How can Britain’s cities get commuters out of their cars?

Those were the days: a traffic jam on the Embankment during the General Strike of 1926. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

Last month the government published the first part of its clear air plan, with a particular focus on reducing roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations (a second instalment targeting zero emissions for all road vehicles is due next year).

The government’s pledge to ban all petrol and diesel cars by 2040 gained media headlines, but the plan also set out measures to address congestion pinch points on the roads, and to encourage greater use of public transport.

As such, the central issue for local government will be reducing car usage and its negative impact on air quality. But what is the relationship between car usage, other methods of transport and commuting patterns – and how does this play out across the country?

Analysis of the ONS data on distances and methods of transport chosen to travel to work in England and Wales shows that Milton Keynes is the car-use capital, with more than two thirds of commuters driving to work, reflecting the fact that the city was designed around car usage. Out of major cities (excluding London, which is an outlier because of its extensive public transport system), Birmingham has the highest car use, with 62 per cent of commuters driving to work. The lowest car commuting city is Brighton with only 39 per cent of commuters driving to work, 19 per cent using public transport and 23 per cent walking or cycling to work.

In trying to reduce car-use, targeting short journeys is likely to be more successful than longer ones. The ONS data shows that, in most cities, those commuting less than 5km distance still choose their car as their main method of transport. In Hull, for example, 54 per cent of people live less than 5km from their workplace, but 48 per cent of those take their car to go to work. In Cambridge, despite being the most popular place for cycling commuters, more than a third of those living in a 5 kilometres area still drive to work.

Looking even closer, it’s clear that only a very small share of commuters in cities who live 2km from their workplaces choose alternative forms of transport to driving. This trend is particularly strong in smaller cities such as Blackburn and Swansea, but is also an issue in major cities, where we might expect public transport provision to be more extensive. In Birmingham, for example, only 9 per cent of commuters living 2km away from work take public transport, while 44 per cent drive. In Bristol and Leeds, over a third of commuters in this group travel by car to work.

For most people, these distances could easily be walked or cycled, and in many cases using public transport would make their journeys faster. So how could cities begin to encourage people to make the switch from car use to alternatives for such short distances?

Improving public transport, by making it more attractive and reliable, is an obvious first step towards reducing private vehicle usage. In particular, targeting short car journeys that could easily be walked or cycled should be on top of the list for cities.

Introducing a congestion charge, modelled on London’s, should also be a consideration for the most congested cities. Not only would such a charge help to cut down car-use, it could also generate revenue to improve public transport, especially in less well-connected parts of cities (this was highlighted by the Centre as a priority for Greater Manchester’s mayor).

Of course different places will face different challenges. A clean air strategy in Cambridge, one of the most congested cities in the UK despite the popularity of cycling, won’t be the same as in Milton Keynes, where streets were built for expanding car usage. But it’s clear that for most cities, cutting down on car usage in the coming years and improving public transport should be important priorities.

Adeline Bailly is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.