“Transport decisions are about values”: Australia shows the limitations of cost-benefit analysis

The Gold Coast light rail. Image: David Ansen/Flickr/creative commons.

Growing the economy – not city planning – has become the Australian government’s main rationale for building urban transport infrastructure. Soon after becoming prime minister in September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull declared: “I will be an infrastructure prime minister”.

Subsequently, his government’s focus seems to be largely on infrastructure projects – including urban transport infrastructure – “which drive … growth and jobs”.

Transport infrastructure is seen as a facilitator of growth and competitiveness in our cities. This is where much of Australia’s economic growth is generated. But, while important, promoting economic growth is not transport’s only major function.

Increasingly divorced from city planning

Until recently, it was generally accepted that urban transport and land development needed to be planned in an integrated way, having regard to what city future was desired. Transport infrastructure investment would then help to achieve that city future.

While city planning was once a “tool for correcting and avoiding market failure”, it is now much more about promoting economic growth by providing certainty for the development industry and reducing regulation.

Under this increasingly dominant view, city planning (by governments) is seen as a generally distorting influence on property markets. Regulation is a “transaction cost”.

Major urban transport investment is increasingly divorced from achieving broader city planning objectives. This includes equitable access to services and facilities.

For example, there is a disconnect between the TransApex major road program and urban planning in southeast Queensland. This program of four major road projects in Brisbane aimed to improve cross-city travel and keep the economy strong. However, TransApex was at odds with the southeast Queensland regional plan’s aim of promoting sustainability and reducing car dependency.

Cost-benefit analysis is preferred

Instead of an integrated city planning approach, governments are increasingly basing transport investment decisions on cost-benefit analyses.

Cost-benefit analysis for transport projects involves weighing up the costs (construction and operating costs) and benefits (travel time savings, vehicle operating cost savings, crash cost savings and wider economic benefits). If the dollar value of the benefits exceeds the costs, the project is considered justified.

It has recently been suggested that all transport projects where benefits exceed costs by some margin should be built, apparently with little regard to the effects of those projects on city planning.

The significant limitations of cost-benefit analyses are well documented. It is particularly troubling that, for transport projects, these analyses rely on a flawed assumption that motorists aim to minimise generalised costs.

Cost-benefit analyses also provide limited guidance in deciding which projects advance broader city planning objectives.


Transport decisions are about values

Decisions about transport investments are really about what kind of future city we desire.

These are decisions about values as much as they are about economics. American philosopher Michael Sandel is concerned that conversations about the future are largely framed in technocratic (often economic) terms. This leaves public discourse “hollowed out”.

The social equity effects of transport investment are not usually taken into account. The public investment of about A$1bn in the Gold Coast light rail disproportionately benefits residents, landowners and businesses close to the stations. Other Gold Coast residents – including many disadvantaged people – have to drive or make do with a relatively low-quality bus service.

With cities now urged to market themselves, “flagship” projects like the light rail are valued as means of giving cities an advantage in a world of footloose businesses and investors. These projects are considered important for growing the economy.

The Gold Coast light rail is an 18-year public-private partnership (PPP). PPP contracts frequently include “non-compete” clauses (no new competition with the PPP infrastructure). These can constrain future city planning decisions, however desirable they may be.

Splintered development is poor planning

The influence of cost-benefit analysis, city marketing and PPPs works against an integrated approach to land use and transport planning.

This situation can be described as “splintered” infrastructure development and raises questions about its impacts on the achievement of broader city planning objectives. While individual infrastructure investments with a positive benefit-cost ratio may help grow the economy, the idea that this will trickle down to better social or environmental outcomes for city residents is problematic.

It doesn’t have to be like this. One policy proposal for Adelaide offers examples of how transport and land use can be better integrated to support an overall city vision.

New transport infrastructure will clearly be needed in Australia’s growing capital cities just to maintain current levels of accessibility. There will be plenty of scope for Turnbull to leave a legacy of transport infrastructure that not only helps grow the economy but also supports integrated city planning.The Conversation

Brian Feeney is an urban planning researcher at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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