How do we value travel time?

By Dr Andy Cope,
busy street with pedestrians, cyclists and buses

We all like to be efficient - we all want to get there just that bit more quickly. and spend a few more minutes doing something useful or pleasant. 

But how valuable are these bits of time? If we can create extra time, how do we actually use it? And is it right to assign a price to it as the Department of Transport has tried to do?

Time spent travelling is valued in WebTAG, the Department for Transport’s standard on transport analysis guidance

Time is assigned a value, and any interventions can be valued according to the extent to which they impact on this time.

This carries with it numerous problems, and principle among them is how we value time. Under the old WebTAG model, time values were mode based. There was no account taken of whether a minute saved on a five minute trip was more or less valuable than a minute saved on a two hour trip, for example. The consequence was that many road schemes ended up being justified on the basis of the high values of accumulated benefits of saving small amounts of time.

The DfT has recently commissioned research into the value of time.

While the consultation doesn't end until 29 January, the research has reportedly updated the evidence base, provided better coverage for different modes, and applied new methods to estimate values of time for business travel, which avoid the need to rely on theoretical assumptions about how people use their travel time.

The consequences of this work are particularly interesting for travel for business (travelling in the course of work) and for commuting (travelling to and from a regular place of work):

  • In terms of travel for business, time values for short distance business travel decrease for all modes. However, time values for long distance business rail travel increase substantially.
  • In terms of commuting, time values for commuting increase by nearly 50% compared with the values used previously.

This will get around the problems of accumulated small time savings for all users, but will mean that there is a concentration of build-up of benefit in schemes that are expected to move commuters around more quickly, and schemes that support longer distance business travel. This serves to embed the case for both road building (near employment areas) and rail links.

If nominal economic impacts are appropriate in respect of time, why are other nominal and hard-to-calculate values overlooked, such as wellbeing and benefits to children?

- Dr Andy Cope

But all of this overlooks the reality of how we use time. If we get to work a minute or two earlier, we don’t necessarily spend this time hard at work, and we are not therefore more productive. We don’t necessarily spend longer and spend more in the shop if we are able to get there a little more quickly.

Very often if journey times are improved, we opt to live further away.

The research doesn’t reflect the complexities of our perceptions of the value of time, and our use of time.

We have responded to the DfT’s consultation on the new research into the values of time. Our view is that anything that reduces the disproportionate impact of small time savings in appraisals of investment in new roads is helpful. However, to some extent the solutions may just replace one analytical problem with another.

The values generated are taken from willingness to pay studies, and as such they are ‘nominal’ economic impacts in the WebTAG framework. That is to say, they are expressions of the hypothetical rather than expressions of real, or ‘cashable’ economic benefits.

There is no ‘jingling of coins into the cash register’ associated with these values.

If nominal economic impacts are appropriate in respect of time, why are other nominal and hard-to-calculate values overlooked, such as wellbeing and benefits to children?

We think that transport appraisals do not answer the questions that decision makers should be asking, nor do they reflect what is actually important to people. Transport appraisal needs to reflect wider quality of life and well-being issues including health, the balance between leisure activities and work, social connections and relationships, and the environment.

By focusing on intangible and nominal economic benefits, primarily small time savings to individuals, the WebTAG framework ignores a whole raft of factors, economic and otherwise, that should be of primary importance when allocating increasingly limited resources.

Read our response to the consultation.

Stay up to date by signing up for the Policy Scan, a fortnightly summary of key policy thinking, reports, announcements and consultations.