Alan Walters’ enduring work on road pricing

Alan Walters was a great figure in economics. The obituaries today focus mainly on his contributions to macro-economics and as an advisor to Mrs Thatcher. I would like to make a brief comment about one of his many contributions to micro-economics and invite the comments of others. 

In the mid-1980s I did an undergraduate dissertation on road pricing. Alan’s work in this area (together with that of Gabriel Roth) from the early 1960s was brilliant. In 1984 it was still clearly the best exposition of the theory and the most comprehensive development of the theory available. Three contributions are worth mentioning.

The first was a paper in Econometrica: “The theory and measurements of private and social cost of highway congestion” (Econometrica, 29, 676 – 699). The second was The Smeed Report on which he worked (with Gabriel Roth, Michael Beesley and others), which was published in 1964. The third was The Economics of Road User Charges. Even today, there has been virtually nothing to add to that work of the 1960s, the first of which was published 47 years ago when Alan Walters was 35. The fact that Alan Walters’ work in that field (as in others) was so enduring yet comprehensible even to an undergraduate tells you something about his extraordinary insight and powers of exposition.

Alan Walters’ field of interest in economics was very broad and surprisingly varied. As well as his major contributions to monetary and transport economics, he did very good work in econometrics. I found Alan’s econometrics text particularly helpful. Moreover, he was always willing to give time to the IEA. When I was editor of Economic Affairs, Alan wrote a column about developments in Washington, full of colour (and always on time). He said to me ‘the IEA is such fun’ and he helped make it so.

Philip mentions Alan’s The Economics of Road User Charges, an outstanding piece on investment and pricing issues. He was also interested in the same issues in relation to aviation. Having started work on the subject at the World Bank he then became a member of the Roskill Commission on the Third London Airport. The result was a book on aircraft noise, work on discount rates in CBA and a commanding survey article on airport economics in the Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, May 1978.

The Transport Act 1985 reformed bus regulation, freeing up and privatising the industry. I had initiated this, under the supervision of G J Ponsonby, and Margaret Thatcher once told me of her approval – this must have been based on Walters’ interest in transport.

I really admired Alan Walters. Both as a technical economist and as a man with real moral courage – and one who persisted in the face of disgraceful ad hominem attacks – I felt that he was a towering figure, though one sadly underestimated on both counts. He will be missed.

Alan Walters’ field of interest in economics was very broad and surprisingly varied. As well as his major contributions to monetary and transport economics, he did very good work in econometrics. I found Alan’s econometrics text particularly helpful. Moreover, he was always willing to give time to the IEA. When I was editor of Economic Affairs, Alan wrote a column about developments in Washington, full of colour (and always on time). He said to me ‘the IEA is such fun’ and he helped make it so.

Philip mentions Alan’s The Economics of Road User Charges, an outstanding piece on investment and pricing issues. He was also interested in the same issues in relation to aviation. Having started work on the subject at the World Bank he then became a member of the Roskill Commission on the Third London Airport. The result was a book on aircraft noise, work on discount rates in CBA and a commanding survey article on airport economics in the Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, May 1978.

The Transport Act 1985 reformed bus regulation, freeing up and privatising the industry. I had initiated this, under the supervision of G J Ponsonby, and Margaret Thatcher once told me of her approval – this must have been based on Walters’ interest in transport.

I really admired Alan Walters. Both as a technical economist and as a man with real moral courage – and one who persisted in the face of disgraceful ad hominem attacks – I felt that he was a towering figure, though one sadly underestimated on both counts. He will be missed.

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