Made to measure: plus or minus one ear

Back in September at our first Parose Hub & Pub Hack, we wanted to think together about how we measure the economic benefits of transport-led regeneration, this being something we are all being asked to do more and more of these days.

The Hack, it turns out, was the right choice. Reviewing World in balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement by Robert Crease (2011) in the LRB, Steven Shapin has this to say.

  • “ THE GEEKS at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are fond of merry japes, locally know as ‘hacks’. One of the more memorable happened one night in October 1958 when an MIT fraternity had the idea of initiating new members by making them measure a bridge over the Charles River connecting the Cambridge campus with Boston. Crossing the bridge was often a wet, windy and unpleasant business and it was through the students returning at night from downtown would like to know, by visible marks and with some precision, how far they still had to go. The older fraternity brothers decided to use one of the new pledges as a rule and selected Oliver R. Smoot, the shortest of the lot at 5ft 7in. The other pledges laid Smoot out at one end of the bridge, marked his extent with chalk and paint, then picked him up and laid him down again, spelling out the full measurement every ten lengths, and inscribing the mid point of the bridge with the words ‘halfway to Hell’. In this way it was determined that the span was 364.4 smoots long, ‘plus or minus one ear’ (to indicate measurement uncertainty). “

So hacks, measurement & transport have come together before.

That September afternoon in HubWestminster, our collective ruminators were an assorted mix of architects, transport planners, urban regeneration officers, highways folk and one former carbon trader. We asked them to load 26 categories with monetary value using luminous stickers. The process threw up distinct starting points reflecting the pre-occupations – professional and personal – of each group, and some very loosely summarised observations:

  • – that transport, being ubiquitous, is not a regeneration ‘given’: there are plenty of bus-stops that aren’t very regenerative;
  • – there is a need to distinguish between direct vs indirect costs/benefits
  • – some savings came from mitigation, like safety and security,  but were not always easy to ‘monetise’
  • – non-capital transport work – encouraging, for example, cycling and walking – could help make places grow by attracting visitors
  • good transport links can improve the competitiveness of destinations at a sub-regional level
  • carbon savings form modal shift can easily be exaggerated (an observation  from someone who worked on the UN Greenhouse protocols)

The industry had moved along way from the default position where the Road seemed to be the Customer. But equally, there remains a lurking assumption in some quarters that mode-shift & good quality public realm are inherently good things: something I happen to agree with but an attitude unlikely to impress administrators of the diminished public purse.

Three weeks later at the Modeshift annual convention in Birmingham, I was discussing  the same questions on a panel. Fellow panelist Prof. Phil Goodwin, who’s work on the value of ‘soft’ travel behaviour measures as against new infrastructure has been hugely enlightening, made the insightful observation that better public realm had rarely been built because it had been proven to be ‘value-for-money’. My concern was that with constraints on finance, arguments would have to be made relating to the financial benefits of improving city streets. (It was interesting that until that point, the convention had been mainly been about HOW you get kids & parents to change travel behaviour – without mention of the original impetus that had arrived with the realization that a relatively new phenomenon, ‘the school run’, had become a major source of congestion – a cost to us all.)

It strikes me that ‘monetising benefits’ is a process in its infancy. Some great work has been done, for example by Martin Holland and John Gallagher in Islington, on measuring the reduced cost of crime when good public realm replaces bad.

But there is a real danger in over-stating the quality of our measurements and of our models. In a powerful broadside to the modelling industry – perhaps prophetic given the more recent problems with rail franchises –  the commentator John Kay invoked Keynes dictum that ‘A Wise Man Knows on Thing – The Limits of his Knowledge’ in his Financial Times column last year.–-the-limits-of-his-knowledge.

Well worth a look. As he concludes:

“We do great damage by claiming to know things that are not known, by asserting certainty in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, and by attaching a veneer of rationality to decisions that have in fact been made on other, rarely articulated, grounds. The paradoxical result is all too obvious. The public sector and large bureaucratic organisations appear as paragons of good decision making process and exemplars of bad decisions”.

Quite so.

John Roseveare

HubWestminster, November 2012




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