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If policymakers are to make better decisions, the data needs to be up to scratch

In an age when data can seem ubiquitous it is ironic that politicians and civil servants are often left stuck in the past

By Stephen Clarke  

Read more of Prospect’s “Data as infrastructure” report

It’s summer holidays and tempers, if not temperatures, that are running high. The cause of much angst in the past few weeks has been transport. A near month-long closure of Waterloo, disruptions to the West Coast main line and a replacement bus on the Liverpool to Manchester route over the bank holiday have all adding to travellers’ woes.

Transport has also been getting some politicians hot under the collar. Last month the leaders of Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Leeds all condemned Chris Grayling’s decision to downgrade the electrification of many lines in the Midlands and the North, while supporting Crossrail 2.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that transport generates such strong feelings. Whether getting to work, visiting relatives, or dashing to the seaside in the forlorn hope that the bank holiday will deliver blue skies and sunshine, it is arguably the one area of public policy that nearly all people have to engage with on a regular basis. Politicians are aware of this. Boris Johnson may long be remembered for “his” bikes, “Mobike” in Greater Manchester and “Yobike” in Bristol have been promoted by local leaders, and many of last year’s mayoral elections featured promises to overhaul local bus systems. Unfortunately a lack of data often means that this key area of policy is subject to a fair amount of heat, but little light.

This is a problem given that transport plays a key part in raising people’s living standards and broadening economic opportunities. For many people the surest way to get a pay rise is to move employer. The pay rise for someone moving jobs is, on average, over five times higher than that earned by those who stay put and for those who change job and move region the pay rise is even higher.

Despite this, an increase in transport costs can be a major impediment for those looking to find work further afield. This most acutely affects the lowest paid. The evidence is that lower-skilled, often lower-paid, people are less willing to move, or commute further for work. While this partly reflects the fact that—after taking into account an increase in commuting costs—even a pay rise can be uneconomical, it is also a product of transport policy that—often due to a lack of data—is insensible to distributional issues.

For example Greater Manchester has benefitted from significant transport investment, most visibly in the form of the tram network, over the past decade or so. The result is that many places are better connected to the centre than ever before. This has boosted commuting; today a third of people commute into Salford and central Manchester from Trafford. However, connections are patchy and investment has failed to significantly improve the outcomes for ethnic minorities, single parents and those with relatively low qualifications. While the share of people that commute into central Manchester and parts of Salford are high in Trafford and Stockport, there has not been a similar rise in inward commuting from Bolton, Wigan and Rochdale. Furthermore, despite significant inward investment, residents of Salford and Manchester are amongst the most likely to be out of work and hourly pay for residents of central Manchester is nearly £3 less than for people working there.

We have seen similar dynamics at work in London, the boroughs of Hackney, Lambeth, Newham and Haringey have seen the biggest improvements in employment rates over the past decade, though unfortunately much of this is the result of inward migration rather than an improvement in the prospects of existing residents. “Build it and they will come” may appear a fine mantra when it comes to infrastructure decisions, but unfortunately the evidence is that it is often those who are already heavy users that reap the biggest gains.

Data can help address this issue. Many of the new metro mayors may look longingly at the data held by TfL after over a decade in which the Oyster Card and supporting systems have mapped how Londoners move around the city. The spread of such “smart” systems can go some way to improving decision making. However such systems—and the data they generate—can overlook many of the distributional issues raised above. In trying to understand the commuting patterns of different groups, particularly groups that traditionally face greater barriers when trying to engage with the labour market, analysts and policy makers are still often left will little choice but to use the census, now seven years old.

In an age when data can seem ubiquitous and at many people’s fingertips it is ironic that politicians and civil servants are often left using a survey now over half a decade out of date when trying to understand their constituent’s needs. While smart-ticketing and apps will undoubtedly improve transport systems, making them work for those they tend to underserve will depend on policymakers having access to better data.


On the 3rd of October, Prospect launched Data as Infrastructure. This special report grew out of a series of high-level roundtable meetings over the summer which brought together government, private businesses and the third sector to look at how data is already being used to improve people’s lives and how it has the potential to do so much more.

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