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.

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.