Yaron Hollander is an experienced transport modeller, previously at Transport for London and now an independent consultant. He has written and published a book for beginners, which I warmly recommend. The style is accessible, jokey even, with cute hand-drawn illustrations. I learned a lot both from the the main expository text, and also from Part II, which discusses critically the culture of transport modelling.

Yaron argues that models work best for short term predictions of small scale interventions, such as fine-tuning traffic signal timings. But in practice models are mostly used to support investments in long lived infrastructure: here the modellers may understand the shortcomings, which their clients may prefer not to recognise provided the model outputs justify the planned investment.

Highways England has a major development of modelling underway to justify intended investment in 100 inter-urban road schemes. This ambitious project involves using mobile phone data to identify origins and destinations of trips, and the application of of the very fast computation that makes computer games possible. However, I would be surprised if many of the model outputs failed to confirm the investment decisions, given the scope for judgement about model inputs reflecting future developments, particularly traffic growth.

My conclusion is that transport modelling as it has developed is decidedly problematic. Models generally serve to confirm prior expectations, rarely to illuminate decisions.

My new book is one in a series of short books on policy and economics topics described as ‘essays on big ideas by leading writers’. My contribution is a critique of the inconsistencies of transport policy in recent decades, which I attribute to the shortcomings of conventional transport economic appraisal in identifying the benefits that arise from investment.  This book, Travel Fast or Smart?, is available both in print and as an ebook from Amazon Books


The National Infrastructure Commission has issued a discussion paper on the impact of technological change on future infrastructure supply and demand. I submitted a response (Metz NIC tech 9-1-17 ) in which I argued that the potential of digital technologies to increase the effective capacity of existing road infrastructure is not well understood. It would be worth the NIC commissioning an expert study, to consider the scope for a roads analogue of the Digital Railway, a concept that is gaining influence for rail infrastructure.

My new book published on 1 September is one in a series of short books on policy and economics topics described as ‘essays on big ideas by leading writers’. My contribution is a critique of the inconsistencies of transport policy in recent decades, which I attribute to the shortcomings of conventional transport economic appraisal in identifying the benefits that arise from investment.  This book, Travel Fast or Smart?, is available both in print and as an ebook from Amazon Books


The House of Commons Transport Committee is carrying out an inquiry into urban traffic congestion. I submitted evidence and appeared at an oral evidence session along with other experts.

Traffic congestion occurs in densely populated areas where car ownership is high. There is too little road space to meet all potential demand for car travel while maintaining reasonable flow. Accordingly, many possible car trips do not take place. People are deterred by the prospect of uncertain delays in congested traffic, so they change the timing of their trip, or the destination (alternative shops, for example), or the mode of travel (rail often faster than a car on congested roads), or decide not to travel at all (by working at home, for instance).

The implication of such suppressed demand for car travel is that measures to lessen congestion may have little impact. A congestion charge, as in Central London, would deter some drivers, but they would be replaced by others able to bear the cost who previously would have been dissuaded by the congestion delay. Increasing road capacity, while generally not feasible in urban areas, is seen by many as a solution beyond. However, this permits more and/or longer car trips, the extra traffic thereby restoring congestion to what it had been – hence the maxim that you can’t build your way out of congestion.

Congestion is self-regulating in the long run. As traffic builds up, speed drops and journey times increase. Some drivers opt for alternatives of the kind mentioned above, and congestion stabilises. Urban Traffic Management systems, which operate through adjusting the timing of traffic signals, help to prevent gridlock. However, congestion can be exacerbated in the short run by temporary blockages such as street works or major construction, and also while adaptation takes place to new permanent structures such as cycle lanes.

Assessment

There is little that can usefully be done to mitigate urban traffic congestion. On the other hand, the growth of urban car traffic can be contained by not increasing road capacity for cars, and indeed can be reversed by subtracting from such capacity. This is the experience of London Congestion Charging, which returned congestion to past levels and yet traffic volumes are lower than they were – because the Mayors took the opportunity offered by the Congestion Charge to take road capacity away from conventional traffic in favour of pedestrians, cyclists and other uses.

 

 

 

The Independent Transport Commission (ITC) has updated its earlier report on trends in road and rail travel, On the Move, to 2014. This is based on detailed analysis of National Travel Survey data by Peter Headicar and Gordon Stokes.

A key finding is that per capita distance traveled has been decreasing significantly over the past decade and is now 10% lower than in the mid-2000s. As author of a book (and this blog) entitled ‘Peak Car’, I was gratified to read that individual car driving mileage per adult has declined significantly over the period 1995-2014 (see Figure).

The main purpose of the analysis was to identify trends rather than the causes behind them, but the authors believe that attitudinal factors are becoming increasingly significant as drivers of travel. The ITC’s 2015 attitudinal research indicated that cars are increasingly viewed as ‘appliances not aspirations’, especially by young people, while public transport is being seen more favourably.
 Assessment
This report of the ITC provides valuable analysis of the Department for Transport’s National Travel Survey, well worth reading by those who follow the debate about the future of car use. This detailed consideration contrasts with the rather limited account provided by the Department itself.
The present study is consistent with the proposition that travel behaviour changed significantly as we transitioned from the twentieth century to the twenty-first.

My new book published on 1 September is one in a series of short books on policy and economics topics described as ‘essays on big ideas by leading writers’. My contribution is a critique of the inconsistencies of transport policy in recent decades, which I attribute to the shortcomings of conventional transport economic appraisal in identifying the benefits that arise from investment.  This book, Travel Fast or Smart?, is available both in print and as an ebook from Amazon Books.


Three studies of prospective road investments in the North of England have been published recently. These illustrate some of the questions that arise when the aim is to boost economic growth by increasing road connectivity between cities.

M60: Manchester North-West Quadrant

The NW section of the M60 orbital motorway within Manchester is one of the busiest roads in the country, on account of the mix of local and strategic traffic. Traffic congestion, local air quality and noise are considered to inhibit economic growth.

A number of road schemes are proposed to improve matters: new outer orbital roads to divert strategic traffic from the inner orbital M60, plus improvements to enhance capacity of the M60 itself. The benefits have been assessed, according to standard practice, on the basis of the value of journey time savings, which typically are quite small – up to 5-12 min for strategic long distance users and up to 3-5 min for local users. The capital costs are estimated at around £14 billion.

A public transport only scheme has also been considered but rejected since it offered no journey time savings for road users.

Northern Trans-Pennine Routes

This study addresses the most northerly major east-west road routes in England, currently underused on account of poor journey time reliability, high collision rates, high proportion of Heavy Goods Vehicles and lack of alternative routes if diversion is needed due to poor weather or road works. Parts of these routes are still single carriageway. Capital costs are estimated at about £5 billion. No quantitative estimation of benefits has yet been made.

Trans-Pennine Tunnel

This scheme involves a ‘bold concept’ – building a tunnel under the Peak District National Park to improve road connectivity between Manchester and Sheffield, with journey time saving of up to 30 min. Depending on the precise route, the length of tunnel would be 12-20 miles, longer than most road tunnels in Europe, costing £8-12 billion. No quantitative estimation of benefits has yet been made.

Assessment

The total cost of these three schemes is put at up to about £30 billion, which is twice the total investment planned under the current five year Road Investment Strategy. It is very hard to see how the economic benefits could justify such expenditure, not least because the evidence for benefits from improving the connectivity of cities around 50 miles apart in thin (see my discussion of Glasgow and Edinburgh, two well connected cities).

Moreover, standard economic analysis does not distinguish between benefits to commuters and to long distance users. As I have argued, in situations like the urban M60, where car commuters comprise 40% of morning peak traffic, it would be commuters that would take advantage of any increased capacity, leaving long distance users no better off – consistent with the maxim that you can’t build your way out of congestion.

Standard economic appraisal, based on time savings to road users, takes no account of the way transport investment makes land accessible for development and so contributes to economic growth. Such development results from investment in urban public transport, as for example at MediaCity in Greater Manchester. The rejection of public transport investment as a means of mitigating congestion on the M60 reflects this disregard of development in standard appraisal.

The construction costs estimated at this stage are not to be relied upon. Very likely ‘optimism bias’ is at work, underestimating costs and overstating benefits at an early stage, to ensure the project remains under consideration, consistent with a ‘bias to action’ on the part of promoters and their agents when there is an opportunity to spend other peoples money.

On the other hand, the estimates of fairly small time savings are consistent with the outcomes of previous road investments, raising a question about the nature and value of incremental investment in a mature road system that generally provides dual-carriageway or better connectivity to all major cities.

What is entirely missing from these studies of road investment is any consideration of how digital technologies might help meet the needs of users, technologies that can be far more cost-effective that the very expensive civil engineering technologies that have dominated thinking about the road system. This is in marked contrast to the railways where the virtues of the ‘digital railway’ are increasingly recognised.

There is too much wishful thinking about the economic benefits of investment in road infrastructure, particularly in the context of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the North of England seen as a region with unrealised economic potential. More rigorous analysis is needed, otherwise outcomes will be disappointing.

 

 

My new book published on 1 September is one in a series of short books on policy and economics topics described as ‘essays on big ideas by leading writers’. My contribution is a critique of the inconsistencies of transport policy in recent decades, which I attribute to the shortcomings of conventional transport economic appraisal in identifying the benefits that arise from investment. A column in The Spectator magazine of 26 September described my book as ‘excellent throughout’. My book, Travel Fast or Smart?, is available both in print and as an ebook from Amazon Books.


I attended a meeting about Urban Mobility last week, hosted by Uber at its Amsterdam office. Uber wishes to be seen not just as a buccaneering start-up, disrupting taxi businesses around the world, but as having a significant role to play in the urban travel ecosystem.

Uber has developed an advanced model of Demand Responsive Transport, historically seen mainly as a means to meet the mobility needs of people with disabilities who are not able to drive or use public transport, often known as Dial-a-Ride. Uber is exceptionally dynamic, matching supply and demand by means of ‘surge pricing’ whereby prices rise at times of high demand (expressed as a multiplier of the basic price, eg 1.5 times). This serves both to deter demand and attract more drivers to the area.

The Uber smartphone app functions in many major cities and beyond, which makes it well suited for travellers. The app incorporates feedback from both users and drivers, which helps to improve behaviour and performance. Drivers are monitored and receive feedback on their performance.

Uber collects data on every trip. This allowed the impact of the opening of the London Night Tube to be seen: fewer trips in the early hours from Central London to the suburbs, more trips from suburban stations for the last mile or two to home. Here Uber meets a need not met by black cabs, more conveniently than local minicab firms. More generally, Uber is seeking opportunities to supply mobility to those without a car in circumstances where public transport provides limited or no service.

A significant development is UberPOOL, which allows users to opt for sharing the journey with others going in the same direction, for a lower fare. This has been well accepted in San Francisco, where 40% of trips are in this mode. Sharing increases vehicle occupancy and hence improves the efficiency of the road system, but will work only where a high level of Uber use allows matches to be made.

As regards its business model, Uber sees itself as an intermediary linking customers to taxi drivers, earning a fee for this service, but not itself providing transport services. The drivers are therefore not seen as employees or workers, subject to constraints on working hours or minimum pay. However, the status of Uber drivers in London has been the subject of a recent Employment Tribunal judgement (a useful source of information; a short summary is available). The Tribunal judged that Uber runs a transportation business for which the drivers provide skilled labour. The drivers are not employees but are ‘workers’ with a variety of legal rights, including to receive the minimum wage and holiday pay. Uber plans to appeal.

Assessment

Uber is making a significant contribution to meeting needs for urban mobility, in part by competing in the taxi market with a superior service, and in part by meeting demand not served by other transport modes. UberPOOL has potential to improve road system efficiency.

The transport sector has traditionally been a source of relatively stable and fairly remunerated employment, mainly for men who could be the main provider for families. Contributory factors include the strength of trade unions, the vulnerability of services to interruption in the event of labour disputes, and the inability to outsource to overseas labour. However, this is changing, as exemplified by Uber, in parallel with wider developments in the economy that are resulting in the growth of self-employment, temporary employment and zero hours contracts, which tend to reduce both earnings and job security and contribute to growing inequalities in society. We are beginning to see political recognition of these developments.

The question is whether the Uber business model can remain competitive if it has to pay its drivers more. It is interesting that the business model of a competitor start-up in New York City is based on doing just that.

My new book published on 1 September is one in a series of short books on policy and economics topics described as ‘essays on big ideas by leading writers’. My contribution is a critique of the inconsistencies of transport policy in recent decades, which I attribute to the shortcomings of conventional transport economic appraisal in identifying the benefits that arise from investment. A column in The Spectator magazine of 26 September described my book as ‘excellent throughout’. My book, Travel Fast or Smart?, is available both in print and as an ebook from Amazon Books.


The National Infrastructure Commission has issued a report on the corridor connecting Cambridge to Oxford via Milton Keynes, in response to a request from the Government for proposals to optimise the potential of this knowledge intensive cluster that competes on a global stage.

The Commission’s national remit does not extend to housing. Nevertheless, its central finding in the present study is that a lack of sufficient and suitable housing presents a fundamental risk to the success of the area. Investment in infrastructure, including enhanced east-west transport links, can help to address the challenges, but it must be properly aligned with a strategy for new homes and communities, not developed in isolation. This means local authorities working in partnership, and with national government, to plan places, homes and transport together.

The Commission recommends that planning for the East West Rail route and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway should be taken forward urgently, as investments that will deliver substantial national benefits and, if designed properly, can provide the foundations for the corridor’s long-term prosperity: unlocking housing sites, improving land supply, and supporting well-connected and sensitively designed new communities, whilst bringing productive towns and cities closer together.

Assessment

The Commission’s recognition of the importance of planning transport investment to unlock land for housing and to facilitate access to employment is very welcome. However, the orthodox approach to transport economic appraisal focuses on time savings to travellers, which is unhelpful in making decisions about best value for money in this context. A new approach to appraisal is needed.

The Commission’s recommendations for strengthening rails links within the corridor are more persuasive than those concerning road improvements. Increased road capacity in an area of housing development would result in roads filling up with commuter traffic, consistent with the maxim that we can’t build our way out of congestion. Conventional economic appraisal of road investments does not distinguish between benefits to different classes of road users – commuters, long distance business, freight etc. Yet such understanding is important if road investment is not to disappoint.

 

My new book published on 1 September is one in a series of short books on policy and economics topics described as ‘essays on big ideas by leading writers’. My contribution is a critique of the inconsistencies of transport policy in recent decades, which I attribute to the shortcomings of conventional transport economic appraisal in identifying the benefits that arise from investment. A column in The Spectator magazine of 26 September described my book as ‘excellent throughout’. My book, Travel Fast or Smart?, is available both in print and as an ebook from Amazon Books.


Yesterday the Government endorsed the proposal to build a third runway at Heathrow, as recommended by the Airports Commission in its final report of July 2015.

There has been much agonising, mainly on account of the environmental impact – noise and local air pollution – of adding capacity to an already large airport within the bounds of London. MPs representing affected constituencies are generally opposed, with Conservatives reportedly to be given some licence to speak their minds. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is also opposed, preferring expansion at Gatwick, well away from his domain.

But yesterday’s decision is less the beginning of the end, more the end of the beginning. The process for delivering planning consent for airport expansion will include an ‘Airports National Policy Statement’ (NPS), following which the scheme promoter would need to apply for a development consent order. Such National Policy Statements for infrastructure developments are a statutory requirement, involving a process of public consultation of a draft document and parliamentary scrutiny, before being finalised. They provide the framework within which Planning Inspectors make their recommendations on specific planning applications, and are intended to prevent national issues being reopened at planning inquiries.

Consultation on the Airports NPS would probably take around a year, given the range and contention of the issues involved, and would allow all parties to have their say. Concerns about local air pollution will be prominent. Unpublished (and disputed) research at Cambridge University is reported as arguing that the marginal increase in NO2 associated with airport expansion would be against the background of reduced NO2 from other traffic, because of Euro 6 engines and electrification of the traffic fleet.

There are also questions about the affordability of a third runway at Heathrow. Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways, has questioned the costs of expansion and the impact on landing charges: “I honestly can’t see how you can spend that much money on an airport and not discourage people from flying there.

Gatwick Airport has been arguing vigorously that it should be allowed to add another runway, which would be built faster, be less costly and have less environmental impact than Heathrow. An issue for the Airports NPS is whether Gatwick should have the option of expanding, as well as Heathrow, to achieve more competition. However, the owners of Stansted say they would launch a legal challenge were both Gatwick and Heathrow to be given the go-ahead, on the grounds that they had not been given the opportunity to present their own case for expansion.

When the draft NPS comes to be scrutinised in Parliament, there will be probing questions, not least from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Heathrow, which has identified sixteen serious risks that could stop or delay expansion. There is bound to be a vote to ratify the NPS, which likely to be a free vote to allow dissenting Conservative MPs to register the unhappiness of their constituents – so no assured outcome.

Evidently, there is a long way to go before construction could start at Heathrow. The timeline includes publication of the draft Airports NPS, public consultation, the Government’s response, parliamentary scrutiny and endorsement (all of which could take a year), a public examination by a Planning Inspector of the detailed plans (which could take another year), the Inspectors report, and the Secretary of State’s decision. In the meantime the finances would need to be agreed, including the necessary increase in airport landing charges to recover the costs, and the financing of surface transport provision.

It is worth recalling that planning consent for the Hinkley C nuclear power station was originally given in 1990, following a year-long public inquiry, but agreement to begin construction was reached only in September 2016. The delay was mainly due to difficulties about financing a plant that generates high cost electricity – a salutary warning of the length of time it can take for large contentious infrastructure proposals even to get to the point of starting construction.

A version of this article was published in The Conversation

 

 

 

 

I have a new book published on 1 September, one in a series of short books on policy and economics topics described as ‘essays on big ideas by leading writers’. My contribution is a critique of the inconsistencies of transport policy in recent decades, which I attribute to the shortcomings of conventional transport economic appraisal in identifying the benefits that arise from investment. A column in The Spectator magazine of 26 September described my book as ‘excellent throughout’. My book, Travel Fast or Smart?, is available both in print and as an ebook from Amazon Books.


Nottingham is a city unique in Britain in that it has taken advantage of national legislation, the Transport Act 2000, to introduce a Workplace Parking Levy. The consequences have been outlined in a helpful brief prepared by the Campaign for Better Transport.

Nottingham is a medium sized city with two universities and a tram system. The Levy was implemented in 2012 and applies to employers providing 11 or more parking places for employees, who must pay £375 per place per year. There are 42,000 workplace parking spaces in the city, of which 25,000 are chargeable. Operation of the levy is quite low cost.

The direct impact of the levy is to reduce car commuting, reinforcing the declining trend in car traffic shown in the Figure. The revenue of £25m raised in the first three years is ring-fenced for transport improvements, the indirect impact, for instance to help fund doubling to coverage of the tram network.

Assessment

Big cities like London, with dynamic economies and growing populations, are experiencing a declining share of journeys by car, as they invest in rail for speedy and reliable travel for commuters. A declining share for the car is associated with increasing prosperity, at least in big cities. But what of smaller cities? Do they do best by attempting to accommodate the car, the traditional approach? Or should they push back the cars, which impede economic, cultural and social interactions that make cities good places to live?

Nottingham’s experience suggests that bearing down on car commuting may make a useful contribution, even though it requires brave politicians to push through a Workplace Parking Levy against the inevitable initial opposition. The Levy has particular virtues: it impacts only on residents, not on visitors from out of town, who may have available competing  destinations for shopping and leisure activities; and because it reduces car commuting, it makes more road space available for buses at peak times.

Encouragingly, Nottingham ranked top in 2016 in the National Highways & Transport Network Satisfaction Survey carried out in 106 local authority areas by Ipsos MORI.

 

 

I have a new book published on 1 September, one in a series of short books on policy and economics topics described as ‘essays on big ideas by leading writers’. My contribution is a critique of the inconsistencies of transport policy in recent decades, which I attribute to the shortcomings of conventional transport economic appraisal in identifying the benefits that arise from investment. A column in The Spectator magazine of 26 September described my book as ‘excellent throughout’.


The Office of Rail and Road has responsibility for monitoring Highways England’s delivery of the Government’s Road Investment Strategy. This involves investment in England’s Strategic Road Network of £15bn over five years, with more to follow. The ORR has been consulting on how to carry out this task. My response to this consultation is as follows.

The economic rationale for investment in the road network is to generate benefits for users, including in particular the saving of travel time. It would therefore be appropriate for the benefits to users of Highways England’s investment programme to be evaluated as part of ORR’s monitoring process.

In general, traffic congestion on the Strategic Road Network (SRN) arises in or near populated areas, where local traffic adds to long distance traffic; remote from such areas, the traffic generally flows freely. From the perspective of orthodox transport economics, a congested road is an opportunity to invest by adding capacity. But how do road users experience the benefit?

Highways England has evaluated the outcome of ‘major schemes’ five years after opening. It finds that average time savings are small, 3 minutes at peak periods.[1] The economic case for investment depends on multiplying such small time savings by a large number of vehicles (and by monetary values of time saved). Nevertheless, it is relevant to ask how road users experience such small time savings.

While a few minutes time saving would not be material for long distance users, it could be significant to local users on short trips, in particular by allowing more opportunities and choices when changing job or moving house. Indeed, it seems likely that the main benefit of investment in additional capacity on the SRN would accrue to car commuters.[2]

It would therefore be important to understand the nature and distribution of the benefits of the investment schemes of Highways England, as experienced by different classes and locations of road users.

Transport Focus commissioned an Independent Analytical Review for a Road User Satisfaction Survey in 2015. This recommended the development of a continuous online survey of satisfaction using a representative panel of road users. Repeated surveys of a panel would allow trends in satisfaction to be monitored over time. Transport Focus is currently piloting this approach.[3]

Such a survey technique could in principle be used to track the subjective user experience of improvements to the network as a whole. Moreover, relating user experience to specific investments would allow the benefits of these to be understood, as experienced by different classes of road user.

Another approach, also using a volunteer representative panel, would involve monitoring individual travel patterns, based on mobile phone GPS location. This would provide an objective measure of changed travel patterns as the result of investment, and would allow identification of which users benefit, both as regards location, journey purpose and socio-economic characteristics.

Average travel time has been measured for the past 40 years by means of the National Travel Survey. It is noteworthy that average travel time has remained unchanged at about an hour a day, despite many £billions of investment in the road network. This indicates that there are no time savings to users in the long run. There is a therefore a question about the nature of long run benefits, which are mainly to be seen as changes in land use and land value, as land is made more accessible for development that can contribute to economic growth. Travel time savings are therefore short run and their duration needs to be monitored.

Summary

Given the very large expenditures planned for the SRN, it is important to understand the nature and distribution of the benefits of investment. There is an opportunity for the ORR to improve value for money by taking an analytical approach – tracking the experience of road users as this is improved by investment in the road network. Both subjective and objective change should be monitored, to understand the nature and distribution of the benefits of investment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://assets.highways.gov.uk/our-road-network/pope/major-schemes/POPE___meta_2011___main_report___final.pdf

[2] http://peakcar.org/valuing-travel-time-savings-problems-with-the-paradigm/

[3]http://www.transportfocus.org.uk/research-publications/research/strategic-roads-user-survey/#_ftn1