Crunching the numbers: how has Britain’s urban transport system changed over the last ten years?

Busy busy busy. Image: Getty.

Dramatic shifts are changing the face of transport and travel in city regions – and the new Number Crunch report from the Urban Transport Group reveals them.

There have been clear winners and losers in urban transport over the last ten years. Whatever people may say about the daily grind of rail commuting, rail’s USP of rapid access into congested urban centres has led to some staggering rates of growth – not just in London, but in the regions too.

For example, the latest figures show that more people now commute into central Birmingham by rail than car. But some stunning growth has occurred in other places too – with rail patronage soaring in a decade in places like Huddersfield (by 91 per cent), Coventry (by 143 per cent) and Newton-le- Willows (by 120 per cent).

If rail had a great decade, then the bus had another terrible one, haemorrhaging users like the body count in a Tarantino movie: one in 10 bus users have gone elsewhere in the Metropolitan areas just since 2009-10. Even Londoners started to drift away, despite the city having one of the best bus services in the world – although, to be fair, that patronage decline is after many years of rapid growth.

It would take a separate article to go into all the potential reasons why buses are not feeling the love from the public – but one of them could be related to the big winner on the roads over the last decade. That’s the taxi or, to be more precise, the Private Hire Vehicle (PHV). PHVs are up 41 per cent across the country in the last decade, with a doubling in London, which amazingly, now has one PHV for every 100 people.

So that’s the last 10 years in a nutshell. But what has changed more recently? The picture is less clear: goodbye big trends, hello uncertainty.


The most recent statistics show a softening of demand on rail in general and for public transport across the piece in some places – including London. This could be a blip; it could be the economy; it could prove to be differential (with a following policy wind there must be more potential for rail to eat into the car’s high current market share in many parts of the country).

There is also evidence to suggest that the impacts of transformative technological and social change are beginning to kick in – and at scale. The runaway growth in PHV numbers is a symptom of the first wave of change to crash over cities – that is, Uber and their ilk. Dockless bikes was the second. Who knows what will result from the next time a bottomless pit of venture capital and new tech make beautiful music together to create a focussed and ‘sticky’ consumer offer?

And although rail has enjoyed a decade of success, perhaps that too is changing because more people would rather not grumpily cram on an expensive train when they can work from the comfort of their own home or better still, work less. This could be a factor in why National Rail season ticket sales are slumping or why on some urban transit systems they are holding up – but people are making less trips with them.

These patterns are also backed up by the wonderful institution that is the National Travel Survey (the ‘shipping forecast’ of transport planning). The latest survey shows that people have been making less trips every year since the seventies with trips for commuting, leisure and shopping currently going down fast.

There are further trends going on out there, beyond just transport, but that have the potential to dramatically affect it. The number of over 75s in the city regions is expected to grow by 80 per cent by 2039 – from 1.3m to 2.4m people. And whilst everyone is all over the research that shows young people are increasingly immune to the lure of the driving licence, less well known is that the growth in drivers licences among older people (particularly women) is more than cancelling out the impact of the increasing numbers of millennial motoring refuseniks.

The growth in numbers of older people of course has implications for concessionary travel and the accessibility of public transport. But it would be a big mistake to assume all older people are as portrayed by their symbol on the UK’s roads signs. Many are more active than those still stuck behind a desk, and are as equally unenthusiastic about bus travel: the use of the free older concessionary bus pass is going down.

The Urban Transport Group brings together the public sector transport authorities for the UK’s largest urban areas. We are working with our members – the UK’s largest public sector city region transport authorities – to drill down into all the factors that are behind long-term and more recent patronage change.

But if you want to challenge our analysis so far, and perform your own number crunch, visit our online, interactive Data Hub, where you can take the raw data, set your own parameters and turn this into the charts and graphics you want. All in seconds, and all for free.

Jonathan Bray is director at the Urban Transport Group. You can read the full report here.

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.


In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.