“Transport is one of the supreme leveller uppers,” said the Prime Minister in his recent party conference speech. And few would disagree. A lack of public transport infrastructure is often identified by commentators and politicians as the main cause of regional inequality.
Centre for Cities’ work has shown that the biggest challenge for levelling up is to get Britain’s largest cities outside of London firing again. They trail far behind their Western European counterparts, and this underperformance costs the UK economy many billions of pounds each year. Again, the gulf in transport infrastructure is regularly cited as a key difference between the two groups, but there has been no systematic research to understand the impact of the difference.
This research, however, systematically compares the transport networks into the centre of the UK’s biggest cities outside London with their equivalent in Western Europe (these networks see the highest demand for public transport). It finds:
- At peak times, compared with Europe, fewer people can get into the centre of Britain’s big cities, indicating that they are much smaller than their populations suggest. Commuting by public transport to city centres from the suburbs is easier and faster in Europe – on average, 67 per cent of people can do it in 30 minutes, compared with 40 per cent in Britain. This reduces the benefits on offer to businesses that locate here.
- The area covered by public transport networks in large British cities is not always smaller than those in big European cities. In five of the nine largest cities outside London, the area within a 30-minute commute is similar in size to their European peers.
- But in all of Britain’s big cities, fewer people live close to the centre, so it’s harder for public transport to accommodate large numbers of commuters. European cities have a much more mid-rise built form and apartment living is more common, so a greater number of people reside close to public transport. British cities’ reliance on terraced and semi-detached housing has had the opposite effect, reducing commuting by public transport and the efficiency of the networks.
- This decrease in the ‘effective size’ of big cities is estimated to cost the UK economy £23.1 billion each year. By reducing the size of the labour market for businesses, as well as workers’ access to high-paying, high-productivity jobs and activity in city centres, poor public transport accessibility in big cities diminishes agglomeration effects and, by extension, productivity and economic performance. For instance, Rome and Manchester are the same size but Rome is 55 per cent more productive, partly because a much larger share of its workforce can travel into the city centre by public transport.
The nature of the urban form of cities is also likely to shape the transport options available. Greater densities increase demand for public transport, which makes tram or metro systems more viable. Without efforts to change the built form of big cities, expanding their public transport systems will not deliver European-style transport benefits. For example, Leeds and Marseille have a similar population, but 87 per cent of people can reach the centre of Marseille in 30 minutes by public transport, compared with 38 per cent in Leeds. If Leeds had a similar-sized network to Marseille, only 61 per cent of its population would be 30 minutes from the city centre – it cannot close the gap without changes to its built form.
Levelling up public transport, and enabling big cities to achieve their potential, depends on supply-side solutions that expand these transport networks. This makes the allocation of £5.7 billion in transport infrastructure spending to large city regions, and £1.2 billion additional funding to improve bus services in last month’s Budget very welcome.
But to get the biggest bang for the buck, investment in transport infrastructure must be accompanied with more development around stations. This demand-side solution would make it easier to live near, and use, public transport by changing the built form of all big cities. Levelling up, as well as value for money and the environmental and social benefits that come with better public transport, can be achieved by national and local government focusing on the following alongside public transport improvements:
- Local Development Orders (LDOs) to shift big cities’ urban form from low-rise to mid-rise. Local authorities in England can already use LDOs to plan mid-rise housing near existing and new public transport, and set the density and height as well as developer contributions. The Government should make new public transport infrastructure in big cities conditional on increased use of LDOs by local authorities.
- Planning reforms to make redevelopment near public transport easier and more certain. The current discretionary planning system makes redevelopment in existing urban areas impossible at scale, and public transport outcomes worse. Reforms, such as the ‘Renewal areas’ in the Planning White Paper, the ‘street votes’ proposal from the Yimby Alliance and Policy Exchange, and releasing land around train stations in the green belt, would all provide more homes while making the best use of existing public transport infrastructure. 1 2
- Mayors should franchise their bus networks. This would help cities take control of their bus networks and run them for the good of the wider urban economy. The Government should extend the window of time and the ability of places to sign up for bus franchising to help complete this shift.