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Investing in transport is key to ‘levelling up’ cities

Words: Laura Edgar
Congestion in Leeds / Shutterstock_1595724856

The government has been urged to use tomorrow’s Budget to invest in ‘priority cities’ to tackle congestion, which is holding back productivity.  

Research by think tank Centre for Cities compared average commuting speeds in Britain’s 62 largest cities and towns.

It found that in large cities such as Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham, the length of travel time is impeding economic growth.

However, the report suggests that “relatively few” cities and large towns have poorly performing transport networks, which raises the question of whether widespread new investment in infrastructure is needed.

Centre for Cities said addressing “poorly performing transport networks in cities plagued by the worst congestion” could help to close the productivity gap between cities in the North and Midlands and those in the South to ‘level up’ the national economy.

Outside of the largest cities and towns, Getting Moving: Where Can Transport Investment Level Up Growth? states that journeys into most city centres at peak times are, on average, relatively quick. Therefore, further infrastructure investment in these networks “is likely to have little effect on economic performance in the short term”.

“Even in some large cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield, the demand to access the relatively weak city-centre economy is not sufficient to unduly strain the transport system at rush hour.”

Instead, the report suggests that these cities should focus on making their city centres more attractive for businesses to increase the number of jobs in them.

A handful of city centres that have seen strong growth in the past two decades could see short-term growth at risk of being held back by a transport system that cannot cope with the resultant increase in travel demands.

Major new public transport infrastructure, such as bus rapid transit to underground systems, is needed “quickly” to stop congestion and capacity constraints choking off growth in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds in particular.

The report has called on the government to:

  • Invest £31 billion in urban transport outside London over the next 20 years, in line with calls from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).
  • Agree to fund new infrastructure where the cities have come up with 25 per cent of the capital locally, with some coming from congestion charging. This could raise £300 million a year for new infrastructure in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol alone.
  • Give metro mayors and other city leaders freedom to decide what transport improvements the capital should be spent on.
  • For London, further investment in the capital’s transport infrastructure, such as Crossrail 2, is needed if it is to continue to grow in the coming decades.

Cities where congestion is not currently a barrier to productivity, including Derby, Doncaster and Middlesbrough, should be more concerned with the lack of demand to travel into city centres that focus too much on retail.

“This is a much bigger problem and means addressing skills gaps and office space provision first and then being ready to invest in transport infrastructure as their growth picks up,” the think tank says in a statement.

Andrew Carter, chief executive at the Centre for Cities, said: “We must not make the mistake of thinking that investment in trains, trams and buses will automatically create economic growth – it won’t. But a failure to invest in transport in congested cities where it is needed will stall growth and cost the UK economy billions of pounds.”

There are different challenges in different places, Carter continued. If transport is one of those challenges, the government should follow the NIC’s recommendation to invest in new transport in cities outside London.

“This will add capacity to the transport network, make it easier for commuters into congested city centres and add billions to the national economy.

“But national and local government should be cautious of spreading transport investment too thinly. Investing in transport infrastructure where demand, rather than supply, is the issue is unlikely to bring more prosperity to these places. Policy must instead tailor its approach to the challenges these cities face.”

Getting Moving: Where Can Transport Investment Level Up Growth? can be found on the Centre for Cities website (pdf).

Image credit | Shutterstock