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.

 
 
 
 

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