Public Leaders Network
Wednesday 30 August 2017 14.03 BST
Few drivers would consider leaving their house these days without a GPS device or traffic app to guide them. Time is money – and when assessing the benefit of investment in the UK road network, each minute saved can be converted into currency exchange.
Keeping vehicles moving is a multi-billion-pound challenge. After identifying and ranking 20,375 traffic hotspots in the UK, analytics company Inrix puts the cost to drivers of time wasted in congestion at an estimated £61.8bn over 10 years.
Such data, which is sourced from sensors embedded in traffic lights and roads, can then be used to inform design, planning and management decisions. In Denmark, the country’s second largest city Aarhus has been tracking traffic data for years, based on the movement of Bluetooth devices, to see the impact of construction projects, roadworks, traffic accidents and traffic lights. There is now an alert system in place, and authorities can decide whether countermeasures are necessary.
There is a prevailing theory that investing in infrastructure benefits the economy. The government claims every £1 spent returns £4 to the wider economy, with some of the likely rewards being improved business links, better-connected towns and cities, and unlocking land for new homes and businesses. Yet the extent to which better roads actually help improve prosperity remains an inexact science.
Steve Gibbons, a member of a London School of Economics team that has produced a series of reports on the subject, says any claims that infrastructure investment is a cost-effective way of generating growth should be treated with caution. “What all these things are doing is working out time savings-based benefits; the monetary amount attached to the time a person saves; a certain amount per hour – it’s not directly looking at the impacts on GDP,” Dr Gibbons says.
The team’s most recent research suggests that road-related accessibility improvements made in the UK between 1998 and 2007 increased local employment but offered relatively small economic benefits. Infrastructure investment of £1.8bn a year generated additional jobs worth about £1bn, while incumbent firms actually lost workers.
Nonetheless, the benefits of transport investment appear ingrained in government policy, with transport secretary Chris Grayling describing it as a “crucial strand” of rebalancing the economy at the launch of a new transport investment strategy in July. The government is proposing a new major road network for the country, in response to a Rees Jeffreys Road Fund study that identified 3,800 miles of A-roads in England that deserve special recognition because of their importance to the economic wellbeing of the country as a whole.
“It’s almost taken as a given that investment in roads must be a good thing. It is – as long as the roads actually perform well,” says Phil Carey, who co-authored the study. The proof of whether that is the case, he adds, comes with greater productivity and improved connectivity across existing and new businesses.
Highways England assesses the impact of major road schemes using the post opening project evaluationprocess, which focuses on changes to journey times and levels of congestion rather than economic impacts. The Campaign to Protect Rural England found that, of the 25 road schemes justified because they would benefit the local economy, just five had any evidence of economic effects.