Archive for February, 2010

The economics of high-speed rail

February 23, 2010

Notebook and Thermos time again. Last week’s slightly weird dust-up between Andrew Adonis and Theresa Villiers highlights two things. First, how tortured the politics of high speed rail are becoming. Second, how murky the concrete costs and benefits remain.

Politically, a fast North-South line should be a done deal. Both main parties want it – but for different reasons, and probably going different places. HS2 is also getting entangled in highly sensitive planning questions, especially for the Conservatives. The Tories want a highly localised, ‘open source’ planning system – but also, room for nationally-driven infrastructure that goes straight through various safe seats.

As with the Channel Tunnel, a surprising number of people are desperate to get away from major investments designed to make their lives easier. (In California, by contrast, one of the main problems facing High Speed Rail proposals is that everyone wants to be on the line.)

We’re still not much clearer on what will actually deliver, economically and environmentally (something I complained about in a previous post). Happily, SERC has just published a new paper [pdf] which gives us some pointers.

The researchers look at the economic impacts of the Frankfurt-Cologne ICE line: 120 miles long, about the same distance as London to Birmingham. In theory, better links between cities bring people closer together, raising their productivity. The researchers isolate this effect by concentrating on new stations with no prior rail links. They find a 1% increase in market access raised GDP by 0.25% around towns on the line. These effects were highly localised, dropping off within about 30 minutes’ drive time.

Importantly, the research suggests these benefits are probably permanent – putting in a new rail line changes the underlying connectivity of the area, which then shifts firms’ and households’ location decisions.

Overall, the authors suggest that HSR both delivers significant additional economic benefit. And it’s good value for money – if gains are permanent, there should be big future fiscal payoffs from higher tax receipts.

That still leaves some big policy questions:

1) The SERC work only looks 4-5 years post-investment – so we don’t know what the really long term impacts of HSR will be (papers like this take a deeper view).

2) We also don’t know impacts for big, well-connected cities. If they are the major gainers from connectivity improvements, HS2’s impact on spatial disparities may be limited.

3) It’s hard to say whether people will switch from planes to faster trains (a modal shift) or use more of both. The answer makes a big difference to the environmental footprint of high speed rail.

4) How to actually fund and deliver the thing.

I’m sure we’ll get answers to some of this when the Government eventually publishes the HS2 report and its own ideas – both of which will be appearing, according to the Transport Minister, ‘before the election’. At which point we can settle down to round 2 of Adonis vs Villiers …

The magic roundabout

February 12, 2010

Ah, the perils of place branding. Wired have re-upped their ‘Silicon Roundabout’ story, highlighting the cluster of tech and new media firms around the Old Street / City Road junction in East London (thanks to Eric and Mat for pointing me to it).

The magazine reckons there are now about 85 firms in the neighbourhood, including Dopplr, and (who make my lovely business cards). That’s exponential growth since Matt Bidduplh’s original 2008 map. Along the way it’s picked up a Wikipedia entry, props in the FT and a (slightly self-conscious) support group.

 There’s only one problem here. Almost none of the firms are *actually on the roundabout*, or even near it. Look at Wired’s picture again. These companies are almost all down the road in, er, Shoreditch – or in one case, way out in Bethnal Green.

Obviously ‘Silicon Roundabout’ is a good meme (here I am writing about it, after all). And it means people don’t have to say they work in Barley-esque Shoreditch. But it fails completely as a descriptor for a real cluster, or even a spot on the map. It’s also nothing like Silicon Valley, which is a continuous sprawl stretching halfway across the Bay Area, including several cities along the way. Silicon Roundabout is  Trumpton to the South Bay’s Sim City. But that’s another story.

Charter Cities

February 5, 2010

To Prospect last Monday morning for a breakfast seminar with economists Paul Romer and Paul Collier. We were there to discuss Romer’s idea of ‘charter cities’: a new form of aid in which a poor country invites a rich country to set up a city-size development zone, which it runs according to rich-country rules.

This might sound slightly eccentric – what’s wrong with just giving money? But both Romer and charter cities are worth taking seriously. In the 1990s, Romer was one of the originators of endogenous growth theory, which is now the basic framework for thinking about how economies evolve. He’d spent the past week in Davos, pushing the charter cities idea around. And during breakfast Paul Collier, one of the best development economists in the world, also gave it a qualified thumbs up.

Romer’s basic idea is simple. Strong rules and institutions help economic growth; so do cities. The world is urbanising: but in the global south, most people are packed into chaotic cities, often in slum neighbourhoods, which lack good governance and basic infrastructure. So poor countries need to set up new, city-size special economic zones with robust rules and institutions. Charter cities would allow partner countries to come in and run these cities for the common good, in theory accelerating economic growth and providing the basic housing and infrstructure citizens in poor countries need.

Collier gave the idea cautious support, although he warned it was ‘three leaps in one’ – running against development orthodoxy, and not easy to implement. Most people will live in cities in the future. In the south, coastal megacities will thrive because they have both scale and physical access to the global economy. Equally, good governance is critical to long term growth. There is already an international market in rules: in African partner countries, China typically uses dispute resolution agreements that refer to English law.

Much of the discussion focused on politics, and the need to set rules and local buy-in. I made three more urban points. First, if successful charter cities are coastal (like Hong Kong or Shenzhen Special Economic Zone), what can landlocked countries do? Romer suggested that a third country could as a ‘host’ – which works in theory but makes implementation very complex.

Second, would extending existing cities be a better solution? We know that agglomeration economies are basically non-linear. So if we accelerate the growth of successful cities, we get bigger economic returns than growing new ones from scratch. Romer thought both options would work: Lagos is currently masterplanning a new city alongside the existing one, potentially doubling its population.

Third, how long would it take for new cities to grow? Brasilia was founded in the mid-Sixties and is still under-developed, with big tracts of empty space. There was some discussion about this: Paul Collier pointing to very rapid urbanisation in the UK and US during the late 19th century.

I left feeling at least partly convinced the charter cities idea could work. Chinese cities like Shenzhen or (in theory) Dongtan show what might be achieved within a single country with top-down (and non-democratic) government. However, in the rest of the world implementation is probably going to be a lot messier, and the results less clear cut. However, it’s probably worth a shot. As Haiti begins post-earthquake reconstruction, Dominican Republic (or French)-sponsored charter cities might be a useful tool in the box.

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