Cost Benefit Analysis thinking: unexpected results

Cost Benefit Analysis (BCA) is a common practice for considering infrastructure investment. The studies are very expensive and usually only applied to large projects where the investment is so large that it requires justification. Cycling projects may not be considered, which does cycle infrastructure little justice, as it saves government money.

The quick fix

The decision making in Canberra may be described as solving real-world problems without reinventing the city. The best solution may be seen as a simple extension to fix or improve the existing system. It becomes the extension of existing ideas, fixing concrete problems in a simpler way. Often Cost Benefit Analysis studies will not be considered due to the time, cost and added complexity. It may be simpler to consider just facts that go into Cost Benefit Analysis studies as variables in isolation. This provides an argument that is both rational and politically acceptable.

Here is a table showing the issue that we desire to improve and a simple extension of the status quo that provides a solution to that problem. All these issues are variables and considered in Cost Benefit Analysis.

ProblemSolution
Carbon omissions Electric vehicles – cars, buses and light rail – have no omissions.
CongestionPublic transport has higher passenger carrying density, freeing up the roads and reducing congestion.
Vulnerable road usersPedestrians and cyclists are statistically much safer if they are travelling in a car, bus or train.
Travel time Time is money. Short travel times are better. Cycling and walking may take longer.
Cycle pathsA cycle path parallel to the road is a road accessory and always adds additional cost. Cycle paths are not built independently of roads as they are not seen as a road replacement.
Health: less fatalitiesCar, bus or train are safer than walking or cycling.
Health: less injuries Car, bus or train are safer than walking or cycling.
Healthy: more active lifestyleAn active lifestyle has many health benefits. The Heart Foundation recommends 40 min exercise, many times per week. This can be achived by walking to public transport stops on workdays and taking the steps at work.
Better fitnessPlenty of substitutes including a fitness club membership or other sports clubs. Riding to work is not the only option.
Problems and simple solutions.

Cost Benefit Analysis studies try to factor in that which can be measured, but there are aspects of our lives that are difficult to measure. The following table lists a few things that from anecdotal evidence would seem true, but where the research is insufficient to include it in the Cost Benefit Analysis.

BenefitEvidence
WellbeingPeople that cycle to work in high cycling countries have been reported to express high levels of wellbeing than those that commute with the car in traffic.
HappinessIn the Netherlands, where most children ride to school, children are reported to be happier with their lives due to a greater sense of freedom and mobility.
More sustainableThe bike may be the most efficient machine ever invented. It would seem obvious that an electric car is more expensive to manufacture and has a bigger environmental footprint.
Numerical analysis may miss that which is hard to quantify.

Systems Thinking

It can be argued that decision making in Canberra is not just about a quick fix, but that lacks system thinking.

Cost Benefit Analysis studies do not consider the whole city network due to the immense complexity. Cost Benefit Analysis is simpler for just one mode of transport, which is commonly the private car. Considering multi-modal transport network of pedestrians, cyclist, cars and public transport is enormously complex. To model pedestrians and cyclists, it is not sufficient to just have the roads but also the network of community paths and consider the interaction with the road network. It is also necessary to consider where the pedestrians and cyclists go, their destinations, and the type of trips that may be different to car travel. To add further complexity, add the layer for public transport over this and all the interconnections.

In the era where we have mastered the simulation of the atmosphere of our planet and can make accurate weather predictions, the modelling of the complexities of a multi-modal transport network is not impossible. It does, however, appear to be cost prohibitive. Instead, each mode is modelled and managed in subjective isolation (silos). Public transport is done in one box, and road transport in another. Pedestrians and cyclists fit in another box. Pedestrians are sometimes considered in isolation. Examples of this would be children around schools and paths for the disabled (ACT Disability Act). For both children and the disabled, the paths usually lead to a car park.

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