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_ .

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.