Brookings Folly

People who have read Brookings’ awful report saying San Jose is the second most transit-accessible city in the US and New York the thirteenth already know not to trust what Brookings says. Even at the level of collecting facts, it seems to get service frequency wrong, making sprawling suburbs with hourly bus service look like they have service every few minutes.

So it’s not surprising that senior Brookings fellow Robert Puentes’ article about infrastructure in the Wall Street Journal is full of misunderstandings and frankly amateurish claims about US infrastructure problems. Puentes opens with a standard claim that “we do a great job of building new roads” (no mention of the Big Dig, Bay Bridge Eastern Span replacement, or proposed Tappan Zee replacement, each substantially costlier than undersea tunnels in Europe) but smarter investments are needed. He proposes the following:

1. Boosting exports. Puentes complains that US border crossings are congested, and hints that more are needed, for example the proposal for more bridges between Michigan and Ontario. He mentions some interstate cooperation as a solution, but never says anything about international cooperation, which is the real problem.

The Ambassador Bridge carries 10,000 trucks and 4,000 cars per day; the Holland Tunnel, which has the same number of lanes, carries 90,000 vehicles per day. The problem with the bridge is the border crossing, not the infrastructure. Nowhere does Puentes say the US and Canada should build more border checkpoints or process people faster. If Michigan doubles the number of border control booths or halves the time it takes to process a vehicle, it’s equivalent to building another bridge, but at a vastly lower cost.

2. Getting greener. Puentes praises Obama for proposing to put one million electric cars on the road in 2015. Then he talks about charging stations and the need for national standards encouraging them. In reality, the US has 240 million cars on the road, so Obama’s proposal would, even assuming zero-emission electricity, cut car emissions by 0.4%.

On the subject of cars and transit, Puentes wisely mentions that the government funds roads more liberally, but instead of railing against highways to nowhere and high construction costs says “We need equal treatment of all possible transportation projects, so cities don’t have to give up on, say, transit systems that fit their needs and help us go green, just because they cost more than highways.” It’s not that there aren’t examples of severe waste; it’s that Puentes doesn’t seem to care.

3. Adding Innovations. This is a boilerplate blurb for electronic toll collection, bus tracking, and, of course, public-private partnerships. Individually the things proposed are not bad – they’re just the most important things. For mass transit, fare integration and tighter schedule adherence are more important, but were not invented here and involve messy fights with the bureaucrats Brookings represent.

The PPP part indicates what this is really about: kickbacks to technology companies, often defense contractors looking to diversify. Many US transit systems have a smartcard using vendor-locked proprietary technology; defense contractor Cubic is the top vendor. New York’s smartcard proposal is instead a kickback to credit card providers, which is slightly less bad because the standard is open but is still far behind best practices. The best practices do not involve PPPs – instead, agencies develop technologies in-house, or instead rely on open standards. Minimal collusion offers minimal opportunity for corruption.

4. Connecting Workers With Work. Here Puentes repeats his institution’s flawed study’s findings as if they’re universally recognized facts. He does not even say “According to a recent Brookings study” – people are supposed to know it like they know Pearl Harbor happened in 1941. Then, based on said study’s conclusions, he declares the problem is that the poor are disconnected from their workplaces and makes relevant suggestions.

Since the Brookings study got things wrong in the direction of too much transit accessibility, the suggestions are for the most part not bad. The problem is that he says nothing about the problems of connecting people to where they work. The biggest problem for metro area transit is that while downtowns are reasonably connected (e.g. downtown LA workers have a 50% transit mode share), secondary downtowns and suburban job centers are not.

The common theme of all the proposals is that they’re makework for the bureaucrats and consultants who are Brookings’ base. Adopting best industry practices is useless to Brookings fellows, because pointing out that Europe does it better also means that the consultants who should implement reform are European managers. In contrast, PPP means coming up with new standards and new ways of doing things; it’s attractive to government administrators as much as it is to the companies that get the contracts.

The interests of the riders are not the same as those of the service providers. That labor does not have the same interests as riders is clear, but management benefits from bloat just as much: if things run smoothly, managers can’t look like they’re continually saving the day. Thinktanks like Brookings represent certain interest groups, and Brookings’ interest group excludes transit users.


  1. Tom West

    1) The Ambassador Bridge is four lanes
    2) One (free-flowing) lane of traffic can support 2000 cars per hour
    Therefore the Ambassador Bridge can support 192,000 cars per day.
    3) One truck consumes about the same road as 6 cars.
    Therefore 10,000 trucks and 4,000 cars per day is equivlant to 64,000 cars per day.

    So, the Bridge itself is running at about one third capacity. Granted, that demand is spread unequally throoughout the day, but there are ways to mitigate that (higher fees in peak hours, for example… or even info on teh website sayign what the peak times are!). Overall, it supports your idea that the issue is the checkpoints, not the bridge itself.
    “Organisation before electronics before concrete”… better border checkpoints would be better organisation.

    • Alon Levy

      Exactly. Just one nitpicky question: is it really true that trucks consume 6 times as much capacity as cars? I’m willing to believe it for urban streets, but on controlled-access freeways, it would imply 12-second headways, which is too long.

      • EngineerScotty

        A common rule of thumb is that for free-flowing highways, one large truck is the equivalent of two cars. On high-speed routes, the safe stopping distance and not the length of the vehicle is the key determinant of capacity, and for trucks the “four-second rule” applies, rather than the two-second rule for cars.

        For urban streets, the multiplier is larger, both because vehicle length becomes a bigger concern, and because of the slower acceleration profiles of large trucks. And of course, congested freeways tend to resemble urban streets more than they do free-flowing freeways.

  2. Steve


    I remember reading on some blog or another (I vaguely remember it being either the New Urbanist Network or Planetizen) that most of the problems with the study is trying to make its results a ten-best list. Basically the study was a mathematical model where the Brookings guys popped in inputs and it pooped out results. So journalists, with their headline obsession, get part of the blame, and Brookings, with its questionably generous inputs, the other part.

    Remember that the question being asked by Brookings is essentially How many jobs in a metropolitan area can you get to with a maximum commute of 90 minutes? This fiat measure of access was then ranked by percentage. Other issues, such as the relative quality or frequency of mass transit in the area, were not taken into account.

    I agree the Brookings report has problems. The problem is, we’re misframing the report and thus talking about the wrong problems. The problems the report has are methodological–what about line frequency? access? local autocentrism? and so forth–but the problems we talk about are borne out of the problems of “best” rankings, which this report does not seem intended to originally be.

    • Alon Levy

      The issue is that Brookings seems to have gotten raw data wrong, e.g. saying a city has peak 7.5-minute buses when it in fact only had hourly buses; 7.5 minutes included everything serving some short corridor, including special school buses and such.

      And if Brookings really only intended to talk about travel time, it would have not published an article making travel time the biggest priority for transit. Puentes isn’t saying cities need more walkable streets or higher frequency; he’s saying they need to worry about travel time.

      (As an aside, larger cities always have longer travel times, and this is especially true for dominant CBDs. By Brookings’ methodology, Tokyo isn’t too transit-accessible – something like 30% of commutes there are 90+ minutes.)

      • Steve

        Agreed. That’s what I was driving at. Most of the criticism I’ve seen on the blogosphere–even on Human Transit–was responding more to newspapers’ sales pitch than the actual problems with the study.

        The fact this came so soon after Brookings announced the death of the McMansion makes me wonder just what the policy they’re advocating for even is.

      • BruceMcF

        Using the median frequency is especially prone to a severe mis-characterization if the median is on a per service basis, in which case the number of services provided in a small area reasonably well served can easily represent more than half the total services, and the very infrequent services serving the majority of the area easily represent less than half the total services.

        But a more reasonable median would be on a some spatial distribution, and that could be quite substantially more labor intensive.

    • Wad

      Steve, I speak as a journalist, and reporters don’t have a fixation on headlines. They don’t see them or write them. Copy editors write headlines.

      Now, if reporters interpret the story incorrectly …

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  5. Jonathan English

    The Ambassador Bridge is a bit more complicated than that. I agree that the bridge itself is adequate for the traffic and the border crossing itself is the main cause of delays. The approach road in Windsor, however, is a big problem. It’s basically an ordinary street that runs right through the city, including next to the university, and all the truck traffic creates serious pollution and congestion problems, not to mention a nightmare streetscape. It’s also hard to expand the border crossing when it’s in the middle of the city. I agree that a new bridge might not be the most essential project but it would certainly have some significant benefits.

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