What have we learnt about commuting?

Posted by Mike Coombes, Monday 10 December 2012

There has been research in CURDS on commuting patterns for much of its 35 year history and the policy relevance of this work continues to grow, as recent studies show.

The coalition government has rolled out its predecessor’s plans for Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs), together with the policy that each LEP should cover a “functional economic area” such as a city region. Here lies the research problem: the generally acknowledged template for such areas is provided by the Travel to Work Areas – defined in CURDS using commuting data – but most of these are too small to be LEPs. The government chose to let LEPs define their own areas and when these are ‘tested’ against commuting patterns many are found to not be real local economic market areas (PDF).

Of course the geography of the labour market revealed by commuting patterns is a not a complete picture of a local economy, and yet it often reflects wider issues of accessibility and interaction. One recent study of the recently opened second Tyne Tunnel showed how quickly this new facility affected commuting and, in similar ways, brought benefits to the local economy more generally.

Within a year of its opening over 70% of local businesses considered that reduced commuting times for employees using the tunnel raised their productivity due to, for example, improved punctuality and morale.  Recruitment practices changed to exploit the effective increase in labour catchment areas to more areas across the river (as anticipated by spatial economic theory). Just over half the businesses recognised real financial benefits which could also arise from reduced vehicle operating costs. This is seen as a ‘concrete’ example of how investment in transport in the North – which is minimal in comparison to that in London – could help the region contribute more to economic growth.

In various ways then, the changing geography of commuting patterns reflects how Britain’s local economies adjust over time. Yet each commuter has made choices about where to live and work which are the result of the unique circumstances of themselves and their household. As a result, there are some commuting patterns whose key drivers may not be economic. One example in recent CURDS research was the finding that migrants to rural areas had some of the longest commuting journeys in England. They commute further than would be expected even after other factors are taken into account, reflecting decisions made for what may be ‘lifestyle’ reasons that will be difficult to change by policies aiming to reduce the environmental impacts of such long commuting.

The link between commuting patterns and migration patterns was also seen in CURDS research on urban areas in the North where few journeys to work are lengthy, however it seems they might have been shorter still if people there were less ‘rooted’ to their local towns.

Thus in commuting patterns we can learn much about the geography of local economies, as well as seeing reflections of more social dynamics which also drive migration patterns. This research will soon be renewed with data from the 2011 Census: only the Census provides this vital information on flows of commuters and migrants between every locality in Britain so it will be an immeasurable loss to future geographical research if there is no reversal of the government proposal to hold no future Censuses.