More people are cycling in Britain’s major cities – except two

An exciting new form of bike being tested in Birmingham, 1935. It did not catch on. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Round here, we are broadly speaking in favour of making cities more liveable, and broadly speaking against filling them with horrible, choking, lifespan-cutting gases like Nitrogen Dioxide. So, on balance, we’re pro-cycling.

It’s reassuring, then, that between the last two censuses, the number of people commuting by bike climbed in most of Britain’s major cities. It’s less reassuring, however, that we’re starting from such a low-base – and also that we have to say “most”, rather than “all”.

But we’ll get to that: first, define your cities. There are 63 cities in the Centre for Cities database – but this includes such metropolises as Blackpool and Aldershot. To make the dataset more user-friendly, we’ve decided to create a new category of “major cities”: London; the 10 cities in the “Core Cities” group; plus the other two national capitals, Edinburgh and Belfast.

Here’s how the percentage of people commuting by bike in those 13 cities changed between the 2001 and 2011 censuses.

The first thing to note is how low the numbers here are: in every city, it’s a tiny minority of people who use pedal power to get to work. Boo.

Within that, though, there’s a pretty clear division between cities where the figures are low, and those where they are really low. In eight of them, they’re jostling around the 1-2 per cent mark. But four cities – Nottingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast - are rather higher (3-6 per cent, say) suggesting that they’re more cycling friendly.

Mathematicians among you will have noticed that’s only 12 cities. The 13th is London, which saw a quite significant increase between the two censuses. In 2001, just 2.3 per cent of Londoners cycled to work, placing it just above the low-cycling group; a decade later, that number had jumped to 3.6, putting it securely in the higher-cycling one. Those numbers are still small, and anecdote isn’t data of course, but experience of the capital’s streets suggests to me it will have climbed further in the mean time.

Another city has seen an even more marked increase, and from a higher starting point. That’s Bristol, right at the top of the chart, up from 3.9 to 6.1 per cent. It’s tempting to credit this to the London-ification of the city, as creative hipster types have been forced out of the capital by house prices – but since nearly 4 per cent of Bristolians were already cycling in 2001 it’s probably it’s just a relatively good city for cycling. Good for Bristol.


Anyway. The general story here is of steady increases: in 11 of the cities, more people commuted by bike in 2011 than a decade earlier. The trend is very clearly towards more cycling.

In the last two, however, that number has fallen. In Birmingham it’s fallen very slightly from 1.65 to 1.53 per cent; in Nottingham, very slightly more, from 3.58 to 3.27 per cent.

These are small changes, of course: the larger fall is of 0.3 per cent. Big woop. But it is striking that they go against a trend towards more cycling, and it’s not immediately obvious why that should be.

That said, the trend in the two cities does appear to be different. Over the same period, Nottingham has seen a slightly increase in the proportion of workers commuting by public transport (0.4 per cent) and a slightly bigger fall in those driving (1.25 per cent). So even though cycling numbers are slightly down, the trend is still towards a less car-based city.

My instinct was to credit all this to Nottingham’s tram network – but Bimingham also has one of those, and there things have gone, slightly, in the other direction. Car use is up (0.6 per cent); public transport use is down (0.3 per cent).

These are still, remember, tiny figures: proper margin of error stuff. But nonetheless, at a time when the trend is towards less car-based cities, even standing still looks bad.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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