“My challenge to the transport economists is to ‘get real’, to base investment appraisal on the clear evidence of impact, not on a theory…”
It’s always tempting to analyse transport networks in silos, to focus on narrow areas and outcomes, individual transport modes or particular geographies. However, in this changing world, with new technologies and changing passenger demands, this is an increasingly outmoded way of thinking. To learn some more about this new approach, our very own Sarah Wright spoke to David Metz, a professor at Centre for Transport Studies at University College London. An industry veteran who is not short of opinions, Metz explores the changing growth of demand for travel and the impact of demographics on transport investment. This isn’t only something that Metz shares with his students but is also explored in his recently released book, ‘Travel Fast or Smart?’ so let’s find out more…
SW: How did you get into the rail industry?
David Metz (DM): I got into the transport sector through a sideways move in the Civil Service from the energy department. This was at the time when demand for rail travel was beginning to grow, and the political agenda included rail privatization. As Chief Scientist at the Department for Transport, my main concerns were its research programme and those of the public sector transport industries. I served as a member of British Rail’s Research and Technology Committee, which gave me insight into future developments on the railways.
SW: What do like most about your job/research?
DM: My present role in academia allows me to think broadly about the role of transport in society, in particular about future trends in technology and in demand for travel. My academic colleagues tend to focus on particular topic suitable for investigation through research projects. I prefer to range more widely, drawing on data from a wide range of sources, to see ‘the big picture’. One important feature of travel behaviour is the invariance of average travel time, which has held steady at about an hour a day for at least the past 40 years that this has been measured in the National Travel Survey. This hour a day is found for all settled human populations, and implies that investments in the transport system that result in faster travel lead to people travelling further in the same amount of time, not saving time for other activities as the transport economists mistakenly suppose.
SW: What’s the biggest challenge in your role?
DM: The biggest challenge is to get others to appreciate my analysis – that investment in rail and other transport modes result in people travelling further, to benefit from more opportunities and choices. This further travel results in changes in land use and value, as clearly shown by the experience of rail investment that has opened up London’s Dockland to development. The transport planners understand this, but the transport economists are in denial about such changes in real estate value, which means that proposed urban rail investments are undervalued. So my challenge is to the transport economists, and to the Department for Transport, to ‘get real’, to base investment appraisal on the clear evidence of impact, not on a theory which omits the main observable benefit.
SW: You’ve just published a new book ‘Travel Fast or Smart? A Manifesto for an Intelligent Transport Policy’ after a career in transport. What has spurred you to write this now in 2016?
DM: My research and analysis developed to the point where I had a good story to tell, not just about the case for investment in rail, but also why we are planning to spend too much on roads, in the vain hope of building our way out of congestion, and why another runway at Heathrow is an option but not a necessity. Transport policy in recent decades has swung to and fro: cuts to the rail network, but then big investments as passenger numbers doubled; major investments in roads, then substantial cut-back, now plans for major investments again; privatise and deregulate buses outside London, but on-road competition disappoints, so now legislation to allow London’s franchise model to be used in other metropolitan areas. The main problem underlying this lack of consistency has been the failure of conventional transport economic analysis to identify the real benefits of investment and who gains from them.
SW: What will be some of the biggest differences between rail now and in 10 years’ time?
DM: Transport technologies are slow to evolve. In contrast, the digital technologies develop rapidly and often disruptively. But when digital meets traditional civil and mechanical engineering, as in the digital railway, the hare has to ride on the back of the tortoise. So rail will continue to develop incrementally, improving its offering of speedy and reliable travel compared to cars on congested roads. While high speed rails gets the media coverage, arguably digital signalling technologies that increase the capacity of existing commuter routes is the more important. A train every hundred seconds on London’s Underground, increasing capacity by up to 30%, is an impressive achievement.
SW: What’s your favourite rail journey?
DM: My annual trip on the West Highland Line, from Glasgow to Oban, ahead of a sailing holiday around the Hebrides, preceded by the Caledonian Sleeper overnight from London. The scenery is glorious – wooded hillsides, lochs, distant mountains, castles – and the single track is a relic of a bygone age of rural railways. At Oban there is the Seafood Hut on the ferry pier where I for a hot smoked salmon sandwich – marvellous.
SW: Thanks David, it been great to talk to you! If you would like to hear more about David's theories then take a little look at his fascinating new book which can be purchased here.
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The last 5 minutes with... Gavin James, Programme Manager Digital and Telecommunications for the UK Department for Transport.
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