After much deliberation and advice from friends and colleagues, your correspondent has temporarily relocated to Leeds University to study for an MSc in Transport Economics.
Leeds is very unlike Cambridge: for a start there are hills. It also succumbed to the 1960s–70s mania for urban motorways, with a monstrous inner ring road that divides the city centre from the suburbs. Congestion makes buses consistently unreliable, and the random bits of cycling infrastructure are insanely dangerous. Fixing Cambridge looks like child’s play from up here.
Transport studies is typically part of the civil engineering faculty. Here it’s part of Environment with a large multidisciplinary team of academics, including social and environmental scientists. That’s relevant because civil engineers tend to see transport problems as requiring a big piece of infrastructure, when a social intervention based on behavioural economics can have a bigger, longer-lasting effect at lower cost.
Economics is one of the two main forces that determine what happens in transport. The other is politics, which is typically fickle, conservative and reactive, with occasional windows of opportunity for positive change. Economist Milton Friedman talked of the need, even duty, to develop good alternatives to existing policies in readiness for the moment of crisis when “the politically impossible” becomes “the politically inevitable.”
So, my first objective is to figure out why transport economics so often fails to feed good policies to politicians. Why is it so concerned about minutes saved on journey times? Where does the legacy for future generations or climate change feature? How is an acceptable level of damage to our natural and built heritage determined? How do we value people’s wellbeing associated with good design? These are the kinds of questions I hope to find answers to, and maybe have some influence on in future.
Although I’m away from Cambridge, there is now a team of about thirty people behind Smarter Cambridge Transport, who will continue to share and develop ideas together. We are planning to transition to become a more formally-structured, self-sustaining organisation. If you might be interested in assisting with that, please get in touch.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 3 October 2018.