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.

 
 
 
 

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