Moving Transportation Reform: An Inside Perspective from the U.K.

The year 2007 marked a major change in transportation strategy for the United Kingdom. A new national government policy document set out a new and different way of approaching transportation policy: one which is objective-focused and evidence-based. Perhaps the best summary of this strategy comes from The Economist magazine. The magazine’s headline for the article assessing the merits of the policy was: “The government has decided what its transport policy is for.”

This new approach toward transportation is notable for its radical departures from traditional approaches to transportation policy so prevalent today in many countries. Most notably, it starts with a very clear focus on non-transportation objectives for the transportation system. This means supporting economic growth and meeting emission reduction targets as opposed to a focus on transportation outcomes as worthy goals in their own right.

The new policy also suggests a new and rigorous process of strategy and policy development to address those objectives. The process emphasizes the assessment of a range of transportation options to meet an objective while remaining agnostic toward the particular mode (e.g., roads, rails, transit) or the particular type of intervention (e.g. large capital projects, pricing, or small strategic investments).

In essence, the new process is a merit-based approach to decisionmaking. Such discipline would allow the government to identify and select priorities amongst these options on the basis of hard–edged and comprehensive economic appraisal of the costs and benefits of policies and projects. In short, it selects the solution that best meets the range of policy objectives.

The origins of this strategy are in a report released in December 2006: the Eddington Transport Study. Departing from a transportation-centric thinking, the study treated transportation as an arm of economics, environmental, and social policy, not a goal in its own right. To reinforce the point, the Eddington report was jointly commissioned by the transportation and economics ministries. This also demonstrated that successful transportation policy matters a great deal to a constituency beyond the transportation sector.

The U.K. experience provides valuable lessons for the ongoing debate about the future of transportation policy in the United States, as it faces similar transportation challenges. Both countries suffer from crowded urban networks, constraints in import and export corridors, rising carbon emissions, and funding limitations. Of course, differences abound, such as the U.S. federal system and the central government’s relationship with individual states, metropolitan areas, and localities.

Nevertheless, with the next round of federal transportation policy very much on the mind of policymakers in the United States, lessons on how to make decisions based on economic goals rather than political horse trading are especially timely today. The reorganization of the U.K. Department for Transport to better address the identified priorities is a lesson in breaking down barriers, particularly modal silos. Following the U.K. example, the implementation of a policy process focused on the prioritization of transportation projects with highest social return, based on economic appraisal, would be a major step forward for the United States.

This policy brief discusses the new transportation strategy recently adopted in the U.K. and the possible lessons for the United States. It starts with an examination of the U.K. transportation sector and policy before the Eddington Study. Next, the paper details the plan offered by Eddington followed by the reactions to that report. The paper then analyzes the resulting U.K. government’s transportation strategy and implementation. The last sections offer potential lessons and future directions for the United States based on the U.K. experience.

In the end, the challenges of implementation of the recommendations may be the most important lesson of all. One thing the Eddington Study shows us is that despite excellent analysis, proper framing, and a solid and timely case for fundamental reform, politics and transportation decisionmaking go hand-in-hand.