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Transport / Mass transit

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

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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