Adonia Lugo has a post criticizing Vision Zero, an American movement that aims at reducing the number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths from car accidents to zero. Adonia makes a lot of criticisms regarding lack of diversity within US bike advocacy, which I’m not going to discuss because I’m only tangentially familiar with it, via the general urbanist connection to Streetsblog. Instead, I’m going to zoom on one criticism, in which Adonia also invokes transit: Vision Zero activists look to a slate of European countries for guidance on making streets safer, including Sweden (which, alongside Norway and Denmark, has nearly the lowest car accident death rates in the world), and Denmark and the Netherlands (which are famous for their urban cycling facilities). Adonia’s response is,
With my inclusion filter on, it sounded like another example of white bike advocates looking to Northern Europe for solutions instead of turning to urban communities in the U.S. to find out how they’ve managed to get by walking, biking, and using transit all these years.
This is where I lost sympathy. What Adonia is asking, essentially, is for more respect for her (and her peer group’s) local knowledge, which is based on American cities in which few people who can afford cars take other modes of transportation. In the entire US, the only city where significant numbers of people who can afford cars take public transportation is New York, and there is not a single city where significant numbers of people who can afford cars ride bikes to work. This means that any discussion of improving transit access must include at least some knowledge of what happens outside the US.
Local Knowledge and Denigration
The problem is that talking about what happens outside the US shifts the locus of expertise from people with local knowledge to people with global knowledge. If an American city talks about adopting ideas from one of its neighborhoods, or even from a nearby city, there’s a lot of local knowledge, in the form of people who live or have lived in that area, or know many people who live there, and can evaluate a policy as to its success or failure. Internationally, there isn’t any, outside specialized forums; even highly educated Americans are usually monolingual, have never lived outside the US, and aren’t really plugged into the political debates in other countries, except maybe Canada.
The result is denigration. I’m not very plugged into cycling advocacy, so I’m going to use public transit for concrete examples. I have accepted that whenever I propose that comes from another country, someone is going to say “that’s there, this is America.” I definitely got this response when I started proposing modernizing regional rail in New York: “you are not a real New Yorker.” New York is the worst in the US in that it resists any ideas from other cities, even domestically.
It’s ultimately a defense mechanism against something that’s literally foreign, which the activist cannot evaluate because they and the people they trust haven’t really seen this in action. Thus, many Americans choose to believe that US public transportation is not a failure, that it’s just in bad circumstances and has little to learn from Europe. I’ve seen New Yorkers make remarks such as “there is no history of underinvestment in Europe” (yes, there is – look at Berlin during the Cold War, or at the removal of streetcars in postwar France and West Germany).
For example, I’ve found that bringing up Stockholm as an example of good transit in the US gets me accused of trolling, repeatedly, more so than bringing up London or Paris. The reason is that, to New York-based readers, London and Paris are almost peer cities, and to other Americans, London and Paris are equivalent to New York; therefore, they match the perception that public transit works in old, huge cities, but not in smaller or newer ones. In some ways, I think Stockholm is a better example of what US cities should aspire to, precisely because it is a small city. It is also not as old as London or Paris; between 1950 and 2010, Stockholm County’s population grew by a factor of 1.9, whereas metro Philadelphia’s grew by a factor of about 1.6, Boston’s by a factor of 1.4, and Chicago’s by a factor of 1.7. Boston in particular had a very good public transit network in 1950, and it systematically dismantled it and bypassed the remains, so that the metro area public transit mode share is only 11%. Expressed differently, metro Boston has 55 annual rail trips per capita, whereas New York has 95 and Stockholm 200. Of course, the cities of the US Sunbelt have had far more postwar growth than Stockholm (though many are comparable to Vancouver) and even lower transit usage than Boston and Philadelphia, and there indeed wholesale imports of European ideas are less practical. But it says a lot that in the oldest US cities, with the street layout most similar to most of Europe’s cities’, transit usage is still very low.
Adonia denigrates ideas she considers racist, but this denigration cuts across political and tribal lines in the US. I have seen considerable denigration from American urbanists that city centers could ever be family-friendly whenever I mention generations of families living in the central parts of Tel Aviv, or Vancouver, or Stockholm. There’s even a Twitter account dedicated to this denigration, The Suburbanist. Of course, what’s missing is the history of white flight and racism – not that Israel, Canada, and Sweden are less racist than the US, but their racism did not involve leaving inner cities to low-income minorities. But mentioning that cities aren’t bad places for families reminds certain people that they’re leaving the cities because they don’t like minorities, so they lash out. Nowadays, the Suburbanist engages in open racism, but this wasn’t the case a few years ago, nor is it the case with a large number of Americans who, in comments on various blogs (never here as far as I remember), yell at me for bringing up foreign cities.
Not Invented Here, Periphery Version
When planners and managers denigrate foreign ideas, this is called Not Invented Here syndrome. It is common in American transportation planning. I believe the reason Vision Zero sticks to “it works in Scandinavia” is to at least try to confront those planners with the fact that, by international standards, they have failed to promote road safety, especially for pedestrians and cyclists. Certainly this is the reason I bring up the failure of every US city except New York to maintain respectable public transit usage.
Now, the two centers of public transportation innovation in the world – Europe and Japan – brim with their own NIH problems, toward each other. Their rolling stock markets are almost entirely distinct, due to a combination of protectionism and regulations. Japan is outside the European Train Control System umbrella and keeps developing its own signal systems, while ETCS in turn is based on the features of older systems in the major European countries and not in Japan. Japan lags Europe in automation (driverless metros are less common there), track capacity in trains per hour, and small-city cost-cutting innovations such as proof of payment. Europe in turn has higher big-city operating costs, more accidents, less punctual trains, and usually heavier trains. Both of those centers would benefit from adopting each other’s ideas.
And yet, things work. There is enough indigenous transit expertise in Japan that despite missing out on European innovations, Japanese transit systems work well. There has to be; Tokyo has comfortably not only the highest rail ridership in the world, but also the highest rail ridership per capita, about 400 annual trips, versus 200-250 in the most transit-oriented European cities. Of course, Europe’s own indigenous expertise is nothing to scoff at, either.
The US is not in the center of public transportation. I am going to develop this center-periphery dynamic in a later post, tentatively called Unbroken Country: The Periphery’s Manifesto, which will also go specifically into Israel’s domestic problems with public services. But, in short, the US acts as if it is in the center, since it is one of the centers of the global economy, and is the undisputed center of global society and culture. This is what leads to NIH syndrome and denigration – Americans think they’re doing well because, in most aspects, they are. But when it comes to transportation, the US is a peripheral region (even road construction techniques lag Europe’s), and thus, its NIH problems deprive the public discourse of much-needed knowledge.
For a concrete example, let us consider rail signaling. ETCS Level 2 is designed around the needs of the biggest European countries, where the main lines are at least double-track, there is much more passenger traffic than freight traffic, freight trains are light because bulk freight goes by sea, and the population density near the main lines is high. Neither the US nor Sweden fits this. Most importantly, both countries have highly-trafficked freight lines passing through remote territory – Norrland in Sweden, the Interior West in the US. Sweden, which does not have NIH syndrome with respect to the rest of Europe, worked on developing a lower-cost version of ETCS, called ERTMS Regional; but in the US, the freight railroads as well as the commuter railroads (even in the Northeast, where ETCS Level 2 is appropriate) ignored ETCS entirely and developed their own incompatible systems, on the grounds that ETCS doesn’t meet unique American needs.
The Mystery of the Foreign
People who don’t know something often consider people who do know it to be mysterious, almost magical. It is a commonplace that, in low-literacy cultures, illiterates viewed the written word as magical; see this account of Early Modern Italy, but also a counterpoint from Ancient Greece. Of course, literacy in the first world today is universal, but two to three more modern examples persist, of relevance to US transit advocacy:
- Math, among people who are not mathematically- or technically-minded. I was asked recently whether my background as a mathematician influences my blogging, and explained that I use fairly basic math, but I am not afraid of numbers, which means I am not afraid of trying to compute cost figures, train speeds, and so on. I am also secure enough in my mathematical knowledge that I am not afraid of nitpicking technical points, or of being nitpicked.
- Foreign languages, among monolinguals. I do not know enough monolingual Hebrew speakers to confirm this in generality, but monolingual Anglophones seem to treat foreign-language information as somewhat magical. For example, the vibe I have been getting both here and on Twitter is that if I cite a foreign-language Wikipedia this gets more respect than if I cite English Wikipedia. The monolingual Anglophone can verify an English Wikipedia citation, and maybe notice small mistakes in the article, but not a foreign-language citation.
- This may be the same as 2, but, foreign experience. Relatively few native-born Americans have lived outside the US, so people who do are treated as having unique expertise about the country or continent they were in.
Point 3 applies even to knowledge obtained by other means than living in a country. In 2005, when progressive pundits were talking about how to implement universal health care, there was so little knowledge about how universal health care systems worked that Ezra Klein became an A-list pundit out of a few short profiles of various countries’ health care systems, The Health of Nations (see 2007 version here). I, of course, have gotten a lot of mileage out of Googling various cities’ subway construction costs and putting them together.
The problem with viewing the foreign as mysterious is that it leads to wholesale import of ideas that may not work, or may require significant tweaks before working. Bus rapid transit, an efficient mode of travel in middle-income Bogota and Curitiba, does not port to high-income cities well: paying six bus drivers rather than one train driver to avoid spending money on rail construction is a bigger problem in a country with a GDP per capita of $40,000 than in a country with a GDP per capita of $13,000. There are successful tweaks, such as open BRT (see description here), but Jaime Lerner and ITDP have pushed Curitiba-style closed BRT. Here, the lack of detailed knowledge about what exactly makes BRT work leads American cities – and no European or Japanese cities – to propose ill-thought closed BRT.
Another example of a bad import caused by this kind of magical thinking is the mixed-traffic streetcar. Here, American transit advocates don’t just think in terms of “Europe has trams” but also in terms of “the US used to have trams but we ripped them all up in the 1950s.” Here, US cities import a mode of transportation that exists as a legacy around Europe, but is uncommon on new-build lines, and is used mainly as a compromise when the streets are so narrow it’s impossible to give streetcars dedicated lanes without closing the streets to car traffic. As the US does not have cities with such narrow streets, outside a few old neighborhoods in Boston and New York with good subway service, its import of mixed-traffic streetcars is bad transit.
This relates to the point I made above, about local knowledge and bullshit. I know that many people view me as somewhat mysterious for having such a different knowledge base from Americans. It means I can comfortably bullshit about many points. I don’t bullshit, but it’s likely I’m making some mistakes, and I try to encourage my commenters to check me on them. But this requires commenters who are also very technically-minded and don’t think that just because I say something, it must be true.
In a sociopolitical environment in which the public and the activists have very little knowledge about imported ideas, whether they support them (usually viewing them as magical) or oppose them (usually denigrating them) is based on whether they identify with and trust the people proposing the import. Adonia does not trust the people who promote Vision Zero, since she views them as too white and male and too insensitive to the concerns of nonwhites, for example regarding police enforcement of speed limits. Conservatives, in turn, do not trust those people because they view them as cosmopolitan liberal urbanites, whence Tea Party opposition to various commuter and intercity rail expansions.
Consider high-speed rail, which is entirely a foreign import. The political coalitions for and against HSR in the US are based entirely on cultural identification with the proposition that Europe is better at something than the US. In particular, business-class small-government conservatives, who tend to be big fans of HSR in the countries where it exists, hate it in the US; George Will claimed it would make Americans more amenable to collectivism, and in Texas, right-wing populists have tried blocking an entirely private HSR scheme and possibly connecting it to the Democrats. In contrast, the populist left in the US (for example, Robert Cruickshank) supports public transportation infrastructure because of the environmentalist tie-in; in contrast, in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, who Robert is otherwise a big fan of, is at best lukewarm toward HS2. In Europe, the left is more pro-rail than the right, but the populists on both sides are more anti-rail, and the overall left-right gradient is small; in the US, the left-right gradient is large, and this comes from the issue of trusting the transportation program of countries that Americans associate with welfare-state social democracy.
The result is that any dialog based on foreign transit has to involve a certain amount of mystery and trust in the planners. I have no trust in the planners, because of various wheel reinventions proposed even by reformists, but I know enough to discuss technical items and not just the people. Generally, other people with this technical background come from a similar social background: educated, geographically mobile, white, male. The result is that, as with HSR, people’s opinions on these projects track their opinions of the tribe in the US that can talk at this level of technical detail. Usually it’s not even racial, not when it comes to transit – it’s mostly suburbanites looking for ways to screw the urbanites. If anything, nonwhite neighborhoods in the US are underserved relative to best practices, and agencies sometimes sandbag the idea of more service there. Adonia just weaponizes this in a different direction from the usual.
Local and Global Knowledge
I’m not going to rule out the possibility that there is valuable local knowledge in the US about cycling, but I know that there is very little such knowledge about transit, and given where the high cycling use is, I doubt cycling is much different. This means that American knowledge alone is worth approximately nothing. Jarrett Walker is of course American and has a lot to contribute, but as a consultant, he has extensive Australian and Canadian experience and some East Asian experience. The bus grid as an idea predates Jarrett – Jarrett attributes it to (at least) 1980s-era reforms in Portland – but by itself it’s not a game changer.
The problem here is that to implement something successfully, the people who run it need both local knowledge and knowledge about places that work, i.e. global knowledge. If there aren’t enough people with both, the solutions will not work, because people who can’t contradict what the planners are saying can’t exercise democratic accountability over them. One of the reasons Europe does transit better is that there’s more foreign knowledge here; see above for the contrast between how the US and Sweden handle rail signaling.
In fact, if you look at the examples above in the Mystery of the Foreign section, they both come from failure to adapt a successful foreign system to local conditions – namely, high wages in the case of BRT, and wide streets in the case of trams. I presume that the people who build mixed-traffic streetcars and BRT lines in the US have plenty of local knowledge, but they lack the global knowledge to appreciate what exactly makes those systems successes abroad. Conversely, international consultants don’t have the local knowledge to say “no, this is not a good fit for your needs” (besides, usually that’s not what they’re paid to say). This problem is especially acute with innovations in developing countries, such as BRT, since the large gap in incomes leads to different situations requiring major changes in adaptation, much more so than the relatively minor differences within the developed world.
Now, consultants can pick up local knowledge. Their trade is not just to possess global knowledge, but also to know how to acquire local knowledge rapidly when they’re working in a city. They run surveys, look at detailed breakdowns of costs and ridership to tease out patterns, quiz the in-house planners, and travel all over the city to gain ground-level impressions. The problem is that if the consultants are the only people who have both local and global knowledge, then there is no democratic accountability, and they have an incentive to bullshit. Of course, Jarrett specifically does not bullshit, but he has occasionally made mistakes (the main one, anchoring, I’ve been meaning to write about for two years), and of course my personal trust in one consultant is no substitute to systemic, institutional trust in the ability of the technocrats to response to what is essentially peer-review practiced by the community of local advocates.
It means the only way forward is for activists in US cities to pick up global knowledge and engage with such plans on the details. In the case of cycling, I could think of any number of reasons why US cities cannot emulate the success of Amsterdam and Copenhagen; but then again, it’s possible these reasons are all irrelevant, in the same manner many reasons Americans offer for why they cannot have the same per capita transit usage of Sweden are irrelevant.
I am also suspicious of the fact that, per Adonia, bike advocates look to Northern Europe as a source of examples of success. The biggest bike share systems in the world are all in China, and in Japan, bikes have largely replaced buses as the preferred mode of access to the train station in the suburbs. US bike advocates owe it to themselves and to their cities to be informed about Chinese and Japanese practices, and, if they clash with Dutch and Scandinavian practices, then to have opinions about which ones to pick and how to synthesize them in a local context. The only way forward for people in the periphery, by which I mean all of the US when it comes to any non-car transportation, is to know how the core works well enough that they can adapt its innovation without being so reliant on outside experts.