Posts Tagged ‘transport’

Evidence in a post-experts world

October 11, 2016

(c) The Thick of It / BBC

Something I wrote for the What Works Centre that I thought would be good here too.

*

The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth is three years old. So what have we learnt?

Two weeks ago we were in Manchester to discuss the Centre’s progress (the week before we held a similar session in Bristol). These sessions are an opportunity to reflect on what the Centre has been up to, but also to think more broadly about the role of evidence in policy in a post-experts world. In Bristol we asked Nick Pearce, who ran the No 10 Policy Unit under Gordon Brown, to share his thoughts. In Manchester we were lucky to be joined by Diane Coyle, who spoke alongside Henry and Andrew on the platform. Here are my notes from the Manchester event.

*

Evidence-based policy is more important than ever, Diane pointed out. For cash-strapped local government, evidence helps direct resources into the most effective uses. As devolution rolls on, adopting an evidence-based approach also help local areas build credibility with central government departments, some of whom remain sceptical about handing over power.

Greater Manchester’s current devolution deal is, in part, the product of a long term project to build an evidence base and develop new ways of working around it.

A lack of good local data exacerbates the problem, as highlighted in the Bean Review. The Review has, happily, triggered legislation currently going through House of Commons to allow ONS better access to administrative data. Diane was hopeful that this will start to give a clearer picture of what is going on in local economies in a timely fashion, so the feedback can be used to influence the development of programmes in something closer to real time.

Diane also highlighted the potential of new data sources — information from the web and from social media platforms, for example — to inform city management and to help understand local economies and communities better. We think this is important too; I’ve written about this here and here.

*

So what have we done to help? Like all of the What Works Centres, we’ve had three big tasks since inception: to systematically review evaluation evidence, to translate those findings into usable policy lessons, and to work with local partners to embed those in everyday practice. (In our case, we’ve also had to start generating new, better evidence, through a series of local demonstrator projects.

Good quality impact evaluations need to give us some idea about whether the policy in question had the effects we wanted (or had any negative impacts we didn’t want). In practice, we also need process evaluation — which tells us about policy rollout, management and user experience — but with limited budgets, WWCs tend to focus on impact evaluations.

In putting together our evidence reviews, we’ve developed a minimum standard for the evidence that we consider. Impact evaluations need to be able to look at outcomes before and after a policy is implemented, both for the target group and for a comparison group. That feels simple enough, but we’ve found the vast majority of local economic growth evaluations don’t meet this standard.

However, we do have enough studies in play to draw conclusions about more or less effective policies.

The chart above summarises the evidence for employment effects: one of the key economic success measures for LEPs and for local economies.

First, we can see straight away that success rates vary. Active labour market programmes and apprenticeships tend to be pretty effective at raising employment (and at cutting time spent unemployed). By contrast, firm-focused interventions (business advice or access to finance measures) don’t tend to work so well at raising workforce jobs.

Second, some programmes are better at meeting some objectives than others. This matters, since local economic development interventions often have multiple objectives.

For example, the firm-focused policies I mentioned earlier turn out to be much better at raising firm sales and profits than at raising workforce head count. That *might* feed through to more money flowing in the local economy — but if employment is the priority, resources might be better spent elsewhere.

We can also see that complex interventions like estate renewal don’t tend to deliver job gains. However, they work better at delivering other important objectives — not least, improved housing and local environments.

Third, some policies will work best when carefully targeted. Improving broadband access is a good example: SMEs benefit more than larger firms; so do firms with a lot of skilled workers; so do people and firms in urban areas. That gives us some clear steers about where economic development budgets need to be focused.

*

Fourth, it turns out that some programmes don’t have a strong economic rationale — but then, wider welfare considerations can come into play. For example, if you think of the internet as a basic social right, then we need universal access, not just targeting around economic gains.

This point also applies particularly to area-based interventions such as sports and cultural events and facilities, and to estate renewal. The evidence shows that the net employment, wage and productivity effects of these programmes tends to be very small (although house price effects may be bigger). There are many other good reasons to spend public money on these programmes, just not from the economic development budget.

*

Back at the event, the Q&A covered both future plans and bigger challenges. In its second phase, the Centre will be producing further policy toolkits (building on the training, business advice and transport kits already published). We’ll also be doing further capacity-building work and — we hope — further pilot projects with local partners.

At the same time, we’ll continue to push for more transparency in evaluation. BEIS is now publishing all its commissioned reports, including comments by reviewers; we’d like to see other departments follow suit.

At the Centre, we’d also like to see wider use of Randomised Control Trials in evaluation. Often this will need to involve ’what works better’ settings where we test variations of a policy against each other — especially when the existing evidence doesn’t give strong priors. For example, Growth Hubs present an excellent opportunity to do this, at scale, across a large part of the country.

That kind of exercise is difficult for LEPs to organise on their own. So central government will still need to be the co-ordinator — despite devolution. Similarly, Whitehall has important brokering, convening and info-sharing roles, alongside the What Works Centres and others.

Incentives also need to change. We think LEPs should be rewarded not just for running successful programmes — but for running successful evaluations, whether or not they work.

Finally, we and other Centres need to keep pushing the importance of evidence, and to as wide a set of audiences as we can manage. Devolution, especially when new Mayors are involved, should enrich local democracy and the local public conversation. At the same time, the Brexit debate has shown widespread distrust of experts, and the ineffectiveness of much expert language and communication tools. The long term goal of the Centres — to embed evidence into decision-making — has certainly got harder. But the community of potential evidence users is getting bigger all the time.

Save

Save

Save

High Speed Two, cities and the North-South divide

January 28, 2013

(c) The Guardian 2013

The Government has just unveiled the route map for the UK’s high speed rail network. So will HS2 help the cities on the line? Will it narrow the North-South divide, as some Ministers claim? And what about places left out?

Here’s what I wrote back in 2010, when the detailed modelling was done, and drawing on the international evidence. The punchlines are:

So what does HS2 mean for cities? Urban firms and travellers are the big winners, which is good news for cities if more productive businesses raise wages or employment. Some cities get the kudos of being on the line, and may get a regeneration boost from new stations – although that could turn into a windfall gain for developers. But fairly few firms will relocate, and agglomeration impacts will be pretty small.

On this basis, HS2 isn’t likely to fundamentally change the UK’s economic geography. Rather, it will speed up the economic geography we already have.

… Those who gain from HS2 (business, core cities, those in ‘the North’) are strongly in favour; those who lose (communities and homeowners along the line) are vehemently against. Local opponents of HS2 are hardly irrational – quite the opposite. So rather than handing a windfall gain to business by pegging HS2 fares to conventional fares, HS2 tickets should be pricier – at least in first class.  That provides another way for taxpayers to recoup some of the initial outlay. … The agglomeration benefits for Phase 2 (Manchester and Leeds) seem much larger than Phase 1 (London to Birmingham). Why? Rather than connecting two relatively distant cities, Phase 2 links a lot of nearby places (e.g. Sheffield/Meadowhall to Leeds in 20 mins), and provides indirect access to big cities not on the line (e.g. from Manchester to Liverpool). The fact of HS2 thus strengthens the case for complementary investments like the Northern Hub, which will bring Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds closer together.

*

Two other points. First, as John Tomaney argued on radio 4 this morning, the evidence suggests HS2’s economic impacts are pretty complex, and the net effect isn’t clear. Like him and others, I’m basically an agnostic.

Second,  to repeat – it’s crucial to spend money on better links between Northern cities and more London-centric high speed lines. As Richard Leese suggested in the same piece, for policymakers this is not an either/or. Thankfully Ministers agree, and are feeding cash into boring but important investments like the Northern Hub, as well as the bigger and shinier HS2.

*

Update, May 2013: The National Audit Office has published its own report, which echoes many of these points.

Facetime limited

December 5, 2010

What’s on sale here? Will Davies and I both have been puzzling over this ad on the Tube. Will’s worried about the politics of ‘facetime’, but I think there’s a more basic problem.

I can see the point of putting this ad up in (say) Barrow-in-Furness, or in the middle of the countryside. But if ‘facetime’ is the commodity, why offer Londoners access to 400 million people, when they can reach several times that number in the capital itself?

I would have thought that Birmingham’s comparative advantage in ‘facetime’ (or dynamic agglomeration-derived proximity benefits, to be precise) has to be usability, not quantity.

Core cities like Birmingham offer a good balance between size, speed and access. For the businesses targeted here, Brum has pretty good infrastructure, amenities and markets – but is also easy to navigate. Isn’t that the selling point?

London might be a megacity, but it also has to be one of the least usable and most frustrating places in the UK to travel around – as anyone stuck on underground reading this ad would realise …

On yer Boris Bike

August 25, 2010

Who actually uses Boris Bikes? Commuters, civil servants and city types. Who doesn’t? Shoppers and posh people. That’s the story so far, as suggested by data from the London Cycle Hire Explorerflagged in Londonist, and recycled in Wednesday’s Evening Standard.

The Explorer app is simple but powerful: it shows the 10 most and least popular docking stations across the capital. Obviously it’s early days, and usage will change (see below). And I’m just eyeballing the data – no fancy analysis here. First impressions:

1) Commuters are the main users – the most popular spots are mainly around the major stations – Waterloo (354 bikes yesterday), King’s Cross (305), London Bridge (256) and Liverpool Street (226). This is why TfL already wants to spend another £81m on new bikes and docking stations.

2) Biking to meetings and running errands also seem popular – viz heavy daytime (and lunchtime) use during the week in Covent Garden, (196) Strand (189) and Fitzrovia (187).

3) Weekend biking is on – judging by the past week at least, there’s no obvious drop-off on Saturdays or Sundays in the most popular spots. That suggests some tourists might be venturing out too.

4) There’s a bit of an East/West divide – six of the least popular docking stations are in West London, mainly Kensington (28 bikes) and Chelsea (25-29). I would have expected some use around Paddington and White City, but perhaps the Westway is putting people off. Support for scary road theory comes from other cold spots around Elephant and New Kent Road (26 each).

5) Alternatively, bike use is low in well-off neighbourhoods where residents prefer to drive, such as Kensington and Chelsea, Bayswater (27) and St John’s Wood (20). Or where serious shopping is going on (all of the above).  Obviously that’s just postcode stereotyping, but still – I bet there’s something in it.

*

The open data is incredibly helpful, and not just for urbanists. At one level the bike scheme is a gigantic social experiment – give people new tools for getting around the city, step back and see what happens.

There are useful parallels here with new technologies, especially portable gear like mobile phones. The lesson from these is that technology changes us, but we change it too, and unpredictably. In the jargon, use is endogenous to the user.  Texting is the classic example of user-driven innovation for mobiles: open platforms like Android are doing something similar for smartphones.

A lot of this happens through experimenting and messing about, and this is already happening with blue bikes – via mashups like the Explorer, or Barley-ish attempts at stunt riding. More interesting stuff is bubbling up at this user forum.

*

In turn, that suggests Boris Bike dynamics might look very different in a year’s time. So far, riders are currently making 19,000 journeys per day, not put off by bikes variously described as ‘like flying Ryanair’ (Jon Snow) and ‘like driving a tractor’ (anonymous friend).

That number could rocket up when Pay as You Go rates are introduced, and the early adopters are joined by loads of tourists and casual users. We could see new hotspots around St James’ Park, Baker Street and Tower Hill. And even bike snobs like me might get round to trying the thing …

High Speed Two: what’s in it for cities?

March 16, 2010

Originally posted March 2010, updates Jan 2012 and Jan 2013.

It won’t be here for another 15 years, but HS2 has triggered a mass outbreak of trainspottery enthusiasm. The Guardian even live-blogged Andrew Adonis and Sadiq Khan’s announcements, for goodness’ sake.   The big issues last week were route, timing and cost – so I want to focus on impacts, particularly for cities. I’m not sure these will be all they’re cracked to be.

Dermot has helpfully summarised HS2 and the Conservatives’ plans, and R&R round up the reaction here. It’s all fairly positive (although the headline numbers don’t add up – £30bn over 20 years is £1.5bn per year, not the £2bn quoted by DfT). All the positivity explains why the Conservatives feel they need separate proposals – more on those later.

Let’s take environmental impacts first. HS2 is being pushed as green infrastructure. But as Henry points out, the CO2 impact of the line isn’t at all clear: it could take reduce emissions by -0.41m tonnes, or raise them by about the same amount. This is a pretty small fraction of total UK emissions, and doesn’t seem to significantly change the overall cost-benefit ratio. However, the lack of certainty is a worry – and dents the line’s green image.

There’s more detail on the economic impacts (summarised above). The bulk of the benefits accrue to individual travellers and firms via time savings, which feed into productivity gains at the national level. Time savings also help increase competition between firms.  Labour market impacts are much smaller – it’s unlikely HS2 will dramatically change commuting patterns, for example.

In theory transport improvements boost urban agglomeration – and thus productivity – by improving linkages between firms, and between firms and workers. By bringing agents closer together, we improve cities’ ‘effective density’. HS2 modelling suggests that for North-South high speed rail, these impacts are pretty small – £3.6bn over 60 years, just over 10% of the overall benefits of the line.

This is partly because HS2 doesn’t connect anywhere that’s not already on the rail network. By contrast, SERC’s research suggests that plugging new cities into high-speed infrastructure delivers a bigger charge to output.

So what does HS2 mean for cities? Urban firms and travellers are the big winners, which is good news for cities if more productive businesses raise wages or employment. Some cities get the kudos of being on the line, and may get a regeneration boost from new stations – although that could turn into a windfall gain for developers. But fairly few firms will relocate, and agglomeration impacts will be pretty small.

On this basis, HS2 isn’t likely to fundamentally change the UK’s economic geography. Rather, it will speed up the economic geography we already have.

Two final points. First, for Northern cities, the big agglomeration gains will come from speeding up links into urban cores, or bntter connections between nearby cities like Manchester and Leeds. This is the message of the Eddington Report, and it’s important it doesn’t get lost.

Second, the final shape of HS2 may look quite different. Last week’s report also did some preliminary modelling of high speed lines to Scotland – much closer to the Conservative proposals. While there’s a ‘good case’ for a high speed link to Manchester, the early numbers suggest a ‘particularly strong’ case for lines to Leeds and the East Coast of Scotland. That implies a cash-strapped future government might want to choose between two halves of the Y – a very tough political choice indeed.

*

Update, Jan 2012: the Coalition has now given HS2 the green light. It’s also published some updated cost-benefit modelling. Three things stand out from this.

First, my analysis holds. The overall shape of benefits and costs is the same, although the recession and higher building costs have changed some of the numbers slightly. See page 10 for the new figures.

Second, the modelling almost perfectly explains the politics. Those who gain from HS2 (business, core cities, those in ‘the North’) are strongly in favour; those who lose (communities and homeowners along the line) are vehemently against. Local opponents of HS2 are hardly irrational – quite the opposite. This also suggests that rather than handing a windfall gain to business by pegging HS2 fares to conventional fares, HS2 tickets should be pricier – at least in first class.  That provides another way for taxpayers to recoup some of the initial outlay.

Third, the agglomeration benefits for Phase 2 (Manchester and Leeds) seem much larger than Phase 1 (London to Birmingham). Why? Rather than connecting two relatively distant cities, Phase 2 links a lot of nearby places (e.g. Sheffield/Meadowhall to Leeds in 20 mins), and provides indirect access to big cities not on the line (e.g. from Manchester to Liverpool). The fact of HS2 thus strengthens the case for complementary investments like the Northern Hub, which will bring Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds closer together.

*

Update, Jan 2013: we now have the detailed route maps for the full Y network. Note that these are ‘preferred routes’ – a lot of other cities (e.g. Liverpool, Warrington) are now going to push hard to be included. And it’s still possible that the two legal challenges may change the network shape, as well as slow down implementation.

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 …

High speed train-spotting

October 14, 2009

(c) Frank Baron / guardian.co.uk

California is the same size as the UK, but its public transport network is a lot worse. So perhaps it’s not surprising that High Speed Rail is a big deal here. What’s more surprising is how similar the debates seem to be turning out.

The California proposals seem further ahead than High Speed Two. In both cases there’s strong political support. Ex-Hummer driver Arnie is less evangelical than Lord Adonis, but he has put up serious money to push things forward. The California High Speed Rail Authority has a definite route, a start date – 2012 – and a slick website with impressive 3d fly-throughs. Meanwhile, the austere HS2 team is still ‘weighing high speed rail’s benefits against costs’, and only ‘where existing capacity is likely to be most constrained’. Set against Golden State optimism, it’s almost a parody of British bureaucratic restraint.

But elsewhere, there are clear parallels. First, how to pay for the thing? Both Labour and Conservatives will make high speed rail a manifesto pledge. But with the UK down £26bn a year, £34bn-worth of bullet trains seems a far-off prospect. California’s trainline is projected to cost a similar $45bn (£29bn). So far the State has committed about $10bn via a bond issue. Sacramento is now bidding for $4.5bn of Federal stimulus money: with matching local funds, that takes California towards the halfway mark. But it’s still nowhere near enough – something no-one seems that keen to talk about.

Second, the real costs of both projects will be much larger. None of these figures appear to factor in optimism bias, the tendency to under-estimate the costs of major projects, which suggests the true numbers could be two thirds as higher again.

Third, who’s on the line? California’s planners have made everyone happy by including almost every major settlement on the route, from Sacramento down to San Diego. But some stops could get chopped in future budget cuts – in which case, expect similar reactions like those in Newcastle recently.

Finally, who gains? The California plans emphasise the environmental benefits of HSR – reducing pollution and congestion. Economic benefits are almost an afterthought – apart from 400,000-odd construction opportunities, cutting congestion will improve productivity, ‘creating and sustaining high skilled jobs’. But it’s unclear how this will happen, or where these jobs will go.

Urban economics can help here. We now have robust techniques for modelling the full economic impacts of transport investments. These suggest that direct benefits from time-saving and reduced congestion are actually fairly small, and may not offset build costs. But new infrastructure also brings more people into cities, increasing the effective density of urban labour markets. This pushes up labour productivity, which in turn raises wages and helps employment growth.

As Henry points out, the environmental benefits of high speed rail are not that clear-cut. A modal shift from cars or planes could cut CO2 emissions and congestion, but not if spare landing slots or road capacity are then used for something else.

Unfortunately for both countries, the economic outcomes aren’t clear-cut either. Agglomeration modeling suggests that the major benefits accrue to large urban centres. Cutting travel times by 10% across the UK would raise London’s productivity more than in most Northern cities. So in California, workers in the big urban cores – the Bay Area, San Diego and LA – will probably have most to gain.

In the UK, that calculus suggests some Northern cities might actually be better off investing in local or city-regional links, rather than pushing for high speed rail. Similarly, better connecting Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds might do more for local people than faster links down South. And in California, less glamorous but more useful local infrastructure projects – like extending the BART light rail system from San Francisco to San Jose – might do the job for less.

%d bloggers like this: