In public transportation as in many other aspects, an important fact of improvement is being able to mix-and-match things that work from different sources. It’s rare to have a situation in which exact importation of one way of doing things is the best in every circumstance (and the Covid-19 crisis appears to be one of these rare situations, Korea being the best). More commonly, different comparison cases, whether they’re companies in private-sector consulting or countries in public-sector policy research, will do different things better. Knowing how to mix-and-match is an important skill in competently learning from the best.
I put this up first, but want to emphasize that this is outside my skill set so I am less certain about the examples here than in transport; I bring them up because some of the sanity checks are cleaner here.
Secondary education: high-income Asia consistently outperforms the West in international math and science tests. However, two important caveats complicate “just be like Asia” reform ideas, like the popularity of Singapore math textbooks in some segments of the American middle class. The first is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are a lot more monolingual than European countries like Germany and France, let alone smaller European countries like the Netherlands. And the second is that many things that are common to East Asia (and Singapore and Vietnam), like high social distance between hierarchs and subordinates or teachers and students, are completely absent from Finland, which is nearly the only Western country with math scores matching those of Asia. So the actual thing to learn from Asia is likely to be more technical and less about big cultural cleaves like making students wear uniforms and be more obsequious toward teachers.
Public health: whereas the Covid-19 crisis specifically still looks like a clean Asia vs. West cleave, overall public health outcomes do not. Japan has the world’s highest life expectancy, but then Mediterranean Europe follows it closely. The United States, which overall has poor health outcomes, near-ties Singapore and Sweden for lowest first-world smoking rate – and even though Singapore and Sweden both have good outcomes, they both have rather unhealthy diets by (for example) Levantine standards. Public health is a more complex issue than transportation, one that unfortunately low-life expectancy developed countries like Germany and Britain, let alone the US, aren’t meaningfully trying to learn in – and it’s not even clear how easy it is to import foreign ideas into such a complex mostly-working system, in contrast with the near-tabula rasa that is American public transportation.
Transportation in cities of different sizes
Alexander Rapp’s excellent list of metro areas ranked by what he calls frequent rapid transit ridership – that is, trains and buses that run every 20 minutes or better and are either grade separated or have absolute crossing priority with gates – showcases patterns that vary by population.
On the one hand, Tokyo is far and away the highest-ridership city in the world, even per capita. It has around 400 annual rail trips per capita. My recollection, for which I don’t really have a reliable source, is that 60% of work trips in the Tokyo region are done by rail (this data may be here but copy-paste for translation doesn’t work), a higher share than in major European capitals, which mostly top in the 40s.
On the other hand, this situation flips for smaller cities, in the 2-5 million metro population range. Sapporo appears to have maybe 120 annual trips per capita, and Fukuoka probably even less. In Korea, likewise, Seoul has high ridership per capita, though not as high as Paris, let alone Tokyo, but Busan has 100 trips per capita and Daegu 65. In contrast, Stockholm approaches 200 trips per capita (more including light rail), Vienna maybe 180 (growing to 220 with a much wider definition including trams), Hamburg 170, Prague 200 (more like 300 with trams), Munich maybe 230.
This doesn’t seem to be quite a West vs. Asia cleave. There is probably a shadow-of-giants effect in Japan leading smaller cities to use methods optimized for Tokyo; it’s visible in Britain and France, where Stockholm- and Munich-size cities like Birmingham, Manchester, and Lyon have far weaker transit systems. The US has this effect too – New York underperforms peer megacities somewhat, but smaller cities, imitating New York in many ways, are absolutely horrendous by the standards of similar-size European or East Asian cities. Nonetheless, the shadow of giants is not an immutable fact making it impossible for a Sapporo or Birmingham or Lyon to have the rail usage of a Stockholm – what is necessary is to recognize this effect and learn more from similar-size success stories than from the far larger national capital.
Construction costs and benefits
Construction costs are not a clean cleave across cultural regions. The distinction between the West and Asia is invisible: the worst country in the world is the United States, but the second worst appears to be Singapore. Excluding the English-speaking countries, there is a good mix on both sides: Korea, Spain, Italy, and the Nordic countries all have low costs, while Taiwan and the Netherlands have particularly high ones.
Moreover, countries that are good at construction are not always good at operations. As far as I can tell from deanonymizing CoMET data, Madrid has slightly higher metro operating costs than London, Paris, and Berlin, PPP$7/car-km vs. PPP$6, with generally high-construction cost Tokyo appearing to hit $5.
This is not even just costs, but also the ability to build lines that people ride. Tokyo is pretty good at that. Spain is not: the construction costs of the high-speed rail network are consistently lower than anywhere else in the world, but ridership is disappointing. There is no real integration between the AVE network and legacy trains, and there is a dazzling array of different trains each with separate fares, going up to seven incompatible categories, a far cry from the national integration one sees in Switzerland.
There is likely to be a clear answer to “who is best at optimizing construction costs, operating costs, and ridership?”: the Nordic countries. However, even there, we see one worrying issue: for one, Citybanan is expensive by the standards of the Eje Transversal (though not by those of the RER E or especially the second Munich S-Bahn tunnel), which may indicate difficulty in building the kind of multistory tunneling that bigger cities than Stockholm must contend with. Thus, while “be like Sweden” is a good guideline to costs, it is not a perfect one.
The world leader in high-frequency public transportation is Paris. Its driverless Métro lines, M1 and M14 and soon to be M4, run a train every 85 seconds in actual service at rush hour. This is an artifact of its large size: M1 has such high ridership, especially in comparison with its length, that it needs to squeeze every last train out of the signaling system, unlike Berlin or Milan or Madrid or Stockholm. London and Moscow run at very high frequency as well for the same reason, reaching a train every 100 seconds in London and one every 92 in Moscow.
Tokyo, sadly, is not running so frequently. Its trains are packed, but limited to at best one every 120 seconds, many lines even 150, like New York. One possible explanation is that trains in Tokyo are so crowded that peak dwell times must be long, limiting throughput; long dwell times have led to reductions in RER A frequency recently. However, trains and platforms in Tokyo have good interior design for rapid boarding and alighting. Moreover, one can compare peak crowding levels in Tokyo by line with what we know is compatible with a train every 100 seconds in London, and a bunch of Tokyo subway lines aren’t more crowded than London’s worst. More likely, the issue is that Japanese signaling underperforms European systems and is the process of catching up; another aspect of signaling, automation, is also more advanced in France than in Japan (although Seoul, Taipei, and Singapore all have driverless metros).
This way, cities that are either extremely expensive to build in, like London and Moscow, or about average, like Paris, show the way forward in ways that cities that do other things better do not. It’s important to thus simultaneously learn the insights of small cities in reducing operating and construction costs and maintaining high-ridership systems, like the Nordic capitals, and those of megacities in automation and increasing throughput.
Can mixing and matching work?
Why not? In small cities with successful systems, it can’t be due to some deeply-ingrained culture – what do Stockholm, Zurich, Prague, Munich, and Budapest even have in common, other than being European? They’re not all national capitals or even all national primate cities, a common excuse New Yorkers give for why New York cannot have what London and Paris have.
Likewise, what exactly about French culture works to equip Métro lines with signals allowing 42 trains per hour per direction that cannot be adopted without also adopting real problems France has with small-city regional rail, fare integration, or national rail scheduling?
These are, ultimately, technical details. Some are directly about engineering, like Parisian train frequency. Some involve state institutions that lead to low construction costs in Spain, Korea, and the Nordic countries – but on other metrics, it’s unclear these three places have state capacity that is lacking in high-cost Taiwan, Germany, and the Netherlands. So even things that aren’t exactly about engineering are likely to boil down to fairly technical issues with how contracts are written up, how much transit agencies invest in in-house engineering, and so on.
There’s a huge world out there. And an underperforming transit agency – say, any in the United States – had better acquire all the knowledge it can possibly lay its hands on, because so many problems have already been solved elsewhere. The role of the locals is not to innovate; it’s to figure out how to imitate different things at once and make them work together. It’s not a trivial task, but every pattern suggests to me it’s doable given reasonable effort.