I talked recently to a group convened online by Connected Cities about the problems with the Department for Transport’s Transport Analysis Guidance (TAG, commonly known as WebTAG). My talk and slides (Problems with WebTAG 16-4-20) are available.
I have long been skeptical about the case for a third runway at Heathrow. The argument in favour concerns the growth of demand for business travel, yet most passengers at Heathrow are on leisure trips, so there is plenty of scope for increasing business travel by displacing leisure travel to other airports in the London area with spare capacity. In a blog posted in 2015 I suggested that Emirates Airline might fly from Stansted to its Dubai hub if demand for flights from Heathrow could not be accommodated.
I was therefore gratified to read in the Financial Times that Emirates is indeed launching next month a daily service from Stansted to Dubai. Other airlines are offering services from Stansted to New York: Primera Air and Wow Air. Stansted hosted 190,000 flights in 2017 but could accomodate 274,000 on its single runway.
A recent transport innovation with potentially a big impact is the dockless bike – for hire in urban areas but not linked to a permanent location or installed by or with permission of the local transport authority. Dockless bikes are linked instead to an app on the mobile phone, which allows payment for use, and are installed by entrepreneurs who see a business oportunity.
Dockless bikes have made a striking impact in China, with large numbers flooding the market and huge surpluses piling up – literally, as recent photojournalism in The Atlantic magazine vividly illustrates. Presumably, economic considerations will restore a balance between supply and demand in due course.
A witty follow up article in Slate shows pictures of extensive arrays of dockless vehicles in the US – in this case parked cars.
Another stage on the long-running saga of expanding the capacity of London’s Heathrow Airport is marked by publication of a report from the House of Commons Transport Committee. This considers the Government’s Airports National Policy Statement, which endorses the proposal for a third runway at Heathrow. The Committee goes along with this, subject to quite a number of caveats about environmental impacts and costs.
What struck me were the weakness of the case for a third runway (the Northwest Runway, NWR), as revealed by the Committee’s findings:
Figure 3 on p17 shows that the main impact of the runway would be to increase the numbers of leisure travellers and international transfer passenger. The extra numbers of business travelers are very small, yet the case for the runway is mainly based on the needs of the UK economy.
‘The benefits and costs the NWR scheme are finely balanced. Even small changes in assumptions or methodology could mean that the monetised costs of expansion via a NWR would outweigh the benefits.’ (p19)
While Heathrow is ‘full’ in respect of aircraft movements and landing/takeoff slots, it is not yet full in terms of passenger throughput since each plane is on average only 76% full and is not always an aircraft with the highest capacity (p40). Luton and Stansted have the equivalent of around one third of a runway to spare through to 2050. This means that passenger throughput for the London airports is forecast to rise by 27% out to 2050 without expansion at Heathrow (p42)
The forecasts show that an expanded Heathrow would accommodate more than three times more outbound passengers than inbound passengers (p48), a net economic deficit to the UK.
The NWR scheme would only offer only one new destination to emerging and fast-growing economies when compared with no expansion by 2050 (p49).
Airport charges at Heathrow are the highest in the world (p82). Could a further runway be financed without increasing charges, which would erode the economic benefits and deter use?
I am struck by the weaknesses in the case for building another runway at Heathrow. A key question for the future will be the ability of the airport to finance construction from private sector investors at a cost – both construction and financing – which the airlines and their passengers will be willing to pay via landing charges. The proposal may achieve planning consent but could prove to be commercially unviable.
Professor Anne Graham and I submitted evidence to the Transport Committee, which argued that the market for air may be more mature than generally supposed, and hence demand growth may be less than projected, with consequences for the business case.
The National Infrastructure Commission has sought evidence on how the deployment of intelligent traffic systems could help optimise the road network. I sent a response, found here Metz NIC traffic management 1-9-17
My argument is that we need to move beyond traffic management using traffic signals to management involving collaboration between public sector road authorities and the private sector suppliers of digital maps and route guidance apps, such as Google Maps and Waze. These apps have become very popular for turn-by-turn route guidance that can take account of, and help avoid, traffic congestion and provide estimates of journey time before setting out. These features help tackle the main problem of traffic congestion which is journey time uncertainty.
I would expect that collaboration between public and private sectors would improve both the experience for road users and the efficiency of network operations.
Lord Wolfson offered a prize worth £250,00 for the best proposal in response to the question: ‘How can we pay for better, safer, more reliable roads in a way that is fair to road users and good for the economy and the environment’.
The winner was Gergely Raccuja, a recent UCL graduate, now a transport planner with Amey Consulting. His proposal has the merit of simplicity: replace Fuel Duty and Vehicle Excise Duty, receipts from which are declining as vehicles become more fuel-efficient, with a per-mile charge that would depend on a vehicle’s weight (reflecting the damage caused to the road) and emissions (damage to the environment). The charge would be collected by the insurance companies, the new charge being in effect a supplement to the insurance premium.
The impact of congestion caused by a vehicle is captured in a crude way by a distance-related charge. However, the opportunity to relate the charge to the level of congestion was not taken because of the perception that it would be unpopular and hence prevent the new charging scheme being adopted.
Some of the other finalists for the prize proposed schemes involving charging that reflected in part the contribution of vehicle users to congestion, but these were not favoured by the judges.
It is very welcome that a new entrant to the transport planning profession was the prize winner, with a relatively simple proposal. But is it likely to be taken up? My sense is that implementation would not be seen as worth the effort and upheaval. Perhaps the main advantage is that electric vehicles would contribute to the costs of the road system, but for that purpose the proposal might be applied to EVs only, leaving Fuel Duty in place for vehicles with internal combustion engines.
The main shortcoming of the prize-winning proposal is the failure to address the problem of road traffic congestion and how it might be mitigated by charging. Public perceptions are important, of course, but I found it odd that there is no mention of London congestion charging, which has proved quite acceptable.
Any change to how we pay for roads should take the opportunity to ameliorate road traffic congestion, which is the biggest problem of the transport system. Arguably, the question set for the prize was misconceived, with its opening emphasis on ‘How can we pay for….’. It might have been better to ask ‘How can we achieve better, safer, more reliable roads….’
Bruce Schaller, an expert on urban transportation, has published an informative and insightful report on the impact in New York City of what he calls ‘Transportation Network Companies’ (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft. Use of these providers of app-based ride services has grown rapidly, more than doubling in each of the past four years. This reflects the popularity of the services offered, which reduce anxiety, uncertainty and stress, not least by providing assurance of a vehicle in situations where hailing the traditional yellow cab may be problematic.
The contribution of the TNCs to congestion has been a matter of controversy. The present report confirms a previous study carried out by the NYC authorities which found that worsening congestion was driven primarily by increased freight movement, construction activity, pedestrian volumes and record levels of tourism, all of which put growing demands on the streets’ limited capacity. However, use of TNCs continue to grow, raising the question of their future impact on congestion.
A key question is whether TNC growth is making more efficient use of scarce street space by putting more passengers in each vehicle, as with UberPool which offers low fares for trips shared with others? Or does it add to traffic by diverting people from high capacity services such as rail and bus, for which evidence of a recent decline in ridership is suggestive? The available evidence as a whole is insufficient for a definitive answer, but the report suggests that diversion is likely to be more important, implying that TNC’s add to congestion.
The report is concerned that TNCs are fundamentally undoing the cost incentives to use public transport. NYC taxi fares were traditionally set at about 4.5 times the subway fare to encourage the use of transit (public transport). However, as they cut fares, the TNCs are beginning the erase these disincentives to road vehicle use. These fares do not reflect the costs of time delays arising from congestion, hence there would be a case for some kind of congestion charging.
Congestion is self-limiting in that as traffic builds up, for instance from more TNC vehicles, speeds drop, trips take longer, and some road users make alternative decisions, for instance to travel at a less busy time, or to go to a different destination, or to use the subway. So it is not to be expected that growth of TNCs would worsen congestion in already congested parts of NYC. The switch of people from the subway to TNC services would be limited for the same reason.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has been issuing Discussion Papers for comment. I have previously blogged about the paper on technology.
Two further NIC papers are of interest: one concerns the relation between economic growth and the demand for infrastructure, where it is assumed that these are closely correlated. In my response (Metz NIC Econ growth 28-3-17 ) I argued that, for transport, this is far from the case, with demand saturation an important phenomenon.
The other discussion paper concerned the impact of population change and demography My response (Metz NIC population 23-1-17 ) drew attention to the importance for transport infrastructure investment of where a growing population is housed : greenfield housing leads to road investment, urban densification requires investment in public transport.
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.
‘Transport modelling – fact, forecast or fiction?’ was the topic of a well-attended meeting of the Transport Planning Society at which I was a panelist. I argued that there was occurring quite a lot of change in travel behaviour as we moved into the twenty-first century – not least the Peak Car phenomenon – which made the task of the modeller more difficult. Modelling of any kind assumes continuity between past and future, that past relationships (estimated as elasticities) will apply in the future, subject to changes in parameters exogenous to the model, such as growth in GDP, population and oil prices. If behaviour is changing, the best approach is to widen the range of forecasts by adopting scenarios which allow the model to explore the impact of a wider range of travel behaviour. An example is the generation by Department for Transport modellers of road traffic forecasts based on five scenarios applied to the National Transport Model.
I also drew attention to the experience of the Actuarial profession, which after the failure of a life assurance company had prompted a government inquiry, had put in place formal standards for actuarial analysis and a means for professional oversight of compliance. One standard deals with modelling, the language of which is quite general and would be relevant to other kinds of modelling, including transport modelling. So the actuaries’ arrangements show that it would be possible to put in place formal standards for transport modelling. However, for this to happen, there would probably need to be some kind of scandal, as happened to the actuaries.
One kind of scandal involving transport modelling has occurred in Australia, where a number of privately-funded toll roads have experienced usage far below the forecasts made when investors were approached to finance construction. This has resulted in litigation that in at least one case resulted in the transport consultant responsible for traffic forecasts paying out $200m. Were something similar to happen in Britain, I would expect a call to put in place standards for transport modelling.
My fellow panelists had their own concerns and solutions to achieve better transport modelling. My feeling from the meeting as a whole is that there is a needed to review systematically the current state of the art and to identify ways to improve. I hope the Transport Planning Society might act as a thought-leader, given the centrality of modelling to planning.