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.

 
 
 
 

How collecting food waste could slow climate change – and save us money

Cleaning up. Image: Getty.

Food waste is a global problem, and one that’s driving climate change. Here in the UK, the country’s biodegradable waste goes to a landfill, where it breaks down to produce methane, a gas that is roughly 30 times as bad as carbon dioxide.

And yet there’s a simple solution. With the exception of garden waste, which often contains lignin from woody matter, all biodegradable materials, including much of our food waste, could instead be processed in anaerobic digesters. This decomposition in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen produces biogas, which can then be used to generate heat and electricity.

This is more or less the same process that takes place in landfill sites, except that the biogas can’t escape from an anaerobic digester as it can from landfill – meaning the breakdown of the organic matter takes place in an environment that is enclosed and controlled.

The result is biogas consisting of 60 per cent methane and 40 per cent carbon dioxide, which can be burnt in order to generate heat or used as a fuel for vehicles. It could also be used to generate electricity after the biogas has been scrubbed, which can then either power the anaerobic digester or be exported to the national grid. The process also produces digestate, a solid and liquid residue that can be returned to farmland as a soil conditioner. The amount of biogas and the quality of digestate varies according to what feedstock is used in the digester.

This process is already widely used both across Europe – particularly in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Austria – and elsewhere globally, particularly in India and Thailand. What's more, this move towards separate food waste collection is already happening in countries outside the UK, and its momentum is increasing according to the World Biogas Association. Already, major cities, including New York, Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Auckland, San Francisco, Mexico City and many others are regularly collecting food waste from their citizens. The decisions to do so are usually taken at city level, but enabling legislation from national governments assist in this.


At present the UK is lagging behind. Only 109 local authorities in England, about 33 per cent of the total number, collect food waste as of May 2018, according to the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA). Yet making a separate food waste collection mandatory across the UK and running the food waste through anaerobic digesters, could supply enough biogas to generate 36 per cent of UK electricity, according to a 2007 Friends of the Earth report. This percentage could be increased again if food waste from restaurants, cafeteria and retailers was also collected. 

ADBA’s research also suggests that universal separate household food waste collections would trigger the construction of around 80 new anaerobic digester plants for food waste processing. This would add an extra 187 megawatts equivalent (MWe) of capacity, powering 285,000 extra homes – representing all the homes in a city the size of Glasgow. Data from WRAP suggests that further food waste collection from businesses would add around a further 10 per cent, depending on the quality of the feedstock collected and what exemptions were applied (for example, it might only apply to businesses collecting more than 50 kilograms per week or the lower threshold of 5kg).

A 38 per cent improvement in food waste collection from flats in Ealing alone could generate £26,000 of annual savings for the London borough, £28,000 in revenue for a local anaerobic digester (based on electricity sales to the national grid) and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions of around 270 tonnes, found Londoners Lab, a collaborative project consisting of Greater London Authority, University College London, Ferrovial Services Centre of Excellence for Cities and Future Cities Catapult.

ADBA has been campaigning on this issue for a while, but the good news is that the government finally signalled its intention to introduce separate food waste collections in its forthcoming Resources & Waste Strategy, which will ensure that all homes and suitable businesses in England will have access to food waste collections by 2023. The next step, following the government announcement, is a consultation, but it is widely acknowledged that additional funding would be needed by local authorities to achieve this, as the business case isn’t currently strong enough.