Better Business Cases are Needed for Boosting Connectivity

How is the quality of connectivity defined? Which connections need investment? High speed global electronic connections must be complemented with viable investment in transport to support competitive locations and enabled people. Several publications in the Spring of 2019 show that understanding of connectivity issues has been weak in transport business cases. The Greater Manchester Prosperity Review, the Glasgow Connectivity Commission and methodological papers by the National Infrastructure Commission all reveal under-investment in transport as a result of a failure to plan connections.

The value of better connectivity is currently one of the main drivers of the global economy. Companies like Google and Amazon have shown how to grow revenues through the connections they make. The value of transport connections can be very much greater than the value of travel demand, but the transport sector still relies mainly on business cases dependent on travel demand, missing out on the resources available for connectivity. Over the last 30 years there has been a growing interest in planning connections at the fringes of transport planning practice, but the recent reviews reveal that policies to make connections have lacked priority and focus.

The Greater Manchester Review suggested that the UK has an infrastructure deficit compared to its principal competitor countries, partly because investment has followed travel growth, rather than invested in projects to transform local and regional economies. The Glasgow Commission came to similar conclusions. As an example of good practice, the Greater Manchester review highlighted how the relocation of Chester bus station had delivered employment benefits, land value uplift and other place making benefits that for many years had not been fully considered in transport appraisal. Multi-criteria analysis has been embedded in UK transport appraisal processes for over 20 years, but business cases still rely heavily on analysis of travel demand rather than the value of connections.

Rigorous connectivity appraisals informing delivery partnerships were recommended in the national guidance on accessibility planning 15 years ago but such approaches are not yet standard as core business for all transport authorities. One view has been that better toolkits are needed, such as the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) land value uplift toolkit, or the North East Combined Authority jobs impact toolkit. In recent years data availability has been transformed. Rigorous analysis of how access affects the economy and society has become relatively straightforward using databases such as Google travel times and open land use data to understand economic and social connections.
However, it is not by omission that such approaches have not been carried forward into government transport appraisal toolkits. The philosophy of government transport appraisal has been to prioritise transport investment socially using methods that attempt to compare projects across the country. Unfortunately, most of society has had a different strategy to improve their accessibility, as people have bought cars, service providers relocated provision to car dependent locations, and developers have built on land where the greatest private advantage was achieved. Transport policy and investment has failed to deliver faster travel times and lower travel costs because the bulk of the investment came not from the carefully prioritised transport authority budgets, but from elsewhere.

For a higher share of transport investment to be aligned with social aims, the need for a more joint approach to planning connections continues to grow. By measuring and tracking benefits over time, the value chain can be managed so that all investors get stable returns consistent with the performance of the investment. The NIC approach to understanding accessibility effects on land values could help authorities to manage investment stakes in land, but the value of transport investment is even greater in delivering stronger employment markets, retail catchments, transport for healthcare, improved educational opportunities, and other connections between people and places. Better use of the available data to understand these effects would help transport authorities to invest appropriately with partners who benefit from connectivity improvements, not just in land values but improving the efficiency of healthcare, retail and other parts of the economy that depend on transport connections.

The Greater Manchester Review found that there was a danger that attempts to capture land value uplift could threaten good developments. The locations with the greatest potential for land value uplift can also be the locations most in need of regeneration. The Liverpool One development was a massively successful project for transport and regeneration but delivered lower returns than average for the developers. If investors make larger returns on inefficient unsustainable transport projects than they do on sustainable transport projects, then nobody should be surprised if we get more unsustainable transport projects.

A spate of reports by large public bodies in early 2019 suggests that there is growing recognition of the need to set out a vision for better connections to release the untapped capacity to invest and deliver. The tech giants have connectivity visions and have built their empires on data platforms with partnerships for delivering services. By comparison, the data platforms of transport operators and authorities are weak, and lack the rigour needed to build investment plans for better connectivity. Fixing these issues could be the most important changes needed to build attractive transport investment opportunities able to attract greater resourcing and enable service delivery consistent with social goals.

Derek will chair a session at this week's Scottish Transport Summt entitled 'The Future: Digital, Personal and Uncertain'. Last chance to secure your place!