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Transport / Mass transit

Can poor public transport really explain Britain’s productivity problems?

In every developed economy in the world, cities tend to get more productive as they get more populous. But not in Britain.

All of the UK’s largest, non-capital cities except Bristol are less productive than would be expected for their size, and they are poorer than almost all similarly-sized European cities. This is a major problem, causing both Britain’s productivity deficit and its wide inter-regional inequality. For all the recent political attention lavished on towns, it is Britain’s cities that under-perform most.

In January, after analysing bus journey times in Birmingham, Tom Forth suggested on CityMetric that Britain’s urban weakness might be because of poor public transport: not enough people can get into city centres, where workers can be most productive, at rush hour within reasonable commute times.

To see if this theory worked for other cities, I calculated working populations for four under-performing British cities – Manchester, Glasgow, Sheffield and Newcastle – and the two cities among Britain’s 20 largest that, London-aside, have the highest productivity – Bristol and Edinburgh.

To do this I calculated rush-hour journey times from Lower Layer Super Output Areas (called data zones in Scotland), which typically contain about 1,500 residents, to city centre locations using Google Maps for a commute at 8am on a Monday morning.

Here’s what I found:

The study shows no match between cities’ ability to convert listed population into working population and their relative productivity. Newcastle, especially, and Glasgow can get a high percentage of their populations into their centres within 45 minutesm and yet are poorer than expected; while prosperous Bristol and Edinburgh are middling at converting listed population into working population.

The results do map onto the quality of the cities’ transport networks, though. Newcastle and Glasgow have major roads feeding into their city centres and the only two metro systems in the six cities, while Glasgow also has Britain’s largest suburban rail network outside London. Developed transport infrastructure, whether public transport or roads, appears crucial in converting listed population into working population.

Both in Britain and elsewhere, effective transport alone is insufficient for high urban productivity. In France, where size does tend towards productivity, cities that under-perform, such as Marseille, Lille and Montpellier, do so despite well-developed transport infrastructure.

Indeed, very few European cities with listed populations above 500,000 lack public transport infrastructure as good as or better than Newcastle and Glasgow. We can extrapolate that other countries are much better than Britain at getting listed populations into city centres. Britain is uniquely bad at this; just as it is uniquely bad at achieving high productivity in its larger cities.


Britain is the only developed country placing de facto ceilings on working populations of its major urban areas. This forces economic activity into smaller pockets where more productive work is less likely to occur, and makes  the high productivity associated with high urban populations elsewhere nigh on impossible for larger, non-London, British cities.

Processes related to high urban productivity are happening in some bigger British cities. Manchester has a growing population, especially of young people and graduates in more central areas, where economic activity is increasingly concentrated. Productivity is rising and employment has grown more since 2010 than in any city outside London.

Yet it still under-performs its listed population. The failure to convert listed population into working population likely holds it back. Successful conversion may not be enough alone to create high urban productivity, but it is still a necessary condition for it.

Inevitably smaller urban areas will perform best when population cannot lead to productivity. Only relatively modest population sizes allow Bristol and Edinburgh to overcome their poor transport infrastructures.

Just as transport technologies such as canals and the railway characterised the industrial economy and the container ship facilitated its global spread, the current knowledge economy is the era of rapid, mass-transit, urban transport networks. Britain has failed to adapt to this era and its great cities – the engines of the industrial era – are being left behind.

Andrew Brook is a policy researcher and writer. He tweets @andrew_brook_ .
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