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It’s not just about A to B – The wider benefits of investment in transport infrastructure

24 January 2014

David Pendlebury

Transport infrastructure is critically important to the UK's economy and society, shaping the development of the places in which we live and how we interact with them. Good quality transport infrastructure is a key component in ensuring that places are able to attract the highly skilled, highly mobile workers of the knowledge economy, for example. But fundamentally, it enables people to carry out the most essential functions of their daily lives, whether in employment, health, education, or recreation.

Appropriately given its importance, there have been a lot of recent headlines and column inches devoted to debating major transport infrastructure provision in the UK, around questions such as:

  • How much should the taxpayer pay, if anything, to provide train passengers with a quicker journey from Birmingham to Manchester, or London to Leeds?
  • Where in the South East should we build a new airport runway, if we should build one at all given the scale of their environmental impacts?
  • Why are we spending money on these projects when other budgets are being cut in other areas?

Those in favour of particular infrastructure developments, often politicians, businesses or industry insiders, typically respond to such questions in the following ways:

  • Every minute saved sitting on trains is worth (insert DfT’s economic formula here) amount of pounds to business – and time is money!;
  • Our growing population means our current infrastructure capacity is creaking and we risk losing out in the ‘global race’;
  • Benefit/cost ratios show that, over time, money spent on infrastructure pays for itself through user charging and wider economic benefits, so we shouldn’t worry ourselves too much about the initial investment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these arguments have failed to inspire the nation, and have done little to win any arguments about how and why we should be providing new and improved transport infrastructure.

Somewhere along the way we - or at least the policymakers and analysts trying to convince us of their schemes - have lost touch with the deeper reasons why we value transport infrastructure.

The main reason these arguments have fallen flat is probably because the vast majority of people don’t usually spend their time relating events in their own lives to the ‘global race’ – whatever that might be - or cross-dimensionally subtracting the time they spend travelling from their companies’ balance sheets. Somewhere along the way we - or at least the policymakers and analysts trying to convince us of their schemes - have lost touch with the deeper reasons why we value transport infrastructure.

Planners' responsibility is to be at the forefront of changing the debate around transport infrastructure and how the public values it. After all, planners should have an inherent understanding of place and connectivity. This is why the RTPI wants to drive a new debate in this area in order that policymakers and analysts arrive at a better, broader consensus about the real value of transport infrastructure.

In order to do this, we need to develop a much more holistic understanding of the benefits of such infrastructure, which allows us to move beyond the current narrow or mechanistic methods of evaluating costs and benefits. Policymakers in particular need to capture the tangible, visible and everyday benefits that the average citizen derives from transport infrastructure. Such benefits can include:

  • Helping individuals to find meaningful and fulfilling employment, or enabling entrepreneurs and businesses to achieve their commercial goals;
  • Transforming and regenerating places for the benefit of entire communities through infrastructure-led development projects;
  • Unlocking land for new homes, thereby increasing the housing supply and helping individuals and families onto the housing ladder.

Due to the critical importance that the RTPI places on this issue, and as a consequence of the vital role we think planners have to play in leading the debate, we have recently launched a new policy paper on Capturing the Wider Benefits of Investment in Transport Infrastructure. The report makes a set of recommendations about how we believe policymakers, analysts, and professionals should evaluate and capture the real benefits of transport infrastructure. But underlying all of this is a simple argument: transport matters to all of us.

About David Pendlebury

David Pendlebury is Policy and Networks Assistant at the RTPI and is the policy lead within the areas of major transport and infrastructure planning. His other interests include macroeconomics, international affairs, and public sector finance. Before joining the RTPI, David worked in public affairs in Brussels and also as an analyst within the management consulting industry.