Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A piece of Krupp indeed - anti light rail lies from the land of the long white clod

I think it is important to state that ACT Light Rail are not familiar with Wellington New Zealand, or its public transport requirements. We also do not claim that light rail is the best option for every city. We believe it is the best option for Canberra. We also believe that it is difficult to transpose experiences from one city to another, especially when every city has unique factors that make like for like comparison almost impossible.

We do believe that lessons can be learnt from other cities experiences, but there is a world of difference between learning from another cities experiences and misleadingly using isolated, and mischieviously selective, snippets from news reports to try and push an agenda.

Ignoring the cliche riden and poorly presented arguments, the worst thing about this article 'Light rail off Capital agenda - for nowis that it simply isn't accurate. The author has conducted research by google, and then selectively presented information that only supports his case. This is called confirmation bias. Worse, he presents information he knows not to be true, as the truth.

Lets look at Mr Krupps amusingly misleading piece.

Light rail off Capital agenda - for now  10/06/2014  JASON KRUPP

Economist Edward Glaeser, ranked as one of the profession's top 50 practitioners, summed-up 40 years of transport economics at Harvard University in four words when he was visiting Wellington last year: "Bus good, train bad."

A quick read of Glaesers wikipedia page shows that he  does specialise in urban issues, and his publications page shows a career long interest in cities, urban economics etc.

Glaeser's argument is centred on the risks of bus versus rail. Rail is capital and land intensive as you need to buy the land at market prices in order to put a track on it. Even in the case of light rail, the capital costs are high, have to be paid up front, budget blowouts are frequent, and if passenger usage projections do not pan out - tough, you are stuck with a fixed network.

We don't know if this is Glaesers argument or not. We do know it is Krupp's argument, and that he is using Glaesers reputation to bolster his argument. Even worse, there is no evidence presented to support Krupps argument.

Aside from Krupps claim that Glaeser said 'Bus good, train bad', in Wellington last year,  a fairly extensive google search, and even listening to Glaesers speech in Wellington last year can't find any evidence Glaeser ever made those remarks.

Maybe Krupp just made that up? That's OK, the idea that Glaeser did, bolsters Krupps argument against light rail. You know, all those negative things like tracks and stuff.

Glaeser did say 'Bus good, train bad' - in an article published here called 'Spending Won’t Fix What Ails U.S. Infrastructure'. It was made in the context of a long running joke about transport economics. Krupp has extracted four words, from a well written article on US transport infrastructure, and used these four words as the thread to stitch his argument against light rail together.

Buses, on the other hand, are relatively light on capital expenditure as you do not need to build a rail network for the trains to run on. Buses can also be leased instead of bought, and if passenger usage changes, you can either move the route or hand the buses back (if they were leased in the first place).

Krupp is transparent in presenting only the negatives of one side and only the positives of another. I'm not sure if Krupp is aware that even buses require infrastructure to run on, it's called 'roads' and they have to be built and paid for, just like any other piece of infrastructure.

However, this article isn't the place to list the pros and cons of either transport technology, simply to expose the partisan techniques of Krupp.

That's presumably why Wellington officials walked away from a plan to build a light rail network earlier this year. Even Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, who had previously championed the idea, voted against it.

It is? Presumably? Did the Mayor explain her reasons? Why she did.

Those with an interest in Wellingtons public transport debate can search for them, but they were largely to do with hilly topography and an already extensive bus network. There were also several independent studies pointing to a fairly extensive program of tunnelling. I might just point out that Capital Metro don't plan any tunnelling.

That could be because the topography of Canberra and Wellington are very different. Which would make infrastructure comparisons... fairly pointless perhaps.

I couldn't find the Mayor making any statement about leasing buses. Maybe Krupp just made that up.  

The wisdom behind this decision was recently underscored by a number of press reports coming out of Australia, detailing just what a nightmare the Australian Capital Territory is going through trying to install a 12-kilometer light rail line in the capital city.

The wisdom of the decision? A nightmare? Wow. I live in Canberra, and I'm pretty closely following the light rail project, and I cant recall any party referring to it as a nightmare. Apparently there were 'a number of press reports'. I cant find one. Maybe Krupp just made that up as well.

First, the A$600 million ($660 million) project failed to stack up next other forms of public transport, with buses delivering double the economic return of light rail according to government figures. This was partly because it would only serve two out of Canberra's six town centres.

This isn't true. Krupp has used one report, the Infrastructure Australia report, and then exaggerated its assessment. He hasn't used the more detailed URS report, which assessed all modes and reported that light rail provided the best long term outcome. I also can't find any report where buses provide double the economic return of light rail. I'd be keen to read it too. He deliberately doesn't reference any report, so that he can't be picked up on his sophistry. Maybe Krupp just made that up as well.

Canberra, as noted by, is unsuited to a capital intensive project of this nature because the population is too small. The ACT government's own figures show that only 4500 out of a population of 360,000 were likely to use the service, and the density of these commuters was too dispersed for it to ever stack up financially.

Read the macrobusiness article Krupp references. This isn't 'The Economist', it's without serious credibility, with untested claims and abuse. This is the credibility Krupp is relying upon to lend credibility to his views? I can see why he is trying to link to Glaeser.

The ACT population is not stagnant, it is rising, and as it rises road congestion becomes more of an issue. Coupled with this is declining bus patronage. Many cities smaller than Canberra have invested in light rail. Once again, an unsupported statement. Sorry, a statement supported by a website article with no credibility.

Similarly, Krupps claim that the ACT Governments figures show only 4500 people will use Capital Metro, is not supported, because it isn't true. Public transport patronage figures will rise when Capital Metro begins, not only based on ACT Government projections, but contemporary experience in Adelaide and Western Australia. Sadly for Krupp, the existing Red Rapid bus service is at capacity, and already exceeds the 4500 figure.

Second, the project is to be funded by a special land levy, charged on those properties that were judged by planners to receive an uplift in value from the installation of light rail. This quickly drew criticism from the Property Council of Australia who labelled it as yet another tax on an already strained sector.

This isn't true.

With his extensive command of google, or maybe just by reading any of 'a number of press reports coming out of Australia' Krupp should have been aware by June 10, when his article was published, that a full five days earlier the ACT Treasurer, Andrew Barr, had definitively ruled out any levy to fund light rail. This website reported that commitment, as well as the media. Krupp just made this up.

Adding the final insult to injury, even before the first sod had been turned (due in 2016), the project is already expected to see costs blow out significantly, as engineers will have to reposition underground wires and pipes along the route. This comes as ACT battles to rein in A$100m budget shortfall (without the cost impact of light rail).

Ignoring the cliches rife throughout the article, Krupp once again misleads. Capital Metro have budgeted for this relocation of services under the line at 5% of the total cost of construction. Until the engineers come back with detailed plans, he is just as much in the dark as everyone else (except for the catastrophists), and certainly cannot claim that there will be any 'costs blow out'. It is a risk that has been made absolutely clear since the outset, and factored in accordingly.

All in all, there are numerous warning signs suggesting Canberra's light rail vision is going to end in taxpayer tears.

And they have all been definitively demolished as overblown hyperbole and inaccurate without foundation statements, made by a person with no knowledge of the topic on which they are proclaiming deep understanding of.

Bringing it back to Wellington, it is a well-established fact that in politics, ideas don't die - they simply hibernate until someone revives them. Local government officials in Wellington may be turning their attention to buses for now (creating ample material for a future column), but there is no guarantee we won't be seeing light rail in some Franken-form down the track.

At last Krupp makes a statement which may have a basis in fact.

When it does re-appear we need to keep Canberra's light rail experience front of mind, refuse to compromise on anything but the strictest cost-benefit analysis, and outright reject the notion that 'this time it will be different'.

One can only hope that by the time the people of Wellington revisit their public transport infrastructure needs, that Capital Metro will have been completed on time, and on budget, and is delivering the patronage figures that would justify an expansion of the network across the lake. I'm not sure why Krupp wants to reject any notion to do things differently, but trying to divine his intentions has already caused this author existential pain.

After all, smart people learn from their mistakes, smarter people learn from the mistakes of others.

And even smarter people perform research before trying to compare the space shuttle to a fire cracker.

- Jason Krupp is a research fellow at the New Zealand Initiative. 

An organisation that really should peer review, or at the very least have another person edit, any article published using its auspices.

I may appear to have harshly judged Mr Krupps article, but as a person who has been closely following the public transport debate in Canberra, the version of truth that Mr Krupp is presenting to the world cannot be unchallenged. In his rabid attack on Wellingtons public transport debate, he is drawing conclusions that do not exist, from Canberra's public transport debate.

If Mr Krupp responds to this article, it will be published on this website a a right of reply.

For more frequent updates on Capital Metro and light rail related news, please visit our Facebook page 'Light Rail for Canberra'.  

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9.8.14

    Some background on "bus good; train bad" as historically taught at Harvard University is here: a piece by Professor Glaeser in 2005, appreciating the late Professor John Kain who co-authored a book that explained some general problems with the economics of rail transit. Glaeser can be found repeating that phrase in other interviews since then, and it always seems to be as a characterization of the history of research and teaching at Harvard University, as opposed to a general opinion on future projects.