Friday 19 December 2008

It's Christmas Time

.. and I am off on holidays for a couple of weeks. Back to all things spatial in the New Year.

I hope you enjoy your festive season.

Friday 12 December 2008

Congestion charging

Manchester voters have overwhelmingly rejected proposals for a congestion charge.

There have been some suggestions that the problem was the particular scheme that Manchester was proposing. I haven't been following the details, but I have a sneaky suspicion that this may not be the root cause of the problem. Just take a look at the furious public response to Eddington's suggestion for national road pricing (nearly 2 million people signed an online petition against the idea).

Most experts agree that charging is the best way to deal with the problem of traffic congestion. When people decide how to make a journey they weigh up their personal costs and benefits of different ways of travelling. Unfortunately, choosing to travel by car also imposes costs on other people, but we ignore these costs when making our decision. The end result is too many car journeys. If only we could find a way to get each of us to take in to account the cost that we impose on others when we decide to drive by car. Congestion charging does this, while still leaving people free to choose how they travel.

Lined up against this are terribly emotive arguments around our right to travel, the effect on the poor and the impact on specific businesses. These are all far easier to sell than the economists argument about large overall benefits outweighing any of these specific costs. Somehow, we need to convince the public that the latter really is the case. Sadly, the result in Manchester suggests we still have a huge way to go.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Changing UK

The BBC are focusing on geographical segregation. Lots of pretty maps show how areas of the UK differ in terms of health, wealth, ethnic composition, political engagement etc. You can even see how the geography of "loneliness" is changing. On a wide number of indicators areas of the UK are becoming increasingly different. The tone of the coverage suggests that this is all bad news. Is it?

According to the maps, areas in the south seem to generate higher incomes than areas in the north. Surely that's bad? But it turns out that the south has also seen the largest population growth. So population is growing fastest in areas that offer the best economic opportunities. In terms of individuals, doesn't that sound like a rather good thing?

Let's take another example. It would take 4,289,377 people moving home to make the geographical distribution of age even across the country. But are unequal age distributions a bad thing? There are clearly rather large benefits to having families with children spatially concentrated in one area, while young workers live elsewhere (the former want good schools, the latter good night clubs and spatially separating schools and night clubs is generally good not bad).

What about "loneliness"? You are loneliest if you are non-married, live in a 1 person household, have moved within the last year and are renting privately. Let's set aside the issue of what you are actually capturing here and imagine that you fit that category. Are you better or worse off living close to people who also fit in that category? There seem to be good arguments why spatial concentration might on balance be a good thing (imagine for example that you were hoping to change your non-married status - isn't that easier to do when surrounded by other non-married people).

These maps are a nice description of what is happening in different areas. But they are not an analysis of the benefits and costs of the resulting segregation. Because people are different, places will tend to be different. Whether this is good or bad depends on whether the composition of a place actually has any direct impact on the well being of individuals who live in that place. These maps can't answer this question, so they tell us something about who is living where, but not whether this matters.