Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Monday, June 12, 2006

On track for confusion

What are we to make of the lead story in today's Dominion Post? "Commuters face levy for $2b upgrade", it says. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether it's fair to ask today's commuters to pay for future upgrades, surely a $2 billion upgrade is a substantial investment and should significantly increase the capacity of our packed buses and trains. But how much of that sum will actually go towards improving the service?

There's little detail in the article, but it quickly becomes clear that this is not an announcement of a brand-new $2b investment:
Greater Wellington regional council has already budgeted $1.33 billion for public transport till 2016. But officials now say a further $670 million is needed to encourage more people to swap cars for buses and trains.
Of the extra money, "more than" $500 million would go to upgrading rail infrastructure, such as electrifying the main trunk line to Waikanae and doubling the tracks between Pukerua Bay and Paekakariki, and these are measures that public transport advocates such as Option 3 have been promoting for a while. This could definitely increase capacity on the Paraparaumu line, so it's to be applauded. There's no information on what the rest of the money being asked for (up to $170 million) will be for, so it's hard to see whether that will help improve capacity.

Of the $1.33 billion already budgeted for, how much will go towards increased capacity? Very little, as far as I can see, but it's hard to tell. The transport section (83kB PDF) of the regional council's current proposed long-term plan makes no mention of such a figure. All I can find is a table on page 49 about "procuring a range of passenger transport assets costing a total of $523.1 million". This shows that $343.1 million will be spent on new and refurbished rolling stock, and the rest on a mixture of station upgrades, bus/rail interchanges, accessibility, real-time information and integrated ticketing. It's important to improve the passenger experience, but it won't provide more capacity.

So, of the "new and refurbished" rolling stock, will there be any net increase in the number of carriages available? Again, there's no information, but a bit of searching through the regional council website uncovers a news release from last year saying that the 58 new electric units will "initially replace English Electric Units and then increase passenger capacity". This part of the upgrade will cost "more than $160m": that's less than half of the total rolling stock upgrades, and we still don't know how much of that will actually go to increased capacity! I'd guess it's not much, since they were only planning on maintaining a 15.6% share of commuters, not increasing it. For the sake of argument, let's estimate that $100 million goes towards new capacity rather than just replacing the museum pieces currently on the tracks.

Of the existing 10-year budget, that's $100 million for increased capacity and $423.1 million for refurbishment and miscellaneous improvements. Where's the rest of the $1.33 billion? I'm no expert at reading accounts, but the 10-year financial forecast on page 47 of the plan indicates that the rest is just operating expenditure, and doesn't go to upgrades at all. So let's break down the details of what the Dominion Post calls a "$2b upgrade":

Greater Wellington regional council's spending on public transportOnly about $600m can truly be said to be devoted to increasing capacity, and that's if the new proposal goes ahead. A further $170m might be, if we knew the details. $420m goes towards improving the passenger experience: some of that might be counted as an "upgrade", but much of it is just long-overdue maintenance. And the rest, nearly $640m, is just normal operating costs over the ten years of the plan, and should never be included in a story about new investments.

So, this is hardly "an ambitious $2 billion plan to improve Wellington's public transport"! The Kapiti upgrades are indeed significant news, and it's heartening to see that they're finally aiming to increase mode share to 20% rather than keeping it static, but if we really were to get $2 billion invested in public transport we would expect much more. It's hard to know whether the Dominion Post has an agenda to make public transport look like it's getting more money than it actually is, or whether it's just sloppy journalism. Despite their general pro-motorway bias, I'd suspect the latter, especially when you look at the headline on page C1: "Property values drift down". Really? No, they're just not increasing as fast as they were. We should expect better from our only daily newspaper.


At 9:04 am, June 13, 2006, Blogger Hadyn said...

What do you expect from a paper with images like this on the front page?

Don't they know that stuff goes on page 3?

At 10:43 am, June 13, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Hadyn: with that image and the $2b headline, they had at least three fake things on the front page. There is, of course, a place for images like that: on dodgy sites like this.

Maximus: that sort of (wilful?) innumeracy is depressingly common. I had to laugh at the latest Listener editorial claiming that "Google is simply making everyone stupid" and that "a reliance on the internet and a decline in newspapers will limit not just the public discourse but also the ability of professional journalists to monitor powerful institutions". Perhaps if the Dom's "professional journalists" had taken half an hour to monitor the $2bn figure (which they're repeating today in an article which adds little to yesterday's) or ensure that their property price headline wasn't so blatantly bollocks, then there wouldn't be such a decline in newspapers.

At 1:05 pm, June 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, the DomPost doesn't always print dodgy photos on the front page!

At 1:56 pm, June 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those property figures are put out monthly, and each months figures represent the change since the SAME month the year before.
It's all in the second paragraph - figures are up 12.4% since last may, but last month they were up 13.1% since last April.Which is a drop over the last month.
Sometimes up can be down I guess.

At 1:57 pm, June 13, 2006, Blogger Hadyn said...

Tom I hope that dodgy link is work-safe! ho ho.

Also the young lady was from Mount Maunganui. I can asure you, not fake.

In regard to the paper, I was told recently that the Herald main source of information (historical and data) is now Wikipedia.

And Mike, what do you mean "not dodgy"? Big bulbous clouds getting forked by lightning.

At 2:10 pm, June 13, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Anonymous: the second paragraph was all nice and clear, and explains that the rate of annual increase was lower than for the previous month. It still means that property prices are going up, but that the rate of increase is slowing. That should be pretty easy to understand, and it most definitely does not mean that "Property values drift down" as the headline claimed.

I don't expect the average reader (even of the business pages) to understand the difference between first and second derivatives, but it's not a hard distinction to make. You can even fit the truth into a similarly short headline: "Property price rise slows". That eliminates simplicity and conciseness as reasons for the headline, and leaves just two: sensationalism and innumeracy.

Hadyn: how's this for a "dodgy" word verification - "rubsux"!

At 3:07 pm, June 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you're better than the Average Reader? - get your hand off it.

At 3:16 pm, June 13, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Well, since we're talking about numeracy, and the "average reader" doesn't have a maths degree, I thought it was worth trying to forestall the potential objection that most readers wouldn't understand or care about the difference between prices falling and the rate of increase of prices slowing. Perhaps "non-specialist reader" might have been a less loaded term.

At 6:07 pm, June 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

mmm, anon2 here... the Dompost has gone on record as saying that they aim for an average reader age of 10 years old.... and seeing as this Tom bloke appears to have a beard, then perhaps he is indeed older (and just possibly wiser) than a 10 year old....

At 9:13 am, June 14, 2006, Blogger Hadyn said...

Tom you just should say "yes".

I know, without a shred of modesty, that I AM better than the average reader. Especially when it comes to numbers. I cringe when I read or watch the news with their bubblegum statistics for the "reality tv audience".

But the problem isn't the viewers, the problem is the journos. They don't understand the numbers themselves and don't generally care.


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