Why does Britain find it so much easier to build transport between cities than within them?

Sheffield SuperTram. Image: Rept0n1x/Wikimedia Commons.

A few quick thoughts on a mystery, of sorts, I’ve been pondering for some time.

We know that, by European standards at least, most British cities have pretty poor public transport. We have good reasons for suspecting, at least, that this might be one reason why our big cities under-perform many of their continental peers.

And there’s evidence, too, that – if the point of investing in public transport is to improve city economies – you’re better off improving links within cities than between them. I’ve written about that before, but the basic argument is pretty intuitive. The reason poor transport is an economic problem is that it makes it difficult to get people from houses in the suburbs to jobs in the centre. Making it slightly easier to get from one city centre to another is a fat lot of use if people can’t get there in the first place.

And yet, time and time again, this latter is the problem that Britain’s Department for Transport seems most concerned with solving. The two big non-London projects on the table in recent years have been:

1) High Speed 2, a new north-south rail line which will improve travel times between other major cities and the capital, and so is a dubious candidate for the label “non-London project”;

2) High Speed 3/Northern Powerhouse Rail/Crossrail for the North, which will improve links between the cities of the M62 corridor, but won’t do much for the vast numbers of people within them who don’t live that close to a station.

Neither of these projects seems likely to solve the problem identified above. So what gives?

Pat of the problem, one suspects, is austerity. Budgets have been cut, and capital budgets most of all – so to be one of the lucky few to make it through the net major investment projects have to work very hard to justify the cost.

The easiest way to do that is to benefit a lot of people. In London, that’s easy, because there are a lot of people living or working in a very small space. In the rest of the country, though, it’s harder. A full-scale Leeds Metro network would serve, even in the most generous interpretations, a population of around 1m people. Building one, then, would mean spending an awful large chunk of the transport budget on a tiny share of the population.


There’s more. If the government were to pour significant cash into a full-scale metro network for Leeds, it is, let’s be charitable, unlikely that this would be received in Liverpool and Newcastle and Sheffield as a welcome investment in the wider north. Not unreasonably, residents of those cities would instead treat it as nothing much to do with them, and instead demand their own. Budgets being what they are, government is unlikely to deliver. So that shiny new Leeds Metro just annoyed far more people than it pleased.

Crossrail for the North, though, avoids both these problems. It’ll improve connections between cities with a combined population of perhaps 10m people: a whole order of magnitude more than our Leeds metro, so looks much better on paper. It also, by serving Liverpool and Manchester and Bradford and Hull, means that more people will see it as an investment in their area, and will support the proposal rather than whining about it.

Result: more people feel ownership of the project; fewer people complain. In other words, we’re chucking money at the wrong things, because they look like more people will benefit, rather than because they actually will.

I don’t really see a way a solution to this in Whitehall. The Department for Transport is a national body: by definition it has to manage competing interests, and the result, inevitably, is jam-spreading.

This to me seems like a very good argument for stronger local government with the power to make its own investment decision. A Leeds City Regional transport authority could focus on building a metro for the Leeds City Region, without having to pay the slightest attention to the existence of Hull.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m missing something. If so, do let me know.

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

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Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.