Measuring up: Comparing public transport in the UK and Europe’s biggest cities

This report examines whether intra-urban public transport plays a role in the underperformance of big British cities and sets out the implications that transport has for the levelling up agenda.

Report published on 3 November 2021 by Guilherme Rodrigues, Anthony Breach and James Evans

According to the Prime Minister, “Transport is one of the supreme leveller uppers”, with many identifying a lack of public transport infrastructure as the main cause of regional inequality in the UK. Centre for Cities’ analysis shows that not only do urban public transport networks in Britain vary between cities, they also differ when compared to their Western European counterparts.

This research systematically analyses how the urban public transport systems of nine of the biggest British cities outside of London – Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol, Newcastle, Nottingham, Liverpool and Glasgow – measure up to their Western European counterparts, to find that:

1. Urban public transport commutes to European city centres are easier and faster than in the UK. Approximately, 67 per cent of people in big European cities can reach their city centre by public transport within 30 minutes, compared to only 40 per cent of the people in Britain’s big cities.

2. The low-rise built form of Britain’s big cities prevents people from living near urban public transport. Britain’s reliance on terraced and semi-detached housing means there are fewer people living close to city centres which reduces commuting by public transport and the efficiency of networks.

 3. Poor urban transport limits people’s job opportunities and effectively makes our largest cities much smaller than European competitors. This negatively impacts the productivity and economic performance of big cities, costing the UK economy more than £23.1 billion per year.

 4. To deliver European-style transport outcomes, expanding urban public transport systems must be paired with efforts to change the built form of big cities, making it easier to live near and use public transport.

To advance levelling up by improving connectivity in the UK’s largest cities, central and local government should:

  • Continue to invest in new infrastructure, expanding public transport networks where it is needed, such as in cities with congestion issues
  • Reform the planning system to facilitate shifting big cities from a low-rise to a mid-rise built form, making it easier to build mid-rise new neighbourhoods in well-connected suburbs
  • Encourage councils to implement Local Development Orders to allow for the redevelopment of land near existing public transport as a tool to get more homes built

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