02Why public transport connectivity matters

Transport, both private and public, is critical urban infrastructure.  It allows residents to access jobs, essential services, and leisure. A well-functioning transport network will contribute to sustainable economic growth in the following ways:

  • Promoting economic and productivity growth: better connectivity boosts productivity by matching workers to jobs and jobs to workers (i.e. agglomeration benefits). A city needs a good transport system (private and public) to maximise the size of its labour market.
  • Increasing gains for workers: a comprehensive transport network that increases the job pool available for workers will increase their ability to access different jobs and find a better match to their skills.

Public transport is particularly important to promote the benefits above in two situations. The first is when congestion reduces the flow of private vehicles. The second is when large shares of people do not own a car. One in five households do not own a car in Wales, and this is higher for the unemployed.5

In addition, public transport has benefits associated with the environment and health. A good quality public transport network takes cars off the road, reducing air pollution. Human-made air pollution contributes to 28,000-36,000 deaths every year in the UK; and costs billions of pounds for the NHS and social care.6 Furthermore, this impacts economic outcomes: air pollution causes over six million sick days a year in the UK.7

The relative attractiveness of public and private transport is underpinned by how dense a place is. In rural areas, where people are spread out, providing frequent and fast public transport services that link these people to the destinations they want to go to is incredibly difficult. As an area becomes more densely populated, with more people living around any particular transport stop, this increases how accessible public transport is and the number of potential customers it can serve. For this reason, both public transport services and ridership are much higher in dense cities than they are in deep rural areas. And it means that the functioning of the public transport network takes on a greater significance in cities, even in a post -pandemic world (see Box 2).

Box 2: Hybrid work has not solved these problems: post-pandemic cities remain congested and have poor air quality

Evidence shows that post-pandemic patterns did not massively change in terms of congestion and air quality in UK cities. According to INRIX, the number of hours lost in congestion in 2022 was relatively close to the pre-pandemic level in most major British cities (with London already more congested than in 2019).8 In Cardiff – the most congested city in Wales – congestion levels were 30 per cent lower in 2022 than in 2019. This is a significant decline but the Welsh drivers still lost, on average, 60 hours a year due to congestion, one of the highest levels in the UK.9

Similar evidence is found in terms of air quality in Welsh cities. After a sharp improvement in air quality (PM2.5 concentration) in 2020 – driven by lockdowns and other pandemic-related restrictions – it has been deteriorating in the subsequent years.10

Therefore, providing good quality public transport (and reducing driving) remains important in a post-pandemic world where hybrid work has become more popular.11 At the same time, lower demand for public transport due to hybrid work put additional pressure on public transport’s financial viability. This can lead either to fewer public transport services, which has further implications around air quality and carbon emissions, or to additional revenue support to maintain the existing network. Welsh policymakers need to consider these trade-offs in order to meet their policy targets around public transport use.