Proceed with caution

As I write this column, with the general election only a matter of days away, we have seen the election manifestos which will inform our choices on 12 December. They mostly echo the frequent mentions of infrastructure investment featuring in candidates' speeches, including those by the current and shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.

'Investment' as a term has such a solid, warm, reassuring tone about it.

We tend to skip rather lightly over the fact that in the investment world there is no such thing as a risk-free return of any great size. Just as personal investment advisers scan the markets and monitor company and sector performance over time looking to pick the likely winners of tomorrow so, in transport, we research the impact of past schemes and build ever more sophisticated models in an attempt to predict what will happen if we build this railway, widen that motorway, or accommodate this runway.

Very right and proper too, given the immense amounts of money involved. But as an economist of some standing said to me a while ago 'modelling is easy, the hard bit is deciding what assumptions the modelling should be based on'.

Are we at a uniquely difficult point for predicting future travel?


I'd say no – the last hundred years have seen some massive technological changes that have in turn transformed the opportunities we have for travel, not just in the vehicles we travel in or the infrastructure we travel on but in the impact of smart phones and contactless payment systems.


Yes. Extremely difficult; in large part because we appear to be on the cusp of more massive technological changes that have frequently been the subject of debate in this and other transport journals. I have spent much of the last four years caught up in discussions about driverless cars and the automation and electrification of road transport. I am often asked how the advent of automated driving will affect us and my stock answer, which I'm not expecting to change anytime soon, is that I don't know, and I won't know until the commercial proposition becomes much clearer i.e. the technology might be out there, but how much is it going to cost and how are we going to be invited to pay for it?

All fascinating stuff for those of us involved in what I might loosely call the transport industry.

But prediction is difficult today also because of broader issues that are bound to impact our demand for travel. For example, observe how many local authorities have already declared a climate emergency and committed to a carbon neutral future without (in many cases) much by way of a plan on what it will take to achieve this laudable aim. And in a quite different part of the forest, look at the change that's happening in the way we think of work. In my daily commute I walk past no fewer than three large apartment buildings that were all office space not so very long ago. Working from home might not suit all of us, but working away from the traditional workplace certainly is – I am writing this whilst sat on a train.

And then there are our attitudes to travel which may be evolving as well. Am I alone in seeing Greta Thunberg's frowning face in front of me every time I turn the ignition key?

'Fascinating,' I hear you cry, 'but what has all this got to do with investment in transport?

My answer is that I think we need to take a big step away from thinking that past performance is anything like as good an indicator of future outcomes as we might have though it to be hitherto. Which is, of course, what many academics, including Greg Marsden, Glenn Lyons and Jillian Anable, have been saying for some time.

I commend to readers of Transport Times the approach in the Zenzic route map to achieving beneficial outcomes from automated road transport which starts with the desired outcome and timeframe and works back, asking all the time 'what would have to be true?' It's one of my favourite questions.

Unfortunately it is neither an easy nor a certain science. It requires us to engage with the fact that there are multiple interdependencies within and beyond the transport sphere. It forces us towards ranges of outcomes and away from single 'point' numbers that create the impression of precision way out of step with reality. And it perhaps reminds us that cost: benefit calculations are far better suited to informing decisions about alternative schemes than they are to determining whether one particular scheme makes cast-iron economic sense.

Which isn't to say that we shouldn't be trying, but we should, as the sign says, 'proceed with caution'. Because the only thing we can say with absolute certainty about the future is that it hasn't happened yet.