Is Technical Activism Necessary?

Since my post on technicals and politicals is getting some wider traction, with a discussion on Auckland Transport Blog, I should raise the question of whether technicals are even necessary. Recall that technicals are the transit activists who tend to mistrust transit authorities, especially when they claim a certain project or project component is required when it is unnecessary abroad or just very expensive. It’s a sort of activism that’s created by agency incompetence. I can imagine being technical about New York; I can’t imagine the same about Zurich.

Not knowing enough about the level of government competence in New Zealand, I can’t know how relevant what I’m going to say is to Auckland. Reading Auckland Transport Blog suggests that Auckland’s expansion projects are well-run, and the primary obstacle is political opposition by the National Party. In Auckland based on the impression I get from the blog, or in most major European cities (for example, Paris), the major divisions among transit advocates are either about pure politics (social services versus profitability) or value questions concerning how express lines should run or whether there should be more investment into buses or rail. Once the investment plan at each given level of funding is optimized, the question becomes how much funding to provide.

The political/technical division thus seems to be primarily North American and maybe Australian/New Zealander, certainly not European. In Europe, because the average quality of local projects is much higher, it is much easier to tell the bad projects apart.

Take Stuttgart 21, an expensive boondoggle that only looks good on a map. The need for massive takings and the high and escalating cost of the project led to massive protests, catapulting the Green Party to a state election victory for the first time in German history. But unlike unpopular rail projects in the US, the response was not to cancel all investment (the Green-SPD coalition wants to give more priority to rail investment and put it on equal footing with roads) but instead look for better solutions, hiring Swiss rail experts and coming up with an alternative plan. In other words, there was no difference between politicals and technicals.

In the US, such a response would be unthinkable. There’s no way for a mass movement to support transit investment in general but also oppose specific projects that are bad and promote more cost-effective alternatives. The Tea Party is heavily against all transit and urbanism, regardless of merit, and should not count. The opposition to Stuttgart 21 gathered in weekly protests by the tens of thousands; the opposition to ARC gathered in small rooms with about ten people in attendance.


  1. EngineerScotty

    The problem of “technical activism” is that it is (almost) an oxymoron. If you’re an activist, you’re being political. I say “almost” because of the divide you’ve previously discussed–activism based on the particular merits of a given project or agency, vs activism based on wider social questions such as “should we provide transit”, or “to what extent should investments be weighted to the poor” or the labor question.

    If there isn’t consensus on the wider “political” questions, these will dominate the debate–much as it is hard for scientists to have a meaningful discussion on evolutionary biology if there are creationists (another regrettable American export, it seems) in the room. But in places where there is a consensus for transit, then its possible to have meaningful debate on the technical questions.

    We see this concerning highway construction in much of the US–there’s a consensus in many places that freeways are good, and it becomes not a matter of “if”, but “where”.

    • Alon Levy

      I like the idea that it’s related to the existence of consensus, but I’d draw the lines differently. It’s not just about whether there’s social consensus for rail; there’s such consensus in New York City, as well as a national consensus for roads (at least there was until 2008), and yet there’s no popular oversight of bad projects.

      Instead, it looks more about the relationship between government and the community. Although the US has in principle a more participant and less subject political culture than Germany, this political culture manifests itself in values questions, and is insulated from concerns that can be framed as purely technical. In other words: when it comes to infrastructure, the US has an unassailable technocracy of traffic engineers, whereas European consensus government (especially but not only the Swiss kind) subjects every government decision to popular oversight. Those traffic engineers are supposed to be drawn from a more enlightened class, but in reality have even bigger NIH issues than the general population: for most people NIH is a matter of national pride, but for the engineers it’s both national pride and personal pride since it’s they who wrote the defective standards that are causing project costs to be so high.

      • EngineerScotty

        There are two different types of “oversight” (we’ll leave out the popular part–whether popular oversight is good or bad depends on the people doing the overseeing): overconstrained, and underconstrained. I’ve blogged about overconstraint quite a bit, which seems to be the dominant problem in US transit development: transit agencies have little autonomy to do things on their own, and need to approach many stakeholders (the US government, state, county, and municipal government, plus many influential non-governmental actors) in order to acquire the necessary political and financial support for a project, and these stakeholders impose requirements which inflate the costs and reduce the end-user value.
        State DOTs, on the other hand, are under-constrained when it comes to building highways: Uncle Sam passes out free money by the bushel for these projects, and a mobility-über-alles mindset takes hold where eliminating congestion (or trying to) and conformance to “modern engineering standards” trumps all other concerns, particularly effects on the surrounding urban fabric. (The neighborhoods being bulldozed are duly noted in the EIS, like an animal given a blessing before being sacrificed upon the altar).
        In the first case, there’s too much focus on “what” making it hard to come up with a reasonable “how”; in the second case the what is delegate to technical staff for whom this question is below their proverbial pay grade, and is ignored while engineers come up with the biggest and baddest “how” they can imagine.
        And all of this assumes a bright line between the technical and the political. Human nature being what it is, for many a “technical” decision is one that someone agrees with (and thus assumes was decided on the merits), where as a political decision is one that is disliked, and obviously the result of caprice, compromise, or corruption,

        • Alon Levy

          You’re completely right about highways. Transit I’m more skeptical about, because while in one way (obtaining funding) transit is overconstrained exactly as you say, in another (design) it is underconstrained. There’s no government requirement for agency cooperation, so agencies fight the usual turf battles. Sometimes they lie outright on EIRs: some of the Bay Area commenters tell me that BART worked extra-hard at extirpating an endangered species living near SFO so that they’d be able to claim that the construction of BART to SFO would not cause any significant impact.

      • Danny


        Most of the financial constraints are in fact risk-aversion restraints. The Federal Government gives out lollipops, but every transit agency out there knows that the lollipops taste like sh**. They accept the funding and the retarded restraints that come with it because a) They don’t want to be the guy that turns down free money, and b) they are afraid of challenging the status-quo in their own organizations.

        Lending costs on capital (the only thing the feds fund) are very low…for the simple fact that capital equipment loan defaults are generally very easy to offset by seizing the equipment.

        But what really needs to happen is for someone in the agencies to really do the analysis and show how the federal funding constraints increase costs dramatically. The benefits would be two-fold: they would be able to responsibly justify why federal funds were declined, and at the same time put a huge publicity pressure on the FTA to reform their conditions for funding.

      • EngineerScotty


        I think that a big part of federal funding is simply the “economic development” opportunities afforded by receiving “free” money from Uncle Sam. Here’s an interesting question: If the FTA made available money (at a 1:1 or 3:2 match, typical for New Starts) for digging holes in the ground–should local governments accept it–i.e. is the injection of outside money into the local economy worth spending local tax dollars on an unproductive activity?

        Even bad transit projects have a better ROI, and better social utility, than the proverbial hole in the ground. (Though holes in the ground don’t need operations and maintenance). Given that, the temptation will always be there. And good transit projects do get federally funded, so not all is lost. That said, Portland has done quite a few of its local rail projects (the initial leg of the Portland Streetcar, the MAX Red Line) without federal funding, and these things were done much more quickly and cheaply than the ones with a “gift” from Uncle Sam.

      • Wad

        @Danny, I pretty much agree with your argument, but I think a more apt characterization than lollipops that taste like s— would be the feds doling out government cheese.

        Most transit agencies are in the same economic predicament as welfare recipients — get just enough money to be stuck in their current predicament or else face starvation.

        Operating costs are the largest burden on transit agencies, not expensive capital projects. The thing is, as bad as some projects are out there, the federal granting process is rather rigorous and there are a lot of bad projects that don’t pass muster.

        Also, operating costs are by definition exhausted and unrecoverable. Losses can only be cut in the future, not reclaimed from the past. A gallon of fuel cannot be unburned, and a driver cannot be given back 40 hours of his or her time if the wages were returned.

        Capital costs are fiercely competitive, and every new grant announcement always has more outstretched hands than money to fulfill all needs. Therefore, local transit agencies must orient their priorities around what federal funding grants are available, rather than matching grants to local needs.

        If your city has light rail, it’s because your city wanted the light rail money. If your city has Sporkbus, it’s because your city tapped a grant for BRT. Any success of the projects is purely a byproduct.

  2. MobilMan

    Technical activism is very necessary. That is, technically minded and technically competent activism. APTA is an industry group. Brookings is a political tink tank. I don’t how competent T4America is. I remember reading some not so favorable opinions about their HSR plan. The majority are still in their infancy, broad-scale pedestrian/mass transit advocacy being a recent phenomenon in the US.

    The “Verkehrsclub Deutschland” (VCD) had a hand in organizing the protests in Stuttgart. Being a sustainable mobility lobby organization, they turn a critical eye to every transportation project (they’re a bit anti road), rail projects included. They can come up with very detailed and plausible alternatives. It helps to have [former] professionals in your ranks. Just as political activism can’t be sustained without parties or other organizations, transit activism can’t get by without competent organizations that argue from the point of view of the transportation user.

  3. jarbury

    It is a complex situation here in Auckland, New Zealand. Because Auckland is so much bigger than any other city in the country (1.4 million against 400,000), has such a significant proportion of the country’s population (around 35%) and is growing so much faster than the rest of the country (60% of NZ’s population growth to 2040 will be in Auckland) there is a growing division between what the city thinks its future is, and what is needed throughout the rest of the country.

    This is manifesting itself in the growing division between what our local government thinks are the transport priorities for Auckland (a series of very large rail projects) and what the government thinks (a series of large motorway projects). My feeling is that the fundamental reason behind the distinction is that the government simply doesn’t understand the growing “urban-ness” of Auckland – and thinks that solutions which work elsewhere in the country will also work here.

    All of this is obviously a political debate. Should we be basing our future transport investment on what’s happened in the past (growing traffic volumes and low public transport use) or what we think will happen in the future (higher oil prices, little room for more roads)? The government thinks the former, the Council thinks the latter.

    I don’t think we’re necessarily in the US situation though. The government’s dead keen on investing a lot of money in transport infrastructure and is keen on highlighting the (albeit limited) amount of money it is spending on public transport. There is an ideological aversion to rail transport to some extent, but I generally think that they prefer spending money on roads because that seems to have been what’s worked in the past, and they can’t quite get their heads around the impact of big changes in the future like peak oil and climate change.

    In terms of technical matters, there is much to be done in Auckland. We have an incredibly inefficient bus system, we need to work out the proper timing for two of the big three rail projects proposed (rail to the Airport and rail to the North Shore) and we need to get some better alignment between our transport plans and our land-use plans.

  4. PeakVT

    I think the better question is, “does technical activism ever affect outcomes?” I think “technicals” often have valid points, but in the end do they ever either improve the project or provide the motivating force behind killing egregiously bad projects? It certainly wasn’t “technicals” that killed the ARC, though I am sure they cheered when it happened.

    • Alon Levy

      To be honest with you? I don’t know the answer. As MobilMan notes, what’s needed is a large rider-focused organization to counter industry groups like APTA, and just the idea of a transit revival in the US is so recent that there’s nothing along those lines.

      I don’t think IRUM and NJ-ARP had any role to play in the ARC cancellation, but I’m not completely sure. In January last year, one of the people at the IRUM meeting I went to (I think George Haikalis, but I’m not sure) said that now that Christie had just won the election, he would try to lobby for a change to Alt G again, and would get a short meeting with the relevant commissioner. I don’t know if it led to anything.

      At the California end, it’s unclear just how much of the recent bout of competence – shared track alternatives in the Bay Area and LA Basin, going around small towns that wouldn’t be served anyway instead of cutting through them on viaducts, revisiting the Tejon alignment in case the Tehachapis go over budget, Brown’s veto of BART’s attempt to raid Prop 1A’s connecting transit funds for an unrelated project – comes from badgering by good government activists, such as CARRD. I’m skeptical it has much of a role to play, but you never know. Whether Clem Tillier manages to convince Caltrain to come up with a decent service plan and scrap CBOSS is another matter…

      • PeakVT

        If the “technicals” make a (positive) difference, then technical activism is necessary in the context of transit planning in the US (and perhaps elsewhere). There will inevitably be bad and badly done transit projects in this country as long as a large portion of the population is fundamentally anti-transit and anti-government.

    • jim

      It certainly wasn’t “technicals” that killed the ARC

      In a sense, it was. When Christie “froze” ARC, he looked around to see what the reaction was. Largely, there was no reaction. Lautenberg defended ARC; almost no-one else did. So Christie felt comfortable killing it. Part of the reason few flew to ARC’s defense was that NJT had spent the planning process systematically pissing off most of the other players in the region. But part was that real doubt as to the technical merits of the proposal had been disseminated. Those doubts may have been encapsulated in the crack about Macy’s basement, but that didn’t mean they weren’t real.

    • ant6n

      “does technical activism ever affect outcomes?”
      I’d say the frequent bus networks that popped up during the last year are partly due to activism; I wonder how much Jarret @ HumanTransit actually contributed to those developments.

      • Danny

        It is very encouraging to see more focus on frequency and service levels than specific technologies. I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes at these agencies, but I’m willing to bet HumanTransit has made an impact.

  5. Positroll

    As someone who has repeatedly used the ICE from Karlsruhe to Munich (part of the Paris – Vienna line), I got to say that’s an extremely one-sided look at the Stuttgart 21 “boondoggle” (I hate this word – it’s usually used by people who don’t know what the hell they are talking about).
    I watched most of the mediation deliberations on German TV, and the S21 critics – imho- came away as a bunch of nimbys + fearmongers.
    Let me pick a few of the incorrect arguments:
    – unlike in the US, takings as such are not a huge deal in Germany – except of course for the people who loose their property. Oh, and takings are by no means “massive” in this case, thanks to all the tunnels planned …
    – the Greens mostly “won” the state elections on Fukushima. S21 only really was a topic in Stuttgart itself. Please note that their coalition partner, the SPD (socialists), also at 25%, is in favor of the project. In fact, 74% of voters in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg (re)elected politicians who were in favor of S21 …
    – the mediation procedure only proposed moderate changes. The Greens wanted to keep the station above ground. The mediator found that – provided some conditions are met – the underground station makes more sense.
    – Basically nobody (including the Greens) disputes the need for the Wendlingen – Ulm part of the project. Including the costs for this part of the project as an argument why the project is too expensive (as the report you linked to does) therefore doesn’t make sense
    – “On the state side the construction costs will probably entail even more austerity, higher taxes, and higher fees e.g. for kindergartens. ” Utter drivel. The costs of this project are peanuts compared to bailing out the banks, the costs of getting rid of nuclear power (a green pet project if there ever was one) etc. … On the national level, the ruling coalition is already planning for tax relief …
    – “S21 itself saves four minutes at most compared to the terminus station – reversing direction nowadays only takes two minutes.” Disingenious B.S. This disregards that entering and leaving the terminus means to slowly drive on a half circle into the city, and then out again on another half circle – at rather low speeds. Which is why S21 “will reduce trip times to Ulm BY 26 minutes down to 28 minutes.” That is down FROM 56 minutes – i.e. the ICE will be twice as fast as before …
    – The proposed “tilting trains” couldn’t drive as fast as normal ICEs or TGVS on other parts of the network, e.g. in France or between Cologne and Frankfrut (300km/h).
    -“ICE trains in the 1990’s used to be able to make the trip to Munich in 2:01. ” Yeah, but with less stops along the way. And the new line will add another stop at Stuttgart Airport / Messe (Trade Fair grounds). Something I really like about the Frankfurt Airport is the possibility of a seamless switch from train to plane – and getting that in Stuttgart, too, is a great idea. Also, the tunnel will make S-Bahn trips from the Airport to the city center way faster (10 min instead of 30). BTW, additional track in the S-Bahn/ICE tunnel is one of the required changes but won’t be expensive (less than 40 mio EUR)
    – re: “The New Heart of Europe”. Sorry, but bad archtecture in the outskirts isn’t an argument against the fact that getting rid of all the rail lines in the city center opens up huge opportunities. Saying “we screwed up over there, so we shouldn’t try again” is just bonkers …
    The housing market in Stuttgart is extremely tight – the new quarter will be a gods end for those looking for more affordable housing (because people moving in the – expensive ? – new quarter will open up the apartments they left for the less afluent).
    – “as if Stuttgart airport was an international hub”
    Arrogant assholes. The Stuttgart area got 2-3 mio people, Mercedes, Porsche, Bosch and tons of other high end producers whose salesmen and clients are flying all over the world. Also, if you want to get to Munich but cant get a flight or if Munich Airport is closed due to an accident, you can change to Stuttgart, hop in the ICE and be in Munich within 2 hours (same with Frankfurt).
    I could go on but …

    • Alon Levy

      A few questions:

      1. Do Munich and Frankfurt frequently have capacity problems or closures due to accidents, which would justify turning Stuttgart into a relief airport? I’m not just being argumentative here; in the US, there are places where an airport stop would make sense on those grounds (for example, Philadelphia, relieving the perennial unpunctual New York-area airports), and places where it would not (San Diego – not a hub for anything, and HSR is already planned to stop at Ontario Airport). And sometimes the cost of diverting a line to reach an airport is too high, even though it could have benefits.

      2. It’s true that the Greens only won a majority in Stuttgart itself – but that’s exactly where the opposition to S21 was concentrated… Did city voters defect to the Greens over Fukushima or S21? (Again, I’m interested – I’m not just being argumentative).

      3. Is Germany looking into high-speed tilting trains, as Sweden is?

    • MobilMan

      The mediator said that construction should continue because canceling now would be too expensive – not because S21 was deemed to be such a non-brainer cost-effective project. Indeed, the alternative put forward by project opponents was judged favorably. It could be built in stages for a lot less money, would require a lot less tunneling and would result in higher capacities and better timetable than S21 (and also add new land to develop). Some minor modifications were mandated but above all the mediator required DB to prove that S21 will have a capacity 30% higher than the current station. DB is in the process of doing so which has about the same credibility as banks doing their own stress tests. S21 would need to process 6+ trains/hour/track, something no through-station in Europe is capable of. The only unique feature of S21 is its 1.6% gradient, which will make approaching, braking, and stopping more intricate.

      You don’t have to listen to the four minute claim. A former chief planner for DB said in an interview S21 would save only one minute compared to the old station. The big time saver is the new line Wendlingen-Ulm. Without it, S21 doesn’t make any sense because the new tunnels would emerge in the outskirts of Stuttgart without any connections. Because of S21 the new line is limited to three ICE trains per hour – they’ll probably put two in the timetable. Not all of them will stop at the airport so there goes the hope of having a second Frankfurt-Airport-like ICE station in the Southwest. Having fast connections to the region, i.e. the real market of the airport, should be a priority. Everything else goes to Frankfurt or Munich anyway.

      To see how desperately they’re clinging on: that line used to be a priority project with a high benefit/cost ratio. With an adjusted (still unrealistically low) official cost estimation of 2.9b Euros and recalculated benefits, the official benefit/cost ratio has dropped to 1.2 right at the bottom of the Federal transport plan. Usually, projects under 1.5 are immediately discarded since cost increases of more than 50% are not exceptional for big projects. To reach that benefit estimation they had to imagineer 17 daily ‘fast’ freight trains that would allegedly use the line. But why should any freight operator do so? They already avoid the old line because it’s too steep. The new one will be steeper and its track fees 50% higher. To fulfill the official cost estimate the tunnels of the new line would have to be (per unit) the cheapest rail tunnels in Germany – in one of the most demanding geologies of the world. A realistic assessment of either cost (around 5 billion) or benefit would drop the ratio below 1 i.e. the new line would be removed from the transport plan and consequently S21 wouldn’t make any sense either. So know this: every time you make your Karlsruhe-Munich trip in 15 years (there has never been a German high-speed project that came in on time, on budget), the German taxpayer subsidizes you at 50 Euros per trip.

      More importantly, there are a number of urgent projects with benefit/cost ratios of 3 to 4 that don’t have adequate funding on lines that are already overflowing (see Karlsruhe-Basel…). I don’t mind people dreaming of seamless high-speed connections if the money is there and if it’s well executed. But the money is not there and after having spent more than a dozen billion Euros, the ICE system (even on the famed 300 km/h lines) is as ‘slow’ as the modernized Victorian railway in the UK.

      Simple calculation: one billion per year for new construction, Nuremberg-Erfurt-Leipzig will cost 5.7 billion, Wendlingen-Ulm about 4 billion (Federal contribution), plus a number of other ongoing projects. Which means the money for the next ten years is basically gone. No chance to start executing important big projects, unless someone says enough is enough. This is slow-motion ritual suicide. For what? So we can tell ourselves that we can still build big things. Like those people on Easter Island.

  6. Wad

    Alon Levy asks, Is Technical Activism Necessary?

    My answer: Yes it is. I disagree with Scotty. Technical activism is not an oxymoron.

    Activists owe it to themselves and to others to at least have a modicum of knowledge of whatever they are advocating for. Not only do they have more credibility, but they are in a better position to engage with both decision-makers and the technocrats who keep a program running.

    Technical activism is necessary because without it, the consequences are horrific. The opposite of technical activism is, well, the Bus Riders Union.

    • EngineerScotty

      To be fair, I said that its ALMOST an oyxmoron. 🙂 My point was that many technical advocates aren’t all that effective at politics; not that they shouldn’t participate or that it isn’t necessary.

      One disadvantage of technical activism is that the good being sought (better transit overall) is widely distributed, and the individual benefits diluted–it, like broader “good government” advocacy, represents the general interest when its special interests (highly motivated groups with a specific and often parochial concern) that seem to dominate US politics. The reason BRU was a potent force is that it managed to find a motivated interest group (poor minority bus riders in the LA area), come up with a motivating story (LACMTA is screwing us by building subways to Hollywood for rich white people while making poor brown people ride infrequent, slow, croweded busses), and acquire sufficient clout that their concerns must be met. (The fact they found a sympathetic judge didn’t hurt either). BRU doesn’t even pretend to engage in technical advocacy; they’re just an interest group making demands.

      Alon engages in excellent technical advocacy when he calls for reform at FRA–a platform which I agree with completely. On the other hand, the politics aren’t there. (He knows this, I’m sure–the function of us amateur bloggers is to inject ideas into the environment and hope they bubble up; politicians don’t seek inspiration from hobbyist blogs. Lobbyists, yes; hobbyists, not so much). His appeals are based on the general interest (faster rail service), but lack a motivated constituency. There’s plenty of folks in DC who like the status quo (and plenty more who want to solve NEC performance issues with concrete and looking to profit thereby), but there’s no potent advocacy group for regulatory reform. If, on the other hand, someone were to organize Acela riders and develop enough clout that lawmakers have to listen to them…THEN something might be done about it. Groups like the AAA and such are effective advocates for the interests of motorists, but there isn’t really any equivalent representing the interests of transit users. (T4America probably comes closest, but as Alon noted; it represents a broader coalition that includes municipal governments, transit agencies, green organizations, vendors, and developers; for it to address some of the concerns Alon raises would be tantamount to peeing in the tent).

  7. mulad

    I think technical activism is necessary, but it’s hard to do correctly. It’s difficult to walk the line between constructive criticism and pure opposition. The arguments of technical advocates can easily be co-opted by transit opponents, and arguments made by activists working for better technical approaches can be inappropriately interpreted as pure opposition.

    Technical details can easily turn off an audience, so they should be used relatively sparingly and focused toward the people who are the most interested in such minutiae. Finding the right arguments to make can be both a technical challenge as well as a psychological one. Once someone forms an opinion, it is very difficult to change their minds, even if there is a lot of data to back up the idea. It’s fairly easy to gin up public opposition through fear. Doing the opposite through optimism and aspiration tends to be more challenging, but is the better way to go. People are more willing to accept new or different ideas if they feel good about themselves first.

    Of course, it’s also hard to find the right forums for technical discussions — both where they are and when they are. I’m not just talking about finding the right day of the month, either. It seems you have to be in the right place at the right time on the right day of the right month of the right year in the right decade. The NEPA process makes things take an extraordinarily long time, and it seems that my own state of Minnesota does a not-so-dry run through it before the official process occurs. Plans for the Red Rock Corridor commuter line have been progressing slowly for a decade already, and there will probably be another decade before it gets built (if ever). The official EIS process likely won’t start up for years yet, even though they’ve already gone through a process of station-area planning for more than half of the route.

    It’s extremely tough to do take on the technical activist role when many questions about such details will only get responses to the effect of “we already discussed that years ago” or “we won’t discuss that for a few more years”.

  8. Pingback: Trust (Hoisted from Comments) | Pedestrian Observations

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