Civil Service, Racism, and Cost Control

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.

Cause: Localism

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.


  1. Diego Beghin

    I’m not very familiar with the US, but I think most of the points applies to Brazil as well. Not surprising, since Brazil has an even worse history of racism and class segregation than the US.

    Funding for transit projects in Brazil is uncorrelated with the project’s merit. If you’re lucky, the mayor may favour a sensible bus reorganisation, but most likely they’ll prefer to fund things like Rio’s downtown tramway circulator or São Paulo’s useless metro line 5. They’ll serve flashy city projects like the Olympics stadiums, they’ll placate rich neighbourhoods by investing more in them than they deserve, while completely ignoring the poor riding in overcrowded buses and trains. The most pressing transit need in São Paulo is relieving the overcrowded red line (we’re talking 9+ per square meter) not building a circumferential line in Santo Amaro. Rio had a metro master plan, but it’s being ignored, no one’s interested in building the planned second downtown Estácio-Carioca tunnel, even though the metro is crush-loaded in the core.

    Universal healthcare is also pretty interesting. The rich have private insurance, which they use for routine care and minor things like checking out a broken toe or mild fever symptoms. (The one routine thing public clinics do well is vaccination.) This helps them avoid the long lines in the public hospitals and clinics. But when you have a major problem, like cancer, or you need a heart bypass, then the public system is a lot better. But if you don’t know which hospital to choose, and how to “apply” to get treatment there, then you’ll still get substandard care. The rich can game the system, the poor don’t know how to.

    • Eric

      No metro line in Sao Paolo is useless. The average Sao Paolo metro station serves 4.4 times as many riders as the average station in NYC. It is only *less* useful than other lines. Also, the most useful part of Line 5 has yet to open for service.

    • Ed

      Interesting comments about Brazil and yes its a good test case for the argument about the USA because of the racial issues. South Africa would be another good comparison.

      I’ve ridden on that tram in Rio and my first thought was “Olympics related white elephant”, though on reflection it does connect the Rodevaria with the Santos Dumont regional airport and so is not completely useless. Really they need metro going to those places, though I agree that overall the Rio metro expansion plan is not bad.

      • Alon Levy

        South Africa is dicey because the politically dominant group switched at the end of apartheid. This matters, because in the apartheid era the trains were for white people, whereas blacks relied on informal transit. After the end of apartheid, informal transit became somewhat of an in-group marker, which created controversy when the government wanted to invest in new passenger rail in Johannesburg. And of course during apartheid there was no change of any clean herrenvolk democracy when the herrenvolk were 10% of the population; I think this is why, by the standards of the white-majority English settler colonies, South Africa has underdeveloped public transit – there was no interest in serving black South Africans.

  2. SC

    Every discussion on comparative politics easily becomes a quagmire that is difficult to dig oneself out of. There are many important nuances of the American system versus Continental systems that you’ve missed, especially from the political theory backend. It’s also important to understand that the American political system is largely based on English-language political theory, which intersects French-language political theory, German-language political theory, Spanish-language political theory, etc., only as much as the political theory has been translated.

    I also think it’s too easy to blame racism on EVERY. SINGLE. PROBLEM. that exists. Yes, systemic racism is an important issue to consider, and it affects many aspects of our lives, but we need to be careful not to overreach the blame we place on it, or else it blunts the impact of analyses of systemic racism on everything else. There are also other systemic factors that impact political systems around the world, and ignoring all the other systemic factors to pin blame on only systemic racism as the cause of comparative political differences between different national cultures unfairly flattens out all the other systemic issues that need to be dealt with as well while trying to effect political change.

  3. orulz

    I’ve lately been tending towards thinking that what you outline, though largely true, is not the root of the problem.

    My theory, admittedly not fully developed, is that the system of checks and balances at the core of the constitution is fundamentally flawed. Instead of encouraging coalitions, cooperation, and effectiveness, it actively stokes and encourages partisanship and competition. This leads to policy whiplash with every transition that weakens the system and makes it easy to exploit by the likes of xenophobic racists (who hope to effectively enrich themselves by excluding and suppressing others) and corrupt politicians and their patrons (who hope to enrich themselves by politically stacking the deck in their favor).

    The constitution’s framers made a bet that the only thing that can effectively check the ambition of a greedy politician is the ambition of another greedy politician, rather than the rule of law (which would involve effective, apolitical, oversight). I would argue that over time this wager has not proven to be as wise as is commonly believed here.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t think it’s something you can get straight out of the Constitution, even on close reading. Nowhere does the Constitution say “filibuster,” for example, and even judicial review was invented by John Marshall. The preference for single-member districts over proportional representation means there are no coalition governments in the mold of Northern Europe, but even that has a huge caveat: some American city councils tried adopting proportional representation in the 20th century, but then were horrified by the results (the communists won seats) and went back to districts.

      The big difference is that the US never modernized its constitution in any systematic fashion. Even the post-Civil War amendments use language like “nobody shall be denied the right to vote based on race,” rather than affirmatively giving the right to vote to all male US citizens aged 21 or more (and then also to women in the 19th Amendment, and to US citizens down to age 18 in the 26th). Part of it is unintentional, just a byproduct of coalitions involving non-racist whites during Reconstruction; part of it is intentional, especially the changes around the 1960s, designed to increase black political empowerment while still ensuring that an individual rich white suburb has the ability to object to having too many black people around.

      • Michael James

        I think Cambridge still uses it:,_Massachusetts_municipal_election,_2013
        (of course, that pinko enclave of Massachusetts! surely the People’s Republic of Berkeley too?)

        Australia’s Preferential Voting system (in the US called Rank Choice Voting, RCV) is being adopted by more US cities. For a long time (about 70 years) we thought it was pretty clever and fair (and it certainly beats FPTP) but it turns out it has the strong tendency of locking in a two-party system, thus causing inertial political stasis. The MMP systems, such as the Australian version called Hare-Clark (used in the state of Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory), are superior. Of course it allows the occasional election of ratbags, or communists, but that is rather the point: better inside the tent pissing out … and real ratbags usually show themselves up as fools once they are elected and have no influence, while an occasional ratbag turns out to be a gem. In any case it gives the voters an actual real choice, and their vote will count for something (even in the preferential system my vote will usually end up with someone/some party I don’t approve of; most voters are heartily sick of what increasingly appears to be a set up between the two old parties; sound familiar?).

    • smooth indian

      Perhaps the more stronger factor is not necessary the constitutional checks and balances or the FPTP system, but the lack of multiple political parties. In the current duopoly pretty much everyone has to be aligned with the republican or the democrats to get anywhere above local politics. Hence the moderate and reasonable ones have to align with crazy and lunatic brigade and often kowtow to them; just witness the number of retiring GOP congressmen who are criticizing Trump and the GOP. In a multiparty set up with more parties to choose from and less barriers to form a new one the moderates, centrists and others could simply plan their own national brand easily. This always helps in blunting out the effect of extremist/uncompromising tendencies which may catch hold of any party.
      The other major problem is the fetishization of ‘state rights’ in certain quarters (when its suits them) without any sense of responsibility towards the effects of political choices. Will residents of a state stay (or be made to stay) to bear the brunt of their bad political choices? Or can they just conveniently escape by moving to another state when thing go south? And can states with good political choices (in terms of economics, education e.t.c) be allowed to leverage more of their socio-economic largesse for their own benefit.
      The third point which is laid threadbare by trump is the capture of the executive/office of postion by a lunatic or a moderate person financed/ supported by a bunch of hardliners. The concentration of executive power and perhaps narrative towards one individual has given this individual enough ability (despite the so called checks and balances from the legislature/judiciary) to destroy cooperation and increase dysfunction. This is often seen across the US where law enforcement officers (Sheriffs) and judges are often ELECTED based on their religious and ideological opinions.

  4. James Sinclair

    I sometimes wonder if the close relationship between the Civil Rights movement and buses (boycotts and seating segregation) is what fed into the strong dislike for bus transit compared to other countries.

  5. Joseph

    I think American’s don’t talk about “the state” because we have two nearly-sovereign levels. The individual States of the USA started out as nearly independent, and only really became fully united after the civil war. So we always talk about the “State government” or “Federal government” to refer to what Europeans or Latin Americans would call “the state”. Even today many functions of “the state” are almost entirely run by the 50 States, with minimal federal involvement.
    The importance of the Civil War and the later arguments about “States’ Rights” cannot be overlooked. The next time you write about this topic, it would strengthen your argument about the importance of White privelege and racism in the development of American civil society and government if you addressed that time period.

    • adirondacker12800

      It’s a strong tradition of the freedom to be an individualistic rich straight white Protestant, preferably Anglican, white guy. But not too individualistic unless you were reallllly rich. Other people not so much. Catholics weren’t allowed to sit in Parliament until 1829. Many states had property or wealth requirements to vote in the 19th Century. For men. I’m not in the mood to go look up when men got universal suffrage. Women didn’t get the vote until after World War I. The 100th anniversary of the Armistice is this year.

      • Alon Levy

        In the US? The property requirements were all gone by the 1820s and 30s, leading to universal white male vote (first country in the world that did that).

        The UK only abolished property requirements in full after WW1, in the same act that gave women over 30 the right to vote. In the few decades up to WW1, there were still some property requirements, which 60% of British men met.

        • adirondacker12800

          The strong tradition of women having the right to vote, at birth, goes back to my parent’s younger sisters. My parents were born before the 19th Amendment was ratified. In not in the mood to go dig up details, well into the 20th Century, in the U.K. if you owned two pieces of property you could vote twice. It’s a strong tradition of the freedom to be a rich straight white Protestant white guy.
          I’ll suggest it too, go listen to Kennedy’s speech. Anti-papist or anti-Semitic dog whistles still slip out now and then from Real Americans(tm). The anti LGBTQ stuff is still explicit. It took them about 15 years to stop mumbling about the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws so we have about another ten years to go before the anti LGBTQ stuff mutes a bit. Maybe not, by the time of Loving vs. Viriginia many states had repealed them.. or never had them.

        • Oreg

          The British “Representation of the People Act” of 1918 actually only abolished property requirements for men but kept them in place for the newly enfranchised women. Full voting equality for women took another 10 years to arrive.

    • Alon Levy

      Germany has federalism, too, and yet there is such a concept as “the state” (der Staat, more or less a calque of French l’état). And the UK is incredibly unitary, with even less local empowerment than France, and yet it didn’t develop this concept.

      And yeah, the development of the states’ right doctrine is a legacy of Jim Crow. But I argue further that the development of localism is also a legacy of segregation, more in the North than in the South.

  6. Untangled

    I’m not sure if people here have seen this but I’ll leave this sort of relevant video here.

  7. Rex

    Insightful and undoubtedly true, unfortunately too short, you would really need many more pages and appendices to truly reflect how race has been so important in transit here
    Nonetheless I am glad you raised the issue, it’s one of the invisible pieces that explain a lot about how the game is played

  8. Michael James

    The two main players in STIF are RATP and SNCF.

    Surely that is a misunderstanding of the function, though I suppose there is enough ambiguity in the word “players”. STIF is a quite small body designed as oversight of RATP and SNCF which are the executive end of the business of transport in Île-de-France. STIF (irritatingly recently renamed Île-de-France Mobilités = IDF Mobilités) is really a bunch of politicians (its head is Valérie Pécresse, President of the Île-de-France region which comprises some 180+ communes and thus an awful lot of different interests to answer to) and central high-level bureaucrats, to agree and set overall priorities, and see that RATP and SNCF etc fulfil them (and another factor to keep the whole thing on track (sic), in comparison to whatever happens/doesn’t happen in the US)–ie. to be independent of and “above” RATP and SNCF; ie. I would suppose it specifically excludes these two as players or it would defeat its purpose. (Though I assume there are liason representatives of these two bodies on STIF.)
    Having said that, I must confess I have failed to find a list of senior management on their French website, however I did find this (link below), which might interest you Alon, as this organisation is just the sort that could use your particular skills! (Not being snide, there are quite a few jobs going.)

    • Michael James

      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.

      It’s also possible that the relevant powers have no intention of prioritising those “unnecessary” lines when those decisions come to be made, but know that it is more important to get the “entire GPX” on the road rather than get bogged down in local political bickering. Whether those lines continue to be built, or perhaps with time it becomes obvious to all that they don’t make sense … Or alternatively, it is a pragmatic compromise to avoid terminal political strife and project deadlock; yes, expensive Alon but that’s life and politics, and often required to make 3 steps forward/one back, or whatever. It drives economic rationalists crazy but the truly expensive thing is to not build anything.

      Incidentally France has the difficult-to-comprehend curious mix of high centralisation and central, top-down control combined with strong localism … up to a point, when the central state will exert its prerogatives. One may get the impression it is pure almost-autocratic central control but it’s not, or at least has evolved to something else. By contrast in the Anglosphere, there is hatred, distrust and dysfunction between the centre and locals; in the UK it is London versus everywhere else; in the federal systems of the US and Australia it is the states versus the feds (sometimes exacerbated to the point of total breakdown if the ruling parties are out of alignment). (I’m not sure about Canada, and with its hybrid Anglo-French states it might be a saving grace … who knew!). Worth mentioning is the peculiar (to we Anglos) French thing of a politician holding multiple elected roles simultaneously such as mayor of a provincial city while also being a minister of state! Perhaps it is that magical property of “aligned interests” (or super-pork?) but what one can say is that it works. I mention it because in the US (and perhaps Australia) it is the mayors of cities who appear to be the most pragmatic and focussed on solving real-world problems, and perhaps having them also be part of the federal political class (simultaneously) might actually improve things compared to the barely-functional status-quo?

      • Alon Levy

        There’s lots of distrust between the provinces and the capital here, too. When France reorganized the regions just over two years ago, one of the regionalist politicians, I think someone with EFA, complained about the Jacobin style of administration in France.

        The accumulation of mandates here is hardly good government. There have been calls for reform, and the Hollande administration managed to ban the most egregious forms of it.

        • Michael James

          Of course, it will always exist in every form of organised human society beyond a certain scale (beyond the tribe). And in fact it may be largely a matter of scale that allows France (and the other Euro nations, esp. northern) to function so well. It’s only about double the size of California so … (and one can fantasise that a union of the Pacific states would function similarly; or indeed of the North-East). (The other factor that is important in cohesiveness is inequality and a society’s ability to “tolerate” it; this is that wrecks the UK–its class system infects everything, add a soupcon of Thatcherite neoliberalism and it is unbearable; and of course the growing inequality in the US and its acceptance (as god’s will).

          I am a bit sad at the changes to the regions. I wonder if it is being adopted? I can’t bring myself to think of the new entities, and I don’t believe they are quite appropriately definitional; I mean Languedoc-Roussillon has a particular geographic and cultural cohesiveness not shared by Midi-Pyrénées. OTOH I guess the driving logic–entirely on efficiency and economic grounds–appeals to you:-) Efficiency is a simple objective with machines, whether an engine or manufacturing process or computing etc. But managing human affairs, and complex human interaction, don’t obey the same simple (simplistic) laws. (To beat the same drum: neo-liberalism and economic-rationalism believe “society”, in as much as they believe it exists at all, does follow the same simple laws.)

          • Alon Levy

            The changes to the regions were adopted at the beginning of 2016. And yeah, it’s just bad policy. The new regions are not culturally cohesive: Rhone-Alpes-Auvergne and Nouvelle Aquitaine mix historically Occitan with historically Francophone areas, and Alsace is culturally different from Lorraine and Champagne. They’re not socially cohesive either: Aquitaine and Limousin have a different (much leftier) political tradition from Poitou. And they’re not economically cohesive: there is no way in which Champagne can function as hinterland to Strasbourg. The original regions were, with one glaring exception (separating Nantes from the rest of Brittany), a beautiful way to undo the violence the state meted to the provinces in the Revolution in replacing the provinces with departments. Even the separation of historic Aquitaine and Languedoc into three regions, while still a bad idea, is sort of defensible.

            The problem is that the regions in France don’t really exist as a way of promoting local empowerment. They exist as a way of administering the provinces, and of devolving some public functions to ensure the provincials don’t dirty Paris too much.

        • Michael James

          Alon Levy 2018/02/03 – 10:23
          “The changes to the regions were adopted at the beginning of 2016.”

          Sorry, I knew they officially exist. Already on maps etc.
          What I was wondering whether the people will accept them. Is the tourism industry buying into it? … oh well, just checked my latest copy of France Today mag (Oct-Nov 2017) and they have a special on Occitanie (a regular feature going thru the new 13 regions). It speaks of Toulouse as the “capital”, which will piss off Montpellier the (former) capital of Languedoc-Rousillion. These two cities are the regular contenders for leading growth cities, and hi-tech, education etc.

          • Alon Levy

            I wouldn’t know; my knowledge of the country is in Paris and the Riviera, neither of which was touched by the reform. It would’ve been nice to move Oise and the southern two thirds of Aisne to Ile-de-France, where they belonged in the Ancien Regime, and then merge the rest into Nord-Pas-de-Calais, but instead they just merged regions instead of shuffling departments around as necessary.

  9. Michael James

    I’m happy to see you address this fundamental issue, which I’ve been banging on about for years, but I don’t think you are quite correct in identifying ultimate causes versus proximal effects. Racism is an effect. As I believe I have noted on these pages, I put the ultimate cause as the US founding by religious fundamentalists, mostly Calvinistic and extremist Protestantism. (I suspect adirondacker was close to this in his comment.) Remember that the pilgrims found Calvinist Holland too libertine, and they were actually escaping the European Enlightenment! It embodies a totally unreasoning philosophical approach to so many things that make such central control and planning so difficult: adherence to beliefs that are not really compatible with the modern world and a fierce narrow localism/tribalism (the source of the racism effect, but also the anti-papism that made JFK the first catholic president, and why Joe Lieberman was the first Jewish Veep candidate, and also the source of so much anti-Clinton venom, ie. fundamentalist misogyny). Much of the devotion to democratic principles (which requires secularism) is only skin-deep and many still place their religious precepts and leadership above civilian systems of governance (witness the extreme case of Judge Roy Moore).

    It is the source of the extreme federalism, ie. they really only accede to the feds role in national defense, almost nothing else. No accident that Switzerland (the origins of Calvinism) shares these traits.
    Then there is the fake self-reliance ethic and libertarianism that makes them so hostile to mass transit versus cars and roads. And the equally deluded concept of American exceptionalism which makes them resistant to looking at solutions adopted successfully elsewhere (exploited by the likes of Elon Musk, a South African!), and especially belligerent, xenophobic militarism of religious intensity.
    Now you could argue that historic Catholicism is similar, and I’d agree. No accident that Portugal, Ireland and Spain were the most backwards states in Europe right into the modern era. And that it keeps most of South and Central America, and the Philippines, in a backward condition. So in fact the US was afflicted with both, in the former French and Spanish territories. It took a cataclysmic revolution in France to change things there.
    The fact that NYC has the only Metro system comparable to its Euro (or now Asian) peers is consistent with this (but not with your racism theory): immigration on unprecedented scale simply overwhelmed the original puritanism. Similar if lesser effect in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. And no accident that the Sun Belt cities remain backward in these things (and they perhaps get hit with a triple whammy of religious nuttiness on both sides–ie. catholic and protestant, plus slavery era hangovers).

    It is this religious nuttiness that makes the US so resistant to change (and the related Constitutional originalism, almost a religion in its irrationality). And if education and the modern world (and a functional two-term black presidency) hasn’t made any noticeable impact on it–indeed seems to driven them into a frenzy–then it is why the rest of us (the world) are pessimistic about it ever changing. Of course it explains Trump as president (racism may be part of it, but the evangelicals were won over by his promise to appoint an ultra-conservative SCOTUS and judiciary, combined with so much latent misogyny, is what gave Trump a narrow victory).

    So, to be clear, I agree with much of what you have written but it is not a sufficient explanation. However if you could suddenly moderate the extremity of the type of religiosity in the US–which is one of the most defining features separating it from all other advanced nations–then the racism thing would be strongly moderated (and many of the other negative characteristics). Your statement about the prevalence of racism in Europe is a bit of a fudge in that I believe the critical difference is in its expression or its overtness. We are imbued with an inherent ie. genetic, tribalism–it is almost certainly a Darwinian survivalist thing. But it can be tamed. For example, we are aware of residual racism in Australia yet it doesn’t stop us being the most successful multi-cultural society/nation (by “successful” I don’t just mean materialistic–though that is true too–but a well-tempered society). But the worst thing about the religious craziness in the US is that it appears to be highly virulent and has infected us too; in my life I can’t believe this kind of utterly repellent evangelical christianity has become a thing, and is growing, while in my youth it appeared we were heading to a genuine secularised, largely non-religious if not quite atheist, society. It hasn’t happened and the US and its globalised toxic influence is the cause. It doesn’t need “true believers” and indeed I don’t think many of these so-called evangelicals are true believers, but just have an adopted attitude; in fact Judge Roy Moore was not at all a believer, merely a perfect hypocrite about something he thought he could ride to power. I believe it works in concert, and is self-reinforcing, with neo-liberalism which preaches (sic) an entirely selfish, materialistic perspective, even more narrowly focussed than standard tribalism; it even formulates this in Darwinian terms!

    • Eric

      You are off base about US origins. Massachusetts and Connecticut were founded by fundamentalist Protestants, but the rest of the original colonies were populated either by people seeking wealth, or by persecuted sects which quickly established freedom of religion. By the Revolutionary War, Virginia was as influential as Massachusetts, and NY and Philadelphia as influential as Boston. Nowadays, Massachusetts is one of the friendliest states towards government control, while the most anti-government states are precisely those most influenced by Virginia.

      • adirondacker12800

        Or Connecticut was founded by heretics who had been expelled from Massachusetts. Virginia didn’t disestablish the church until 1786. Lots of nasty things happened in Maryland.

        • Eric

          England hasn’t disestablished the church until this day. Doesn’t make it a theocracy.

      • Alon Levy

        The states’ right concept came from the South, but localism came from New England. After the Civil War it was the South where states had uniform rules about education (to ensure textbooks did not say the Civil War was about slavery) whereas the North maintained the autonomy of the towns and villages. Even in the 1960s, Southern white flight from integrated schools involved private and parochial schools rather than fleeing to suburban school districts as in the North. In that sense, the South was much friendlier to control at the state level, just not at the federal level.

        The reason this didn’t lead to any good governance is that the main concern of many arms of each Southern state was maintaining Jim Crow while following the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the letter. Hence those ridiculous literacy tests with questions like “spell backwards, forwards,” or the use of the White Citizens’ Council and the KKK as a deep state, or the political system where politicians succeeded based on how well they stoked racial demagogy and not based on how well they provided public services to the white population.

      • Michael James

        As I wrote in my last para, it is scary how infectious this kind of fundamentalism is. As foundational myths of the US it gained power over the whole nation. It taps into our darkest and most vulnerable sides. And it attracted successive waves of “oppressed” sects like the Amish and the Mormons etc. (and the creations of such nutty sects).
        The fact that Massachusetts has turned more enlightened doesn’t abrogate its earlier role. Indeed it might be a hopeful sign, though probably has more to do with being displaced by Catholic immigrants.

  10. Max Wyss

    Kind of flattered to be quoted so prominently. Actually, it is “the other way round”… In conversations with a late translator colleague and friend, I started wondering why the English language does not have a term for the German language “Staat” (or French language “État”), in the sense of “community”. And if there are no words in the language, it is no surprise that the concept does not exist in places where that language is spoken.

    To me “der Staat” has a big note of “We”, as opposed to the USAn “government” which is essentially “they vs. us”…

    On another note, it does require a lot of reason and common sense to form a Verkehrsverbund (comparable to the Zürich model, for example), and it was a combination of personalities building it up and hindrances retiring from or leaving the operators. And it took quite a bit of convincing effort that zone fares, collected centrally and distributed to the operators based on their performance actually got them a better deal.

    At least in Switzerland, there is another point. There is a long tradition that the “rich” do not that much segregate from the “regular people”; it may have something to do with the classic idea of liberal, which means that wealth and power are a privilege, but they also include responsibility. So, the appalling show-off-ism one finds in other places did not really get that wide spread. Related to transit, it means that even the rich and powerful use transit which elsewhere would be used by the lower classes only. This leads to things like they said about a former Swiss head of the department for Environment, Transportation and Energy, commuting between Zürich and Bern by train. Now, at commuting time, these trains are packed, even in first class. They say that he often got up and left his seat to someone else, and sat on the stair to the upper level of the car mentioning “that person paid for the ticket”.

    I am not so sure whether the race element is that weighted, but this may have more to do with my limited exposure to everyday life in the US.

    • po8crg

      On the British left, people tend to say “society” – we talk about “what we should do, as a society”…. That sense of government as a collective “us” expresses that way, but it’s a very politicised sense, which is why Margaret Thatcher famously said “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

  11. Eric

    I’m not sure how exactly this fits in, but it seems like US cities with a small black population, for example Portland and Salt Lake City, have done a better job of building transit in recent years.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, Portland’s construction costs are shockingly high, judging by the Orange Line on Milwaukie.

      That said, I do think there is something to it, on the level of status symbols. Lifestyle markers like riding a bicycle are coded as “green hippie” in Portland and “poor immigrant/minority” in New York. (Black people in gentrifying New York neighborhoods sometimes perceive bikes as a tool of gentrification, but not always, and maybe not even most of the time, and at any rate de Blasio’s crackdown on e-bikes isn’t because of gentrification concerns.)

      • R. W. Rynerson

        In looking at the Orange Line did you include the cost of the Tillicum Bridge over the Willamette? Most of the rest of the Orange Line was built in street or railway right-of-way.

        That said, noted transit writer Mac Sebree told me his rule of thumb; ‘The first Light Rail line is built bare-bones by people who love what they are doing, the second is built at about the right level of quality, the third is taken over by politicians and developers and is gold-plated.”

        • Alon Levy

          Yes, I’m including the bridge. It shouldn’t have blown the project’s costs that much.

          What Mac Sebree is saying seems to be true of Calgary. The first three lines cost basically nothing (around $2,500 per rider, more or less), but then the West LRT line had some tunneling and cost way too much. In Vancouver it doesn’t seem as true: the Expo Line was cheaper to build than the subsequent lines, but there hasn’t been much explosion in cost recently, and the Expo Line had a ready ROW for cost and more time for TOD to come online for ridership.

      • R. W. Rynerson

        Racism has been an issue in Denver since its founding and as in Portland and Seattle is influenced by migration from other regions. Thus, within each ethnic group — including ‘white’ — there are diverse views. Occasionally it results in sad comedy.

        For example: when well-documented ridership data led to a service cutback on Denver and Wheat Ridge bus Rte 32 Saturday headways, as the Service Planner proposing the change at a public meeting in my own neighborhood I was accused of racism. It was nasty enough that a girl ran crying from the room. Afterward the elected transit district board member who had made the claim put his arm around my shoulder and said “don’t feel bad, Bob, it’s just politics.” The other hearing on the change was in neighboring Wheat Ridge, where I was accused by customers of “always catering to those ‘inner city’ people.” The elected board member from that community said that she agreed with them. My boss rolled his eyes when he heard this and congratulated me for having offended people so equally.

        In nine years of transit work in Canada I dealt with religious and language bias issues. In three decades in Denver transit planning I can count on my fingers the number of times those problems came up.

    • Gag Ha;frunt

      I don’t know if there’s any truth to it, but there is a theory that transit development in Utah has been influenced by Mormon men returning from missionary stints in countries with good public transport systems.

      • R. W. Rynerson

        I’ve talked with Utah colleagues about this and it does seem to be a factor. Also a factor has been a culture of practicality.

        One of the things that made our Edmonton line the first modern LRT service in North America was a decade of cheap, over-the-Arctic air travel to Europe prior to the 1974 city council vote to proceed. Due to the way regulated tariffs worked it was sometimes cheaper to fly on holiday to Europe than to vacation destinations in the States. Fueling that market was the fact that until the 1980’s Germans were the largest ethnic group in Edmonton after the UK groups. At public meetings there were always citizens who knew what we were talking about. Most flights to the Continent landed in Frankfurt and their U2 Stadtbahnwagen became Edmonton’s choice for rolling stock in spite of whining from Ontario.

        Dr. Greg Thompson has done research on the early “LRT movement” and noticed that the European influences include ex-military who were stationed in Europe. And there were links between the Light Railway Transport League (UK) and Canadian and American pioneers. On the other hand, in Denver we didn’t dare mention Europe for fear of being lectured about how densely populated Americans think it is, but once there were California and Oregon models it became okay to raise ideas.

        • Untangled

          Would you know the story of the St Louis light rail then? Operationally, that system seems pretty impressive by North American standards. No street running, all at-grade/level crossings have boom gates and the trains look like those in the Stadtbahn (or Edmonton). It’s not as well used as German systems (it’s America after all) but the standard St Louis built it to looks very good, it’s really almost a light metro.

          • Eric

            They got lucky, having a preexisting city center rail tunnel, Mississippi river crossing, and rail ROW almost to the airport. So the initial line was really cheap and quite useful, beating ridership expectations. I think the next two extensions (Illinois and Shrewsbury) were built on the enthusiasm from the initial successful line. However the Illinois line is massively underused, and the Shrewsbury line had a cost overrun of about 20% which left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth (only 20% lol!) and since then no more has been built.

          • R. W. Rynerson

            I’ve toured it, but other than reading about it I don’t know enough of the background. They made good use of redundant railway right-of-ways. And, of course, later extended way from the very sensible East St. Louis terminal further into cornfields in Illinois for political reasons.

            The original influences on Edmonton were Toronto (dimensions and signaling), Montreal (pedways), and Cleveland (rail r.of.wy with bus feeders) and its own experience with trolley coach main lines fed by diesel buses, Edmonton’s line was officially called ‘rapid transit’ until 1977, when it became obvious that plans for additional lines were leading toward LRT. The main influences on Portland were Edmonton, Calgary and San Diego. The main influences on Denver light rail were Portland, San Diego, Los Angeles (Blue Line) and Sacramento. St. Louis was in different circles.

          • Alon Levy

            My understanding is that San Diego had enough German influence that Siemens’ LRVs were created for its use as well as those of German systems built in that era. It also is technically a tram-train in that one of the branches runs on a virtually disused but still technically shared mainline track.

          • anonymouse

            Both the Orange Line and the Blue Line host freight trains, with the Orange Line serving a few sidings in El Cajon (which I imagine don’t get much traffic) and the Blue Line serving as the only link from Tijuana and Tecate to the North American mainline network in addition to residual local service. The Green Line on the other hand is entirely freight-free and the viaducts and tunnels wouldn’t hold the weight of a freight train anyway.

          • threestationsquare

            And yet the St Louis light rail ridership is pitiful, around 15M annually. If compared to metro systems (which I agree it’s closer to than tram-trains/light rail) then it may make the bottom 10 lowest-ridership in the world.

          • Eric

            St Louis ridership is reasonable given the low population density of the area.

      • Michael James

        a theory that transit development in Utah has been influenced by Mormon men* returning from missionary stints in countries with good public transport systems

        An interesting theory, especially as for the rest of us (ie. non-Americans) another of the defining features of Americans is how few have any o/s experience (crossing the Canadian or Mexican border doesn’t count). So Mormons do have that, and perhaps even more important, they spend two years in-country in the trenches, not just as tourists doing the highlights. And generally living modestly, so not in five-star or any hotels etc. Mormons may have a closed mind on some things but mixing with regular citizens doing regular things for a continuous two years will present real-world evidence (on secular matters) that is hard to reject. This can happen without even realizing it, and then the impact really comes home when they return home. (Sometimes even stuff that you didn’t think you liked while in-country, turns out you actually now appreciate, and pine for.)

        Utah is soon to have a new senator (probably) Mitt Romney, who spent his two years service in France! (Speaks French but doesn’t advertise it at risk of whitebread ‘murcans thinking he is up-himself or traitorous; quick someone check his birth certificate …) One wonders if seeing the extremely successful French healthcare system didn’t influence him. when governor, in bringing something vaguely similar to Massachusetts (and upon which Obama modeled ACA)?
        *shame on you Gag, not just men; I had a long interrogation from a lady (well not much more than girl really) mormon recently.

        • dacfrazer

          Perhaps i’m werong, but IIRC Mormon men are required to undertake missionary duty abroad but women are not required or allowed to serve as missionaries.

          • Michael James

            I suspect it is just that men are strongly encouraged, almost expected, to do missionary work. But it is all voluntary and apparently women can do it. Here is Wiki:

            Most full-time Mormon missionaries are single young men and women in their late teens and early twenties and older couples no longer with children in the home.

          • rational plan

            I work at Heathrow. It’s practically a stage post for missionaries and they are all young men in their smart little suits and ties. They travel enough that you notice a small gaggle of them each day.

  12. R. W. Rynerson

    St. Louis is probably the only North American system where the TVM’s could be toggled to sell tickets in German, in addition to the usual Spanish and English. With its strong German heritage I would not be surprised to learn that decision makers on the design had at least visited Germany.

  13. R. W. Rynerson

    Thread drift: A history of Siemens in North America would make an interesting read. At Fort Edmonton (living history park) we had a pre-World War I Siemens substation for the streetcar service that had been found in Winnipeg. It looked like something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Their business was interrupted by world history, but in the 1970’s they were in Alberta to sell heavy electrical equipment to the oil industry.

    My hearsay recollection is that Edmonton Transit had a team of four men study the rolling stock offered in that era and they chose the Frankfurt U-2 type. Its manufacturer, Duewag, did not wish to set up a North American export operation for such a tiny market. Because the cars would use Siemens electrics, Dr. Hugh Horner, Deputy Premier, coaxed Siemens into agreeing to take on that role, with the understanding that provincial funding would encourage Calgary not to head off in another direction. At least one person suggested to me that Siemens was reluctant, but wanted to stay on good terms in what was slated to be a huge energy market.

    I know that there was contact with the San Diego people, but their first line opened three years after Edmonton’s. There are differences between them, most notably for lower platforms in San Diego. The original San Diego car contract was supervised in San Diego by a vice-president of Duewag.

  14. Korakys

    This is pretty good, you should submit it to Vox, they tend to like this sort of stuff.

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  16. wanderer

    This is a really interesting piece. It seems like many Americans have wanted weak government, at least outside their own town, from the beginning. That was true in New England as well as the South. Then in the latter 19th Century big city government got identified with corrupt political machines, though some political scientists now think the machines have gotten a bum rap. Thus the New Deal seemed like such a sharp change, although it was much less sweeping than European social democracies.

    A lot of Americans think that weakening government will make it cheaper and more efficient, but as this essay points out, the opposite is the case. It sort of the political analog of bloodletting for health.

    I think the American tendency to spread out land uses also reinforces weak government. The notion is that you can get your own piece of land, and don’t need to rely on a meddling government. You’re less dependent on the collective provision of public services, certainly in the country, even in the suburbs. Of course governmental actors created the transportation and utility infrastructure you need, but you can just ignore that.

    Racism certainly reinforces these trends. There are a lot of white people who are willing to forego public services to themselves, to make sure that black people don’t get them. There are also of course all sorts of sneaky ways to make sure that services only get delivered to white people, or that white people get better services.

    But Southern states are plenty willing to step in when there’s an important interest at stake. Texas sets requirements and approves textbooks on a statewide level. The result is textbooks that say nonsensical things not only about the Civil War, but about evolution and another topics.

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