Glazebrook
Private and social costs (cents per passenger-km) for cars and public transport in Sydney, 2005/6 (from Glazebrook, 2009)

One of the difficulties faced by urban policy-makers and city managers in Australia is the lack of objective, reliable research on the issues that are of direct concern to their practical responsibilities.

A key example is the relative social costs of travel by car versus public transport. It’s surely one of the key topics of public interest concerning cities. Implicit assumptions about the “right” answer abound and underlie a lot of the rhetoric around urban transport, yet the objective information simply isn’t there.

One of the few academics who’ve looked at the issue is Dr Garry Glazebrook in this paper, Taking the con out of convenience: the true cost of transport modes in Sydney, published in 2009. I looked at it in 2010 and again in 2012 and 2015 (see What costs society more – cars or public transport?; Should cars be subsidised?; and What costs society more: cars of trains? )

This is such a key issue that I’d reasonably expect to find a lot of papers and research projects targeted this question over the last twenty years; but neither readers nor I managed to find much that directly bears on the question.

There’re plenty of academics who write polemical pieces for The Conversation or opinion pieces for the dailies that assume the answer one way or another, but despite their obvious awareness of its policy relevance, there’s little evidence that they’ve actually researched the issue.

In fact this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of issues that loom large in public debates and in the calculations of policy-makers and city managers that simply don’t get much attention from academia.

And sadly, even when a topic does attract the attention of a large number of researchers, too often the output is tainted by “motivated reasoning” i.e. researchers whose (mostly) unconscious attachment to an agenda biases their approach and hence undermines the value of their findings.

Why does academia – or at least important sections of it – shy away from researching directly policy-relevant questions? I’ve got my own theories but it’s a big question so I’ll leave it for another time.

For the moment, I want to compile a list of some of the big issues of urban policy that I’ve come to the conclusion are seriously under-researched in Australia. By that, I mean there’re few objective, well-designed attempts to find answers to these important policy issues. Here’re some but they’re the tip of the iceberg:

  • What is the social cost of public transport compared to private transport?
  • Why is the cost of infrastructure so much higher in Australia than in other countries?
  • What difference have trams made to outcomes in Melbourne versus other cities?
  • How much better – or worse – is public transport in Melbourne since it was privatised?
  • How satisfied are clients and users with new buildings and how can architects improve their satisfaction?
  • How strongly are outer suburban residents tied to the CBD?
  • What effect do changes in design standards for apartments have on dwelling supply and on prices to consumers?
  • What level of road-user/parking charges would be necessary in cities to reduce traffic congestion to tolerable levels?
  • Why haven’t decentralisation programs worked in Australia?
  • Why does Australia have so many large cities and so few medium sized ones?
  • What impact do heritage laws have on the supply and prices of housing?
  • What value do ordinary people place on “iconic” architecture?
  • What policy measures offer the biggest bang-for-the-buck in terms of reducing urban travel?
  • Are infrastructure costs higher in the outer suburbs than in the inner and middle ring suburbs?
  • What value do ordinary urban dwellers place on access to additional open space/parkland?
  • How much do outer suburban residents value living in detached dwellings vs medium density housing?
  • What is the size of the benefit from ‘eyes on the street’?
  • Does proximity to public transport drive mode change, lower car ownership and less car use; or do households who favour transit select into these areas?
  • Is access to employment and services in outer suburbs getting better than in the past?
  • What are the explanations for different levels of car ownership per capita in Australia’s cities?
  • To what extent does the beauty of proposed buidings make them more acceptable to existing neighbours?

The list is a place-holder; it’s by no means comprehensive. I’ll add to it over time. Got any more to add (or know of any good research that means something can be crossed off the list)?