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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.