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Time to re-boot smarter choices

The conference chair Phil Goodwin here asks why we need to ‘Re-boot’ Smarter Travel and what ‘peak car’ may mean for the profession

Phil Goodwin
 

On 5-6 December there will be a conference on ‘Re-booting Smarter Travel’ in Bristol – it has Stephen Joseph and Norman Baker who will give keynote speeches. I shall be in the chair. 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, which offer a relatively easy, cheap and politically attractive way of improving travel opportunities.

So why ‘re-boot’? 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 there are on most of the public. 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.

A decade of discovery has shown that small, local, cheap improvements to the quality and ease of transport typically give benefit cost-ratios (BCRs) in double figures. Smarter travel schemes include 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. Their benefits may be 10 or 20 times as large as costs, or more, when compared with ratios in the range 1-6 of even the best infrastructure projects.

But not everybody fully understands these results, and some even casually reject them. There is genuinely a need for refreshing the knowledge base and understanding of the great measured benefits, and the very positive political goodwill, which 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, which 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. There will still need to be a much wider application of other methods to assist people with efficient and high quality transport systems. 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 which is suitable for either of the outcomes, but 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 would be 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 have little effect on that growth. I can remember at least four sets of 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, which once again endorsed the big effects and excellent value for money of the smarter choices toolbox. Most recently, a revised set of guidelines in the Department for Transport’s ‘Webtag’ manual again reverted to almost invisible impacts in the framework of modelling advice. This view was 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, gave credit for the scale of impacts possible.

Re-booting – the analogy extended

Re-booting in computing, at its simplest, involves nothing more than turning a computer off and then on again, enabling it to restart the processes which make it work. There are many reasons why re-booting 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) which interfere with each other. Without pushing the metaphor too far, there are definite signs that that 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.

On the one hand, smarter choices, formerly called ‘soft measures’ provide a general but profound set of influences on travel behaviour, empirically demonstrated time and time again as able to alter choices with little or no opposition, no natural opposition, little offence, and excellent value-for-money. While not free, they are remarkably cheap compared with major infrastructure development, and cheap in terms of controversy compared with the ‘big’ policy, which make travel cost more or restrict choices.

On the other hand, they 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.

The danger is that without resolving this underlying problem it 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, then it really will work, otherwise a more drastic reassessment will be necessary. 


Note: This is an extended version of an article, which appeared in Local Transport Today #606.


Phil Goodwin is professor of transport policy at the Centre for Transport and Society, University of the West of England. Email: philinelh@yahoo.com


Previous reviews of evidence

By 2004 there had already been seven previous evidence reviews, dating back to 1997. Six of those seven reviews had calculated that the maximum impact on total traffic levels would be a reduction of 10% to 15% nationally, and 15% to 20% (maybe 30%) in favourable local conditions. The seventh had calculated a smaller effect, about 5% at national level, which was because they had assumed a lower level of implementation.
Workplace Travel Plans: In 2002 evidence on best practice in 20 organisations indicated an average reduction in car driver trips of 18%, equivalent to 14 fewer cars arriving per 100 staff. Similar figures had been found in the USA and Netherlands.
School Travel Plans: Six reviews of evidence published between 2000 and 2003 found some reductions in car use of up to 50%, with most in the range 10% to 20%. A further study suggested that local authorities might expect to achieve an average cut in school car use of 8% -15% across all engaged schools, with substantial reductions at some schools (up to 50%), but with relatively little effect at others, particularly those where generating a travel plan document was not matched with subsequent travel initiatives.
Personalised Travel Planning: By the early 2000s reductions in car use of 2% to 15% had been reported from 17 PTP programmes, mostly in Australia and Germany. Overall, there were typical reductions in car driver trips of 7% to 15% in urban areas, and less robust indications of 2% to 6% in rural areas. The three Sustainable Travel Towns have given PTP more attention than to other smart measures. Our work on this will be finished on this evidence soon.


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