The Mythology of Benefits Case Analyses

Among my many “things to do” on this site is an evisceration of the concept of the “Benefits Case Analysis” as practised by Metrolinx.  These analyses purport to judge the value of project options by reducing many aspects of the process to a monetary value.

This scheme is born of an era when nobody cared about the soft, social benefits and costs of doing or not doing something, when “businesslike” behaviour was the goal for all right-minded public enterprise.  Sadly, we never had a discussion about what “businesslike” actually means.  Recent private sector examples appear to involve raiding not only your own cookie jar, but getting the government (ie: you and me and our descendents beyond count) to keep refilling that cookie jar to save the starving plutocrats.  I will generously assume that this is not the sort of behaviour Metrolinx has in mind.

[The above paragraph is for the benefit of readers who decry my left-leaning stance on many issues.  Now and then I have to throw them a bone, a quote they can use to prove their point.]

In a future post, I plan to review one or two of the Metrolinx BCAs.  Their most glaring failure lies in the scope of the analysis.  The Big Move is a network, but each BCA considers only an individual component of that network, not its role in the overall picture.  Moreover, construction spending is actually treated as a benefit because of the employment and other economic effects it would generate.  This completely misses the larger picture of public sector spending (might a hospital be more valuable than a new transit line), not to mention the future implications of the public debt (however it might be hidden in public or private sector accounts) for the viability of transit systems and governments.

Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog has an interesting article on the evolution of Benefit Case Analysis and the flawed philosophy underpinning the methodology.

7 thoughts on “The Mythology of Benefits Case Analyses

  1. On reading the BCA check list for many of the Transit City lines I was struck by the “arbitrariness” of the criteria and the relative weighting given to them. The most blatant example of this was in the decision to run the LRT line on the surface through Mt Dennis (West Road and Eglinton.) I cannot find the results of the BCA that was done with the help of the executive of the Mt Dennis Community Association but I commented that the categories and their relative weighting seemed designed to get the result it did.

    If I recall correctly it had items such as stair free access to station and minimize stairs to possible GO train station high on the list of importance while minimize walking distance to GO station was low.

    Other items were worded in a positive way such as:

    “inclusion in the fabric of the community” and
    “openness of the station”

    instead of

    “creates a physical barrier in the community” and
    “is susceptible to bad weather.”

    From the LURA report prepared of the Eglinton LRT line

    Eglinton Crosstown LRT ~ June and July 2009
    Summary Results Report
    Prepared by Lura Consulting
    September 2009

    “Option 5 – Through Mount Dennis, there is strong support for this option. (x2)

    “Has the feel of a scheme that was added once the problems of the other four were visible, but may be the preferred alternative. The combination of a new bridge and the tunnel through Weston will add to the project’s cost, and the real issue is a detailed evaluation of operations through the valley and through Weston Road for the all-surface version.”

    Option 5 was an underground station on the east side of Weston Road. The distance from the proposed surface station to the GO line is 700 feet from the east end of the platform. It is 1000 ft from the west end. I do not recall the actual criteria used but I believe that my examples capture the spirit and intent of them. It was designed to show the benefits of the surface option to the association’s executive and co-opted them by getting their input on these criteria. The rest of the residents saw the emperor’s clothes for what they truly were.

    Steve: It is my understanding that the Eglinton BCA has not been released yet. With luck, we may see it on the Metrolinx agenda later this month, but given their secrecy, that may be as far as we get.


  2. I read some of the other articles on Jarrett’s website and found them interesting. Two that I think others should read are:

    One on bus rapid transit that is a totally objective viewpoint rather than subjective.

    Another looks at the advantages of systems that have transfer connections versus systems that do not.

    And finally one on the problems of trying to impose what you see in one city or another and the problem created when politicians visit one city and ride as tourists rather that commuters then try to apply it back home.

    All three are very good. There are also a number of links to other articles. These are very well written and objective. He points out the good and the bad points of each and why they work in one place and not another. Thanks for the link.


  3. Steve:

    “It is my understanding that the Eglinton BCA has not been released yet. With luck, we may see it on the Metrolinx agenda later this month, but given their secrecy, that may be as far as we get.”

    That probably explains why I could not find it. They did have it at the meeting in Mt. Dennis, at least to explain their choice of a surface alignment.

    Steve: This comment, brief though it is, has the honour of being the 15,000th approved comment on this site!


  4. One major omission is the failure to use the criteria of Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David McKeown, to evaluate the reduction in deaths and injuries due to reducing car air pollution.

    Car pollution kills 440 people in Toronto every year, and injures 1,700 so seriously that they have to be hospitalized. The cost of the deaths alone is $2.2 billion per year.

    An LRT line on its own right of way that takes away two lanes of car traffic causes a significant reduction in car traffic and car air pollution. This saves lives and reduces injuries. But does it appear in the Benefits Case Analysis? NO. That is just plain irresponsible and stupid. It is like our lives and health simply do not matter to the bureaucrats.

    Official City of Toronto report


  5. “An LRT line on its own right of way that takes away two lanes of car traffic causes a significant reduction in car traffic and car air pollution. This saves lives and reduces injuries.”

    St. Clair proves otherwise. There is more traffic now as all those cars are moving more slowly through a single lane (instead of the previous two).

    Slower traffic and more traffic jams due to reduced road capacity = increased emissions = more deaths. Therefore … LRT kills! 🙂

    Steve: Many cars go somewhere else, but everyone left over thinks there’s room for one more. Motorists are eternal optimists.


  6. The Disneyland Theory of Transit (excerpt from My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in America) is also a great read and is actually quite appropriate for Toronto and our vast mix of transit vehicles.

    BCA or CBA or whatever you want to call them are a great front for hiring expensive consultants to concoct the back story to justify whatever agenda the influential or powerful want to push. I’ve experienced the short end of those agendas too many times to count in private enterprise. The right leaning of us (myself included) sometimes are delusional in thinking that government and social services (garbage pickup, health care, transit) should be run like a business.

    I wouldn’t be all that surprised to be told that when the auto makers and investment banks were tanking 2 or so years ago that their key performance indicators (KPI’s) told management everything was just rosy!

    Steve: One of the reasons I decided to retire was that my department was run by a senior manager who actually wanted a large service-based organization to come up with three, count them, three KPI’s to measure the whole department. The first big problem was that what mattered to our clients was completely different from what mattered to him, and it went downhill from there. This kind of crap — converting complex problems into a handful of uni-dimensional metrics — is the sort of thing that gives “management” its well-deserved bad name.


  7. Anent KPIs with relevance to the TTC:

    Airlines are padding their flight times to meet KPIs.

    “Delta Air Lines Flight 715 from New York to Los Angeles now takes more than seven hours to fly across the country, according to the airline’s March schedule. That’s an hour longer than the same flight in the same type of aircraft took in 1996.
    “[C]arriers have been adding minutes to ‘block times’—the scheduled durations—baking delays into trips so that late flights officially arrive on-time’
    “[L]engthening scheduled arrival times boosts on-time rankings charted by the Department of Transportation”

    Full article

    Part of G&M facts and articles

    Sound like maybe something the TTC may possibly do on some routes that might rhyme with “Spleen”?


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