I ran a Patreon poll about theory-oriented posts, and this option won over the concepts of skin in the game and of cities and assimilation. It came to me when I tried understanding why on several distinct measures of good governance related to urbanism and public transportation, the US is unusually weak by developed-country standards. I was reminded of something regular commenter Max Wyss once said: in French and in German, there’s a word that means “the state” and has positive connotation, whereas in native English use it usually refers to a sinister external imposition.
My main theory is that the US has problems with governance that ultimately stem from its racist history, and these have unrelated implications today that lead to poor urban governance and low transit usage. This is not a straightforward claim about white flight leading to high car use, or even a general claim about racism-poor transit correlation. (I don’t think the US is currently more racist than the average Western European country, and the costs in Europe don’t seem to correlate with my perception of racism levels.) In particular, fixing racism is not by itself going to lead to better transit or better urbanism, only to improvements in quality of government that in the future could prevent similar problems with other aspects of public policy that are yet unforeseen today.
This is a three-step argument. First, I am going to go over the weakness of US civil service and its consequences. Second, I am going to step back and describe the political mentality that leads to weak civil service, which centers the local community at the expense of the state. And third, I am going to relate this and similar examples of excessive localism in the US to the country’s unique history of racism. In effect, I am going to go backward, describing the effect and then looking at its causes.
Effect: Weak State Capacity
The argument is as follows: the US has a weak civil service. There’s relatively little in-house expertise, and weak planning departments. The rapid transit extensions of London and Paris are driven mostly by professional planning departments (Transport for London is especially powerful), with the budgets debated within their respective national parliaments. In contrast, in New York, while Second Avenue Subway was similarly driven by an internal process, other rail extensions were not: the 7 extension is Bloomberg’s project, the ongoing plans for BQX and the LaGuardia AirTrain are de Blasio and Cuomo’s projects respectively, and Gateway in its various incarnations is political football among several agencies and governments. Similarly, while the TGV was developed internally at SNCF with political approval of the overall budget, American plans for high-speed rail involve a melange of players, including consultants.
The more obvious effect of the weakness of the American civil service is that, with political control of planning and not just of the budget, it’s easy to build low-performance infrastructure such as the 7 extension. However, there are three ways in which this problem can increase costs, rather than just lead to poor priorities.
First, it is easier to have agency turf battles. The US has no transport association coordinating planning like STIF in Ile-de-France or any number of German-speaking Verkehrsverbünde (Berlin’s VBB, Zurich’s ZVV, etc.). Even when one agency controls all transit in an area, like SEPTA in Philadelphia or the MBTA in Boston, powerful internal cultures inhibit reforms aiming at treating mainline rail like regular public transit. An instructive example of better civil service is Canada: while Canadian civil service is also weak by Continental European or Japanese standards, it is strong enough that Metrolinx plans to raise off-peak frequency and at least in theory aims at fare integration, over the objections of the traditional railroaders who, like their American counterparts, like the situation as it is today.
Without any structure that gets different agencies to coordinate plans, overbuilding is routine. I blogged about it a few months ago, giving the examples of Gateway and East Side Access in New York and San Jose Diridon Station. A second Bay Area example, not mentioned in the post, concerns Millbrae, where BART holds on to turf it does not need, leading California High-Speed Rail to propose a gratuitous $1.9 billion tunnel: see posts on Caltrain-HSR Compatibility here and here.
Second, there is less in-house supervision of contracting. Brian Rosenthal’s article about Second Avenue Subway’s construction costs talks, among other things, about the lack of internal expertise at the MTA about running large projects. This is consistent with Manuel Melis Maynar’s admonition that project management should be done in-house rather than by consultants; Melis managed to build subways in Madrid for around $60 million per km. It’s also consistent with what I’ve heard from MBTA insiders as an explanation for the cost blowout for Boston’s Green Line Extension, an open-cut light rail so expensive it was misclassified as a subway in a Spanish comparison; as I mention in CityLab, once the MBTA found a good project manager it managed to substantially reduce costs.
Weaker in-house supervision has knock-on effects on procurement practices. An agency that can’t easily oversee the work it pays for has difficulty weeding out dishonest or incompetent contractors. One way around it is strict lowest-bid rules, but these offer dishonest contractors an opportunity to lowball costs; California has a particular problem with change orders. In New York, I’ve heard from several second-hand sources that to prevent contractors from doing shoddy work, the specs micromanage the contractors, leading to more expensive work and discouraging good builders, who can get private-sector work, from bidding. If fewer contractors bid, then there is less competition, increasing cost further. In contrast, Melis Maynar’s prescription is to offer contracts based primarily on the technical score and only secondarily on cost, to ensure quality work. But this requires objective judgment of technical merit, which American bureaucrats are not good at.
And third, the US’s weaker state capacity leads to problems with NIMBY opposition to infrastructure. This does not means the US can’t engage in eminent domain (on the contrary, its eminent domain laws favor the state). But it means that agencies feel like they’re politically at the mercy of powerful local interests, and can’t propose projects with high community impact that they can negotiate with local landowners. The impetus for the SECoast’s hiring me to analyze high-speed rail in Fairfield County is that the NEC Future plan was vague about that area; an insider at one of the NEC Future consultants told me that this was specifically because the consultant was worried about NIMBYism in that part of the state, so an “unspoken assumption” was that the area should not be disturbed.
This kind of preemptive surrender to NIMBYism leads to inferior projects, like agency turf battles: cost-effective solutions are not pursued if consultants are worried about political pushback. But, like agency turf battles, it also leads to higher costs, if the reports propose expensive remediation such as tunnels.
Any attempt to build a strong bureaucracy in the United States runs into entrenched interests, most of which are local. These interests are empowered politically rather than legally. The NIMBYism example is the cleanest case study. The United States does not have a legal regime that empowers NIMBY opposition in eminent domain cases. On the contrary, the state can condemn property with relative ease, and the arguments are over price. Under Kelo, the state can even expropriate land and to give to a private developer.
In contrast, in Japan the process is more difficult: in a 1994 Transportation Research Board paper, Walter Hook says that urban landowners in Japan enjoy strong legal protections, which requires the state to pay a high price for property takings. About 75-80% of the cost of urban highway construction in Japan is land acquisition, versus only 25% in the US (both figures are lower for rail, which is more space-efficient; the paper argues that Japan’s difficult land acquisition led it to favor the more space-efficient mode for its urban transportation network).
Moreover, in Japan as well as in France, property owners have extralegal means of fighting infrastructure: they can take to the streets. The construction of Narita Airport faced riots by landowners, encouraged by leftists who opposed the airport’s use by the US military; and in France, blocking roads is a standard way of protesting, and there is little the state can do against it. SNCF resolves this issue in building high-speed lines for TGVs by spending years negotiating with landowners and coming up with win-wins in which it pays extra to make the owners go away quietly.
With a legally stronger state, the US needs to come up with different ways to protect powerful property owners from arbitrary expropriation. The mechanism the country settled on is political empowerment of local interests. If rich individuals in Fairfield County or on the San Francisco Peninsula can interfere with the construction process, then they can rest assured the state will not be able to build a rail alignment that wrecks their real or imagined quality of life. The point I made repeatedly in my writeup about high-speed rail in Fairfield County (funded by those rich individuals) is that there is some real visual and noise impact, but it’s possible to mitigate it in most cities using noise barriers and trees, and as compensation use the faster tracks to offer faster commuter rail service; only Darien has unmitigable impact.
The same localism encourages agency turf battles. The LIRR, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit could provide much better rail service in their respective service areas by integrating planning, but this would compel local interests to give up control. Long Islanders would have to interact directly with the Tri-State Area’s transport association, in which they’d be only 12% of the population and 5% of transit ridership; today they interact with planning via their powerful elected representatives, who can block any change that is unfavorable to incumbent riders.
The main losers here are potential riders. It is possible to come up with a win-win (there’s so much schedule padding a local train could be as fast as today’s super-express trains), but it is not possible for any coordinated planning department to credibly promise that the suburbs would retain the priority they have today. For the same reason, even vertically integrated SEPTA and the MBTA find it difficult to engage in integration – the suburbs would lose their special status.
In contrast, planning in France and Britain is more centralized, and the local communities were never so empowered. The two main players in STIF are RATP and SNCF. RATP serves Paris, and SNCF is the national railroad and does not view itself as catering to the suburbs even if those suburbs are the overwhelming majority of SNCF’s ridership. The rich can exercise direct political influence: thus, the state just committed to building the entire Grand Paris Express, despite cost overruns, without pruning the unnecessary airport connector that is Line 17 or the low-ridership favored-quarter suburban circumferential that is Line 18. But they can’t block projects as easily as in the US.
The US achieves democratic checks and balances by having many veto points on every law. In Congress, a law needs majorities in both houses and a presidential signature, or supermajorities in both houses. Moreover, achieving a majority in each house requires not only the support of the majority of legislators, but also the support of the majority of legislators in the majority party (the Hastert Rule). In each state legislature, the process is largely similar. In nonpartisan or effectively single-party legislatures, such as the New York City Council, votes on such local issues as rezoning informally require the approval of the legislator representing the district in question; David Schleicher, who has elsewhere investigated high US subway construction costs, has a paper on this local representative privilege explaining why upzoning is difficult in large cities.
This localism is absent from other democracies. Westminster systems just don’t have checks and balances, only traditions, occasionally supplemented by narrow civil liberties-oriented constitutions like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As a result, Ontario could pass a rent control law overnight; with this regulatory uncertainty, it’s no wonder that for years, even before the law, fearful developers built mostly condos rather than rental units.
In most other democracies, checks and balances instead rely on proportional representation and a multiparty system: laws in Germany or Scandinavia require a parliamentary majority, and restrictions on the government’s ability to pass big changes overnight with no debate come from the ability of class-based and ideological interests to activate entire political parties. Coalition agreements still specify the agenda, roughly equivalent to the Hastert Rule, but parties can freely campaign for changes in elections, reducing the ability of a minority to block change. In some systems, most notably Switzerland, it’s also possible to use referendums to direct spending. This way, local magnates opposed to the expansion of civil service are disempowered, while at the same time the civil service cannot easily use its powers to create internal slush funds, because it is still overseen by a political majority that cares little for corruption.
Ultimate Cause: Democratic Deficit and Racism
The superficial reason why the US prefers localism to civil service is that it is historically localist. New England had powerful town halls from early white settlement, and Americans like to tell themselves that they have a lively tradition of self-government and individualism. But this is incorrect. Israelis in the United States often comment that far from individualist or self-governing, Americans are unusually rule-bound and obedient, compared with not just Israelis but also Europeans.
More to the point, traditions of localism exist in much of Europe. Switzerland is famous for this, and yet it’s managed to develop civil service planning transportation; referendums exert a powerful check on the ability of the state to spend money, but do not micromanage planning, and as a result the state makes cost-effective plans rather than retreating and letting local suburbs decide what to build.
Moreover, most European countries have undergone rounds of municipal consolidation, converting formerly independent suburbs or villages into parts of larger cities or townships. France has uniquely not done so, and is therefore extremely fractionalized, with 30,000 communes, about the same as the number of municipalities in five times more populous America; but in France the communes are for the most part weak, and most subnational government is done by departments and regions. The US, in contrast, maintained its suburbs’ autonomy.
The answer to the question of why the US has done so is simple: racism. Suburban consolidation came to a hard stop once the cities became more diverse than the suburbs. Relying on prior town lines could offer suburban whites something they craved: protection from integration, especially school integration.
It would be difficult to consolidate education policy, even at the state level, and maintain the white middle and working classes’ desired segregation levels. Thus, the US prefers the second-best policy of maintaining localism. The same principle also underlies much election disenfranchisement (giving white poll workers authority to reject black voters’ credentials), today and even more so before the Voting Rights Act.
Transit faces the same issue. The traditional American transit cities’ suburbs have fast expensive trains for middle-class, mostly white suburban commuters to city center, and slow, cheap suburban buses for poor minorities working service jobs in the suburbs. Stephen Smith, who spent some time on the NICE buses on Long Island and compared their demographics with those of the LIRR, calls this “separate and unequal.” This segregation would not survive any coordinated planning; even ignoring racial equality, it’s inefficient.
The underlying cause is that it is very difficult to have a clean herrenvolk democracy. Neither of the two main examples of herrenvolk democracies, the American South in the eras of slavery and Jim Crow and South Africa in the apartheid era, had good government. On the contrary, the antebellum South opposed public infrastructure investment (“internal improvements” in the era’s language), and the Jim Crow South was a single-party state ruled by corrupt political machines. Apartheid South Africa, too, was effectively a single-party state with totalitarian characteristics trying to stamp out communism. The ability of the state to respond to even the white population’s economic and social needs was constrained by the overwhelming need to credibly promise to maintain apartheid. Ta-Nehisi Coates notes this of George Wallace:
I frequently reference the story of George Wallace’s evolution. Wallace was once a sensible politician who generally was seen as fair-minded by black leaders in Alabama. But he lost the gubernatorial election after being tarred by John Patterson as too friendly to black people. Wallace subsequently vowed to never be “out-niggered” again and thus began his long dark march into history.
You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.
The only way to maintain racism is to weaken institutions. It’s hard to have a clean system of apartheid justice, because then the oppressed minority can simply demand the state treat it the way it treats the herrenvolk. A state that attempted to impose apartheid with clean government would not be able to credibly promise to the racists that the system would stay as is. Instead, it would need to engage in arbitrary justice, giving individual cops, judges, and juries broad latitude to make decisions, which could survive the end of formal apartheid to some extent.
The Impact of Racism on Property Rights
The US built roads in the 1950s and 60s by running them through low-income black urban neighborhoods. The book The Big Roads says that road planners figured that those areas were already declining and had low property values, so it was cheap to build there; in one tone-deaf example, planners in Washington tried surveying roads after a race riot, figuring that it was the best time to demolish buildings, until outraged civil rights groups put a stop to the process. The problem is that black neighborhoods were cheap because of redlining. The federal government spent 30 years wrecking the property values of black neighborhoods and then acquired property for cheap to build infrastructure for then-white suburban drivers.
For the same reason, there is much less tolerance toward protest in the US than in other democracies. If Americans tried reacting to adverse changes the way the French react, the police would shoot them. If the US engaged in a process to reduce its police brutality rates to levels that Europeans tolerate, black people would be able to free to roam the streets and make racist whites uncomfortable.
Thus, the US refrains from giving property owners any formal legal or extralegal protections from expropriation. Instead, it promises security of property to the middle class by underinvesting in institutions that could come up with bureaucratic rules for expropriation. Legally excluding minorities is difficult; politically excluding them is easy. The natural end of this system is to ensure the locus of protection from expropriation is political rather than legal.
When the US protects individuals from the predations of the state, it does so by letting people sue the government; this contrasts with regulatory protections, such as the Nordic ombudsman system. While suing the government is in theory a legal protection, in practice it depends on familiarity with the court system, which privileges people with connections and legal knowledge. When the state does spend political capital on getting what it wants, some rich individuals can sue indefinitely to delay projects; the poor have no such recourse. While this is partly a legacy of the common law system, indefinite delay by lawsuit is rare in the rest of the common law world, leading to British stereotypes that Americans are overly litigious.
The US is not uniquely racist. Its levels of economic discrimination against minorities seem fairly average to me by developed-country standards. Moreover, the extent of political exclusion of black Americans is arguably the smallest among all large groups of nonwhite minorities in white-majority countries. Barack Obama faced considerably racism as president, but he did win by a fair margin, and for years beforehand the media normalized the idea of a black president (as in the TV show 24 or the film Deep Impact). In contrast, a Muslim French president would be unthinkable. Even the Trump cabinet is more diverse than the Macron cabinet, which has one black member (the minister of sport) and one part-Algerian member (the minister of public accounts); the Clinton, Bush, and Obama cabinets all had minorities in far more senior positions.
However, the US is unique in that it was racially diverse early, requiring its political system to adapt to a state of slavery and subsequently apartheid. Europe, in contrast, formally applies the rules of liberal democratic participation, developed when there were few minorities, to an increasingly diverse electorate. To the extent that European racists are dissatisfied with this arrangement, they try to push for localism as well: British xenophobia borrows rhetoric from American local racism, substituting neo-Confederate dislike for the US federal government for anti-EU sentiments. Similarly, Swiss racists push for rules putting every naturalization to a referendum, ensuring that long-settled white Germans and Italians could naturalize while nonwhites could not.
Conclusion: the Origins and Future of Poor Governance
With the need to maintain apartheid embedded into the American legal and political systems, it had to underinvest in state capacity. A uniform civil service with clear rules would have to treat everyone equally, and if it didn’t, it would be so obvious that civil rights advocates would be able to easily push for change.
For the same reason, the US didn’t design rules that would guarantee security of property to all citizens while allowing the government to function in those cases where expropriation was required. Such rules would equally protect whites and blacks, and allow the black middle class to build wealth on the same terms as whites. Instead, its legal system empowers the state in eminent domain cases and requires individuals to either use their political pull to protect themselves or to attempt to sue the government for just compensation, neither of which option protects unorganized or disempowered communities.
With planning done by ad hoc arrangements and excessive empowerment of local interests, it is difficult to engage in any regional coordination. Even when none of the actors is a racist, or when all relevant communities are white, parochial local interests are stronger than the civil service and have many levers with which they can block change. With a change-averse political system, planning is run by autopilot, keeping traditional arrangements as they are.
Aversion to change, poor coordination, and ad hoc planning all lead to bad government, but are especially deleterious for public transit. Two road agencies that work independently in neighboring jurisdiction could build a single continuous road. Two public transit agencies in the same situation could build a railroad but not operate it. Moreover, with the bulk of spending on roads coming from individual consumers buying cars and fuel, a car-based transportation system is more resilient to bad government than a transit-based one, in which all spending is directed by a transit agency.
It’s hard to have an organization-before-electronics-before-concrete mentality when organization is stymied by the overarching need to maintain white middle-class local autocephaly. The end result is that transit planning departments are too weak to prioritize projects the right way and even to control costs of spending that benefits the white middle class.
None of this was intentional. Racism was of course intentional, but the political compromises between racist and nonracist whites that created American governance as it is today were not intended to wreck American state capacity. They just did so as a side product of guaranteeing the desired levels of political and economic exclusion.
The importance of intent is that reducing the extent of racism in the US in the future, while obviously desirable, is independent of fixing public transit. Some individual bad decisions today, such as Larry Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line in Baltimore, are directly racist, but a lot of agency turf (such as between different commuter rail agencies) is not, and neither are high construction costs. Fixing the problems of US transit planning requires improving the relevant planning departments, but this is so narrowly-focused as to neither require nor be a natural consequence of fighting racism.
However, there is an entire world out there beyond public transit. When the US built its current racist system, during the midcentury transition period from apartheid to more-or-less equal democracy, probably the most obvious racially charged issue was school integration; the effect on transportation policy was a byproduct. Likewise, if the US makes a concerted effort to move toward racial equality, or if any European country with high immigration rates makes a concerted effort to avoid falling into an American racist trap, the improvements in governance will have far-reaching unforeseen benefits in the future.