Anthony Breach is a Senior Analyst at Centre for Cities, where he leads on housing and planning.
Better public transport would be a wonderful thing. National and local government, as well as the metro mayors, all agree, and even the Prime Minister considers transport as “one of the supreme leveller-uppers”.
But where there is much less agreement is on exactly how to boost public transport in cities and towns across the North and Midlands of England.
Let’s forget about the environmental and social arguments for public transport for a moment, and instead just focus on the economics. Achieving value for money in urban transport requires not just running faster trains or building trams for the sake of it, but on maximising usage while ensuring commuters can still make free choices.
Unfortunately, in British cities outside London, public transport usage seems to be low because their residents lack choice. Centre for Cities has produced research showing that public transport accessibility is worse in large British cities than in similar Western European cities.
While 66 per cent of residents in European large urban areas can reach their own city centre by public transport in half an hour, only 40 per cent can in Britain. And in some cities the situation is even worse.
Take Manchester for example. Manchester has roughly two and a half million people, compared to just under two million in Hamburg. But our new Centre for Cities tool shows that in Hamburg, 800,000 residents, 44 per cent of the population, can reach the city centre in 30 minutes by public transport, while only 500,000 in Manchester can, just 20 per cent of the city’s population.
Part of this is that British cities do face a supply-side problem. Manchester’s public transport network covers a smaller area in 30 minutes than Hamburg’s. Some other large cities, such as Sheffield and Liverpool, also have smaller networks than peer European cities.
But crucially, all the large cities in England face demand-side problems too. There are fewer people available to ride public transport in every part of their 30-minute areas – 5,270 people per hectare in Manchester compared to 6,500 per hectare in Hamburg for example.
This pattern, common to big British cities, decreases demand for their public transport networks as there are fewer customers available for every mile of route or rail laid.
Why is the potential demand for public transport so much lower in British cities? The reason is their urban form. While in Hamburg and other Western European cities a ‘mid-rise’ urban form of four-to-six storeys is common across areas accessible to public transport, as Create Streets regularly point out, British cities are typified by a uniform, low-rise terraced and semi-detached built environment, even in neighbourhoods just outside the city centre.
In effect, the shape of residential areas in British cities forces people to live out of reach of public transport. That might not at first seem like a big problem. After all, 70 per cent of Manchester’s population can reach the city centre in 30 minutes by car, as 72 per cent can in Hamburg, and a majority of all of Manchester’s commuting is by car too.
But the problem isn’t just current commuting capacity, but future capacity. For Manchester’s city centre to continue to grow and provide more highly-paid, highly-skilled jobs for people who live in the rest of Manchester and in the towns outside it, it needs to be physically accessible with quick and convenient commutes, even if working from home remains a significant trend.
As motorists face terrible congestion in Manchester and other large cities due to their sheer size, their city centres need better public transport accessibility – and therefore, a more mid-rise urban form – for their local economies to keep growing.
A shift away from a low-rise built environment within the urban core of big cities and near stations is compatible with protecting the suburbs and the countryside in places out of reach of public transport – Hamburg and other large European cities enjoy English-style suburbs on their outskirts too.
But, if national and local government are to achieve value for money for the taxpayer from investment in extra public transport, there must be efforts to boost demand in neighbourhoods closer to city centres. Just laying more track without constructing more mid-rise buildings in cities will be hugely expensive and for minimal gain.
For national and local government, this means several things.
First, improvements to public transport must come with changes to the built environment – both around new and existing public transport. Too often, we have wasted money by building expensive new infrastructure while hardly adding any new buildings for residents and businesses to actually use.
Second, achieving this depends on ensuring planning better connects new homes to new infrastructure. Our current planning system does not make it at all easy to build new homes in the first place, let alone on small bespoke sites within urban areas. Local Development Orders (LDOs) are a handy planning tool that local authorities can use to make this easier, but at present they rarely use this power.
National government should continue to make the system more predictable through planning reform, and require councils to apply LDOs around stations if they want public transport investment.
And third, local authorities should release parts of the green belt next to stations for ‘button development’. Large sections of England’s railways provide services to small settlements that cannot grow because of the green belt.
If this land was allocated for new suburban development, Centre for Cities has calculated that between 1,700,000 and 2,100,000 suburban homes could be built in walkable ‘buttons’ around stations, on lines leading into the centres of England’s five largest cities, on less than two per cent of the green belt.
Public investment in urban transport needs to provide economic benefits not just for its customers, but also the wider public. More track in Britain’s cities needs to be paired with more, and slightly bigger, buildings. If city centre journeys remain stuck in a bottleneck, then not just local, but national economic growth will suffer.