I’ve been asked in comments to my previous post about construction costs what can be done to contain them, and tempting as it is to just repeat listing good cases, in the wrong context it can do more harm than good. Whenever we are faced with a success story, it’s tempting to confuse a good system with individual competence, in both directions.
The list of conclusions given by Madrid Metro CEO Manuel Melis Maynar is a good place to start for discussing low-cost subway construction. So is Calgary Transit’s explanation for how it keeps costs low. But things are always more complex than a short list of principles, and details always matter, and those can be easily lost when trying to port cases of success. I think it’s obvious that Madrid’s EPB method is not easily ported to the harder rock of Manhattan, but the administrative factors could be problematic, too: is there enough expertise within the MTA to complete projects with an in-house staff of six? After all, in California, the small size of the in-house staff is one reason why the consultants can run circles around everyone and propose multiple billions’ worth of concrete to solve problems that good organization could fix for no money.
Of course, in the other direction, it’s easy to attribute to individual genius what is the result of good business culture. Compare, for example, the praise heaped on Steve Jobs, with the more sober description by Malcolm Gladwell of the office cultures involved in the birth of the Macintosh. But even this opposite problem can be shoehorned into the same issue.
To be more precise, in both cases, what’s really needed for optimal performance is good organization and business culture. This does not mean that individual lessons about keeping design and construction separate and choosing contractors based on more than just cost are bad, or that they shouldn’t be implemented everywhere. They should. Obtaining average performance is not difficult; that’s why a large majority of cities have it. What’s difficult is obtaining optimal cost control.