Here’s why poor local transport is blighting prospects and lives

Buses on Manchester's Wilmslow Road. Image: Divy/Wikimedia Commons.

Every day millions of people rely on local public transport to complete their daily commutes to and from work. When it runs smoothly, we barely pause to think about it: it’s only when something goes wrong that we realise the huge impact transport has on our daily lives.

For decades politicians and policy makers have failed to adapt our transport network to meet the challenges posed by the changing geography of work. Our attention often has been on national, flagship projects between cities at the expense of local public transport within cities. This has resulted in a serious disconnect between where people live and the job opportunities that are available to them. This locks people out from being able to fully participate in the labour market.

Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield, working on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, spoke with out-of-work residents in four low-income neighbourhoods across Greater Manchester and the Leeds city regions.

Those residents consistently highlighted transport as constraining, rather than enabling, their ability to access work and achieve a better standard of living for themselves and their families. This was particularly true when the trade-off between the cost, reliability and speed of local public transport, and the prospect of low-wage, insecure work was considered.

“I’ve been offered a job and it was on the other side of Manchester and I did the bus journey to see how long it would take and it was too inadequate… It was the opposite side of Manchester, like hour and a half, two hours on a bus, it wasn’t just one bus, it was two or three.”

-Female aged 35, Harpurhey, Manchester

Increasingly lower-skilled, manual work in sectors like manufacturing or warehousing is located in more peripheral locations on the outskirts of cities. This has broken the traditional connection between living close to city centres and the probability of increased job opportunities.

Workers who live close to city centres are now finding that the jobs available near to them do not necessarily meet their aspirations, skills or experience. And the transport links to job opportunities elsewhere are poor, meaning the choices available to them are restricted.

“I was talking to my advisor, there’s a place called Sherburn-in-Elmet and they have tons of work, big industrial estate but there’s no bus service, it’s about 13 miles away. I do not understand why they build a big estate where there’s no transport, that’s like tough, if you haven’t got a car you can’t have a job.”

-Male aged 49, Seacroft, Leeds

Those in peripheral locations – where much of our social housing stock is concentrated – fare little better. Poor links around the edge of towns and cities mean what should be a short journey ‘as the crow flies’ in reality is far longer. Often it requires a journey into the city centre and out again, increasing journey time and creating risk of missed connections.

Consequently, we are running the very real risk of creating new ‘cut-off commuter zones’, where people lack the confidence and ability to be able to travel long distances for work because they cannot consistently guarantee arriving on time. The highly competitive nature of the jobs available also means that any poor productivity caused by delays could result in a loss of hours, or being let go.

This comes at a time when the Department for Work & Pensions and Jobcentre Plus’ are expecting jobseekers to take work up to 90 minutes from where they live. We found that residents are more than willing to travel this sort of distance for work: in fact, some had direct experience of doing it in the past. It is therefore unacceptable that the main barrier people face to seizing job opportunities is poor access to public transport.

We can, and must, act to loosen the constraints that poor public transport is placing on people from low-income neighbourhoods.

As more powers are devolved to local leaders – through measures like the Bus Services Act – we have a responsibility to seize the opportunity to improve the availability, affordability and reliability of local public transport to make it easier for people to access employment.

Yet transport policy alone will not completely tackle the disconnect between where people live and where job opportunities are. This can be best achieved if national and local government take a more joined up approach to policy and economic development. We can reduce travel time and costs by simply ensuring new housing and employment developments are served by public transport.

Similarly, by integrating transport and employment policy we can better equip employment support providers to help clients understand their travel choices as part of their return to work.

Tackling the issue of disconnection has to be a priority. Only by seriously investing in, and redesigning, local public transport can we properly ensure it works for local people in the long-term. If we rise to this challenge we can build a more inclusive economy in which everyone can thrive, no matter where they live.

Brian Robson is Acting Head of Policy & Research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an independent organisation working to end poverty in the UK.



What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.