Eric Goldwyn and I have just signed a two-year grant contract for our big construction cost project; we’re working via NYU, him on-site in New York and me remotely in Berlin (at least for now).
Our budget includes extensive spending on people who are not Eric or me. For now, we are looking for part-time grad student work to help with data collection. We have an ad circulating internally around NYU, but it’s also open to outsiders:
We are looking to hire up to three students from around the university to help us compile data on infrastructure costs from around the world, especially those of urban subway lines. Specifically, we are looking to understand the drivers of costs—why do public transportation infrastructure projects in one city cost more than in another city? We have already begun collecting this data on projects from around the world and would like to extend these efforts.
We are particularly looking to extend our coverage outside countries where information is readily available in English, such as the English-speaking world or Western Europe. The information we need consists first of all of headline costs of public transportation infrastructure costs, but then of more detailed breakdowns, such as construction techniques, ancillary projects, financing mechanism, the environmental review process, the legal situation, labor size, etc.
The ideal candidate will thus have the following skills:
- Reading fluency in a foreign language used in a country or countries with major ongoing urban rail construction, such as Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Russian, or Arabic.
- Either preexisting familiarity with engineering terms (such as “cut-and-cover”) or the ability to learn them quickly.
- Database software, such as Excel or more advanced statistical analysis software.
- Data analysis or data science techniques useful for small N.
- Self-motivation and independence, for example in finding relevant information to add to the database.
- Good oral and written communication skills.
- Punctuality and promptness – deadlines are written in stone.
Drs. Alon Levy and Eric Goldwyn will supervise all students and work side by side with them to extract the most value from the data. There will also be opportunities to collaborate on writing projects related to the data collection efforts.
If you’re interested, please email both me at email@example.com and Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you only have half the listed skills, you should probably still apply, especially if these skills include a foreign language that other applicants won’t know.
We will also hire more people as time goes by. We have a budget for a postdoc-level research scholar, so if you’re graduating this year please keep in touch – I’ll post updates when we know our exact timeline, since the grant period isn’t neatly in line with academic years, but it’s a minimum one-year full-time position at NYU, one that for visa purposes is treated as an academic job (thus exempt from the work visa cap).
The ultimate deliverable in the project is a long report – I’m guessing mid-3 figures number of pages – detailing why American costs are high and what can be done about it. The report should include the following:
- The database of construction costs, broken down to include not just headline costs but also details about construction methods, construction costs by component (stations, tunnels, systems, etc.), rock type, procurement methods, and other relevant variables.
- A highlight of what the important variables are for explaining differences in construction costs, including hopefully a few sentences about the situation in each major city in the database (or if not each then many, on the order of 30+).
- Potentially related databases of construction costs if we get them in sufficient detail and judge them to be comparable, such as for road tunnels, high-speed rail, rail electrification, surface tramways, and urban rail accessibility retrofits.
- A brief how-we-got-here historical overview covering institutional and engineering background to how American infrastructure construction differs from that of most other countries.
- Six (at least) detailed city-level case studies. New York may or may not end up as one of them; Boston almost certainly will, for work we have been doing about the Green Line Extension. The case study selection needs to happen early – this calendar year, and not near its end – and this means we need to identify solid sources who will speak to us about the historical, institutional, legal, and social factors at play.
- A conclusion synthesizing everything to give a coherent recipe for how American (and really English-speaking in general) cities can reduce their construction costs to rest-of-world levels, and ideally even further to match the costs in cheaper countries like Spain, Switzerland, Italy, South Korea, Romania, and the Nordic countries.
- A higher level of synthesis suggesting what a rail network for New York could look like at the lower costs we are proposing.
If you know sources who can talk to us – for example, people at agencies that are building urban rail outside the English-speaking world – then please reach out to us.
I feel good about this – about the recognition, and about the ability to study comparative costs without the stress of looking for temporary gigs. I’m reaching out to various contacts and contacts-of-contacts in a number of cities that are building urban subways, and if anyone has suggestions for who I should talk to, please shoot me an email or mention what you know in comments, as this is a field with a huge base of knowledge.
But at the same time I feel terrified, because I can fail. The project is not going to completely flop, because the database already exists and there’s even more data out there that we already got but just haven’t published. But from getting even an exhaustive database to being able to make actionable recommendations the route is long, and involves case studies and qualitative research and emailing people who have no reason to have heard of me or Eric and often just don’t respond. I think it’s very likely we’ll be able to come up with a useful writeup, and decently likely that this writeup will include a recipe for building subways in New York for $200-300 million per kilometer rather than $2 billion ($100 million/km, as in Madrid and such, is aspirational).
But it’s not guaranteed. We can fail at any number of places: managing the students, finding detailed enough cost breakdowns to identify where the US fails, having broad enough coverage to write multiple case studies, getting enough experts who’ve built cheap subways to talk to us, and so on. The report I mentioned above will get written and published, but whether there is an actionable conclusion remains to be seen, and even if the conclusion is actionable, I don’t know how politically realistic it will be.
Doing this research without really knowing what we’ll find is frustrating this way. The conclusion may well be “the US needs to bust the construction unions.” I don’t think such a conclusion is likely from what we’ve seen so far, but I cannot 100% rule out that it is a significant factor. Or it may be “the US needs to get rid of common law,” which is even less likely to happen; I thought this was an important factor until 2018 or 2019. What is likelier is that a lot of local notables and small-time bureaucrats may need to be cut out of the loop entirely through more streamlined project reviews with fewer veto points, which is politically plausible but requires a governor or a federal government with a modicum of political courage to execute.
What it means for this blog
I’m going to keep posting, at the usual rate of twice a week averaged over time. If I find interesting snippets, I may post them before releasing the report; to some extent I’ve already been doing that with smaller projects. I am still going to think a lot about issues of network design and urbanist politics and will keep writing about those topics.
My Patreon is still around if people want to give me money even though I’m not lacking for it at this point. I’ve been slouching on some of the rewards as I spent months not freelancing (thus, not getting ideas to mine for extra backers-only posts and polls) but finalizing this contract, and now that I have the contract at hand and the project is starting I can go back to it as promised.
In parallel with the costs project, I am going to keep thinking about network design and come up with proposals like this one for New York and New England or this one for Germany; I’ve been thinking about an integrated America-takt or a Europe-takt, at vastly larger scale than any national plan so far, even China’s (which only covers high-speed rail and has no regional rail worth mentioning). Subject to upcoming election results, the scope of what budget is realistic may be narrow enough that I can think in terms of what a specific dollar or euro figure could do.
This of course relates to construction costs – the lower the costs, the more stuff can be built for the same amount of money. Moreover, at high enough level, absolute costs do matter: a Green Deal with €150 billion investment Germany-wide or a Green New Deal with $600 billion US-wide is a big enough proportion of GDP so as to hit real limits to tax capacity and deficit spending, so reductions in unit costs are in 1-to-1 correspondence with building more green infrastructure.
This is why costs ultimately matter. A single subway project may look like a drop in the bucket of the national budget, but when it’s bundled with the costs of an entire public transportation network, and those costs in turn are bundled with those of other major government priorities, the drop becomes a bucket and then a river and then an ocean. The biggest successes in public transportation are plans that look at everything simultaneously and integrate every aspect of operations and infrastructure, and the more cost-efficient these plans are, the further they can reach. There is no way around it.