“Birmingham isn’t a big city at peak times”: How poor public transport explains the UK’s productivity puzzle

A bus, in Birmingham. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

For a year now, the Open Data Institute Leeds has been tracking most of the buses and trams in the West Midlands, the UK city region centred on Birmingham. We do it by polling the live departure screens that you see at bus stops, even at stops where they aren’t installed.

So far we’ve recorded 40m bus departures, a total of 16GB of data. And we’ve written tools to explore it in seconds.

You can try for yourself here. You can see how long every bus took to connect any two bus stops anywhere in The West Midlands, and calculate averages over tens of thousands of bus journeys at specific times, to see how bus journey times change over the course of a typical day.

But why?

The agglomeration effect

We’ve mostly done this work because of the following graph.

Click to expand.

Many economists argue that larger cities are more productive than smaller cities, and become ever more productive as they grow due to something called “agglomeration benefits”.

There are many other factors that contribute to productivity, but this simple law seems to hold well in economies like the USA, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. For example, Lyon, the second largest city in France, is more productive than Marseille, the third largest city, which is in turn more productive than Lille.

Almost uniquely among large developed countries, this pattern does not hold in the UK. The UK’s large cities see no significant benefit to productivity from size, especially when we exclude the capital.

The result is that our biggest non-capital cities, Manchester and Birmingham, are significantly less productive than almost all similar-sized cities in Europe, and less productive than much smaller cities such as Edinburgh, Oxford, and Bristol.

Public transport and city size

One notable difference between the UK’s large cities and those in similar countries is how little public transport infrastructure they have.

While France’s second, third, and fourth cities have eight Metro lines between them (four in Lyon, two each in Marseille and Lille), the UK’s equivalents have none.

Manchester and Lyon have similar-sized tramway systems, with about 100 stations each; but Marseille (3 lines) and Lille (2 lines) have substantially more than Birmingham (1 line) and Leeds (0 lines).

Is it possible that poor public transport in the UK’s large cities makes their effective size smaller, and thus sacrifices the agglomeration benefits we would expect from their population?

Our Real Journey Time data lets us ask this question.

Real journey time, and journey time variability

There is an important difference between bus public transport and fixed infrastructure public transport: reliability. I have used our Real Journey Time tool to calculate the worst-case (95th percentile) journey time on public transport on two routes into Birmingham. This is the time that a public transport user must leave for their journey to ensure that they are only late for work or a meeting once a month.

The first journey is a bus from the south of the city, Stirchley to, Birmingham. This 3.5 mile journey takes about 20 minutes between 6am and 7am, and about 40 minutes between 8am and 9am.

The second journey is a tram from West Bromwich to Birmingham. This 8.5 mile journey takes 30 minutes regardless of when it is taken, as the tram route is almost completely segregated from traffic.

Click to expand.

While the tram is substantially quicker at all times than the bus, the reliability of its timing, even during the most congested periods, provides an additional large benefit to users.

We think that people generate the most agglomeration benefits for a city when they travel at peak times, to get to and from work, meetings, and social events. Our tool shows us that, at the times when people need to travel in order to generate these benefits, buses are extremely slow. And since buses are by far the largest mode of public transport in Birmingham, this is likely to have significantly higher impact there than in Lyon; in the latter, the largest mode of public transport is the metro, which delivers reliable journey times no matter the time of day.

Our hypothesis is that Birmingham’s reliance on buses makes its effective population much smaller than its real population. This reduces its productivity by sacrificing agglomeration benefits. For the past six months, using our Real Journey Time tool, we’ve worked with The Productivity Insights Network to quantify that.


At peak times, Birmingham is a small city

The technique is quite simple. We pick 30 minutes as the travel time by bus that marks the boundary of the Birmingham agglomeration. This doesn’t include walking at either end of a journey, or waiting time, so this figure may well mean a 50 minute total journey.

We then use our real journey time to examine how far from central Birmingham that allowed journey time would let a person live.

For example, by examining six months of journeys on the buses, we calculate that, at off-peak times a person five miles from Birmingham in West Bromwich is part of the Birmingham agglomeration. At peak times, this is no longer the case and the outer boundary of the Birmingham agglomeration is reduced in size to just 3.5 miles away in Smethwick.

Making use of our data on trams, we can also imagine a Birmingham where major bus routes are replaced by trams and enjoy fast and reliable journey durations, even at peak times. The agglomeration then includes people as far away as Bilston, 9 miles away.

By repeating this process for bus route into Birmingham from every direction, we create a boundary of the effective size of Birmingham at different times of the day. By summing the population living within each boundary, we calculate the real size of Birmingham under three conditions: by bus at peak time, by bus at off-peak time, and in an imaginary future where all buses travelled as quickly and reliably as trams (simulated tram).

At this point you might see why we picked 30 minutes as our travel time. Allowing 30 minutes of travel time using fixed infrastructure such as a tram gives Birmingham a population of about 1.7 million people, which is very close to its population as defined by the OECD of about 1.9 million.

But at peak time Birmingham’s effective population is just 0.9m – less than half the population that the OECD use.

Birmingham’s effective size might explain most of its productivity gap

This is where things get very interesting. If we consider that Birmingham has a population of 1.9m, and we assume that agglomeration benefits should work in the UK to the same extent that they work in France, Birmingham has a 33 per cent productivity shortfall. This underperformance of the UK’s large cities is part of the productivity puzzle that UK economists have been desperately trying to solve.

But once you understand that Birmingham’s real size is much smaller, below 1m people, the productivity shortfall reduces to just 9 per cent and is no longer significant.

Click to expand.

Our hypothesis is that, by relying on buses that get caught in congestion at peak times for public transport, Birmingham sacrifices significant size and thus agglomeration benefits to cities like Lyon, which rely on trams and metros. This is based on our calculations that a whole-city tramway system for Birmingham would deliver an effective size roughly equal to the OECD-defined population.

This difference seems to explain a significant proportion of the productivity gap between UK large cities and their European equivalents.

So what should we do?

The good news is that Birmingham’s current plans for transport investment are aimed at increasing its effective size at peak times.

  • Using our Real Journey Time tool, TfWM are targeting investment in bus lanes and bus priority measures to improve journey speed and journey reliability on existing bus routes.
  • Seven sprint bus routes are being planned, with bus priority measures hopefully delivering journey time reliability similar to a tram.
  • Two tram extensions (to Wolverhampton Train station and Edgbaston) are under construction, with two more (to Dudley and Birmingham Airport) under study.
  • Station re-openings at places like Moseley and Kings Heath will offer reliable journeys by rail to new areas of the city.

The prize for achieving this is large. If bus journey times became as reliable at peak time as they are off peak, the effective population of Birmingham would increase from 0.9m to 1.3m. If we assume that agglomeration benefits in the UK are as significant as in France, this would lead to an increase in GDP/capita of 7 per cent.

Tom Forth is head of data at the Open Data Institute Leeds. This work was undertaken with Daniel Billingsley and Neil McClure.

 

 
 
 
 

Canada’s gay neighbourhoods are struggling. Can queer pop-ups plug the gap?

Vancouver. Image: Getty.

Queer life was highly visible in Western Canada last year. In May, Vancouver declared 2018 the “Year of the Queer,” celebrating decades of service that the city’s cultural organisations have provided for lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer and two-spirit (LGBTQ/2S) people across the region.

Yet 2018 also saw the loss of multiple queer venues and gay bars. While economic forces, such as rapacious gentrification are part of the story and struggle, our research shows that something creative and generative is happening in the city as well.

In the face of changing urban landscapes, economic hardships, and more straights moving into historically gay neighbourhoods, queer pop-ups — ephemeral gathering spaces whose impact lingers among revellers long after the night is over — now play a large role in the fight for LGBTQ/2S equality.

Scattered gay places became neighbourhoods

Queer life germinated in “scattered gay places” across cities in North America from the late 1800s to the Second World War. Inside cabarets, bars, theatres or outside in public parks, washrooms and city streets, queers found spaces which could hold and celebrate transgressive sexual connections while also providing respite from daily experiences of discrimination and social exclusion.

After the Second World War, scattered gay places congealed into permanent gay bars and residential “gaybourhoods” in a period anthropologist Kath Weston calls “the great gay migration.” Queer people flocked to urban centres and sexual subcultures flourished in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto.

The formation of queer community spaces has always been controversial. Cultural and legal backlashes marred early developments. A host of laws and regulations tried to suppress and contain homosexuality in North America by limiting its presence in the public sphere.

These measures resulted in frequent hostilities, police raids and violence. Queers congregated together not just to find love or community, but to protect themselves, to protect one another and to find refuge. Pride parades, now celebrated worldwide, commemorate these early turf wars.

Pop-ups revitalise queer spaces

Researchers have written a great deal on the cultural and political importance of gay districts in urban centres, and they have grappled with concerns that these areas, along with the establishments they house, are fading.

But innovative urban forms challenge arguments about the death and demise of queer spaces in the city. Our research suggests that queer pop-ups, or temporary cultural gathering spaces, cater to diverse and often marginalised queers.

Some gaybourhoods are dwindling in their residential concentration and gay bars are dropping like flies. But new queer place-making efforts are emerging.

Two of the authors at the queer pop-up in 2018 at East Side Studios in Vancouver. Ryan is on the far left, back row, Adriana is on the far right of the back row. Image: author provided.

Unlike gaybourhoods and gay bars, pop-ups are intentional in how they address persistent, intersectional forms of inequality. Queer pop-ups offer patrons a space to explore non-binary forms of gender and sexual identities, and especially a place to experience collective effervescence among queer people of colour, and femme lesbians.

Some pop-ups create environments that are explicitly trans-inclusive, consent-focused, and sex-positive. Pop-ups are not panaceas for queer life. Pop-ups can also be places where issues around socioeconomic status, gender identity and expression, and racial inequality are called out.

Yet these spaces directly and indirectly encourage dialogue on inequalities within the queer community, conversations that help produce safer spaces for marginalised queers to find each other and forge enduring queer consciousnesses.

Turf wars

Queer pop-ups show similar trajectories of infighting and compromise that the LGBT social movement encountered from the late 1970s through the early 2000s when trying to forge a collective consciousness, gain social visibility and win legal rights.

These turf wars, expressed as contests over space and inclusion, are generally sparked over three perennial concerns: privilege, race and gender. One interviewee, a 20-year-old self-identified queer, trans person of colour (QTPoC), who spoke about Vancouver’s gay district told us:

“I tend to avoid the gay bars on Davie [because] a lot of the gay bars there have now been taken over by cis-gender, heterosexual people. I’ve [also] heard from a lot of QTPoC friends that they are often uncomfortable going to gay bars on Davie, because it’s usually very dominated by cis-gender, white gay men.”

A 28-year-old white, cisgender, queer male found pop-ups more politically and culturally radical than gay bars. He put it this way:

“It’s very rare that we’ll ever have a conversation about politics [in gay bars]. It’s just about partying and things that we kind of see as very stereotypical portrayals of gay culture: like going out, dancing, drinking, fucking.”

Historically, gaybourhoods have served an important role in the fight for LGBT rights, but they have also developed to cater to a specific cis-gender, white, middle-class, male sensibility. One 30-year-old, white, trans DJ put it bluntly, “the mainstream scene is just not welcoming to trans people, in my experience,” adding that verbal transphobic harassment is common in the streets of Vancouver’s gaybourhood.

At Vancouver Pride this year we were reminded of this schism at a local pop-up event. “Gay men won’t come here, it’s too trashy,” shouted a white Australian lesbian playfully to friends over loud music. We were at Eastside Studios, a large warehouse turned into the newest collaborative queer venue in Vancouver.


The comment was striking because it highlights the visible bifurcation occurring in queer life and queer consumption in Vancouver. Many gay men tend to patronise businesses and events in the West End, Vancouver’s official gaybourhood; whereas, other members of the LGBTQ community are scattered across the city at events and venues that are far less permanent. Eastside Studios attempts to break through the homonormative bent some gay bars perpetuate. It is a space that generously houses some of the struggling pop up events who lost space to gentrification in Vancouver’s out of control rental market.

Historically, pop-ups arose as the first signs of urban sexual transgression. They continue to emerge as spatial innovations which nurture transgressive queer diversities that do not have space or representation in the gaybourhood. Weekly social media blasts via Facebook or Instagram and word-of-mouth dissemination play an important role in linking queers around the city to these events. Pop-ups take different tones and establish different vibes among patrons. Collectively, pop-ups highlight the many important projects local queers are undertaking to increase the plurality of what queer life looks like and how it is expressed.

Struggles for equality

Marriage is the leading story in many headlines these days, but queer struggles for equality were never only about relationship recognition or acceptance into the mainstream.

Queer struggles are also fights to resist oppressive normativity, to end racial inequality and white supremacy, to end sexualised violence, to reconcile generational traumas associated with colonialism.

Continuing these fights is perhaps what makes queer pop-ups unique. Organisers of these events are intentional and responsive to such concerns. They seek to create new worlds that soften the impact of inequalities, both in gaybourhoods and in other parts of Canadian cities as well.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives; they emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. Here an image from a Man Up pop-up event in Vancouver. Image: Shot by Steph/Facebook/The Conversation.

Many of these spaces are an opportunity for patrons to travel in a re-imagined world, even if only for the night. While not all pop-ups that appear survive, the ones that do matter, fundamentally, because they create spaces that resist heteronormative culture and homonormativity, address intersecting inequalities, assert and anchor queer cultural and political identities, and promote well-being for a wider portion of the community in ways that gaybourhoods used to and have always had the potential to.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives in ways that gaybourhoods and gay bars historically had. They emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. They allow patrons to dance and comfortably explore the implications of their gender and sexual identities around like-minded individuals. At times they are more than friendly social gatherings, becoming sites where the moral arch of the community is shaped through demonstrations on urgent issues impacting queer lives and the surrounding community.

Queer pop-ups are vibrant locations that work to push forward the unfinished projects of social justice first envisioned during gay liberation.

The Conversation

Ryan Stillwagon, Ph.D. Student, Sociology, University of British Columbia; Adriana Brodyn, Ph.D. Candidate, University of British Columbia; Amin Ghaziani, Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Sexuality and Urban Studies, University of British Columbia, and D. Kyle Sutherland, PhD Student, Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.