Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Getting to the root of the problem

Last week, the BBC reported on the ‘cost’ of traffic jams to Welsh businesses following an analysis by a private company of 30,500 traffic jams on Welsh roads during 2017.  There is undoubtedly a cost to traffic jams – that is beyond dispute.  There is the direct cost to businesses and individuals of the fuel used whilst vehicles are stopping and starting repeatedly, or even simply operating at below optimal speed.  I’m a lot less certain, though, about the approach to costing the time involved, which is based on some assumptions about the amount of time ‘wasted’ sitting in traffic. 
Merely multiplying the number of hours involved by the salary per hour of all the individuals is a difficult enough calculation in the first place, involving as it must some assumptions about salaries, purposes of trip etc.  But the value of that time to employers isn’t necessarily the same as the cost of it – indeed, if it were, then the viability of employing the individuals concerned would surely be a question which they should be asking.  In theory, any individual spending an hour at work should be generating more – significantly more – income for the employer than the cost of that hour to the employer.  But on the basis of observation and experience, to say nothing of the application of the Pareto Principle, let alone the culture of presenteeism which seems to pervade business, I seriously doubt that the reapplication of the hours involved to other activity would make as large a difference as is being assumed.
Leaving that aside, I’m more interested in the sub-text to this type of report, which is that eliminating traffic jams (presumably by building more roads – the picture of the Brynglas tunnels in the report and the emphasis on M4 bottlenecks gives us more than a small clue to the BBC’s agenda here) would somehow recover all this lost time and turn it into productive and profitable activity.  That in turn implies that the delays and obfuscation by governments in road-building are the ‘cause’ of all this lost time.  It isn’t the only possible conclusion though.  How much of that time is being lost, in truth, not because of lack of road capacity but because of hundreds of individual decisions to drive rather than take the train?  Is this ‘lost’ time all the fault of government for poor planning and execution of road construction, or is it the fault of people and businesses who insist on using roads rather than rail?


Pete said...

Good points John. Getting people off the roads and onto mass transit is not as simple as individual choices. Persons employed by transit companies receive free travel, not just for themselves but frequently for spouses and dependents. Yet, those employees who could travel for free drive their cars to work and other destinations. Mainly because public transport is not frequent enough or convenient to the destination.
We agree the answer probably is not to build more roads. The only exception I would make to that is we do need to improve service between North and South Wales. A road and rail system linking Cardiff to Caernarfon would be of far more benefit to Wales than an electrified train to London.
That said, having a public transport system that would be convenient is unlikely to be successful without either massive subsidies or the taking of mass transit into public ownership. That requires a political will that I doubt is out there.

John Dixon said...

I agree that getting people to make the switch isn't exactly a simple matter, and that it requires a fast reliable and frequent public transport system.

We also need to frame the debate in the right way; the use of words can influence the direction of debate at times. For instance, why is spending money on roads often presented as investment whilst spending on rail is often accompanied by the word subsidy?

dafis said...

You ask - "For instance, why is spending money on roads often presented as investment whilst spending on rail is often accompanied by the word subsidy?" Perhaps it is because roads mostly remain in public ownership whereas in their wisdom UK Government of some 20-25 years ago saw fit to privatise after a fashion the rail service networks and has been subsidising them ever since. Classic case of transferring profits into private sector while the public purse mops up the losses and other downside costs. A weird form of "free enterprise" culture that's very fashionable now. These clowns wouldn't survive long in a real competitive capitalist free market