Is the BCR just MGIF?

Cross-posted from an opinion piece in Local Transport Today

I’m currently working on the Near Miss Project, which looks at how everyday non-injury incidents affect cyclists. The level of carelessness and even hostility many people experience are staggering. A classic example is the MGIF (Must Get in Front) driver.

The MGIF driver can’t bear to be behind a cyclist, and even if there isn’t enough room, they’ll squeeze past. They often then get stuck in traffic almost immediately. Perhaps many drivers don’t realise how terrifying it is to have your life put at risk by someone seeking a couple of seconds’ advantage.

Almost as frightening is the extent to which this is normalised. We asked people whether an incident would change their cycling behaviour. A few said they were considering giving up cycling; more said they’d avoid a particular area, but many commented they now expected their lives to be put at risk by strangers on a regular basis.

Why do we – whether as perpetrators or victims – see the MGIF as normal? One reason, I’d argue, is that the very same anti-social attitude is embedded in tools and techniques for transport appraisal.

I’m talking about the Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR). While I’ve criticised transport forecasting and traffic modelling, ultimately I think these can help, so long as we accept forecasting is about what-ifs, not Computer Says No (or Yes!).

But I think Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) is inherently more problematic. And writing this piece alongside looking at Near Miss data, I was struck by how closely CBA mirrors the worst kind of driving behaviour.

DfT guidance from December 2014 states that ‘Values of travel time savings play a central role in transport appraisal’. The heart of the BCR is a calculation of how journey times might change because of a given scheme. Now I can appreciate one might want to try to forecast this, although we’ll often get it wrong, because people don’t behave like pre-programmed billiard balls (‘gravity models’ notwithstanding).

What’s deeply problematic is that monetised journey time predictions become the main way of deciding if projects are ‘value for money’. As David Metz has eloquently argued, saving seconds here or there is really not the point of expensive transport investment. The approach distracts attention from what really matters. Brought home to me when a student, after listening to a guest lecturer on transport and health, said ‘But when I’m looking at a project the travel time savings are here (indicating in front of him) and the health benefits over there (indicating the corner of the room).’

CBA trains planners to act like MGIF drivers. That’s what we’re doing when we add up lots of predicted seconds and come up with a Very Big Number we turn into Millions and Millions of Imaginary Pounds and Yes to spending lots of Real Money on (usually) Big Road Schemes, despite their multiple other disbenefits. Those hypothetical seconds are for most drivers a hardly noticeable saving, a short term and self-defeating gain (extra road capacity will fill pretty quick, even assuming there is any immediate gain). The transport planner becomes the person who cuts you up.

I can understand why lots of good people try to re-balance the game in favour of sustainable transport. HEAT, the World Health Organization’s Health Economic Assessment Tool for Walking and Cycling, seeks to come up with Very Big Numbers representing walking and cycling’s health benefits, to trump the other Very Big Numbers representing car drivers in a queue for a few extra seconds.

But this doesn’t always work. London’s Cycle Superhighway Two extension produced a BCR of under 1 (‘costs’ exceed ‘benefits’) even with HEAT included. The main reason was predicted journey time disbenefits for ‘general traffic’ (i.e., motorists). Big health numbers may work where there is no space taken from motor traffic, as with rail trail conversions where HEAT’s produced enormous BCRs. But once you take away motoring space it’s a different story. Because the overall system is so biased in favour of short term motoring gains, the cycling schemes that appear ‘value for money’ will be those that don’t affect motor traffic capacity. In cities, that means ‘shared pavements’, taking space from another marginalised group instead (pedestrians). Or the narrow, unprotected infrastructure that’s miserably short of transformative.

TfL – credit to them – carried on with ‘CS2x’ regardless arguing that much good stuff isn’t included, possibly can’t be included, in a BCR. That’s true. But more than that: if centering travel time savings makes us anti-social, so does monetising ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’.

The lure of Big Money is strong, but the numbers are poorly understood. Many people think ‘health economic’ benefits are savings to the NHS. They’re not. They’re based on the ‘statistical value of a life’, the economic value attached to years gained or lost. But NHS costs (and other costs, like pensions) could go up if people live longer. That doesn’t make it a bad thing.

What kind of people are we, if pretending people are pounds and pence makes us value them more? Let’s say the ‘statistical value of a life’ is £1 million. And some intervention will save three lives. Do you instinctively care more, if you hear ‘this will have a health economic benefit of £3 million’, or ‘this will save three people’s lives’?

In my view, a humane society should encourage us to care about people’s lives. This includes economic well-being. But the BCR tells us to care about imaginary sums of money, which could represent anything from drivers getting to work thirty seconds later to the death of a child.

I believe we’d be more likely to make progress towards a sustainable transport system if we talk directly about real things we care about. If we talk about likely numbers of premature deaths, reductions in chronic illnesses, jobs created, levels of network reliability, or whatever it is in its own terms rather than turning everything into imaginary money. (Caveated with assumptions and uncertainties, as all predicted benefits or disbenefits should be).

Instead, the Benefit-Cost Ratio replicates at the planning level an anti-social attitude, prioritising short-term gains for some at other people’s expense. If this is how our transport planning system behaves, should we be surprised if drivers act the same way?

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15 Responses to Is the BCR just MGIF?

  1. Jim Moore says:

    In BCR calculations monetised benefits (the B) are a metric for human-time, as you explain.

    Costs (C) is purely financial money, which is a convoluted mix of labour human-time, the extortion price of materials that have been produced by a known amount of human-time, and a usury fee called interest.

    A true BCR is thus the benefits in human-time divided by the human-time it will take to produce the project.

    And the hypothetical additional travel time for motorists in reducing automobile capacity shouldn’t be counted as a disbenefit (aka a negative benefit) as these gains were stolen from non-automobile traffic in the first place. We don’t reimburse fences the cost of recovered stolen goods found in their possession.

    If we use the right metric and count the right benefits and costs then BCR is a useful tool for aiding decision-making. Not the only tool we should use but OK in the right situations.

  2. ORiordan says:

    I saw a discussion about transport scheme BCRs on a (non-transport related) internet forum and someone who I think works as a planner waffled on about that in addition to time savings, a BCR can also include forecast savings in taxes and fuel, agglomeration benefits, journey time reliability, socio-distributional and environmental benefits.

    So taxes, fuel and journey time reliability will be related to journey time and I’m guessing that the benefits of “agglomeration, socio-distributional and environmental” will be numbers pulled out of someone’s arse.

    So does it really all come down to saving seconds on journey time? Are BCRs re-evaluated after the schemes have been actually built? If journey times haven’t improved, has there ever been cases of people calling out schemes as a total waste of money?

  3. Richard says:

    Oriordn – yes, lots of those elements can be (though aren’t always) included. However not all elements can be monetised, and therefore don’t get included in the BCR. For example, many environmental impacts aren’t monetised – and of course for road schemes these are often detrimental impacts.

    In principle decision makers should take into account the whole appraisal, of which the BCR is just one element – just as TfL did in Rachel’s example. In practice however the BCR is often the single most important factor – the ‘headline figure’ – with everything else pushed into the corner of the room.

    On your last point, yes, outturn BCRs are sometimes calculated. The Highways Agency in particular does try to do this – ‘POPE’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/highways-agency/about/research). Local Authorities are supposed to monitor government funded schemes, but historically haven’t been particularly good at it: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/local-major-schemes-meta-evaluation

  4. Andy R says:

    “Are BCRs re-evaluated after the schemes have been actually built? If journey times haven’t improved, has there ever been cases of people calling out schemes as a total waste of money?”

    It’s called POPE – Post Opening Project Evaluation

    http://assets.highways.gov.uk/our-road-network/pope/major-schemes/pope-meta-2013-final-report.pdf

  5. I’m pleased to see a critique of CBA like this Rachel.

    John Adams spent a lot of time in the 70s and 80s critiquing transport planning CBA – see Transport Planning: Vision and Practice (downloadable from his web site).

    Of course you can also argue that external costs of motoring are not paid (see my analysis of the German work here
    http://rdrf.org.uk/2012/12/31/the-true-costs-of-automobility-external-costs-of-cars/ ). This does have the attraction of deflecting and subverting all the “I pay a tax” nonsense from motorists. It raises the issue that drivers should pay for things like on street parking etc.

    But ultimately it gets into the issues you refer to: How much does climate change cost? How much are you prepared to pay to have a more visually attractive street?

    My view is that ultimately CBA is always rigged to support the status quo – or to be more precise, a car-centric hyper-mobile status quo.

  6. Fascinating stuff. As a journalist and cycling campaigner I have always been mystified by BCR analysis of traffic schemes. Cutting motorist journey times is the holy grail for many local highways departments, notably here in Kent. But the BCR logic is just as pernicious when it is used on road safety benefits. If there is a crash with a serious pedestrian or cycle casualty or a death, BCR suggests the notional cost can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds or even millions, so road improvements can be justified. But on a road which is so dangerous that pedestrians and cyclists avoid it, safety improvements can never be justified in BCR terms because the crashes aren’t occurring. On the other side of the equation, how robust are the BCR calculations for health benefits from Active Travel? Will the bill for the NHS be bigger if we all live to 80 rather than keeling over at 60?

  7. ORiordan says:

    Thanks for the background reading from previous posters. Skimming the one of the POPE documents, it says “Journey time benefits are the key monetary benefits derived from Major Schemes, accounting for 75% of all monetary benefits”.

    I assume that applying this logic can mean the kiss of death for a scheme that impacts predicted journey timings (such as taking away road space for cycle facilities) as they will translate the longer journey time to a cost and the transport planner will say “computer says no”.

  8. The EVIDENCE Project is examining the quality of the evidence on the effects of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMP) measures, to identify ‘what works’. See http://www.evidence-project.eu

    SUMP measure appraisals (ex ante) can demonstrate very favourable ratios of benefits to costs when subject to the analysis techniques applied to major transport infrastructure schemes. However, evaluation (ex post) of what are often relatively small and incremental interventions can mean those forecast effects are hard to observe in practice. Small scale often means that behavioural responses can only be detected over the long-run, but the policy process may demand feedback more quickly. In this situation there is a risk that other transport investments emphasising major infrastructures are preferred, because their impacts are clearer to evaluate, even if those impacts may not promote the more sustainable forms of mobility.

    We’re holding an expert panel debate to explore these issues in more detail with renowned international experts. The session will begin with brief opening statements from the panel members, followed by responses to questions. Recommendations made will be summarised in a statement of principles to enhance the future assessment of SUMP measures.

    Expert Participants:

    The panel comprises leading international experts with many decades’ experience in examining and questioning the relevance of transport appraisal and evaluation.

    • Panel Chair: Prof. Graham Parkhurst; Professor of Sustainable Mobility, University of the West of England

    • Prof. Phil Goodwin; Emeritus Professor, UWE Bristol, and University College London

    • Eric N. Schreffler; Specialist TDM Consultant, ESTC, San Diego, USA

    • Prof. John Whitelegg; Managing Director, Eco-Logica, and Visiting Professor, Liverpool John Moores University

    Please register to attend (no charge but places limited) or to receive details of the web stream:

    https://uwe.formstack.com/forms/evidence_project_discussion_cts

    Location: Room 2Q49, Frenchay Campus, UWE Bristol, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol BS16 1QY, UK

    http://evidence-project.eu/expert-panel-discussion-on-sump-appraisal/

  9. David Cohen says:

    Your use of the MGIF acronymn and what it means reminded me of something I’ve posted in comments in at least a couple of blogs over the last few years, namely “rules” for certain types of drivers:

    1. I must never be held up by a cyclist
    2. I must always get past a cyclist as soon as possible
    3. I can always beat a cyclist to a left turn (or right turn)
    4. When a cyclist approaches and I’m turning into their road, or waiting to turn right across them, I will continuously nudge out so that the cyclist doesn’t know if I’ve seen them

    There are probably one or two others, but #1 & #2 above is pretty much MGIF by other names. See London Cyclist for original post:

    http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/safe-bike-ride/comment-page-1/#comment-81573

    David

  10. Keith Peat says:

    But this is all on the false premise that we must have road cycling isn’t it? Why must we have road cycling? is a fair question.

    But it also assumes that cycling is the only way to get good exercise too. It isn’t the safest or the most efficient.

    Walkers are already catered for and like divers, are essential to the community. Why try to use walkers to justify road cycling at all?

    We only must have walkers and drivers. No nasty replies please, Just making a valid point in response to Rachel’s piece. I take it that, in addition to pro cycle lobby, I am entitled to do that?

    • Dave Lukes says:

      We only must have walkers and drivers. No nasty replies please, Just making a valid point“.
      Your point is invalid. Why must we have drivers?

      Certainly in London the vast majority of car journeys could be better accomplished by public transport and/or cycle.

      As for nasty replies, you are asking millions of people to give up their healthy and environmentally friendly mode of transport due to your preference for using one that is dangerous and environmentally destructive. Who is being “nasty” here?

      … and who is using “walkers to justify road cycling”?

      While I do encounter occasional anti-driver invective from cyclists,
      I find that there is far more in the other direction as witnessed by the above.

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  13. The worse MGIF are some cyclists
    ~–~–~–~- ~–~–~–~ -~–~–~-
    The worse MGIF (Must Get In Front) are NOT cars, but A CERTAIN MINORITY KIND OF cyclists and bikers, who deliberately and gratuitously attack regular gentle people on the sort of tiny mistakes everyone makes, making a mountain of those mouse holes, while making mouse holes of their own mountains, thus openly acting as the worse MGIFs. Then they swap the roles and instead of blaming themselves and apologizing, they dump _their_ MGIF name onto their victims, usually regular kind and good faith people, then they post their over-mounted and selected clips without realizing how ridiculous is their collective, numerous-repeated, single same lie. A few in the thousands examples:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsKiqECNdwc “Moron Alert! – BMW Driver Runs Over My Bike Twice Y36OJM @QPark_UK” – 3:39, 1080p
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KW2-Acy5oU8 “MGIF and Close Pass in Long Ditton (FD57 CYL)” – 0:48, 1080p

    Explanation:
    1. First, the article mentioned in top of this blog piece is actually https://www.transportxtra.com/publications/local-transport-today/news/40549/roads-too-dangerous-for-walking-and-cycling–blame-cost-benefit-analysis “Roads too dangerous for walking and cycling? Blame cost benefit analysis”, By Rachel Aldred, University Of Westminster, 20 February 2015. Being full compliant with the official brainwashing, that article is spread widely (compared to its interest or utility) and doesn’t suffer any significant risk of censorship or contradiction.

    2. The overwhelming majority of people are quite correct, leave others pass and recover from their errors in the rare cases they made one, rush to the ones in distress in case of accident or any other sort of mishap big or small, and do everything with prudence, kindness, efficiency to all others, and discretion, making them unnoticed. The rare exceptions tend to concentrate into a couple groups of highly privileged, protected by an untold yet powerful and general impunity: policemen, ministers, bus drivers, juges, bikers (I mean the ones with expensive new sport motorbikes, NOT the ones on regular utilitarian motos or scooters), and of course the activists of all sorts, now existing even in bicyclists, in a mission to destroy the society, as this article author is trying.
    NBMM. I personally have no car and do everything on bicycle, including carrying back food shopped at the supermarket, often 10-15kg (In the 1980s I used to carry that way up to 3 kids together). Of course as any of the few ancient French survivors I am constantly calumniated, harassed, my current bicycle is an used bought 05 jan after I suffered on 01 jan 2017 my 8th bicycle theft in 40 years, yet this did not so far suffice to deter me from tweaking all my bicycles with faster transmission, narrower handlebar so to NOT hamper everybody with those stupid 60cm ones, and a large box in front, suspended when the bicycle is. And this did NOT make me posture before cameras like some 3-day-a-year cyclist activists are doing.
    Versailles, Wed 08 Mar 2017 16:00:00 +0100

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