Monday, January 14, 2019

Sound bites sound good but usually have a hidden bite.

How's that for a soundbite? It's not bad is it? But is it true?

I have spent a lot of time over the past couple of years thinking about how poor public debate so often is. Simplistic soundbites trump complex truths. This is especially true with respect to Brexit but it applies to all areas. It is so easy to 'win' an argument with a simple phrase but when you dig, just a little deeper you find out that that simple phrase is simply not true.

A good example of that is the argument around 'austerity.' It was very fashionable half a decade ago to compare the national economy to a household budget. Phrases like 'we have to pay our way' or 'maxing out the nation's credit card' or 'not running up debts for our children to pay off' carried the day. Each is deeply misleading. This is an interesting post, but if you want to understand why all of these austerity soundbites are untrue, Mark Blyth's Austerity, the History of a Dangerous Idea is a really good and accessible book.

Here's one of my favourite examples from over a decade ago: The M4 Bus Lane.

Sound ridiculous doesn't it? A Bus Lane on a motorway. Seriously? I have to admit that when I heard about it, I was very sceptical. I filed it in the mental bin marked 'not this thing.' What I mean is that I broadly supported the government of the day but there were some policies that I wouldn't defend.

Then I discovered that it worked. And that intrigued me. The point about the M4 Bus Lane is that is was never about buses. It was never about encouraging public transport. It was all about smoothing traffic flow.

There is a small elevated section at the end of the M4 that is 2 lanes. That is never going to change in the medium term. To make it three would be hugely expensive and involve demolishing a lot of nearby homes. The transition from 3 lanes to 2 with the well-understood behaviours of drivers is responsible for worsening the congestion at busy times. As it's not possible to make it 3 lanes, what can be done? Well, because of where the traffic is joining and leaving, it was thought that moving the 3 to 2 lane reduction back to Heathrow might ease the flows. The idea was that having the reduction at a point where there was less traffic would more than compensate for the loss of capacity. Basically there was a short stretch of tarmac that needed to be closed to make this work.

How do we know if it worked or not? Well, the Department for Transport did the studies before and after and indeed the average travel times for cars got better. (And got worse again when the lane was removed). It would have been achieved simply by closing that lane but as the lump of tarmac is there, why not use it for something? Like Buses. Even if it didn't work, it would still be a reasonable policy to try out.

But here's the problem: How long does it take to unpack why it's a sensible idea and to go looking for the data to see if it worked as intended? And how long does it take to utter the soundbite We're removing the M4 Bus Lane as we're ending the War on Motorists...?

Sound bites win arguments. Arguments that should fail.

Hey, that's a good sound bite too...

I don't really know what the answer is, especially in a age of mass and instant media but I do know that our democracy is under threat from people who deliberately obfuscate and mislead with cute phrases.