Valuing ways of improving local connectivity
The rare chance to meet Danish liveability guru Jan Gehl over dinner followed by a trip early next day to Brussels for a conference on regional connectivity raised the important issue of how to value and assess the options of improving walking and cycling versus investing in trams and subways. While they differ hugely in cost and impact, they do compete for space and resources, and have very different supporters. Copenhagen, branded as cycling city, boasts 37% of trips made by bike with a target of 50%. Achieved by cutting back on street parking, and gradually giving dedicated space over to cyclists, the result has been to give Copenhagen an international status as one of the most liveable cities, and a great place to visit as a tourist. Pedestrians and cyclists have priority everywhere, and roundabouts have given way to crossroads. But an indirect loser in Copenhagen has been public transport, with no trams, conventional buses, and one driverless metro line, soon to be joined by a second route. The residents do not just live in fine central apartments, but many more live further out, and bring their bikes in by suburban train, or leave them in bike parks at the stations.
With twice the population (1.2 million versus 600,000), and the role of European capital, Brussels has found it easier to fund new tram and metro lines, connecting with the European high speed rail network. Yet despite its renowned historic centre, it is strangely dull and lifeless compared with Copenhagen, and feels much more polarised. Bikes are rare, and unlike Stroget, the main mile long shopping street which is car free, cars still invade the city centre, and speed through on reserved roads. The social and environmental contrasts seem greater, with shabby buildings no doubt earmarked for redevelopment contrasting with the well-cared for streets in Copenhagen, where a version of land value taxation deters speculation. The Scandinavians love to sit outside and chat, even in the cold winters, protected by blankets and heaters. In Brussels it seems to be only the tourists who want to smoke while they eat that venture outside. As Jan Gehl puts it, we should not be looking at cycling as a form of transport but as part of the life of the city. Its value should not therefore be assessed in simple cost-benefit terms, but in the contribution it makes to urban vitality and living streets.
But this raises tricky questions about how to evaluate the options, in a world obsessed with quantification, and where politicians fight over budgets. The complexities of winning a case in the UK, where so many different arguments compete, seems to favour the mega project, such as Crossrail or High Speed 2, though only after many years and countless studies. Cost Benefit ratios appeal to those who want to reduce the arguments to a single number, but are readily discarded for political considerations. Yet as papers at the conference showed, local rapid transit systems with high returns, such as the Leeds Supertram or the Hampshire equivalent lost out to projects in London that recorded much lower ratios, but could muster support from economists on the grounds of ‘agglomeration’ effects. The impacts in terms of the five E’s of equity, efficiency, economy, environment and enhancement are easily trumped by expediency. Politicians and interest groups go for big projects on the grounds that ‘everyone else has one’, and smaller projects only win through when they can be implemented incrementally, like the Docklands Light Railway, for example.
A better approach is to use the Business Case, instead of, or to supplement the specious reasoning of Cost Benefit Analysis, which Professor Peter Self memorably described as ‘Nonsense on stilts’ in condemning the way options for the Third London Airport were evaluated. For everyone knows that engineers hide costs when their fees depend on the project going ahead, and downplay risks when there is a chance of exploring unknown territory. The benefits are anyone’s guess. The Business Case approach looks at possible scenarios over time, and assesses impacts individually rather than trying to reduce them to a single number or ratio. But it still looks at the project rather than the value for the city as a whole.
The best way is surely to follow the French, and look to political leaders to make the case and convince different interest groups, while adding a percent or two to the payroll of large employers through the Versement Transport? By asking what value the different options would add to the wellbeing of the city as a whole, and giving more value to those with least spending power (as consideration of social justice would suggest), along with ecological considerations, we would be able plan for posterity, and not just austerity. Our cities can then function not only as engines of economic growth and social mobility, as economists often favour, but also as sources of pleasure.
It is this kind of thinking that created the splendid Flemish merchant buildings around the Grand Place in Brussels, or the fine warehouses that overlook Nyhaven in Copenhagen, both of which have stood the test of time. It may even have built the Roman roads that still shape the centre of London. For without local connectivity, great places soon decay. Hence instead of seeing investment in transport as a means to economic growth, surely we should value it as a necessary part of the maintenance of civilised societies?