The history of Wider Economic Benefits (WEBs)

Paul Buchanan started WEBs, secured the original approval of WEBs by government and has continued to develop the techniques and spread the application of WEBs ever since.

This series of blogs looks at some of the key changes and innovations that were introduced over time. They range from the original work on Crossrail, through early applications in Dublin, Auckland, Toronto and Melbourne. WEBs and HSR provide a different angle both in UK and Australia. Hyperloop related WEBs potentially raise the bar further.

WEBs History

I ran the economics team for Crossrail, and during my time there, I kicked off an intense 18 month project focused on how Crossrail would change the real economic performance of London. In essence the approach came down to capacity – if every rail line into central London is packed across the morning peak period how can central London continue to grow?

Extensive analysis of rail crowding using cordons and select link analysis highlighted the most congested areas but the capacity problem was, and is, a general one affecting all of central London.

The outcome derived from two critical factors:

  • Without additional transport capacity central London’s growth will be severely constrained and the London Plan could not deliver the expected growth;
  • Central London has a dramatic productivity differential from the rest of London and the rest of the UK. It is a location in which it is worth investing because of that productivity differential.

My findings were put to the Wider Benefits Working Group (WBWG). It was a fascinating exercise.  The transport bodies all fundamentally disagreed with our approach. Transport is valued by time savings and that is how transport works was the common view. Out of all the many organisations in the room the only one that supported my analysis was HM Treasury. Thankfully HMT were important enough to at least persuade the group to let me carry on. Within a year the WBWG concluded that WEBs were both entirely additional to the user benefits on which all transport economic appraisal had been reliant and significant in terms of the scale of value created.

The Crossrail analysis suggested that WEBs added at least 50%^ to the Benefit: Cost ratio and it did that not in user time savings which have little hard economic value but in productivity and job growth, things that government and politicians understand and value highly.

That was 14 years ago now and things have moved on. Volterra has worked on WEBs in countries including Finland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Eire. We have applied WEBs to rail, metro, high speed rail, light rail, Hyperloop and highways. We have advised High Speed Two, Crossrail 2 and numerous UK cities on the role of WEBs and how to maximise those benefits.


Image: Commuters by Danny Hope is licensed under CC by 2.0

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