Quick Note: What is Culture, Anyway?

Six weeks ago, I talked about the Anglosphere in context of its high construction costs, especially recently. In comes Bella Wang, and in a much greater generality, asserts,

In the context of transportation, there are some empirical observations from construction cost and mode share data:

  • American transit usage underperforms any other first-world standard
  • Anglosphere construction costs are very high
  • Ex-colonies in the third world have very high construction costs

We can take all three observations to be matters of culture, but really culture is a measure of ignorance. It’s easy to list so many US-rest-of-world cultural differences, and still possible to list Anglosphere-rest-of-world differences that cover Singapore. But the question, which of them are relevant and which aren’t?, is still critical.

Separately, there’s the question, how deep is a specific cultural attribute? The example I want to zoom in on is the issue of hyperlocalism and too many stakeholders. In Brooks-Liscow, it’s identified as a key contributing factor to rising highway construction costs in the US since the 1960s (“citizen voice”) alongside rising incomes. In addition, one expert Eric and I talked to mentioned the multiplicity of stakeholders, as well as many other issues, not all of which I think are relevant.

From one angle, hyperlocalism goes very deep in American culture. Some of it is relatively recent, coming from the white middle class’s desire to maintain local control as the only way to legally prevent integration. Some of it is older – New England had a lot of local empowerment in the 18th and 19th centuries, and unlike in Europe, local elites were viewed as leaders who brought freedom rather than as the main obstacles to freedom.

But from another angle, the specific mechanism through which hyperlocalism acts is not that deep. The local gadfly who launches nuisance lawsuits against everything is a figure of derision; the politician who cuts through the red tape and knocks some heads together and gets things done is a figure of worship and a prime candidate for higher office. If anything, the reason things do not get done in the United States is that politicians prefer to play it safe and knock heads together on low-risk, low-reward projects, hence for example Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for a LaGuardia air train that goes the wrong way but avoids a NIMBY fight from 20 years ago.

The example of Cuomo’s air train, in turn, introduces another attribute: do-nothing politicians. That’s a fairly American problem – other high-cost countries, like Britain and Canada, have politicians that build extravagant projects at high cost, but those projects (HS2, Ontario Line, etc.) are actually useful. Is it a result of an American legal regime that favors the state against the individual and therefore cannot guarantee security of property unless the government credibly pledges to be slow and stupid? Or is it a contingent effect of a handful of governors being slow and stupid in 2019, which may change if someone more competent is elected in the future?

The ultimate question is “can anything get better?”. There’s a lot of evidence in both directions when it comes to American construction costs; when it comes to transit usage in the vast majority of the United States where there is no public transit, the same is true but right now I believe the evidence is stronger on the “no” side.

42 comments

  1. Lee Ratner

    People don’t like cultural arguments, or I guess really arguments from culture, because culture is hard to qualify while policy is easier to qualify. Arguments from culture can also lead to some dangerous places politically, so people avoid them out of a genuine don’t go there rule. Look at the arguments for the early adaptation of the car in the United States. Some anti-car urbanists or leftists argued that (White) Americans adopted the car because of racism and not wanting to be around Black people in transit. People more friendly towards cars, who are also arguing from culture, that Americans took to the car because it reflected our self-image as a free wheeling dealing people and that African-Americans loved their car to. Policy wonks argue that the car was adopted early throughout the Anglophone world because a series of policies in English speaking countries made mass car ownership possible a lot earlier than elsewhere and that abandoning trams and trains in favor of inadequate buses occurred in nearly all English speaking countries.

    • michaelrjames

      “English speaking countries” happens to include three of the biggest geographical entities in the world: US, Canada and Australia. Their major cities went thru their really big expansionist phase in the car era, or when it was considered to be ‘the future’, and of course coincident with sprawling suburbia. Sydney Harbour Bridge was built in the 30s (as a Depression era project like so many around the world) and was remarkable for its scale–to this day it claims to be the widest car+train+tram bridge, and at its opening you could have parked on its surface every single private vehicle in the city.

      Many of these car-dependent sprawltowns, like LA, Sydney, Melbourne, once boasted the “biggest tram network in the world” but dismantled them in favour of cars. Melbourne kept theirs and still boasts one of the world’s biggest tram networks but also one of the slowest, because of competition with cars. Then, Paris too claimed world’s biggest in “1925 the network had a 1111 km length, with 122 lines” but it was all gone by the late 30s. The difference is that it was partly killed by the expanding Metro, and of course by bus.

      And yes, culture is important. Race may be a bit overplayed as a reason in the US because the same thing happened in Australia and Canada. If they had the space it would have happened in Japan and Tokyo too! And has happened in China. Only in cities with a big established (and convenient) Metro network did public transit survive and thrive, like NYC and the European cities. Like those commuters in Scarsdale or Long Island, in Paris the very first version of the Metro–the Auteuil line in 1854–brought stockbrokers from their leafy western suburbs into the business district next to its Gare St-Lazare terminus. For almost all her life in France Marie Curie was a suburban commuter, living in salubrious Sceaux (a suburb about 15km south) and taking the train to Denfert-Rochereau or later Luxembourg before a final walk to what today is the Curie Institute near the Pantheon. (But she died just before the line was electrified in the 30s and which eventually became RER-B.) The newer cities didn’t have these models and the equivalent classes drove.

      • Lee Ratner

        I think the sheer geographic size of the United States, Australia, and Canada certainly helped make the car and car oriented design the preferred mode of transit. New Zealand isn’t big but it is very low density, so the car dominates there to. When people have room and money to sprawl, they sprawl.

          • michaelrjames

            Sweden is lower-density than the US.

            That may be if you use raw land area, but the only statistic that makes sense in urbanist or demographer terms is per arable area. Only 6.4% of Sweden is arable. NZ has one of the lowest of all at a mere 2.2%.

            Relative population densities
            (normalized to Australia 46/km2 of arable land):

            Australia: 1.0
            Canada: 1.2
            USA: 3.5
            France: 7.2
            Sweden: 9.3
            NZ: 17.7
            UK: 18.2
            China: 31.8
            Japan: 55.9

            Reminds me that, a lifetime ago, I was at a Jackson Browne concert where in a introductory spiel he observed that Australia was a ‘human donut’. Demographers agree because 85% of the population live within 50km of the coast. If you have caught glimpses of tv news the past few weeks and especially this week (worst drought ever, worst bushfires ever, earliest bushfire season ever, longest, largest bushfires, yesterday temperature records were broken nationwide) you’d understand. Oh, final curiosity from that concert so long ago, which was in Brisbane, is that JB married a local girl who he met in Brisbane on that tour! Must be something in the water because Neil Diamond did the exact same thing (no kidding), and Elton John too (well, a Sydneysider in his case). With profound regret, Joni never toured here so I never had a hope:-).
            (But funny thing, you know her tremendously affecting song Little Green with the lines:
            He went to California
            Hearing that everything’s warmer there
            So you write him a letter, say, “her eyes are blue”
            He sends you a poem and she’s lost to you
            ………….
            Turns out that the ‘he’ was the father of her adopted-out (lost) daughter (Little Green) and he was Australian. OK, after all these decades I can reveal it was me! Hah, in my dreams (yes, really in my dreams. Sad.)
            And in a desperate ploy for relevance let me remind you than Joni wrote one of the greatest urbanist lyrics, Paved paradise, they built a parking lot“.

      • Alon Levy

        I mean, England and France have the same mode share, and Canada isn’t far behind, and is on a par with France if you adjust for city size. Australia, I don’t even remember the national figures for, but does as well as or better than all three at equal city size.

        • Ross Bleakney

          Canadian and U. S. land use are quite similar. The fact that Canadian cities routinely do better than U. S. cities is striking. This suggests that for the most part, U. S. cities really have been doing it wrong. But even mass transit success stories in the U. S. (like Washington D. C.) still lag Canadian counterparts. Maybe it is because of the higher gas prices. Or maybe it is because almost all U. S. cities lack density.

          This is a tricky thing to measure. I think assigning one value for a city is bound to fail. I prefer the way that this map is constructed: http://luminocity3d.org/WorldPopDen/#3/17.39/5.80. Zoom into a city and you can see how many people live in each density class. (I wish I had this data in a table, but I don’t know where that is). Now look at Washington D. C. and Montreal. Ignore the low density areas for now — just look at how many people live in areas over 4 thousand per square kilometer. In Montreal, somewhere around 1.7 million people live in such areas. It is also a pretty steady reduction — there are about half a million people living in areas over 10K. Now look at D. C. There are less than a million people that live in areas 4k or denser. Almost all of those live in areas less than 10K. From a “dense city” perspective, Montreal just has way more people than D. C. No wonder it has more transit riders. The greater D. C. area may have more people (when you include surrounding low density areas) but Montreal is just a much bigger “city”.

          If you look at American cities, most of them have few people living in high density area. Some (like Boston) have a pretty good ratio, but are just small, overall. (The ratio has a lot to do with how the lines are drawn, which is arbitrary. The most important factor, in my mind, is the number of people, total, in the high density classes). Chicago, for example, is one of the few American cities with lots of people living in densely populated areas. But it surrounded by huge numbers of people outside of it. This explains why transit is fairly successful in the core of the city, but isn’t very good outside it.

          There are exceptions, of course — Canadian success stories, and American failures. L. A. has the density necessary to build a very good transit system — but it isn’t there yet. L. A. is tough to serve, since it is so massive. It is hard to even define an urban core. But based on the map (and others) it seems like what they are building is inappropriate, or at best, being built in the wrong order. I wouldn’t bother running trains east of Long Beach, or north of Glendale until the area between there (and the ocean) is covered thoroughly. At this rate, L. A. will have to have en enormous mass transit system before it gets reasonable transit share (just like Seattle, I suppose).

          In contrast, Calgary has a very successful light rail line, despite being so low density. That is because they have a high transit commuter share. There are several reasons for this. Most of the office jobs are downtown; they never built up the road infrastructure to handle more cars; parking downtown costs a lot.

          I think it is a case of U. S. cities building poorly, while also having a fairly low chance of success, regardless of what they build. Cities like Sacramento and Phoenix could do everything right in terms of light rail, and still end up with very few riders. I guess, though, that is an argument that they did it wrong (it is likely they should have just invested in better bus service).

          • Nathanael

            Well, I’ll be damned, my city (Ithaca) has high-density pockets (the red spots).

            It’s the college dorms.

      • Ross Bleakney

        Race played a big part in the way that the U. S. embraced suburbia. It is true that the car spread everywhere, and suburbs popped up everywhere. If race wasn’t an issue, it is quite possible the U. S would still be more suburban than most of the world. But you can’t ignore redlining, which lead to inner-city ghettos. Most cities have wealthy areas in the heart of the city, and as you go out, become less so. But by building ghettos within the heart of the city, the power structure changed. Many wealthy people moved to the suburbs. Roads benefit suburban interests more than do inner city ones. Thus you often had freeways carving up a city, limiting the potential for urban development, at the same time making it easier than ever to get around in the suburbs.

        When it comes to culture in the U. S., you can’t ignore race.

    • Benjamin Turon

      America adopted to car culture first because I believe on average Americans had a higher income, more “middle class” workers to buy motorcars and advocate for better roads. Henry Ford priced his Model T so that his workers could buy it, and by the 1920s so you see the “Road Lobby” pushing for better roads (for cars) and suburban development. You actually of course see this in a lot of Hollywood movies — the suburban dream. Modernism in Europe (and domestic architects like Frank Lloyd Wright) pushed auto-centric urban development, but the USA had the money to actually build it on the greatest scale.

      • Lee Ratner

        The road lobby started in the 1890s for bicycles but picked up extra motivation with cars. The single family home has been the American idea since the colonial era, our anti-urban bias is very long. I agree with you that modernist architects were very pro-car and anti-transit.

  2. anonymouse observer

    In addition to the do-nothing attitudes, I think term limits and characteristics of “absolute nuclear family” in Anglo-Saxon society (including U.S.) as defined by Emmanuel Todd, particularly, high present bias (or high time discount rate) and valuing freedom over equality, plays a big role in this.

    I strongly agree with you on American not able to do better in public transit building and operations.

    • Alon Levy

      …the absolute nuclear family is pan-Western, no? The Nordic countries for example have a culture of people moving out of parents’ places at 18, no matter what, even more so than the US. And the “valuing freedom over equality” is mostly a myth Americans tell themselves, because on matters like “can the government ban investment in your area and then seize your property at discounted rates?” or anything involving the right to privacy, the US has noticeably less freedom than most developed countries.

      • anonymouse observer

        You might be correct in modern culture (I apologize for not familiar with modern family structure in Europe at all), but according to Todd, absolute nuclear family is not pan-Western:
        https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syst%C3%A8me_familial_selon_Emmanuel_Todd

        He said traditionally, the absolute nuclear family exists in the England, Netherlands, and Denmark, and parts of Norway, France, and the Wales. Australia, Canada, and the U.S. fall into this due to earlier immigration from the England. Family structure in other parts of Europe/”the West” varies between egalitarian nuclear family (Northern France), authoritarian family (Germany), and exogamous community family (Eastern Europe).

        Lack of freedom in the U.S. is true, but isn’t it based on fairly recent phenomenon? I believe Todd talked about it in his book “After the Empire”.

  3. df1982

    Alon, do you have any good historical examples of a positive shift in practices of the type you advocate on this blog (i.e. aggressive infrastructure expansion but done cost-effectively without boondoggling or political intereference)? Has a country (or even a region) been able to turn around an ingrained “culture” (for want of a better word) of inefficiency, wastefulness, poor planning, corruption and nest-feathering? The models you look to – Japan, Switzerland – seem to have been ever thus. Other places seem to be going in the other direction, e.g. Germany.

    • Alon Levy

      Switzerland developed its present-day rail culture in a context of not having a lot of money for capital expansion – the Zurich U-Bahn lost 2 referenda. So it had to improve organization to squeeze ridership out of what it had.

      Taiwan has high construction costs, which I think (IIRC I read this on Wikipedia?) is due to political interference with the early MRT, but it’s spent a lot of money on the MRT and it’s helped turn Taipei around and make it decently transit-oriented.

      In the Anglosphere, Vancouver and 1980s-90s Calgary have both done pretty well; in Calgary this involved commercial TOD in the CBD and very low light rail construction costs for the first 3 lines, and in Vancouver this involved low construction costs for the first 3 lines (using existing ROW for most of the 1st) and commercial as well as residential TOD. Calgary’s mode share has been stagnant, and Vancouver’s has been growing but construction costs are pretty high now, but early on they did okay.

      • df1982

        I was thinking less of cities that had improved on public transport mode sure (in which case, yes Vancouver is a good example), and more of places that had previously had a bad organisational culture but had managed to turn things around. I.e. has a high-construction cost country managed to bring costs down? Or has a country with a poor transport organisational culture (low frequency, poor reliability, high operational costs, excessive staffing) been able to reform its way towards the Swiss/Japanese model?

        It might be a controversial example, but London may be a case for the latter category. The tube is a million times better than it was in the nadir of Thatcherism, and that’s not to mention the buses and the TfL Overground lines. Still a long way to go with the broader mainline network (which is hampered by its Balkanised private operators), and obviously construction costs are horrendous, but it has seen some areas of improvement.

        • Nathanael

          Frankly, I think we may be watching an active change in organizational culture for the better in Boston. And I’m not sure what triggered it now. Or why Boston.

          I’m sure it happened in Spain, whose organizational culture for public transit got measurably better after Franco’s death, and in that case we can probably point specifically to the cultural changes related to the end of fascism in Spain.

          • Nathanael

            Projects got announced, half finished, massively delayed, and cancelled mid-construction under Franco. And construction costs dropped after he died.

          • Eric

            Alon, do you know of any (other) examples of construction costs dropping in a country? My impression was they generally stay about constant or else rise. If so maybe one could focus on those cases to see exactly what happened at that time?

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t, nor do I know that costs actually dropped after Franco died. I have maybe 2 datapoints from the 1960s, and IIRC Spanish costs were low even then, but I don’t have data between the 1970s and mid-90s.

            GLX is sort of an example of costs dropping, but that’s after a big rise and a project reboot, and costs dropped to levels that remain very high.

  4. patrickjensen2013

    You don’t really have to resort to cultural explanations, if you assume public transportation is an inferior good in the economic sense. Most people prefer a car over public transportation in the same way people prefer white rice to brown, even though the latter is much healthier.

    Transportation is also pretty path dependent, so for most industrialized countries what happened between roughly WWII and the beginning of the 1970s determined the fate of public transportation. Compare the initial conditions for the US vs. Japan and Switzerland.

    The US produced more petroleum than the entire rest of the world combined until the 1950s and remained the largest oil producer until the early 1970s. It was also fairly flat and sparsely populated. Who cares about trains and buses if even a regular Joe can afford a car and a big house?

    Japan and Switzerland, on the other hand, were pretty cramped, given the mountainous terrain and heavily dependent on hydropower for energy. Running trains well is simply a prerequisite for an industrialized society in those conditions. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan were similarly crowded and hydrocarbon-poor locales.

    Most other countries fall somewhere in between these two extremes. For western countries the 1970s became a watershed. The US had begun importing oil in noteworthy amounts since the 1960s and domestic oil production peaked in the mid-1970s. This probably explains why BART, the D.C subway or MARTA got funded.

    In western countries that produced none or smaller amounts of petroleum, the First Oil Crisis exposed the economic and political risk non-oil producing countries ran if they relied on oil imports. What separates the cities that trashed an existing tram system (Sydney, Stockholm, Copenhagen) from those that didn’t (Melbourne, Helsinki, Oslo) wasn’t culture or foresight, it was simply because the latter were too poor or slow to catch the bus. (Though Oslo is noteworthy because the plan to scrap the tram system was abandoned just as Norwegian oil production was ramping up.)

    The bad news is that although traditionally inferior goods like brown rice and public transport seem to have recently caught on among the well-off, the best predictor for success is still having no other options, i.e. being cramped and poor in liquid hydrocarbons. While there are examples that buck the trend, such as Calgary and to some degree, Oslo, American practices on are unlikely to improve unless a court ruling suspends fracking.

    • Lee Ratner

      Stockholm ditched their trams but replaced it with a great metro system. Sydney and Copenhagen kept their commuter rail intact. They didn’t become totally car dependent places.

    • Lee Ratner

      But roughly your explanation matches the explanation of another Internet acquittance, who has government experience in his real life, that once a country develops X level of wealth, people generally want personalized transportation (i.e. a car), a single family homes, and more meat in their diet.

      • Alon Levy

        Single-family homes are specifically not part of how Old World countries conceive of prosperity (except Britain and even that is more rowhouses than detached houses).

        • Lee Ratner

          Meanwhile, single family homes is how Americans thought of prosperity and proper family living since the Colonial period. I recently found out that around seventy percent of American heads of household owned their own homes by the time of the Revolutionary War. (Source the recent book City on the Hill). Mass land ownership has also been a policy of the Federal government for a very long time.

          I am not sure of whether your statement is entirely correct. I agree that Old World countries don’t fetishize the singe family home to the extent that the European-derived countries of the Americas and Oceania do, but there are lots of single family homes in those countries. Villa districts and something close to American suburbia can be found throughout Europe. The real difference is that apartment and city living is not automatically seen as bad for kids and families in Old World cultures and that renting isn’t seen as a mark of poverty either.

    • Nathanael

      The funny thing is that a very large percentage of people actually prefer trains to driving their own cars. So they’re not perceived as inferior goods. There just aren’t enough trains covering enough territory to avoid using cars for some things; they’re just not available. (Exception: Britain at its rail peak.) People may want more train service as they get richer, but they can’t buy it, because almost nobody is rich enough to finance their own train lines. (Exception: Britain in the rail mania period.)

  5. df1982

    There wasn’t that much of a discrepancy in the relative prosperity of Sydney and Melbourne. Melbourne just had a series of factors that led it to make the exceptional decision (in an Anglophone context) to retain its tram system: firstly, its main growth period was the late 19th century, so it had a Victorian-era grid of wide avenues that had room for trams without causing traffic congestion (unlike Sydney); secondly, it had upgraded much of its system in the 1940s and 1950s, upgrading many lines from cable cars, so the tram lines were in good shape and there was no need to spend money bringing them up to scratch (again, unlike Sydney); and thirdly it had powerful bureaucrats in the 1950s and 1960s arguing for retaining the system. They were at least able to buy some time which allowed the city to see how disastrous Sydney’s bustitution was and swing popular opinion towards saving the trams.

    Curiously in both Sydney and Brisbane it was the Labor party driving forward the decision to dismantle the trams. In the late 1950s the Liberals (conservatives) in NSW even proposed transforming the eastern suburbs lines into a Stadtbahn type system with a CBD tunnel, but lost the relevant election.

    And culturally there probably hasn’t been much difference between Sydney and Melbourne with public transport. Melbourne kept the trams, but ran down the system for a long time (until well into the 1990s) such that it was barely superior to an equivalent bus service. And in terms of patronage Sydney has generally had a significantly higher level of public transport usage, mainly due to its more intensive train network.

  6. Ross Bleakney

    “but really culture is a measure of ignorance.”

    Still trying to wrap my head around that statement. Taken at face value, it sounds absurd. African American culture, for example, is one of the most influential cultures in the world (in music and sports). Is the strength of that culture a measure of its ignorance? That is ridiculous — for reasons I won’t get into — and I assume you mean something completely different. I’m just trying to figure out what.

  7. Ross Bleakney

    I think there are several different things going on here. In general, if you look at U. S. transit compared to the rest of the world, a few questions pop up:

    Why is it so expensive to build mass transit systems? You have done an excellent job in asking this question, as well as answering it.

    Why is that when Americans seem to do everything right (more or less) they still lag similar cities? I pretty much answered this in discussing why D. C. Metro lags Montreal Metro — Montreal is just a lot more urban.

    Why is it that most of the time, when an American city spends a bunch of money on a large transit system, it is crap? I think there are several reasons. First, Americans don’t really understand transit. I didn’t have a clue until recently, and I know a lot about public policy (here, and the rest of the world). When it comes to police reform, race relations, homelessness (all major issues for every city) I was fairly knowledgeable. But the basics of transit were a mystery, as they are for most Americans. That is because most of America is suburban, even if they live in a “big city” (e. g. Seattle — even within the city limits — is quite suburban). People were (and to a large extent are) expected to operate a car. That is not unique to this country — I know Canadians are very similar — but it leads to problems. Not only is the populous ignorant of transit, but the leaders are too. This is where politics becomes a major problem and may explain why so many cities build crap. You start thinking of transit like you would a freeway. That means you are more focused on long distance lines, than inner city stations and lines. You try to please powerful suburban interests, rightly assuming that they should influence the project, but wrongly assuming that the bulk of the ridership will come from there. In short, you build BART, instead of the D. C. Metro. Except instead of being big enough to still get decent ridership, you are small, and find yourself building DART, Denver RTD or Sacramento light rail.

    Part of the problem also lies with the lack of consensus on these projects. The majority party in the United States, which controls most state governments, the U. S. Senate, the presidency, and until recently the House of Representatives — has no interest in transit. They have largely given up on winning votes in the big cities, and thus don’t really care. So instead of focusing on better, more cost effective transit – a winning argument for a right-of-center party — they are focused on simply killing off transit investment in the city. A few may support a suburban investment (where the political battles are won) but for the most part, the most cost effective mass transit systems (the ones in the heart of cities) are opposed by the most powerful political party because, well, they are in the heart of cities. Any modern discussion of politics in the U. S. has to contend with the Reagan revolution, when the center-right party became extreme right, and hasn’t moved back since.

    The Democrats, meanwhile, simply support the opposite. Cars are bad, transit is good; if you don’t understand that, you ain’t woke. Thus there is little debate as to whether a project can be done more cheaply, let alone whether a particular project is worth the money. With few exceptions, transit is built within an urban bubble. Those that question the merits of a major, multi-billion dollar project (https://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2016/04/06/youve-got-50-billion-for-transit-now-how-should-you-spend-it/) are considered traitors, or worse, Republicans.

    Of course, there was a time when America built things fairly well. There was a consensus that what is good for the city is good for the country (and vice-versa). Unfortunately, during that time, very little thought was given to building a more effective transit system. Folks (or at least white folks) were generally happy with more cars and more freeways, even if they ended up thrashing the cities. That was just the price you paid for progress. I think those days are gone. I don’t think a majority of Americans think you can solve our transportation problems by building more freeways. Unfortunately, now that we have rejected that approach, there is no consensus on building a good mass transit system, anymore than there is in building a good high speed rail network.

    • Alon Levy

      The problem with this Washington vs. Montreal comparison is that in the mid-2000s the difference in metro area mode shares, while real, wasn’t so stark. And Metro Vancouver only overtook metro Washington’s mode share sometime in the early 2000s. Washington has gone down in the last 10 years, which can be traced to horrific operating problems, most of which come from the Silver Line’s messing up the timetabling. The land use matters – too many suburban WMATA stations are parking lots – but the recent declines have been about operational incompetence. On plausible levels of TOD (and not an end to sprawl or anything like that) and organizational improvements, WMATA should be the centerpiece of something with mode share in the low to mid-20s with nearly zero concrete.

      • Ross Bleakney

        I’m not looking at mode share (I’m not sure where you get that data). I also think it can be misleading, since where you draw the boundary (this is the “city”, this isn’t) is bound to have issues. But looking at the various agencies, it is clear that Montreal has a lot more transit users.

        I looked at the number of people who take the Metro Subway. Montreal has almost double the number of subway riders than D. C.. Double! You could easily conclude that like a lot of cities, buses (or trams) make up the difference. Except that it is the opposite. The Montreal bus system carries 1.4 million riders a day, while the WMATA carries 350,000. Again, this may be a jurisdictional thing — the WMATA area isn’t as broad as the STM, but I don’t think that is the case. The WMATA covers a pretty big area, and the most successful D. C. suburban bus line (in Rockville) carries a mere 65,000. Any way you slice it, there are a lot more more people using transit in Montreal.

        I think the D. C. subway will struggle to compete with the Montreal subway because of what I wrote earlier — there just aren’t that many people in D. C. that live in high density areas. Montreal has about 1.7 million, D. C. has about 900,000. No wonder the Montreal subway practically doubles the D. C. in ridership — it practically doubles it in terms of people living in densely populated areas. The biggest difference is in areas that are the most densely populated. In D. C., hardly anyone lives in an area with over 10k per square kilometer. Over 400,000 people do in Montreal. The poor suburban stations contribute to the density problem. But you really can’t expect a gigantic rise in the number of people living in high density areas just by improving a handful of suburban stations. Likewise, operational problems can cause a fairly dramatic loss in ridership, but that is far more likely to happen if you lack density. The New York subway ridership has its share of problems, but lots of people still use it. Without a doubt these are contributing factors, but the fundamentals favor Montreal.

        As mentioned, it is difficult to determine where suburbia ends. If you believe that they drew the circles just right, then it is striking how suburban Washington D. C. is compared to Montreal. Here are the numbers for the lower density areas:

        1k-2k: D. C.: 900K — Montreal 200K
        2k-4k: D. C.: 1,400K — Montreal 900K

        It is possible that they simply drew the Montreal lines too large, or D. C. lines too small. Regardless, you would expect much higher bus ridership in greater D. C. I’m guessing that is simply a matter of Montreal building a very good bus system, while the one in greater D. C. is crap. The D. C. subway certainly needs improvement, but the bus system needs it more.

        • Nilo

          One could point out that DC was nearing a million riders on the subway before the last decade of ridership collapse occurred. Now I think fewer than 600k people ride metro a day. According to this report in 2009 Montreal had 1.2 million bus and metro riders a day. https://www.stm.info/sites/default/files/a-ra2009.pdf What’s happened since is WMATA has decided ridership doesn’t matter, and Montreal hasn’t.

          • michaelrjames

            How does a transit system lose 400k+ or 40% of its riders? Surely they can’t all have switched to driving? Is some of it because of job growth/displacement to the edge cities?

            OK, my growing scepticism drove me to read the Wiki on WMATA. I don’t think the 1m riders was ever an average, though the average is not given. But one can’t use a special-event day as the baseline.

            The record for daily ridership was 1.12 million on January 20, 2009, the day of Barack Obama’s first Presidential Inauguration, followed by the Women’s March on January 21, 2017 with 1,001,613 trips.[72]

            https://www.wmata.com/about/records/public_docs/upload/cafr_FY07.pdf
            In their financial report of 2007: “..ridership, which reached record levels in Fiscal Year 2007. Metrorail ridership climbed to a record level of over 207 million annual trips for an increase of 1.1 percent.” That compares to Wiki: “In 2016, Metrorail had nearly 180 million trips.[15]” (but that link is dead). So that is a 13% decrease since 2007. I can’t find a time series and am too lazy to trawl thru every financial report. (I chose 2007 to avoid a post-GFC effect.)
            Of course that is still a significant decrease over a decade when most rapid transit systems have seen record increases.

          • Alon Levy

            The Washington Post is claiming 750,000 weekday passengers in 2008 and 595,000 in 2018, projected to rise to 610,000 this year (link).

            But don’t forget that unlike other Northeastern metro areas, Washington DC has steady population growth, fueled mostly by suburban growth. Between 2010 and 2018, the metro area’s population grew 11%. Call it 13% since 2008. So that’s a 30% decline in per capita ridership over a decade, caused by a combination of poor maintenance, a new rail extension causing more scheduling problems than it solved, lower average speeds, and predominantly suburban population growth.

    • Nathanael

      The Republican Party abandoning all pretense of sanity in favor of being a sort of cross between a cult and a crime gang has been a curse for so many different things in this country it’s hard to count. And they’ve become comprehensively anti-urban, attacking small cities of 50,000 as well as large cities. (Practically every city in the country votes Democratic now, even the small ones.)

      But it’s important to note that they are the minority party, and becoming a smaller minority every year. They cannot get a majority without malapportioned districts (like the Senate) or severe gerrymandering. This is a change from the 1980s, when they were actually popular. Perhaps one reason for their decline because the country keeps urbanizing and they keep attacking cities. So we may be able to be rid of this curse eventually. The big problem is the undemocratic, malapportioned Senate, something no democracy in the world has to deal with.

  8. Ross Bleakney

    Another thought, this one from the last comment here: https://humantransit.org/2019/12/am-i-a-disruptor-now-the-podcast.html#comments. The author of that comment complains about the fact that his “third-rate Midwest rust-belt city” is actually well suited for good transit and good biking. The problem is that no one has invested in either.

    Part of the problem with transit in America (and America in general) is that the industrial Midwest has collapsed. Lots of people still live there, but public investment in it has gone away. In some cases, the cities have been hollowed out. Just look at Detroit: https://arcg.is/1bGiK00. Other than Hamtramck (a city within Detroit) and Dearborn (an adjacent city), there is nothing there. The metropolitan area is nonexistent — it is just a giant suburb. The areas where there have been growth are often “new cities” — areas that formed largely after Euclidean zoning. Seattle, Portland, L. A. did exist before the war, but they were tiny compared to what they are now. Most of those cities grew up with fairly restricted zoning. By the time the supreme court allowed zoning (in 1926) Detroit was very close to its peak — with roughly three times the number of people inside the city limits than today. But the “new” cities were just getting started.

    The municipality of Detroit has collapsed, while surrounding cities (and even an enclave city) have what is left of the density. Government policy obviously played a huge role. There is no investment in the core, of the sort that retains people. When a city can’t afford to pay its police, or clean up its streets, it doesn’t run more buses, or build a subway. As I wrote up above, you can’t ignore race in all of this. Cities that are black — or at least seen as black — haven’t had much in the way of national or local investment. The result in those areas is what you would expect — a negative transit spiral.

    The cities that have had considerable investment in transit (again, with the notable exception of D. C.) are largely ill suited for it. D. C., on the other hand, has seen investment in its subway system dwindle, which is not too surprising since it is still a Chocolate City, 35 years after that great Funkadelic album was made. That reminds me of another great album title by the same band: America Eats its Young.

    • Nathanael

      That commenter is from Grand Rapids. He’s right. It’s a third-rate Midwestern city with extremely compact, dense development which simply hasn’t bothered to do transit.

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