The Value of Outside Advice
After I criticized Cuomo’s Genius Challenge earlier this year, I saw some comment, I think on the Manhattan Contrarian, to the effect that even if the winning proposals suck the idea of the contest is still good because the MTA needs fresh advice. The argument is that a sclerotic organization like just about every state or local government agency in the US needs to be shaken up using outside ideas. The American private sector, which is very productive, is a good source of ideas, according to this line.
This notion is unfortunately wrong. Outside advice is useful, but leveraging the success of American business is not possible in transportation. Outsiders need a lot of grounding within the field to be able to contribute (and this includes myself). In some cases the best single source of fresh advice is not even from the outside, but from internal planners who the political appointees ignore.
The tyranny of the org chart
Aaron Renn tells a story from when he worked in management consulting: after years of leading projects advising other firms, he was tasked with improving the managerial efficiency of the firm where he worked. His ideas were ignored, because the organization chart said that he was middle management, and so senior management didn’t have to do what he said. When he consulted for other firms it was not like this, because consultants have titles that deliberately obfuscate the fact that in their own firm they are middle management, and thus senior management considers them peers outside their firm’s org chart and listens.
What’s more, many of the consultants’ ideas come from conversations with lower-level employees. The low- and mid-level workers pitch ideas that their managers ignore because of the tyranny of the org chart, and the consultants then take the better ideas, rebrand them as outside advice, and sell them to the people at the top. Employee resentment toward consultants often hinges on the fact that consultants take credit for ideas they heard from grunt workers.
A lot of transit reforms in the United States have this flavor. TransitCenter relies on best industry practices for its recommendations, but in some cases it learns what these practices are from passed-over planners. When I talked to Zak Accuardi last year about measuring punctuality on urban transit, he explained the concept of excess journey time to me, but then added that he learned from conversations with NYCT planners that this metric exists and is used in London and Singapore.
The bus redesign Eric and I have been working on has some of that, too. We have a lot of our own ideas, coming from independent research, but we’ve talked regularly to some of the mid-level planners for sanity checks. In particular, while we got the idea for a Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel bus route between Red Hook and Lower Manhattan from a railfan, I talked to one of the bus planners at NYCT about the idea and was told that the planners were already thinking in the same direction.
When consultant advice is not based on laundering internal ideas to avoid getting stuck in the tyranny of the org chart, it comes instead from best industry practices. What a consultant needs to know is how the successful players in the relevant industry work. This is more than a simple laundry list of practices: there is a range of different options that work (Swiss and Japanese rail practices are not the same), and a dazzling array of local circumstances that can make some options a better fit for a specific client than others.
As it happens, NYCT is led by someone who is familiar with some better practices: Andy Byford, who has experience working in London, Sydney, and Toronto. He can be assumed to be familiar with the best English-speaking practices; Transport for London would not be my first choice for best practices worldwide or even Europe-wide, but it’s better than anything else that speaks English and is far better than anything in the United States.
It’s worth noting that it’s important to understand not just the best practices themselves but how to implement them. I’ve noticed this with various reform ideas that rely on European rail successes: there’s a reasonably deep bench of Americans who understand how some features work in London, but practically none who understand how they work in Paris, Madrid, Stockholm, Munich, Zurich, or Prague.
This is a clear-cut case of where outside advice would be valuable to American transit agencies. However, the snag is that there is no reason to expect the American private sector to be able to dispense any such advice. The bench of multilingual Americans is shallow, and a disproportionate share of those are second-generation immigrants who are heritage speakers of a language but often can’t read technical materials in it. What I know and what I’ve learned about best practices has involved talking to railfans from other countries who speak English who tell me about how Switzerland, Japan, Czechia, etc. work.
One of the themes I’ve been harping on since this blog’s early days is that public transit is 19th-century technology, and as such its corporate culture is one of incremental tweaks and not revolutionary changes. In this situation, it’s very difficult to come up with good ideas without very solid grounding in the domain. It’s nothing like tech, where people could invent their own platforms and succeed by first-mover advantage (did Amazon really need to know the bookselling business in the 1990s?).
This does not mean there is no room for new ideas. On the contrary. Old industries like public transit, cars, household appliances, and agriculture are full of innovation. But they are less likely to involve the personal brilliance of a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos and more likely to involve copying something that works elsewhere, optimizing an existing platform, or tweaking something to be incrementally better.
In particular, the way Cuomo set up the genius challenge set it up for the failure that it turned out to be. The judges had no domain knowledge. They were mostly drawn from the tech world, and could not judge a proposal on its actual merits, only on its perceived merits. The winning ideas have the same relationship to innovation that truthiness has to truth.
How to get the outside advice the MTA needs
The MTA’s sclerosis is not universal within the agency. It most acutely afflicts the top brass, especially the political appointees, who are there to shield the governor from criticism rather than to run public transit properly. The lower-level planners are often much more up to the task. The remaining gaps in MTA effectiveness come from ignorance of best practices elsewhere, in particular in places that don’t speak English.
Were the MTA to ask me how it can adopt outside advice better, I would tell it to ignore gimmicks and definitely not try to look to American business-class saviors. Instead, I’d recommend the following action items:
- Invest in better HR infrastructure to hire better people faster (today the process takes months and discourages people who can obtain private-sector work), and make sure to regularly promote people who have good ideas rather than leaving them to stew in a middle position for 10 years. If it’s impossible to get senior management to listen to underlings better organically, then restore the employee suggestion box, which at least levels mid-level planners’ and line workers’ status.
- Hire a small team to investigate and implement best practices. The team should report to the head of NYCT directly and should preferentially comprise people with extensive rest-of-country and rest-of-world experience, with an aim for a broad coverage of languages spoken, ideally including Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Chinese, most of which are fortunately represented by substantial immigrant communities in the region. The people on this team should interface with transit planners around the world in order to develop new ideas.
- Interface regularly with academics and researchers, such as Bent Flyvbjerg and his work on cost overruns, Carlos Daganzo and his work on modeling optimal transit networks, and David Levinson and his work on travel behavior. Answers to empirical questions like “what is the transfer penalty?” may change over time, and it’s easy for an organization to unwittingly use data that’s a generation out of date.
- Take more planning in-house, in order to develop institutional knowledge. In effect, this would give the MTA an acute problem of having to assimilate a vast quantity of knowledge today, instead of a slightly less acute problem of assimilating knowledge every 10 or 20 years when it discovers it’s fallen another step behind.
Building the institutional infrastructure for good transit is not easy. It’s tempting for Americans to rely on the private sector, through design-build bids, outsourcing design to consultants, and flashy tech challenges, but for all its prowess, the American private sector cannot solve transportation challenges. Higher productivity in transportation can only come from a better public sector. Outside advice that helps the MTA be more efficient is useful insofar as it helps the agency assimilate best practices and generate new ideas, and implement them. But if it aims to supplant public planning, it’s unlikely to succeed; Cuomo’s genius challenge hasn’t.
Surely inviting a consultant from a non-English-speaking country would help? Such consultants would bring all their expertise with them, and I expect their English would generally be good enough as well.
Yes, it would help. But even then the American agency has to know what it’s doing to know the context for the suggestions. Most knowledge on this side of the Channel is at companies that run transit, like RATP, SNCF/Keolis, DB/Arriva, and Veolia, and not at outside consulting firms.
Isn’t Veolia Transdev now? Transdev runs the NICE buses in Nassau County iirc.
As you know, I have been moaning about this issue for ages; decades, probably from the late 80s after living in Paris for long enough to be seriously irritated when returning too often to the UK. Then especially upon returning to Australia whose politicians and transit chiefs and overpaid consultants either have ridiculously outdated notions of London’s and the UK’s public transport systems, or in fact hail from the “mother country”, like Andy Byford. (As I noted, his saving grace may be that 1. he is a Francophile and 2. he is outside the usual talent pool of transit mandarins who mostly come bearing degrees in economics and MBAs; or of course in the UK, PPEs.)
I am not convinced that language issues are the main problem, not least because in northern Europe including France, all the relevant professionals speak good English, often better than those colonials and even Brits (have you heard the deterioration over the last several decades? some of it may merely be cosmetic, ie. to be “cool”, even minor royals started aping Cockney …). I think it is more a cultural and political thing, a silly pandering to historical practice, their domestic audience and political processes. This is exacerbated by the official “study tours” of pollies who instinctively head to London, and weirdly for a ostensibly study of transit, but because it is fully-funded, they spend their time in taxis if not chauffeured limos (there have been politician funding scandals where some have hired a car + driver for several days or a week, and bee caught mostly doing shopping and home-counties tourism). So even if they were to visit Paris they rarely use the Metro or RER so they actually learn almost nothing, and retain their preconceived notions.
One feature of our globalised world may be helping a little, and that is that many people recognise how awful our (Anglosphere, including UK) transit is when they return from overseas, whether from Europe or Asia. Even our paleo-conservative politicians have lamented how tired our major gateway airport (Sydney Kingsford-Smith) is and the expense of its rail connection to the city. But not always. In today’s travel mag I found a letter of a Melbournian noting that he first arrived at Heathrow and took the Piccadilly line to the city 39 years ago in 1979, while arriving back in Oz at Melbourne-Tullamarine (#2 airport) and lamenting that they were arguing about building a rail link back then when it had just opened and probably will be in another 39 years.
World travellers know that it is a no-brainer to build rail when building an airport, but actually London-Heathrow is not the example to use since it had been operating for ages before the Piccadilly line served it in 1977 (LHR opened in the 30s but turned into a large airport immediately at the end of WW2 so let’s call it 30 years) and being a commuter train it has 19 stops (count ’em, it feels never-ending) to Piccadilly station in the CBD; air travellers with their luggage (and no provision on Tube trains) sharing crowded commuter trains on this long journey is a lousy experience. Then finally in 1998 they opened Heathrow Express (incredibly using long-existing unused freight tracks on a ROW into Paddington) but in typical Brit fashion made it a premium service at premium price (about 4x Piccadilly Line) so today it carries approx. half the traffic of the Piccadilly Line. If our Melbournian had gone to Paris on that 1979 trip he would have found full-size fast heavy-rail with plenty of provision for luggage, a semi-express service (3 to 4 stops) to Gare-du-Nord or Chatelet, in ca. half (or less) the time for ca. same distance (a bit longer at CDG 25km versus LHR 23km) and costs under €10: RER-B opened in 1977 shortly after the new CDG opened in 1974.
Which model did Australia adopt? You know which. Tullamarine still hasn’t got rail. Sydney Kingsford-Smith (first flights 1919, big expansion 1966) finally got its rail link in 2000, took a mixed LHR approach: a privatised addition to a Metro line (probably fair enough given it is only 8km to the CBD/harbour) which has been calculated to be the most expensive per km transit ride from a world airport, the trains are shared with suburban commuters, no express service, no provision for travellers with luggage. With the high cost and relatively short taxi trips to the CBD it didn’t attract enough customers and went bust. Instead of buying it cheaply from the receiver, the government bailed it out with fare subsidies (meaning still very high fares forever into the future while our taxes continue to support the for-profit company that otherwise couldn’t make a profit, wonderful). Very British, and quite possibly recommended by a former-Brit manager or consultancy that went to London to see how “they” do it!
A couple notes:
1. What do you mean by “paleo-conservative”? In an American context it means white supremacists (like Pat Buchanan) who define themselves in opposition to the neo-conservatives, who were in power in the Bush administration; the paleo-cons were the people who first came up with the term alternative right and have since fully rebranded as alt-right.
2. Prague doesn’t have an air-rail link! And Stockholm offers you a choice between a half-hourly commuter rail line with lots of stops and a quarter-hourly premium nonstop 200 km/h train. Whether building an air-rail link makes sense depends on where the airport is relative to the rail network. CDG isn’t very close to the rail network that existed before the branch opened, but between Aulnay and the airport there are several stations with high population density around them.
3. The CDG rail fare is premium by RER standards (if you don’t have a monthly, which every suburban Parisian does). And they’re building a completely useless even more premium express link feeding Gare de l’Est. France copies too many Anglospheric brainfarts for comfort.
Alon Levy, 2018/10/28 – 06:45
1. You are right, I have used the term a bit too loosely, interchangably with neo-lib econocrats. Here the more commonly used term for the paleos is “DelCons” which a journalist used to describe a rump of about a dozen of the governments “Deluded Conservatives”. These are very similar to American paleos, and have been inspired by them. To give you an idea (of how deranged they are), this lot are led by deposed PM Tony Abbott (whom everyone including 80% of his own party, want to resign gracefully out of politics) and it was they who overthrew, 2 months ago, PM Turnbull and tried to install Peter Dutton in his place. Dutton is the resident hardman and is responsible for torturing children on Nauru. Polls show that the government was becoming competitive with Labor for the general election in 6 months (if not before) but under Dutton it would be a massacre; as it is, the bloke they did replace Turnbull with, they are still going to lose (polls 56:44) and in a spectacular by-election in Turnbull’s old seat (he resigned and went off to spend time in his NYC apartment; he’s filthy rich) they lost this blue-ribbon seat for the first time since federation in a 18% swing!
2. You really had to search to find some minor capital somewhere that doesn’t have a rail link! Please find a big city (outside USA, though even there: NYC, SF, Atlanta, LAX (kind of), Dulles, …) without a rail link.
And btw, Melbourne (Tullamarine) – Sydney KSA is the world’s third busiest city-pair air route in the world (only Japan & China are ahead; no US city pair in the top 20). They are spending billions on improving the freeways to Tullamarine but still keep delaying the bloody rail link.
3. Yes. See my reply to Matthew. (The RER-B fare from CDG may be higher than suburban pax but it is still quite good value.)
Ad 2: Dulles doesn’t have a connection yet, but one is under construction, and honestly that entire branch has made Metrorail worse (too much branching overloading one trunk). Bigger cities without rail links: Toronto only has a shitty diesel commuter line, Barcelona only opened L9 to the airport in 2016, Tegel doesn’t have any rail connection. All of these cities are roughly the same size class as Sydney and Melbourne.
And yeah, Australia is a lot like Canada in that every few years it produces another study recommending connecting its two largest cities by high-speed rail, without ever building it.
Hah, well you continue to scrape the barrel:-)
I’m pretty sure the C line went to Barcelona del Prat ages ago, but my maps and info are 11y old from my last visit.
(The Silver Line to Dulles was due this year. I suppose it is running a year late? And anyway, many Dulles pax took the shuttle bus to connect to the Silver Line at its old terminus.)
Toronto merely proves the Anglosphere rule (on idiocy in transport policies). But I also see that once the rail link began, the old bus service collapsed to nothing and was closed.
The main thing is that a rail link is planned and actually built when an airport is built, because it will never be easier or cheaper. In Australia the biggest factor is the outrageous profits the privatised airports make on parking, and part of the reason why they engineer the rail fares to be so high.
Heathrow Express is heavily advertised but there’s a much cheaper almost equivalent service that was called Heathrow Connect. It is now absorbed into the Crossrail family of services. A quarter of the Express price, trip time 30 min, frequency 30 min, same rolling stock. Also integrated with TfL fares now. By British standards this is relatively reasonable, which is why they wouldn’t advertise it, hoping to trick people into using the outlandish Express. Sigh.
Of course getting to Paddington is not terribly useful for many people, so until Crossrail finally opens properly I’ll go on pretending that Heathrow doesn’t exist. And even then…
Matthew, 2018/10/28 – 06:52
Yes, I know, but doesn’t it simply prove that the original concept was, and is, flawed? (Wasn’t H Connect partly a “solution” to the original stinginess w.r.t. travel concessions for some of the 60,000+ workers at LHR?) There is this weird thing in parts of the Anglosphere that is almost a reminiscent of the Soviet nomenclatura (special lanes on roads for the select etc) of building big expensive “public” infrastructure then pricing it out of reach of anyone but an elite. Or the constant nickle-and-dimeing of fares in the UK; last time I looked on the Heathrow Express website there were a dozen different fares for the identical journey: standard Express Saver (bought at the station on the day) US$33.20 (rtn $54.00) versus an online-only 90d-advance-purchase: US$10.80.
Some idiot neo-con bizoid in Australia even came back from riding HSR in Japan and China with new-found enthusiasm for a HSR link between our major east-coast cities, but as a premium service only, priced the same as business-class airfares!
Re Alon’s comment on the future CDG-Gare de l’Est link, I agree. At least I think the premium cost being proposed (€24!) is counter-productive (people aren’t stupid; at the mid- to upper-end they will see that sharing a taxi is little different in cost, while at the lower end, they will take the bus; this is why Sydney airport link went bust). Obviously this is being forced by budgetary pressure to make it “user pays” which doesn’t work for public transit, though for airport pax it is a kind of tourist tax. The rationale for replacing RER-B can be accepted (the line is carrying more and more suburban commuters, and air traffic is increasing so something had to give). We’l see if the high prices eventuate.
Re you four points I can agree with almost all of it, except a significant part of:
I have Flyvbjerg’s “Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management” but admit I have only dipped in and out. It’s heavy reading and I’d say low-productivity reading this stuff. So I can’t be definitive but am not encouraged by most of what I have read so far. Forgive me if this (below) is deja vu (I have a copy in my files but not sure if I ever posted this, and where). Given the gob-smacking cost-overruns and other mismanagement of today’s mega-projects, it would be good to have a scientific (by forensic accountant?) analysis but so far I don’t really see it. In part I see a lot of econo-rationalist claims about some projects, including IMO an inappropriate selection of projects (see below) plus a mealy-mouthed assessment of PFI and PPPs. So:
I think the choice of projects in his summary, including Sydney Opera House, is plain silly. It is not a case against such a so-called mega-project because it has more than repaid its cost, and given its nature probably could not have been built in any other way (it needed new concrete technologies, new computer-aided design that effectively ‘made’ Ove Arup and was rapidly spread thru the world’s building methodologies and tool-kits) and it was funded by state lottery with no complaints (anyone who has taken a ferry from Circular Quay or flown over the harbour in an incoming flight, will have their breath taken away).
The Channel Tunnel and London CrossRail were very expensive but really there isn’t much argument that they shouldn’t have been built, nor mismanaged, except that the authors do actually come to the econocratic conclusion that Eurotunnel should never been built (see below)! CrossRail is expensive but it is a massive (120km) rail project that will transform London transit (possibly including the aforementioned LHR link). If there is any culprit it was the Thatcher government insistence on private financing of the Chunnel that was the problem. As he himself (and authors of chapter 16, G. Hodge & C. Greve) points out Copenhagen’s Oresund bridge and its Metro were built “through a state-owned enterprise model, where the state obtained a loan or guaranteed the loan obtained by the state-owned enterprise. This was an alternative to the PPP model with private finance, albeit a more traditional one, and a model that depended on Denmark having a sound economy with an AAA rating.” Yet in the next breath, “The GFC put a temporary alt to the victorious parade of private finance idea in public-sector megaprojects. …. In the “leading” PPP country, the United Kingdom, the government even had to step in to save some of the PPP projects from bankruptcy.” The total stuffup of the Channel Tunnel (high-speed) Rail Link (CTRL) comes to mind, finally opened 12 years after the Chunnel opened, and cost more than the Chunnel itself.
On purely narrow financing terms I can accept some of the negativity, such as “the [Channel Tunnel] project has proved financially non-viable, with an internal rate of return on the investment that is negative, at -14.5%, with a total loss to Britain of US$17.8 billion. Thus the Channel Tunnel has detracted from the British economy instead of adding to it. … the British economy would have been better off had the Tunnel never been constructed.” Does anyone believe any of this? The focus on costs (especially the high cost of private finance! doh) without any even part-adequate on national impact (eg. I can’t find any discussion on freight transport, and what about the effect on Heathrow since Eurostar takes about 80% of the pax between London and Paris, Brussels and before long Amsterdam and Cologne etc).
Incidentally, it is notable how France and its love of megaprojects barely features in the book. Why? However on the PFI/PPP “idea”: “France has for centuries employed private financing for public infrastructure, with the French concession model for water supply being refined during the 1800s.” The only other thing I have found on France is “the Orlyval project in Paris, where excluding a key set of stakeholders from the shaping process allowed the project to be fast-tracked with a clean technological solution; but it turned out to be a white elephant,since it did not draw sufficiently wide “value boundaries”. Hmm, I suppose at only 2.5m pax pa it can;t be claimed a success, and does this really constitute a mega-project? And of course the project was a part of a much bigger experiment with an alternative transit mode (driverless etc), and the alternative would have been more expensive (like CDG, extending RER-B to Orly).
As far as I can tell there is nothing substantial on some real stinkers such as Berlin’s Brandenburg airport, NYC’s Second Avenue Subway or Heathrow’s Third Runway at totally stupid cost estimate (which it will still manage to overrun by the usual 50+%). Unlike the iconic and often new-technology projects previously discussed, these are quite quotidian, even if “successful” can’t be transformative the way these others have been, and don’t have justifiable reasons for crazy cost overruns and delays. On the UK’s HS2 they tie themselves in knots over whether “wider economic benefit” can justify its huge cost without addressing in any way why its cost is so humungous compared to elsewhere.
So far, while describing the problems, there are only motherhood statements of the bleeding obvious on how megaprojects should be managed, like “front-end planning needs to be thorough before .. (green lighting)”, and “delays should be kept short and small” to avoid the “so-called debt trap” in debt-financed projects. Deep insights not so many (except my provisional conclusion from the authors own analysis of PPPs: avoid them at all costs.
It might be worthwhile to look at some of the French megaprojects’ financing. More than often, you do see some private participation in the whole mix of sources (mainly Vinci comes to my mind).
Max Wyss, 2018/10/28 – 09:54
Kind of my point.
Flyvbjerg and his co-authors should be looking at both the mega-projects that get in trouble (but that doesn’t include things like the SOH or even Eurotunnel) and those that apparently work well, which would include many French projects. One that comes to mind (and I have probably mentioned previously here) is their autoroute system. This was largely privately financed by long-leases as toll-roads, and it appears one of the world’s great (if largely unsung) road networks. It allowed the state to focus on public transit, both in cities (Metro, RER, trams etc) and between cities (TGV, and international connections including Eurotunnel).
Well, using the French Autoroutes is not cheap (around 0.1 Euro per km), but the roads are very well maintained. That’s where the péage goes into. Eventually, the roads fall back to the state, and they may drop the tolls (and then who knows what happens with maintenance…).
The thing is that there are some infrastructure companies which seem to work well. The crucial point with these companies is that their goal is NOT the next quarter’s reports.
And it is not uncommon that such companies own or have associated construction companies which are capable to do serious infrastructure work. This may be one of the reasons for this financing mix you find with French infrastructure projects.
I don’t know if that is expensive compared to other EU’s toll roads? But it is sort of the point: you get what you pay for. The Autoroutes get you to your destination in the fastest and most comfortable means (and less wear and tear on your car). There are the secondary roads that are free and still good quality but will take a lot longer and take more out on your car and the driver. I am biased but I think it is a pretty good system.
This should be compared to the UK where, last time I drove long-ish distance (Oxford to Brighton; admittedly a long time ago) it was a nightmare. From my limited experience the US interstates are in very variable condition.
I suspect the tolls are forever not least because revenue from fuel taxes is disappearing … to be replaced by mileage tax/tolls (everywhere not just current toll roads)?
Italian autostrade are very expensive, I think more so than the autoroutes here, and for the most part are maintained to high standards and don’t enforce the speed limit, so you can go 160 (and on the road from Genoa to Milan some madmen hit 200). German Autobahnen are toll-free and so congested you can’t go very fast.
Which secondary roads are you thinking of when you say they have good quality? In the Riviera, the Moyenne Corniche is okay but still pretty slow, and the other non-autoroute roads are really slow. (I reserve the right not to know anything about driving in Paris, having been in a road vehicle in the city around 3 times in my adult life.)
^ You live in Paris and you’ve taken a bus there at most 3 times?
Zero times, actually. All three times in question were taxis with other people.
I wasn’t equating ‘good’ with ‘fast’. In fact the opposite. If you want a fast, but tedious, bit of travel from A to B then you pays your toll (and gobble your bennies; just joking but lots of coffee or guarana is required), but if you want a more relaxed and interesting travelogue then it will be slow and easy on those N-roads plus Departementales. I haven’t done much driving in France and find autoroute driving pretty exhausting (though not as awful as the UK where the drivers are terrible, irresponsible and inexpert; too many are clueless on how to merge on or off an expressway, not to mention the motorways are poor condition). And I generally find accessibility is great by rail though of course it can nominally take longer but again, that is better than rushing all over ticking off some checklist. My first and last advice to American or Australian visitors to France is to get out of the car habit.
I agree with you on buses. Within Paris there is really no reason to use them and I probably only used them a dozen times in all my time there. Walking and the Metro were my preferred means of getting around. It is one of those features that make it a fantastic city.
However I must point out to you Alon that, reminiscent of Jarrett Walker and no end of professional transit planners, it seems you don’t practice what you preach:-) All the people (private consultants like JW or government bureaucrats) who advocate bus networks (almost entirely on the basis of cost) are exactly the type who never use them. Billions use them in Paris, and when questioned such users say they prefer them to the Metro, but this is nuts to me since they serve different purposes. I don’t know why you would choose a bus for a significant journey across Paris instead of the Metro. And for non-significant journeys why would you not walk? (Or perhaps Velib.)
Speaking of …
The author does discuss the reason why Paris mayors have been cool on the idea: “creating a two-tier system that prices out poorer drivers without deterring the wealthy”. This is certainly what has happened in the cities typically given as “successful” examples, London and Singapore. In Singapore (the rich country with the worst inequality) they also have a “alternative day” restriction of private cars (based on number plate) which simply led to many rich residents buying an extra car solely for this purpose (and cars incur a 150% tariff, so exclusively for the rich). In London apparently the effect of the charge has worn off over time, and is being undermined by Uber.
The only way to avoid this unequal-access issue is to make the charge proportional to wealth, but I don’t know of any place that applies that kind of system. For these reasons I am not confident congestion charging will be coming to France anytime soon.
Singapore didn’t have alternative day restrictions when I lived there. Does it now? I don’t think so, but maybe I missed it?
In Stockholm and London, congestion pricing was pushed by the left. In London it was Red Ken’s policy. In Stockholm the Social Democrats pushed for it, over the objections of conservative suburbs; the subsequent Alliance coalition kept the congestion charge but diverted all receipts to roads, rather than to public transit.
I am quite certain Singapore had the alternative days thing, but perhaps it was replaced by congestion charging? Both create unequal-access but that’s SOP for Singapore. And of course even if the plebs objected what are they going to do about it? Vote for some other political party?
Ken Livingstone would have brought it into London because in effect London’s core was already de facto dominated by the rich and elite, so no real unequal-access change. This is not the case in France or in intramuros Paris, so I do expect it to be a factor. Don’t you?
Perhaps in Paris itself the Metro is so dense that there’s no need for buses. Although what you say is still a bit surprising to me, I’ve only spent 2 days of my life in Paris and I took a bus (a night bus when the Metro was closed). Also I thought by “Paris” you might include the suburbs, where rail is less dense and often buses are necessary. You may live in the city, but in the course of a year in a place, surely you have reason to visit the suburbs once or twice…
Your comment is probably in reaction to Alon, but let me butt in. The bus network in intramuros Paris is very dense, more dense than the Metro, so obviously lots of people use them. As in so many things, the world divides into two, those who like using Metro or those who like buses, and they tend to be mutually exclusive. And as much as I would like to eliminate buses from Paris, this massive usage rules it out (the Metro couldn’t cope); I find city buses terrible in the centre of cities due to their pollution (noise & air, including brakepad particles) and physical intrusiveness.
Your point about the suburbs may be relevant in that I suspect a lot of those bus-riders are using them for that journey, because the Metro doesn’t go very deeply or densely into the suburbs. Whenever I went into the suburbs I would use the RER. Other than my first year at Villejuif, I cannot remember using a bus for the suburbs. This is largely by choice because of allergy to buses, waiting for them and the uncertainty or fear of missing my destination etc etc. I’d rather walk a few km from a rail station than risk taking a bus.
Th exception of course is in the early hours when Noctilien bus service is the only transit available–though that is a good reason for not living in the banlieus.
So, first, my not riding buses here is not such an unusual thing. RATP Bus has 340 million annual riders in the city (link, PDF-p. 24), less than half as high as NYCT + MTA Bus (whereas the Metro has nearly the same ridership as the NYC Subway). The buses are very dense, but they’re wending their way through a very dense city where, even with physically separated lanes on many streets, they get stuck behind cars at intersections. The buses’ average speed here is low and falling, on the order of 13-14 km/h. If you’re able-bodied and can use the Metro, there’s no real reason to ride buses.
The suburbs are of course different. There’s far more ridership on the suburban bus network. But the main place I’ve visited in the suburbs, IHES, is walking distance to the RER.
To be honest, we can hope that in a few more years urban buses will all be electric. With their short well-defined routes (good for range), frequent stops (good for regenerative braking), and large number of humans near them (so pollution is a bigger issue), they are top candidates for electrification. In Shenzhen, the buses are already all electric.
Arggh. I completely airbrushed from my memory, most of my first year in Paris before the M7 extension to Villejuif was completed, and I was forced to use the bus from/to Porte-d’Italie. I tried cycling the 5km, or walking (usually only late at night when it was too tedious waiting for buses) and even using my crappy old car (which I got rid of in that first year). It was wonderful when M7 Villejuif opened!
Genuinely surprised about the antipathy to Parisian buses. I tend to use the mode which is most appropriate at the time and this summer in Paris I used both metro and bus and found them fine – although the metro isn’t as frequent off peak as it should be and was always packed. We used their real time arrivals app and even in rush hour they were good. Although of course it was August.
It being August makes all the difference in the world. If you had stayed until first week of September, la rentrée, you’d have instantly seen it. Between one-half to one-third of Parisians have quit Paris for their long summer hols, and thus the streets are magically, sometimes eerily, empty and so much more fluid. Likewise the Metro is less stressed. The paradox is that there are more tourists, but they don’t gum up the works, especially the roads, the same way Parisians do. Although I don’t like the summer heat (and I’ve been told it has got much worse, ie. probably climate change allied to bigger heat-island effect) I liked that time in Paris.
Obviously I agree with all of that, since I already wrote the same sentiment. The low speed of buses and traffic in intramuros Paris, as I pointed out in an earlier post, renders the low-speed of bicycles irrelevant, even if drivers refuse to accept it. It also explains (to Mike) “the antipathy to Parisian buses”: slow, intermittency (incidentally making it impossible to read without getting a headache/nausea) and most of all, uncertainty. As a pedestrian I hate them for all the reasons given. And for the same reasons found myself liking the trolley-buses of San Francisco (and my hometown when I was a kid but they disappeared, along with trams, in the late 60s, tant pis.)
“in the suburbs, IHES, is walking distance to the RER.”
The reality is that almost anywhere in the suburbs is within walking distance of an RER station, depending on your willingness (and ability) to walk. Remember 30mins covers 3km. Other than that first year in Villejuif I can’t recall having to rely upon a bus, ever. And today I realize I could have walked it every day (though suburban walking is definitely a touch tedious, flannerie it is not; and by definition if you have missed the last transit then you are pretty washed out by day’s end). Within Paris, if I got caught out so late the Metro had finished, I simply walked across Paris–you are generally less than 30mins walk so really no point waiting for the Noctilien. Today you have the Velib option (though I was wary of night-time drivers in Paris & suburbs).
Doesn’t an industry as old as the car industry need the brilliance of an Elon Musk though? It seems that could be up for debate, even if you don’t agree with his transit ideas.
It seems to be also true for the rocket industry, even if it’s not as old.
Tesla isn’t very good at making cars. The Model 3 is a shitshow and Musk himself seems more interested in tweeting about smoking weed than in improving his plant’s productivity.
Are we sure about that?
It seems to me that:
1. If you innovate a lot in a short time then you necessarily get a “shit show” until things stabilize.
2. His expression is outrageous, but then it doesn’t say anything on his abilities.
I think we should always be careful in promoting long time experience over disruptive innovation, because in fact both are needed, especially in old tech such as cars and trains (there is not so much experience to have in new tech).
Given that Tesla increased their DPO’s by $1.2 billion in the quarter and posted a free cash flow of $800 million in the same period, I’m not sure I would be popping corks yet. That is just borrowing money from your vendors. They still have a lot of bonds coming due soon, and rates on their debts are substantially higher now than they once were. The fact remains that they still have a lot of headaches in front of them, and most of them are optional, self-inflicted, and the result of failing to use existing expertise when appropriate.
Had Tesla been a little more conventional, they could be a raging success. But the Muskian “reinvent everything” ethos, coupled with his behavior of late, has put a number of unnecessary millstones on their neck.
When I worked briefly for a county government as a bike and ped planner, at a small private meeting, an advocate started lecturing me about the value of sustainable transportation. After a moment I stopped him, gently, and said I know all this, and that I am not the person you need to be convincing, that you need to be convincing your elected officials. In this job, I really learned how constrained government employees are in terms of being able to get visionary policy adopted, let alone implemented. I felt embarrassed for all those other times when I was on the outside and I said to a govt. person “you should do X,” not knowing how constrained they really were. And that was 8 years ago. I think it’s worse now.
Then, we need to distinguish between planning and transit agencies and operations. In the DC area, by default WMATA is the chief planner, because the MPO is antiquated in its approach to regional planning, although that may well be a feature, not a bug.
The transit agency ends up satisificing, not only because of budget, but because of how the three state form here requires that all the states have to agree on substantive changes, so they come up with stuff that isn’t usually best practice, but can get agreement.
But in stuff of yours I’ve read, such as making LIRR/Metro-North in-city rapid transit, like the S-Bahn in-city or London Overground, it does seem as if there is a disconnect, not only with agency people, but with the elected officials.
So this is a problem at multiple levels. That being said, I spent most of a day in June with a former high level TfL bus official, who was riffed because TfL is cutting back on most everything to pay for Crossrail, since the national government has cut back on its funding, and he said most of the good ideas have already been thought up, even tested sometimes, and definitely considered, but usually never go forward because of money.
That’s probably true with TfL, but not with US agencies…
WMATA has a GM who’s openly hostile to the idea of improving service. He’s against increasing off-peak frequency because of costs, and instead thinks that the Metrorail needs USB ports and to sell people on An Experience like Whole Foods. The MBTA actually got a turnaround expert from the business world, courtesy of Charlie Baker; said turnaround expert, Luis Ramirez, turns out to have embezzled $2 million from his previous work, which was never prosecuted on the grounds that it was a small amount of money by the standards of the firm’s turnover.
At that level, the leaders really are clueless hacks. It’s the lower-level managers who are in the position you were in, trying to do good work while the people up high actively sabotage good ideas.
FWIW, I advocate for four things in the DC area: (1) creating a German style transport association linking transportation planning and transit delivery; (2) London Overground approach to integrating rail+transit; (3) merging VRE and MARC; (4) integrating bus service planning and delivery along the lines of what they do in Raleigh-Durham.
These are mostly decisions of policy. If they are made, then the transit planners and operators have to implement.
But the idea is to build best practice into the structure, system, and processes.
2. You mention the concept of having an innovation unit. Well, LA MTA has one now. But my sense is that these kinds of groups would mostly be seen as outliers, not unlike the problem Aaron discussed in trying to work on the project of internal organizational improvement.
3. Again, I think the big problem is stakeholders and elected officials. At best they’ll look to NYC (or maybe Montreal) and see some best practice. Anything outside of the US probably not. Except London. Something like what Raleigh-Durham has done with bus is completely out of their awareness.
So, what you essentially suggest is called “Verkehrsverbund”, where the level of service is specified by it (based on requests from the municipalities and citizens), and the operators are doing just that, provide transportation services ordered by the Verbund. For how structures are set up, you might have a look at Zürich (for a Verkehrsverbund), or Basel (for a Tarifverbund). And, yes, it requires a lot of political will and insight. …plus the willingness to spend money (the Canton of Zürich (roughly 1 million inhabitants) spends some 600 millions on subsidies to the Verkehrsverbund, which has a farebox recovery rate of about 65%; however, more than that can be saved on not necessary expenses for roads and streets).
To stress it again, there must be a lot of political will. And it does not hurt, if there is a group of “crazy guys” from within who develop new ideas.
Yep. The one I am semi-familiar with is the Hamburg one. Granted it took them 5 years to pull it off after they devised the idea. But how planning is “separate” from operations-based budget planning is key. And that they are agnostic in terms of operators, although the main services–underground and S-bahn–provide the bulk of the service. In multi-state regions in the US we have nothing like this when it comes to crossing state lines, whereas the Hamburg VV extends into two adjoining states and does their transport planning. etc.
As said, where there is a political will, there is a way.
If you want to look at Switzerland again, you might look at the Ostwind Verbund, where 5 cantons joined their forces.
Lots of good discussion on this topic. Parts of the Portland, Edmonton and Denver systems came from things I learned in Europe, The U.S. Army sent me that direction instead of to Vietnam for 27 months and I used all my leave for travel in Western Europe, including calling on transit officials in mid-size cities. My father called it the Master’s Degree that I didn’t get due to the draft.
One thing that I learned about innovating from middle levels is that it helps to have a file of feasible ideas that can be used — not now, but when — an opportunity arises. The Portland LRT, the Cascades Amtrak service, and the Denver LRT all began as ideas when there were emergencies that opened people’s minds to what I already had on scratch paper. (H.V. Stor of the Kassel system had told me in 1971 that “people won’t believe a problem until they can see it.”) Lots of other people carried on and developed the projects. My mentor at Oregon DOT said that it was good that I had moved on to Edmonton because I would have been bored by the years of revisions that followed.
Another thing — both in Europe and North America is that almost any size system could have a good idea that is worth borrowing. When I began in Denver I discovered that we were still building sawtooth bays for buses. Dirt, trash and snow piled up in the notches. Edmonton had standard plans for curved corners on bus bays for our timed-transfer focal points, which fit rotary sweepers. Grader blades could clear snow more easily. In 1977, Edmonton paid a grad student to metricate the plans. A decade later, a colleague from Edmonton sent me the drawings and Denver RTD paid a consulting firm to demetricate them (!). Due to rounding up, the Denver bus bays are more generous, but buses get in and out of them more easily so I never pointed that out.
With the internet it’s easier than ever to follow other transit systems. When I was in a position to hire people I was always interested to find out what efforts they had made on their own to learn about transportation, good or bad. As for elected officials and political managers, there were some who learned quite a bit on their own travels. The group excursions seemed to accomplish little. On a group trip that I got sucked into in 2002, the bright young engineers who led us around made several misleading statements in polished English. I was able to learn that they were offering “alternative facts” by using my GI German with blue collar workers who were waiting for our group to get out of their way.
Good point. But you have to have good people and good ideas ready. It’s what I call “chance favors the prepared city,” so that you’re able to take advantage of opportunities that come up within a broader set of visionary capacities (like what Bilbao did vis a vis the opportunity for a Guggenheim when Graz Austria bowed out–they already had a plan, money, implementation organization, a separate program for the subway, etc.) And then when the Guggenheim showed the need for better surface transit, they quickly built a tram, and are now extending it, etc.
The one bus station with sawtooth bays that my agency services spaced them at 55′ between adjacent cutouts. It’s rather tight to pull a 40′ bus out from a stop if another one is in the stall in front. The bus loading area and adjacent waiting areas are partially covered by offices above and have heating coils underneath the concrete (the coils seem to be a de facto standard for new university construction where pedestrian traffic is heavy).
According to Google Earth measuring and some online searching, the standard for sawtooth bay spacing is around 60-66′. RTD’s measure closer to 70′ or more.
One other thing I think that is a challenge is what some call a “chain linked” strategy. It’s very difficult to adopt individual best practices from one place in another if you can’t pull the whole constellation of the strategy over. For instance, even if the MTA starts to do a tremendous job attracting and developing talent, as long as they are hobbled by having to connect other fiefdoms, deprived of a steady base of taxpayer support, forced to use US-standard government contracting procedures, etc. etc. they aren’t going to produce the same kind of results you see elsewhere in the world. It’s important to recognize the complete arrangement of factors that allows other cities to work well, and then begin to address the ground-level reforms needed. (As always with my comments, a heavy politicla lift, but I’d rather have a big fight over clear-eyed goals than many incremental battles.)
Or you can do what we do here in San Francisco.
First, have Parsons Transportation Group (death is far too kind a fate) “design” the tracks for a $6 billion(!!!!!!) six-track train station to have the minimum possible throughput (maximum route conflicts plus minimum speed all cast into over $2 billion of immovable concrete and steel) and maximum possibe cost (maximum amount of excavation.)
Later, ignore an outside-commissioned report by SENER Ingeniería y Sistemas that says that the shit “designed” by Parsons is a disaster that minimizes throughput, that operations needs and operational efficiency should have been considered before spending $2.5 billion, but that there’s still a shit-load of excess not-yet-set-in-concrete excavation and tunnelling that could still be avoided by not dictating insane operational requirements.
Als, ignore an internally-commissions report by SMA und Partner AG that that says that the shit “designed” by Parsons is a disaster that minimizes throughput, that operations needs and operational efficiency should have been considered before spending $2.5 billion, but that there’s still a shit-load of excess not-yet-set-in-concrete excavation and tunnelling that could still be avoided by not dictating insane operational requirements.
Then, commission a “Peer Review” of America’s Finest Transportation Planning Professionals in the form of “John Flint – Senior Vice President, Managing Director of Lines of Business for T Y Lin International”, “Les Elliott – The Elliott Group president”, “David Nelson – Director of Transit for Jacobs”, Eugene Skoropowski – Staff Consultant for T Y Lin International”. Hell yeah! They’re the dudes for the job!
This “peer review”, incrediby enough, concludes there’s shit-load of absolutely vital concrete and excavation and tunnelling that is absolutely vital because of vital operational and redundancy and resiliance requirements. Heavens, a “medical emergency” at a station could cause minutes of delays, and the only solution is bonus track-miles of tunnels. They have stringlines and train performance calculations to show it — all in feet and miles per hour — to prove it! Irrefutable! Self-evident, in fact.
Next, immediately go to all the different agency political governing boards with this “peer review” (the scare quotation marks really aren’t necessary in this case — the least competent and most corrupt and stupidest transportation agency employees in the world are indeed perfect peers, and often perfect revolving-door clones of, the the least competent and most corrupt and stupidest engineering consultant in the world) in hand and immediately have resolutions passed that set the need for a shit-load of absolutely vital concrete and excavation and tunnelling as a matter of necessity.
Don’t like the result in metres and kmh? Burn it. Get some local yokels to produce the answer you like. Then spend spend spend spend spend spend spend.
Death is far too kind a fate for anybody in any way involved. Far too kind.
This is how the earth ends, you know. With corrupt scumbags deliberately and knowingly doing evil things, systematically and grotesquely engaging in multi-billion dollar fraud, destroying any public trust in institutions and government, and continually degrading human transportation and energy efficiency.
The world’s burning. Outside consultants aren’t going to save you from America.
Flyvbjerg singled out San Francisco as being unique in that it openly accepts bad project management.
[Willlie Brown is former California Speaker of the House and former San Francisco mayor]:
Willie Brown, San Francisco Chronicle – July 28, 2013
“News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should not come as a shock to anyone. We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the [San Francisco] Central Subway or
the [San Francisco-Oakland] Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So get off it. In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved.
The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”
“Rarely has the tactical use by project advocates of cost underestimation, sunk costs, and lock-in to get projects started been expressed by an insider more plainly, if somewhat cynically. It is easy to obtain such statements off the record, but few are willing to officially lend their name to them, for legal and ethical reasons ….”
Quite. Flyvbjerg never seem to address the real issues but a fantasy world where econocratic planning and implementation is the perfect solution. Getting projects started, certainly in the Anglosphere re public transit, is critical, given the hostile politics and the usually hyper-partisan oppositionalism (purely for the sake of partisanship the incoming lot will cancel or mess up the plans of the previous lot; perhaps the most outrageous example is the destruction of our Oz NBN (fiber Natl. Broadband Network) by the incoming conservatives; it ended up costing as much in dollars but of course in the long run it will cost even more if attempts are made to “fix” it; Flyvbjerg does discuss it but in the wrong terms). So the two main issues are whether the particular project is worthwhile, and secondly how much it “should” cost and the best way to manage it. I find Flyvberg pretty much useless on both. He wouldn’t build the Sydney Opera House or the Channel Tunnel (probably propose Walker do a econocratic study ‘proving’ running buses across on ferries is the most ‘efficient’).
The Sydney Opera House didn’t overrun its budget by 1400% because no one knew or believed, or could have known, what it would have cost when proposed (in the mid-50s). All the people who got it off the starting line, including the (Labor) politicians, the arts crowd and the architects/engineers, knew it was an incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something incredible (not least because Sydney property speculators would have grabbed the incredible harborside peninsular site which had only just been freed up from its tram depot). Instead of Utzon’s sublime SOH, I suppose he would have a committee-approved concrete box like Washington’s Kennedy Centre or NYC’s Lincoln Centre, both of which are not only astoundingly banal (even if they win architectural prizes, ‘eyeroll’) but to my eyes looked aged and old when they were brand new. Indeed there are people today who still believe this is what should have happened!
Great article that really gets one thinking. One bit of news. Yesterday the U.K. government announced there would be no more PFI / PPP funding of infrastructure projects. It’s taken a very long time – over 20 years – but the penny has finally dropped. PPP is the most expensive way to borrow money and the most inefficient way of spending it. On the resistance to outside advice. Yes it’s crazy isn’t it. Good stewardship of vital public transit should demand open mindedness to other ideas, tempered with the knowledge to see a crazy one when its in front of you.
On one factual point I worked with Adam Rahbee using excess journey time on the London Underground. As an operational manager I valued it and used it to explain to my staff what we needed to do to get it down and how to do that and in fact successfully achieved that during my time on the Bakerloo Line.