There is a gap between north and south when it comes to how many jobs are reachable by car and public transport, says think-thank

There is a ‘shocking’ gap between how many jobs are reachable by car and public transport in the north compared to the south, according to new data from think-tank Onward.

The organisation asked the question: how many jobs can you reach within an hour’s drive or 90 minutes on public transport from your front door?

From that, and for the first time, Onward created a new dataset that for the first time reveals the number of jobs accessible by car and public transport from every local area (LSOA) in the country across different time horizons. The subsequent analysis, Network Effects, exposes a transport gap between different parts of the country.

The analysis found that public transport is so poorly connected in some parts of England that people can access fewer jobs within an hour on public transport than they can reach within a 5-miles radius of their local area. In Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Bolsover, workers can access only around three-quarters of local jobs within an hour on public transport. This compares to some towns in London’s hinterland, like Redbridge, Barnet or Epping Forest, where an hour on public transport unlocks access to 7 times more jobs than exist locally.

This transport gap becomes even clearer when comparing similarly sized towns in different parts of the country. Halifax in Yorkshire and Mansfield in Nottinghamshire have similar levels of population as Aldershot in Hampshire. But using public transport you can reach twice as many jobs within 90 minutes from Aldershot (1.2 million jobs) than from Halifax (581,837), and over four times as many as from Mansfield (246,857). Aldershot is 30 miles from London, while Halifax is 8 miles from Bradford and 14 miles from Leeds and Mansfield is within 14 miles of Nottingham, 22 miles from Derby and 30 miles from Sheffield, said the report.

Also, in some of Britain’s most important regional cities, public transport barely improves access to jobs at all. In Newcastle and Glasgow, an hour on public transport boosts job access by a third. This compares to London where public transport nearly quadruples local jobs access: i.e. there are 3.7 times as many jobs within 60 minutes on public transport as within a 5 mile radius.

You can reach more than 50% more jobs within 30 minutes by car in parts of the Home Counties bordering Greater London (482,000 jobs) than you can in central Birmingham, reflecting the latter’s byzantine road network,

The transport gap is particularly acute around towns in the Red Wall regions of the North West and West Yorkshire, where geographic proximity to jobs is no guarantee that workers will be able to reach them.

  • In the Greater Manchester area, people in Prestwich, Droylsden and Blackley can access around 90% of the nearby jobs (within 5 miles), despite being just inside the M60 and close to the city centre. But people in Wigan, Rochdale and Bolton can access twice as many jobs within 60 minutes as there are locally.
  • In West Yorkshire, towns in the middle of the conurbation like Batley, Brighouse and Mirfield can access only 94% of the jobs that exist locally by public transport, while Huddersfield or Bingley, which are further from Leeds and Bradford, can access 94% more jobs than exist locally.

This suggests that spending dedicated to public transport could be much better directed towards improving jobs access in Britain’s regional towns and cities, rather than improving transport in places that are already well-connected.

The report also says that the government should not rely solely on transport investment to support stronger regional growth.

Successive governments have placed considerable emphasis on transport investment to unlock growth, with transport projects typically scoring higher on benefit cost ratios under the Treasury’s Green Book rules. However, our research suggests that this may be a mistake, as transport connectivity to jobs appears to have little overall bearing on the average income and productivity of a place:

  • Only a small share of the local variation in median incomes is explained by the number of jobs accessible within 90 minutes by public transport, and access to jobs by car is not at all related to income. 
  • Differences in income are far better explained by qualification levels and the mix of occupations and industries than by connectivity to jobs. These three combined account for over four-fifths of the variation in median income between places.
  • This suggests that further transport investments will struggle to improve incomes and living standards in a place without addressing other economic fundamentals like education and the quality of jobs available.

Onward said: ” We have published the dataset openly to allow others to analyse it and create their own maps and graphs. Head over to our GitHub page to download all the journey time data used in this report. Please credit Onward if you do.

“We are particularly grateful to Alasdair Rae, founder of Automatic Knowledge Ltd, who developed the measure of access to jobs used in this paper. A full methodology is available in the Annex of the full report.”

The report was supported by the Levelling Up Taskforce, a group of 65 Conservative MPs we convene to develop ideas around levelling up.

Selaine Saxby MP, MP for North Devon and Committee Member for the Levelling Up Parliamentary Taskforce, said:

“The reason the Levelling Up agenda is so vital is because economic opportunity has for too long been defined by geography – with people held back simply because of where they were born and grew up.

“In rural constituencies like mine in North Devon, this is exacerbated by our disparate transport links and infrastructure, shrinking the effective local labour market and often meaning young people have to move away to further their chosen career. This is a problem that affects the South West as a whole, as I wrote in a report for Onward recently. 

“We will simply not succeed in levelling up opportunity for regional and coastal towns unless people can rely on good and reliable transport links to access jobs and opportunity.”

Richard Holden MP, MP for North West Durham and Committee Member of the  Levelling Up Parliamentary Taskforce, said:  “This excellent report highlights clearly the challenges faced by those in our towns and villages of accessing opportunities for both education and employment. 

“Conservative MPs like me were elected to level up opportunity for people in our overlooked towns and villages, that means ensuring that younger people and those on low incomes don’t need to move away in order to fulfil their potential. It’s vital that ministers take note of this report and use it as the basis for further policy to help spread opportunity across our country.”

Simon Fell, MP for Barrow-in-Furness and Member of the  Levelling Up Parliamentary Taskforce, said: “This fascinating report shows the importance of connectivity to levelling up. Move away from those places blessed with mainline rail, decent broadband, or easy access to motorways, and you see a direct correlation between opportunity and connectivity. If we hope to improve our nation and truly level up, then we must acknowledge the role that robust connectivity plays in increasing productivity, lowering barriers for new businesses starting out, and in capturing opportunities missed.”


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