Transport strains: rising commuting times put city success at risk

As the UK’s recovery progresses, one of the key questions faced by policymakers at both national and city level is how to ensure that growth is sustainable in the long run. Better infrastructure is one key requirement here.

The economic literature suggests on balance that well directed public infrastructure spending does drive economic growth both at a national and regional level. For instance, transport is an area where the UK lags internationally, being ranked just 27th in the World Economic Forum’s 2014-15 Global Competitiveness Index, and falling since 2011-12[1].

To reflect this, we include transport, as measured by average commuting times for the resident population, in our Demos-PwC Good Growth for Cities Index. In recent roundtables with senior transport officials across the country we've been discussing how to better connect cities and regions through improved transport infrastructure. The connectivity of people and places, and the wider economic benefit of transport programmes enabling growth, is a defining challenge in the years ahead with moves to devolve powers (such as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’) being seen as pivotal.

Indeed, in our analysis we have found that since 2005 transport infrastructure has also been one of the weakest areas of the index, with average commuting times across the 39 UK cities in the index having risen by 9%, or more than 2 minutes per journey (see chart).

As shown by the table to the right, this increase has also not been uniformly distributed, with commuting times over the period having fallen by more than 2 minutes in Southend & Brentwood, but increased by more than 10 minutes in Brighton. Ten minutes might not seem like a lot, but it means that the average full time resident of Brighton spent 73 more hours commuting in 2013 than in 2005.

  Fig 2

What might explain these trends? Throughout the recession and subsequent recovery, the labour market has remained surprisingly resilient, with the unemployment rate currently falling towards pre-crisis levels. One potential interpretation of these trends is that some of the labour market resilience is driven by people travelling further for work.

This hypothesis is supported by the table below, which shows that the cities in the top third for labour market resilience between 2005 and 2013 (as measured by changes in unemployment) experienced the greatest increase in commuting times, and more than double the average increase experienced by the bottom third of resilient cities.

Fig 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When looking in more detail at the ten most resilient cities (see chart below), this trend continues to be seen. For example, the top five cities by resilience (those which have seen the smallest fall in labour market scores from 2005-2013) are also the five cities with the greatest increase in commuting times. For each of these cities the relatively strong labour market performance has come at the cost of increases in average commuting time of between 20% and 40% since 2005.

Fig 4

 

 

 

 

This trend has some important implications. Firstly, commuting times within these cities may have risen as a result of their increasing role as commuter towns (e.g. Brighton, Reading and Cambridge for London, and Preston for Manchester and Liverpool). While this could stimulate local demand and play a role in limiting rises in local unemployment, it could also place substantial pressure on local infrastructure such as health, education and housing.

Secondly, the unemployment rates in these cities may have been kept down through an increased willingness of local people to travel further to find work. This implies that the reason for the increase in average commuting times may not have been driven by time increases along individual routes, but by shifts in commuting patterns towards longer-distance journeys. Although effective in the short-term, this may be detrimental to the work-life balance and wellbeing of these long distance commuters and their families in the long run.

In both cases a substantial amount of investment in local infrastructure will be required in order to maintain strong labour market performance. Failure to do so could act as a deterrent to new businesses and individuals considering locating to the area. Better city transport systems really are critical to sustaining long-term city success.

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