London Moves – Part 1 – The Common Good v. Personal Utility

Ever since I began writing this blog last year, the question I have been most often asked by readers and fellow Londoners is “Why are we doing BRT?”.  It is a fair question, and one that both those in favour of and those opposed to the Shift plan would concede has, thus far, been poorly addressed. It is also a question to which I am prepared to respond favourably – at least to the concept of better transit, but not the plan.

After all, in my opinion, one does not need a public opinion poll to know that a large majority of Londoners do not support the Shift BRT project.  Londoners do not know, trust, or understand the plan’s purpose, projections, and proponents. They do not like the process by which the plan was introduced, nor the fact that most Londoners directly affected by the plan have learned about those impacts through the evening news.

Now, it’s possible that these public perceptions will change. The Shift BRT team has worked hard to try and repair the initial communications flaws and started to host a number of “public information meetings”. The City also has a boatload of ad money (ie. our tax dollars) available to them in the coming months to help convince us of the plan’s merits (and Council’s judgment).

However, I believe that the writing is on the wall for the Shift plan, which is a pity given the amount of money and work the City has invested to-date, and the negative public perceptions it has created – perceptions that could now impede the introduction of some much-needed improvements to London’s transportation network.

So, in what may be perceived as a surprise move by some, I am going to begin this series by arguing in favour of a significant, responsible investment in public transportation – not just rapid transit, but several modes of public transportation. I believe our future as a city depends upon it.

After all, public transportation is a ‘common good’, and we all benefit when a common good such as mobility is available, accessible and affordable.  Similarly, any investment in public transportation should also generate a ‘personal utility’, a mix of rational and perceived benefits to an individual making the investment and/or benefitting from it. In my view, the best public policy is one that balances the pursuit of the common good with respect for one’s personal utility – our freedom of choice.

Hopefully my alternative approach of building a case from a foundation of mutual respect,  helps to diffuse some of the resistance so entrenched in each side of the debate over Shift, and begins the process of finding common ground.

The Common Good

To begin, I believe in the ‘common good’ created by public transportation and believe that a large majority of Londoners believe that as well.  I believe that public transportation enables opportunities – economic, personal and social – for citizens that may not otherwise have access to them.  Public transportation connects people to jobs, education, health care, culture, family and friends.  It empowers people at a personal and public cost that is substantially more efficient than any other personal mode of transportation except walking or cycling.  People that are empowered in such a way are much more productive, engaged and happier.  They enrich our society and become net contributors to it.  As such, I believe that provision of a quality public transportation network is fundamental to the wealth, health and welfare of our community.

Personal Utility

However, I also believe and respect our right to personal utility, an internal measure that we all use to determine the net worth or value of a given good or service. The calculation is simple, and one we intuitively use when making purchase decisions every day to satisfy a want or need. Simply put, if the benefits (both rational and perceived) exceed the costs of acquiring a good or service, we net some level of personal value or utility from that investment.  It is what motivates someone to spend thousands of dollars more on the look or ‘feel’ of a branded luxury vehicle, when a much smaller investment in a less expensive vehicle would provide the same functionality.  It also explains why people place such a high value on the convenience and comfort of personal transportation over less expensive public options.

Common Good v. Personal Utility

For the most part, people find a congruence between common good and personal utility. For example, most Londoners (sometimes begrudgingly) accept the need for public investment in such core common good services as police, fire, waste management, water treatment, business development and property maintenance. I also believe that most Londoners would support increased investment in our public mobility network, be it improved transit frequency, traffic signal synchronization, street repair, enhanced snow removal etc., especially if these investments infer a benefit on all.

Where the battle between common good and personal utility becomes more difficult is when the benefits are unclear, unknown, distrusted; or worse still, when the planned investment in a common good creates a material consequence to the personal utility of many.

Such is the case with the current Shift BRT plan. The plan fails to clearly and credibly convey a case for the common good, while concurrently introducing several consequences to Londoners’ personal utility – reduced lanes, neighbourhood and school zone intrusions, expropriations, construction headaches, unknown taxpayer risks – especially in a community that for decades has depended upon the use of personal vehicles to meet our transportation needs.

It is for these reasons that those transportation executives that I have consulted with advocate for a more measured, balanced approach.  One that, per the 2013 Master Transportation Plan, “begins the process of introducing convenient alternatives to enhance the mobility for all users and modes of travel”.

I believe that there is a strong case to be made for improved transit and improved transportation in London; one that both enhances our collective good and creates opportunities to enhance our personal utility.  In the posts to follow, I hope to do just that.


Next week – Market Drivers and Goals.