Oh, great: young people face longer commutes for less pay

Commuters at Clapham Junction station. Image: Getty.

The Office of National Statistics serves to uplift and depress analysts like me in equal measure. This week it served up the latter, with new figures showing that the number of people commuting for more than an hour to get into work has increased by almost a third (31 per cent) since 2011.

Longer commutes are good news for podcast makers – and for avid readers of Resolution Foundation reports – but bad news for everyone else. So on balance it’s something we should be concerned about. After all, commuting carries time and financial costs, along with wider effects on congestion and pollution. And for those with caring responsibilities, it can be a barrier to working at all.

Normally, commuting long distances is a trade-off for higher pay. Average commute times are about twice as high for those with incomes in top 25 per cent of the income distribution, compared to those in the bottom 25 per cent, once you control for control for age and cohort.

But while commute times have increased since 2011, pay has not. Real earnings remain below their 2011 level, both at the median and at the higher end of the distribution (which is likely where the longest commutes are). Commuting times have therefore increased faster than pay.

Unfortunately, we know this one sided trade-off of longer commutes without the resulting pay bonus is particularly true for young people. Our Intergenerational Commission found that millennials are on track to spend 64 more hours commuting in the year they turn 40 than the baby boomers did at that age. And yet their earnings are no higher than the generation born 15 years earlier at the same age.

Mean travel to work time in minutes by different generations.

So why are we commuting more? The housing market is likely to be a culprit. Many places with the best paying jobs are also those where housing supply is most constrained. This seems to be affecting renters and owners alike; our research finds that those in different tenures have similar commuting patterns.

The trend towards longer commutes may be happening at the expense of geographic mobility, too. Regional job-to-job moves have fallen since the early 2000s. This decline in mobility has implications for wages: the typical worker would have been £2,000 better off moving region and job, compared to staying with the same employer.

Beyond the overall increase in commute times, the other key takeaway is the gender imbalance in commuting. Men, unsurprisingly, are more likely to have long commutes. In one sense, this is a shame for men (though the extra time to read our reports is a silver lining).

But because commuting is a way of accessing higher paying jobs, it is more usefully interpreted as a way in which gender imbalances in caring responsibilities feed into a gender pay gap. The IFS has showed that a gender ‘commuting gap’ opens in the years after the birth of a first child, much as the pay gap does. They note that if women face more limited job choices due to caring responsibilities, they may lose access to higher paying jobs.


Proportion of commutes of different length undertaken by men and women in the UK, October-December 2017.

Commuting is a subject that is guaranteed to enrage people. But today’s figures show that commuter trends are even more important than rail rage and traffic jams: they provide an insight into where, and how, we work and live.

Longer commutes may be a sign that something is wrong with our housing market. And while many of us crave shorter commutes, for some groups, this can be a driver of labour market disadvantage too.

Nye Cominetti is a policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation.


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.