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Public transport is limiting access to jobs in the North of England

Researchers call for improved planning processes and new bus franchising powers

Neighbourhoods across Leeds city regions were among those examined in the study
Neighbourhoods across Leeds city regions were among those examined in the study

More integrated and smarter transport options are required if the UK is to prevent an increasing number of people in the North of England being locked out of the jobs market.


Unaffordable and unreliable local public transport is limiting access to job opportunities for residents of low-income neighbourhoods in two of the largest cities in the North of England, according to the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation.


Research conducted by Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield explored transport issues facing out-of-work residents in four low-income neighbourhoods across Greater Manchester and Leeds city regions.


Transport was consistently highlighted as a significant barrier to work once the trade-off between the cost, reliability and speed of local public transport; and the prospect of low-wage, insecure work was considered.


For many low-income families, the cost of purchasing and then running their own car is not affordable and makes them fully reliant on public transport. Residents said they were far more likely to use local buses than local trains due to the fact they were cheaper.


However, the unreliability of local buses is at risk of creating new ‘cut-off commuter zones’ where people are unable to consistently guarantee punctuality when travelling longer distances for work. Concerns were raised that due to the insecure and competitive nature of the jobs residents were going for, poor productivity caused by delays could easily result in a reduction of their hours or being let go.


This directly undermines current expectations from the Department of Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus’ that job-seekers should look for opportunities up to 90 minutes from their home. Residents showed a clear willingness to commute longer distances for work if there were affordable and reliable services in place. But these were often not available.


Where public transport links are available, the likelihood of delays and missed connections means that, even for residents who live close to city centres, changing services may not be a viable option.


This serious disconnect between the location of jobs and low-income neighbourhoods is constraining people’s ability to seize job opportunities when they arise. While the changing geography of low-paid work is creating new challenges for residents seeking lower-skilled, manual employment in sectors like manufacturing or warehousing. These jobs are mainly available in out-of-town, peripheral locations poorly served by public transport.


“It’s unacceptable that large numbers of people seeking work are being locked out of job opportunities simply because of poor public transport connections. The experiences of low-income residents makes it abundantly clear that we must properly invest in transport networks within cities not just between them,” said Brian Robson, acting head of policy and research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.


“Currently unaffordable and unreliable public transport is holding people back from being able to achieve a better standard of living. With more powers being devolved to city and local leaders, now is the time to redesign our transport, housing and economic policies so that everyone can get into work and progress in their careers.”


Smarter transportation options such as first- and last-mile services and a more integrated approach by transport agencies and operators could address some of the issues cited in the research. The researchers are calling on the UK Government, combined and local authorities, transport bodies and others to ensure that

  • New bus franchising powers are used to improve the availability, affordability and reliability of services, to make it easier for people on low incomes to access employment
  • Planning processes are improved to make sure that new housing and employment developments are well served by public transport
  • Transport and employment policy are better integrated, so employment support providers can help clients to understand travel choices available to them.

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