said:

“Last month the Government outlined its ambition to create a ‘global city’ in every part of the UK by 2030, yet our research shows that major cities across the North are lagging far behind their European counterparts in terms of connectivity and providing thriving public transport networks.

“Our reliance on car-dependent low-rise suburbs is keeping local transport revenues down and costing the country billions of pounds in lost productivity – money that could otherwise be spent on building successful London-style transport systems in city regions across the North.

“If we want these cities to reach their global potential, we need to see more passengers living close to quality public transport links. Attempts to fix this problem by investing in transport infrastructure will fail unless substantial planning reforms are made to build new midrise neighbourhoods closer to city centres.”

Notes to editors

A roundup of the cost to the economy in each Northern city studied can be found below:

City Productivity gap, due to weak public transport accessibility
Manchester £8.9 billion
Leeds £2.8 billion
Sheffield £2.3 billion
Newcastle £1.7 billion
Liverpool £936 million
Combined lost productivity £16.6 billion


Source: Traveltime; ONS; Eurostat; Centre for Cities’ calculations. Estimates based on PUA boundaries, which may be affecting the analysis by including some towns that will be unlikely to be connected by new public transport.

About Centre for Cities

  • Centre for Cities is a research and policy institute, dedicated to improving the economic success of UK cities.
  • We are a charity that works with cities, business and Whitehall to develop and implement policy that supports the performance of urban economies. We do this through impartial research and knowledge exchange.

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