00Covid and the city

The UK’s largest cities and towns are where we come together to work, live and play. The pandemic has reminded us that, with the benefits that come from city life, there also come risks. But the lessons from the 6,000-year history of the city are clear: they survive, adapting to and overcoming the challenges of disease, conflict and economic change.

The virus and how we have had to deal with it have struck at the very heart of what cities excel at doing: bringing people together. We come together to work — driving forward the national economy — and for pleasure — to shop, eat out, socialise, go to the theatre or support our team.

In 2020 the pandemic changed all of that. It has affected not only how we live our lives as urban residents and workers, but also some of the fundamental ways in which urban economies operate.

The impact of Covid on urban life

Unlike in previous periods of economic upheaval, real-time data now allows us to understand how impacts have played out across cities and large towns. Mobile phone and payment card data open up insights into how people move around and what they are spending their money on at the local level in a way not possible in the past.

Looking at how people’s habits changed in response to the pandemic and restrictions at key moments in 2020 — as places went in and out of lockdowns and up and down tiers — gives some guide for how cities and large towns will and will not recover whenever the pandemic is behind us.

People moved around less. There was a dramatic fall in mobility as nationwide lockdown restrictions came into place for the first time on 23 March 2020. In February 2020, urban residents spent on average a third of their time at home each day. In April, this had jumped to 50 per cent, with time spent 10km or further from home in particular falling (from 13 per cent to 5 per cent).

But this did not last. By October, mobility had largely recovered, with the amount of time spent at home being only slightly higher than in February.

How people moved around changed. At the national level, March’s lockdown saw travel using public and private transport fall sharply (by 90 per cent and 70 per cent respectively).

Private travel nationally bounced back to 97 per cent of February levels by September, before falling back slightly as more restrictions were introduced in October. Data on vehicle miles at the regional level suggest in general this was happening in all parts of the country.1

But public transport usage has not recovered (see Figure 1). Nationally, it was only back to 44 per cent of February 2020 levels by October. This slow recovery is most evident in London and larger cities.2 In London, the drop off happened earlier, was larger, and any recovery has been much slower. In contrast, while still well below pre-lockdown levels, smaller and medium-sized cities and large towns such as Barnsley and Portsmouth have by the same measure recovered more strongly than the national average.

Figure 1: Public transport usage has fallen in larger cities in particular

Public transport usage

The rise of working from home. The factor likely to have influenced day-to- day travel most, especially the decline in public transport usage, has been the sharp increase in working from home. Google mobility data shows that at the national level, only two-thirds of people had returned to their workplaces on the eve of November’s second national lockdown in England. This was much lower in London — again, the capital saw its number of workers in the workplace fall first, fall fastest and recover the least. In April, 80 per cent of London’s workers were not in their workplace, and this had only recovered to just over half by November (see Figure 2). Manchester, Glasgow and other larger cities also trailed the national average, but smaller and medium-sized cities and towns such as Luton and Huddersfield, while still well below pre-lockdown levels, exceeded the national average for workers in the workplace.

Figure 2: London has seen the largest drop and weakest recovery in people at their place of work

People in their workplace

This has had a knock-on effect on people visiting high streets in the centre of the UK’s largest cities and towns.

Anonymised mobile phone data shows how city and town centres in smaller and medium-sized places bounced back strongly as restrictions were eased in the summer with some cities and large towns, such as Blackpool and Basildon, having levels of footfall higher in August than pre-lockdown (compared to February 2020).

This was not the case in larger cities. In Birmingham, by September city centre footfall was at only 55 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. In Manchester, it was 50 per cent. And in London it was just 36 per cent. This reflects that the types of jobs commonly located in city centre offices are those that can be done most readily from home. City centre commuters are also more likely to use public transport — in normal times, they account for more than one in three public transport journeys to work in England and Wales (37 per cent), while representing 14 per cent of all jobs.

Spending fell, but bounced back. The pandemic and lockdowns have not deterred spending. Overall, spending on credit or debit cards by residents was back above pre-lockdown levels in all cities and large towns, except for Milton Keynes, by October. Sunderland had the strongest recovery (see Figure 3).3 In 11 places, the increase in spend has been so large that it has more than offset the lost spending during the first lockdown.4

Figure 3: Spending by urban residents recovered to February levels on the eve of the second national lockdown

Debit and credit card spending by urban residents

This in part is due to a shift to spending online. While spending in bricks-and-mortar shops had recovered in 51 of 62 cities and large towns, spending online had recovered in all 62. Before the pandemic, urban residents did a fifth of all their spending online. This jumped as the first national lockdown was imposed, and has remained at a higher level even as restrictions have eased. By September, 25 per cent of their spending was done online.

Somewhat reassuringly for the high street, this figure may still be higher than its eventual post-pandemic level. Ongoing social distancing and the continued closure of businesses such as nightclubs, most sports stadiums and conference centres, is likely to have limited further recovery in offline spend. That might suggest some of the shift is temporary and that Covid has not yet significantly permanently accelerated the pre-pandemic shift to online spending.

Urban life is very different at the end of 2020. Where once we packed trains, worked in offices and shopped on the way home, more of us are travelling less, working remotely, and shopping online.

This might suggest a bleak picture for big cities in particular. In normal times, the density of cities provides great benefits but Covid has made density a dirty word. With the mass home working experiment now into its tenth month, does this mean that the future of the urban economy is in spare bedrooms (for those who can afford them) and on kitchen tables, rather than in city and town centres?

There are those that say how many have worked for most of 2020 is a glimpse of the future. They may be right, but history and current experience suggests that, for a number of reasons, they are more likely to be wrong.

First, taking the long view, bringing people together has always been cities’ key strength and also their weakness. With people come disease, and density helps disease to spread. This is a threat that cities have had to deal with throughout the last six millennia, a time during which they have also been the crucibles of invention that have adapted to mitigate that threat. The Romans invented aqueducts to bring fresh water into towns and cities, and the Victorians perfected sewers to take dirty water away.

Second, while this is the first pandemic the UK has experienced in most people’s lifetimes, that is not the same the world over. The current pandemic follows SARS, bird flu and swine flu. But these diseases have not seen the hollowing out of cities in East Asia. In fact, as Figure 4 shows, during the period when all these diseases occurred, the share of people living in urban areas has increased in all East Asian countries in the chart. And, in some cities, populations have exploded. For example, Guangzhou, which was directly affected by SARS, saw its population almost double to 13.3 million people between 2000 and 2020, while neighbouring Shenzhen also almost doubled to 12.4 million.

Figure 4: Many East Asian countries have continued to urbanise despite the threat of pandemics

Share of population living in urban areas in selected East Asian countries

Third, the value of face-to-face interaction is likely to become ever more important to the UK economy in the coming decades. Work by Centre for Cities has shown how the UK economy has concentrated in its city centres since

the late 1990s, and this has driven the turnaround that a number of larger cities have experienced. This has happened despite the growing costs of a city centre location, and despite the rise of communications technologies (Skype was first released in 2003). This demonstrates that certain types of businesses are willing to pay a premium for face-to-face interaction, and that technology sits alongside, rather than replaces, face-to-face working.

Covid should not fundamentally change this. And given that it is these types of ‘knowledge-based’ businesses that are likely to play an ever larger role in the national economy in years to come, city centres are likely to remain popular business locations, even if more people split the working week between home and the office.

Policy support is required to help our big cities to achieve the Government’s levelling up goal

While this suggests some light at the end of a long tunnel for the UK’s cities and large towns, many entered the crisis in an already weakened position. Compared to their European and American counterparts, the UK’s largest cities (after London) punch well below their weight. Conservative estimates suggest that this costs the UK economy close to £50 billion every year, and limits the opportunities available to the many millions of people who live in and around them.5

The last 10 months have made tackling this weakness more difficult but also more important. As vaccines roll out, and the return to normal life becomes a realistic prospect, the Government is running out of time to set out and deliver on its levelling-up agenda. The next chapter shows how much harder Covid has made the levelling-up challenge, and sets out how government must now re-double its efforts on levelling up.


  • 1 Data from Inrix suggests that for the South West of England, Wales and Scotland vehicle miles travelled were above their pre-lockdown peak by September.
  • 2 Cities with populations larger than 550,000.
  • 3 The likely move away from cash to card spending for health reasons will explain some of the increase in card payments for offline spending, but the size of this is not known.
  • 4 This assumes that the level of spending in February is representative of spending between March and October.
  • 5 Swinney, P. and Enenkel, K. (2020), Why big cities are crucial for levelling up, London: Centre for Cities