Gear shift: what can cities do to get more people onto public transport?

There’s a lot to boast about when it comes to public transport in London. The city has a comprehensive network of buses, trains, tubes and light rail. You’re rarely too far from a station or a stop.

London has one of the highest rates of public transport usage in Europe: 46% of people commute on public transport, rising to 80% for those working in central London. Among major European cities, only the residents of Zurich, Helsinki and Paris use public transport more. By contrast though, other British cities languish well below 25%. 


A new report by the Centre for Cities, sponsored by The Go-Ahead Group, explores why these rates vary so wildly – and what policymakers can do to encourage more people onto buses, trains and light rail.

Perhaps the first question to ask is why this is important, and why it’s desirable to get people travelling collectively. There are three broad reasons – economic, social and environmental.
Firstly, not everybody can afford a private vehicle – but it’s vital that everybody has a means to access employment, education and local services. Only public transport can fill that gap. 
Secondly, as cities grow and prosper, they become more congested. A bus can take 75 cars off the road, and a train can remove 500 vehicles from the road. Public transport is an efficient way to reduce jams.

Third, transport emits more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector. The only realistic way to get that down is by encouraging people to make sustainable choices – including walking, cycling and take public transport. The Centre for Cities has outlined a blueprint for public policy to nudge people in this direction. 

It notes, first of all, that a key variable is densification. If urban planners encourage clustering of jobs and businesses around transport hubs, not only will it reinvigorate urban areas, it will inform transport choices. An example is London’s Battersea and Nine Elms redevelopment, which has been built with a new London Underground spur at its very heart.

Around the world, cities experimented since the COVID-19 pandemic with discounted ticketing and fare caps, or even free travel, to bring people back onto buses and trains. But this is expensive to the public purse and it is far from clear that it works. Convenience and reliability are more effective levers than price.

Bus lanes, bus rapid transit schemes and traffic light priority are effective in speeding up journeys: every 10% improvement in journey times pushes up passenger numbers by 2.5%.
A ‘guiding mind’ overseeing transport in big cities can help, working closely with private operators, either through enhanced partnership or through contractual relationship. The commercial sector is a key ingredient, adding agility, marketing prowess and an ability to anticipate customer needs.

And road pricing is worthy of consideration – be it congestion charges or workplace parking levies, although it is vital that it remains a choice, rather than an obligation, to opt for public transport.

At Go-Ahead, we enable nearly a billion journeys a year. And we know that transport choices are very personal – each of our customers has a different reason for travelling, and their own set of priorities in choosing how to get from A to B.

One thing that is certain, though, is that cities of the future needs to have public transport at their heart, and policies in place to achieve this. Getting around swiftly, conveniently and sustainably is key to a good quality of life.

Download the full report here: Gear shift: International lessons for increasing public transport ridership in UK cities | Centre for Cities