Getting cities moving is essential to the success of levelling up

Making it easier for people to get into and around cities, in a low carbon and sustainable way, needs to be the focus of urban transport plans

Aerial view of the city of Birmingham in the West Midlands

The legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to pose challenges for cities up and down the country.

Changing patterns of work - including the growth of home and hybrid working - have challenged assumptions about what their future transport needs might be.

For example, the chart below from our new report shows that number of people in workplaces in the seven largest cities outside London is lower than before the pandemic, on every day of the week

Chart showing drop in workplace numbers in seven largest cities outside London

Percentage change in workplace visitors in the seven largest English cities outside London from 9 May 2022 to 16 June 2022 compared to the pre-pandemic baseline (excluding the Platinum Jubilee bank holiday week)

Percentage change in workplace visitors in the seven largest English cities outside London from 9 May 2022 to 16 June 2022 compared to the pre-pandemic baseline (excluding the Platinum Jubilee bank holiday week)

Then again, there’s evidence that heavy congestion is beginning to return to roads since the pandemic, and that is especially true in city centres.

Traffic jam

Traffic jams are frustrating for drivers, bad for air quality, and a likely barrier to growing regional economies and levelling up.

Bustling, vibrant cities drive successful regional economies, attracting jobs, investment and opportunities for leisure.

We think that facilitating more journeys into and around cities is a social and economic necessity.

Cities will need to use both 'push' and 'pull' to get people out of cars

Making public transport and active travel more accessible, reliable and safe will likely only get us so far

Bust stop and cyclist in Bristol

Local leaders are best placed to identify the improvements that will work best for their cities. Government needs to give them the tools and resources, including long term stable funding cycles, to support their plans.

Brand new infrastructure will not always be the right solution: making better use of existing assets by using technology and data can help make networks more accessible and efficient.

In some places, substantial investment in new forms of mass transit may be necessary.

Dealing with uncertainty

Following the Covid pandemic, the shape of future demand for public transport is impossible to predict with confidence. Projects need to be adaptable to a range of different future scenarios.

This can be achieved by taking a modular approach, beginning with a core of 'low regrets' investments before moving on to more ambitious phases, or by designing solutions that can easily be flexed at a later stage.

Making the shift

'Demand management' - such as schemes to reallocate road space or charge drivers for access at certain times - also has a likely role in supporting the shift.

The aim of such schemes should not be to put people off making journeys altogether, but to encourage people to opt for more space-efficient modes of travel in congested cities. However, planners must be careful not to disadvantage certain groups.

Stockport bus station

A sustainable approach to facilitating more trips into city centres

Increasing urban travel has to be done in a way
that helps us reach net zero

A sign showing a cycle route to the city centre

Towards net zero transport

It is going to be particularly tough for the transport sector to meet its targets for carbon emissions, set in the government's sixth carbon budget, which should be achieved by 2035

By 2050, the UK's vehicle fleet should be largely powered by electric vehicles.

Active options for city centre travel

But while there's good progress on the electric vehicle switchover, we'll need to do more to cut emissions from transport by the level required, in little more than ten years.

A focus on encouraging a shift from people making trips in private cars, to people using public transport of active travel - that is, options like walking or cycling - will therefore also help cities achieve emissions targets.

Woman on a bicycle

"More trips with fewer negative impacts would be challenging to deliver in normal times, but it's doubly so with the fog of uncertainty generated by the pandemic. Cities have to remain ambitious in their visions for the future, but base that ambition on plans which are flexible enough to cope with whatever the future holds."

Sir John Armitt, Chair, National Infrastructure Commission

Sir John Armitt

Future urban transport

The challenge of preparing our urban transport networks for the longer term is not an easy one.

But, working together, local leaders and central government can ensure city regions are acting now to support thriving places - where journeys can connect people to each other, and places of work and leisure, within carbon constraints.

For our part, the Commission will be undertaking more detailed work on future scenarios ahead of making recommendations on long term investment in urban and interurban transport, as part of the next National Infrastructure Assessment.

Find out more about our ideas on urban transport by reading our new Getting cities moving report.

A tram at a stop in Birmingham