Public Transportation and Active Planning

This post is an attempt at explaining the following set of observations concerning government interference and transportation mode choice:

  1. High auto usage tends to involve government subsidies to motorways and other roads
  2. Nonetheless, more obtrusive government planning tends to correlate with more public transport and intercity rail
  3. In places where state planning capacity is weak, transportation evolves in a generally pro-car direction

The main thread tying this all together is that building roads requires a lot of money, but the money does not need to be coordinated. Local districts could pave roads on a low budget and improve incrementally; this is how the US built its road network in the 1910s and 20s, relying predominantly on state and even local planning. In contrast, public transportation requires very good planning. Rapid transit as an infrastructure project is comparable to motorways, with preplanned stopping locations and junctions, and then anything outside dense city cores requires network-wide rail schedule coordination. Good luck doing that with feuding agencies.

I’ve talked a bunch about scale before, and this isn’t exactly about that. Yes, as Adirondacker likes to say in comments, cars are great at getting people to where not a lot of other people want to go. But in cities that don’t make much of an effort to plan transportation, anyone who can get a car will, even for trips to city center, where there are horrific traffic jams. An apter saying is that a developed country is not one where even the poor drive but one where even the rich use public transport.

Right of way and surface transit

The starting point is that on shared right-of-way, cars handily beat any shared vehicle on time. Shared vehicles stop to pick up and drop off passengers, and are just less nimble, especially if they’re full-size buses rather than jitneys. No work needs to be done to ensure that single-occupant vehicles crowd out buses with 20, 40, or even 60 passengers. This happens regardless of the level of investment in roads, which, after all, can be used by buses as well as by cars.

Incremental investment in roads will further help cars more than buses. The reason is that the junctions most likely to be individually grade-separated are the busiest ones, where buses most likely have to stop to pick up and discharge passengers at the side of the road at-grade, whereas cars can go faster using the flyover or duckunder. For example, in New York, the intersection of Fordham Road (carrying the Bx12, currently the city’s busiest bus) and Grand Concourse (carrying the Bx1/2, the city’s sixth and the Bronx’s second busiest route) is grade-separated, but buses have to stop there and therefore cannot have to cross more slowly at-grade.

Within cities, the way out involves giving transit dedicated right of way. This can be done on the surface, but that removes space available for cars. Since cars are faster than public transport in cities that have not yet given transit any priority over private vehicles, they are used by richer people, which means the government needs to be able to tell the local middle class no.

The other option is rapid transit. This can be quite popular it if is seen as modern, which is true in the third world today and was equally true in turn of the century New York. The problem: it’s expensive. The government needs to brandish enough capital at the start for a full line. This is where transit’s scale issue becomes noticeable: while a metro area of 1-2 million will often support a rapid transit line, the cost of a complete line is usually high compared with the ability of the region to pay for it, especially if the state is relatively weak.

The third world’s situation

The bulk of the third world has weak state capacity. Tax revenue is low, perhaps because of political control by wealthy elites, perhaps because of weak ability to monitor the entire economy to ensure compliance with broad taxes.

This does not characterize the entire middle- and low-income world. China has high state capacity, for one, leading to massive visible programs for infrastructure, including the world’s largest high-speed rail network and a slew of huge urban metro networks. In the late 20th century, the four East Asian Tigers all had quite high state capacity (and the democratic institutions of Korea and Taiwan are just fine – the administrative state is not the same as authoritarianism).

In 1999, Paul Barter’s thesis contrasted the transit-oriented character of Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore, with the auto-oriented character of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and predicted that Manila, Jakarta, and Surabaya would evolve more like the latter set of cities. Twenty years later, Jakarta finally opened its first metro line, and while it does have a sizable regional rail network, it is severely underbuilt for its size and wealth, which are broadly comparable to the largest Chinese megacities. Manila has a very small metro network, and thanks to extremely high construction costs, its progress in adding more lines is sluggish.

Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok both have very visible auto-centric infrastructure. Malaysia encouraged auto-centric development in order to stimulate its state-owned automakers, and Thailand has kept building ever bigger freeways, some double-deck. More to the point, Thailand has not been able to restrain car use the way China has, nor has it been able to mobilize resources to build a large metro system for Bangkok. However, Indonesia and the Philippines are not Thailand – Jakarta appears to have a smaller freeway network than Bangkok despite being larger, and Manila’s key radial roads are mostly not full freeways but fast arterials.

Planning capacity

Public transportation and roads both form networks. However, the network effects are more important for transit, for any number of reasons:

  1. Public transportation works better at large scale than small scale, which means that urban transit networks need to preplan connections between different lines to leverage network effects. Freeway networks can keep the circumferential highways at-grade because at least initially they are less likely to be congested, and then built up gradually.
  2. Public transportation requires some integration of infrastructure, service, and rolling stock, and this is especially true when the national rail network is involved rather than an urban subway without any track connections to the mainline network.
  3. The biggest advantage of trains over cars is that they use land more efficiently, and this is more important in places with higher land prices and stronger property rights protections. This is especially true when junctions are involved – building transfers between trains does not involve condemning large tracts of land, but building a freeway interchange does.

None of this implies that cars are somehow smaller-government than trains. However, building a transportation network around them does not require as competent a planning department. If decisions are outsourced to local notables who the state empowers to act as kings of little hills in exchange for political support, then cobbling together a road network is not difficult. It helps those local notables too, as they get to show off their expensive cars and chauffeurs.

Trains are more efficient and cleaner than cars, but building them requires a more actively planned infrastructure network. Even if the total public outlay is comparable, some competent organ needs to decide how much to appropriate for which purpose and coordinate different lines – and this organ should ideally be insulated from the corruption typical of the average developing country.


  1. Alon Levy

    I don’t know to what extent it’s related, but we can contrast the sort of human rights violations of administratively strong states, like China’s concentration camps for Uyghurs, and those of weak ones, like the Philippines and Brazil’s legendary police brutality.

    • colinvparker

      Agree, and the USA unfortunately probably fits closer to the latter (consistent with its poor transit building).

      • bahntemps

        The US would be hard to compare, I think. For the record, I criminally investigate cops for a prosecutor’s office, so I’m not saying that it isn’t a problem with police here, but excessive force cases in Brazil are orders of magnitude worse in some cities.

        Meanwhile, the US law enforcement system is incredibly localized and fractured, even within single cities. There are a couple of spots in New Orleans where law enforcement jurisdiction is determined by altitude, for instance: The top of the levee, the bottom of the levee, and the bridge over both are all patrolled by entirely different agencies: one federal (the levee), one state (the bridge), and one municipal (the land around the levee).

        There’s a transit/race and a police/race nexus in many cities, but those government functions have very different planning, funding streams, and administrative control. Also, some cities with relatively good transit have extraordinary levels of police brutality (Chicago today, NYC in the past). tl;dr: it’s hard to compare the US’s byzantine law enforcement system with countries with more nationalized or regionalized police forces (and transit networks).

      • bahntemps

        Also, I should quickly add: a significant chuck (possibly a large majority) of police incidents in the US happen in rural areas or small towns/cities that don’t have public transit to speak of.

        Those that do are like Ferguson, which has a bus network, but it’s run by a regional authority that (unlike the Ferguson PD) isn’t controlled by that town’s famously corrupt government.

  2. michaelrjames

    while a metro area of 1-2 million will often support a rapid transit line, the cost of a complete line is usually high compared with the ability of the region to pay for it

    Yes. The other correlate is that at this size, congestion, travel times and car costs have not breached the pain threshold sufficiently for most car drivers to face reality. They still believe that building more and bigger roads will fix their problems. So the political power is against building serious transit, ie. other than buses. In other words transit is always being built in perpetual catch-up mode as there is rarely political will for spending such large sums in what is perceived as advanced planning. This is in cities that have come of age in the car era, thus the US SunBelt cities and California, Australia, Canada etc.
    Remember that when London, Paris & NYC built their historic Metros their cities were severely stressed by their rapid growth. They were well beyond any size and pain thresholds.

    • Herbert

      Then how did all those half million sized cities in continental Europe ever get their rail based public transit?

      • michaelrjames

        I’m not sure what you mean. Perhaps you mean surface tramway systems that many smaller cities have or had? Beyond certain thresholds those systems can’t cope and are eventually replaced by Metro. Zurich doesn’t break this theory though it may appear to as it begins to approach the size, but it could also be the (Swiss) exception that proves the rule; ie. in managing to keep high public transit use (with mostly trams & buses and suburban rail, no Metro) despite wealth and size. All French cities at or above this threshold have Metro (Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, the Lille greater urban region).

        • Eric

          I think Zurich’s S-bahn network qualifies as a metro in all but name.

          BTW, in eastern Europe there are tram systems with much more ridership than Zurich. Zagreb, Prague, Budapest for example.

          • Herbert

            In Germany for cities have a heavy rail metro. All but one of them continue to have trams. Those cities are Hamburg (no tram) Berlin (second longest tram in the world) Munich (significant growing tram network) and Nuremberg (forty five kilometers of tram, twenty five additional kilometers planned)

            Other cities either kept their tram network largely as is (Leipzig, Dresden) or put part of it underground (cologne, Stuttgart)

  3. adirondacker12800

    I’ve been a few North America metros that size and have become a bit familiar with metro Albany. They have that problem with “….places few people want to go” There aren’t any destinations and the origins are diffuse. They want more road so that no one anywhere ever experiences any delay under any circumstance. That’s unrealistic. They think that it’s congested if there are twice as many cars at the stoplight, that all still go through in one cycle. Or that traffic is terrible awful and something needs to be done if during rush hour things slow down a bit below the speed limit and their trip is delayed a few moments. Rush hour, singular. Though it doesn’t last an hour, not to me anyway. The DOT, whatever it’s called and on whatever level of government, has more realistic criteria. They measure it now and then and … there is no congestion…. If it begins to meet those more realistic criteria it’s not a metro of a million or two anymore.
    ..I dunno what’s up with parking. The yokels will complain that parking in Glens Falls or Saratoga Springs is awful. I never have trouble finding parking. I may not be able to find the perfect spot but I don’t have trouble. I do admit it can be a bit challenging during the racing season in Saratoga Springs but I don’t have problems. They don’t know what parking is like during the season because they can’t cope with the traffic and don’t go there during the season. . . It can be bad right after the last race near the track. Don’t go there for that half hour or so. And that is never going to “fixed” because it’s for a half hour or so a few weeks a year. It doesn’t meet realistic criteria. And while it may not be an official historic district, it’s historic… It’s not going to be “fixed”. …. It is attended by people who know buses exist. I don’t know why they don’t run frequent shuttle buses during the season but they don’t. …. I should do this more often. Just for fun I asked Google for directions from the track to the Saratoga Springs Hilton. Google thinks there’s congestion. At 4:30 in the afternoon on a Sunday in June outside of racing season…. Hilarious. I hope I remember to give it another try next weekend. This is hilarious.

    • Alon Levy

      I think the history is the other way around? I.e. there was bad transit (e.g. because the streetcars never got dedicated right-of-way and were disinvested in), so jobs moved out of the city into suburban office parks. In Providence that’s the history, which is why there are lots of tall buildings in Downcity built in the 1920s and 30s that are empty (like the Superman Building) or heavily depreciated (like the Biltmore Hotel).

      • adirondacker12800

        They moved to suburban office parks after the trolley car systems were closed. They are killing them off while they are pushing for what we call the Interstate system. Can’t have an office park out along the Interstate until there is an Interstate to put it on. Suburban office parks have more to do with the decision makers drinking the Kool-Aid of Futurama, either the 1939 or 1964 version, regretting it and moving workplace closer to home instead of moving home closer to workplace. Even though they will have problems finding pink collar workers.
        The few that did have dedicated ROW were abandoned as vigorously as the ones that didn’t.

  4. Herbert

    A commonly cited hypothesis regarding the differences between the French and the German rail networks is that France is centralistic whereas Germany has strong local and state government. Look for example at the number of intermediate stops on ICE and TGV lines.

    That said, Switzerland is insanely de-centralized politically and has amazing rail albeit no high speed lines of appreciable length

    • Alon Levy

      Switzerland is politically decentralized but has strong cantonal governance, e.g. ZVV, and a fair amount of federal coordination (the federal government made interagency coordination a precondition for funding certain infrastructure projects). Then there’s the referendum system, which looks decentralized but is the exact opposite, since the majority of voters in an area can get a piece of infrastructure done, whereas in the US there are layers of intermediaries and special interests that one must buy out.

  5. michaelrjames

    Herbert, 2019/06/10 – 01:33
    That said, Switzerland is insanely de-centralized politically and has amazing rail albeit no high speed lines of appreciable length

    I think you know the reasons for that. Switzerland has the rail it needs. Clearly the topography limits train speed but short distances means it doesn’t matter. Despite the topography the scale makes it easier to build a good rail network. The Netherlands, which is about 25% smaller in area (but double the population) than Switzerland, also has an amazing rail network, denser than other European nations, and there it is even easier due to the flat topography. Similarly its only HSR is part of the international route to Brussels, Paris and London. Switzerland has only the end-bits of German and French HSR lines, except perhaps ultimately the 218km Zurich to Milan HSR line that uses the new Gotthard Base Tunnel under the alps.

    I also understand that Switzerland sets aside a specific fraction of its government budgets for rail development. That reflects both the importance of rail transport and the role of the federal government in building most transport. Especially expensive projects require authorisation by referendum, which is what happened for the Gotthard Base Tunnel that took 17 years to build.

    Switzerland’s political decentralisation arises from the legacy of its feudal origins, ie. city-states, with four different cultures and languages, and the fact that no one group came to dominate the whole as happened almost everywhere else via endless war. Though its first federalisation was imposed by Napoleon it later chose a much looser system of federation.

    • Herbert

      Yeah but I can’t understand some Swiss jokes about German trains not being on time.

      The time it takes to cross Germany is enough to leave Switzerland several times over. Of course on time performance will be worse and there’ll be more of a case for hsr to be made…

        • Herbert

          Find my answer to this under the next post. Something went kablooey on my phone and the answer posted in the wrong thread

      • michaelrjames

        Herbert, 2019/06/10 – 11:19
        Yeah but I can’t understand some Swiss jokes about German trains not being on time.

        I thought it was more a German joke/lament along the lines of: “these days if you want to see good German (rail) engineering, go to Switzerland.”
        Blame Merkel-Schaubel austerian economics. Trying, and partly succeeding, to drag formerly excellent German train system down to British quality standards.

        • Eric

          I have never heard it suggested that the German train system was Swiss-level until 14 years ago when Merkel/Schauble came to power.

  6. Pokemon Black Card

    To add to this, the sort of street network you need to support even a minimum viable bus service requires a lot more planning than a street network which only moves cars. For buses, you need a relatively continuous arterial network, you need restrictions on the maximum block size that can be platted within the arterial grid, and you need design review of multifamily developments to ensure a reasonably direct walk route to the nearest stop. This means having building review, subdivision review, and every road authority including city, county, and state DOT operating from the same playbook.

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