Understanding the Role of Performance Targets in Transport Policy

Understanding the Role of Performance Targets in Transport Policy


G Marsden, P Bonsall, J Beale, ITS, University of Leeds, UK



The measurement of performance in the public sector has become increasingly important in recent years for a variety of reasons, not least to demonstrate accountability for public funds. It is becoming commonplace for transport organisations, local and national governments to publish performance goals for service supply and quality. Such commitments, when time referenced, are known as targets. Examples include targets for casualty reduction, bus and rail punctuality, cycle use and even cleanliness of stations. Increasingly, payments to organisations are linked to their performance against these targets.

This paper describes the development of targets in the transport sector. Through the use of a series of examples the paper discusses the rationale for targets and the effect that they have on priorities and performance. A series of lessons are drawn for the transport profession to consider.

The paper begins by reviewing the targets in existence today and assesses the impacts they have had on performance, spending and value for money. The examples demonstrate that targets appear to have a significant impact on policy makers, managers and their agents. However, the measures put in place to achieve the target do not necessarily give rise to outcomes that follow the logic and principle behind the initial target. For example, it is suggested that casualty reduction targets have discouraged walking and cycling, that some targets have acted against the most efficient allocation of resources, that targets which are too easy or too difficult to meet can be demotivating and that targets which are too detailed can discourage initiative. These criticisms are examined by drawing on examples from other sectors, such as health, housing and education, where targets have had a longer history than in transport.

The criticisms raise serious questions about the purpose of targets and about how to avoid setting inappropriate or counter-productive targets. In order to answer these questions we need to understand the different perspectives which have led to the introduction of targets in the public policy arena. We identify the desire of politicians and managers for enhanced control, the legal and financial pressures towards greater accountability, and the increasingly consumer-oriented nature of society, as contributors to a culture in which targets, standards and benchmarks become inevitable.

The paper concludes with a series of recommendations on how to set effective targets. It also raises a series of questions which merit further consideration in this under-researched yet growing area.

The paper is based on research from a two-year placement at the UK Parliament and research funded by the Rees Jeffrey?s Road Fund examining consumer expectations from the transport system.


Association for European Transport