Families in the North locked out of jobs market by ‘unaffordable and unreliable’ local transport

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.

New research conducted by Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield looks at 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.

I’ve been offered a job and it was on the other side of Manchester and I did the bus journey to see how long it would take and it was too inadequate … it was the opposite side of Manchester, like hour and a half, two hours on a bus, it wasn’t just one bus, it was two or three.
Female aged 35, Harpurhey, Manchester

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.

I was talking to my advisor, there’s a place called Sherburn-in-Elmet and they have tons of work, big industrial estate but there’s no bus service, it’s about 13 miles away. I do not understand why they build a big estate where there’s no transport, that’s like tough, if you haven’t got a car you can’t have a job.
Male aged 49, Seacroft, Leeds

In some cases, people expressed a preference to work closer to where they live largely to fit work around caring responsibilities for children and dependent adults. Nonetheless it was widely felt among residents that advice and guidance on transport should be a greater part of the employment support that was offered to them.

Brian Robson, Acting Head of Policy & Research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said;

“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.

“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.”

Ed Ferrari, Director of the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University said:

"Buses are the backbone of local public transport in Britain and the key to employment and training opportunities for many. But problems with high fares, poor coordination between different providers and services, and lack of reliability seriously hamper the ability of low-income groups to commute to more distant jobs."

"Fundamental weaknesses in the way that bus services are regulated and subsidised are effectively locking the poorest out of the opportunities within the modern economy. Policy makers in Britain need to see investment in high quality local transport systems as an investment in national productivity and tackling inequality."

To overcome current transport barriers to employment, we 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.