Steve Dale, the founder of Creative Urban Projects (CUP Projects), discusses how in infrastructure, true cost is a matter of subjectivity.
Recently, an article in The Economist used the Caracas, Venezuela Metrocable (imagine a ski-lift style gondola as public transit) as an example of the corruption and bungling which they claim is characteristic of Hugo Chavez's government.
They point out that the 1.8 km long Metrocable system cost $318m, more than 10 times as expensive as a similar system built in Medellin, Colombia.
This is both partly true and partly false.
True, because - yes - the entire project did indeed cost such an absurdly large number. False, because the massive Metrocable stations housed not just a transit system, but community resources such as gymnasiums, clinics, markets and theatres as well. (You can read all about it at http://dowser.org/urban-slums-the-next-frontier-in-green-design/)
However, according to my conversations with those who oversaw the project, the Metrocable itself cost only $18m. It was the attendant facilities that drove up the price. The system in Medellin which The Economist used as a benchmark had no such facilities.
Like most publications, The Economist has an agenda. Whether you agree with that agenda or not is your choice. But the article's intentional (or accidental) misrepresentation of facts speaks to a greater problem that anyone in urban infrastructure knows all too well: Numbers can be cooked to suit the taste of whoever's dining that evening.
Even my quote of $18m is somewhat misleading. After all, some portion of station infrastructure cost should be attributed to the system. But what portion? How should that portion be measured and who determines it?
Unfortunately in the world of urban infrastructure, true cost is a matter of subjectivity. How our journalists, bureaucracies and industries choose to wield that subjectivity has far reaching impacts on the lives of millions of people.
For example: As Cable Propelled Transit (CPT) solutions like the Metrocable become more common throughout the world, there is going to be a need for open and objective research on the technology.
If you're positive on CPT, you're likely to use the $18m figure. If, however, you were negative on the concept (or positive on a competing technology), you'd likely invoke the $318m figure because to do so would make the technology look prohibitively expensive; at a per kilometer cost of $177m you could build a subway instead.
Problem is, while we have standards for peer-reviewed scholars and Wikipedia editors to sort through such a mess, we have no such standards for our planners, policy-makers and government decision-makers. There's no rule for which version of the numbers you can or should use.
In his landmark 1992 paper A Desire Named Streetcar, former Harvard economist Don H. Pickrell showed how local officials in eight U.S. cities contrived to manipulate forecasts, costs and ridership numbers to advocate for rail transit projects over competing, less capital-intensive options. Academic researchers from Denmark such as Bent Flyvberg have recently suggested the problem continues to this day and is widespread and common; ridership forecasts are routinely double than what is actually experienced, and capital costs are underestimated by around 50 percent.
With the rise of Freedom of Information legislation, democracies around the world are moving towards an era of open government. But just because a government allows a document or report to be seen, how can the public know the numbers within those documents can be trusted?
Citizens expect their governments to make sound decisions on their behalf. Given the vast sums of money involved with urban infrastructure, we cannot afford to allow politics, subjectivity and partisanship to intervene.
We need to hear the whole story behind the numbers we're given.
Steven Dale is the founder of Creative Urban Projects (CUP Projects) in Toronto, Canada. He is an expert on Cable-Propelled Transit with several years experience researching and consulting on the matter. Steven recently launched The Gondola Project, an information campaign in support of CPT. For more information, visit www.gondolaproject.com or www.creativeurbanprojects.com.