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Joe Corbett-Davies May 20244 min read

Street Smart Economics: Assessing the Benefits of Urban Improvements

Street Smart Economics: Assessing the Benefits of Urban Improvements
6:09

Vibrant and attractive urban spaces make us happier, richer and improve the productivity of our transport network.

 

But what is the economic evidence on these benefits of attractive streetscapes and urban spaces?

Most of us intuitively recognise when an urban space is a nice place to spend time in or travel through. People flock to charming shopping lanes like New Regent Street in Christchurch, the scenic Auckland waterfront, and parks and public squares worldwide. Whether consciously or not, we show a strong preference for vibrant streetscapes and public spaces.

New Regent Street, ChristchurchNew Regent Street, Christchurch

So, you might say, attractive streets are all well and good, but with limited transport dollars, should we spend our resources on these “nice to haves”? Shouldn’t we prioritise traditional “no frills” transport infrastructure? As it turns out, not only is it possible to estimate the economic benefits of streetscape improvements, research tells us that these impacts are often substantial.

Recent changes to government priorities have impacted national-level funding for many local street improvement projects. Regardless, we believe there is a strong economic case for streetscape upgrades.

Quantifying the Benefits

The intuition behind valuing urban realm improvements is fairly straightforward. If pedestrians choose a longer route to travel on a “nicer” street, they must value the additional benefits of that street at least as much as the extra walking time incurred to get there. Based on this additional time, we can estimate the change in “willingness to pay” for street improvements – in other words, how much someone values an improved street compared to a standard one, as a percentage of their travel time. For pedestrians who already use the upgraded street, an increase in willingness to pay can be thought of as a decrease in their perceived travel time.

A 2020 research report from the New Zealand Transport Agency Waka Kotahi, Impact on Urban Amenity in Pedestrian Environments, has combined overseas studies to estimate the benefits resulting from pedestrian amenity improvements. The results suggest a range of benefits, some sizeable, for different pedestrian improvements:

  • Street trees or plantings (20% increase in willingness to pay),
  • Sheltered walking routes (28% increase),
  • Lighting and/or CCTV monitoring (6% increase),
  • Signage and wayfinding (2% increase),
  • Wider footpaths in crowded conditions (14% increase per extra metre of footpath width).

So, for example, an average pedestrian is willing to walk 20% further along a route with planting or landscaping, compared to a basic footpath without any greenery.

Wider Economic Impacts

While changes in willingness to pay and perceived travel time are slightly vague concepts, they represent real economic benefits to users of upgraded urban spaces. However, there are also several ways these flow on to more traditional “monetised economic benefits:

  • Streets with higher willingness to pay values will see increased foot traffic, as people change their routes or choose to make new walking trips to take advantage of the improved streetscape.
  • Increased levels of physical activity lead to personal and societal health benefits.
  • Higher footfall will increase economic activity at shops, cafes, and visitor destinations.
  • Increased economic activity (like most things in New Zealand) will spill over into higher property values along improved streets, as people and businesses prefer to be located near attractive urban spaces ( In fact, willingness to pay research often uses statistical analyses of property prices to estimate benefits)

In our experience at Abley, streetscape amenity benefits resulting from a project can often match or exceed more traditional transport benefit categories. Recent work undertaken for Christchurch City Council evaluated potential street improvements around a large new public venue. Our analysis showed that day-to-day users of the improved streets see a 10-60% increase in willingness to pay as a result of higher-quality paving, landscaping, and reduction in traffic speeds and volumes. The benefits total millions of dollars over the life of the upgrades.

Ashburton Town Centre Before Ashburton Town Centre Before - different angle

Ashburton Town Centre Before 

Abley was also involved in the concept design work for the Ashburton Town Centre streetscape renewal project (pictured), which provided more pedestrian-focused spaces with less car traffic, more landscaping and wider footpaths. These improvements would be expected to boost pedestrian willingness to pay by 40% or more, based on the NZTA research. Despite construction disruption and the conversion of some streets to one-way, retailers have noticed an increase in foot traffic in the area since completion of the project, indicating that the improvements are already providing economic benefits.

20220224_103006 (1)Ashburton Town Centre After

Ashburton Town Centre After

When improvements to pedestrian routes are made around public transport networks, the effects can be even more powerful. Streets that feel safer and more pleasant to walk down will encourage connections to public transport, growing the patronage of these services at a relatively low cost. Abley are assisting Auckland Transport to design and analyse improvements targeting these “first and final leg” trips, with potentially large impacts across Auckland’s Rapid Transit Network. Our initial findings are that new wayfinding, lighting, CCTV, and wider footpaths are expected to provide significant reductions in perceived travel time to and from stations, increasing public transport patronage.

Real economic benefits

Improvements to our streetscapes and pedestrian areas are more than just aesthetic “nice-to-haves”. Vibrant and attractive streets have real economic benefits, and projects to improve urban areas often return many multiples of their cost back in wider benefits. Far from being “uneconomic” options, these projects tend to be economically efficient ways to turbocharge our urban centres and transport networks.

If you need help with evaluating or estimating the benefits of a streetscape project or business case, get in contact with our experienced team.

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Joe Corbett-Davies

Transportation Planner