Evidence and research activity in 2008/09 – social, economics and modelling programme

1. The Social, Economics and Modelling (SEM) Unit consists of a number of teams within the DfT’s Corporate Resources Group. David Thompson, DfT’s Chief Economist, heads the Unit, which includes Integrated Transport and Appraisal Division, Social Research and Evaluation Division, Transport Analysis and Review Division and Transport Direct.

2. The Unit has a key role in providing evidence and analysis to support the DfT's new Framework, Towards a Sustainable Transport System (TaSTS), in response to the Eddington Transport Study and the Stern Review. This includes work to inform the recently launched review of the New Approach to Appraisal (NATA), the analytical framework used to appraise the economic, environmental and social impacts of all transport proposals that require DfT funding or approval.

3. The development of substantive policy relevant improvements, such as social and distributional impacts, to the Departmental guidance on modelling and appraisal methods requires world class evidence and research.

4. Research and evidence commissioned within this Programme is used to inform policy across the entire range of the DfT's strategic objectives, with a strongest focus on the objectives to sustain economic growth and improved productivity through reliable and efficient transport networks and to improve the environmental performance of transport.

Highlights from 2007/08

5. Research commissioned as a result of the publication of TaSTS included a programme of work to demonstrate that we are ‘listening to the people'. This evidence is important to check that there is not a mismatch between the views of stakeholders/ pressure groups and the views and priorities of ordinary people.  The work includes a knowledge review, to make the best use of existing evidence on attitudes to key transport issues and satisfaction with different elements of the transport system. We are also currently piloting a citizens’ panel which is seeking people’s views around the five key objectives set out in TaSTS. The results will feed into the Green Paper and the approach will be refined to feed into the development of the forthcoming White Paper.

6. We have also commissioned a project which is exploring how the Department can better incorporate social and distributional issues into transport appraisals. Our concern regarding social and distributional impacts is not restricted to assessing monetised costs and benefits to different population groups. Assessing the impacts encompasses mapping the range of social groups that are (or may be) affected and identifying the nature of the impacts that different transport schemes have for different population groups. This work will be vital to achieving Department’s equality of opportunity objective.

7. The Eddington study concluded that wider economic productivity benefits are an important part of transport scheme appraisal, and recommended that these impacts be incorporated within appraisal and considered fully in spending decisions. Research underway this year, building on that commissioned in 2007 aims to provide the evidence necessary to produce guidance that sets out a robust approach for the appraisal of such impacts, with the aim of appraising wider productivity benefits using the guidance in 2009. An example of evidence supporting this aim is some research produced to provide an index of productivity by local areas. Where a scheme is estimated to impact on employment location across areas, this evidence can be used to analyse the productivity impact of the employment growth and decline across areas.

8. Transport modelling has always been a key part of policy analysis and a programme of work to improve the modelling capability of the Department is concluding in 2007/8. The National Transport Model (NTM) is suite of inter-linked models, joining up across road, rail and freight models. Different components are improved as policy needs arise and the focus of this research has been to better represent geography in the modelling and to improve its multimodal credentials. For the first time, the Department will have a modelling capability which will represent road links, allowing the more complex lane level options, particularly those employing active traffic management, to be assessed. Also, the advanced rail modelling used in the High Level Output Strategy will 'talk to' to the rest of the NTM, improving the consistency of analysis across modes and allowing us to explore policies in a more multimodal setting. The next steps are to consultatively explore these new capabilities, starting by publishing the research reports and then engaging with experts and practitioners to establish its credibility in helping to analyse transport problems.

Developments in 2008/09

9. Full details of the Unit’s evidence and research programme, including its evidence needs, communication strategy, technology and innovation are included in our published Evidence and Research Strategy. Individual projects commissioned by the Unit, their objectives, outputs and publications are listed on the DfT's Research Database.

10. The Unit uses a range of procurement routes to ensure value for money in commissioning research, including the DfT’s research and technical advice frameworks.

11. In 2008/09 the Unit also expects to use the new Transport Research Centre as a vehicle to deliver evidence to meet its research needs. The Centre, a five year initiative between the DfT and the Economics and Social Research Council, will be an important contributor to the research supported by DfT. It will be particularly helpful given that it will focus on developing the evidence base necessary to address the longer term significant issues facing transport over the next decade and beyond. It will help bolster the socio-economic dimension, not least through bringing in expertise in areas not normally associated with transport. A further advantage of the Centre is that it will secure additional funding for research of direct relevance to DfT from other sources, up to £2.5m and £250k from ESRC and the Scottish Government, respectively.

Priorities for 2008/09

12. The Unit has lead responsibility for performing a refresh of the New Approach to Transport Appraisal (NATA) after ten years, to assure quality, maintain its reputation and to review how the environmental, economic and social impacts of transport are appraised within this guidance. The appraisal evidence from the NATA framework informs whether a proposal represents value for money, sitting alongside evidence on a scheme’s deliverability and strategic fit. As indicated in the consultation document on NATA, key areas for analysis are:

  • Integrating the mode-neutral perspective to stages of analysis from the strategic to intervention, recognising that better use of the existing network will be an important option. Better presenting the existing guidance but also considering how to integrate the ‘strategic’ policy making work into intervention level analysis;
  • Progressing some specific appraisal guidance to support innovation in meeting climate change challenges. This partly reflects the importance of the issue, but is also about ensuring NATA effectively supports delivery partners and transport professionals as they analyse innovative interventions;
  • Progressing guidance to support innovation in meeting productivity challenges. The Eddington study highlighted transport’s role in this area. Some specific work will be advanced to support delivery partners and transport professionals more effectively in a technically challenging area. ; and
  • Improving the dissemination of our appraisal guidance to make it more accessible to non-technical audiences and make better use of innovative internet-based techniques such as 'e-communities'.

13. Linked to this, work is underway to bring together the existing evidence on the effectiveness of 'better use' schemes - that is schemes that are relatively low cost and do not demand new infrastructure. We know that the existing evidence base is patchy in part because local authorities are not required to evaluate non major schemes and the cost of undertaking a full evaluation would be disproportionate to the actual cost of the scheme itself for any individual LA. We therefore propose to undertake an evaluation of several schemes in close conjunction with LAs using an agreed framework. This will provide a better understanding of what types of schemes work in what contexts and demonstrate the contribution of such measures to Departmental goals and value for money assessments, if appropriate. The results will inform future appraisal and option generation guidance.

14. We will also be carrying forward research to continue to develop the robustness of key factors in the appraisal of wider economic productivity benefits. We plan to commission research to better understand transport's impact on trade, UK investment and overseas business activity. The research will also aim to develop an approach to allow for the consideration of such impacts in appraisal and scheme spending decisions. The Eddington Study noted the importance of assessing these wider international impacts of transport as a key area for further work.

15. We have also recently commissioned research into a number of transport modelling issues, including a review of highway route choice (assignment) modelling methods.  Highway assignment is a key component in multi-modal models.  We are keen to establish what are the demands that new policy questions impose on assignment modelling, whether assignment modelling meets the needs of other elements of the modelling and analysis process, and how currently available assignment software measures up to those demands.  We anticipate this study will enable new and improved guidance to be prepared and identify key future research topics in this field.

16. The Unit has also commissioned work on understanding how to achieve an attitudinal and behavioural shift in response to climate change, a priority for the DfT. The Department started monitoring public attitudes to climate change in May 2005.  We are now starting to build up good trend data, and consider it desirable to continue monitoring attitudes on a six monthly basis to build up a stronger evidence base of public attitudes to climate change.  On-going research due to report in the summer is exploring how to overcome the barriers to achieving behavioural change aimed at reducing individuals transport related CO2 emissions. We will need to build on this work to better understand how to influence - through communications messages and incentives - different segments of the population since evidence suggests that a blanket “one size fits all” approach is not effective.

For related documents, pages and internet links, see the column on the right.