In comments to a recent post I wrote reviewing recommendations from the Australian Productivity Commission’s review of public infrastructure investment, reader Brendon Harre raised an important question about transport cost-benefit analysis (CBA). He commented that:
“the benefits of providing a grid of urban transport options (without mode bias) in advance of development in order to keep land, commercial and residential property affordable is not measured”
This is an important issue that’s worth careful consideration. As a best guess, I think that Brendon’s point isn’t quite true. In a roundabout way, transport CBA does capture benefits associated with enabling development. However, the modelling tools available might over- or under-estimate the magnitude of those benefits in some cases.
Let’s start by reviewing how transport CBA works in New Zealand. Here are the key steps:
- A transport agency or council comes up with a land use forecast – i.e. a rough idea of where people are going to live and work in the future.
- The transport agency then identifies two (or more) futures scenarios for the transport network in the area. For example, they may consider one scenario in which no new roads were built, and one in which a new highway is built at the edge of town.
- The agency then models the transport network under the fixed land use forecast and multiple transport network scenarios.
- Based on the modelling, it then calculates how travel times (and vehicle operating costs, emissions, etc) differ between the scenario. It sums up the reductions in travel times (etc), multiplies them by the average value of time, and then uses the resulting dollar value as the numerator in a benefit-cost ratio (BCR).
This procedure obviously bears little relationship to what we observe in practice. In reality, there is significant endogeneity between the availability of infrastructure and land use outcomes. In other words, if you build it, they will come, and vice versa. You can’t assume that land use will remain fixed if transport options change!
Another way of saying this is that rather than “banking” travel time savings from wider or faster roads, people tend to “re-invest” them into other things, such as living in a larger or cheaper house in a different location. (Or re-scheduling trips from off-peak times, shifting modes from PT, walking or cycling, etc.) Public transport is different, as it doesn’t get congested, but the principle is somewhat the same – speeding up journeys allows people to travel more.
Economists call this phenomenon “induced traffic”. I’ve previously discussed this phenomenon from a slightly different angle, focusing on the implications of induced traffic for how we manage and invest in road networks. I’ve argued that we should stop telling ourselves the lie that increased road capacity will ever “fix” congestion and accept that all we can do is give people alternatives to participating in congestion and implement congestion pricing to free up the roads.
However, I think it’s also worth considering what induced traffic means from a housing supply perspective. It’s useful to start by thinking about how individuals might respond to the opportunities created by new transport infrastructure. Let’s use the City Rail Link as an example, as we’ve got a good idea of what it will do for travel times:
Suppose I’m currently living in Morningside (I’m not, but it’s a simpler example) and facing the following costs for transport and housing:
- Rent of $250 a week, assuming I’m flatting
- Public transport fares of $30 a week, as a single journey to Britomart costs $3 with a HOP card
- Travel time costs of around $130 per week, assuming that I value my commute time at around $20 per hour. It currently takes around 40 minutes to travel from Morningside to midtown by train, including the walk at the end.
Now let’s consider what will happen when CRL is done. My travel time will be cut dramatically – after CRL, it will only take 15 minutes to commute from Morningside. This is a big saving in travel time. Under these assumptions, CRL will make me better off by around $80 a week (i.e. ~4 hours saved * $20/hour).
However, I’ve also got the option to live further west in search of cheaper housing. Let’s say I choose to move to Henderson, where I pay a bit more in train fares (around $4.80 per trip) and save a bit of travel time relative to my old location. This only makes sense to do if it enables me to save at least $80 in rents for a similar dwelling. Otherwise, moving further out has made me worse off than simply staying in place and “banking” the travel time savings.
What we learn from this example is that the perceived benefits from relocating following the construction of new transport infrastructure, including lower housing costs or better quality housing, should be roughly equal to the added travel time cost of doing so. Economists describe this concept as the “spatial equilibrium” – i.e. people trade off housing and transport costs. As I found when looking at housing and commute costs in NZ cities, we can observe this trend empirically.
(That being said, there are reasons to think that moving further out in pursuit of cheaper housing is not necessarily a great idea. In The Happy City, Charles Montgomery argues that people overestimate the benefits they get from a bigger house, and underestimate the misery of longer commutes. But let’s set aside the impact of cognitive biases for the moment…)
The upshot of this is that, the standard approach to transport CBA actually seems to capture many of the benefits of new housing supply following transport infrastructure development. This sounds perverse – didn’t I say that transport models didn’t reflect reality very well? – but it makes sense when you think about how individuals make decisions about where to live and how to get around.
However, there are two caveats to this point. The first is that individuals don’t internalise all the costs (or benefits) of their location choices – there are externalities. If one location is better at generating positive spillovers in production or consumption (“agglomeration”), cheaper to serve with publicly-funded infrastructure, or responsible for fewer greenhouse gas emissions, it might be better to build infrastructure that will encourage people to live there. This is captured imperfectly in transport CBA at present – but it doesn’t have much of an impact on housing supply.
A second, more subtle issue is that our capital budget may be too constrained to deliver enough transport capacity to enable a sufficient supply of housing. For example, we may be pursuing a costly and land-intensive approach to supplying peak transport capacity that results in diminishing returns from investments. If that’s the case, we need to ask whether we have cheaper opportunities to add capacity to the transport network. (Or, alternatively, start raising taxes, which is always a popular option.)
What do you think about the spatial equilibrium in our cities?