10 May 2023

Going places? Poor transport is holding Britain’s big cities back


Amongst developed countries, there is a trend that as a city’s population grows, so does its productivity, as residents gain greater access to education, employment and leisure, not just in scale but also in variety. Employers too have more people to choose from, meaning they can hire staff best suited to a role. These ‘agglomeration’ benefits are why larger cities usually have higher productivity and GDP per capita. But this correlation between city size and productivity does not hold within the UK. Though Britain may have large cities, they are not necessarily more productive than their hinterlands. Economically speaking, this is very weird.

As a city grows, the number of journeys within it increases too, placing a strain on the existing transport infrastructure. Left unresolved, a city may grow without actually improving access, and thus could be considered a collection of contiguous towns rather than a unified whole. In order to gain agglomeration benefits then, the population of a city with access to the economic opportunities at the centre needs to grow, not just the number of people tacked onto the outskirts. In order to avoid stagnation, cities need to continually invest in their infrastructure to maximise access.

Whereas a single car lane may transport just 2,000 people per hour, a right of way for trams or trains can move a magnitude higher, at anywhere between 18,000 and 90,000 people per hour depending on the technology and mode used. This much higher throughput, combined with faster average journey speeds, means rapid transport can increase the effective size of cities, thus enabling higher productivity, as well as saving people time travelling. Strong rapid transport networks in our largest cities should therefore be seen as a necessary investment to improve quality of life, and that’s before considering the strongly positive environment and health benefits from increased active travel and less polluted air.

London might be renowned for having one of the best transport networks in the world, but by British standards our capital is an exception rather than the norm. The second and third cities of Birmingham and Manchester have no metro, and rather small and congested tram networks. Beyond them, provision is even more sparse, with Leeds and Bradford, a combined urban area of around two and a half million people, having to rely solely on unintegrated bus networks and slow regional rail. 

Contrast this to our neighbours across the Channel, and the picture is starkly different. Of urban areas in France, Germany, and the Netherlands with more than 500,000 people, over 80% have a form of fixed rapid transport. In the UK it’s a meagre 50%.

Table 1. Percentage of urban areas larger than 500,000 people with a rapid transport system
Metro / U-Bahn25%60%15%38%
Light rail / tram30%80%78%88%
Either system50%80%85%94%
Functional urban areas as defined by the OECD on 2015 population.


It does not need to be this way. If you were to compare the Netherlands and the North of England, you would find many similarities: both are former industrial heartlands with a similar land area, population, and density, yet they have wildly different economic outcomes, with GDP per capita around 50% higher in the Netherlands. The most important difference in infrastructure is the quality of the public transport network, with quadruple the number of metro and tram stops in the Netherlands, and high-quality access for pedestrians and cyclists into them.

This wide gap between British and European cities isn’t there for lack of trying. Leeds attempted to initiate a tram network several times in the noughties, and the regional authorities in Manchester, Birmingham, and Bristol have all touted ideas for future metro networks to no avail.

Despite the ambition to improve transport networks in their cities, however, local authorities in the UK have neither the power nor the independent revenue source to construct their own public transport systems without central government approval and financing – unlike their continental peers. This means that councils in the UK not only need to have good relations with the government of the day, but that central government also needs to be convinced that a project is a worthwhile investment, which is a problem when infrastructure projects can often take years to provide a return.

The reality of centrally managed infrastructure funding means that London is competing with Leeds and Liverpool for the same pot of cash, so when officials in the capital assess business cases for investment, they not only have a personal stake in seeing that money be spent closer to home, but often the cases themselves actively encourage that. The scale of population and economic output that London has means that the regions can’t compete on an even footing. And where the central government has allocated funding for public transport around the country, it has primarily been on headline-grabbing national schemes rather than locally within cities. Projects like HS2 and the East Coast upgrade will improve connections between city centres, but the investment needed for residents and businesses to access those central stations has been neglected. A more localised approach to how we prioritise infrastructure investment is needed if we are to emulate the regional prosperity of our neighbours.

Rapid transport networks are a key enabler of higher housing densities and thus should be considered a key tool in tackling the housing shortage without needing to expand development to too much greenfield. The Bus Services Act, passed in 2017, is the first page in this new chapter, giving regional British cities the powers to manage and regulate their bus networks in the way London has exceptionally done so for decades. As of yet, only Greater Manchester has been able to navigate the red tape to do so. We need to support other cities to do the same.

Though regional British cities may underperform today, the evidence from Europe suggests that this is not inevitable. Urban rapid transport investments are one of the best tools at our disposal to boost the productivity of our cities, increase access to labour, and spur greater innovation. They should be a priority for central government and local authorities alike.

This article originally appeared in Operation Innovation, an essay collection from The Entrepreneurs Network about how to build a more innovative economy.

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Harry Rushworth writes about transport and planning and is a former Chair of the Transport for London Youth Panel.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.