This is the second and final post discussing some broad ideas for building a better city. The first post discussed the dynamic nature of cities and argued that a focus on appropriate pricing and incentive mechanisms was important to managing urban ills without stifling beneficial change. This part discusses how we might identify policy areas in need of improvement, and why we should care about efficient policy.
2. Cost benefit analysis is important for identifying opportunities to improve policies
Over the last 170 years, New Zealand cities have been shaped by a wide range of policies, ranging from planning regulations to public investments to government land-holdings to tax and subsidy policies. Many of those policies serve (or served) a useful purpose, and most are good intentioned. But it’s almost inconceivable that all of them are efficient. Cities are dynamic places, and policies put in place in past decades can easily become outmoded and begin to distort prices and limit people’s choices.
Fortunately, as I have tried to suggest in the previous post, we’ve got more policy alternatives than we think. We don’t have to use yesteryear’s solutions to solve next year’s problems. But how do we know what we might have to change?
In my view, cost benefit analysis, or CBA, has an important role to play in identifying which policies are good and which need to change. If you want to learn more about CBA, you can delve into the technical guidelines published by organisations like the Treasury and the NZ Transport Agency. But CBA is not really as complicated as the tedious official guidance makes it sounds. It boils down to a rather simple question:
“This policy has some benefits and some costs. Do we expect the benefits to exceed the costs?”
If the answer is no, perhaps we should do something different instead.
Cost benefit analysis can be applied to a wide range of policy questions. It’s commonly applied to evaluate public investment options – that’s what NZTA uses it for – and less widely used elsewhere. But the principles can readily be extended to a wide range of urban policies. In a paper I wrote for this year’s NZAE conference, I looked at a couple of approaches to evaluating the costs and benefits of planning regulations. I found that analysis of property sales could be used to identify cases where planning rules distorted prices and prevented people from making useful investments – as well as cases where planning rules could provide benefits by managing localised externalities.
Here are a few good examples of how CBA can help in making better decisions.
Back in 2009, the new National-led Government worked with the Green Party to design and implement an insulation and clean heating subsidy programme. In the first four years of the programme, roughly 180,000 homes were insulated and heat pumps were installed in around 60,000 homes. A cost benefit analysis undertaken in 2011 (Grimes et al, 2011) found that the project’s benefits exceeded the costs by a factor of five:
The overall results suggest that the programme as a whole has had sizeable net benefits, with our central estimate of programme benefits being almost five times resource costs attributable to the programme. The central estimate of gross benefits for the programme is $1.28 billion compared with resource costs of $0.33 billion, a net benefit of $0.95 billion.
This finding provided a strong rationale to extend the programme to 2016 and trial a rental warrant of fitness programme to improve home weathertightness and safety performance in selected NZ cities.
A second good example is the Ministry of Transport’s recent analysis of the economic performance of state highway investment. I reviewed their analysis in a series of posts last year (parts 1, 2, 3, 4). Among other things, they found that the economic efficiency of road spending had fallen since 2008, with projects with low benefit-cost ratios being selected over projects with higher BCRs.
This is a valuable finding that should be taken seriously by policymakers and the public. It suggests that there may be opportunities to significantly improve the value that we are getting out of transport investment. That being said, it also suggests that policymakers have chosen to take a more optimistic view about project benefits than indicated by conventional CBA procedures. Sometimes this is warranted – it’s difficult to accurately account for some benefits – and sometimes it’s not.
This reminds me of a third example. I was struck by recent comments by Wellington’s Deputy Mayor about the city’s new publicly funded convention centre and film museum:
Deputy Mayor Justin Lester said the museum would become New Zealand’s most significant man-made attraction and an international draw card.
“It’s a little bit when Disneyland first opened in California, but in a Wellington context… In the 150th year since Wellington became New Zealand’s capital, there are only a handful of moments that rival the significance of this announcement.”
I haven’t read the business case, so I don’t know what assumptions were made to sell the project. But if the financial and economic forecasts require Wellington to become the “Disneyland of the south”, I would be very nervous.
This leads on to a very important consideration when using CBA results: To get the real story, it’s important to dive into the data and calculations that sit behind the headline figures. In some cases, people make claims about projects that are not backed up by their analysis. For example, they may require unlikely things to happen in order for the hypothesised benefits to materialise. In these cases, a properly-done CBA should also provide you with a means of understanding the risks inherent with the policy.
3. In an efficient city, there is time and space left over to lead a good life
But why is efficiency important? At the start of this post, I argued that good urban policies facilitate agglomeration economies in both production and consumption. This, in turn, enables cities to succeed in attracting new businesses and new residents. (The alternative of urban stagnation or economic decline is not really very appealing.)
Or, as Stu argued in a post last year, efficient urban policies provide us with an abundance of good things. Efficient urban planning policies allow us to have abundant, affordably priced housing, without sacrificing public goods. Efficient transport policies enable us to have abundant access. Good management of public assets allows us to combine a productive economy with a good supply of public goods.
Furthermore, generally prioritising efficiency in our urban policies means that we will have more resources left over for all the non-economic things that make life beautiful and enjoyable. For example, allowing people to use land efficiently by building more housing in areas that are accessible to jobs and amenities will also allow them to avoid commuting long distances to sprawlsville. This in turn frees up time to spend with the ultimate in non-economic investments – children and families.
Last December, I saw how things could be a little different. It was the first day that LightPath / Te Ara I Whiti cycleway was open. (Incidentally, I think it should be called PinkPath.) I skipped the mass ride organized by Bike Auckland in favour of a drink elsewhere, but checked out the new cycleway on the bike ride home.
Now, I wasn’t extraordinarily enthusiastic about the project. It seemed to be too far over to the west edge of town and so I wasn’t sure how many people would want to use it. But it has surprised me. I’ve been up and down it eight or ten times since then, and there are always people out on it, even at 10pm. They are having fun cycling – a relatively new concept for Auckland.
PinkPath was designed to be fun to cycle on and fun to see from a distance. It sends a message: “Auckland will give you new choices about how to travel. Rock up on your bike.” It didn’t cost much – less than 1% of Auckland’s annual transport budget and a disused motorway off-ramp. But that money and space can easily be consumed by inefficiency elsewhere in the system.
Which leads me to my conclusion: the good things in life are not necessarily expensive, but they can easily be crowded out by bad urban policies. So get the prices right, do some CBA, and live a better life in a better city.