Local and Global Knowledge

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


  1. Fbfree

    There’s also a general aversion to knowledge and evaluation in many transportation organizations in the US. It’s not just a matter of ignoring foreign examples, but not seeing the failures in existing systems, such as over staffing on Metra and LIRR.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes! I mean, this is a general aversion to outside knowledge; the inside-outside distinction can be “career railroader” vs. “outsider,” as well as “American” vs. “foreigner.”

    • Roland Solinski

      I wouldn’t say it’s about resistance to outside knowledge exactly. Commuter railroads overlook the inefficiencies in staffing because they rely on organized labor as a source of political support for continued funding. The unions often provide a form of community organization and advocacy for rail service in cities where there is no effective transit advocacy from riders and citizens. In Chicago, I am amazed at how little popular advocacy there is for improved Metra service, considering just how wealthy and influential the Metra ridership is. At community meetings about major expansions or budgeting, the unions can always be counted on to provide a cheerleading section.

      • Alon Levy

        I’d buy that explanation if Charlie Baker, hardly a friend to the unions, made any effort at reducing staffing. From what I hear, he’s specifically not touching staffing.

      • Nathanael

        There’s something particularly weird going on at LIRR. From what I can tell, the unions at LIRR are basically engaged in graft and featherbedding; this is tolerated and approved of by the Nassau & Suffolk politicians, because those politicians are ALSO engaged in graft and featherbedding on a routine basis. (Various Nassau & Suffolk “authorities” and “special districts” have turned into patronage mills.) Here, the “insiders” seem to be people with a fundamentally crooked patronage mentality, and the “outsiders” seem to be good-government types.

        Not sure what’s going on in other commuter railroads — this particular form of perniciousness seems to be unique to the LIRR.

  2. Alon Levy

    There’s an example I forgot to include in the post, of the importance of global knowledge in a local context: the protesters who helped scuttle Shanghai’s plan to extend its maglev train to city center and thence Hongqiao specifically noted that the plan involved a 22.5-meter buffer next to the guideway whereas Transrapid standards call for 300 (link). Activists who know best industry practices can detect variations from them better, and point out biases and corner-cutting.

  3. Stephen Stofka

    I’ll point out, Alon, that — because Americans rarely have experience in foreign media — for those who actually do check foreign sources from time to time (I am known to be partial to French media pour raisons évidents) there is a certain respect even within the clade.

    A lot of American cycling advocacy comes not just from the local cycling culture adapting Dutch and Danish solutions (particularly protected bike lanes and, recently, protected intersections) for local conditions, but also from organizations like Copenhagenize that are dedicated to spreading their brand of bike culture across the world. Keep in mind here that even in Europe, cycling culture is intensely concentrated in a geographically small area and that I suspect* that outside that area in general, cycling advocacy tends to have a similar relationship with both local agencies and the Dutch and Danish vanguard as us Americans. Technical knowledge of cycling infrastructure in the U.S. is also advancing rapidly (protected intersections weren’t even a thing two years ago) — in part because of the highly immediate testing, especially in contrast to mass transit (where a much larger body of technical knowledge needs to be marshaled to achieve significantly more incremental improvements). Casual cyclists can easily experience why a given bike lane design will succeed or fail; this is much less the case with mass transit.

    I disagree about looking to China for bike anything. Their bikeshare systems may be huge, but that’s a function of (a) faster citywide implementation and (b) Chinese city size — actual bike infrastructure there is functionally nonexistent by international standards, and AFAIK remains so.

    With Japan, however, I agree we can bear taking a look at their cycling implementation. Some solutions (such as legitimizing sidewalk cycling on very wide sidewalks) definitely bear taking a look; however, I suspect a great deal of Japan’s cycling success comes down to an urban form (narrow streets, restrictive parking policies, etc) not very conducive to driving in ways that even Europe’s urban form just plain aren’t. For example, there does not seem to be any real need emphasize living streets in Japan the way there is in Britain (“shared space”) or even the Netherlands (“woonerven”), much less the United States!
    * …and probably should familiarize myself with cycling campaigns in e.g. Toulouse, Marseille, Lyon, etc.

    • Alon Levy

      On my street, there are cycle tracks on the sidewalk, which is wide. The problem with this arrangement: the cycle tracks are down the middle of the sidewalk, about the only part that is continuous, without intrusions such as sidewalk cafes (on the building side of the tracks) or tress (on the roadway side). The result is that often the most convenient place to walk is in the middle of the cycle track, when there are no bikes, which there usually aren’t.

    • kclo3

      Chinese arterials are actually pretty conducive to biking, to the extent that their presence is augmented by the prevalence of motorized two-wheel vehicles. Streets are often designed with Ben Franklin Parkway-style double medians or concrete fences such that the outer lanes are low-speed shared streets or 3m-wide protected bike lanes. Like in the Netherlands, the constant stream of bikes and mopeds have already been established in culture and perception, since the days of a pre-modern China when bike infrastructure was a necessity. The battle remains over modal share, which bike share, even with complete transit card integration, won’t help much without more stringent auto bans.

  4. Jonathan R

    Dr. Lugo’s complaints about Vision Zero are not derived from overzealous technocratic implementation of Swedish road safety standards on American thoroughfares. Her insight about Eurocentric thinking is drawn from seeing how US advocacy groups (not road-building authorities) who are choosing to lobby authorities to adopt Vision Zero policies are subtly associating Swedish culture (and by association, Danish and Dutch) with a greater reverence for traffic and bicyclist safety.

    Advocates who call for adoption of Swedish-type traffic-safety policies in the US context are blithely ignoring that the authorities who appear unresponsive to their entreaties (DiBlasio for instance) are politically constrained to consider other cultural traditions when speaking about road safety.Dr. Lugo’s blog post, along with much of her other work, is intended to puncture the technocratic bubble in which upper-class, white, male bicycling advocates consider traffic safety.

    • Alon Levy

      Do US bike activists associate Swedish culture with greater reverence for safety? At least from what I’ve seen, they argue the exact opposite: they show pictures of Amsterdam’s streets in the 1970s, which allocated most of their width to cars, in order to say, “look, the Netherlands wasn’t always like this, either.”

      In general, technocrats rarely talk about superior and inferior cultures. On the contrary, the central conceit of technocracy is that there are best practices – in health, in education, in international development, and in transportation – that everyone should adopt, with only minor modifications based on local needs. You see this in neo-liberal economics: there’s an entire chapter in one of Hernando de Soto’s books poking fun at latter-day appeals to the superiority of the Protestant and Jewish and East Asian ethics over the Latin American Catholic ethic, pointing out similarities between his Catholic cultural background and Jewish practices.

      I know that when it comes to transit, very few US transit activists make these cultural appeals, either – none of the people I identify as technical activists does, and few of the people I identify as political activists do. On the contrary, usually I find it’s anti-transit people who say Indianapolis and Sacramento can’t have what Stockholm has because of American individualism, or American racism, or whatever. I say this as someone who loathes American culture: this is not why the US has bad transit. It’s entirely policy decisions. Countries that have made the same policy decisions, such as Malaysia and Thailand (and to a large extent also Canada and Australia), have the same results. Countries that made different decisions have different results. You can’t reduce racism to urban policy, despite Jane Jacobs’ best effort, and you can’t reduce urban policy to racism. They intersect; neither is contained in the other.

    • Stephen Stofka

      The problem with this observation, though, is that the American approach to road safety has failed. Like, objectively. There’s a growing body of literature to this effect — touched off by an excellent paper authored by Dunbaugh and Li.

  5. michael.r.james

    I have long advocated that using Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Stockholm as models (cycling, public transport-v-cars, urban planning) for the Anglosphere is counter-productive, partly for the NIH reasons Alon gives here. I think Paris is the better model, for the reasons that it is a big city and has, or had, a militantly-minded car-culture not dissimilar to the US, Canada & Australia. It has one of the best public transit networks in the world yet a couple of percent (on any given day) choose to drive their cars, and that is all it takes (in a city of 12m) to bring all the usual problems.

    Incidentally I hope Stephen Stofka (above) will agree with me that the common perception–partly via the Tour de France–that French car drivers show a lot of respect for cyclists is only true for rural roads, and was certainly not true for big cities, especially Paris, at least prior to 2007.

    It happened that in summer of 2007 I was visiting Paris at the introduction of Velib, the cycle sharing scheme. I was astounded at the change in behaviour of Paris drivers. Apparently they had been tamed by a quasi-military police and PR program in preparation for the introduction of Velib (and cycle lanes, and sharing bus lanes with buses & taxis). Having lived there a decade earlier I would never have believed it was possible but there certainly has been a change (I suppose it is all relative). I know most Americans will not believe such a quantum change in driver’s mindset is possible but I think Paris shows otherwise.

    Everyone reading this is thinking “oh yeah, right “eyeroll”” but, realize that both London and NYC adopted many of Paris’ practices on a Velib-type scheme, regular road closures (eg. 5th Ave), cycle lanes and pedestrianized zones (eg. Time Square). In 2013, provoked by the high cycling fatalities London mayor Boris Johnson launched a similar para-military scheme, “Operation Safeway (London) on 25 November involved 2,500 officers at 166 junctions around capital throughout period of operation, a total of 13,818 fines have been issued, with 4,085 given to cyclists”. Johnson explained “.. 14 cyclists have died this year in London as opposed to eight soldiers in Afghanistan. Heavy goods vehicles were involved in nine of the fatal crashes — that’s 64 percent of the fatalities — despite making up less than 5 percent of traffic. In Paris, last year there were zero cyclist fatalities.”

    That’s a Tory politician citing Paris safety statistics!

    The Paris statistic is somewhat amazing though it only applies to the zones serviced by Velib (Paris plus the innermost part of the Petite Couronne, ie. inner ring of suburbs), and the level of cycling, while high for a big city is still low by comparison to Amsterdam et al.
    Of course Johnson could have cited the better record of “the Dutch have a low figure for deaths per billion miles cycled, around 21, as opposed to 38 in Britain” but I believe he was absolutely correct in comparing London to Paris. Comparisons with Amsterdam would just sail over most or all Londoner’s heads.
    This issue is heating up in NYC too.

    15,465 Pedestrians and Cyclists Injured, 155 Killed in Traffic in 2012. In the year after [NYC Transport Chair] Vacca proclaimed that everything he does is governed by the imperative to protect pedestrians [2012], more than 130 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in New York City. [and 19 cyclists killed] None have been killed by cyclists.

    This counters the common and disreputable tactic taken by many local politicians who are against cycling (in most of the Anglosphere) by falsely claiming cyclists are a danger to pedestrians!

    In Paris we see the battle between “cars versus people” is heating up. On Sunday 27 September, Paris had a partial road closure in the centre (the national government over-rode the mayor by not allowing as wide a shutdown as originally planned; only about 30% of central Paris closed and only for part of the day after which taxis and delivery vehicles were allowed back). Nevertheless levels of nitrogen dioxide dropped by up to 40%, and noise levels by half (reported in todays Guardian, Sunday 4th October). It served its purpose and has generated support to extend the closures and fight the vested interests (including the timidity of the national government, also a fellow socialist like the mayoralty).

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the issue with London and Paris refusing to learn from cities other than each other is irritating. You see it in New York, too: there’s a very good reason that my initial comparison of cost estimates (in a comment on Second Avenue Sagas, in 2009 or 2010) looked at London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo – I figured that comparing New York to smaller cities would be wrong, because they don’t have as much older infrastructure, so construction there would be cheaper. Although my proposals to use the RER as a model for New York commuter rail investment have met with some denigration (obviously not from you!), this was by no means universal – and I will note that today there’s an entire proposed project called New York Crossrail. New York does, sometimes, listen to London, and occasionally Paris, just as London listens to Paris.

      The problem is that a lot of the cutting edge is not in the largest cities. When it comes to cycling infrastructure, as opposed to bikeshare, the Netherlands generally sets the gold standard, and Copenhagen perhaps the silver standard.

      This issue is especially problematic for small cities. For example, take any of the Metropolitan Counties in Britain. They all have better public transit than most of the US and worse public transit than the European transit cities, including of course London. If they wish to expand their public transportation, they can’t really look to London for a model, because London’s investments take place in a context of a city that’s both much larger and much richer, which means it can afford Crossrail. This means that they need to look at smaller cities around Europe (and Japan!), for examples Hamburg, Sapporo, Lyon, Copenhagen, Brussels, and Zurich. This requires direct periphery to periphery knowledge transfer (or maybe small-scale core to periphery, since the last three cities are highly non-peripheral, and even Lyon is a lot richer than Manchester and such).

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  7. G.F. Reed

    Philadelphia probably has more narrow streets than Boston and New York combined.

    • Alon Levy

      Does it? The grid streets are 15 meters wide, which are wide enough for most of what you want if they’re one-way. They’re narrow by the standards of the Manhattan grid, but by the standards of Amsterdam or Tokyo or Kyoto, they’re very roomy.

      • kclo3

        The claim is usually directed toward the intra-block residential streets which are <8 meters, although with dedicated sidewalks and on-street parking everything feels narrow de facto. It was the unbuffered on-street parking, more than the narrow lanes, that made mixed-use streetcars like Route 23 untenable.

  8. orulz

    Excellent article and it will take a while to unpack.

    In my personal observation (mostly from Japan) US practices are not so horrendously behind when it comes to operating heavy rail metros; the gap is much more stark when it comes to passenger operations on mainline railroads.

    This touches on a fundamental difference in railroading between the US and Europe/Japan, and it’s more than just NIH syndrome.

    To boil it down, in Europe and Japan, passenger interests, mostly public, control the conversation. In the US, freight interests, mostly private, do.

    In the US, efficient bi-directional clockface scheduling is difficult to achieve, absent significantly overbuilt infrastructure, because the freight railroads are unwilling to commit to operating their trains according to an exact enough schedule. Generally, the trains go out “when they’re ready” and they run “as fast as they can until they get there.” Presumably committing to certain schedules would force them to do things like plan ahead of time exact departure schedules and performance characteristics of freight trains. This would increase their cost of operations and since they own the rails they say no way.

    Therefore, a great deal of the expense associated with carrying passenger traffic on mainline rail in the US seems to center around the need to provide excessive infrastructure to work around the unpredictability of freight operations.

    That said, I have a notion in my head that private US freight railroads do manage move tonnage more efficiently (ton-miles/dollar) than their counterparts abroad. I recall reading an article stating that while China looked to Europe and Japan for expertise and technology when building its high speed rail passenger network, they looked to US corporations when it came to practices for operating freight railroads.

    Please feel free to debunk this notion with cost figures from SBB or Sweden or wherever. But your statement that “US Expertise is worth approximately nothing” may be a bit of an oversimplification.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, in Sweden the freight lines run in different parts of the country from the passenger lines – freight dominates in the north, passenger rail dominates in the south.

      The thing is, the US is similar to that, too. The Northeast Corridor has 1,000 daily passenger trains and 50 daily freight trains. Entire commuter rail systems have minimal to no freight, including nearly all Northeastern lines, many lines in Chicago (including freight railroad-owned UP-North and UP-Northwest), Caltrain, and significant chunks of Metrolink. The LIRR doesn’t resist modernization because of a handful of daily freight trains; it resists modernization because its employees and existing passengers do not care for modernization.

      • Nathanael

        I suspect that LIRR passengers would like modernization just fine. It is the machine politicians of Nassau and Suffolk County who very clearly oppose modernization. And the passengers don’t care about modernization enough to kick out the machine politicians, which is hard.

        It’s worth remembering that the government isn’t usually really representative, even in a so-called democracy.

    • Nathanael

      The refusal of the US freight haulers to operate on schedule is a perpetual annoyance to the shippers, such as UPS and FedEx, who do have schedules. So you’d think that eventually the “freight railroads” would change that. CN in fact started advertising a “scheduled railroad”, though they’ve fallen very far from achieving that.

  9. Bjorn Swenson

    There are circumstances where local knowledge of cycling practices, specifically laws, can conflict with global knowledge. For instance, the color used for bike lane markings is typically red or blue in Europe, but the United States has converged on green. The US generally allows right-turns-on-red, which would conflict with thru bicycle traffic if the bike lane is placed on the curb side of the vehicle turn lane.

    US state laws almost always direct right-turning traffic to merge into the curb lane; if the curb lane is a bicycle lane leading to a bike box then a right turning car properly following the law would block straight-thru bicycle traffic from advancing to the box.

    Under US practice, should green paint be used to mark bicycle lanes in areas with no conflicting movements, at merge areas, and/or in intersections? Should the green paint be solid, dashed, or not used? I’ve seen most permutations used, with no clear convergence. Local ideas seem to prevail over global (national) ideas.

    These may seem like minor nitpicks of traffic code, but remember that Michael Brown of Ferguson, MO is no longer with us due to a confrontation that (allegedly) started with a traffic code violation.

  10. slaniel

    “Boston in particular had a very good public transit network in 1950, and it systematically dismantled it and bypassed the remains”

    I’m interested to read more on this point. I’ve lived in Boston for 15 years, and I’ve read a bunch about the history — particularly the city’s destruction of many of its neighborhoods in the 50s and 60s — but not particularly much about how public transit used to be. I know the Washington St Elevated was taken down, partially replaced by the orange line, and augmented by the execrable silver line some years later. But was there a specific bit of dismantling/bypassing you were referencing here?

    If you have any pointers to further reading, I’d gratefully consume them.

    • Alon Levy

      …I don’t have these pointers. Sorry. It’s not even about the els that were taken down, so much as about how the city rewired itself, with suburbanization of residences and jobs. Unlike (say) Los Angeles, Boston has a huge urban core that was built back when car ownership was low. But it suburbanized, especially the sections of it that commute to the CBD, where the transit mode share is normally the highest. The working class stayed, but has undergone extensive job dispersion, and the bus network (and the street network, really) is optimized for feeding the subway to the CBD rather than for getting you from anywhere to anywhere.

  11. Nathanael

    Adonia has a particularly odd attitude when it comes to the Vision Zero demand that police enforce basic traffic safety laws.

    So far the focus of Vision Zero has been on *arresting people who have already killed someone with a car*. Which currently does not happen in New York City, at least.

    I think even in groups where the police are distrusted, they would find it desirable for the police to arrest proven killers.

    The failure of police to arrest killers is actually part and parcel of the police *being* killers themselves. It’s fundamentally the same problem: police arrogating the power to decide who lives and who dies to themselves. You can’t trust cops who arrest or assault you for no reason — you also can’t trust cops who refuse to arrest the guy who just ran over your kid on the sidewalk.

  12. signallingman

    Just another example of “there is no history of underinvestment in Europe” Spanish Main railways have been underinvested since 1930s up to 2000s. We are just catching up with the rest of Western Europe.

  13. Glandu

    Just discovered your blog.

    “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.”

    This applies on most domains, I think. It’s a real gem. I see it at work in computer projects, for example. When the big boss does not understand the project specifics and wants to apply a method that worked elsewhere, or when the people who know the specifics are unable to have a good view of the broad picture, then the project is doomed to failure.

  14. Pingback: Safer Streets: Design is Better Than Enforcement | Pedestrian Observations

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