There are often two competing arguments when it comes to transport investment:
- Build the project now, you’re going to need it eventually
- Only build what you need when you need to build it
This is a really interesting debate, because both sides of the argument have a good point to make. The first argument suggests that if we’re going to really need a piece of infrastructure a while in the future there’s little point “wasting” money on an interim fix – you might as well bring forward investment on the big project. But at the same time, we need to recognise the concept of “net present value” and noting that if we’re spending money on something we only kind of need now, we’re probably taking money away from something we really need now.
There are a few classic example of this debate around at the moment. With Puhoi-Wellsford, we have seen necessary short-term projects put off (like upgrading the notorious Hill Street intersection) because the larger project is going to bypass this anyway – at some point in the future. Another example is the City Rail Link, where the debate seems mostly around when we will need this project, rather than whether we will need it: even Steven Joyce agreed that the CRL was the logical next rail project for Auckland and it ‘made sense’ to protect its route.
It’s quite possible that the absolute need for the CRL could be put off for a bit by spending big bucks on bus infrastructure around the central city and its main feeder routes – but if we’re going to end up needing the CRL anyway in the not too distant future, why bother with all of that? Of course some improved bus infrastructure will be needed regardless of whether the CRL is built, but how much value would we really get out of a ‘band-aid solution’ in advance of the CRL? This is a similar question to one raised by the Transport Politic blog (brought to my attention by this post) in relation to Ottawa, Canada: which is now looking at replacing its BRT system with a light-rail system:
Ottawa’s several busways transport passengers quickly and relatively comfortably. Unlike most “BRT” lines in North America, this city’s are mostly grade-separated, producing actually high-speed buses.
But now Ottawa is planning to give up its primary transitway… Is the Ottawa model — raise ridership with buses, and then think about more expensive rail options — falling flat? What went wrong?
The quick answer is that Ottawa was too successful, encouraging the city’s citizens to take an average of 125 trips by public transportation a year, more than any equivalently-sized North American city. The transitway has so many riders that it puts 2,600 daily buses onto two downtown streets, and by 2018, the system will have literally no more capacity. By 2030, Ottawa would have to get a bus downtown every eighteen seconds to accommodate all of its riders — an impossible feat.
Ottawa has incredibly high public transport use, and on the one hand the BRT system has clearly “built the demand” for the light-rail system. But on the other hand, the BRT system clearly took a lot of time, effort and money to put in place – and it’s now needing complete replacement. Why not have just built the LRT system in the first place? This question is explored further:
With expenses like that — practically equivalent to building a new rail line from scratch — one wonders whether there was ever any fiscal advantage to using buses first along the rapidway. Did the city lose out by not choosing rail when the transitway first opened in 1983?
In terms of operations costs, it almost certainly did. Even with a nine percent increase in ridership in the first year alone, light rail is expected to allow the city to save up to C$100 million annually on bus drivers’ salaries, gas consumption, and right-of-way maintenance. By dramatically increasing the average number of passengers per vehicle thanks to long trains and by switching to clean and cheap electricity from diesel fuel, the city will find notable economies in rail. It will also produce far fewer greenhouse gases — saving 38,000 tons by 2031.
I think there’s a cursory lesson for the CRL in particular here, but also wider in terms of helping us get a better answer about the appropriateness of “band-aid solutions”. There are some key matters to consider:
- What’s the cost of the interim measure and will its benefits be realised by the time you further upgrade to the “real” long term solution?
- What of the interim measure will still have some functional and helpful use even after the long-term solution is implemented?
- How far into the future do the interim measures really push the need for the ‘proper’ project?
Vancouver’s B-Line bus services are an example of a good “band-aid solution”, as they fit well with our criteria noted above. They involved relatively little infrastructure spend (the benefits of the initiative could be realised extremely quickly), they helped build a market for future Skytrain lines and they managed to effectively shift a lot of people pretty quickly. This has meant the B-Line services did a pretty good interim job and made it possible for Vancouver to focus on constructing one major line at a time, rather than jumping into a heap at once.
Looking at Auckland, applying the same criteria provides us with a useful process for understanding just how far we should go with further bus investment before we really bite the bullet and build the CRL. As far as I can understand it, the way Auckland operates its bus network in the city centre doesn’t work very well even at the moment. That can be improved through changing the routings and through some infrastructure investment (particularly better bus lanes), but really this only fixes things to a certain extent, or for a certain length of time. After that it will really be necessary to either spend some serious cash on finding a way to make the city (not just the city centre, but right across Auckland) handle even more buses (ignoring, for the time being, the issue of trying to create a world-class city centre) or build the CRL. That’s when we really start to ask ourselves whether those additional interventions are desirable – even if they are feasible and could push the need for the CRL out a bit further into the future – or whether we just cut to the chase and build the darn thing.
If we are smart enough to learn from Ottawa, we will realise that spending serious cash on what will always be a ‘band-aid solution’ just doesn’t make sense.