“On Bullshit” and the Garden Bridge: why TfL’s business case isn’t worth a penny

The bridge in question. Image: Heatherwick Studio.

It has been a difficult few weeks for the Garden Bridge. Through the dogged investigation of Will Hurst at the Architects’ Journal, more details emerged to cast doubt on the integrity of the procurement process through which Heatherwick Studio and Arup landed an £8.4m design contract.

The revelation that Thomas Heatherwick joined Boris Johnson at a San Francisco meeting with Apple to pitch the “Garden Bridge” – days before the official procurement for a bridge even began – triggered a flurry of accusations.

Jane Duncan, president of the Royal Institute for British Architects, called for the project to be halted pending an independent inquiry. This was echoed by long-time Garden Bridge critic, Kate Hoey MP, who called for fresh investigations and a parliamentary debate. On 10 February, the London Assembly passed a motion proposed by Caroline Pidgeon that concludes:

...there is no case for any TfL funding to be allocated to the Garden Bridge Trust and... existing public money allocated to the project [should be] fully recovered as quickly as possible.

With assembly members hurling accusations at the mayor, the media could no longer ignore the story. In the Financial Times, Edwin Heathcote regrets that objectors have been forced into challenging the legality of the process when, in principle, “The Garden Bridge represents a fundamental misconception about what public space is.”

For the Guardian’s Ian Jack, the whole project is symbolic of a growing North-South divide. Rachel Holdsworth at Londonist wrote an admirably balanced article on 11 February; three days later, she followed that up with another, suggesting that we “stop playing and put this thing back in its box”.


The most interesting take so far though comes from the Observer’s Rowan Moore. He bemoans the whole crony culture of backroom dealing and media spin through which reasoned debate “is deflected and numbed” and which is “no way to make major decisions in a democracy.”

What I like about this piece is the way Moore has started to articulate the wider, uglier implications of the Bridge. This is a scandal about a design competition in the way that Watergate was a story about a burglary. 

Knowing what we now know about the extent to which Osborne and Johnson were willing to twist and bend the rules, it is time to reconsider some of the other key milestones on the slippery road to the Garden Bridge. This includes questioning the credibility of an internal TfL audit that somehow failed to uncover that now infamous San Francisco trip. The absurd but oft-repeated assertion that “80 per cent of Londoners” support the Garden Bridge also needs to be debunked as the product of an intentionally biased survey.

Most of all, we need to challenge the business case for the Garden Bridge. It is time for the London Assembly, in particular, to go beyond the box-ticking process of asking whether a Business Case exists: it also matters whether that Business Case is up to the standard expected of our public officials. This one clearly is not.

Re-opening the case

The importance of this document cannot be overstated. We know from correspondence between George Osborne and Boris Johnson that the taxpayer contribution to the project was “subject to” the Business Case.

But the timing of the Business Case is both problematic and revealing of the highly unorthodox progression of this project. What should have been done first, was done last – and done badly. When the National Audit Office says diplomatically that “a high degree of uncertainty” hangs over the scheme, one has to assume that this is what they’re talking about.

A Business Case is effectively an Options Appraisal, or what we used to call an Economic Appraisal. Yet all of the key spending decisions were obviously taken long before the Business Case was ever produced.

It all rings a very loud bell. Back in 2003, irritated at what I perceived to be a rash of cosmetic appraisals for ill-conceived Lottery projects, I wrote an article for Locum Destination Review called “The Economic Appraisal Trap”. In it, I described the difference between real and cosmetic appraisals:

The difference between the two is subtle, but crucial and is all about timing. A real economic appraisal… is done when all of the options are on equal footing and the question – “Where do we go from here?” – is still a valid one... If you don’t do the appraisal when all options are open to you, if you wait too long and work up one solution more than the others, then forget it. It won’t help you.

In fairness, it is not all that uncommon for a design process to outpace its economic appraisal. Half the appraisals that we do start in reverse gear – which is to say that we have to backtrack the whole process because the client has started to design something before providing a rationale for what they are doing and why. If the appraisal then endorses that original concept, then life is grand and we all proceed with confidence. Just as often, the appraisal will recommend a different solution which may require a re-design. It happens all the time. It’s not a big deal.

There is a difference, however, between leaving an appraisal too late and leaving it laughably, ludicrously late, which is what Transport for London did with the Garden Bridge. How much water was under the proverbial bridge by the time the Business Case was completed in May 2014?

  • The initial design contract was commissioned and completed by Heatherwick Studio;
  • An £8.4m detailed design contract was let to Arup;
  • More than £4m of that was already spent or committed;
  • Planning applications for Westminster and Lambeth were completed and ready for submission;
  • The project was publicly announced, including the £60m public sector contribution towards it;
  • The project was featured in the National Infrastructure Plan 2013;
  • The special purpose vehicle established to oversee delivery and management of the bridge – i.e. The Garden Bridge Trust – had been constituted and registered with the Charity Commission.

There was simply no way that an economic appraisal produced in May 2014 could be allowed to frustrate a process that had advanced that far. To quote my own, prophetic 2003 article:

By then it’s too late. Too many people will be signed up to a single idea. Reputations are at stake. Too much financial and political capital has been invested to allow a real economic appraisal to upset the apple cart. By then only a cosmetic appraisal will do.

At the time, I even provided a facetious guide for fiddling an appraisal: “structure your objectives and assumptions so that the option you like is bound to come out on top. If there is an alternative that is more efficient (but not as exciting) you can just assume it away or claim that it doesn’t deliver your objectives.”

This is exactly what TfL did. It conjured a set of “objectives” that only a Garden Bridge could meet. It also ignored (or “assumed away”) a whole raft of alternatives that could have been considered. There are any number of different ways to encourage walking in Central London or reduce congestion at Waterloo Station. But TfL made the heroic leap from these “macro” objectives to the narrowly “micro” solution of a bridge from the South Bank to Temple.

Considering four different permutations of a footbridge, as TfL did, is not a robust appraisal of options for creating a more walkable London. It is nonsense. To put it in the simple, folksy terms that Boris Johnson seems to prefer: a legitimate economic appraisal is meant to compare an apple, an orange, a pear and a banana; TfL compared four different types of grapefruit.

“On bullshit” and the Garden Bridge

You may think that this is all just bureaucratic overkill. Isn’t this all just food for consultants or the pedantry of jobsworth economists? Doesn’t this lead to the “analysis paralysis” that stifles creativity and prevents the delivery of visionary projects? Johnson certainly seems to make a virtue out of his contempt for due process.

But that is to misunderstand what a business case is for. A business case is not a substitute for decision-making. It is a tool to aid decision-making and to ensure that decision-making is informed and transparent.

Indeed, a well done appraisal almost never produces an unambiguous recommendation. It can’t. Life is full of trade-offs. Tough choices have to be made, and we expect our elected representatives to make those difficult decisions for us. We simply ask that those decisions be transparent and based on the best available evidence (This is all spelled out in HM Treasury’s guidance on the “five case model” that TfL purports to have followed.)

With its shoot-first-and-aim-later approach to the Garden Bridge, Transport for London failed to protect the public interest. Because it was left so late, the Business Case became – by necessity – a textbook example of what Mark Henderson describes as “sprayed-on” evidence:

Advice from scientists [or economists] with relevant expertise should be sought and considered in good faith before decisions are made, rather than sprayed-on afterwards… If ministers [or mayors] decide to overrule expert advice, as they are entitled to do and often will, they should explain their reasons. When they choose to go with instincts that point one way, over evidence that points another, they should say so.

Above all, politicians and civil servants should not be allowed to get away with laying claim to evidence-based policy when decisions have actually been taken by other means.

Mark Henderson, The Geek Manifesto, 2012

What Henderson describes so contemptuously as “policy-based evidence” is akin to the layering of “half-truths, deceptions and evasions” that so irked Rowan Moore. It could also, more simply, be described as “bullshit”.

Be assured that I don't use that word lightly. I use it in its strictest philosophical and academic sense, as set out in Harry Frankfurt's bestselling essay, On Bullshit. As Frankfurt points out, the problem with bullshit is that it is so much more pernicious and harder to debunk than lies.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all … except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. … He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 1986

If it seems extreme to tag the mayor of London, the chancellor and their Transport for London stooges as bullshitters, then it bears repeating that the whole of the taxpayer’s contribution to the Garden Bridge rests on a fundamentally dishonest Business Case.

It is a £60m document; and it isn’t worth a penny. Who is going to investigate that?

Dan Anderson is an economist and a director at destination consultants Fourth Street.

 


Editor's note: We put these allegations to TfL. A spokesperson provided the following statement:

A TfL spokesperson said: “All major projects are subject to a continuous process of business case development and the Garden Bridge is no different.  Early work on the project in 2013 included initial development of the business case for the project. The final business case for public sector investment in this project was subject to all of the normal approvals.

“There is a strong business case for this bridge, which was prepared as part of the thorough work to develop the proposal and ensure it was the best scheme to support. The business case outlined a range of options for a new or improved river crossing in central London and demonstrated that a Garden Bridge in this location, largely financed through private funding, offered the best Benefit Cost Ratio. The business case was also reviewed and approved by the DfT in line with their normal procedure for transport projects.

“The Garden Bridge will support an increase in walking in central London, which will relieve pressure on the tube and bus network and support a healthier and greener central London. It will also support development of the North bank area, help facilitate an increase in new development and boost the local economy. The project has received planning permission on both sides of the river, and final arrangements are being put in place to allow construction to start later this year.  The public sector contribution of 60 million will secure twice as much investment from the private sector.”

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.