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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.