Helping city economies to grow means focusing investment on intra-city trips in future
That transport helps city economies to grow is not in doubt; transport connects workers with jobs, connects people to leisure activities where they can spend money, and allows for goods to be transported to and around the city. But current appraisal guidance gives more emphasis to certain trips – meaning cities could be missing out on the infrastructure investments they need.
More specifically, transport business case appraisal presently places a great deal of economic weight on the time savings that accrue to business travellers – and these business trips tend to take place between cities, rather than between cities and their suburbs.
As such, it should not be a surprise that government infrastructure policy prioritises schemes such as High Speed 2, or Northern Powerhouse Rail. These schemes connect cities to each other, and in the process, shave precious minutes off the journey times between those cities. If business traveller times were really as valuable as the transport appraisal guidance suggests, then the case for focusing on inter-city transport infrastructure would be unimpeachable.
But this is a problem for cities, because commuter journeys far outnumber business trips. The key role played by our cities in supporting the economy is that they link businesses to workers – businesses cluster in cities because it makes them more productive, and workers come to cities because there are more and better jobs available. Transport systems clearly have a significant role to play in connecting those workers to jobs within their city. Yet these short trips within cities will never deliver the purported time savings to business travellers, making them look like Cinderella schemes compared to big ticket projects like HS2.
And given the increasing role that city centres are expected to play in the UK economy, this problem will only grow. Attempting to get ever more people into a city centre as they commute to high skilled jobs will require ever more efficient public transport systems to do so. But in future, transport appraisal should recognise that cities principally contribute to the national economy by connecting workers to jobs within them, rather than by attracting workers from other cities to commute over longer distances. And so it should give greater weight to commuter journeys if it wants to better support future economic growth.
Transport investment should be focused on reducing this cost of commuting for city residents, allowing them to access jobs in the city centre more easily. This means addressing barriers to connectivity within cities, by improving commuter connections between suburbs and centres and speeding up intra-city journeys.
About the Author
This post was written by Matt Whearty. Researcher, Centre for Cities