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 other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

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Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.