Friday, 15 November 2013

Just another accident statistic?

The recent spate of horrific cycle accidents in London, many resulting in fatalities, has focused attention on the perils of cycling on London's busy streets. There has been understandable grief, outrage and a rising political temperature as Mayor Boris Johnson is accused of 'blaming the victim'.

What there hasn't been (as far as I have seen) is any assessment of how dangerous cycling is in proportion to the number of cyclists, or compared to other forms of transport on London's roads.  It may seem a callous question to ask, as one cyclist crushed by a lorry is clearly one too many, but I was curious about the relative risk.

After not much digging in the London Datastore, I found some statistics from TfL's Transport Trends survey, which reports on number of journeys taken on different forms of transport each day (strictly speaking 'journey stages' - if I walk to a bus stop, take a bus, then cycle, I have had three journey stages), and the number of accidents and deaths suffered by users of each form of transport each year.  Oddly, the last set of numbers are for 2009 for journeys and 2010 for accidents, but I suspect the ratios did not change dramatically between those two years.

Here are the statistics:

The difference between relative accident rates is pretty stark.  London's cyclists are eight times as likely to be fatally injured as car drivers and passengers, and seven and a half times as likely to be injured.  Cycling isn't as dangerous as riding a motorbike (more than 50 times the risk of driving a car), but it's substantially more dangerous than walking or using other motor vehicles.  It would be interesting to extend The Economist's comparison of USA and Netherlands fatality rates, but I don't have the data. 

Overall, cycling on London's roads is about five times more risky than the norm for fatalities, and 10 times more for injuries.  I'm not sure whether I expected this to be higher or lower; by way of comparison, occupations such as roofers, electricians and farmers have similarly heightened fatality rates.  But it's not encouraging me to get on my bike.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Your city's a sucker?

It's been a busy week for citittude.  Bruce Katz has been in town, showcasing his latest data on how US cities are leading the economy out of recession.  And Benjamin Barber joined him for a Centre for London debate, arguing that, as nation states flounder, mayors are the most dynamic and pragmatic leaders, and that international alliances of cities are the powerful organisational structure.

Work has irritatingly stopped me attending several of the events but what I've seen from Twitter feeds and blogs suggest an almost evangelical level of excitement; that as the world turns increasingly urban, cities are asserting themselves, seizing power and initiative from the drab and clumsy nation states that hold them back.  We have come a long way from the sixties or even the eighties, when cities were viewed a crime-ridden and corrupt rat holes, best avoided by upright citizens or treated as a problem, a target for initiatives, by well-meaning politicians.

Now, if this is a new religion, I'm a worshipper.  The vitality and variety of London continues to astonish me, and the two mayors I have worked for are far more impressive than the national politicians I have come across.  Similarly, I broadly sign up to the 'Mayoral Manifesto', the programme of policies that pretty well every mayor pushes, whether nominally from the left of the right.  This manifesto (which I will write more about another time) promotes open borders and global capitalism, but is also concerned about housing, about social equity and about climate change.  It embraces minority groups and marginal lifestyles, invests in public transport and public space, but also endorses a tough law and order regime, with low tolerance for anything that could be seen as civic unrest or even dissent.

So, to borrow from Edward Glaeser, cities have triumphed. But there's another side to this story too; one that would caution against too much triumphalism, would whisper warnings against hubris like a Roman senator’s attendant whispering a memento mori.  As cities become more like each other - with the same Mayoral Manifesto, the same coffee franchises and the same bus rapid transit systems - they drift further and further away from their rural hinterlands.  Some would argue, and in the case of London have done so - that this process should be followed through, that cities should be granted proper autonomy, controlling their own tax, welfare and regulatory systems. 

Absent that solution - and modern city states are a pretty motley collection, including Singapore, Hong Kong, the Vatican and Monte Carlo - and cities will continue to have to live with their sprawling green neighbours. Cracks are showing: in England, the tension between London and the rest (including regional cities) is becoming a leitmotif of debate: on house prices, on High Speed 2, on funding for the arts . But in the west (where the vast majority of the population already lives in urban communities), the urban elite has tended to stay in control, though the Tea Party movement in the US and UKIP in the UK can be seen as rural/provincial reactions to metropolitan values. 

In the developing world, where urbanization rates remain below 50 per cent, and urban values are perhaps less widespread, rural champions have been elected and tensions have been more clearly manifested. In Istanbul, the Taksim Square demonstrations brutally repressed by the police were the actions of a beleaguered urban liberal class fighting against destruction of a public space (one of the gravest sins in the urban catechism) by a President elected by a more religious, more conservative hinterland that is even more remote from Istanbul than rural Arkansas is from New York.

Similarly, India's urban, secular Congress Party is perpetually locked in battle with the more sectarian rural politics of the BJP. In Sri Lanka, a recent profile of President Rajapaska argued that the urban elites of Colombo regard their president, elected on a rural buddhist ticket, with embarrassment.

I'm not sure where all this leads us.  Personally, I am clear where my loyalties lie, and I don't think cities should be in the business of kow-towing to rural conservatives.  But even in their moment of greatest triumph, cities should tread softly in proclaiming inherent superiority and denouncing their rural opponents as bigots and hicks.  Those singing hosannas to the greater glory of the urban inside the church should be aware of those outside, many of whom are indifferent or actively hostile to their creed.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Now the Party's over

Party conferences have always been an acquired taste, but this year's (even without the McBride and Farrage sideshows) have seemed particularly remote from reality, alien rituals conducted by an alien species.  But is this just the latest chapter in the slow decline of mass party membership, or is something else at play?

The Guardian's John Harris, former chronicler of BritPop and historian of new Labour, has been worrying for some months at how the Conservative Party has lost touch with mainstream conservatism, continuing to promulgate the neoliberal nostrums of open markets and free trade, deaf to a crescendo of grumbling from its once core vote.  Outside the capital, in 'Alarm Clock Britain' (or whichever new-minted de haut en bas descriptor the narrative-mongers have come up with), Harris finds that open markets and globalisation are not viewed as paragons of efficiency and creators of wealth, but as destroyers of jobs and harbingers of instability.

Harris's argument was echoed in Aditya Chakraborty's analysis of falling party membership (and the takeover of the Conservative Party by financiers), and in the Guardian's reportage from Aldi in Worcester, the front line of this new class war, where shoppers proclaimed themselves either terminally disillusioned with all politics, or tending towards UKIP.

My reading habits are admittedly partial, but I don't think this us just a left argument:  Peter Oborne's broadsides at the metropolitan political class are aiming at the same territory. The politicians at their press conferences look increasingly like medieval clerics debating transubstantiation, while the peasants ponder plague and turnips.  The detachment goes beyond silly shibboleths about who knows the price of a pint of milk, a loaf of bread, a litre of superstrength cider, or whatever 21st Century staple politicians have to pretend that they buy.

Once you start to look for it, you can see this rancorous detachment everywhere.  You can see it in the 'below the lines' comments in newspapers.  These may invite provocateurs, trolls and other people with nothing better to do with their time, but there is a toxic undercurrent of resentment too.  Sometimes expressed through racism or xenophobia, but sometimes simply presenting as a profound hostility to the political class, and an establishment that is seen as interested only in feathering its own nests.

The sense of alienation is polymorphous, and perhaps hard to analyse clearly, but it's harder still to see where it is going.  The crowds are not out on the streets in the UK, and the protests of the Occupy movement never went far beyond St Paul's Churchyard, so will disgruntled citizens flock to marginalised parties of the left and right that diverge from the shared internationalist outlook of the mainstream parties, as Seumas Milne has suggested? Will unrest and violence erupt, maybe targeted at immigarnts and other easy targets as it has been in Greece?  Or is a more profound change underway?  It seems almost absurd to pose the question, but is Disgusted of Droitwich a British manifestation of the discontent that erupted in Taksim and Tahrir?

Writing in the latest LRB, David Runciman argues that the oil shocks and decaying industrial capitalism of the 1970s gave birth to what we now call neoliberalism, though it was years if not decades before the baby was named or its moment of birth identified.  Flip forward 35 years, and ask whether the crisis of the past five years is a blip in the narrative of neoliberalism triumphant, or the beginning of something new.  If the latter, pace Yeats (it is National Poetry Day tomorrow, after all), "what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Policy-based evidence making?

For someone with my politics, reading research from the Institute for Economic Affairs is never less than bracing, not least when you find yourself in sneaking agreement with it.  The recent IEA report - Quack Policy – Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism by Jamie Whyte - takes a robustly sceptical cleaver to a herd of sacred cows: minimum alcohol pricing and lower speed limits, for example, fail to trade-off their supposed benefits with the pleasures of drinking and the convenience of driving fast.  In many cases, Whyte argues, policy-makers start with their paternalistic opinions and prejudices, and then find the evidence to support them.  Policy-based evidence making.

At first sight, basing policy on evidence rather than prejudice, blind faith or ideology seems uncontentious, a 'no brainer' even.  But I don't think that scepticism about evidence-based policy should be the reserve of the type of people who will be harrumphing that there is no evidence for man-made climate change until the flood waters start lapping round their ankles.

Evidence-based policy has its roots in the concept of evidence-based medicine, which responded to the tendency of medics (alarmingly commonplace until the 1990s) to base interventions on custom and practice rather than any clinical data about what works. 

The elision from choosing cancer treatments based on their demonstrable impact on specific physiological circumstances, to choosing policies based on predictions of human behaviour is not smooth, however.  To start with, policy interventions are rarely based on controlled, randomised scientific trials that can isolate cause and effect from other factors.  Even where a good result seems to have followed a specific policy - the reduction in heart attack rates following the ban on smoking in pubs, for example - the causal links are not simple.  People and societies are more cussed, diverse and chaotic than cancer cells or bunions.

But there is a more fundamental sense in which evidence-based policy worries me.  It takes the politics out of policy, and creates a technocratic world where efficiency and value-for-money are all; where white-coated analysts can dispassionately assess solutions, tinkering with the apparatus of incentives, nudges and penalties to perfect citizens and society.  Tony Blair’s 1997 mantra – “what matters is what works” – was not just a financier-friendly disavowal of socialist dogma, but also a retreat from conviction politics (until their re-appearance after 9/11).

Evidence-based policy may have progressive aims (safer roads, better health, lower re-offending, fitter, happier, more productive people), but this managerialist approach excludes discussions of principle, of morality, of big ideas.  It cloaks opinions behind assertions of scientific fact. This focus is also inherently conservative; it is about tweaking the current system to optimise the way it moulds individuals’ actions, rather than considering whether it is the system itself that is rotten. 

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Cash on the barrelhead

Listening to Alison Munro, chief executive of the High Speed 2 rail project, protesting that costs hadn't risen on the radio this morning, I had a faint sense of deja vu.  In between assuring us that "there is no blank cheque" (which usually means that the numbers involved have too many zeroes to even fit on a cheque), Ms Munro gave a masterclass in the popular sport of capital project obfuscation.  Here are some of the most elegant gambits:
  1. 'The previous costs didn't give the full picture'Who on earth would expect the bill for a railway project to include trains?  Or an Olympic budget to include policing costs?  Of course these items were always seen as extra, even if not explicitly, so their inclusion does not represent a cost increase. Of course.

  2. 'The increase is in contingency'.  The apparent increase in the budget is therefore the result of prudence, not prodigality.  Ministers have wisely allocated additional funding, sometimes squirelled away in departmental budgets, to allow for any cost overruns, whether from unforeseen circumstances, changes in specification or lax cost control.  

    At the beginning of a project, these contingency allowances are 'very unlikely' to be spent.  As the project continues, they gradually shift and slide to form part of the budget, below which the project will therefore be delivered.  In 2007, the revised Olympic budget of £9.3 billion included more than £2 billion contingency.  In 2013, the Government announced that the eventual cost of £8.8 billion was £500 million under budget.  (This explains, by the way, why Government is so reluctant to pass this saving to the National Lottery.)

  3. 'The original budget didn't include provision for Value Added Tax'.  Some government entities have VAT exemptions; others have to pay VAT but cannot reclaim it like businesses would, as they are not selling goods and services to the public.  But surely, you might say, this is just a matter of one government agency adding 20 per cent to costs, so they can pass the money straight back to HM Treasury (who gave them the money in the first place)?  Is this a budget change, is it sleight of hand?  God (and the Chancellor) only know.

  4. 'The original figures were nominal values'.  Public bodies (and many private bodies too) initially present project costs in the prices that would theoretically have been paid had the whole project been built and paid for in a single year (2011 in the case of HS2) rather than over the actual period of time taken to build it, during which costs would inflate.  The use of nominal values helps comparison of different proposals that would be delivered at different times, and revenues should inflate as much as costs do, but outturn costs that are double the nominal costs originally stated nonetheless add to confusion.
The net impact of these manoeuvres is that a project that was originally stated to cost less than £30 billion can rise to £42.6 billion through increases in contingency, add a further £7 billion for trains,  and finally grow to £73 billion to take account of VAT and inflation.  Each of these changes looks reasonable in itself, but taken together they make it look like Government is playing a game of fiscal Find-the-Lady, where virtually any number can be defined or redefined as the cost of a project.  This probably does not do much to boost public confidence in politicians.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Against nature - skiing

The last days of the skiing season have a curious feeling.  As the last visitors sweat down the slopes in sunshine or top up tans in piste-side bars, there’s a slightly wistful tinge as the snow turns to slush and melts back into the slopes.  

But it’s a world away from the intense melancholy that accompanies the shortening days and falling temperatures of autumn in a coastal resort.  The mountainsides are being reborn, not closing down.  The shops want to swap ski gear for hiking boots, and the hotels want to advertise swimming pools not saunas.  As the mountains shrug off the grubby crust of accumulated snow, an illusion lifts.  As cigarette butts, dog turds and club flyers are revealed by the snow’s retreat, so is the deep structure of the ski runs.  This piste is a road, this one a footpath, this one a gentle flower meadow.

This awkward metamorphosis lays bare a complex and intricately evolved infrastructure – the cables that spider up and down hills, and the lifts, conveyor belts, gates and pulleys that transport skiers up hills, like products in a perpetual motion assembly line designed by Heath Robinson.  Ski resorts are nature, but nature improved, primped, preened.   Through the winter, snow machines spew water vapour into the freezing night air, and from the hotels and bars you can see the lights of piste-bashing tractors crawling up and down steep inclines, turning their churned-up surface to uniform white corduroy.  

There’s nothing natural about skiing either.  Encased in polyester and crash helmets, and balancing on a steep hillside, on two wobbly planks of carbon fibre, you are told to lean downhill, against all common sense and years of conditioning.  To turn right, you must lean or shift your weight to the left; to turn left, you must do the opposite.  And all the time, to retain any sense of control, you must point your nose downhill.

But, for those fleeting moments when it works, when you feel the sheer joy of swooping down the manicured winter wilderness, more or less in control, you feel as close to flight as you can without leaving the ground.  Suddenly it feels like the most natural thing in the world.