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What does access to public transportation tell us about social mobility in the UK?

Public transport blue bus.
What does access to public transportation tell us about social mobility in the UK?
February 1, 2023

Kogenta visualisation of the month: UK transportation

A Kogenta heatmap of the UK showing access to public transportation tells us some things we might have expected, but also raises some interesting questions about both physical and demographic social mobility.

Unsurprisingly, public transportation is at its densest and most available in cities and other major conurbations. The UK is a country which has largely privatised its transport networks, and this is where transportation companies will find the greatest number of prospective passengers and highest potential revenue. So not only will there typically be bus, tram and metro companies in the same space, there may be more than one example of each, all competing for significant passenger spend.

UK access to public transportation heat map.

Kogenta heat map showing access to UK public transportation.


Outside of these areas, however, the picture is much patchier. Across large areas of the country, many individual citizens have limited or no viable public transportation and must make their own arrangements.

Closer examination of the figures uncovers other stories connected to the availability of public transportation, and its impact on populations in and outside of UK cities.

For example, when we look at UK residents without any realistic public transportation (including buses, trains, ferries, and an underground tube system) in particular to support journeys to work, we find that these are:

10% more likely than the national average to be aged 45 and over

So those who are outside the public transport network are more likely to be older citizens and dependent on their own transport (cars, taxis and so on). This is likely to be a disincentivising factor in terms of persuading older citizens to rejoin or remain in the workforce (assuming that the majority of employment opportunities will be in cities and major conurbations). It may also be a socially inhibiting factor for many older citizens who are not seeking work, but who wish to stay engaged with their local community. Neither of these scenarios are desirable in terms of economic flexibility and social wellbeing.

20% more likely than the national average to work from home

This raises questions of causality and coincidence.  Are people who are able to work from home less concerned about public transport, so are happy to live in, and perhaps actively move to, areas without good public transport (for prized rural seclusion)? Almost certainly yes, but there will also be those who live in such areas who, because they are less able to commute, will seek work – not necessarily well-paid work – that they can do from home. For them, homeworking is not a lifestyle choice. The data that we have doesn’t allow such questions to be answered, but it does raise questions which would repay further investigation, helping us to understand the extent to which distribution of public transport inhibits the flexibility of the workforce.

20% more likely to live in detached accommodation

There is a trade-off for having relatively poor public transportation – other things being equal, affordable living space is likely to be much more available. But it raises the question of whether this is a choice people should have to make.

20% less likely to be in higher education

Again a number of factors are likely to be in play here. Older people in rural communities (see above) are less likely to be in higher education. Universities and places of higher education tend to be in cities and major conurbations, and students often remain in those cities post-graduation. But it raises the question of whether the lack of public transportation is an active block on sectors of society having access to higher education (particularly when one possible alternative, student accommodation, tends to be prohibitively expensive) and this would justify further investigation.

More likely to own cars

Which might seem obvious – poor public transportation will naturally push people to whatever private transportation they can afford. However it also flags up the tendency for low levels of (low-polluting) public transportation to push up the numbers of (high-polluting) private vehicles, and the numbers of journeys that they take. So there is a strong environmental factor in the availability or otherwise of public transportation.

Clearly the availability of public transportation is a matter of mobility – but looking more closely at the characteristics of those who do or don’t have access to good public transport, it’s highly likely that social mobility and economic flexibility are also considerably impacted – insights which are all the more significant as public spending budgets come under continuing pressure. It also flags how integral is public transport availability to political objectives to ‘level up’ the UK and create more equal opportunity.

This article references public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0. For more on understanding and accessing market and location demographics, Contact Us to Book a Demo.

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