Depressing news: In most British cities, public transport is becoming less, not more, important

Despite such enthusiasm for the Glasgow subway system, the city has seen a fall in public transport commuting. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

Last week, we pretended to ask which British city had the best public transport system. We say "pretended" because the answer's bloody obvious, isn't it – I mean, let's not kid ourselves – but nonetheless, the exercise gave us an excuse to look at the data for how many people in different parts of Britain commute by metro, rail or bus.

What we didn't do last week, though, was how these figures were changing.


The Centre for Cities' handy data tools also allow you to compare how many public transport commuters there were in each city at the time of the 2001 census, with the same figure from 10 years later.

So, that's this week's job. Spoiler alert:

1) London wins, yet again

2) Even ignoring that, the results are very, very depressing.

Let's look at the data. There are currently 63 cities in the Centre for Cities' database. We've ranked them by the change in the percentage of their workers using public transport to commute. (So, in Reading, in 2001, 14.05 per cent of commuters used public transport; in 2011 it was 15.27 per cent. So the final figure is 1.22 percentage points.)

This chart is the top 29:

The top 29. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Over the course of a whole decade, there are only three cities where that number increased by more than 3 per centage points. One is London; the others are London commuter towns, Crawley and Slough.

It's a pretty safe bet that the increase in those places is more likely to reflect higher numbers of people using trains to commute to London, rather than radical improvements in the Slough bus network.

In fact, if you look at the top 10...

The top 10. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

...with the single exception of Edinburgh, they're all clustered around London. The furthest away is Cambridge, which is not exactly a part of the northern powerhouse.

Public transport is not just better used (and therefore, we can assume, better) in and around London. It's also getting more so.

More depressing than that is the reason we made the slightly odd decision to stop the chart after the 29th ranked city. Why not round it off at 30?

Well, that's because the city in 30th place is Chatham (another London commuter town, albeit a slightly more depressed one). In Chatham, between 2001 and 2011, the proportion of people commuting by public transport, fell - only by 0.02 points, but a fall nonetheless. In the next 33 cities, it fell by even more.

The bottom 34. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

In other words, in the decade between the last two censuses, there were more British cities where the number of people commuting by public transport fell than where it rose. And the former group include several big hitters – Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield. Glasgow, with its subway and commuter rail network, saw the biggest fall of all (3.3 points).

Around here, we write a lot about public transport. But in the last decade, the reality for most British cities was that it was becoming less, not more, important.

Here's the complete map. Hover over any city to get the data.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.