The Opportunities and Risks of Connections

Debate has continued for decades over the extent to which, and the ways, transport and connectivity helps business and economic development. At a meeting in London organised by the Transport Statistics Users Group Stephen Gibbons from the London School of Economics, Paul Buchanan from Volterra and Derek Halden from DHC reviewed the available evidence. (Derek’s presentation slides)

Derek’s talk explained the dangers of generalising conclusions. For many years it has been observed that roads go two ways. Connections bring wealth can just as easily enable economic activity to leak away. Understanding which effects will dominate is important for every transport appraisal. Railways rather than roads to and from London are currently receiving large public investment, not least high speed rail proposalals, so who benefits? How much public funding should be invested to ensure that London can further strengthen its economy? Does being linked better with London suck economic activity towards the City or distribute wealth across the country.

Access to opportunity is best delivered as planned outcome from transport investment. There will be winners and losers from any change. Good transport planning makes the most of the wins, and builds in complementary investment to mitigate effects for losers. Those who build roads or railways or invest in buses and trams, sometimes claim economic benefits from generalised assumptions that do not apply in the local context where the investment is delivered.

With digital connectivity complementing physical connectivity the need for more explicit planning of access to opportunity has never been greater. From airport expansion to local bus routing and scheduling, the benefits of investment can be secured through schemes which change the capabilities of target population segments or business sectors to succeed.

Success in the economy comes from the opportunities the transport investment generates, yet too often the analysis of these opportunities is missing from transport appraisals, even for the largest transport investment projects. Derek’s talk illustrated that economic analysis does not need to be consistent nationally to be rational. However the analysis does need to include rational analysis of access to opportunity to ensure that the relevant economic impacts of investment are considered.

Successful understanding of access to opportunity has helped major transport and land use developments to progress quickly through planning stages. The talk used examples from across the UK to demonstrate that better connectivity helped to make transport investment more popular and affordable, by demonstrating how better access to work, education, leisure, retail, health and markets can be delivered.

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