04How has mobility and transport changed?

Changes in people’s mobility behaviour indicate that the above economic factors are not caused by people wanting to stay at home, but by an aversion to city centres and public transport in particular. While, during the first lockdown, households nationally spent far more time at home than before the pandemic, Figure 9 demonstrates that people were, at various distances from home, spending far more time out of the house by October 2020 than they were in April.

Figure 9: Lockdown stay-at-home behaviours have since unwound in the Core Cities

Source: Locomizer

However, residents’ travel patterns changed. Specifically, public transport usage fell dramatically from the beginning of the first lockdown. Figure 10 shows that, in December 2020, the Core Cities’ public transport usage was at between 37 and 62 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Figure 10: Public transport usage has not recovered from the pandemic

Source: Google

This data on public transport contrasts with that on car usage. At the national level, both initially saw similar declines but this was followed by a recovery to pre-pandemic levels in car usage,  seen in both national and regional data.7

Most worryingly, this means air pollution returned to pre-pandemic levels and, in some Core Cities, surpassed it. For example, nitrogen dioxide levels across the Core Cities are shown in Figure 11 and indicate that air pollution remains a serious policy problem despite higher levels of working from home.

Figure 11: Nitrogen dioxide levels have returned to pre-pandemic levels

Source: Defra, CREA, 2020. Note: the scales for each figure are different as cities went into lockdown with different
baseline levels.
Note: Some data is missing for Liverpool due to a gap in data reported from monitoring stations.

What this means is that, while working from home may only be a temporary phenomenon, if it were to become permanent it would not solve urban policy problems such as congestion and pollution, and may them worse.

Box 3: Mobility and transport local authority data

The Google data on public transport usage is available by local authority. For the central authorities within the Core Cities, it indicates that the decline in public transport usage was even starker. For example, while public transport usage fell to 28 per cent of pre-pandemic levels across Manchester PUA in April, within Manchester the local authority it fell to 15 per cent. The recovery through to autumn was then less intensive for the central local authorities than for PUAs, reaching 47 per cent of the total in Manchester local authority compared to 64 per cent across the PUA, followed by a similar decline in the final months of 2020.

This appears to be a pattern similar to central London local authorities, where boroughs such as Southwark and Islington saw sharper falls in public transport usage than London as a whole. This may indicate the importance of city centre economies to the residents of central local authorities. If a large share of city centre workers before 2020 had resided near to their place of work and depended on public transport for their commute, then a shutdown and aversion towards city centres would disproportionately affect residents of the Core City local authorities.

This indicates that while public transport networks connect outlying local authorities with city centres, the connections they provide within the Core City local authorities between city centres and nearby neighbourhoods are just as important, if not more so. Getting city centre economies working again is crucial for the entire urban area, not just suburban commuters.


  • 7 Source: DfT. Data on local traffic levels is not available.