Samuel Miller, Resource Economist
The NSW Government Movement and Place Framework, only released in 2020, seeks to recognise that the only aims of any transport strategy cannot simply be to get people from point A to B in the fastest and safest way possible. Rather, the places which people move to and through need to have their character and amenity protected or even improved as our cities and the scaffold of road and rail keeping them together continue to grow.
It’s a commendable idea, but actually applying the Movement and Place Framework to a business case and cost-benefit analysis is harder than it might seem. The Transport NSW Guidelines for Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) contain plenty of help for the analyst wishing to evaluate the movement-based objectives of say, a new road, with plenty of economic values associated with travel time and cost savings, avoided costs of injury and worse, and even the environmental costs of emissions. But assessing impacts to places becomes a lot more difficult, and CBA guidance quickly dries up in this regard. And the Movement and Place Framework is likewise silent on offering economic values for the impacts to concepts such as ‘walkability’, ‘visual amenity’ and ‘impacts to place’.
Without a bespoke economic valuation study, the analyst might find themselves at an impasse – how can they incorporate impacts on the amorphous concept of the sense of place into the mathematical criteria associated with CBA? Economists are no stranger to qualifying their CBAs by describing things that they were unable to place a dollar value on, but this is always somewhat unsatisfactory when the principle objection to a proposal is its impacts on places the community loves and enjoys.
This was exactly the situation that faced Balmoral Group Australia when given the task of developing the business case and cost benefit analysis for the new South Dubbo Bridge.
The New South Dubbo Bridge is a sorely needed crossing over the Macquarie River that will enable the City of Dubbo to achieve the aims set out in its Transportation Strategy 2020 to ‘maintain its 10-minute city feel’. Notice that the strategy has a clear movement oriented objective, but is silent on any overarching objective to maintain the look or feel of any of the places that make Dubbo, well, Dubbo.
One of the places that make Dubbo tick are the Lady Cutler Ovals -a collection of sports fields adjacent to Sandy Beach bordering the Macquarie River. It is a placed used not only by Dubbo residents, and especially school children, but also to the wider NSW Central West and Orana region. This is where people from surrounding towns come to compete, socialise, and find the community connection that is so vital to regional Australia.
Map of Dubbo and the Macquarie River. The blue circles represent areas mentioned by the community during stakeholder consultation, and the number of times they were mentioned. Larger circles represent places or movement corridors of greater concern to the community with respect to proposed alignments of the new South Dubbo Bridge.
It just so happened however that a number of the proposed alignments for the new bridge cut through the ovals, or fed onto Macquarie St, which people need to cross to access them.
Since all the proposed alignments achieved the same movement goals, without taking into account the impacts to the Lady Cutler Ovals and Sandy Beach, the CBA would inevitably identify the cheapest option as delivering the greatest net benefits. Even if the cheapest option was the most expedient – cutting over the beach and through sports fields.
This presented a conundrum. However, BGA had an ace up their sleeve.
Part of the business case included multiple rounds of community consultation, including workshops and an online survey. Due to the nature of the proposal, there were a multitude of responses from nearly every stakeholder group in Dubbo. BGA were able to use text mining approaches to identify mentions of specific places in Dubbo, and whether or not the impacts raised by the respondents were positive or negative. We were then able to map these responses onto the ‘Better Placed’ objectives identified in the Movement and Place Framework (below).
The resulting matrix enabled the analysts and decision makers to quickly identify which places were provoking the most community interest, and how the community felt about the changes under a number of themes. The analysis brings nuance to the debate surrounding the proposed new bridge – community members seem to agree that some places like Whylandra Street will be improved by the investment, but they also raise significant concern about impacts to other places of importance to the community like the ovals and riverside environment.
The community feedback, analysed through the Movement and Place framework validate the need to improve traffic flow through Dubbo, but also give the key to incorporating impacts to significant places in the CBA itself. Since the Transport for NSW guidelines provide a range of costs associated with impacts to nature and landscape and urban separation, but no guidance on how to use them, we were able to use the community feedback to each of the alternative bridge designs to scale the economic values for each accordingly.
As a result, the options with the greatest impacts to the natural amenity of the river, and the social infrastructure of the sports fields achieved lower net benefits than options that avoided the worst of those impacts. The results of the business case and CBA ultimately enabled Council to decisively take community feedback into account without the need to resort to even more consultation and debate, and effectively remove the most undesirable options from consideration. Given that the Movement and Place Framework is so new, this may be one of the first times that it has been used in this way in NSW.
BGA look forward to seeing Dubbo ultimately build a new bridge that meets and effectively balances the needs of all its citizens and respects the places that make it such a special City. As this case study reminds us: there is no point building the infrastructure to get anyone anywhere if we destroy the places they are trying to get to in the first place.