To achieve levelling up, the government needs a strategy to support improved productivity in cities. The future role and transport needs of cities may have changed in the wake of Covid-19. It is too soon to say what the long run consequences will be – however it is critical that this uncertainty does not lead to paralysis and inaction.
The future of demand for urban transport is uncertain, depending on how people and businesses adjust over time to trends such as increased flexible working and population shifts. An ambitious but realistic strategy would include adaptive plans, which work in a range of scenarios and can respond to future developments.
Getting cities moving
Urban transport networks allow people to make trips into and around cities. This is good for economic growth as people can access employment and businesses can locate in areas which give them access to a wide labour market, generating agglomeration benefits. It is also good for quality of life as people can access the things they need and want – shopping, healthcare and leisure.
Enabling more people to make more trips in cities is a good thing – trips support economic growth and quality of life – and this is what urban transport networks need to aim to do.
However, for the largest cities in England, congestion on urban transport networks is inhibiting these trips, even with the reduction in travel caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. This is expected to some degree as congestion is a sign of success – it demonstrates demand for trips within the city. And before the Covid-19 pandemic, a lack of capacity on some urban transport networks also inhibited trips.
The challenge for transport planners is to encourage more trips within cities – supporting the government’s levelling up aims – while ensuring carbon emissions targets in 2035 and 2050 are met and mitigating the other negative effects, like congestion, as far as possible. The urgency of tackling this means that uncertainty should be met with ambitious but adaptable plans that take account of possible changes in travel patterns, rather than doing nothing or continuing with existing plans.
The government has high ambitions for cities, as set out in its Levelling Up White Paper, and the Commission has welcomed some of the action government has already taken, such as the five year city region sustainable funding settlements. But without greater ambition on urban transport, the government’s plans will fall short of achieving its aims. This report sets out how the Commission intends to address this challenge and develop a strategy for government, in partnership with local authorities, to go further. The Commission’s recommendations on this will form part of the second National Infrastructure Assessment, which will be published in the second half of 2023.
Cities are central to the challenge of levelling up
One of the main priorities for infrastructure policy in supporting levelling up is to improve urban transport networks in cities outside London. This is a challenge that the government has recognised: its Levelling Up White Paper has an aim for local public transport connectivity to be closer to the standards of London by 2030, with every area of the UK having a globally competitive city.
English cities play important roles in their regional economies and are home to a large proportion of regional populations. But the productivity of cities outside London is worse than the national average and appears to lag behind similar urban areas in comparable countries, highlighting the need and opportunity to level up.
A good urban transport network will ensure that people and businesses in cities can come together, with businesses often co-locating in city centres, enabling agglomeration effects and providing businesses with access to large labour markets. This then encourages new amenities, retail, leisure and hospitality in cities, helping to attract skilled workers to join the region’s economy and improving people’s quality of life.
The Commission’s previous work in this area has suggested that efficient transport is essential but not sufficient to support economic growth. Transport investment must form part of a wider economic strategy with complementary policies, particularly on skills.
Demands on urban transport networks may change after Covid
The Covid-19 pandemic has increased uncertainty about the role of cities, and how much demand there will be in the future to live, work and play in them. The pandemic has accelerated trends towards remote and flexible working for many office based occupations. Data from Google shows that footfall in workplaces for Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays was on average around 25 per cent below the pre-pandemic baseline in May 2022 for the seven largest English cities outside London, and footfall on public transport was around 27 per cent lower.
Nobody knows what this means for cities in the long term, and whether current trends will continue. It is also unclear the extent to which people will choose to move out of cities and make longer, less frequent, commutes. Cities, with the support of government, therefore need to approach transport planning by considering a range of possible scenarios for the future of cities, which will involve looking beyond transport and considering the effects of greater digital connectivity and housing availability too.
While city centres may not return to pre-pandemic levels of occupancy, it is not clear that this is the most likely scenario. For example, although it is likely that businesses will need less office space due to flexible working, other businesses may take advantage of available office space and lower rents to relocate into city centres. Spare capacity for commuting into city centres may be required for growth.
This uncertainty does not however mean that the government and cities should do nothing for now, and wait and see what happens. The challenges of levelling up and meeting net zero require substantial investment, which will take a decade or more to deliver, and so needs to be planned now. A balanced portfolio of investment choices is likely to include taking some risks in order to avoid paralysis.
Plans for urban transport do however need to be robust and adaptable to a range of possible scenarios that may emerge for cities. And this means that now is not the time to withdraw funding for transport services prematurely, which may embed car dependency and reduce the range of options for future recovery.
Principles for better urban transport
An effective transport network provides services that meet the strategic needs of a place. This means helping to provide access to the things people need and want – providing the travel options that will enable people to move freely around to access services and meet other people.
Increasing travel options when there is little space for more cars means improving alternative options. Speed and efficiency are important considerations for journeys in cities, increasing the range of jobs and other services that people can access. But other factors are also important, for example:
- How reliable are travel options? A fast but unreliable option will be inferior to a slower but reliable option.
- How accessible are public transport options? 21 per cent of working age adults have a physical or mental disability.
- How safe do people feel on public transport? Women are much more likely than men to report feeling unsafe when using public transport on their own after dark.
A good urban transport network will achieve a balance between speed and efficiency, and providing a service that is accessible, affordable, comfortable, convenient, reliable and safe. Speed and efficiency may be obvious ways to measure quality through analysing journey times and capacity, but this should not mean overlooking these other, perhaps more difficult to measure, factors. Designers of urban transport networks need to think how to improve all factors if they are to facilitate more trips within congested cities and support levelling up. The Commission will consider how best to determine the value for money of investments aimed primarily at other factors in the second Assessment.
Facilitating more trips within cities
The car is the predominant mode of transport in English cities outside London: in 2018-19 a private vehicle was used for 66 per cent of trips (discounting walks under a mile) in urban conurbations as a whole in England; the comparable figure for London was 47 per cent.
In congested cities – where an increase in road space to accommodate more vehicles is not viable – the best way to support more trips is by encouraging people to make trips on public transport and by active travel instead. Public transport and active travel are more space efficient than the private car, enabling more people to make more trips.
The aim of urban transport policy should not be, as sometimes is suggested, to get people to travel less – if the government is to achieve its levelling up aim it should be making it easier for people to make more of the trips they want to into cities and towns. Instead, the aim should be to shift demand from cars to forms of transport that can move people around urban areas more efficiently. By shifting, not reducing, demand, cities can keep the productivity benefits that flow from employment density without increasing congestion.
Trajectory to net zero
Trips have other negative effects besides congestion. Surface transport is the largest source of carbon emissions in the UK, as well as emitting other harmful pollutants like nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Trips also cause noise pollution and vehicles dominate the built environment.
The main priority for reducing carbon emissions from surface transport should be the electrification of vehicles: 76 per cent of journeys in England in 2018-19 were undertaken by car or van (excluding walks of under a mile). Central government and cities need to work together to ensure a prompt and comprehensive rollout of electric vehicle charging points. This will have by far the biggest single impact on decarbonising surface transport in order to achieve net zero by 2050.
But the interim emissions target in the 6th carbon budget – to reduce emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 compared to 1990 levels – is likely to be harder to achieve for surface transport. Modal shift will help achieve that interim target, and be important for reducing emissions in the interim period before the full adoption and take up of electric vehicles. The Commission will consider how best the transport sector as a whole can ensure it meets the 2035 interim target in the second National Infrastructure Assessment.
Improving public transport and active travel options
There are two ways to encourage a shift away from private cars in congested cities: improving public transport and active travel options, and reducing the relative attractiveness of driving. It is likely that both the ‘pull factor’ of more attractive public transport and active travel, and the ‘push factor’ of less attractive car journeys, will be required to bring about the necessary change.
Local leaders within cities are best placed to identify what improvements are needed to their public transport systems to address the full needs and wants of the people who use them. The government does however need to give them the tools and resources, which will include long term stable funding, alongside contributions from local areas, to take meaningful action.
The solution to making public transport and active travel more attractive does not necessarily require new transport infrastructure. At least part of the solution for cities will involve making better use of existing infrastructure, for example, by using existing technology and better use of data to provide for fully integrated urban transport networks. Cities must maximise the use and efficiency of existing assets before building new ones.
And transport is only one method that allows people to access the things that they need or want. Transport planners need to be conscious of the other methods that allow people to access the things they need too: digital connectivity (for example, online shopping) or spatial proximity (for example, living a short walk from a shop).
However, there are limits to what can be achieved with alternatives to transport, and in at least some cities the existing infrastructure may prove insufficient to meet the needs of the future, so that achieving levelling up goals for cities is likely to require significant new investment.
Work needs to start now on adaptive long term plans for mass transit
Where central government can best support cities is in providing stable and secure funding to help provide for mass transit systems, as it is planning to do in West Yorkshire. Mass transit systems can provide much higher transport capacity than cars, whether they use their own infrastructure or share the road network. Substantial investment in new forms of mass transit may be appropriate to improve capacity and the relative attractiveness of public transport. The Commission will consider further the funding required for these investments and their affordability in the second National Infrastructure Assessment.
The needs of cities will differ: for some, mass transit systems based on buses or bus rapid transit will be appropriate. In other places where there is sufficient density, light rail or tram based systems will be better suited. Elements of rail and bus could also form a single mass transit system if they are properly integrated and planned and operated as one system.
And uncertainty about future impacts of flexible working means that a wider range of priorities need to be considered for cities – for instance whether the emphasis is on peak capacity, enabling wider reach to surrounding towns, or improving the attractiveness of the city centre as a social and leisure hub. The best strategies will be adaptable to different futures, either by taking a modular approach to implementation – which will help avoid stop-start outcomes with low regret investments built first, paving the way for more ambitious later ones – or by adopting approaches that will work well for a range of different user journeys.
But given the time it takes to design and build mass transit, work on those plans needs to start now. This will help insure against possible scenarios where capacity is required to support growth. This might mean some risky bets on investment, but the necessity of levelling up means those bets are worth taking. An incremental, adaptive approach to planning will help mitigate losses for any bets that do not pay off.
Measures to discourage private car journeys should be taken seriously as an option
It is unlikely that making public transport and active travel more attractive will be enough to maximise the number of people switching from driving. Demand management measures should also be considered to make the use of private cars relatively less attractive for journeys where an alternative is available. These could include fiscal measures, such as congestion charging, incentives and parking levies, and physical ones like reallocating roads for walking, cycling and social uses. Some cities outside London have already implemented measures: the centre of Durham has had a congestion charge since 2002; Nottingham has had a workplace parking levy since 2012; a clean air zone has been operating in Birmingham since 2021. Any new measures could complement new investment in public transport and active travel, or be used to make better use of existing infrastructure.
But if demand management measures are calibrated wrongly, they could reduce the number of trips into city centres, which may negatively affect levelling up if higher productivity workers are discouraged from travelling. And there could also be adverse distributional effects if low income workers are affected by fiscal measures. The right balance will need to be struck – the intention of measures should be to shift trips onto public transport, not mean that people stay at home. Post-Covid patterns of travel will also need to be taken account: for example, a flat daily congestion charge is unlikely to be suitable in a scenario where commuting is concentrated on Tuesdays to Thursdays.
Demand management measures in this context should not be confused with road pricing schemes, which are aimed at generating revenue and replacing the income from fuel duty. While fiscal measures to manage demand may generate some revenue which can be spent on improving local transport, the primary aim is to make best use of the available space in congested cities. Fiscal measures such as congestion charging schemes could be implemented in parallel with any national road pricing scheme, provided the right national framework was put in place.
Coming up in 2022
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