June 06, 2016

Equity in Transport Mega Projects: An Interview with University College London Planning Professor Harry Dimitriou

20140110_ITDP_StefanoAguiar_131Many medium-size cities today are projected to become big cities by 2050. Given the fast pace of change and based on your evaluation of projects around the world, how can those cities deliver needed transport infrastructure that actually benefits most people?

For a national development strategy to be meaningful for middle-sized cities, those cities need to be adequately resourced, have capacity, and engage with local stakeholders. This local strategy, linked to the national vision, has a much greater potential of benefiting all sections of society.

Meaningful local strategies are only successful when linked to grassroots efforts and local engagement initiatives, supported by political champions. For example, nationally it may make sense to build a toll road, but locally, that road would run through poor communities on the cheapest land.  Criteria are needed so that projects contribute to national development aims and simultaneously enhance the local reality.

What criteria do you think is missing in the typical evaluation of large transport projects in cities?

20140110_ITDP_StefanoAguiar_084The failure to consider non-quantifiable impacts, outcomes, and performance dimensions of transport investment projects is a serious constraint in project appraisal for large transport investments. Typical appraisals focus on the quantifiable, especially monetized, dimensions, and success is too often judged on the basis of cost-benefit ratios. A multi-criteria evaluation that captures the sustainable change outcomes from large projects would be a better approach.

The lack of a multi-criteria, multi-sector appraisal process also undermines longstanding aspirations to integrate land use and transport planning. Transit-oriented development (TOD) may be the most significant opportunity to achieve this.

Does equity need to be addressed directly in policy leadership or can it be addressed indirectly through infrastructure?

Ideally, equity should be addressed directly in policy leadership. Past practices like subsidies (especially metros, such as in Mexico City) have been very common but are increasingly being challenged.  Leadership is increasingly more preoccupied with using rates-of-return and short-term economic benefits for appraisal than the use of wider frameworks that address sustainable development outcomes.

I predict we will see a growing movement of opposition to using solely financial metrics. This movement, which has already started, links grassroot concerns over increasing accessibility while reducing motorized trips to global goals, such as climate change, in order to invest in projects that benefit local communities.

Are smaller transport projects more or less likely to bring social, economic, and health benefits to cities than mega-projects?

Small projects can actually deliver more social, economic, and health benefits when you broaden the criteria to include those aspects, but ultimately, it is difficult to achieve success in mega-projects without the integration of smaller projects.  In Asia, for example, numerous improvements can be made by simply upgrading small projects (i.e. increasing footpaths, improving sewage, widening roads to include more non-motorized vehicles). Because the rate of return is not as great in small projects, the private sector is less likely to invest in them.

It seems most mega-projects take longer to build than initially projected. Why is this the case, and what can be done about it?   


With the exception of fast-track mega-projects like the Olympics, most mega transport infrastructure projects have 20-30+ year gestation periods due to poor front-end planning. We spend more time and money adapting projects during the build-out period due to unanticipated conditions.

By learning from the past and elsewhere in the world, policy leaders can shorten the length of time to complete them, engaging in disruptive creativity by questioning the vision versus outcomes of other models.

If mega-projects rarely deliver what is promised, why do cities continue to build them?

Mega-projects use the same criteria for success: on budget, on time, and according to specifications. These criteria are a misconception of the problem.  It is not that mega-projects do not deliver as promised; it is that they do not deliver in a way that promotes sustainability and equity, because the criteria for success does not evaluate those areas.

Additionally, mega-projects that address equity and sustainability tend to be more expensive, which fails to meet the budget aspect.  Many mega-projects rely on one industry, such as real estate, for funding.  Then there is a greater potential for the project to fail, so different sectors need to work together on mega-projects.

For example, the Northern Line extension in London connects Waterloo with Canary Wharf, which was built by a private sector entrepreneur linked to the financial world.  However, the global real estate market collapsed, and because the project depended on one industry, it stopped.  Due to the setback, London saw the importance of the project being seen as an integrated whole.  With the involvement of the private sector, the Northern Line extension of the London Underground system ignited the East End.  With the private sector and the real estate industry working together, the line was able to be completed.

For more information:

Transport and City Development: Understanding the Fundamentals

Globalization, Mega Transport Projects and Private Finance


About Harry Dimitriou:

Prof_Harry-DimitriouHarry Dimitriou has been Bartlett Professor of Planning Studies at Bartlett School of Planning, University College London (UCL) since 1998, and its Head between 1998 and 2004. He is currently Director of OMEGA Centre – a global centre of excellence for the study of mega projects in transport and development at UCL funded by Volvo Research and Education Foundations.  Professor Dimitriou holds a Diploma in Town and Regional Planning, an MSc in Urban Science and a PhD in Transport and Urban Development.  He is author, co-author/editor of seven books and numerous articles published in professional and academic journals.

This interview is part of a partnership series between ITDP and Volvo Research and Education Foundations (VREF).  In this series, we will feature interviews with researchers from VREF’s Future Urban Transport program.


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