1. Transport
  2. Driving
April 15, 2016updated 23 Mar 2023 2:59pm

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

By Jonn Elledge

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.

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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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