Those British cities which aren't car dependent all seem to be rich

TV presenter Jeremy Beadle taking part in a pro-cycling demonstration back in 1972. Clever man, Jeremy Beadle. Image: Evening Standard/Getty.

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

So last week in this space we looked at which British cities were most dependent on “private vehicles” – or cars, as those of us who aren’t statisticians call them – to get people to and from work. Quick précis for those who might have missed it: the ones that aren’t tended to be small and bike friendly (Oxford, Cambridge, York), or big with decent rail networks (London, Newcastle, Glasgow).

What we didn’t look at, though, is whether there’s any relationship between car use and the state of a city’s economy. That’s this week’s job – and as it turns out, there sort of is, but there also sort of isn’t, and oh look it’s complicated, okay?

To explain, here’s a scatter graph.


This one’s car usage plotted against GVA per worker, a measure of productivity.

You’d be hard press to call it a correlation. There are cities where everyone drives which are rich productive; there are others which aren’t.

But look at the left hand side of the graph. No British city where fewer than half of workers drive to work falls into the bottom third of the productivity league table. Every city where people have alternatives – whatever they are – is doing pretty well for itself.

Here’s another one. This time we’ve plotted car usage figures from the 2011 census against weekly wages the following year. The results aren’t really that surprising, since productivity is linked to wages, but nonetheless...


...oh look. Same thing again.

It would be very easy to over state this. We’re only looking at a handful of cities; correlation isn’t causation; and even if it is (which it isn’t), it’s not clear which way the causation runs. Maybe cities which are less dependent on cars are richer; maybe cities which are richer are better placed to invest in alternatives to sitting in traffic jams. These graphs can’t tell us.

But nonetheless, it does suggest some form of relationship between low car usage and economic growth.

And such a relationship would make quite good sense. Not everyone can, or can afford to, drive. So cities which you can get around by alternative methods – whether public transport, walking or cycling – will find it easier to match workers to jobs. That in turn should boost productivity – indeed, this is what that whoel Northern Powerhouse thing is ultimately about.

That doesn’t mean that, say, spending a fortune on a new metro network will magically turn a city into an economic powerhouse. But it does suggest that alternatives to driving will make that marginally more likely.

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Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).