A call for ‘fresh thinking’ that will only perpetuate the problem.
Details were recently published about how to enter for the third Wolfson Economics Prize. The Wolfson in question is Lord Wolfson of Aspley Guise, aka Simon Wolfson, Chief Executive of Next. He’s a life peer; as is his father, a former chairman of Next.
In addition to his direct business interests, Wolfson seems fascinated by Brexit, Garden Cities and roads. The first of his Economics Prizes was for proposals on how the Eurozone could be safely dismantled, and the second was for answers to the question “How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?” The question for his third prize is this:
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?
In his introduction to the new competition, Wolfson says “the aim is to bring forward fresh thinking to help people, governments and businesses develop practical policies. Successful entries will explain how their answers might win public support, as well as address technical and theoretical issues.” He goes on to describe the topic, road infrastructure, as “an issue at the heart of every country’s economic future.”
“Imagine the loss if the M25 closed and we bulldozed Bexleyheath. Now imagine the gain if we built new ones (1).
Ask any Londoner: what would happen to the capital’s economy if the North Circular Road, Westway flyover, Dartford Tunnel and M25 were all permanently closed? They would instantly comprehend the permanent damage to businesses, jobs and wealth, not to mention the misery it would impose on those living in the city. Yet we find it hard to imagine the vast amount of wealth that could be created by building new roads, flyovers and tunnels.
There is an intellectual battle that must be fought and won before any real progress can be made. Until the country comes to truly accept that building faster roads and new family homes creates wealth, it will always be an uphill battle for governments to develop them.
If we can win this argument, the potential for wealth-creating development is vast. We could build a series of flyovers into central London, allowing the wealth of the capital to spread outwards. For example, a “Southway” could allow people to drive from Croydon to Westminster in just 12 minutes (2).
If all political parties and the country accepted the principle of charging for new infrastructure, government could do the same. Charging for the use of new roads through tolls will not be popular, but it is the only way to afford decent infrastructure.
Even if we overcome misguided resistance to progress and if the State bankrolls profitable infrastructure, we must still overcome the greatest enemy of all: the leaden hand of the State itself, which reduces public (and private) development to a trickle.”
Classic, small-government stuff. Indeed, his throwaway (and ludicrous) reference in the Newsnight interview to “the extra little mini-roundabout that will make someone’s journey to work 20 minutes faster” is redolent of the ‘fewer signal controls = better’ mantra of the so-called Institute of Economic Affairs and their libertarian like. (If you’re in need of a good laugh, you could check out both the hogwash of the IEA’s ‘Seeing Red’ publication and Grant Shapps’ plagiaristic, embarrassingly naïve and even-more-embarrassingly-titled ‘We’re Jammin’)
A further clue to where Wolfson is coming from on this topic is to be found in his contribution to a July 2011 Transport Select Committee Hearing on HS2. He said that “93% of the motorised passenger miles in this country are done by road. So that is where we should be prioritising investment.” In other words, “Everyone drives. So we must enable them to continue to do so”. In his worldview, what individuals want – or seem to want, based on what they currently do – they should get; and it’s not the role of Government to know better.
This approach always reminds me of that part of the film Bruce Almighty where Bruce, given the powers (and responsibilities) of God, and driven to distraction by the millions of individual prayer requests, simply says ‘Yes’ to them all. Chaos ensues, of course.
One of the main reasons, if not THE reason, that we elect people to local or national office is to take decisions that individuals simply don’t have the knowledge or perspective to engage with effectively. Wise parents don’t grant their offspring’s every wish. In the same way, even a small Government has the responsibility to take a broader and longer-term view than individual members of the electorate will or are able.
To the detriment of all involved, what we chose was to prioritise ‘particular vehicles’ over ‘our civilisation’. We went about solving ‘the traffic problem’ in ways that have manifestly damaged our towns and cities, with each new ‘solution’ merely chasing its predecessor’s tail.
In continually seeking to make car travel easier by expanding the capacity of roads, and in enabling people to live ever further from the places where they work, study and play, we have created a situation where many people feel utterly dependent on their cars; and some actually are. I often encounter people for whom travel by car has become something of an addiction – a drug they can’t imagine doing without, and the denial of which they fear almost above all things – which has the effect of making them unable to be rational about proposals for alternatives. The instinctive howls of protest at almost any proposal to reallocate roadspace for ultimately more efficient purposes are evidence of the pangs of change many people feel at the prospect of reduced freedom to drive.
If people are able to be rational, they see things differently. The Chief Economist of INRIX (‘Global Leader of Connected Car Services and Movement Analytics’) – an organisation it would be hard to describe as anti-car, recently wrote a blog piece entitled ‘Congestion: a price worth paying’. The piece has been (ab)used to ‘prove’ that London’s new cycle infrastructure is bad for traffic and therefore bad for the city; but that’s not what it says. Rather, the piece summarises that, although there will be ‘short term pain’, it will be ‘for long term gain’.
We expect those whom we elect to govern us to be rational, don’t we? However big or small that government may be, we don’t want it to be capricious or to let its instincts over-rule evidence, do we? Despite the vogue for disparaging ‘experts’, and bearing in mind recent experience arising from that trend, we know that opinion alone isn’t a sound basis for important decisions. And yet, Wolfson’s approach – ‘the people either drive or want to drive, so we should help them drive’ – elevates wants above wisdom; and would therefore have the effect of feeding the addiction, not curing it.
In announcing his prize, he airs the familiar complaint that “road users pay far more to the Government in vehicle excise duties and petrol taxes than is spent on the system in return”. In doing so, he conveniently overlooks the many and considerable negative externalities of private motoring (collisions, pollution, destruction of the built environment, sedentary lifestyles, etc.). He also ignores the fact that successive Governments have invested colossal sums in (a) enabling travel on roads in private vehicles to continue to externalise those negatives, and (b) making it far easier for most people to travel that way than by other means. Since it’s an economics prize, I thought it worth mentioning the possibility that the market may have been distorted somewhat.
(By the way, in case you now fancy digging out data on how much past Governments have spent on different transport modes, I should (i) warn you that it’s nigh on impossible to work out exactly what the huge figures you’ll uncover have actually been spent on, and (ii) state that comparing investment across modes is not the point. The point is about what the effects of the investment have been. Investment in roads has had the principal effect of creating the demand for more investment in roads; and more roads have not only perpetuated the problems they were designed to solve, but worsened other problems (those pesky externalities) that we have usually chosen to put out of mind. If you were to describe it as throwing ‘good money after bad’, I wouldn’t blame you.)
Hemmed in by his orthodoxy, it seems, Wolfson is obliged to conclude that there can’t be a better way of travelling than by road, as fast as possible, and mostly in private vehicles; because that’s what people currently either do or would like to. At one level, I suppose, there is at least some consistency in taking this line. What I find much harder to comprehend is how intelligent people like him fail, or refuse, to grasp that their approach is a recipe for endless repetition of past mistakes.
Back in the 1950s, US urbanist Lewis Mumford famously described the practice of trying to solve congestion by increasing road capacity as being like trying to solve obesity by loosening one’s belt. The passing of the decades has not weakened the force of the simile.
Indeed, in 2009, Mumford’s point was reinforced by research published by Duranton and Turner for the US Bureau of Economic Research. In ‘The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion’, based on evidence from US cities, they found that vehicle distance travelled increases proportionately to highways and therefore that increased provision of roads is unlikely to relieve congestion.
(As it happens, they also found that increased provision of public transit, on its own, is also unlikely to ease congestion, and concluded that their findings strengthen the case for congestion pricing as a policy response to traffic congestion; in relation to which you could do a lot worse than read the recent blog post entitled ‘Congestion or congestion charging?’, by LB Hackney Councillor, Vincent Stops.)
Despite all the evidence that traffic capacity begets traffic, Wolfson seems unaware of any conflict between his proposal for numerous flyovers pumping traffic into central London with his view, quoted in a piece in the Sunday Times of 16th October 2016, that millions of people driving on UK city roads are wasting “countless hours in needless traffic”. Although I suspect that the word ‘jams’ was supposed to appear after ‘traffic’, I welcome the opportunity to observe that so much (private motor) traffic is (or could be made) needless; it being the product of our failure to have invested effectively in giving people more efficient, more benign and more convenient alternatives.
But it’s (high) time for me to finish, and the word ‘convenient’ gives me my cue.
In writing this, I think that Colin Buchanan – another who could not fairly be accused of having waged war on the motorist – managed to hit the nail more or less precisely on its head. Travel by private car in towns and cities simply isn’t essential to the economic health of those places in the same way that mass transit and goods traffic are. It is, nevertheless, currently found or thought to be the most convenient form of transport by many people; and this matter of convenience is key.
Enabling more and more traffic to go by road will do yet more damage to our towns and cities. But how does wise government go about dealing with this problem? The wise response, surely, is neither simply to bow to the wishes of individuals nor to insist that they use alternatives that are, or are considered, inconvenient. It is to make the more benign alternatives to private car travel more convenient. Or, put another way, better.
THAT is what we should be investing in.
Sir John Kingman, chairman of the Wolfson prize judging panel, correctly observes that, “The biggest challenge for policy makers in this area is not technical or financial, it is political – how to convince the public that there is a better way.” He goes on to say that, “The judges will be particularly interested in fresh thinking around this”.
However, as I’ve said, the terms of the prize constrain the scope for thinking that is really ‘fresh’. By being too narrow in how it conceives of this ‘better way’, it risks failing properly to address what I agree is the biggest issue – how to convince the public about the nature and scale of change that’s really needed. Within its current terms, ‘fresh thinking’ is limited to what will be little more than nudging or, more colloquially, rearranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship.
So I’ll close by suggesting that the question Lord Wolfson should really be asking for his prize is a small but important variation on his original. The red text below shows where I’ve made changes.
How can we pay for better, safer, more reliable ('road' deleted) transport in a way that is fair to ('road' deleted) users and good for the economy and the environment?
Even if you think your ideas are fresher than those that Wolfson is likely to entertain, I urge you to submit them to him anyway. I like to think it’ll do him good. And, you might just win £250,000!
(1) - Justifying the construction of new roads by saying there would be chaos if we shut the ones we already have is the kind of logic one might expect from a child.
(2) - I would be negligent were I to fail to warn Lord Wolfson that his proposal to enable folk from Croydon to drive to Westminster in just 12 minutes is likely to cause panic in the breasts of many well-heeled residents of the latter.