The Morbid Truth About Transport Planning


Some of my classmates at UWE have a hard time accepting the fact that governments knowingly and routinely approve new road projects that result in greater numbers of violent deaths of pedestrians and cyclists. They have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that well meaning politicians and planners who go home every night to their families would be capable of designing a physical world that crushes children under the wheels of “progress” just as it does inattentive pigeons and anything else that gets in its way, leaving families with an empty bedroom and horrific personal grief. .


“But they’re just accidents…………….”


When the number of children killed or seriously injured reaches about 4,000 a year in the UK, they’re no longer “accidents” but predictable costs of our car addiction problem, and I have a hard time accepting those facts.


So, of course, it is assumed that the transport planners who work for our civilized western democracies put safety first, and do everything in their power to prevent unnecessary death. Well……to a point. In my Transport Economics and Appraisal module, we learned that transport economists have decided how much your time is worth, and guess what? The value of cyclists time is among the lowest of the low, at £14/hr, just above that of taxi drivers (£8) and bus drivers (£8). Taxi passengers are considered to have the most valuable time, at £37, and car drivers are estimated to be worth about £22. Interestingly, walkers’ time is valued at £24.


In the transport economists world, a human life is worth exactly £800,000. So what this means is that if a proposed road widening project is predicted to kill 8 people over the next decade, yet the new road would save over 300,000 hours of car drivers time, at least in the transport economist’s view, that is an acceptable price to pay. I’m not sure the parents of the victims would agree.
























Having spent the last ten years fighting dangerous and ill conceived road projects in California, I have direct knowledge of this ugly calculation, and it is unfortunately not limited to the United Kingdom. In the States, traffic planners routinely use the LOS (level of service) measure to justify building new roads, widening existing ones, reducing pedestrian crossing times, or failing to provide safe cycle space, often perversely in the name of environmental protection.


It is heartening that the instructors on my course have a poor view of this methodology, that it is balanced with more qualitative measures, and that we are to think critically about its use as part of project appraisal. To me, pricing someone’s time based on their choice of travel method, adding up the seconds that a road scheme will save each commuter, then weighing this in financial terms, against a child’s life, amounts to murder by committee.

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