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Phil Goodwin: Issue 606 11 Oct 2012

Time to re-boot smarter choices

A good idea... but the underlying problems that have hindered their widespread adoption still need to be addressed

Phil Goodwin

On 6 December there will be an LTT-organised conference on ‘Rebooting Smarter Travel’ in Bristol – it has Stephen Joseph and Normal Baker giving keynote speeches, I shall be in the chair, and a gathering of other specialists – practitioners and researchers – will be gathering to work out how to cope with the way ahead. By every reckoning the current conditions ought to be favourable for a set of policy measures that offer a (relatively) easy, cheap and politically attractive way of improving travel opportunities.

So why ‘reboot’? There are two reasons why the question has arisen.

The first is because there are great financial pressures on national and local government, as indeed on most of the public, and there is a need for reassurance that any substantial expenditure gives good value for money, and is in accord with the political and economic priorities of the time. There is substantial evidence that smarter choices give very good value for money indeed – better than most infrastructure projects – in line with a decade of discovery that small, local, cheap improvements to the quality and ease of transport (such as local safety schemes, area traffic management, reallocation of road capacity to walkers, cyclists and public transport, and improvements to the public realm in town centres and areas of concentrated shopping and leisure activity) typically give benefit:cost ratios (BCRs) in double figures, with benefits that may be ten or 20 times as large as costs, or more, compared with ratios in the range one to six of even the best infrastructure projects.

But not everybody fully understands these results, and some even casually reject them. There is a genuine need for refreshing the knowledge base and understanding the great measured benefits, and the very positive political goodwill, that smarter choices bring.

The second reason is a by-product of the lively debate about ‘peak car’. If car use is not increasing, does this reduce the need for policy instruments intended to reduce it?

Now if the official view is right, that the levelling off of car use is a temporary phenomenon due to economic conditions, then smarter choices will remain as an essential set of instruments of policy to cope with traffic growth that cannot be solved by other politically acceptable or affordable methods. If there is a real structural change, however, then the argument is not exactly symmetrical. People using cars less does not of itself solve all the problems of mobility and access, and there will need to be a much wider application of other methods to assist people with efficient and high quality transport systems. Then it seems likely that the balance among the different smarter choice methods is likely to shift, as ‘dealing with excessive traffic’ becomes less of an issue but ‘providing good mobility solutions by means other than car use’ is by no means less important.

So one needs a short-term smarter travel strategy that is suitable for either of the outcomes, but then with the expectation that it will be fine-tuned in different ways according to whether the official, or alternative, view turns out to be right. That is an excellent example of a robust and flexible policy.

But there is a fault line in the tidy logic described above. In spite of the great merits of smarter travel, the reality is that its instruments provide a continual challenge to analytical orthodoxy. They do not fit easily into the longest-established set of forecasting tools, challenging either their behavioural assumptions or formal specification. Their benefits seem not to sit comfortably alongside the traditional ones of time and money saving. If the empirical results are taken at face value, they raise uncomfortable questions of whether the well-established modelling frameworks are as good as is claimed for them, and therefore raise questions about other policies also.

As a result, the view that traffic growth will recommence is technically associated with the view that smarter policies can have little effect on that growth. I can remember now at least four set battles – or, rather, the same battle repeated four times – along this fault line. The first was in 1992-4, when the dismissive couple of per cent attributed to soft measures in the multi-modal studies was challenged by the Department of Transport’s own literature review: a temporary victory for empirical evidence, but not a long-lasting one. The second stage was a reversion to tiny effects in the context of a model for assessing ‘carbon pathways’, when the calculations and forecasts once again reverted to a residual per cent or two attributed to smarter choices by comparison with the much larger impacts attributed to new technologies. The third was the experience of the sustainable travel towns, reinforced by the analysis of the Commission for Integrated Transport, once again endorsing the big effects and excellent value for money of the smarter choices toolbox. And, most recently, a revised set of guidelines in the DfT’s WebTAG manual again reverted to almost invisible impacts in the framework of modelling advice, challenged in the Campaign for Better Transport’s alternative guidelines which, by treating real experience as the main source, rather than links in a particular modelling train, once again gave credit for the scale of impacts possible.

Rebooting – the analogy extended

Rebooting in computing at its simplest involves nothing more than turning a computer off and then on again, enabling it to restart the processes that make it work. There are many reasons why rebooting is necessary, but one of the common ones is a problem caused by the incompatibility of two programmes (typically, an old well-established one and a recent update) that interfere with each other. Without pushing the metaphor too far, there are definite signs that this is happening with smarter choices – a deeply-rooted, and long-lasting, incompatibility between two arms of government, or two mind-sets of understanding, which give conflicting signals and threaten to weaken – or, at worst, paralyse – a most constructive and worthwhile instrument of policy.

The danger is that rebooting without resolving this underlying problem is doomed to go round and round the same policy-versus-modelling and empirical-experience-versus-model parameter cycles, apparently about every three years or so, for ever. With the new political and economic pressures, maybe at last the models can be revised to fit the world instead of the world having to be ignored to fit the model. If we can do that, this time the reboot really will work, otherwise a more drastic reassessment, or even de-installation, of the troublesome software is necessary.

Find out more about Re-Booting Smarter Travel

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