Can poor public transport really explain Britain’s productivity problems?

Look, no buses. Image: Getty.

In every developed economy in the world, cities tend to get more productive as they get more populous. But not in Britain.

All of the UK’s largest, non-capital cities except Bristol are less productive than would be expected for their size, and they are poorer than almost all similarly-sized European cities. This is a major problem, causing both Britain’s productivity deficit and its wide inter-regional inequality. For all the recent political attention lavished on towns, it is Britain’s cities that under-perform most.

In January, after analysing bus journey times in Birmingham, Tom Forth suggested on CityMetric that Britain’s urban weakness might be because of poor public transport: not enough people can get into city centres, where workers can be most productive, at rush hour within reasonable commute times.

To see if this theory worked for other cities, I calculated working populations for four under-performing British cities – Manchester, Glasgow, Sheffield and Newcastle – and the two cities among Britain’s 20 largest that, London-aside, have the highest productivity – Bristol and Edinburgh.

To do this I calculated rush-hour journey times from Lower Layer Super Output Areas (called data zones in Scotland), which typically contain about 1,500 residents, to city centre locations using Google Maps for a commute at 8am on a Monday morning.

Here’s what I found:

The study shows no match between cities’ ability to convert listed population into working population and their relative productivity. Newcastle, especially, and Glasgow can get a high percentage of their populations into their centres within 45 minutesm and yet are poorer than expected; while prosperous Bristol and Edinburgh are middling at converting listed population into working population.

The results do map onto the quality of the cities’ transport networks, though. Newcastle and Glasgow have major roads feeding into their city centres and the only two metro systems in the six cities, while Glasgow also has Britain’s largest suburban rail network outside London. Developed transport infrastructure, whether public transport or roads, appears crucial in converting listed population into working population.

Both in Britain and elsewhere, effective transport alone is insufficient for high urban productivity. In France, where size does tend towards productivity, cities that under-perform, such as Marseille, Lille and Montpellier, do so despite well-developed transport infrastructure.

Indeed, very few European cities with listed populations above 500,000 lack public transport infrastructure as good as or better than Newcastle and Glasgow. We can extrapolate that other countries are much better than Britain at getting listed populations into city centres. Britain is uniquely bad at this; just as it is uniquely bad at achieving high productivity in its larger cities.


Britain is the only developed country placing de facto ceilings on working populations of its major urban areas. This forces economic activity into smaller pockets where more productive work is less likely to occur, and makes  the high productivity associated with high urban populations elsewhere nigh on impossible for larger, non-London, British cities.

Processes related to high urban productivity are happening in some bigger British cities. Manchester has a growing population, especially of young people and graduates in more central areas, where economic activity is increasingly concentrated. Productivity is rising and employment has grown more since 2010 than in any city outside London.

Yet it still under-performs its listed population. The failure to convert listed population into working population likely holds it back. Successful conversion may not be enough alone to create high urban productivity, but it is still a necessary condition for it.

Inevitably smaller urban areas will perform best when population cannot lead to productivity. Only relatively modest population sizes allow Bristol and Edinburgh to overcome their poor transport infrastructures.

Just as transport technologies such as canals and the railway characterised the industrial economy and the container ship facilitated its global spread, the current knowledge economy is the era of rapid, mass-transit, urban transport networks. Britain has failed to adapt to this era and its great cities – the engines of the industrial era – are being left behind.

Andrew Brook is a policy researcher and writer. He tweets @andrew_brook_ .

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.