New York’s MTA Hates Transparency

The New York Post just published its piece, by Nolan Hicks, doing some construction cost comparisons. Nolan spoke to me multiple times on the subject of finding proper comparisons to New York’s subway station construction; he settled on the single most difficult Roman station, at the Colosseum, as well as a more prosaic station at Grand Paris Express and one on the Battersea extension in London. The goal was to look at the issue of New York’s overbuilt stations, with their full-length mezzanines and excessive back office space; New York’s stations turn out to be three to four times too expensive in his analysis.

So far, so good. But then there’s the official response to the story, which tells me that MTA head Janno Lieber is bad at his job – presuming that he views his job as about delivering good service, rather than stonewalling and kissing ass.

The Post quotes Lieber as saying, “you have to be careful with that subculture” and “those people get a lot of their cost information from the internet.” This is not too different from what he said when asked about our report by Jose Martinez: he got aggressive, said that we “group sourced” our data, and disclaimed responsibility for things that happened long ago, in the 2000s (Lieber at the time worked on the new World Trade Center).

People on Twitter are roasting Lieber about the phrases “that subculture” and “those people,” but I mind those appellations a lot less than what they are about. Lieber is in effect complaining that we use public sources for costs, which we access via the Internet, the same way we talk to other people in 2023. Using the Internet, for example, I can poke around for Swedish construction contracts, which are transparent with published lists of bidders and the winning bid, or I can look for historic German construction costs as reported in official channels and reputable media, and Marco can look for the same in Italy including publicly itemized costs, and Elif can look for the same in Turkey. What Lieber means when he says “information from the Internet” is really “articles in trade media and newspapers of record and detailed government reports, calibrated with some in-depth case studies to ensure we didn’t miss anything important.”

It jars him, perhaps because he’s used to secrecy. The idea that a report about the cost overruns of Grand Paris Express would just be out there, while the project was still going on, available to the public to review, may confuse Americans who are used to their country’s much lower level of transparency. In the US, everything requires affirmatively filing a freedom of information request that agencies can and often will deny on flimsy grounds. In Sweden, everything is online and I’ve been able to learn exactly how things work there from talking to not many people thanks to the wealth of public information about procurement strategy and individual contracts. The same is true of the issue of back office space and overbuilt station boxes – the MTA has not released blueprints, whereas in Sweden they’re available to the public in 3D.

Perhaps this is why Lieber talks to reporters with aggression and derision that fit would-be autocrats trying to put democratic media in its place. The idea that people would put all this information out there, voluntarily, seems weird to both, in the same way that a politician in an autocracy might find it jarring that politicians in democracies are subject to free media scrutiny.

This culture of secrecy cascades to itemized contracts. In our work, we’ve found that low-construction cost countries itemize their most complex rail infrastructure contracts, and the items our public. In the United States, contracts are fixed-price, and when agencies have itemized estimates as private benchmarks, they keep them from the public as a trade secret. MTA Construction and Development head Jamie Torres-Springer defended this system in November, saying that if the MTA revealed the numbers, contractors might use them as a floor.

Torres-Springer clearly stated a doctrine of the institutional culture that he and Lieber know. We can rate, overall, whether this culture is worth retaining, through seeing whether New York can build. It, of course, cannot. Lieber takes credit for delivering some projects for less than the budgeted amount, but the budget was inflated with large contingency figures; when someone promises to build something for $70 million and delivers it for $65 million, you don’t give credit for going under budget when other systems deliver it for $12 million. (These are all rough costs of making a subway station that is not a transfer wheelchair-accessible using three elevators in New York and some comparison cases respectively.)

Meanwhile, other systems, outside the high-cost Anglosphere (update 3-28: here is Ontario engaging in the same repulsive behavior toward Global News on the costs of the Ontario Line), can deliver. Germany doesn’t want to build much infrastructure unfortunately, but when it wants, it gets it done at reasonable if not low costs – and those costs are barely higher now in real terms than they were in the 1970s, having inched from maybe 150 million euros per km of subway to 200. Paris is building 200 km of mostly underground driverless metro, for about the same cost as one five-year MTA capital plan. Istanbul builds many metro lines all at once and may be the world’s top city in total route-length built this decade if Chinese investment slows down – Turkey is not a rich country but it has figured out how to build cheaply so that it can afford it. Seoul is expanding so rapidly, using so many different networks, that I can’t even track how much it builds. Italy not only can keep building infrastructure despite not having much money, but also managed to cut its real costs by adopting transparency as a core principle in the 1990s; contra Torres-Springer, contractors use published itemized costs as an anchor and not a floor.

But New York is the city that can’t, in the state that can’t. It treats a three-station subway expansion as a generational project. It clings to its way of doing things in face of obvious evidence that this way does not work; when it wants to do something different, it privatizes the state to consultants and huge design-build contractors, which has consistently raised costs wherever it is implemented. It’s not even aware of how success looks. Its leadership is rather like a Russian general who, seeing the army throw countless soldiers to take individual blocks of Bakhmut, population 70,000, insists things are going great and there is no need for anyone to learn anything about NATO standards, before ordering another wave of assault.

The press is ahead of the curve on this, since it does not need to kiss ass. I’ve been a source for New York media and for US-wide wonk networks for years, and the great majority of journalists I’ve spoken with, veterans and newcomers, generalists and specialists, have been curious and intelligent and could tell me important things I didn’t know before, including, in particular, reporters on this beat at all major city papers, such as Nolan. I sadly cannot say the same of MTA management: the career civil servants are good below the managerial level, the managers are hit-or-miss, and the political appointees are more miss than hit. The way the latter try to pull rank on good journalists like Martinez and Nolan is supercilious, authoritarian, and just plain nasty.

And if New York wants to avoid looking as ridiculous as that Russian general, it had better learn how successful cities do it, and invite in people who are intimately familiar with these cities to take in-house leadership jobs to implement the required reforms. This means, among other things, fostering a culture of openness and transparency. No more putdowns of journalists who ask hard questions, no more hiding behind NDAs and trade secrets, no more black boxes with no itemization beyond “this contract is $1 billion.” It’s easier than for Russia – the American field-grade officers who could do every Russian general’s job better don’t at all have Russia’s interests at heart, whereas the Continental European and East Asian transit managers who New York can bring it can be hired to have the MTA’s interests at heart, just as Andy Byford was. Learn from the best and face the reality that right now New York is the worst.

Berlin’s U-Bahn Expansion Plan

An obscure change in German benefit-cost analysis regulations has led to expansive proposals for urban rail construction in Germany. In Berlin, where ongoing coalition negotiations between CDU and SPD are leading in a developmentalist cars-and-trains direction, this led BVG to propose a massive program for growing the U-Bahn from its current 155 km of route-length to 318. The BVG proposal is split fairly evenly between good lines and lines that duplicate the S-Bahn and have little transportation value, and yet I’ve not seen much discussion of the individual technical merit of the program. Instead, anti-developmental activists who think they’re being pro-environment, such as BUND, regurgitate their anti-U-Bahn conspiracy theories and go to the point of associating subway tunneling with the Nazis. (I, unlike native Europeans, associate the Nazis with the Holocaust instead.)

What is the BVG proposal?

A number of media outlets have produced maps of the proposal; here is Tagesspiegel’s, reproduced here because it shows S-Bahn and regional lines as thin but visible lines.

All nine lines of the U-Bahn are to be extended, most in both directions; U3 and U4, currently a branch of U1 and a low-ridership shuttle line respectively, are to be turned into full main lines via Mitte. In addition, a ring line called U0 is to be built, duplicating the Ringbahn on its western margin and taking over some lines currently planned as radial extensions to Tegel, and running as a circumferential at consistently larger radius than the Ring to the south, east, and north.


The immediate news leading BVG to propose this plan is a combination of federal and city-level changes. The federal change is obscure and I only saw it discussed by one low-follower account on Twitter, Luke Horn. Luke points out that after years of red tape, the federal government finally released its updated benefit-cost analysis regulations. As those are used to score projects, city and state governments are required to follow exact rules on which benefits may be counted, and at what rate.

One of these benefits is modal shift. It’s notoriously hard to measure, to the point that anti-U-Bahn advocates argued based on one low-count measurement that U-Bahn construction generated more emissions than it saved through modal shift; their study has just been retracted for overestimating construction emissions, but the authors are unrepentant.

At any rate, on the 21st, the new federal rules were finally published. Greenhouse gas emissions avoided through modal shift are to be counted as a benefit at the rate of 670€ per metric ton of CO2 (see PDF-p. 243). This is a high number, but it’s only high when it comes to pushing carbon taxes through a political system dominated by old climate denialists; by scientific consensus it’s more reasonable – for example, it’s close to the Stern Report estimates for the 2020s. If Germany imposed a carbon tax at this rate, and not the current rate of 55€/t, the fuel price here would grow by around 1.50€/liter, roughly doubling the price and helping kill the growing market for SUVs and luxury cars. If that is the rate at which modal shift is modeled, then even with an undercount of how urban rail construction substitutes for cars, many otherwise marginal lines pencil out.

The city-level change is that Berlin just had a redo of the 2021 election, and while technically the all-left coalition maintained its majority, CDU got the most votes, which gave Mayor Franziska Giffey (SPD) the excuse she needed to break the coalition and go into a grand coalition negotiation with CDU. Giffey had had to resign from the federal cabinet in the late Merkel era when it turned out that she had plagiarized her thesis, leading the university to revoke her degree, but out of shamelessness she remained Berlin SPD’s mayoral candidate and won in 2021. The Greens thought little of having to serve under such a scandalized mayor, and out of personal pettiness, Giffey, politically well to the right of most SPD voters anyway, accused them of personally disrespecting her and went into negotiations with CDU.

The importance of this is that the Greens (and Die Linke) are a pro-tram, anti-U-Bahn, NIMBY party. When CDU and SPD said they’d finally develop the parade of Tempelhofer Feld with housing, an advisor to a Green Bundestag member accused them of wanting to develop the area out of personal spite, and not, say, out of wanting Berlin to have more housing. Under the all-left coalition, U-Bahn planning continued but at a slow pace, and by far the most important extension on a cost per rider basis, sending U8 north to Märkisches Viertel, was deprioritized; CDU’s campaign in the election was mostly about parking and opposition to road diets, but it also hit the Greens on their opposition to U-Bahn development.

The plan as it stands has a few sops to CDU. The U0 ring is the most significant: in a country where the median age is 45, under-18s can’t vote, and CDU is disproportionately an old people’s party, CDU’s median voter was an adult through the era of the Berlin S-Bahn Boycott, as both halves of the S-Bahn were run by the East during the Cold War. Where CSU supports the Munich S-Bahn as a vehicle for conservatives to move away from the left-wing city while still having access to city jobs, Berlin CDU is uniquely more negative toward the S-Bahn. Thus, the plan has a line that mostly duplicates the Ring. The U2 expansion to the west duplicates the S-Bahn as well, especially west of Spandau. Finally, the proposed western terminus of U1 is explicitly billed as a park-and-ride, which type of service Berlin CDU has long supported.

But other than the U0 ring, the plan is not too different from things that have long been planned. The longest segment other than U0 is the U3 extension to the northeast; this was part of the 200 km plan already in the 1950s, except originally the plan for this extension was not to hook into U3 as on post-Cold War plans but to run along an alignment closer to that of U9, whose southern terminus at Rathaus Steglitz was even built with room for this line, then numbered U10. A fair number of other sections on BVG’s map have a long history of languishing in unfavorable benefit-cost ratios. Other than U0, the plan is rather similar to what was studied in 2019:

However, this history has not prevented people from literally comparing BVG’s plan to the Nazis. The more prosaic reality is that the 1938 Welthauptstadt Germania U-Bahn expansion plan, other than its ring (built inside of the Ringbahn, the opposite of U0), made it to the 200 km plan and most of the lines it proposed were built, the largest change being that Cold War realities made West Berlin build U7 and U9 to serve the center of West Berlin at the Zoo rather than as additional lines serving Mitte.

The issue of costs

I have not seen an official cost estimate. BUND, which opposes the plan on the grounds that building tramways is better, says that it would cost 35 billion euros. Judging by recent construction costs of realized and proposed lines in Berlin, I think this estimate is broadly correct, if the project is run well.

The estimate is then about 210 million €/km, which looks realistic. The construction of the U5 extension from Alexanderplatz to Brandenburger Tor opened in 2020 at a cost of 280 million €/km in 2022 prices, but that was in the very center of the city, including a station at Museumsinsel mined directly beneath the Spree, for which BVG had to freeze the sandy soil. Conversely, the estimates of outer extensions that were already under planning before a week ago are lower: U7, the most advanced of these, is projected at 890 million € for about 8 km, or 110 million €/km, in an unusually easy (not really urbanized) tunneling environment.

The risk is that such a large project, done all at once, would strain the planning capacity of Berlin and Brandenburg. This exact risk happened in Paris: at 205 million €/km for 80% underground construction Grand Paris Express is more expensive per km than smaller Métro extensions built in the 2010s as it’s so large the region ran out of in-house planning capacity, and its response, setting up a British-style special purpose delivery vehicle (SPDV) along the lines of Crossrail, has resulted in British-style permanent loss of state capacity. Now, even the short Métro extensions, like the planned eastern M1 extension, cost more like GPE and not like similar projects from 10 years ago.

Notably, while France and the Nordic countries are seeing growing construction costs (France from a medium-low level and the Nordic countries from a very low one), Germany is not. I haven’t been able to find historic costs for Berlin with few exceptions. One of those exception, the last section of U9, cost 235 million € in 2022 prices for 1.5 or 1.6 km, or around 150 million €/km; this was built in 1968-74, in a relatively easy area, albeit with extra costs as noted above preparing for the U10 line. Another exception is the final section of U7 to Spandau, which cost around 800 million € for 4.9 km, or around 160 million €/km. Taken together with some numbers I posted here, it’s notable that in the 1970s, the construction costs per km in Italy, Germany, and the UK were all about the same but since then German costs have stayed the same or at worst inched up, Italian costs have fallen due to the anti-corruption laws passed in the wake of mani pulite, and British costs have quadrupled.

The most frustrating part of this discourse is that I’ve yet to see a single German rail advocate express any interest in the issue of costs. The critics of U-Bahn and other rail transport expansion plans who cite costs, of which BUND is a prime example, never talk about how to make metro construction in Germany cheaper; instead, they use it as an argument for why building underground railways is a waste of money, and urban rail must take the form of streetcars, which are held to be not only cheaper but also more moral from a green point of view as they annoy drivers. The same problem crops up in the discourse on high-speed rail, where Germany makes fairly easily fixable mistakes, generally falling under the rubric of over-accommodation of NIMBYs, and thus instead of figuring out how to build more lines, advocates write the idea off as impractical and instead talk about how to run trains on slow lines.

Can Berlin make do with streetcars?


The problem with streetcars is that, no matter how much priority they get over other street traffic, they’re still slow. T3 in Paris, about the most modern urban tramway I’ve seen, running in a grassy reservation in the middle of the 40 meter wide Boulevards des Maréchaux, averages 18 km/h. The Berlin streetcars average 17.6 km/h; they don’t have 100% dedicated lanes at places, but for the most part, they too are run to very high standards, and only minor speedups can be seriously expected. Meanwhile, the U-Bahn averages 30.5 km/h, which is on the high side for the 780 m stop spacing, but is without driverless operations, which raised Paris’s average speed on M1 with its 692 m interstation from 24.4 to 30 km/h, at least in theory. The best Berlin can do with tramway modernization is probably around 20 km/h; the best it can do with the U-Bahn is probably 35 km/h, and with the S-Bahn maybe 45 km/h.

And Berlin is already large enough to need the speed. Leipzig is a good example of an Eastern city maintaining modal split with no U-Bahn, just streetcars and a recently-opened S-Bahn tunnel; in 2018, its modal split for work trips was 47% car, 20% public transport, 22% bike, 11% pedestrian (source, p. 13). But most of the walkable urban area of Leipzig is contained within a four kilometer radius of the main train station, a large majority of the city’s population is within six, and by eight one is already in the suburbs. Slow transportation like bikes and trams can work at that scale, to an extent.

In contrast with Leipzig’s smaller scale, I live four km from Berlin Hauptbahnhof and I’m still in Mitte, albeit at the neighborhood’s southeastern corner where Hbf is at the northwestern one. From the most central point, around Friedrichstrasse, both the Zoo and Warschauer Strasse are four km away, and both have high-rise office buildings. At eight km, one finally gets to Westkreuz and ICC-Messe, Steglitz, Lichtenberg, and the former airport grounds of Tegel; Gropiusstadt, a dense housing project built as transit-oriented development on top of U7, is 13 km from Friedrichstrasse by straight line.

The actual average speed, door-to-door, is always lower than the in-vehicle average speed. There’s access time, which is independent of mode, but then wait times are shorter on a high-intensity metro system than on a more diffuse streetcar network, and extra time resulting from the fact that rail lines don’t travel in a straight line from your home to your destination scales with in-vehicle travel time.

Leipzig’s modal split for work trips is 47% car, 20% public transport. Berlin’s is 28% car, 40% public transport. This is partly because Berlin is bigger, but mostly related to the city’s U-Bahn network; closer to Leipzig’s size class, one finds Prague, with a larger per capita urban rail ridership than Berlin or even Paris, with a system based on metro lines fed by streetcars and high-intensity development near the metro.

Berlin’s multiple centers make this worse. The same tram-not-subway NIMBYs who oppose U-Bahn development believe in building polycentric cities, which they moralize as more human-scale than strong city centers with tall buildings (apparently, Asia is inhuman). The problem is that when designing transportation in a polycentric city, we must always assume the worst-case scenario – that is, that an East Berliner would find work near the Zoo or even at ICC and a Spandauer would find it in Friedrichshain. The Spandauer who can only choose jobs and social destinations within streetcar distance for all intents and purposes doesn’t live in Berlin, lacking access to any citywide amenities or job opportunities; not for nothing, Spandauers don’t vote for NIMBYs, but for pro-development politicians like Raed Saleh.

Truly polycentric cities are not public transport-oriented. Upper Silesia is auto-oriented while Warsaw has one of Europe’s strongest surface rail networks. In Germany, the Rhine-Ruhr is an analog: its major cities have strong internal Stadtbahn networks, but most of the region’s population doesn’t live in Cologne or Essen or Dortmund or Dusseldorf, and the standard way to get between two randomly-selected towns there, as in Silesia, is by car.

The reason BUND and other NIMBYs don’t get this is a historical quirk of Germany. The Stadtbahn – by which I mean the subway-surface mode, not the Berlin S-Bahn line – was developed here in the 1960s and 70s, at a time of rapidly rising motorization. The goal of the systems as built in most West German cities was to decongest city center by putting the streetcars underground; then, the streetcar lines that fed into those systems were upgraded and modernized, while those that didn’t were usually closed. The urban New Left thus associates U-Bahn construction with a conspiracy to get trains out of cars’ way, and Green activists have reacted to the BVG plan by saying trams are the best specifically because they interfere with cars.

That belief is, naturally, hogwash. The subway-surface trolley, for one, was invented in turn-of-the-century Boston and Philadelphia, whose centers were so congested by streetcars, horsecars, and pedestrians that it was useful to bury some of the lines even without any cars. The metro tunnel was invented in mid-Victorian London for the same reason: the route from the train terminals on Euston Road to the City of London was so congested with horsecars there was demand for an underground route. Today, there’s less congestion than there was then, but only because the metro has been invented and the city has spread out, the latter trend raising the importance of high average speed, attainable only with full grade separation.

BUND and others say that the alternative to building 170 km of U-Bahn is building 1,700 km of streetcar. Setting aside that streetcars tend to be built in easier places and I suspect a more correct figure than 1,700 is 1,000 km, Berlin can’t really use 1,700 or 1,000 or even 500 km of tramway, because that would be too slow. Saturating every major street within the Ring with surface rail tracks would run into diminishing returns fast; the ridership isn’t there, getting it there requires high-density development that even SPD would find distasteful and not just the Greens, and streetcars with so many intersections with other streetcars would have low average speed. I can see 100-200 km of streetcar, organized in the Parisian fashion of orbital lines feeding the U- and S-Bahn; M13 on Seestrasse is a good example. But the core expansion must be U- and S-Bahn.

Okay, but is the BVG plan good?

Overall, it’s important for Berlin to expand its U- and S-Bahn networks, both by densifying them with new trunk lines and by expanding them outward. However, some of the lines on the BVG map are so out there that the plan is partly just crayon with an official imprint.

Core lines

The way I see it, the proposal includes 2.5 new trunk lines: U3 (again, formerly planned as U10), U4, and the western extension of U5.

Of those, U3 and U5 are unambiguously good. Not for nothing, they’ve been on the drawing board for generations, and many of their difficult crossings have already been built. Jungfernheide, where U5 would connect with U7, was built with such a connection in mind; the plan was and to an extent remains to extend U5 even further, sending it north to what used to be Tegel Airport and is now a planned redevelopment zone as the Urban Tech Republic, but the new BVG proposal gives away the Tegel connection to the U0 ring.

The U3 and U4 trunks in fact are planned along the routes of the two busiest tramways in the city, the M4 and combined M5/M6/M8 respectively (source, p. 7). The U3 plan thus satisfies all criteria of good subway construction – namely, it’s a direct radial line, in fact more direct than U2 (built around and not on Leipziger Strasse because the private streetcar operator objected to public U-Bahn development on its route), replacing a busy surface route. The U4 expansion mostly follows the same criterion; I am less certain about it because where M5 and M6 today serve Alexanderplatz, the proposed route goes along that of M8, which passes through the northern margin of city center, with some employment but also extensive near-center residential development near the Mitte/Gesundbrunnen boundary. I’m still positive on the idea, but I would rate it below the U3 and U5 extensions, and am also uncertain (though not negative) on the idea of connecting it from Hbf south to U4.

The U5 extension parallels no streetcar, but there’s high bus ridership along the route. The all-left coalition was planning to build a streetcar instead of an U-Bahn on this route. If it were just about connecting Jungfernheide to Hbf I’d be more understanding, but if the Urban Tech Republic project is built, then that corner of the region will need fast transportation in multiple directions, on the planning principle outlined above that in a polycentric city the public transport network must assume the worst-case scenario for where people live and work.

Outward extensions

All of Berlin’s nine U-Bahn lines are planned with at least one outward extension. These are a combination of very strong, understandable, questionable, and completely drunk.

The strongest of them all is, naturally, the U8 extension to Märkisches Viertel. In 2021, it was rated the lowest-cost-per-rider among the potential extensions in the city, at 13,160€/weekday trip; the U7 extension to the airport is projected to get 40,000 riders, making it around 22,000€/trip. It has long been to the city’s shame that it has not already completed this extension: Märkisches Viertel is dense, rather like Gropiusstadt on the opposite side of the city except with slightly less nice architecture, and needs a direct U-Bahn connection to the center.

Several other extensions are strong as well – generally ones that have been seriously planned recently. Those include U7 to the airport, the combination of the one-stop expansion of U2 to Pankow Kirche and the northeastern extension of U9 to intersect it and then terminate at the S-Bahn connection at Pankow-Heinersdorf, and U7 to the southwest to not just the depicted connection to U1 at Gatower Strasse but also along the route that the new plan gives to U1 to Heerstrasse.

The U3 expansion to the southwest is intriguing in a different way. It’s a low-cost, low-benefit extension, designed for network completeness: a one-stop extension to the S-Bahn at Mexikoplatz is being planned already, and the BVG plan acknowledges near-future S-Bahn plans adding a new southwestern branch and connect to it at Düppel.

Unfortunately, most of the other radial extensions go in the opposite direction from U3: where U3 acknowledges S-Bahn expansion and aims to connect with it, these other plans are closely parallel to S-Bahn lines that are not at capacity and are about to get even more capacity soon. Spandau, in particular, sees a train every 10 minutes; the Stadtbahn’s core segment has three trains in 10 minutes, with more demand from the east than from the west, so that a train every 10 minutes goes to Spandau, another goes to Potsdam, and a third just turns at Westkreuz since demand from the west is that weak. Creating more demand at Spandau would rebalance this system, whereas building additional U-Bahn service competing with current S-Bahn service (especially the U1 plan, which loses benefit west of the Ring) or with future expansion (such as U2 – compare with the expansion on the 2019 plan) would just waste money.

The southern extensions are a particularly bad case of not working with the S-Bahn but against it. The North-South Tunnel has 18 peak trains per hour, like the Stadtbahn; this compares with 30 on the trunk of the Munich S-Bahn. The ongoing S21 project should divert southeast, but as currently planned, it’s essentially a second North-South Tunnel, just via Hbf and not Friedrichstrasse, hence plans to beef up service to every five minutes to Wannsee and add branches, such as to Düppel. This massive increase in S-Bahn capacity is best served with more connections to the S-Bahn south of the Ring, such as east-west streetcars feeding the train; north-south U-Bahn lines, running more slowly than the S-Bahn, are of limited utility.

Finally, the extension of U1 to the northeast is a solution looking for a problem. U1’s terminus is frustratingly one S-Bahn stop away from the Ring, and perhaps the line could be extended east. But it points north, and is elevated, and past the U5 connection at Frankfurter Tor there’s no real need to serve the areas with another line to Friedrichshain.

The ring

The radial component of the BVG plan includes good and bad ideas. In contrast, the U0 ring is just a bad idea all around. The problem is that it doesn’t really hit any interesting node, except Tegel and Westkreuz, and maybe Steglitz and Pankow; Alt-Mariendorf, for example, is not especially developed. Berlin is polycentric within the Ring, but the importance of destinations outside it is usually low. This should be compared with Grand Paris Express’s M15 ring, passing through La Défense and the Stade de France.

Where circumferential service is more useful is as a feeder to S- and U-Bahn lines connecting people with the center. However, metro lines don’t make good feeders for other metro lines; this is a place where streetcars are genuinely better. The required capacity is low, since the constraints are on the radial connection to the center. The expected trip length is short and a transfer is required either way, which reduces the importance of speed – and at any rate, these outer circumferential routes are likely less congested, which further reduces the speed difference. The differences in cost permit streetcars to hit multiple stations on each line to connect with (though this means two parallel lines, not ten); this is not the same as fantasies about 1,700 km of streetcar in areas where people vote Green.

Is this a good plan?

Well, it’s about half good. Of the 163 km in BVG’s proposal, I think around 68 are good, and the rest, split between the U0 ring and the less useful outer extensions, should be shelved. That’s the crayon element – parts of the plan feel like just drawing extra extensions, by which I mean not just U0 but also the southern extensions.

However, substantial expansion of the U-Bahn is obligatory for Berlin to maintain healthy growth without being choked by cars. NIMBY fantasies about deurbanizing workplace geography would make the city more like Los Angeles than like their ideal of a 15-minute bikable small city center. Berlin needs to reject this; small is not beautiful or sustainable, and the city’s transport network needs to grow bigger and better with a lot more subway construction than is currently planned.

What’s more, the fact that construction costs in Germany are fundamentally the same in real terms as they were 40-50 years ago means that the country should accelerate its infrastructure construction program. Benefits for the most part scale with national GDP per capita – for example, the value of time for commuters, students, and other travelers so scale. Ignoring climate entirely, lines that were marginal in 1980 should be strong today; not ignoring climate, they are must-builds, as is high-density housing to fill all those trains and enable people to live in a desirable city with low car usage.

Amtrak Releases Bad Scranton Rail Study

There’s hot news from Amtrak – no, not that it just announced that it hired Andy Byford to head its high-speed rail program, but that it just released a study recommending New York-Scranton intercity rail. I read the study with very low expectations and it met them. Everything about it is bad: the operating model is bad, the proposed equipment is bad and expensive, the proposed service would be laughed at in peripheral semi-rural parts of France and Italy and simply wouldn’t exist anywhere with good operations.

This topic is best analyzed using the triangle of infrastructure, rolling stock, and schedule, used in Switzerland to maximize the productivity of legacy intercity line, since Swiss cities, like Scranton, are too small to justify a dedicated high-speed rail network as found in France or Japan. Unfortunately, Amtrak’s report falls short on all three. There are glimpses there of trying and failing, which I personally find frustrating; I hope that American transportation planners who wish to imitate European success don’t just read me but also read what I’ve read and proactively reach out to national railways and planners on this side of the Atlantic.

What’s in the study?

The study looks at options for running passenger trains between New York and Scranton. The key piece of infrastructure to be used is the Lackawanna Cutoff, an early-20th century line built to very high standards for the era, where steam trains ran at 160 km/h on the straighter sections and 110 km/h on the curvier ones. The cutoff was subsequently closed, but a project to restore it for commuter service is under construction, to reach outer suburbs near it and eventually go as far as the city’s outermost suburbs around the Delaware Water Gap area.

Amtrak’s plan is to use the cutoff not just for commuter service but also intercity service. The cutoff only goes as far as the Delaware and the New Jersey/Pennsylvania state line, but the historic Lackawanna continued west to Scranton and beyond, albeit on an older, far worse-built alignment. Thus, the speed between the Water Gap and Scranton would be low; with no electrification planned, the projected trip time between New York and Scranton is about three hours.

I harp on the issue of speed because it’s a genuine problem. Google Maps gives me an outbound driving time of 2:06 right now, shortly before 9 pm New York time. The old line, which the cutoff partly bypassed, is curvy, which doesn’t just reduce average speed but also means a greater distance must be traversed on rail: the study quotes the on-rail length as 134 miles, or 216 km, whereas driving is just 195 km. New York is large and congested and has little parking, so the train can afford to be a little slower, but it’s worth it to look for speedups, through electrification and good enough operations so that timetable padding can be minimized (in Switzerland, it’s 7% on top of the technical travel time).


The operations and timetabling in the study are just plain bad. There are two options, both of which include just three trains a day in each direction. There are small French, Italian, and Spanish towns that get service this poor, but I don’t think any of them is as big as Scranton. Clermont-Ferrand, a metro area of the same approximate size as Scranton, gets seven direct trains a day to Paris via intermediate cities similar in size to the Delaware Water Gap region, and these are low-speed intercities, as the area is too far from the high-speed network for even low-speed through-service on TGVs. In Germany and Switzerland, much smaller towns than this can rely on hourly service. I can see a world in which a three-hour train can come every two hours and still succeed, even if hourly service is preferable, but three roundtrips a day is laughable.

Then there is how these three daily trains are timetabled. They take just less than three hours one-way, and are spaced six hours apart, but the timetable is written to require two trainsets rather than just one. Thus, each of the two trainsets is scheduled to make three one-way trips a day, with two turnarounds, one of about an hour and one of about five hours.

Worse, there are still schedule conflicts. The study’s two options differ slightly in arrival times, and are presented as follows:

Based on the results of simulation, Options B and D were carried forward for financial evaluation. Option B has earlier arrival times to both New York and Scranton but may have a commuter train conflict that remains unresolved. Option D has later departure times from New York and Scranton and has no commuter train conflicts identified.

All this work, and all these compromises on speed and equipment utilization, and they’re still programming a schedule conflict in one of the two options. This is inexcusable. And yet, it’s a common problem in American railroading – some of the proposed schedules for Caltrain and high-speed rail operations into Transbay Terminal in San Francisco proposed the same.

Equipment and capital planning

The study does not look at the possibility of extending electrification from its current end in Dover to Scranton. Instead, it proposes a recent American favorite, the dual-mode locomotive. New Jersey Transit has a growing pool of them, the ALP-45DP, bought most recently for $8.8 million each in 2020. Contemporary European medium-speed self-propelled electric trains cost around $2.5 million per US-length car; high-speed trains cost about double – an ongoing ICE 3 Neo procurement is 34 million euros per eight-car set, maybe $6 million per car in mid-2020s prices or $5 million in 2020 prices.

And yet somehow, the six-car dual-mode trains Amtrak is seeking are to cost $70-90 million between the two of them, or $35-45 million per set. Somehow, Amtrak’s rolling stock procurement is so bad that a low-speed train costs more per car than a 320 km/h German train. This interacts poorly with the issue of turnaround times: the timetable as written is almost good enough for operation with a single trainset, and yet Amtrak wants to buy two.

There are so many things that could be done to speed up service for the $266 million in capital costs between the recommended infrastructure program and the rolling stock. This budget by itself should be enough to electrify the 147 km between Dover and Scranton, since the route is single-track and would carry light traffic allowing savings on substations; then the speed improvement should allow easy operations between New York and Scranton every six hours with one trainset costing $15 million and not $35-45 million, or, better yet, every two hours with three sets. Unfortunately, American mainline rail operators are irrationally averse to wiring their lines; the excuses I’ve seen in Boston are unbelievable.

The right project, done wrong

There’s an issue I’d like to revisit at some point, distinguishing planning that chooses the wrong projects to pursue from planning that does the right projects wrong. For example, Second Avenue Subway is the right project – its benefits to passengers are immense – but it has been built poorly in every conceivable way, setting world records for high construction costs. This contrasts with projects that just aren’t good enough and should not have been priorities, like the 7 extension in New York, or many suburban light rail extensions throughout the United States.

The intercity rail proposal to Scranton belongs in the category of right projects done wrong, not in that of wrong projects. Its benefits are significant: putting Scranton three hours away from New York is interesting, and putting it 2.5 hours away with the faster speeds of high-reliability, high-performance electric trains especially so.

As a note of caution, this project is not a slam dunk in the sense of Second Avenue Subway or high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor, since the trip time by train would remain slower than by car. If service is too compromised, it might fail even ignoring construction and equipment costs – and we should not ignore construction or equipment costs. But New York is a large city with difficult car access. There’s a range of different trips that the line to Scranton could unlock, including intercity trips, commuter trips for people who work from home most of the week but need to occasionally show up at the office, and leisure trips to the Delaware Water Gap area.

Unfortunately, the project as proposed manages to be both too expensive and too compromised to succeed. It’s not possible for any public transportation service to succeed when the gap between departures is twice as long as the one-way trip time; people can drive, or, if they’re car-free New Yorkers, avoid the trip and go vacation in more accessible areas. And the sort of planning that assumes the schedule has conflicts and the dispatchers can figure it out on the fly is unacceptable.

There’s a reason planning in Northern Europe has converged on the hourly, or at worst two-hourly, frequency as the basis of regional and intercity timetabling: passengers who can afford cars need the flexibility of frequency to be enticed to take the train. With this base frequency and all associated planning tools, this region, led by Switzerland, has the highest ridership in the world that I know of on trains that are not high-speed and do not connect pairs of large cities, and its success is slowly exported elsewhere in Europe, if not as fast or completely as it should be. It’s possible to get away without doing the work if one builds a TGV-style network, where the frequency is high because Paris and Lyon are large cities and therefore frequency is naturally high even without trying hard. It’s not possible to succeed on a city pair like New York-Scranton without this work, and until Amtrak does it, the correct alternative for this study is not to build the line at all.

No, the Anglosphere isn’t Especially NIMBY

There’s an article going around social media on Financial Times, by John Burn-Murdoch, making the case that slow housing growth, with consequent rises in rents, is a pan-Anglosphere phenomenon. A non-paywalled summary can be found on New York Magazine by Eric Levitz, reproducing the FT graphs showing changes in the number of housing units per capita in various developed countries, and making some general comments about Anglo culture. The problem with this analysis is that it’s completely false. As someone who did once err in an analysis of the Anglo problem of high construction costs – a problem that Britain did not have until the 1990s and Canada and Australia until the 2000s or even 2010s – let me throw some cold water on this Anglo NIMBY theory.

Housing construction rates

Housing construction rates per capita show no generic Anglosphere effect. The highest rates are in Austria, the Nordic countries and Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Here are the numbers as far as I’ve been able to find, all expressed in dwelling completions per 1,000 people in 2021:

Australia (starts): 9
Austria: 7.9
New Zealand: 6.9
Finland: 6.8
Denmark: 6.1
Canada: 5.8
Norway: 5.3
Switzerland: 5.2
Sweden: 5
Belgium: 4.9
France (starts): 4.7
Netherlands: 4.1
Ireland: 4.1
US: 4
Germany: 3.5
UK: 3
Portugal: 2.2
Spain: 1.7
Italy: 1.5

The FT article’s data mostly ends in 2020, whereas the above list is from 2021. But looking at earlier years doesn’t change much. The annual average in 2016-20, relative to 2018 and not 2021 population, was 8.2 in Australia, 5.8 in New Zealand, and 5.2 in Canada – slightly lower per capita than in 2021, and yet higher than in all comparison countries. In those other comparison countries the numbers are usually fairly stable as well going back to the mid-2010s recovery from the Great Recession; the only notable changes are in Spain, Portugal and Denmark, which saw sharp rises in construction from the mid-2010s (in Spain’s case, still a far cry from pre-Great Recession rates).

Some trends can be discerned. Southern Europe has low construction rates, owing to the poor state of its economy – but note that Europe’s top builder, Finland, was hit hard by the Great Recession, when coincidentally the smartphone revolution devastated Nokia, and took until last year to recover to its pre-recession GDP per capita. Germany builds the least in Northern Europe; Austria builds the most, for which difference I have no explanation. However, there is no trend separating the Anglosphere into its own group. The US and UK build less than most countries they’re like to be compared with, but those comparison countries include their Anglo peers.

So why does Burn-Murdoch think there’s an Anglo trend here?

FT’s statistics

Burn-Murdoch uses a different statistic from construction rates per capita. He instead looks at the rate of change in the overall number of dwellings per capita in the above countries I listed, minus Austria and Switzerland. The Anglo countries have stagnated at 400-450 dwellings per 1,000 people since the 1980s; the non-Anglo European countries have kept developing housing and are now in the 500-550 range.

The problem is that housing per capita is the wrong measure to use. It’s influenced by both housing construction rates and population growth, the latter coming from birthrates and immigration. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are all notable for their high immigration rates, and therefore Canada and Australia have seen slow rises in dwellings per capita and New Zealand has even seen decreases. The same is true of Sweden and Norway, which build a fair amount of housing but are not seeing a large increase in the dwelling stock per capita, because people keep coming in to fill these new apartments.

Instead, on FT’s graphic of growth in housing per capita in the last 10 years, the standouts are France, Portugal, Italy, and Finland. Finland indeed builds a lot of housing, but its issue is that its weak economy in the last 15 years has not been able to attract as many immigrants as Sweden and Norway. Italy and Portugal are literally the two lowest per capita builders on this list, and have negative population growth thanks to weak economies and very low birthrates, so their per capita housing stock looks like it’s doing well.

Where is the housing built?

A real distinction, motivating YIMBY movements even in fast builders like Canada, is where the housing is built. This is an important question at both the national level and the regional level. At the national level, one should expect housing to be built where there is the most demand, typically in the richest city regions. At the regional level, one should likewise expect housing to be built in the areas with the best access to work, which can be infill near city center, or new areas opened by the construction of urban rail lines.

The links on the list above often include subnational breakdowns that one can peruse. Thus, for example, in Norway, we find that Oslo built less housing per capita than the rest of the country in 2021, only 3.7/1,000 people, but Viken, a gerrymandered county collecting Oslo’s suburbs, built more, 7.5/1,000, averaging to 6.2 regionwide. France is less certain, since my regional data is approvals and not starts or completions. In Ile-de-France in 2021, the approval rate for new dwellings was 5.9/1,000 people, with Paris itself at a pitiful 1.2, and same source gives the national rate as 7/1,000. But going a few years back, the French rate is still around 5/1,000, whereas the Francilien one is about 7/1,000 (still with little construction in the city).

A uniquely American misfeature is that while the overall rate of housing construction is below average for a growing country rather than terrible, the interregional pattern of where housing is built is awful. The richest regions of the United States don’t build very much, with the exception of Seattle. New York, the largest by far of these regions, builds well below the national average. Thus, while in stagnant Italy, Spain, and Portugal (or for that matter Japan) the rich main cities are still growing, in the United States the richest city regions have below-average population growth, which is seen at every congressional reapportionment once per decade.

But even this is not an Anglo feature: there’s a detailed local breakdown for England, and while London does build less than the rest of the country, it’s not by a large margin, about 2.5/1,000 people averaged over the last few years versus 3 overall. And in Canada, there’s a detailed local breakdown by metro area and within each such region, and there we see 2021 completion rates of 7.3/1,000 in Toronto, 4.8/1,000 in Toronto’s suburbs, 7/1,000 in Calgary, 9.1/1,000 in Edmonton, and 9.5/1,000 in Metro Vancouver (of which 9.9/1,000 were in Vancouver proper – this isn’t sprawl).

To temper my praise for Vancouver and its high growth rates, I should specify that while Canada is building housing in decent if not eye-popping quantities, in the regions where it’s most needed, it’s not building housing in the neighborhoods where it’s most needed. Metro Vancouver builds transit-oriented development on SkyTrain but not in its richest places: the West Side of the city remains strongly NIMBY, despite its excellent location between city center and UBC, forcing students into hour-long commutes; an indigenous West Side housing project built without needing to consult local NIMBYs is deeply controversial among those same NIMBYs.

That said, “housing is not built in rich urban neighborhoods” is not a national-scale statistic, nor a particularly Anglo one (very little housing is built in Paris proper). So why is it so appealing to posit NIMBYism as a uniquely Anglo problem?

The false appeal of deep roots

Middlebrow writers love talking about deep roots – that is, processes that are said to be part of a shared cultural heritage that stretches a long way back, and is therefore by implication hard to impossible to change through policy. An American bestselling book argued that the South’s political institutions come from its unique history of Scottish rather than English settlement (and not from, say, slavery) – institutions that are nowhere in sight in modern Scotland. Often (but not always!), it’s a thin veneer for racism, normalizing the idea that non-Westerners could never perform on a par; until the growth of the Asian Tigers was impossible to ignore, there was a common belief in the West that Confucianism was a deeply-rooted obstacle to growth, which now has flipped to an argument that it’s a deeply-rooted accelerator of growth.

In the case of housing, it’s therefore important to note that even in the US and UK, there’s no longstanding pattern of NIMBYism beyond what’s found in every non-city-state. The US had rapid urban growth around the turn of the century, which romantics found offensive – but that’s little different from the concurrent urbanization of Germany. Romantic and nationalistic interests fought against this urban growth throughout this era, from the 1870s to World War Two. Japan and South Korea today are famous in YIMBY circles for their high capital-region housing growth rates, but neither country is happy with its capital-centricity, and South Korea is even relocating capital functions to a new city in the far suburbs of Seoul.

There’s a real longstanding difference between London and comparable Continental cities like Paris and Berlin, in that London’s housing typology, the rowhouse, is much less dense than the mid-rise apartment blocks of the Continent. This goes back to early industrialization, when Paris, Berlin, and other Continental cities were walled for tax purposes and British cities were not. Thus, Britain evolved a culture of “gentlemen don’t live on shelves” whereas the French and German urban middle classes were happy with mid-rise apartments.

However, New York behaves in exactly the same way as Continental cities: there were historic impediments to urban sprawl coming from the width of the Hudson and East Rivers, leading to a mid-rise urban form and the now-familiar pattern in which middle-class city residents live in a single-story apartment in a multistory building (British dwellings were multistory even for the working class). And New York’s elite hated the city, fleeing to segregated suburbs more than a 100 years ago far away from Jewish and Catholic immigrants, and inventing modern zoning to keep Jews out of Fifth Avenue department stores. The city is fiercely NIMBY today, building little housing by the standards of Berlin or of Paris with its inner suburbs.

Very little of the problem of NIMBYism in either Britain or the US – or for that matter Germany – is especially deeply rooted. The US has an unusual problem with democratic deficit at the local level, which YIMBYs seek to resolve through disempowering local actors and creating national networks that push for more pro-development policy; they are starting to see some success in California. New Zealand, without federalism, imitated some of the California YIMBYs’ proposals and is seeing a wave of new construction and falling rents in parts of the country. Germany is the NIMBYest place in Northern Europe, but high rents are understood as a problem and so SPD has, in its usual slow pace, sought to embrace YIMBYism, Olaf Scholz pledging to increase the housing construction rate here from 250,000 units a year (3/1,000) to 400,000 (4.8/1,000) and the party’s next generation within Jusos openly calling themselves YIMBYs. The UK has a parliamentary casework system that lets petty actors constrain the otherwise unitary state, but not when the state makes something a priority, and so Labour runs on increasing housing production.

In fact, in the US, UK, and Germany, we’re even seeing the same political pattern emerge: in response to slow housing production and high rents, national and nationally-looking center-left forces are politicizing the issue in order to flush out urban NIMBYs, who vote center-left as well but are locally rather than nationally rooted and so have opinions out of touch with those of the median voter or party supporter. Even there, we see a difference: the UK also has center-right thinktanks pushing for the same on neoliberal grounds, and this is also seen in Canada, whereas CSU is proudly NIMBY and the Republicans are, from their origin of embracing housing construction in Texas, slowly trending that way too.

None of this is deeply-rooted or Anglo. Sometimes, social trend evolve in parallel in multiple countries. It’s easy to pattern-match this to Anglo or not; I do this for infrastructure construction costs and have to constantly remind people that until the 1990s, London built urban rail tunnels for the same per-km cost as Milan and Rome, and Canadian cities only lost their ability to build efficiently 10-20 years ago. The same is true of housing: first of all, there’s no Anglo-wide pattern at all, the UK and US differing profoundly from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and second of all, their shared characteristics are also shared with Germany.

New York Can’t Build, LaGuardia Rail Edition

When Andrew Cuomo was compelled to resign, there was a lot of hope that the state would reset and finally govern itself well. The effusive language I was using at the time, in 2021 and early 2022, was shared by local advocates for public transportation and other aspects of governance. A year later, Governor Hochul has proven herself to be not much more competent than Cuomo, differing mainly in that she is not a violent sex criminal.

Case in point: the recent reporting that plans for rail to LaGuardia Airport are canceled, and the option selected for future development is just buses, makes it clear that New York can’t build. It’s an interesting case in which the decision, while bad, is still less bad than the justification for it. I think an elevated extension of the subway to LaGuardia is a neat project, but only at a normal cost, which is on the order of maybe $700 million for a 4.7 km extension, or let’s say $1 billion if it’s mostly underground. At New York costs, it’s fine to skip this. What’s not fine is slapping a $7 billion pricetag on such an endeavor.

LaGuardia rail alignments

On my usual base map of a subway system with some lines swapped around to make the system more coherent but no new construction, here are the various rail alignments to the airport:

A full-size image can be found here. All alternatives are depicted as dashed lines; the subway extension is depicted in yellow in the same color as the Astoria Line, and would be elevated until it hit airport grounds, while the other two options, depicted as thinner black lines, are people movers or air trains. The air train option going east of airport grounds was Cuomo’s personal project and, since it went the wrong way, away from Manhattan, it was widely unpopular among anyone who did not work for Cuomo and was for all intents and purposes dead shortly after Hochul took office.

The issue of construction costs

Here’s what the above-linked New York Times article says about the rail alignments.

The panel’s three members — Janette Sadik-Khan, Mike Brown and Phillip A. Washington — said in a statement that they were unanimous in recommending that instead of building an AirTrain or extending a subway line to the airport, the Port Authority and the transportation authority should enhance existing Q70 bus service to the airport and add a dedicated shuttle between La Guardia and the last stop on the N/W subway line in Astoria.

The panel agreed that extending the subway to provide a “one-seat ride” from Midtown was “the optimal way to achieve the best mass transportation connection.” But they added that the engineers that reviewed the options could not find a viable way to build a subway extension to the cramped airport, which is hemmed in by the Grand Central Parkway and the East River.

Even if a way could be found to extend the subway that would not interfere with flight operations at La Guardia, the analysis concluded, it would take at least 12 years and cost as much as $7 billion to build.

The panel realized that the best option is an extension of the subway. Such an extension would be about 4.7 km long and around one third underground, or potentially around 5 km and entirely above-ground if for some reason tunneling under airport grounds were cost-prohibitive. This does not cost $7 billion, not even in New York. We know this, because Second Avenue Subway phase 1 was, in today’s money, around $2.2 billion per km, and phase 2 is perhaps a little more. There are standard subway : elevated cost ratios out there; the ones that emerge from our database tend to be toward the higher end perhaps, but still consistent with a ratio of about 2.5.

Overall, this is in theory pretty close to $7 billion for a one-third underground extension from Astoria to the airport. But in practice, the tunneling environment in question is massively easier than both phases of Second Avenue Subway – there’s plenty of space for cut-and-cover boxes in front of the terminal, a more controllable utilities environment, and not much development in the way of the elevated sections, which are mostly in an industrial zone to be redeveloped.

Does New York want to build?

New York can’t build. But to a significant extent, New York doesn’t even want to build. The report loves finding excuses why it’s not possible: they are squeamish about tunneling under the runways, they are worried an above-ground option would take lanes from the Grand Central Parkway (which a rail link would substitute for at higher capacity), they are worried about federal waivers.

In truth, in a constrained city, everything is under a waiver. In comments years ago, Richard Mlynarik pointed out that the desirable standard for railroad turnouts is that they should be straight – that is, the straight path should be on straight track, while the speed-restricted diverging path should curve away. But in practice, German train stations are full of curved turnouts, on which both paths are on a curve, because in a constrained urban zone it’s not possible to realize the desired standard, and a limit value is required. The same is true of any other engineering standard for a railroad, such as curve radii.

The issue of waivers is not limited to engineering or to rail. Roads are supposed to follow design standards, but land-constrained urban motorways are routinely on waivers. Even matters of safety can be grandfathered occasionally on a case-by-case basis. Financial and social standards are waived so often for urban megaprojects that it’s completely normal to decide them on a case-by-case basis; the United States doesn’t even have formal benefit-cost analyses the way Europe does.

And I’ve seen how American agencies are reluctant to even ask for waivers for things that politicians don’t really care about. Richard again brings up the example of platform heights on the San Francisco Peninsula: Caltrain rebuilt all platforms to a standard that didn’t have any level boarding, on the grounds that high platforms would interfere with oversize freight, which does not run on the line, and which the relevant state regulator, CPUC, indicated that they’d approve a waiver from if only the railroad asked. I have just seen an example of a plan to upgrade some stations in the Northeast that is running into trouble because the chosen construction material isn’t made in the United States, and even though “there’s no suitable made in America alternative” is legal grounds for a waiver from Buy America rules, the agency doesn’t so far seem interested in asking.

In general, New York can’t build. But in this case, it seems uninterested in even trying.

The bus alternative

Instead of a rail link, the plan now is to improve bus service. Here’s the New York Times story again:

The estimated $500 million in capital spending would also go toward creating dedicated bus lanes along 31st Street and 19th Avenue in Queens and making the Astoria-Ditmars Blvd. station on the N and W lines accessible to people with disabilities, the Port Authority said. Some of that money could also be spent to create a mile-long lane exclusive to buses on the northbound Brooklyn-Queens Expressway between Northern Boulevard and Astoria Boulevard, the Port Authority said.

Among the criticisms of the AirTrain plan was its indirect route. Arriving passengers bound for Manhattan would have had to travel in the opposite direction to catch a subway or L.I.R.R. train at Willets Point. The Port Authority chose that route, alongside the parkway, to minimize the need to acquire private property. Community groups were also concerned about the impact on property values in the neighborhoods near La Guardia in northern Queens.

To be very clear, it does not cost $500 million to make a station wheelchair-accessible. In New York, the average cost is around $70 million in 2021 dollars, with extensive contingency, planned by people who’d rather promise 70 and deliver 65 than promise 10 and deliver 12. In Madrid, the cost is around 10 million euros per station, with four elevators (the required minimum is three), and in Milan, shallow three-elevator station retrofits are around 2 million per station. Transfer stations cost more, proportionately to the number of lines served, but Astoria-Ditmars is not a transfer station and has no such excuse. So where is the other $430 million going?

The answer cannot just be bus lanes on 31st Street (on which the Astoria Line runs) or 19th Avenue (the industrial road the indicated extension on the map would run on). Bus lanes do not cost $430 million at this scale. They don’t normally cost anything – red paint and “bus only” markings are a rounding error, and bus shelter is $80,000 per stop with Californian cost control (to put things in perspective, I heard a $10,000-15,000 quote, in 2020 dollars, from a smaller American city).

The Issue of Curiosity

We’ve been talking to a lot of Americans in positions of power when it comes to transportation investment about our cost reports, and usually the conversations go well, but there’s one issue that keeps irking me. They ask good questions about corner cases, about some specific American problems (which we do want to revisit soon), about our prognosis for the future. But they don’t usually express curiosity about the non-American cases – and even journalists who write investigative pieces sometimes insist on only using London and Paris as proper comparanda for New York. This is not everyone, and I do know of some civil servants who are interested and have made sure to read the Italy, Stockholm or Istanbul cases. But it is a large majority of Americans we talk to, including ones who are clearly interested in doing better – even they think acquiring fluency in how things work in low-cost countries is irrelevant and are far more passionate about all the barely relevant groups that can block change than about how Stockholm, Milan, and other such cities build cost-effective infrastructure.

Incuriosity and consultants

I recently saw a transit manager in North America who I’d previously had tepidly positive opinion of tell me, with perfect confidence, that “The standard approach to construction in most of Europe outside Russia is design-build.”

To be very clear, this is bunk. Design-build is not used in Southern Europe or in the German-speaking world. Ant6n has only been able to find one such contract in Germany, for the signaling of Stuttgart 21. There’s more use of design-build in France, the Low Countries, and the Nordic countries, and the tendency is toward doing more of it, but,

  • The process of privatization of the state is in its infancy in these countries – for example, Nya Tunnelbanan is mostly procured as build contracts
  • Costs in the Nordic countries are rising rapidly, albeit from very low levels, and this also seems to be happening in France – this minority of Europe that uses design-build (which, again, correlates with other elements of state privatization) isn’t seeing good results
  • As a consequence of the above two points, the current and former civil servants in those countries that I’ve spoken with are familiar with the more traditional system of project delivery and don’t generally think it is inferior to alternative systems that reduce the role of the state and increase that of private consultants, and thus they are familiar with how to do traditional project delivery well
  • Even with the ongoing privatization of the Nordic and French states, more institutional knowledge is retained in the public sector, to ensure it can supervise the consultants, in contrast with the American and British models, where the consultants are supervised by other consultants and the in-house public-sector employees lack the technical knowledge to do proper oversight

So why did this person think design-build is standard, where the majority of Western Europe by population does not use it?

The answer is incuriosity. This person is a generalist Anglo consultant. What they know of Europe is what Anglo consultants know. They never stopped to think if perhaps places that build infrastructure cost-effectively publicly would ever have any reason to be legible to international English-speaking consultancies. Why would they? Infrastructure construction is almost entirely at the level of countries, not the European Union; the weakness of cross-border rail planning is so notable that I know a green activist devoted specifically to that issue. If you’re building in and for Germany, you have no real reason to publish in English trade journals or interact with British or American consultants. Another consultant that Eric and I spoke with had the insight to point out, when we asked about a comparison of High Speed 2 with the TGV, that their company gets no work in France since France does it in-house, but the transit manager who shall remain unnamed did not.

The good ones

I am sad to say that, for the most part, the mark of a good American transit manager, official, or regulator isn’t that they display real willingness to learn. Too few do. Rather, the mark is that they don’t say obviously false things with perfect confidence; they recognize their limits.

This is frustrating, because many of these people genuinely want to make things better – and at the federal level this even includes some political appointees rather than career civil servants. The typical cursus honorum for federal political appointees involves long stints doing policy analysis, usually in or near the topic they are appointed to, or running state- or city-level agencies; I criticize some of them for having failed in their previous jobs, but that’s not the same as the problem of a generalist overclass that jumps between entirely different fields and has no ability to properly oversee whichever field whose practitioners have had the misfortune to be subjected to its control.

The good ones ask interesting questions. Some are easy to answer, others are genuine challenges that require us to think about our approach more carefully. And yet, three things bother me.

They are not technical

Traditional American business culture looks down on technical experts, treating them as people who will forever work for a generalist manager – and this is a culture that treats working for someone else as a mark of inferiority.

The most innovative American industries don’t do this – software-tech and biotech both expect workers to be technical, and the line workers do not often respect managers who are technically illiterate; tech and biotech entrepreneurs likewise have a technical background (Mark Zuckerberg coded Facebook’s prototype, Noubar Afeyan is a biochemical engineering Ph.D., etc.), and Elon Musk, one of the less technical ones, still has a physics degree, wrote code in the 1990s, and goes to great pain to affect being part of the culture of tech workers.

However, the government at all levels does do this. The overclass comprises lawyers and public policy grads; engineers, architects, and planners can be trusted civil servants but are expected to lower their gaze in the presence of an elite lawyer (and one such lawyer told us, again with perfect confidence, something that not only was wrong, but was wrong about American law in their field).

The upshot is that even the good ones don’t ask technical questions. I don’t remember having had to answer questions from even the most curious American officials about grouting, about egress capacity, about ventilation, about construction techniques. It’s rare to even see economic questions about managing public-sector risk, about the required size of an in-house construction agency, about how one implements traditional project delivery effectively; we volunteer some numbers but I don’t remember being asked “how many engineers does RATP employ?” (the answer is around 1,200 across all fields combined).

They nudge and do not do

The American federal government is uncomfortable with the notion of doing things directly. One is supposed to make general rules and nudge others. Even regulations take a nudge form – often instead of direct compulsion (say, installing a safety system), the federal government would nudge private actors by threatening to withhold funds or other support if they don’t do it.

One consequence is that federal agencies don’t really try to learn how to do things themselves. I caution that one official who I spoke with and have a good impression of reacted well when I pointed out how, in Sweden, there’s mobility among the civil servants between state and county governments, so some of the people who built Citybanan working for the Swedish state are now building Nya Tunnelbanan for Stockholm County. This official said they were working on a program that doesn’t quite do this but does something similar, which stands to be successful if done well; I don’t know if it will be done well but there was not enough time in that conversation to get enough detail and I reserve judgment even on the aspects I am more pessimistic about until I know more. So it’s possible that this criticism I have of the federal government is going to do away in the next few years, and if so, I do expect better federal infrastructure investment, perhaps for intercity rail on the Northeast Corridor, which is a federal-led program.

This is not purely an American problem. The EU has the same problem, which is related to the poor state of cross-border rail; even when the European public wants more integration (see, for example, polling on an EU army), eurocrats respond with soporific abstraction, not out of political fear of backlash, but because none of them can actually do anything more than a light nudge – the doers remain at the member state level. The difference between us and the US is that member states like Germany do have some doers around, whereas New York can’t do anything.

They still only look inward

This is the part that I am most worried about in the future. I’ve had to take interesting questions about policy from people who, again, I think well of – if I didn’t, I’d speak of them the way I do of the official in the section on consultants above.

And then none of these questions is about, say, how Italy has set up its bureaucracy for protection of monuments, ensuring there is no risk to millennia-old Roman ruins under the aegis of professional archeologists and historians rather than third-party lawsuits. There’s ample interest among Americans in how to do better, reaching the highest levels among the people I’ve directly talked to, but so far it’s based entirely on internal thinking. Foreign examples can inform them but are not to be investigated as closely. I do know of some officials who’ve read the non-American reports we’ve put out, but it’s not common even among the good ones.

The problem, I think, is twofold. First, Americans are used to being in charge in their interactions with foreigners, and Western Europeans are about the least impressed people in the world by American pride. Why look up to a country that we know has worse public transportation and is, on net, probably about comparable in overall living standards? (Yes, Americans, I am aware that your SUVs are larger.) The average Western European doesn’t think about the United States much and when they do they’re not awed, so the American who asks questions puts themselves in an inferior position, and this is hard to handle.

The second issue is that the public sector draws from within the country’s borders, in almost all cases. The pipelines into working for Deutsche Bahn are completely different from those into working for any American outfit. This means that an official in a country has weak ties to other countries. This, again, is also a European problem – there’s too little knowledge of France in Germany and vice versa, too little curiosity about Southern Europe in higher-cost Northern Europe, and too little curiosity about Asia with disastrous results. But the European railroads have exchange programs among them and even with Japanese railroads, and Americans don’t participate in either; the insularity I see in Germany when I mention the capabilities of high-speed trains in France and Japan is considerably less bad than what I see among the worst Americans and Britons.

We Gave a Talk About Our Construction Costs Report

Here are the slides; they are not in Beamer format but in Google Slides. They’re largely a summary of the New York report with analysis informed by the overview with more direct comparisons with other cities, and for example the recommendation section won’t tell you anything you didn’t know if you’ve read the overview or heard me talk about this issue before.

But I want to highlight one addition: the cost history of New York, on slides 5-8. Costs were elevated even in the 1930s; the references are JRTR for New York, Pascal Désabres for Paris, and Tube History for London. Midcentury New York costs are sourced to New York Magazine, with a Wikipedia article providing some references that match those numbers. The excessive costs of works in the 1930s ensured that the budget would not be sufficient to build desirable lines like Second Avenue Subway, an extension of the Nostrand Avenue Line to Sheepshead Bay, and a line under Utica; those costs kept growing into the 1950s and 60s, and the total amount of money at hand for Second Avenue Subway in the 1950s, about a fifth of the intended budget, would have built the entire line at the then-current costs of Milan or Stockholm. At even semi-reasonable costs, the budget identified for Second Avenue Subway in the late 1990s would have built the entire line, where instead it was cut into four phases with the money only sufficient to build the first.

The overall presentation was a bit stressful for me, especially at the beginning; the talk started at 3 in the afternoon and we finished the slide deck around 2:45. It was better afterward. One caution is that while the talk was recorded, it was a cellphone recording from the back, so Elif and I were not easy to hear. Another is that there were people I was hoping to talk to after the presentation that I didn’t get to; the attendance was on the order of 80 people, and we needed the full two hours we had the room booked for the presentation and Q&A afterward.

A number of people asked us if anything was changing. Eric seems more optimistic that people are listening. I’m less so; we’re talking to some people at government agencies but I can’t tell how important they are (I do not speak Washingtonian and cannot tell from the name and title of someone I talk to where they are on the spectrum of “someone who follows me on social media” to “Pete Buttigieg’s closest confidant”). At the MTA, things are not changing for the better; union head John Samuelsen is under the impression that French employers don’t have to pay pensions, MTA Construction and Development head Jamie Torres-Springer thinks the Second Avenue Subway stations have higher ridership than the stations of Citybanan, MTA head Janno Lieber is in full denial mode, and so on. The excuses might be getting more sophisticated, but, fundamentally, an American manager whose gut reaction to any kind of global benchmarking is to assert with perfect confidence that European employers don’t have to pay benefits needs to be fired and retrained, not given advice on how to come up with more plausibly-sounding excuses. Lieber and Torres-Springer are worth negative billions of dollars to the city and the state while they remain employed.

While some things are improving, the procurement problems are getting worse due to the growing privatization of the state, and, fundamentally, none of those people is willing to admit their mistake. There are some ongoing experiments in New York with itemized costs, but only as part of a PPP privatization, and only as pilots, where the place where itemizing costs and technical scoring are the most helpful is in the biggest and most complex contracts. Government-by-pilot doesn’t work any more than any of the other gimmicks that dimwitted political appointees use to avoid taking responsibility for decisions.

I’m Giving a Talk in New York on 3/3

We’re launching the Transit Costs Project conclusion and New York case this Friday at 3 pm. Unlike the October panel, this will not be moderated – Eric, Elif, and I will just talk about our report and take questions from the audience. While the talk will almost certainly be recorded, if you’re in the area you should still come in-person in order to be able to ask questions and interact.

As in our October event, the location is room 1201 of 370 Jay Street in Brooklyn, right on top of the subway stop that carries its name with A/C, F, and R service, and not far from other Downtown Brooklyn stops like Borough Hall on the 2/3/4/5, DeKalb Avenue on the B/Q, and Hoyt-Schermerhorn on the G. The building has access control so please tell us your name and email on this RSVP form so that security will know you can get in. If you crash the event you may still be allowed in but I won’t know until the day of, so do RSVP if you think you may attend; technically the room is capped at 180 people, around half seated, but I don’t expect to fill to even seated capacity, so don’t worry about taking someone else’s place.

The Issue of Consultants

Henry Grabar at Slate just wrote about our construction costs report. He centers the issue of consultants; the article is called Consultants Gone Wild, and he includes quotes from Eric and from our report about the contrast between in-house capacity and the privatization of the state to private engineering firms. I was asked for a followup, since the exact wording of our synthesis does not explicitly say “consultants” very much. And yet, Henry is broadly correct; the overuse of consultants is a problem, and should be restrained in most cases in favor of a professional civil service, unencumbered by politicization or an overclass of political appointees.

The formula for high New York construction costs

Based on around 100 interviews and many diagrams and reports, we managed to decompose the New York construction cost premium over low-cost countries, which is about a full order of magnitude, into the following items:

  • The stations are overbuilt by a factor of 3, which contributes an overall factor of 2 cost premium
  • The systems are not standardized, which contributes a factor of about 2.3 cost premium for the systems and 1.35 overall
  • Labor costs (including supervisors and other white-collar workers) are 50% of hard costs in New York where they should be about 25%, contributing a factor of 3 premium on labor costs and 1.5 overall
  • Procurement problems including the privatization of risk, change order risk, agency micromanagement of contractors, general red tape, and profit stemming from too little competition double overall costs
  • Soft costs are depending on what one counts either 21% on top of hard costs where they should be 7%, or 46% where they should be 20%

Where are the consultants?

On its face, nothing in the above formula says “consultants.” At most, the soft costs can be attributed to them – but the comparison cases involve some use of external consultants as well, they just charge 7-8% of the hard costs in fees rather than 21%. So what gives?

So, first of all, the difference between 21% and 7% is significant. It’s in fact more significant than 1.21/1.07, because the 21% is on top of an inflated base cost, some of whose items (namely, labor) don’t create more work for the consultants, so in effect some of the labor premium should be thought of as an extra consultant premium that is allocated to the hard costs.

The reason for this difference is poor oversight capability. In most cases, some use of external consultants is unavoidable: in Spain, famous in the comparative cost community for its low costs, ADIF projects employ consultants, who charge 5% extra, and then a small force account adds a few percent on top of that. The difference is that competent managers can competently supervise consultants. The use of consultants in Italy, France, Spain, Turkey, and Sweden coexists with strong internal capacity by agencies led by technocrats and professionals.

In contrast, the American (and British) way is to privatize the state to consultants root and stem. The agency managers are generalists who look down on technical people and treat the consultants as an infinite resource, who they can ask to study everything. Eric is quoted as saying “They studied everything” of Second Avenue Subway: every conceivable possibility was studied just in case, and there was nobody in charge who knew enough about planning or engineering to prune the search tree and save some money. In effect, what we’re seeing is unusually low office productivity, in tandem with low blue-collar laborer productivity in tunneling.

The connection with procurement

Okay, so the soft cost factor is still only about 1.2, which is nowhere near enough to explain an order of magnitude’s worth of cost difference.

However, procurement is another factor of 2, and has much of the same cause. The same technically illiterate overclass (Janno Lieber, Jamie Torres-Springer, etc.) that treats consultants as an infinite resource also abuses contractors with red tape. This overclass leashes the technical experts – the planners, engineers, even the economists who study these issues and conclude transparent itemization produces lower final costs – and won’t let them make quick decisions about contracts. This leads to the red tape and micromanagement that the contractors, consultants, and technical agency staff constantly complain about.

Because this overclass can’t adjudicate geotechnical disputes and doesn’t trust those who can, it prefers mechanisms that privatize risk to huge design-build contracts, a system that we call the globalized system in the synthesis and the Sweden report and has led to a large increase in absolute costs wherever it was tried (which is approximately every place legible to the Anglo-American overclass, which is unemployable in a place like Germany or Italy or France, where the pipeline to managerial jobs is local). Then, when costs rise, those political appointees react by including a large contingency factor, at times rising to 40-50%, nearly all of which will be spent.

Bring back the bureaucrats

I hesitate to say back because the United States never really had an apolitical civil service; in the 1950s already it had thousands of political appointees forming an overclass. But the rest of the Anglosphere only lost its mind in the last generation, in my lifetime. I’m encouraged especially by some things I’m hearing in the United Kingdom, which seems interested in moving on, perhaps because it was the first place to adopt the globalized system, perhaps because it has less cultural cringe than Canada or Australia (if anything, Britain’s problem is the opposite: excessive pride), perhaps because it is more proximate to Continental Europe with its lower construction costs.

In such environments, what’s needed isn’t to literally get rid of consultants. But the role of consultants must shrink. The state must hire a large in-house team, sized based on the magnitude of expected projects, and retain the team in the long run to enable public-sector learning. This team can use consultants but must be able to do the work itself if needed, and should be technical enough to know how to answer questions about the scope of work and avoid both micromanagement and underspecification.

Ironically, the consultants themselves prefer it that way. Yes, they get more money out of a project run as poorly as American procurement is than out of one run as well as in our non-Anglo comparison cases. But they also have to do more work and take more risk, and the projects rarely actually end and provide a sense of closure. They charge more money precisely because it’s such bad work, and governments should take heed and build in-house state capacity to make sure the oversight can be smoother and more technical.

The RENFE Scandal and Responsibility

I’ve been repeatedly asked about a RENFE scandal about its rolling stock purchase. The company ordered trains too big for its rolling stock, and this has been amplified to a scandal that is said to be “incompetence beyond imagination” leading to several high-level resignations, including that of the ministry of transport’s chief civil servant, former ADIF head Isabel Pardo de Vera Posada. In reality, this is a real scandal but not a monumental one, and Pardo de Vera is not at fault; what it does show is both a culture of responsibility and a degree of political deflection.

What is the scandal?

RENFE, the state-owned Spanish rail operating firm, ordered regional trains for service in Asturias and Cantabria on a meter-gauge mountain railway with many narrow tunnels of nonstandard sizes. RENFE did not properly spec out the loading gauge, which vendor CAF noticed in 2021, shortly after the order was tendered but before manufacturing began; thereafter, both tried fixing the error, which has not led to any increase in cost, but has led to a delay in the entry of the under-construction equipment into service from 2024 to 2026.

The head of the regional government of Cantabria, Miguel Ángel Revilla Roiz, demanded that heads roll over the spectacular botch and delay. The context is that regional rail service outside Madrid and Barcelona has been steadily deteriorating, and people outside those two regions have long complained about the domination of the economy and society by those two cities and the depopulation of rural areas. Frequency is low and lines are threatened with closure due to the consequent poor ridership, and there is deep mistrust of the central government (a mistrust that is also common enough in Barcelona, where it is steered toward Catalan nationalism).

The other piece of context is the election at the end of this year. Nearly all polls have the right solidly defeating the incumbent PSOE; Revilla is a PSOE ally and so Asturias head Adrián Barbón Rodríguez is a PSOE member, and both are trying to save their political support by distinguishing themselves from the central government, which is unpopular due to the impact of corona on the Spanish economy.

What is Pardo de Vera’s role?

She was at ADIF when the contract came down; ADIF manages infrastructure, not operations. She was viewed as a consummate technocrat, and I became aware of her work through Roger Senserrich’s interview with her; as such, she was elevated to the position of secretary of state for transport, the chief civil servant in the ministry. Once the ministry became aware of the scandal in 2021, she tried to fix the contract, leading to the current result of a two-year delay; she is now under fire for not having been transparent with the public about it, as the story only became public after a local newspaper broke it.

This needs to be viewed not as incompetence on her part. The scandal is real, but moderate in scope; delays of this magnitude are unfortunately common, and Berlin is having one on the U-Bahn due to vendor lawsuits. Rather, the success of Spain in infrastructure procurement (if not in rail operations, where it unfortunately lags) has created high expectations. In the United States, where standards are the worst, a similar mistake by the MBTA in the ongoing process of procuring electric trains – the RFI did not properly specify the catenary height – is leading to actual increases in costs and it’s not even viewed as a minor problem as in Berlin but as just how expensive electrification is.

I urge Northern European and American agencies to reach out to Pardo de Vera. In Spain she may be perceived as scandalized, but she has real expertise in infrastructure construction, engineering, and procurement. Often boards, steering committees, and review panels comprise retired agency heads who left for a reason; she left for a reason that is not her fault.