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.

The Transport Planning Society recently held a meeting on the topic of whether appraisal methods for new transport investments are fit for purpose.  I have been critical of the conventional methodology since it disregards changes in land use that result from the increased accessibility made possible by improved transport. I was a speaker at this meeting, see the video.

The discussion was lively, and I look forward to continuing the debate in other venues.

The Guardian reports the latest version of Google’s driverless car, a two-seater city car without a steering wheel. Taxi drivers are concerned that they might be displaced. That is possible since a driverless car is essentially a taxi with a robot driver. We would make more use of taxis if they were cheaper. But road transport would be be little changed, I suspect, with traffic congestion the main problem.

The Financial Times reports growing sales of electric bikes in Europe, 850,000 sales in 2012, and 400,000 last year in Germany. Manufacturers include Bosch, Daimler and BMW. In China, 30m are sold annually.

The electric motor kicks in when you start to pedal and then only with a force commensurate with your own efforts. Electric bikes overcome two disadvantages of ordinary bikes: hills and getting damp from sweat.I look forward to trying one.

 

The Independent Transport Commission has published a useful report on automated cars, authored by Scott Le Vine and John Polak of Imperial College London. The tone is generally agnostic: ‘The impacts will be mixed, some good and some bad, and there will no doubt be surprises and unintended consequences along the way.’

I am skeptical about the impact of driverless cars on the transport system. They would be essentially taxis with robot drivers. Taxis are useful, and we would make more use of them if vehicle automation brought down the costs, but the impact on road speeds and congestion does not seen likely to be large.

 

The Financial Times reports that central Manchester is Britain’s most vibrant urban area, the result of a flow of young professionals and students into this former industrial city. This reflects a nation-wide revival of city living.

One consequence is the declining interest in cars amongst the urban young, for whom this is not a central part of their way of life.

When asked which technology would have most impact on the daily routine if lost, 18-34 years olds in the US attach more importance to their computers and mobile phones than to their cars. For older age groups, the car remains the more important, according to a Zipcar survey. Use of transportation apps reduces driving frequency by 25% for this younger age group.

These findings add weight to the idea that there is a significant change in car use by younger people, driven in part by uptake of digital technologies.