04What needs to change to level up public transport

When addressing the transport challenges of levelling up, central and local governments need to improve public transport accessibility in big cities. It will require supply-side solutions to enhance and increase the amount of infrastructure and track in some cities, and demand-side approaches to ensure more users by changing the built form of all British big cities.

To improve connectivity, there are several priorities for central and local governments:

1. Expand public transport networks in big cities with congestion issues

A lack of public transport infrastructure is a problem for the economies of some big cities.19 Addressing this will not achieve levelling up by itself, but it will be part of the solution in areas where capacity is a bottleneck to city centre commuting.

  • The Government should invest in new transport infrastructure to help suburban commuters reach big city centres. The existing Transforming Cities Fund and the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements are very welcome first steps to address these issues, but there is still some way to go to reach the £31 billion of additional investment identified by the National Infrastructure Commission.17Additional funding should be available to these cities providing they meet the following conditions:

    • Cities should contribute a share of the costs locally so that risks are split between local and national government.
    • This local contribution includes revenues from a city centre congestion charge. If cities are serious about improving their transport networks, they need to make politically tough decisions locally to take ownership of the costs and rewards of public investment. Congestion charging supports public transport by providing funds to expand coverage, while discouraging driving.
  • Mayors should franchise their bus networks.21 Buses are an important mode of transport in UK big cities, partly due to the lack of alternative public transport infrastructure in many places. London has long benefited from local control of buses, and Greater Manchester will franchise its services from 2023. Other areas should pursue franchising too, and should be given longer to develop their franchising plans than the Bus Strategy currently allows.22

2. Make the most of existing local transport networks by shifting big cities from a low-rise to mid-rise built form

Any investment in new public transport must be accompanied by changes to the built environment of big cities to improve accessibility. UK cities are dominated by low-rise terraced and semi-detached housing. Moving towards a European model – which does not necessarily require high-density, high-rise housing – would have two direct benefits for public transport and levelling up.

Firstly, by allowing more people to live in areas with good transport networks, it would automatically increase the accessibility of existing systems without further investment, as well as the size, and effective size, of the city centre labour market.

However, such changes are almost impossible to pursue in the UK at scale, outside of pockets of very high density around transport link within cities, such as Wembley and Manchester city centre. As the discretionary planning system’s case-by-case approach makes redevelopment of existing urban areas risky, the supply of new housing is reduced. It is also concentrated in areas with the lowest political costs to local authorities, rather than those most suitable from an urban planning perspective.23

In contrast, European cities with rules-based zoning systems, such as those in France and Germany, are successfully pursuing densification along transport corridors with much greater ease because the systems are more predictable. For example, Lille, which is about the size of Newcastle, has special planning measures that set minimum density levels in areas next to existing tram stations (500-metre circles). Meanwhile, Bordeaux launched the ’50,000 housing’ project in 2010 to develop homes along existing transport links.24 This shows that historical legacies in the built-form of British and European cities are not the only reason for variations in their accessibility levels – European cities have institutions that make it easier to build a mid-rise urban form today.

Secondly, the built form of a city also influences the quality of the public transport network – a more mid-rise city can better support more extensive and frequent services. Without further changes to their built form, British cities will need significantly larger and more expensive networks than their European peers to achieve similar transport outcomes.

Changing this depends on moving from the current planning system’s discretionary design to a more rules-based approach.

  • Local government in England should use Local Development Orders (LDOs) to allow redevelopment of land near existing public transport.25 LDOs are a form of planning consent that differs from the usual process, as they are much more rules-based. Local authorities can attach conditions to LDOs to set height limits, density and developer contributions, among other things, and once applied to land, they significantly reduce risk for builders. By applying LDOs to brownfield and residential sites with good access to public transport, especially those near stations, local authorities would, over time, shift land from a low-rise to a mid-rise built form. This would improve public transport accessibility by making it easier for people to live nearby.Using LDOs to increase the total housing supply will become especially important with the new ‘urban uplift’ to the Standard Method for calculating housing need, which gives 20 urban local authorities, plus London, a 33 per cent increase in their housing targets. Many of these local authorities are currently under-bounded and will struggle to meet this new level without changes to their planning practices and the built form of their cities. The rules-based nature of LDOs can support cities by speeding up the construction process and helping to open up small sites for smaller developers.26
  • Central government should make public transport investments conditional on the use of LDOs by local authorities. Despite their benefits, LDOs are rarely used by local authorities. If central government does decide to invest in expanding public transport networks in big cities, it should aim to increase their use by tying transport capital funding for local authorities to their use. They should be applied to land near both new and existing stations, and be generous enough in their conditions to allow for redevelopment that improves accessibility across entire urban public transport networks.
  • Local authorities in England should release parts of the green belt next to stations for ‘button development’. Large parts of England’s railway infrastructure provide services to small settlements that cannot grow because of the green belt. If this land were made available for development by being allocated in local plans, Centre for Cities has calculated that between 795,000 and 994,000 homes could be built at suburban densities in walkable ‘buttons’ around stations, on lines leading into the centres of England’s four largest cities outside London.27 Not only would this provide many more new homes and help tackle the housing shortage, it would increase public transport accessibility into big cities by using existing infrastructure more efficiently and enabling more climate-friendly commuting.
  • The Government should press ahead with planning reform in England. Both the housing crisis and the lack of mid-rise homes in the UK emerge from the same systemic problem – the discretionary and case-by-case decision-making that forms part of the current planning process.28 Previous research from Centre for Cities has shown that the system does not promote redevelopment of existing urban land; large parts of suburban England and Wales are providing almost no new homes.29  The Renewal areas mentioned in the Planning White Paper, as well as the street votes proposal championed by the Yimby Alliance and Policy Exchange, would improve this greatly, and should be included in the forthcoming Planning Bill. 30 31


  • 19 Jeffrey S and Enenkel K (2020), Getting Moving, London: Centre for Cities
  • 20 Jeffrey S and Enenkel K (2020), Getting Moving, London: Centre for Cities. £5.7 billion for the following mayoral combined authorities: West Midlands; Greater Manchester; Liverpool City Region;; Tees Valley; West Yorkshire; Sheffield City Region; and the West of England around Bristol and Bath.
  • 21 Jeffrey S (2019), Delivering change: Improving urban bus services, London: Centre for Cities
  • 22 Harvey D (2021), Get on board: Why Mayors should choose bus franchising, London: Centre for Cities
  • 23 Breach A (2020), Planning for the Future: How flexible zoning will end the housing crisis, London: Centre for Cities
  • 24 JLL with support from Mott MacDonald (2021), City Region Connectivity: The role of transport infrastructure in driving regeneration and levelling up (2021), commissioned by London Property Alliance and Sheffield Property Association
  • 25 See ‘Local Development Orders Case study research and analysis (2019): Local Government Association: London’ at www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/
  • 26 Breach A (2021), A new planning algorithm requires a new planning system; Breach A (2020), No, landbanking does not cause the housing crisis – here’s why, Centre for Cities blog
  • 27 Estimates for Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle. See Cheshire, P and Buyuklieva B (2019), Homes on the right tracks, London: Centre for Cities
  • 28 See ’First Report – The future of the planning system in England’ at https://committees.parliament.uk/work/634/the-future-of-the-planning-system-in-england/publications/reports-responses/
  • 29 Breach, A and Magrini, E (2020), Sleepy Suburbs, London: Centre for Cities
  • 30 Hughes S and Southwood B, (2021), Strong Suburbs, Policy Exchange: London; Myers J, (2020), Fixing Urban Planning with Ostrom: Strategies for Existing Cities to Adopt Polycentric, Bottom-Up Regulation of Land Use, Mercatus Centre: Arlington VA
  • 31 Ministry Housing Communities and Local Government (2020), Planning for the Future: London