How can housing and planning policy help to tackle transport-related barriers to work?

Following the launch of the recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, guest author, Dr Richard Crisp from Sheffield Hallam University highlights the actions that need to be taken to ensure public transport enables rather than constrains people who are returning to work.

The notion of travelling a few miles to work might not seem much, but the time and effort it takes depend very much on who you are, where you live and where jobs can be found. Consider a real-life example from our recent research on the transport-related barriers to work faced by jobseekers.

Residents in Seacroft – a large peripheral housing estate on the edge of Leeds – live 12 miles away from a sizeable and growing industrial estate in the neighbouring borough of Selby. For those with cars, this provides jobs near enough on the doorstep with a simple 25 minute drive. But those reliant on public transport face a convoluted commute of nearly two hours. The contrast is stark.

As our recent report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows, public transport is something that all too often constrains rather than enables a return to work. Our interviews with jobseekers in six low-income neighbourhoods across England and Scotland highlighted numerous examples of people willing to travel an hour or so to work but hamstrung by unreliable or unaffordable public transport.

Buses are often late or delayed which makes people reluctant to consider commutes that involve changing services for fear of being late for shifts. The prospect of low wages limits the range of areas where individuals look for employment because of concerns that fares will eat into earnings – and a journey involving a change from bus to train, for example, will often incur a significant fare premium. Work in more peripheral locations such as out-of-town retail or business parks is sometimes inaccessible because of a lack of bus services to meet early or late shifts.

On the one hand, this is very much a transport problem. And, fortunately, both the UK and Scottish Government have taken steps to address this recently through the Bus Services Act in England and the Transport (Scotland) Bill. Both pieces of legislation allow transport authorities to manage bus networks more strategically by setting routes, fares and timetables. This could benefit peripheral, low-income communities that are not always prioritised by private bus operators.

On the other hand, this is about far more than transport policy. Decisions about commuting are informed by the nature of work available and the likely financial rewards. Employment and welfare policy clearly matter here – Work Coaches have a critical role to play in understanding and helping to overcome the real transport barriers faced by those trying to get back into the labour market.

And the location of work shapes the opportunities that might be available, as our opening example shows. Transport-related barriers to work are sometimes the result of past housing and planning decisions that have favoured out-of-town developments that are hard to reach, especially for those living on the fringes of major towns and cities.

Rectifying planning decisions from the past is far from easy. Simply putting on new bus services to connect neighbourhoods to sites of employment growth may not prove economically viable if passenger numbers are low.

But housing and planning policy at both a national and local level can at least avoid repeating these mistakes in the future. At a national level, central government needs to move away from a narrow focus on housing numbers towards housing and planning frameworks that promote development in sustainable and accessible locations.

And there is much that can be done at the local level. Planning authorities working alongside transport colleagues could use accessibility metrics to ensure employment land is allocated and developed in locations that can be reached using public transport.

Local plans should integrate transit-oriented development (TOD) principles which guarantee new housing or employment developments are built around existing or planned public transport routes, stations and stops.

Planning obligations can be used to lever developer contributions towards discounted travel. In West Yorkshire for example, one housing development has seen residents provided with three years’ worth of subsidised travel using a Residential MetroCard. The Community Infrastructure Levy can ensure that essential infrastructure is provided too.

Affordable housing providers also have a role to play, both in terms of their decisions around new developments and their on-going work with tenants. Providers delivering employment support can train staff to provide personalised travel planning to ensure tenants fully understand their travel options. Consulting residents on travel and accessibility issues, and liaising with transport bodies and operators, could help address some of their tenants’ barriers to reaching jobs.

There are no single or easy solutions to ensure that local transport systems better connect jobseekers with areas of employment opportunity. These are problems that have built up over decades. But more could be done by those involved in housing and planning policy or practice to reduce transport-related barriers to work. Just like our bus services, we can’t just wait around hoping something will turn up.

Dr Richard Crisp is a Reader at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) at Sheffield Hallam University. 


Date: October 16, 2018 12:23 pm


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