Can Intercity Trains into Boston Enter from Springfield?

From time to time, I see plans for intercity rail service into Boston going via Springfield. These include in-state rail plans to run trains between the two cities, but also grander plans to have train go between Boston and New Haven via Springfield, branded as the Inland Route, as an alternative to the present-day Northeast Corridor. In-state service is fine, and timed connections to New Haven are also fine for the benefit of interregional travel like Worcester-Hartford, but as an intercity connection, the Inland Route is a terrible choice, and no accommodation should be made for it in any plans. This post goes over why.

What is the Inland Route?

Via Wikipedia, here’s a map of the Northeast Corridor and connecting passenger rail lines:

Red denotes Amtrak ownership, and thus some non-Northeast Corridor sections owned by Amtrak are included, whereas the New Rochelle-New Haven section, while part of the corridor, is not in red because it is owned by state commuter rail authorities. Blue denotes commuter rail lines that use the corridor.

The Inland Route is the rail route in red and black from New Haven to Boston via Springfield. Historically, it was the first all-rail route between New York and Boston: the current route, called the Shore Line, was difficult to build with the technology of the 1840s because it required many river crossings, and only in 1889 was the last river bridged, the Thames just east of New London. However, as soon as the all-rail Shore Line route opened, mainline traffic shifted to it. Further investment in the Shore Line relegated the Inland Route to a secondary role, and today, the only passenger rail at all between Boston and Springfield comprises a daily night train to Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited. More recently, there has been investment in New Haven-Springfield trains, dubbed the Hartford Line, which runs every 1-2 hours with a few additional peak trips.

What rail service should run to Springfield?

Springfield is a secondary urban center, acting as the most significant city in the Pioneer Valley region, which has 700,000 people. It’s close to Hartford, with a metro population of 1.3 million, enough that the metro areas are in the process of merging; this is enough population that some rail service to both New York and Boston is merited.

In both cases, it’s important to follow best practices, which the current Hartford Line does not. I enumerated them for urban commuter rail yesterday, and in the case of intercity or interregional rail, the points about electrification and frequency remain apt. The frequency section on commuter rail talks about suburbs within 30 km of the city, and Springfield is much farther away, so the minimum viable frequency is lower than for suburban rail – hourly service is fine, and half-hourly service is at the limit beyond which further increases in frequency no longer generate much convenience benefit for passengers.

It’s also crucial to timetable the trains right. Not only should they be running on a clockface hourly (ideally half-hourly) schedule, but also everything should be timed to connect. This includes all of the following services:

  • Intercity trains to Hartford, New Haven, and New York
  • Intercity trains to Boston
  • Regional trains upriver to smaller Pioneer Valley cities like Northampton and Greenfield (those must be at least half-hourly as they cover a shorter distance)
  • Springfield buses serving Union Station, which acts as a combined bus-rail hub (PVTA service is infrequent, so the transfers can and should be timed)

The timed connections override all other considerations: if the demand to Boston and New York is asymmetric, and it almost certainly is, then the trains to New York should be longer than those to Boston. Through-running here is useful but not essential – there are at least three directions with viable service (New York, Boston, Greenfield) so some people have to transfer anyway, and the frequency is such that transfers have to be timed anyway.

What are the Inland Route plans?

There are perennial plans to add a few intercity trains on the New Haven-Springfield-Boston route. Some such trains ran in my lifetime – Amtrak only canceled the last ones in the 2000s, as improvements in the Shore Line for the Acela, including electrification of the New Haven-Boston section, made the Inland Route too slow to be viable.

Nonetheless, plans for restoration remain. These to some extent extend the plans for in-state Boston-Springfield rail, locally called East-West Rail: if trains run from Boston to Springfield and from Springfield to New Haven, then they might as well through-run. But some plans go further and posit that this should be a competitive end-to-end service, charging lower fares than the faster Northeast Corridor. Those plans, sitting on a shelf somewhere, are enough that Massachusetts is taking them into account when designing South Station.

Of note, no modernization is included in these plans. The trains are to be towed by diesel locomotives, and run on the existing line. Both the Inland Route and East-West plans assume frequency is measured in trains per day, designed by people who look backward to a mythologized golden age of American rail and not forward to foreign timetabling practices that have only been figured out in the last 50 years.

Is the Inland Route viable as an intercity route into Boston?

No. This is not even a slag on the existing plans; I’m happy assuming best practices in other cases, hence my talk of timed half-hourly connections between trains and buses above. The point is that even with best practices, there is no way to competitively run a New Haven-Springfield-Boston route.

The graphic above is suggestive of the first problem: the route is curvy. The Shore Line is very curvy as well, but less so; it has a bad reputation because its curves slow trains that in theory can run at 240 km/h down to about 150-180 km/h, but the Boston-Springfield Line has tighter curves over a longer stretch, they’re just less relevant now because the trains on the line don’t run fast anyway. In contrast, the existing Northeast Corridor route is fast in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The Inland Route is also curvy on the Boston-Worcester stretch, where consideration for slow trains is a must. The main way to squeeze extra speed out of a curvy line is to cant it, but this is less viable if there is a mix of fast and slow trains, since slow trains would be overcanted. This, in fact, is the reason Amtrak trains outside the Northeast are slower than they were in the middle of the 20th century – long-distance passenger trains have less priority for infrastructure design than slow freight trains, and so cant is limited, especially when there are hills. Normally, it’s not a problem if the slower trains are commuter trains, which run fast enough that they can just take the curve, but some curves are adjacent to passenger train stations, where passengers would definitely notice the train sitting still on canted track, leaning to the inside of the curve.

Then, there is the issue of how one gets into Boston. The Providence Line is straight and fast and can be upgraded to provide extra capacity so that fast intercity trains can overtake slow ones if need be. The Worcester Line has a two-track narrows in Newton, hemmed by I-90 with no possibility of expansion, with three stations on this stretch and a good location for a fourth one at Newton Corner. Overtakes are possible elsewhere (one is being designed just to the west, in Wellesley – see my sample timetable here), but they still constrain capacity. It’s comparably difficult from the point of view of infrastructure design to run a 360 km/h intercity train every 15 minutes via Providence and to run a 160 km/h intercity train every 30 minutes via Springfield and Worcester. Both options require small overtake facilities; higher frequency requires much more in both cases.

The Worcester Line is difficult enough that Boston-Springfield trains should be viewed as Boston-Worcester trains that go farther west. If there’s room in the timetable to include more express trains then these can be the trains to Springfield, but if there’s any difficulty, or if the plan doesn’t have more than a train every half hour to Worcester, then trains to Springfield should be making the same stops as Boston-Worcester trains.

Incentives for passengers

The worst argument I’ve seen for Inland Route service is that it could offer a lower-priced alternative to the Northeast Corridor. This, frankly, is nuts.

The operating costs of slower trains are higher than those of faster trains; this is especially true if, as in current plans, the slow trains are not even electrified. Crew, train maintenance, and train acquisition costs all scale with trip time rather than trip distance. Energy costs are dominated by acceleration and deceleration cycles rather than by cruise speed at all speeds up to about 300 km/h. High-speed trains sometimes still manage lower energy consumption per seat-km than slow trains, since slow trains have many acceleration cycles as track speeds change between segments whereas high-speed lines are built for consistent cruise speed.

The only reason to charge less for the trains that are more expensive to operate is to break the market into slow trains for poor people and fast trains for rich people. But this doesn’t generate any value for the customer – it just grabs profits through price discrimination that are then wasted on the higher operating costs of the inferior service. It’s the intercity equivalent of charging more for trains than for buses within a city, which practice is both common in the United States and a big negative to public transit ridership.

If, in contrast, the goal is to provide passengers with good service, then intercity trains to Boston must go via Providence, not Springfield. It’s wise to keep investing in the Shore Line (including bypasses where necessary) to keep providing faster and more convenient service. Creating a class system doesn’t make for good transit at any scale.

Through-Running and American Rail Activism

A bunch of us at the Effective Transit Alliance (mostly not me) are working on a long document about commuter rail through-running. I’m excited about it; the quality of the technical detail (again, mostly not by me) is far better than when I drew some lines on Google Maps in 2009-10. But it gets me thinking – how come through-running is the ask among American technical advocates for good passenger rail? How does it compare with other features of commuter rail modernization?

Note on terminology

In American activist spaces, good commuter rail is universally referred to as regional rail and the term commuter rail denotes peak-focused operations for suburban white flighters who work in city center and only take the train at rush hour. If that’s what you’re used to, mentally search-and-replace everything I say below appropriately. I have grown to avoid this terminology in the last few years, because in France and Germany, there is usually a distinction between commuter rail and longer-range regional rail, and the high standards that advocates demand are those of the former, not the latter. Thus, for me, a mainline rail serving a metropolitan area based on best practices is called commuter and not regional rail; there’s no term for the traditional American system, since there’s no circumstance in which it is appropriate.

The features of good commuter rail

The highest-productivity commuter rail systems I’m aware of – the Kanto area rail network, the Paris RER, S-Bahns in the major German-speaking cities, and so on – share certain features, which can be generalized as best practices. When other systems that lack these features adopt them, they generally see a sharp increase in ridership.

All of the features below fall under the rubric of planning commuter rail as a longer-range subway, rather than as something else, like a rural branch line or a peak-only American operation. The main alternative for providing suburban rapid transit service is the suburban metro, typical of Chinese cities, but the suburban metro and commuter rail models can coexist, as in Stockholm, and in either case, the point is to treat the suburbs as a lower-density, longer-distance part of the metropolitan area, rather than as something qualitatively different from the city. To effect this type of planning, all or nearly all of the following features are required, with the names typically given by advocates:

  • Electrification/EMUs: the line must run modern equipment, comprising electric multiple units (self-propelled, with no separate locomotive) for their superior performance and reliability
  • Level boarding/standing space: interior train design must facilitate fast boarding and alighting, including many wide doors with step-free boarding (which also provides wheelchair accessibility) and ample standing space within the car rather than just seated space, for example as in Berlin’s new Class 484
  • Frequency: the headway between trains set at a small fraction of the typical trip time – neighborhoods 10 km from city center warrant a train every 5-10 minutes, suburbs 20-30 km out a train every 10-20 minutes, suburbs farther out still warrant a train every 20-30 minutes
  • Schedule integration: train timetables must be planned in coordination with connecting suburban buses (or streetcars if available) to minimize connection time – the buses should be timed to arrive at each major suburban station just before the train departs, and depart just after it arrives
  • Pedestrian-friendliness: train stations designed around connections with buses, streetcars if present, bikes, and pedestrian activity – park-and-rides are acceptable but should be used sparingly, and at stations in the suburbs, the nearby pedestrian experience must come first, in order to make the station area attractive to non-drivers
  • Fare integration/Verkehrsverbund: the system may charge higher fares for longer trips, but the transfers to urban and suburban mass transit must be free even if different companies or agencies run the commuter trains and the city’s internal bus and rail system
  • Infill: stations should be spaced regularly every 1-3 km within the built-up area, including not just the suburbs but also the city; slightly longer stop spacing may be acceptable if the line acts as an express bypass of a nearby subway line, but not the long stretches of express running American commuter trains do in their central cities
  • Through-running: most trains that enter city center go through it, making multiple central stops, and then emerge on the other side to serve suburbs in that direction

Is through-running special?

Among the above features, through-running has a tendency to capture the imagination, because it lends itself to maps of how the lines fit together in the region; I’ve done more than my share of this, in the 2009 post linked in the intro, in 2014, in 2017, and in 2019. This is a useful feature, and in nearly every city with mainline rail, it’s essential to long-term modernization; the exceptions are cities where the geography puts the entirety of suburbia in one direction of city center, and even there, Sydney has through-running (all lines go west of city center) and Helsinki is building a tunnel for it (all lines go north).

The one special thing about through-running is that usually it is the most expensive item to implement, because it requires building new tunnels. In Philadelphia, this was the Center City Commuter Connection, opened in 1984. In Boston, it’s the much-advocated for North-South Rail Link. In Paris, Munich, Tokyo, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Milan, Madrid, Sydney, Zurich, and other cities that I’m forgetting, this involved building expensive city center tunnels, usually more than one, to turn disparate lines into parts of a coherent metropolitan system. New York is fairly unique in already having the infrastructure for some through-running, and even there, several new tunnels are necessary for systemwide integration.

But there are so many other things that need to be done. In much of the United States, transit advocacy has recently focused on the issue of frequency, brought into the mainstream of advocacy by Jarrett Walker. Doing one without the other leads to awkward situations: after opening the tunnel, Philadelphia branded the lines R1 through R8 modeled on German S-Bahns while still running them hourly off-peak, even within the city, and charging premium fares even right next to overcrowded city buses.

This is something advocates generally understand. There’s a reason the TransitMatters Regional Rail program for commuter rail modernization puts the North-South Rail Link on the back burner and instead focuses on all the other elements. But there’s still something about through-running that lends itself to far more open argumentation than talking about off-peak frequency. Evidently, the Regional Plan Association and other organizations keep posting through-running maps rather than frequency maps or sample timetables.

Through-running as revolution

I suspect one reason for the special place of through-running, besides the attractiveness of drawing lines on a map, is that it most blatantly communicates that this is no longer the old failed system. There are good ways of running commuter rail, and bad ways, and all present-day American commuter rail practices are bad ways.

It’s possible to make asks about modernization that don’t touch through-running, such as integrating the fares; in Germany, the Verkehrsverbund concept goes back to the 1960s and is contemporary with the postwar S-Bahn tunnels, but Berlin and Hamburg had had through-running for decades before. But because these asks look small, it’s easy to compromise them down to nothing. This has happened in Boston, where there’s no fare integration on the horizon, but a handful of commuter rail stations have their fares reduced to be the same as on the subway, still with no free transfers.

Through-running is hard to compromise this way. As soon as the lines exist, they’re out there, requiring open coordination between different railroads, each of which thinks the other is incompetent and is correct. It’s hard to sell it as nothing, and thus it has to be done as a true leap generations forward, catching up with where the best places have been for 50+ years.

Quick Note: Heavy Touch and Control

There’s a distinction between light- and heavy-touch forms of management and control. Light-touch systems try to stay out of the details as far as they can; heavy-touch systems do the opposite. American business culture considers light touch to be superior, and I think this is especially prominent in the public sector, which has some ready-made examples of how the light touch approach works better – for example, in the military, it’s called mission command and is repeatedly shown to work better than more centralized command-and-control. Unfortunately, the same does not work for rail infrastructure. Why?

Heavy touch in infrastructure

In practice, a heavy-touch system in infrastructure construction, for example the way Germany, France, and Southern Europe work, has the following features:

  • The state agency maintains control of designs, and even when it outsources something to consultants, it owns the product and may tweak it or assume that future contractors will tweak it. There is little privatization of planning.
  • There is reluctance to devolve decisions to local governments; if SNCF or RENFE lets a regional government get involved in a rail plan, it’s because it’s an unprofitable regional line and the national railroad would rather not know it exists, and even DB happily unloads these same unprofitable regional lines on Land governments while focusing on intercity rail.
  • Regulators are technical and make specific decisions.

This is not the only way to organize things, but it’s the only way that works. The Nordic countries have been moving away from this system in the last generation, influenced by British governing ideology; the sources I reference in the Stockholm case study repeatedly treat privatization as self-evidently good and exhort Nordic agencies to be more like the UK and less like Germany and Switzerland, and meanwhile, in the last 20 years Nordic costs have exploded while German ones have been fairly stable.

I’ve talked about the issue of privatization of the state to consultants many times, most recently a month ago. This post is about something different: it’s about how regulators work, an issue on which Sweden appears little different from Germany to me, and profoundly different from the United States and its can’t-do government.

American light touch elements

To understand how American regulations work, we need to look at the regulators and grant funders, that is, the Federal Transit Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, henceforth abbreviated FTA and FRA. How do they work?

  • The chief regulators are never especially technical. The most sought after background, equivalent to a French grande école degree, is as far as I can tell a law degree from Yale. Engineers and planners always have to have a non-technical generalist watching over their shoulder, and this is the most prominent for the most politically sensitive projects.
  • FTA/FRA reviewers are in some cases not even allowed to probe into the funding package they are to decide on. One of the biggest projects relevant to what we’ve studied at the Transit Costs Project and what I’ve written on this blog has a multi-billion dollar package, one that will almost certainly be only partially funded due to competing priorities, but the regulators are not allowed to see any itemized breakdown to see what partial funding would even do. Nor are regulators allowed to say which priorities to build first if there’s only partial funding.
  • The higher regulators themselves believe that light-touch approaches are better and are reluctant to engage in any direct management – if they’d like to be more involved but are prohibited from doing so by the law or by constitutional interpretations, they have not said so.
  • There is little churn between operations and regulations – in fact, this separation is treated as sacrosanct, even as in all other aspects the governing ideology calls for breaking down silos (and thereby disempowering specialists in favor of generalists). The contrast here is with Sweden, where state planners who worked on Citybanan, a state project, have since moved on to work for Stockholm County on the county-led Nya Tunnelbanan.

None of this works. The people who make the big decisions on funding in this system do not have the ability to make professional judgments, only political ones, and agencies know this and don’t bother with technical soundness.

Heavy touch and expertise

The connection between heavy touch and expertise is, you can’t manage things directly if you don’t have a lot of subject matter knowledge. In this sense, light touch may not necessarily be by itself bad, but rather, like design-build project delivery, it is in practice used to mask incompetence at the top level. The non-technical boss, who is in all but name a political commissar, can make vague proclamations, not get into details, and not feel like they’re out of their league and must defer to the engineer in the room.

The Origins of Los Angeles’s Car Culture and Weak Center

On Twitter, Armand Domalewski asks why Los Angeles is so much more auto-oriented than his city, San Francisco. Matt Yglesias responds that it’s because Los Angeles does not have a strong city center and San Francisco does. I am fairly certain that Matt is channeling a post I wrote about the subject 4.5 years ago (and insight by transit advocates that I don’t remember the source of, to the effect that the modal split for Downtown Los Angeles workers is a healthy 50%), looking at employment in these two cities’ central business districts as well as other comparison cases. In addition, Matt gives extra examples of how Los Angeles is unique in having prestige industries located outside city center: the movie studios are famously in Hollywood and not Downtown, and to that I’ll add that when I looked at high-end hotel locations in 2012, Los Angeles’s were all over the region and most concentrated on the Westside, which isn’t true of other big American coastal cities, even atypically job-sprawling Philadelphia. Because of my connection to this question, I’d like to inject some nuance.

The upshot is that Los Angeles’s car culture is clearly connected to its weak center. I wouldn’t even call it polycentric. Rather, employment there sprawls to small places, rarely even rising to the level of a recognizable edge city like Century City. It is weakly-centered, and this favors cars over public transit – public transit lives off of high-capacity, high-frequency connections, favoring places with high population density (which Los Angeles has) and high job density (which it does not), while cars prefer the opposite because excessive density with cars leads to traffic jams. However, historically, best I can tell, the weak center and the cars co-evolved – I don’t think Los Angeles was atypically weakly-centered on the eve of mass motorization, and in fact every city for which I can find such information, even model transit cities, has gotten steadily job-sprawlier in the last few generations.

How is Los Angeles weakly centered?

There are a number of ways of measuring city center dominance. My metric is the share of metro area employment that is in the central 100 km^2; some gerrymandering and water-hopping is permitted, but the 100 km^2 blob should still be a recognizable central blob rather than many disconnected islands. This is not because this is the best metric, but because my information about France and Canada is less granular than for the United States, and 100 km^2 lets me compare American cities with Vancouver and with the combination of Paris and La Défense; my data on Tokyo is of comparable granularity to Paris and this lets me pick out Central Tokyo plus some adjacent wards like Shinjuku.

As a warning, the fixed size of the central blob means that the proportion should be degressive in city size, which I notice when I compare auto-centric American metro areas of different sizes. It should also be higher all things considered in the United States, where I draw blobs on OnTheMap to capture as many jobs as possible without the blob looking like it has tendrils, than in the foreign comparisons.

I gave many examples in a Twitter thread from 2019, though not Los Angeles. Doing the same exercise for Los Angeles with 2019 data gives 1.6 million jobs in a 500 km^2 blob stretching as far as Culver City, UCLA, Downtown Burbank, and Downtown Pasadena; a 100 km^2 blob gerrymandered to just include Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Century City, none of which can reasonably be called city center, is already down to 820,000, where the roughly same-area city of San Francisco is 770,000, and more like 900,000 when taking its central 50 km^2 plus those of Oakland and Berkeley. A circle of area 100 km^2 centered on Vermont/Wilshire to include all of Downtown plus Hollywood is down to 620,000. This compares with a total of 6.5 million jobs in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and 8.3 million including Ventura County and the Inland Empire.

The upshot is that Downtown Los Angeles is pretty big, but not relative to the size of the metro area it’s in. On an honest definition of the central business district, it is smaller in absolute job count than Downtown San Francisco, Boston (which has around 830,000), Washington (around 700,000), or Chicago (1 million), let alone New York (around 3 million) or Paris (2 million in the city and the communes comprising La Défense).

Nor are the secondary centers in Los Angeles substantial enough to make it polycentric. Downtown Burbank has around 20,000 jobs, Downtown Glendale around 50,000, Downtown Pasadena including Caltech 67,000, Century City (included in the less honest central 100 km^2) 54,000, UCLA 74,000, El Segundo 55,000, LAX 48,000, Culver City around 20,000, Downtown Long Beach around 35,000. New York, in contrast, has Downtown Newark around 60,000, the Jersey City and Hoboken waterfront around 80,000, Long Island City around 100,000, Downtown Brooklyn around 100,000 as well, Flushing 45,000. Morningside Heights has 42,000 jobs in 1 km^2, a job density that I don’t think any of Los Angeles’s secondary centers hits, and the neighborhood is not at all a pure job center. No: Los Angeles just has a weak center.

I bring up Paris as a comparison because there’s a myth on both sides of the Atlantic, peddled by European critical urbanists who think tall buildings are immoral and by American tourists whose experience of Europe is entirely within walking distance of their city center hotels, that European city centers are less dominant than American ones. But Paris has, within the same area, comfortably more jobs than the centers of Los Angeles and Chicago combined; its central-100-km^2 job share is somewhat higher than New York’s (though probably only by enough to countermand the degressivity of this measure).

Was Los Angeles always like this?

I don’t think so. My knowledge of Los Angeles history is imperfect; the closest connection I have with it is that my partner is developing a narrative video game set in 1920s Hollywood, intended to be a realistic depiction of that era. But Los Angeles as I understand it was not especially polycentric, historically.

Historically polycentric regions exist, and tend to have weaker public transit than similar-size monocentric ones. The Ruhr has several centers, each with decent urban rail within the core city and high car usage elsewhere; Upper Silesia is far more auto-oriented than similar-size metropolitan Warsaw; Randstad has rather low urban rail ridership as people bike (in the main cities) or drive (in the suburbs). All three are truly historically polycentric, having developed as different city cores merged into one metro area as mechanized transportation raised people’s commute range, and in the case of the first two, much of this history involves different coal mining sites, each its own city.

Los Angeles doesn’t really have this history. The city had a slight majority of the county’s population in 1920 (577,000/936,000) and 1930 (1,238,000/2,208,000), only falling below half in the 1940s – and in the 1920s the city was already notable for its high use of cars. The other four counties in the metro area were more or less irrelevant then – in 1920 they totaled 244,000 people, rising to 389,000 by 1930, actually less than the city. Glendale grew from 14,000 to 63,000, Long Beach from 56,000 to 142,000, Santa Ana from 15,000 to 30,000; other suburbs that are now among the largest in the country either were insignificant (Anaheim had 11,000 people in 1930) or didn’t exist (Irvine had 10,000 people in 1970).

Los Angeles did annex San Fernando Valley early, but there wasn’t much urban development there in the 1920s; Burbank, entirely contained within that region, had 17,000 people in 1930, and San Fernando had 8,000. There was a lot of suburbanization in this period, but it did not predate car culture.

This is not at all how a polycentric region’s demographic history looks – in the Rhine-Ruhr, in 1900, Dortmund and both cities that would later merge to form Wuppertal had 150,000 people, Essen had just over 100,000 and would annex to over 200,000 within five years, Duisburg and Bochum both had just less than 100,000 and would soon cross that mark, Cologne had 370,000 people.

The region had an oil-based economy at the time – in the early 20th century the center of the American oil industry was still California and not Texas – but evidently, development centered on Los Angeles and to a small extent Long Beach (in 1930 having about the same ratio of population to Los Angeles’s that the combination of Jersey City and Newark did to New York’s). The same can be said of the various beach resorts that were booming in that era – the largest, Santa Monica, had 37,000 people in 1930, 3% of the population of Los Angeles, at which point Yonkers had 2% of New York’s population.

Boomtown infrastructure

While Los Angeles did not have a polycentric history in the 1920s, it did have a noted car culture. I believe that this is the result of boomtown dynamics, visible in many places that grow suddenly, like Detroit in the same era (in the 2010s, metro Detroit had a transit modal split of about 1%, the lowest among the largest American metro areas, even less than Dallas and Houston). Infrastructure takes time and coordination to build. In a growing region, infrastructure is always a little bit behind population growth, and in a boomtown, it is far behind – who knows if the boom will last? Texas is having this issue with flood control right now, and that’s with far less growth than that of Southern California in the first half of the 20th century.

The upshot is that in a very wealthy boomtown like 1920s Los Angeles (California ranking as the fourth richest state in 1929 and third richest in 1950), people have a lot of disposable income and not much public infrastructure. This leads to consumer spending – hence, cars. It takes long-term planning to convert such a city into a transit city, and this was not done in Los Angeles; plans to build a subway-surface tunnel for the Red Cars did not materialize, and the streetcars were not really competitive with cars on speed. Compounding the problems, the Red Cars were never profitable, in an era when public transit was expected to pay for itself; they were a loss leader for real estate development by owner Henry Huntington, and by the 1920s the land had already been sold at a profit.

Then came the war, and the same issue of private wealth without infrastructure loomed even more. California boomed during the war, thanks to war industries; there was new suburban development in areas with no streetcar service, with people carpooling to work or taking the bus as part of the national scheme to save fuel for the war effort. Transit maintenance was deferred throughout the country (as well as in Canada); after the war, Los Angeles had a massive population of people with very high disposable income, whose alternative to the car was either streetcars that were falling apart or buses that were even slower and had even worse ride quality.

Everywhere in the United States at the time, bustitution led to falling ridership per Ed Tennyson’s since-link-rotted TRB paper on the subject, even net of speed – Tennyson estimates based on postwar streetcar removal and later light rail construction that rail by itself gets 34-43% more ridership than bus service net of speed, and in both the bustitution and light rail eras the trains were also faster than the buses. But the older million-plus cities in the United States at the time had their subways to fall back on. Los Angeles had grown up too quickly and didn’t have one; neither did Detroit, which has a broadly Rust Belt economic and social history but a much more car-oriented transportation history.

The sort of long-term planning that produced transit revival did happen in the Western United States and Canada, elsewhere. In the 1970s, Western American and Canadian cities invented what is now standard light rail in both countries, often out of a deliberate desire not to be Los Angeles, at the time infamous for its smog; those cities have had more success with transit revival and transit-oriented development, especially Vancouver with its SkyTrain metro and aggressive high-rise residential and commercial transit-oriented development. But in the 1920s-40s, there was no such political counter to automobile dominance. Los Angeles did start building urban rail in the 1980s, but not at the necessary scale, and with ridiculously low levels of transit-oriented development: in the 2010s, after the economy recovered from the Great Recession, the 10 million strong county approved a hair more than 20,000 housing units annually, slightly less than the 2.5 million strong Metro Vancouver region.

Co-evolution of transportation and development

Los Angeles was not very decentralized in the first half of the 20th century. It had lower residential density, but none of today’s edge cities and smaller sub-centers really existed then, with only a handful of exceptions like Long Beach. By today’s standards, every American city was very centralized, with people generally working either in their home neighborhood or in city center. The city did have high car ownership for the era, and this encouraged freeway construction after the war, but the weak central business district came later.

Rather, what has happened since the war is a co-evolution of car-oriented transportation and weakly-centered job geography. Cars got stuck in traffic jams trying to get to city center, so business and local elites banded together to build an edge city closer to where management lived, first Miracle Mile and then Century City; Detroit similarly had New Center, where General Motors headquartered starting 1923. New York underwent the same process as businesses looked for excuses to move closer to the CEO’s home in the favored quarter (IBM in Armonk, General Electric in Fairfield), but the existence of the subway meant that there was still demand for ever more city center skyscrapers, even as city residents of means fled to the suburbs.

This story of co-evolution is not purely American. I keep going back to Paul Barter’s thesis, which portrays the urban layout in his example cities in East and Southeast Asia as starting from a similar point in the middle of the 20th century. Density was high throughout, and central sectors in Southeast Asia were ethnically segregated, with a Chinatown, an Indian area, a low-density Western colonial sector, and so on. The divergence happened in the second half of the 20th century, Singapore choosing to be a transit city and Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok choosing to be car-oriented cities. I don’t have job data for these cities, but my impression as a visitor (and former Singapore resident) is that Singapore has a clear central office district and Bangkok has a hodgepodge of skyscrapers with no real structure to where they go within the central areas.

So yes, Los Angeles’s weak center is making it difficult to expand public transportation there now and get high ridership out of it; boosting the region’s transit-oriented development rate to that of Vancouver would help, but Los Angeles is far more decentralized and auto-oriented than Vancouver was in the 1990s. But the historic sequence is not first polycentrism and then automobility, unlike in Upper Silesia or the Ruhr. Rather, a weak center (never true polycentricity) and automobility co-evolved, reinforcing each other to this day – it’s hard to get ridership out of urban rail expansions since city center is so weak, so people drive, so jobs locate where there’s less traffic and avoid Downtown Los Angeles.

Quick Note: Los Angeles Spends $50,000 Per Bus Shelter

I saw a few months ago that Los Angeles was planning to equip its entire bus network with shelter, and rejoiced that such an underrated amenity finally gets the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, the cost of the program is now $50,000 per bus shelter; to lower the cost, the city is experimenting with a substandard shelter providing no protection from the elements for $10,000. In Victoria, as pointed out by one commenter on Twitter, a full shelter is around $15,000 in 2018 Canadian dollars, comparable to 2023 American ones.

Ordinarily, it would be a dog-bites-man story: of course the costs are at a premium of a factor of three over Canada (let alone a place that builds cheaply), it’s an American transit infrastructure project. But this one is significant because bus shelter is small in scope – it’s not a megaproject, and this means that rules of megaprojects do not apply to it.

For example, installing shelter at thousands of stops, as Los Angeles is doing, allows for repetition of a standard design that vendors can figure out on their own. This means that the usual privatization of decisionmaking should not be a problem. (It’s been pointed out to me that design-build works well for municipal parking garages, since they’re so streamlined at this point.)

Moreover, bus shelter, even repeated so many times, is still small enough scope that a small in-house team could handle it. LACMTA has been talking to us about how to scale up their in-house team, and we couldn’t give them concrete numbers, but I believe what they have for design review is in the teens, which is probably not enough for a subway extension but should be for a bus shelter program measured in the tens of millions of dollars or (with the cost blowouts factored in) very low hundreds of millions. Elsewhere, for example in Boston, we’ve seen agencies build small things affordably – Boston’s premium over Berlin for building infill commuter rail stations is a factor of maybe 1.5 – and fail at building large things such as urban rail expansion, because their design review team is sized for small and not large things.

Finally, there’s a problem with politicization, in which when politicians insert themselves into a piece of infrastructure, hoping to make it their legacy, it will end up raising costs with at best no and at worst negative benefit to users. Small items like this ordinarily do not have this problem, as they fly under the radar of politicians as well as surplus-extracting community groups.

So why is this so expensive?

I don’t know the details of this failure – all I know is a handful of links to the current cost. I suspect, judging by the tone used in press coverage, that it’s politicization. Note that the piece linked in the lead paragraph centers the issue of gender equity; this isn’t stupid (as the other link points out, bus shelter has a disproportionately positive impact on women), but it does suggest someone thought about the political implications of this. The piece also quotes the designers as having developed the new substandard option “with input from female riders,” suggesting some waste on community consultation.

If I’m right on this, then this suggests a great peril for any city that looks at small and large projects, finds that the small ones are more cost-effective, and decides to prioritize them over large ones. In a city that builds subway expansion and also installs bus shelter beneath anyone’s notice, the bus shelter may be achievable at reasonable cost. But as soon as the shelter turns into a splashy program, beloved by incompetent managers who figure it’s within their span of control and by politicians (who are by definition incompetent on managerial issues), it will acquire the same problems of politicization usually associated with megaprojects. In this case, it’s waste coming from community consultation. In other cases, it might be demands for neighborhood signatures, or intransigence by abutting property owners or by utilities figuring there is surplus to extract, or any of the other causes of cost overruns.

And in particular, downgrading your city’s investment plan just because the flashiest items have cost blowouts wouldn’t end the cost blowouts. If you can’t build subways, work on making yourself capable of building subways; avoiding that mess and building other things instead of subways would run into the same problems and soon you’d be paying $50,000 for a single bus shelter.

CNBC Video on Construction Costs

There’s a CNBC video about construction costs. It references our data a bunch, and I’d like to make a few notes about this.

Urban rail and GDP

CNBC opens by saying better urban rail would increase American GDP by 10%, sourcing the claim to our report. This isn’t quite right: our report references Hsieh-Moretti on upzoning in New York and the Bay Area; they estimate that relaxing zoning restrictions in those two regions to the US median starting in 1964 would have, assuming perfect mobility, raised American GDP by 9% in the conditions of 2009 (and the effect size should have grown since).

The relevance of transportation is that the counterfactual involves both regions growing explosively: New York employment grows by 1,010% more than in reality, so by a factor of about five compared with actual 1960s population and about 3.6 compared with actual 2009 (in 1969-2009, metro employment grew 35.4%), and likewise San Francisco would be 3.9 times bigger than in reality in 2009 and San Jose, having had much faster growth in the previous decades in reality, would have still been 2.5 times bigger. Hsieh-Moretti assume infrastructure expands to accommodate this growth. But if it can’t, then the growth in GDP is lower and the growth in consumer welfare is massively lower due to congestion externalities, hence our citation of Devin Bunten’s paper on this subject.

So the issue isn’t really that building subways would increase American GDP by 10%. It’s that building subways paired with transit-oriented development, the latter proceeding at levels that would raise regional population at a somewhat faster rate than in 1900-30, would do so. The issue of costs in the United States is only peripherally connected with the lack of transit-oriented development, an American peculiarity in which more housing is built in poorer regions than in the largest, richest metro areas. In contrast, Canada gets TOD right and yet is rapidly converging to American construction costs, Toronto’s reaching around US$1 billion/km per the latest estimates. Germany, conversely, is rather NIMBY, although its rich cities still build much more than New York or the Bay Area, and is capable of building subways just fine.

The portrayal of Second Avenue Subway

The portrayal looks mostly good. It points out the tension between Second Avenue Subway’s extreme cost per km and reasonable cost per rider, the latter comparing very favorably with Los Angeles and about on a par with Grand Paris Express. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 was a bad project in the sense that it was severely overbuilt and poorly managed, but were it not possible to build it for cheaper (which it was), it would be a good value proposition, and even Phase 2 is marginal rather than bad. The issue is that New York’s cost-effectiveness frontier, at current costs, makes it capable of building a few km of subway per generation, whereas that of Paris, a city that isn’t especially cheap to build in, enables the 200 km Grand Paris Express.

The video goes over our comparison of station to tunnel costs, and connects this with various forms of surplus extraction; Eric gives examples of how cities demand betterments and do general micromanagement and threaten to withhold permits unless they get what he calls bribes. It gets the picture well for how important actors, up to and including the mayor of New York, just treat infrastructure as an opportunity to grab surplus for other priorities.

There are a few errors, all minor:

  1. The visualization of Second Avenue Subway has it running down First Avenue in Midtown and Downtown Manhattan, which was certainly not in the original plan and I think still is not.
  2. The video states the cost of Grand Paris Express at $38 billion, I think out of converting euros to dollars at exchange rate, whereas in PPP terms it’s $47 billion in 2012 prices and $60 billion in 2022 dollars, either way about 10 times the absolute cost of Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 for 10 times the projected ridership and 70 times the overall length. But the costs per rider are correct, at least.
  3. I’m not sure why, but the Madrid numbers are stated to be around $200 million/km, which is a cost that I don’t think exists there – costs in our database don’t include the latest lines there, but the ongoing expansion program is 40.5 km for 2 billion euros, which in PPP terms is around $70 million/km, I think all underground.
  4. The section on soft costs says that they were 21% of Second Avenue Subway’s overall costs, compared with a norm of 5-10% elsewhere. This is not quite true – they were 21% of the hard costs (and the same is true of the 5-10% figure); their share of overall costs was therefore a bit lower.

Carmen Bianco and Robert Puentes

Three people are extensively interviewed in the video. The first is Carmen Bianco, who was New York City Transit head in 2013-5. The second is Eric. The third is Eno’s Robert Puentes. The interviews are pretty good (by which I mean those with Bianco and Puentes – I of course find what Eric says good I’m the least impartial judge on this). There’s also a short quote from Bent Flyvbjerg about construction productivity, which isn’t quite true (productivity is rising in Sweden, just at lower rates than general growth).

Puentes talks about standardization, comparing the custom-designed stations in the United States with the standardized ones in Copenhagen. He also talks about the benefits of utilitarian stations and connects this with standardization – American subway and light rail stations aren’t particularly nice (the overbuilding goes to crew break rooms and crossovers, not passenger facilities), but one way local political actors get to feel important is making each station a bit different, and I’m glad he highlights this connection between overbuilding and poor standardization. But I think he somewhat errs in that he says that one cause of this among a few is that American cities build little subway tunneling. Copenhagen, after all, built its first line in the 1990s and early 2000s (using consultants, since there was no preexisting in-house staff and no political appetite to staff up); it just made the right design decision to standardize, which has helped it build a subway even at not especially low costs, in a fairly small city.

Then there’s Bianco, who I think appears talking more than anyone else, even Eric. He gives the standard list of problems in New York: it’s a dense city with a lot of complex underground infrastructure, utility relocation is difficult, and so on. At least on camera, he doesn’t make excuses. It’s just, complex historic utilities are not unique to New York, and I don’t know to what extent he understands that New York can learn this from Italian cities (or from London, which I believe has very good underground utility mapping). I assume Bianco isn’t generally great about this since he was in charge in 2013-5 and didn’t reform this system, but he doesn’t come off as repulsive, and it’s plausible that he’s more reasonable knowing not what he may not have 10 years ago.

Local Elected Representation is Bad

I am in awe of Marco Chitti’s depth of knowledge and quality of analysis on matters of public transportation; what he’s written about coordinated planning on his blog, not to mention his Italian construction costs case study, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in improving public transportation at any scale. So it’s against this background that I feel compelled to point out, regrettably, that he’s wrong when he calls for local representation on public transit planning boards. Specifically, he promotes a model in which a transport association’s decisions flow from a board that represents the mayors of the municipalities in the region. And this is a model that exists (he gives the example of provincial France) and just plain does not work. EU-level observers see this every time we are reminded that the Council of Ministers exists.

To the contrary, any path forward on public transportation requires the steady disempowerment of local electeds, including mayors of small municipalities or neighborhood-level representation in a larger city. The EU-level observation that the Council of Ministers is the epitome of the democratic deficit is true at all lower levels as well, down to a single city.

Local representation does not work in France

Marco puts a parenthetical in his tweet: “or the region president for IDF-mobilités.” This makes the entire difference. In Ile-de-France, the transport association is governed at the level of the entire region, which has a single elected regional government with competitive partisan elections and high-profile campaigns; the current president of the region, Valérie Pécresse, was the national presidential candidate of Les Républicains last election. The dominant players within Ile-de-France Mobilités, RATP and SNCF, are both owned by the French state, and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was the politically-appointed head of RATP in the Hollande era, which was her stepping stone from a string of advisor positions to a ministry under Macron. This is not at all a situation with much localism.

Where there is localism in the Paris region, it promotes pettiness and NIMBYism. The increase in the rate of housing production in the region starting in the mid-2010s was promoted by the state and by the region, over the objections of suburban mayors, who were livid at the idea of more housing in their enclaves, especially social housing. The state never so coerced the city, where housing growth remains anemic, but Anne Hidalgo has likewise built social housing in rich arrondissements over the objections of their local mayors.

In fact, the model in which there is a single metropolitan government that is responsible at once for multiple services, is being implemented in Lyon. The traditional department it’s part of, Rhône, isn’t really coterminous with the metropolitan area, while some suburbs spill over to neighboring departments; for planning purposes, France set up the intergovernmental Urban Community of Lyon in 1969, comprising Lyon and its inner suburbs (equivalent not to Ile-de-France but to the combination of Paris and the Petite Couronne), but then in 2015 it replaced it with the Lyon Metropolis, with direct elections of a single government.

Elsewhere in France, inter-municipal relations remain more intergovernmental, and local mayors are in the loop on many decisions. But provincial France is hardly an example of success in transit governance. The modal splits in regions like Marseille, Nice, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Strasbourg are all in the mid teens. They have little to recommend them as models over similar-size cities in the German-speaking and Nordic worlds.

This is something that’s recognized in France too – hence the formation of the Lyon Metropolis. France has excessive fractionalization of municipalities – it has around 35,000 communes, where Italy and Spain have 8,000 each and Germany has 11,000. It’s had little municipal consolidation since the Revolution; this way, Paris has fewer people than Berlin or Madrid, while possessing a metro area about the size of Berlin’s and Madrid’s combined. Local traditions make it hard to do further consolidation, often for petty reasons (Paris is wealthier than most of its suburbs and in the postwar era the poorer suburbs voted for communists); instead, where it cares that things should work, France sets up direct institutions with enough heft that people can vote for one government and expect that it should have the last say on big political questions.

Local representation does not work in the United States

The United States does not quite use the provincial French system of direct representation of mayors on transit boards. However, it has analogs, with extensive local empowerment. And those analogs do not work.

For example, in and around Springfield, Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) is governed on the basis of representation of each municipality within the region. These are not the directly-elected mayors of those municipalities but it doesn’t matter – the problems do not stem from how they are elected but from which interests they answer to. The problem starts with the fact that nearly all PVTA ridership is in the urban core – Springfield itself and a small handful of working-class suburbs like Holyoke – but the representation structure gives snob suburbs veto power, which they use to block any consolidation plan focusing service on where people ride.

Worse, the suburbs of PVTA have a combination of two political attitudes that explodes any possibility of good governance. They are snobs and NIMBYs, opposing any attempt to make buses useful for poor urbanites trying to access service jobs in their jurisdictions. But they also have left-wing identity politics and want to be seen as progressive places where there are alternatives to the car. Therefore, they demand that PVTA serve every municipality in the region, but often just peripherally, so that they can say “we have buses”; those buses have practically no ridership, and serve to trigger Massachusetts’ accessibility requirement, in which paratransit must be provided on demand not just within 0.75 miles of a bus or urban rail stop as in the federal ADA but also within the entire town’s jurisdiction.

Marco says that the solution to bad politics is good politics. But the problem with PVTA and similar intergovernmental agencies is not that local representation is based on local appointment or recommendation rather than the direct mandate of the mayor. The mayor wouldn’t be any better than what is currently available, because at the end of the day, when a small enclave in a wider region gets to self-govern, the people it represents will be selected for pettiness (since the great majority of people who socialize outside the municipality are effectively disenfranchised) and snobbery (since the enclaves safeguard their insulation from poorer people). In some places, the worst NIMBYism may even be spearheaded by a county executive, if the county is itself an enclave, which Westchester County, New York is.

Transportation and Localism

In New York City, 92% of workers commute out of their community board. Representation at such level has a democratic deficit that exceeds that of the EU; the ministers who comprise the Council were after all elected in their respective countries, in democratic elections in which the important portfolios are doled out to acceptable parties and politicians. Fractional suburbs like those of France or the parts of the United States that have public transit are little different from city neighborhoods in this way. To continue with the example of PVTA, the two largest suburbs of Springfield by population are Chicopee and Westfield. Chicopee has 24,431 employed residents and 18,228 jobs, but only 4,131 of those live and work in the city, or 17%; Springfield has 17,656 employed residents, 14,863 jobs, and 3,820 people working and living in the city, or 22%. In effect, the mayors of both cities are elected in enclaves in which the most empowered people are not at all representative of the jurisdictions.

This situation is especially bad when it comes to transportation. There, the interests of those 17-22% of the Springfield suburbs who work locally, not to mention the 8% of New Yorkers who work in-community board, diverge the most from the general interest. People who live and work in an outlying local area do not really ride public transportation; people who commute to a city center do. This is not just a feature of transit cities – the transit modal split for people working in Downtown Los Angeles is not awful (I remember reading it was 50% in the 2000s-10s), they’re just swamped by people who work in places that don’t even rise to the category of a secondary center.

Even when the time comes to build a transit network that works for people who don’t work in city centers, it still is intended for the majority, which doesn’t work locally. PVTA and other non-Boston Massachusetts agencies (called RTAs) struggle with span of service – buses stop running anytime between 6 and 8 pm to shopping malls that close at 10. Regional representation could catch those riders, who would have a single point of contact to vote for; local representation cannot, because they are formally disenfranchised where they work and in practice disempowered where they live.

Americans – not Marco, but some of the people who responded to him on Twitter – are paranoid that regional representation in an auto-oriented area would lead to the defunding of transit.

But we can concretely compare what happens when auto-oriented suburbs have local representation (as in most of the US) and what happens when they’re incorporated into a larger whole and can then vote there (as in Ile-de-France, or Berlin, or Toronto). Kai Wegner became mayor of Berlin after an explicitly pro-car campaign; what this means in practice is a halt on some road diet projects, the latter pushed by Green voters who work close to where they live and care about bikes more than about public transit. The far more populist, far more pro-car Rob Ford became mayor of Toronto powered by resentment of David Miller’s Transit City concept, which had the same failings as the agenda of the Berlin Greens; Ford’s election caused far more damage in its politicization of transit, leading to repeated changes in the Eglinton rail plan just so that Ford could prove that he existed, than at the basic level of defunding transit or closing the streetcars (which Ford promised to do and then didn’t).

We can even see the interplay between local and regional in Ile-de-France. The pro-car suburban mayors tried to sue Paris to stop its road diets, alleging that they are discriminatory against them, and one might expect that those suburbs, if given a seat at the table, would favor pro-car policy. But in practice, the same voters who vote for these mayors at the local level also vote for Pécresse at the regional level, and Pécresse hasn’t compelled Paris to remotorize and is a lot YIMBYer than any of those suburban mayors. The issue is less that people in those places are pro-car and more that local representation consistently returns people who drive more than the average and who represent a minority that drives more than the average, and in the absence of such local representation, even someone like Rob Ford can’t do much damage through his transportation policy. (Doug Ford, in contrast, has done considerably more damage in micromanaging the megaprojects to the point that Toronto is careening past the $1 billion/km mark.)

The need for professionalism in democracy

Professional civil service arises in part from the fact that it’s not possible to have meaningful local representation in an urban area. A city the scale of Berlin can have a democratic election, since people generally live and work in the city, and not many commute in from or out to elsewhere. The same is true of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or even New York City, which has less than half the population of its metro area and yet this is enough that the populations of disempowered in- and out-commuters are limited. It’s true of Lyon Metropolis. It’s true of the combination of Paris and the Petite Couronne, which France occasionally considers amalgamating into a single Grand Paris and mostly doesn’t because the elected layer of Ile-de-France is so far sufficient and there is a lot of identity politics involved in the formal separation of the city from the suburbs.

And at this scale, it’s impossible for a single government to control everything. Berlin, New York, and so on have the populations of small countries. Such countries can elect a government, but the span of control of the elected ministers comprises an order of magnitude of 100 people across all ministries combined.

Thus, the need for a professional civil service. This is why the role of politicians in a healthy political environment is to macro- and not micromanage. They can make big yes-or-no decisions, and that’s it – decisions on alignments should be left to professionals, who are hired and promoted based on apolitical criteria. A Wegner or Ford can choose to fund roads more and transit less and halt or even reverse road diets, but the details have to come from experts, because the span of control of the Wegner cabinet is far too small for there to be any real democratic check on the sort of advisors who in the United States are politically appointed.

What’s more, even when they do make decisions, the tendency of politicians to do things just to prove that they exist is, always, bad for governance. In some cases, including what we’ve seen in Boston when we wrote the Green Line Extension report, megaprojects even act as siphons for bad ideas, while contemporary small projects beneath the notice of politicians are done more smoothly and efficiently. The danger is that the practices developed for the megaprojects then later poison the local infrastructure ecosystem, as when some of the decisions made for Grand Paris Express are now leading to overdesign for shorter Métro extensions.

The ideal role for elected leaders is to set overall funding levels and then just let the professionals work. If the professionals are failing, it’s fine to replace them with other professionals, chosen based on past successes in the same field (in the US, this has to mean foreigners), rather than chums who the politicians are comfortable with, like the repulsive political appointees I’ve seen in New York and Boston.

In the same way that most people writing about EU governance understand that Parliament has democratic legitimacy and the Council is the opposite, it’s critical to understand that localism subtracts from civilian democratic control of the state, through its elevation of petty voices. And if subdividing territory into local fiefs doesn’t work, the alternative is to subdivide it thematically and let subject-matter experts handle planning. Marco, and I think other people who are much more uncomfortable with top-down unitary civil services than he is (after all, Italy is governed by such civil service and builds infrastructure very well), errs in portraying this depoliticization as antithetical to democracy; it’s to the contrary the tool with which democracy governs anything bigger than an isolated village.

I Gave a Followup Talk at TransitCon

Hayden Clarkin’s online conference TransitCon just happened, and I was drafted at the last minute to give a talk about construction costs. Here are the slides; for the most part, they’re a compressed version of slides that regular readers have seen before, except done in Beamer rather than Google Slides.

Cognizant of the fact that most people at TransitCon would have heard of me and our research and many would have read the reports or at least seen me, Eric, Marco, or Elif talk about them, I rushed through the description of our report. Instead of just going over trodden ground, I added slides at the end describing new issues we’d learned about since writing the synthesis, which was in a fairly advanced draft in late summer 2022 already. This fell into two categories: new obstacles, and reactions of people in power.

The new obstacles slide talks about the issue of last-minute squeaking (in the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” aphorism, which can and should be changed to “squeaky wheel gets replaced”). The most glaring examples of gross surplus extraction for Second Avenue Subway and the Green Line Extension all happened fairly early in the process.

In contrast, since then, Eric has spent so much time working in Seattle he could given time make an entire case out of its ongoing problems, and there, some of the extraction has been late in the project: one suburb’s fire department demanded construction in excess of the normal fire codes or else it wouldn’t certify the stations in its jurisdiction as fire-safe. In Dallas, the city itself is grabbing surplus: it’s demanding betterments and holding up the DART Silver Line until it gets them, adding $150,000 a day to the cost of the project. These two examples are both late in the process, after the Full Funding Grant Agreement has been signed; but once there is a political commitment, a local actor can still hope to grab surplus by demanding unreasonable changes.

But it’s really better to view this issue as one of top-level cowardice and unwillingness to take responsibility. The solution in Seattle is not hard: dissolve the department and have it taken over by the state or by Seattle proper. But whoever does that in effect takes ownership of every single fire in the suburb, and this requires taking more responsibility than American politicians and their appointees are used to.

The reaction of people in power plays to how they treat obstacles. I wrote a title for that slide, The Self-Hating State, and then deleted it and replaced it with the less toothy Public Officials and Consultants. But in effect what we see when we present the results to sympathetic federal and state officials who want to do better (i.e. not the MTA) is that most government officials don’t like the government very much. Their eyes glaze over the sort of technical and economic points that their counterparts here talk about, and instead they talk about how consultants have more long-term experience, when most of what the consultants know is how poorly-managed projects are built and where they do have positive knowledge (like the standardization of construction in Copenhagen) they’re not listened to.

Even more frustrating is their reaction to red tape. They take it as a given that the government must involve red tape; the same red tape in the private sector is invisible to them, such as when Seattle-area construction involves multiple jurisdictions each with its own consultants. But more fundamentally, these are people who can rewrite regulations, formally or informally, to make things easier; they just consider a government that works unthinkable.

Meme Weeding: Polarization

I’ve heard some people, including some in decently powerful government positions, excuse poor American public transportation performance by saying that it’s hard to work in a politically polarized environment. This is related to excuses made in the early 2010s, blaming the failure of high-speed rail in the United States on Republican governors who canceled programs after winning the 2010 midterm, never mind that all-Democratic California has not been able to build it either. But the complaints about polarization are not just specious. They also betray deep ignorance and incuriosity about the rest of the world, including specific countries that we at the Transit Costs Project have referenced repeatedly.

What is polarization, anyway?

Political polarization generally refers to a system in which there are two blocs, roughly evenly matched, each characterized by hating the other to the point of not fully (or at all) accepting its legitimacy. The blocs can alternate in power, as in the United States today, or one can usually prevail over the other, as in the Second and Third Party Systems in American history.

Usually this also includes large left-right ideological differences, which in the 20th century could even take the characteristic of support for communism versus fascism, as in multiple Latin American systems. However, systems in which the differences in ideology are more rhetorical than practical, as in 1980s-1990s Greece, can also be characterized as polarized. In fact, polarization (that is, delegitimization of the other side) is often a strategy employed by populist politicians to maintain mass support as a substitute for concrete action.

By most accounts, the United States is seeing high and growing party polarization. This contrasts with depolarized systems like those of Belgium and the Netherlands, which are historically tri- rather than bipolar and therefore have long traditions of shifting coalitions and consensus, or Germany and Austria, which have two blocs but still have a lot of cross-aisle cooperation and many grand coalitions.

Polarization in low-cost countries

While American political practitioners usually contrast the American situation today with that of the elite consensus of the postwar era, we should be more comparative and look at how polarization varies over space and not just time. And by that standard, most of the low-construction cost countries are obviously polarized: Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, South Korea. Even the Nordic countries are more polarized than Americans give them credit for, leaving Switzerland as the only truly depolarized low-construction cost country.

In Italy, moreover, polarization has grown even as construction costs have fallen. The First Italian Republic was depolarized: Democrazia Cristiana won every election and governed by choice of which coalition partners to work with, which could include the Socialists (a situation called “integral left”) or not; bringing in the Communists was unthinkable. It was also legendarily corrupt, to the point that DC should be thought of as a corruption party more than a center-right party like CDU here or VVD in the Netherlands. The corruption led metro construction costs to explode in the 1970s as contracts were given based on bribery rather than any objective criteria. It’s moreover this explosion in costs that led to the investigations that brought down the system, mani pulite.

The Second Italian Republic, birthed by those corruption investigations, has high levels of left-right polarization. The main policy plank of the right is that it hates the left; thus, the right’s leader until recently, Berlusconi, did not engage in any of the neoliberal reforms of good governance that his Northern European and French allies hoped he would. The left has been more neoliberal but it’s explicitly very moderate, governing in coalition with various populists who can be swayed over. The system trended toward two blocs. And now Italy can build infrastructure more affordably, due to the same good-government anti-corruption reforms that passed in the wake of mani pulite.

Turkey is even more polarized, to the point that the main political question in the election in two weeks is not exactly a left-right issue like the role of Islam in society or any socioeconomic issue, but whether Turkey should be a democracy or an autocracy governed by Erdoğan; the candidate of the democracy camp (“Nation Alliance”), Kılıçdaroğlu, has surrounded himself with disaffected former Erdoğan allies and with an entirely right-wing party, İyi, alongside his traditional center-left allies.

What’s more, Erdoğan has not let opposition cities just build infrastructure. Izmir has long been governed by CHP; the state lightly fudged numbers to make its subway construction costs look slightly higher than they are, using pessimistic cost projections. CHP won the elections in Istanbul and Ankara recently, and in Istanbul, the state stopped letting the city use state-owned parks for city-built subway lines and even denied funding for some future lines; Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu got these lines financed through loans from the European Investment Bank, which hates Erdoğan to the point that Istanbul borrows money internationally at lower interest rates than the state. Despite gross politicization, costs have remained low, and the civil service has functioned through this (and Elif’s interviews in Turkey included both AKP and CHP supporters).

Corruption and dominant parties

The situation of DC in Italy, in which its domination of the First Republic even with coalition partners led to corruption, generalizes.

In the United States, regional differences in voting and lack of regional differences in party ideology have made many states safe for one party or another. In those states, there is no polarization, since one party governs everything and has little to nothing to fear from the opposition: California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and increasingly Florida and Ohio all fall into this camp.

The result is that the dominant party in all of these states is a corruption party. It’s easy to be corrupt when you know in advance who you need to buy off, and when it’s not really possible for anyone to run for governor and polarize against you and your bribery of elected officials. In red states there’s occasionally an ideological sop to movement conservatism, usually exclusively the annual culture war topic (in 2023 it’s trans athletes), but nothing really about any of the broader agenda of the economists at right-wing think tanks; in blue states there’s not even a sop.

Why are they like this?

Polarization doesn’t raise construction costs. It’s most likely neutral, and the dominant-party alternative is worse. So why do Americans blame it? I suspect that, like when left-wing Americans try to make high costs a matter of health care, it’s about reducing a complex issue to an American feature that all middlebrow American politicos know to hate. Truthiness trumps knowledge here.

Quick Note: New Jersey Highway Widening Alternatives

The Effective Transit Alliance just put out a proposal for how New Jersey can better spend the $10 billion that it is currently planning on spending on highway widening.

The highway widening in question is a simple project, and yet it costs $10.7 billion for around 13 km. I’m unaware of European road tunnels that are this expensive, and yet the widening is entirely above-ground. It’s not even good as a road project – it doesn’t resolve the real bottleneck across the Hudson, which requires rail anyway. It turns out that even at costs that New Jersey Transit thinks it can deliver, there’s a lot that can be done for $10.7 billion:

Source: Robert Hale at ETA

I contributed to this project, but not much, just some sanity checks on costs; other ETA members who I will credit on request did the heavy pulling of coming up with a good project list and prioritizing them even at New Jersey costs, which are a large multiple of normal costs for rail as well as for highways. I encourage everyone to read and share the full report, linked above; we worked on it in conjunction with some other New Jersey environmental organizations, which supplied some priorities for things we are less familiar with than public transit technicalities like bike lane priorities.