Toronto in 2010

WEBs – can they be negative?

The second in our series of blogs looking at how Paul Buchanan has continued to develop the techniques and spread the application of WEBs.

Can WEBs be negative?

I spent many years after Crossrail espousing the power of WEBs: the economic growth that resulted, the additional tax revenues accruing to government and all of the good things that follow high density, rail-enabled employment creation. It was more than a decade later when I discovered ‘anti-WEBs’ or how transport infrastructure investments can create negative WEBs.

That discovery was made in Toronto, whilst advising them on rail and WEBs. It is always good to understand the history of a place before making forecasts of its’ future so we spent some time examining development planning and economic growth as far back as we could. It is a sad story. Toronto from the 1950s to 1980s was a public transport city with a thriving metro and development focused within the city centre. Implementation of multiple orbital and radial motorways in the 1980s and 1990s, combined with competitive tax policies from suburban authorities, changed that pattern drastically and by the early 2000s employment growth was almost entirely focused around the orbital and radial motorways, well outside the city centre.

The result was (predictably) an explosion of car traffic and congestion on the main roads. Those commercial developments which seemed so accessible when the highways were running at free-flow speeds suddenly don’t look such a good investment when the roads are highly congested.

Therein lies a key policy dilemma for city authorities and transport economists: the interaction between transport and land use. There are two key issues:

  • Rail infrastructure leads to dense development and strong radial demand patterns which railways are ideally suited to serving.
  • Road infrastructure leads to dispersed development and complex demand patterns which are very difficult for any transport mode to cope with. Rail can’t provide the frequency and variety of routes, roads can’t cope with the high demand.

The distinction between road and rail becomes even clearer when you consider the costs of serving travel demand. On highways the higher the demand the slower the speed and the higher the generalised cost of travel as congestion reduces speed. On rail it works the other way round, the higher the demand the higher the frequency of service and the lower the generalised cost of travel. The impact of the land use response on transport is negative for roads and positive for rail.

Our advice to Toronto was to invest in rail, align policies to maximise the land use response in the city centre and change the distribution of future growth back towards the city centre. There are strong financial, economic and environmental reasons for that strategy.


 1980 – most jobs still clustered in the city centre

1980 map

1999 – almost no growth in the centre but a large increase in jobs clustered around the new freeways

1999 map

2010 – significant employment clusters well outside the city centre. Demand growth reduces accessibility provided by the freeways

2010 map
2010 map


Image: Toronto in 2010 by Guilhem Vellut is licensed under CC by 2.0

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t: +44 020 8878 6333

Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.