“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.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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