The national economy is clustered in cities and large towns — 60 per cent of jobs are located in Britain’s cities and large towns, even though they account for only 9 per cent of land. This is especially the case in city centres. Covering less than 0.1 per cent of the UK, 14 per cent of all jobs, and 25 per cent of the most productive jobs – engineering, legal, financial and technology services – are clustered in city centres.1 These dense, central locations are the perfect place for high-skilled businesses, especially in services sectors.

As the UK economy continues to specialise in more high-skilled activities, the demand for a city-centre location amongst businesses is likely to grow. Some city centres already offer businesses the benefits of a qualified workforce and dense business environment. But other city centres are lagging behind. They are less attractive to business and as a result have few high-skilled jobs, with implications for job opportunities and pay rates for people who live within commutable distance of them.

An efficient transport system facilitates access to workers from across the city and beyond. Where daily intra-city journeys by millions of commuters are held up by congestion, time is lost, and places become less productive.

Demands for greater transport investment are always at the top of the political agenda. But the focus of transport policy is usually on national and inter-city schemes with large price tags and drastic journey-time reductions. High Speed 2 now has a budget of £88 billion, and Northern Powerhouse Rail will require

£39 billion to improve regional inter-city links between major centres. Much less attention is given to supporting schemes within cities that would improve commutes to city centres.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was established in 2016 with a view to addressing ‘the UK’s long-term productivity problem’. It identified poor intra-city links from suburbs to city centres as a barrier to growth.

The NIC has called for £31 billion in investment in major new transport infrastructure in priority cities by 2040 to boost national productivity, as well as an extra £12 billion on top of planned levels of funding to invest in smaller transport improvements in all cities.2

But not all cities face similar transport barriers to growth. This report uses data compiled by the NIC to set out where funding in new transport infrastructure will have the greatest positive impact on improving access to the city centre and on the economy.

Box 1: The wider benefits of better transport

This report is focused on how transport can facilitate strong, growing city centres by efficiently linking workers with jobs.

However, getting people to work is just one of the roles transport plays in a city. Good transport has multiple positive outcomes for people and communities. As well as connecting people to job opportunities, transport policy should also aim to lower carbon emissions, reduce air pollution, encourage a more-active population, and improve access to health and education services for all.

While these objectives are outside the scope of this report, the recommendations given should, indirectly, strengthen cities’ abilities to pursue these objectives.

For more on these wider goals, see previous Centre for Cities’ reports:

  • Access all areas: Linking people to jobs (2011)
  • Delivering Change: Making transport work for cities (2014)
  • How can UK cities clean up the air we breathe: Lessons from cities taking action to reduce roadside emissions (2018)


  • 1 McDonald R and Swinney P (2019) ‘City centres: past present and future’, London: Centre for Cities
  • 2 National Infrastructure Commission (2018) National Infrastructure Investment