Transport: are you being served?

3rd April 2024


The UK’s major cities lag well behind their European counterparts in terms of public transport use. Linking development to transport routes might be the answer, argues Huw Morris

Cathie McCartan is a Sheffield business owner who relies on the bus to get to work. A visual impairment means she cannot drive but no services run during evening rush hours. This is forcing a dramatic change in her circumstances.

“There’s a 16.45 and then a two-hour gap and the 18.45, so it’s not there for the busy times,” she says. “I haven’t got the option to drive and I’m having to relocate my family home to get on the bus. And I only live two miles from a major city centre.”

There is more to her predicament than the disastrous state of bus services outside London since deregulation in the 1980s, condemned by the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University’s School of Law as “a masterclass in how not to run an essential public service”. Public transport use generally in the UK’s major cities outside the capital is far behind that of its European counterparts.

Number-crunching by Centre for Cities, a think-tank dedicated to improving the economies of the UK’s urban areas, highlights the yawning gap. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, 16% of people used public transport to get to work in Manchester, 22% in Newcastle and 18% in Birmingham, compared with 33% in Lyon, 40% in Hamburg and 44% in Munich.

For Liverpool to match Leipzig, a German city of similar size, there would need to be 33,000 fewer workers commuting to work using a car or taxi, a reduction of 20%, the think-tank points out.

For the UK to bridge that gap, 936,000 extra workers will need to use a bus, train or tram – doubling the number of regular commuters.

Europe also performs better on commuting times. According to the European Commission, before Covid-19 61.3% of employees in the 27 EU countries travelled less than 30 minutes from home to work. In comparison, 26.3% travelled 30 minutes or more, but less than one hour, while 8.1% of workers had a commuting time of 60 minutes or more. Only 4.3% did not need to travel to get to their main place of work.

In the UK, the average Londoner spends 80 minutes a day travelling to and from work, racking up around 27 hours a month of travel time, the worst in the country, according to the Office for National Statistics. Commuters in Cambridge, Chelmsford, Guildford, Luton and Huntingdon spend up to 19 hours a month.

Encouraging public transport

So what can be done to close the gap? Many have set tough targets to increase journeys made by public transport. London is aiming to reach 80% of trips made using public or active travel by 2041, while Manchester wants to achieve 50% by 2040. Glasgow aims to reduce car vehicle kilometres by 30% by 2030. Edinburgh has set a goal of net zero for transport by 2030 (see panel, left).

Two factors govern how many people can easily access a public transport network, according to Centre for Cities external affairs manager Caitlin Rollison. One is the distance covered by the public transport network, but she argues that “the missing piece of the puzzle” is how many people live within its catchment area, or “the density of residents around public transport stops”.

Rollison points to Glasgow, a city with a geographically large public transport network and third behind London and Birmingham in terms of the distance that can be covered in 30 minutes from the city centre. The city’s density – 17.7% of its residents live in areas with more than 6,000 residents per square kilometre – is lower than the UK urban average of 32.32%. However, despite an extensive public transport network, fewer people can access the centre than in cities with a smaller network but higher population density, such as Turin.

“Increasing the density around public transport stations, both existing and new, helps to maximise the number of people who can easily access the network,” she adds. “Passengers view time walking to stops, waiting or transferring as more onerous than riding a single mode of public transport; proximity to transport stops is a key factor in encouraging usage.

“The increased likelihood of congestion in higher density areas, caused by the greater volume of people to road space, also helps to make public transport the preferred mode of travel, particularly when effective public transport prioritisation measures such as bus lanes are in place.”

So how can cities recognise the role of density? Centre for Cities has a five-point plan (see right). Within this, Rollison points to joining up transport and housing, citing Lille in France where a combination of policies has raised public transport passenger numbers by 1,700 a day within seven years (see above).

“Cities should focus on density as a catalyst for more efficient transport networks and a key factor in the success of other policies aimed at increasing ridership,” says Rollison.



Edinburgh’s big question

City of Edinburgh Council’s transport and environment convener Scott Arthur is tackling a big question with far-reaching consequences. Is the local authority doing enough to deliver a safer, more accessible, and environmentally friendly city for future generations?

“If we are to reach net zero for transport by 2030, we need to act 12 times faster than we have over recent decades,” he says.

It’s a formidable task but he is heartened by public engagement exercises, which show that residents want changes to the way people move around the city.

“Whether it’s improving pavements to make it easier to get around on foot, expanding our cycle network for safer travel by bike or prioritising public transport, the appetite for cleaner transport is there,” Arthur argues.

The council is accelerating plans to open up the heart of Edinburgh to make it “truly people-friendly”. The Cowgate area will be closed to traffic in an experiment this summer.

The big ambition is to build a tram line between Granton and the BioQuarter and Edinburgh Royal Infirmary via the Western General and the city centre, which will go out for public consultation. The service would carry a million passengers a month and link key areas of growth and development to the city. This would in turn support local regeneration, boost economic growth and connect educational and cultural venues along the route.

Arthur knows that the scheme will involve tough decisions, but he says: “The choices we’ve made are our chance to show that Edinburgh is serious about the climate emergency.”



The Lille way to increase density

Lille Metropole links urban density to public transport through its Disque de Valorisation des Axes de Transport policy. The approach is applied in 500-metre zones to help identify potential sites for development around tram, metro and rapid bus stops.

An abandoned area around the suburban station of Armentières was redeveloped as an intermodal transport hub, with commercial and residential space and active travel infrastructure, in 2006.

Density increased to 39 residents per hectare, compared with 18 in the wider Lille Metropolitan Area. These changes, accompanied by the launch of intermodal ticketing and a daily fare cap, increased passenger numbers from 3,300 a day in 2005 to 5,000 a day by 2012.


Catching up with Europe

Drawing on London and overseas cities with high levels of public transport use, Centre for Cities suggests a five-point policy plan.

1) Develop the density of commercial property in city centres to concentrate jobs.

2) Improve residential density using local development orders to create new mid-rise developments near existing and new public transport stops.

3) Bring responsibilities for running a city’s public transport services together under one body, similar to Transport for London.

4) Where commercial partnerships are not working, consider using new bus franchising powers created by recent and upcoming legislation in England and Scotland to improve services, including integrated ticketing and daily fare caps.

5) Provide cities with transport-related revenue-raising powers, such as congestion charging or workplace parking levies, that provide cross-subsidies to fund investment in transport networks and make public transport journeys more attractive than travelling by car.


Further reading: IEMA - New IEMA Guidance: Environmental Assessment of Traffic and Movement - July 2023


Image credit: Shutterstock

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