Public transport in UK cities most expensive in Europe

24 February

A new report out today has highlighted how the UK’s largest cities – Birmingham, London and Greater Manchester – are ranked the worst in Europe for public transport affordability.

The Clean Cities: Benchmarking European cities on creating the right conditions for zero-emission mobility report, ranked 36 European cities by how much progress they are making towards achieving net zero mobility by 2030, based on measures ranging from more space for walking and cycling to road safety and policies to phase out polluting cars.

When ranked by affordability of public transport, the three cities are bottom of the table with residents being asked to fork out 8-10 per cent of their household budget on monthly travel costs.

By contrast, in Oslo, which came top overall in the report, passengers spend just two per cent of their household budget on public transport fares.

With rail fares set to increase a further 3.8 per cent next week, along with London tube and bus fares by 4.8 per cent, Campaign for Better Transport is calling the report ‘a wake-up call for the UK government’. The transport charity is calling for more action from central government to make buses and trains affordable. Helping more people to use public transport is essential to tackling air pollution and traffic congestion in cities, as well as meeting our net zero targets.

Paul Tuohy, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “This report makes clear the link between the cost of public transport and efforts to decarbonise transport and must therefore act as a wake-up call for the UK Government. We currently have a situation where it is often cheaper to drive or fly short distances than take the train or the bus, whereas the greenest option should always be the cheapest. We need more affordable public transport to help us achieve the government’s vision where public transport, cycling and walking are the first choice when it comes to transport.”

When ranking overall progress towards achieving zero emission mobility, London came 12th in the overall rankings with a score of 55.8 per cent. Birmingham was 17th with a score of 52.8 per cent and Greater Manchester was 30th with a score of 42.1 per cent.

Oliver Lord, UK Head of Clean Cities Campaign, which produced the report, said: “The only way to address our air pollution and climate crisis is to ensure public transport is a cheap, reliable and accessible alternative to the car. Our new report shows that UK cities have the least affordable public transport in Europe, which will inevitably get worse given this government’s decision to increase fares in a cost of living crisis. This government should be helping, not hindering, our cities to play their role in meeting the UK’s clean air and climate goals.”

To improve affordability and help ensure the greenest transport option is always the cheapest, Campaign for Better Transport is calling for the UK government to:

  • Introduce Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) ticketing with daily price capping within towns and cities as soon as possible
  • Improve the flexible rail season ticket offer to ensure it provides comparable savings to a full-time one
  • Expedite the promised reform of rail fares and ticketing to provide more affordable options and eliminate inconsistencies
  • Improve incentives for bus operators to implement contactless payment options and cross-operator ticketing.

Mr Tuohy added: “We are running out of time to tackle the climate crisis. Transport is still the biggest single emitter of carbon in the UK. The government must do more to get people using public transport by making it more affordable and encouraging its use.”


Read the full report.

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Notes to Editors

  • Public transport affordability was determined using the monthly public transport cost as a percentage of the average household income. A full ranking of the affordability index is available on page 28 as Table 3-7 of the technical report.
Rank for public transport affordability City Cost of monthly travel pass Average house-
hold size
Average annual household income Average monthly household income Indicator (Share of household budget required)
34/36 Birmingham £105
TfWM zones 1-3 card
2.41 £38,544 £3,212 7.9%
35/36 Greater Manchester £126
28-day System One Adult County Card*
2.35 £39,507 £3,292 9.0%
36/36 London (Inner) £167.10
TfL price cap for zones 1-3**
2.68 £55,777 £4,648 9.6%

*System One Adult County Card can be used on any train in Greater Manchester as well as on Metrolink trams in Zone 1 only. Adding Metrolink services to all four zones within Greater Manchester would add an additional cost of £69.60 per month. As tram, train and bus services in Greater Manchester are not fully integrated, it is challenging to draw a direct comparison with services in Inner London when assessing accessibility and affordability. For example, a single hopper bus fare in London is £1.55, with free travel within an hour on other buses and a maximum cost of £4.65 for bus travel in any given day. One single ticket bus journey in Greater Manchester can be as much as £4.50.

**On the affordability of public transport in London, the city authority has to raise 72 per cent of its operating income from passenger fares owing to national policy, whereas it is only 47 per cent in Madrid and 38 per cent in Paris. This must be a key consideration when evaluating why the cost of public transport in London is higher compared to other cities. This report has used a monthly Zone 1–3 London travelcard for comparison but it is worth noting that a monthly travelcard excluding tube journeys (i.e. bus and tram only) is 50 per cent cheaper at £84.10.

  • The UK has a legally binding target of net zero by 2050 and new interim targets to reduce emissions by 78 per cent by 2035. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has set a target for London to be net zero carbon by 2030; Manchester has set a target of 2038; and Birmingham aims to achieve net zero carbon by 2030, or as soon as possible thereafter.
  • Regulated rail fares, including season tickets, some off-peak return tickets on long distance journeys and anytime tickets around major cities, make up almost half (45 per cent) of all fares and will rise 3.8 per cent on 1 March 2022. Increases are set by the Government
  • Fares on TfL services will rise by 4.8 per cent overall on 1 March 2022.
  • There is evidence to suggest that a rise in rail fares leads to a reduction in passenger numbers. A 2003 report by ITS Leeds found that for suburban rail, a fare increase of five per cent leads to a three per cent reduction in patronage, and for inter-urban rail a fare increase of five per cent leads to a 4.5 per cent reduction in patronage. This calculation was done at a time when commuters were a very large proportion of rail travellers and were a fairly captive market. Since widespread working from home has become established during the pandemic, commuter journeys are now much more discretionary, on a par with leisure travel. Hence fare increases will lead to an even larger reduction in patronage.
  • Transport is now the biggest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for 28 per cent of all UK GHG, but different vehicles make different contributions to this. Collectively, cars are the main contributor of GHG (55 per cent), followed by lorries and vans (32 per cent), while buses, coaches and rail collectively account for less than five per cent. (Department for Transport (2019), Table ENV0201 (TSGB0306): Greenhouse gas emissions by transport mode: United Kingdom, 1990-2017).
  • Clean Cities is a European coalition of NGOs and grassroots groups campaigning for zero-emission urban mobility by 2030
  • The report used official or widely accepted references (such as the World Health Organization air-quality guidelines or the EU’s ‘vision zero’ for road safety). Where such references didn’t exist, a best-in-class approach was used. Ricardo Energy & Environment carried out the data collection and analysis using European-wide datasets where possible while also contacting each city for additional information. For more information read the methodology.
  • Campaign for Better Transport operates in England and Wales. Campaign for Better Transport’s vision is for all communities to have access to high quality, sustainable transport that meets their needs, improves quality of life and protects the environment. Campaign for Better Transport Charitable Trust is a registered charity (1101929).