Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

The stupidest target in British transport

By aiming policy at time savings, not land values, we produce all manner of perverse results

Two books to recommend to my fellow transportation nerds: Travel Fast or Smart? A Manifesto for an Intelligent Transport Policy by David Metz, formerly chief boffin at the Department for Transport; and Are Trams Socialist? Why Britain Has No Transport Policy by Christian Wolmar. The first is excellent throughout, the second is excellent right up to the final pages when, as many British transport commentators are liable to do, Wolmar rhapsodises about European approaches to city planning with their ‘bicycle superhighways’ and, yes, those bloody trams. You know the kind of thing: ‘In the Norwegian port of Slartibartfast, all cars are banned from the city centre before midnight, and the high street has been converted into an organic kale farm.’

That aside, both books make excellent and related points. Metz is a proponent of the idea of ‘peak car’. He believes, plausibly I think, that the appetite for motoring has natural limits, and that other factors — growing urbanisation; online shopping; the proliferation of supermarkets; home-working — mean that even if car ownership grows, car use might not. Currently the DfT predicts that use will grow by another 50 per cent in the next 25 years. Like Metz, I don’t buy this. Much of the past growth came about for reasons which won’t be repeated (in 1975, only 29 per cent of British women had a driving licence).

Yet British transport expenditure is apparently based on the principle of ‘predict and provide’. Even if you can ‘predict’ more than a few years ahead, which I doubt, it seems ludicrously passive merely to provide for what you predict. A proper transport policy should aim to change behaviour, rather than just react to it.

But the dumbest part of UK travel planning, which both authors rightly attack, is the use of time savings as the sole economic metric to justify investment.

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