Incrementalism in Infrastructure

I was recently asked about the issue of incrementalism in infrastructure, with specific reference to Strong Towns and its position against big projects (e.g. here). It’s useful to discuss this right now in context of calls for a big infrastructure-based federal jobs program in the United States. The fundamental question to answer is, what is the point of incremental projects?

The issue is that the legitimate reason to prefer less ambitious projects is money. If a new subway tunnel costs $5 billion, but you only have the ability to secure $1.5 billion, then you should build what you can for $1.5 billion, which may be a tram rather than a subway, or surface improvements to regional rail instead of a new regional rail tunnel, etc.

A secondary legitimate reason is that even if there is more money, sometimes you get better results out of building something less flashy. This is the electronics-before-concrete approach – in a developed country it’s almost always cheaper to invest in signaling, electrification, and platform upgrades than to build new tunnels. This can look incremental if it’s part of a broader program: for example, if there’s already investment in electrification in the region then extending wires is incremental, so that completing electrification on the commuter rail lines in New York, reopening closed suburban branches in Philadelphia with new wires, and even completing electrification in a mostly-wired country like Belgium and the Netherlands would count.

But the example of electrification in a mostly already electrified place showcases the differences between cost-effectiveness and incrementalism. The same investment – electrification – has a certain cost-effectiveness depending on how much train traffic there is. There’s a second-order effect in that the first line to be electrified incurs the extra cost of two train fleets and the last line has a negative cost in no longer needing two fleets, but this isn’t relevant to first order. Nonetheless, electrifying a system where electrification is already familiar is considered incremental, to the point that there were extensions of electrification in suburban New York in the 1980s and there remain semi-active projects to build more, whereas electrifying one that is currently entirely diesel, like Boston, is locally considered like a once-in-a-generation project.

And that is the real problem. American cities are hardly hotbeds of giant flashy construction. They barely are in highways – big highway construction plans are still done but in suburbs and not anywhere where public transit is even remotely relevant. And transit construction plans are always watered down with a lot of reconstruction and maintenance money; most of the money in the Los Angeles sales tax measures that are sold to the urbanist public as transit measures is not about rail construction, which is why with money programmed through 2060 the region is going to only have one full subway line; an extension of the Red Line on South Vermont is scheduled to open in 2067, partly because construction costs are high but mostly because there are maintenance projects ahead in line.

So in reality, there are two real reasons why incrementalism is so popular in the United States when it comes to transportation, neither of which is legitimate. Both are types of incompetence, but they focus on different aspects of it.

The first reason is incompetence through timidity. Building something new, e.g. rail electrification in Boston or in California, requires picking up new knowledge. The political appointees in charge of transit agencies and the sort of people who state legislators listen to do not care to learn new things, especially when the knowledge base for these things is outside their usual social networks. Can Massachusetts as a state electrify its rail network? Yes. Can it do so cheaply? Also yes. But can the governor’s political appointees do so? Absolutely not, they are incurious and even political people who are not beholden to the governor make excuses for why Massachusetts can’t do what Israel and Norway and New Zealand and Austria and Germany do.

In that sense, incrementalism does not mean prudence. It means doing what has been done before, because the political people are familiar with it. It may not work, but it empowers people who already have political clout rather than sidelining them in favor of politically independent technocrats from foreign countries who might be too successful.

The second reason is incompetence through lack of accountability. This is specific to an approach that a lot of American urbanists have backed, wrongly: fix-it-first, or in its more formal name state of good repair (SOGR). The urbanist emphasis on SOGR has three causes: first, in the 1980s New York had a critical maintenance backlog and neglected expansion in order to fix it, which led to positive outcomes in the 1990s and 2000s; second, in highways, fix-it-first is a good way to argue against future expansion while hiding one’s anti-car ideology behind a veneer of technical prudence; and third, Strong Towns’ specific use case is very small towns with serious issues of infrastructure maintenance costs and not enough residential or commercial demand to pay for them, which it then generalizes to places where there’s more market demand for growth.

In reality, the situation of 1980s’ New York was atypical. Subsequently, the SOGR program turned into a giant money pit, because here was an opportunity to spend enormous sums of capital construction money without ever being accountable to the public in the form of visible expansion. Ask for a new rail line and people will ask why it’s not open – California got egg on its collective face for not being able to build high-speed rail. Ask for SOGR and you’ll be able to brush away criticism by talking about hidden benefits to reliability. Many passengers may notice that trains are getting slower and less reliable but it’s easier in that case to intimidate the public with officious rhetoric that sounds moderate and reasonable.

Incrementalism is fundamentally a method of improving a legitimate institution. The EU needs incremental reform; China needs a democratic revolution. By the same token, in infrastructure, incrementalism should be pushed when, and only when, the status quo with tweaks is superior to the alternatives. (Note that this is not the same as electronics-before-concrete – what Switzerland did with its rail investment in the 1990s was very far-reaching, and had tangible benefits expressed in trip times, timed connections, and train frequency, unlike various American bus redesigns.) Strong Towns does not believe that there’s anything good about the American urban status quo, and yet it, and many urbanists, are so intimidated by things that happened in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s that they keep pushing status quo and wondering why there is no public transportation outside about eight cities.

81 comments

  1. Charles Marohn

    Sorry, not a serious examination of Strong Towns or incrementalism. You caricature a straw man. This is a bad take:

    “Strong Towns does not believe that there’s anything good about the American urban status quo, and yet it, and many urbanists, are so intimidated by things that happened in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s that they keep pushing status quo and wondering why there is no public transportation outside about eight cities.”

    • RossB

      I agree. If I may summarize the argument (and even this may not be fair) then Small Towns suggests focusing on things that may not be flashy, but are very effective. It is about substance, not style. Build a light rail line, or a even a new streetcar, and people get excited. Spend money on better bus service, and they yawn. There are arguments to be made for either project, but with few exceptions, there is no data supporting the big, expensive rail project.

      They cite the Durham–Orange Light Rail Transit project. A quick glance at the population density of that region makes me extremely dubious of any rail project (https://arcg.is/0Daiyi). That is just extremely low density. But no matter. I’m sure everyone sat down before they started, and said “OK, we want to spend $2.5 billion on a transit system — what is the best thing we can build. I guess it is a single rail line”. Ha, just kidding (I guess it is too difficult to do a little research in the Research Triangle). If they did that, chances are they would have simply improved the bus system. Again, look at the density map. But instead they basically said “Hey! Let’s build something fantastic — like a light rail line! Go Big, Baby!”.

      At that point, the usual political lines were drawn. Either you were for transit, or against it. No one bothered to study whether the money could be better spent on a bus system. It reminds me of the Simpson’s Monorail episode.

      The point is, this is common in the United States. Without a doubt we spend too much money to build our projects, and yet not enough on transit in general. But when we do spend money on transit, it is often on crap. It sounds great, but is still crap. Long light rail lines to low density suburbs. Streetcars running infrequently and stuck in traffic while serving low density cities.

      That isn’t to say that an incremental approach is the best. I prefer a science based approach. Show me the data that says that the best way to spend 2 billion dollars on transit in the Raleigh Durham area is to build this rail line. Likewise, show me the data for greater Seattle — https://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2016/04/06/youve-got-50-billion-for-transit-now-how-should-you-spend-it/. You can’t, because there are no such studies.

      Yes, without a doubt the incremental approach is a cop-out. So what? If you spent 2 billion dollars on bus service (holy cow, that’s a lot of money) it would mean buses come very, very frequently in the Research Triangle. It would mean the entire region would have decent bus service. Like most U. S. cities, Raleigh has terrible bus service. Only a handful of buses run every 15 minutes. Most run every half hour, and many run every hour (https://goraleigh.org/sites/default/files/goraleighsystemmapwebjan2019.pdf). It is obviously crap, and building a very expensive light rail line wouldn’t magically fix it. The incremental approach would be to start with more frequent bus service. Get that down to every bus every 15 minutes, then ten. Then, at that point, spend a little on the choke points — the places where many of the buses are stuck in traffic. Finally you get to the point where rail (of some sort) makes sense. The buses are just coming too often (Ha! Imagine that) would be ripe candidates for rail. At that point, you build a subway.

      Is it the ideal approach? Of course not. But it is lot better for a lot of cities than the current one.

      • Henry

        What about the Seattle approach hasn’t been incremental? As new light rail extensions open, Seattle has reorganized bus networks to reinvest downtown-centric service hours into feeder service, rather than how other cities have slashed bus services. And ST is not the only name in the game; Seattle has also used its TBD to shore up and expand frequent all-day bus services so that the percentage of households within a 10-minute walk of “very frequent transit” has grown from 25% to 70% since 2015. In fact, Seattle probably shows the limits of incrementalism; even with the modest increase in funding provided by the Seattle TBD, not all of the money can be spent on service hours because there are not enough buses or drivers to run the service. There is no way that the Seattle bus system could soak up the $50B all by itself, and the next step up is light rail service.

        Yonah’s analysis of ST3 is incomplete, it measures ridership but not how long existing rides are generally taking. One of the core planks of ST’s future plans is to truncate existing long-distance commuter buses at light rail stations in the suburbs. ST will save a crapton of labor hours if slow, unreliable, low capacity buses trundling 10 or 20 miles down I-5 are replaced with faster, more punctual light rail trains requiring a fraction of the manpower. A spine down I-5 benefits everyone who has to use it anyways, but it would be counter productive for the commuter expresses to start terminating in Ballard, since by the time they’ve gotten to Ballard they’ve made it most of the way downtown anyways, and diverting off of major highways to get into Ballard would not really save time.

        • RossB

          ST3 is not incremental.

          But first a little background on Seattle and Sound Transit. (It helps if you look at a map for all of this). This is going to be long, but bear with me. As you might guess by looking at the census map (https://arcg.is/1n59CK) most transit ridership is within the city. The second most popular area for transit is the eastern suburbs. Both because it has more density, but also because of the secondary employment areas of downtown Bellevue and Redmond (driven in part by Microsoft). Everything outside of those areas is relatively paltry, and/or largely self contained (e. g. transit ridership in Tacoma is largely to downtown Tacoma). Also worth noting is that since that map was made, the density has stratified further — most of the population growth has been within the city, with the Eastern suburbs second.

          ST2 is not an incremental approach either, but it is far more incremental than ST3. ST2 will involve two subway lines. A north-south line through downtown Seattle and an east-west line ending in downtown (there is no way to go west from Seattle unless you get on a ferry). The northern and southern ends of the subway lines extend deep into the suburbs. It is pretty easy to argue that they go to far. But the terminal stations are good ones. They will have direct access from the I-5 HOV lanes, which means buses can quickly and easily get to those stations from suburban areas that are even farther away from the city. Likewise, the eastern suburbs will be well served, with stations at downtown Bellevue and Redmond. Downtown Bellevue will tie directly into the HOV lanes serving 405, while the Mercer Island Station will connect to HOV lanes from the suburbs farther east (like Issaquah).

          ST3 is a huge expansion, being voted on long before any of that is done. It involves expansion to Tacoma and Everett. Not downtown Tacoma, mind you, but to a large parking lot in the outskirts of Tacoma, at the Tacoma Dome. I can’t emphasize enough how far away from the urban core this is, and how low ridership transit ridership is from these areas. It will also involve a new suburban line, from the distant suburb of Issaquah to a parking lot in the inner suburb of Kirkland. The light rail will line will largely follow the freeway, and connect to main line in Bellevue. I’ll get into the city projects in a minute, but it is worth considering all of this. Someone in downtown Tacoma has two ways of getting to downtown Seattle. They can either take an express bus that runs through downtown Tacoma, or they can transfer to the commuter rail line which serves the Tacoma Dome. The buses are faster in the middle of the day, while the commuter train is (usually) faster during rush hour. The light rail will be slower than both — and it will only serve the Tacoma Dome. It is hard to see why anyone would take the new light rail, except to go to the airport (a minor station, even with service from downtown Seattle). The expansion from Everett will delay those getting to downtown Seattle — Everett riders would have a faster trip if they just took the bus and got off in Lynnwood (the northern terminus after ST2). So not only do you have very little ridership, but very little improvement. The new line to the eastern suburbs improves transit to Bellevue. But it likely will either be ignored for those going to downtown Seattle, or make their trips slower. Instead of a two seat ride (an express from the neighborhood to Mercer Island, followed by a train to Seattle) they will have a three seat ride (bus to the train in Issaquah, a transfer to the train in Bellevue, then the train to Seattle). Not only will this involve an extra transfer, but it because the lines curve north, it will take longer even if you timed each transfer perfectly. Those in Kirkland will ignore the train, since it is much faster to take a bus over the other floating bridge (which serves the UW, the second most popular transit center in the region). This is not incrementalism.

          ST3 will expand rail into areas that have very little bus service. It is expanding rail into areas very far from the core city, and are very low density. In short, it is blowing a lot of money on something that is all flash, and no substance. There is no way in hell that any agency, anywhere, would recommend spending the money that way. No way.

          It is being done because the people in charge thought it would be cool. Every transit board member is a representative. A mayor, a county council head, and for Seattle, a few city council members. With the exception of the chair of the Washington State Department of Transportation (who rarely attends meetings, since they work in a different city) not a single member knows anything about transportation, let alone transit. They all have other — far more important jobs. Do you really think the mayor of Seattle — now facing a recall attempt because of the way the police handled the recent unrest — is really sitting at home, reading a transit book? Of course not. These politicians addressed transit the way any American would — like a road. Thus you have a very long line — from Everett to Tacoma. Everett and Tacoma are old cities (for Washington State) and everyone knows where they are. The system sounds complete — as if you were building a freeway. But they are extremely far from Seattle, and every expert in the world will tell you that transit ridership from those areas will pail in comparison to a similar investment in Seattle. Keep in mind, most density is right in the city (https://arcg.is/1n59CK). Seattle is not L. A. — it has an urban core, one that would be well served with a comprehensive subway serving a lot of it, along with three good nodes connecting to suburban express buses. The rest of the region desperately needs good bus service. Nothing fancy — just buses that come more often than every half hour (if at all).

          The city projects aren’t quite as bad, but they certainly aren’t incremental. There will be a new train line from Ballard to West Seattle. West Seattle is one of the most suburban areas of Seattle. It also has a freeway connecting it to the rest of the city (with bus lanes on it). This makes it an odd choice for light rail (since it is very expensive per stop. I’m not sure why they focused on that area, but it is worth noting that the head of the county — who was chair of the board at the time — is from West Seattle. Ballard is the strongest light rail section. However, the best way to serve Ballard is with a crossing line, that would connect it to the UW. This would have far more riders per dollar spent, and save far more time for those riders. The current pathway is largely a throughway (with bus lanes) and is only congested as the bus gets close to downtown. To be clear, this is a reasonable line (the best of ST3) but Sound Transit’s one study showed that the Ballard to UW line would get more riders, and cost less (while obviously saving them a lot more time).

          Even in Seattle this is not incremental, and it has many of the same failings as the suburban extensions. North-south travel along those corridors is largely trunk and branch, especially from West Seattle. The train will follow the expressway, which means that a bus would be just about as fast, and there are no new stations added along the way (unlike parts of the main line). It is a classic case where BRT (real BRT) would pay off for this reason. This would be an incremental approach. They could have built a bus tunnel through downtown (https://seattletransitblog.com/2015/02/18/westside-seattle-transit-tunnel/). This would have enabled faster service for many of the “branches”. Instead, these riders will either be asked to transfer right before they go downtown (with no new nice stations to compensate) or the subway line will have very low ridership. Oh, and the bus tunnel would have served a third corridor — one with high existing transit ridership (including the highest ridership bus in the state). The current approach in the city is not a total failure (unlike the suburbs) but it is clearly not the best value, and yet an incremental approach (a bus tunnel, similar improvements in other parts of the city) would have much better ridership, and save those riders a lot more time. Which brings me to another point.

          “Yonah’s analysis of ST3 is incomplete, it measures ridership but not how long existing rides are generally taking. ”

          Right, and he dealt with that issue in a followup post. You can’t just look at ridership per dollar spent. You should look at ridership time saved per dollar. But if it fails the first test, how can it possibly pass the second? Furthermore, it can’t possibly be better at that metric. These lines largely follow freeways. The freeways have HOV lanes. At noon, many of these lines will actually cost a rider time! It will be faster to take the old bus — at least to the old subway station (built with ST2). Of course, as with many subway lines, what you lose with long distance trips, you gain by improving the trips along the way. This is common with urban lines. For example, the Northgate area (a neighborhood in the north part of Seattle about a dozen kilometers from downtown) is about to lose its express bus to downtown. It will take many of those riders longer to get downtown. But along the way, the train will serve the UW, as well other premier urban stops.

          That isn’t the case with any of the new lines. The suburban routes largely go from freeway park and ride to freeway park and ride. Even the city lines don’t add any new stops — they make the same ones the buses do. Thus there won’t be much in the way of time savings to get downtown or anywhere else. On that metric it will fail, and fail miserably.

          “ST will save a crapton of labor hours if slow, unreliable, low capacity buses trundling 10 or 20 miles down I-5 are replaced with faster, more punctual light rail trains requiring a fraction of the manpower. ”

          There are only a handful of buses that run that far away. Most of those buses go very fast until they get close to downtown. Terminating “upstream” at the ST2 terminal points is where most of the savings will come from. Everything else is minor. At best it is spending billions to save millions, although it is probably spending billions to save thousands.

          I realize this is a very long response. But transit is often complicated, and I wouldn’t expect someone from elsewhere to understand these things. I’m afraid Seattle’s leaders don’t quite grasp it either (which is really sad). What is clear, though, is that while Seattle has at times taken an incremental approach (a bus tunnel before a subway), much of the mass transit plans are not incremental (such as Everett to Tacoma light rail, which was the goal from when they first started planning light rail). Furthermore, the pieces that are clearly a success, and will soon be a success are incremental. I’m not saying an incremental approach is ideal — it isn’t, in my opinion — but it likely would have avoided the debacle that is currently being planned while likely building something much, much better.

          • Henry

            I live in Seattle.

            > ST3 is not incremental.

            Never said it was. The flaw here is ignoring the various things that ST’s partner agencies, like KCM/SDOT or Community Transit, have been doing. ST is not a NY-MTA style monolith, and outcomes would probably be worse if it was given the suburban tilt of the agency.

            With the Seattle TBD there are literally not enough bus drivers to meet demand. It’s hard to see a scenario where this is true.

            > ST3 will expand rail into areas that have very little bus service. It is expanding rail into areas very far from the core city, and are very low density. In short, it is blowing a lot of money on something that is all flash, and no substance. There is no way in hell that any agency, anywhere, would recommend spending the money that way. No way. It is being done because the people in charge thought it would be cool.

            And why are the people in charge the people in charge? Because the tax base is from all 3 counties and King County cannot and will not go it alone. Forward Thrust was King County only and failed to pass its referendum threshold. Even the modest King County TBD failed, which is why Seattle stepped up to the plate with a city-specific one.

            > Every transit board member is a representative. A mayor, a county council head, and for Seattle, a few city council members. With the exception of the chair of the Washington State Department of Transportation (who rarely attends meetings, since they work in a different city) not a single member knows anything about transportation, let alone transit. They all have other — far more important jobs. Do you really think the mayor of Seattle — now facing a recall attempt because of the way the police handled the recent unrest — is really sitting at home, reading a transit book? Of course not.

            The main reason this is alleged to work is that these representatives are elected, and so at least have an ear to the ground. It’s not clear that running an agency with technocrats is better, particularly if your technocrats are mostly up their own asses; NY MTA is a prime example of not what to be doing, and meanwhile the cities that are actually building new transit are have elected representatives on their boards (e.g. Vancouver, LA)

            Re: the bus tunnel; I feel like the first bus tunnel was a prime example of how incrementalism doesn’t work all that well, given that the bus tunnel never really achieved the capacities it set out to do, and then a lot of work had to be done anyways for the light rail upgrade. The second tunnel also exists to spread the load of all the commuters coming off the truncated buses to the north, and the ones from the south. The earliest iterations had the spine in one tunnel and the Ballard/WS as another, but that got ditched because the city tunnel would be too empty and the spine one would be too full.

            > To be clear, this is a reasonable line (the best of ST3) but Sound Transit’s one study showed that the Ballard to UW line would get more riders, and cost less (while obviously saving them a lot more time).

            With the caveat that the original tunnel cannot handle all the people off the I-5 spine *and* all the people from Ballard-UW. Too many cities have built too many branches off a single trunk beyond the point where that is appropriate.

            > These lines largely follow freeways. The freeways have HOV lanes. At noon, many of these lines will actually cost a rider time!

            Transit costs are mostly dictated by expensive additional peak trips, and ST commuter express is the textbook example of peaky commuter services. It’s also worth noting that with the massive growth in recent years, more and more service hours have been dedicated to the unpredictability of the highway system even in off-peak hours.

            > The expansion from Everett will delay those getting to downtown Seattle — Everett riders would have a faster trip if they just took the bus and got off in Lynnwood

            This was going to be true no matter what, which is why the deviation to Paine Field was considered, given the fact that it is a large employer and now the second airport.

          • michaelrjames

            Henry cited RossB:

            ST3 … is expanding rail into areas very far from the core city, and are very low density.

            Is there any evidence, or confidence, that this will eventually produce densification along the line(s)? (As per my previous post.)

          • Henry

            The zoning is certainly being prepared in Mountlake Terrace (on the ST3 map) but ST3 delivery is in the 2030s so nothing has happened yet. https://www.heraldnet.com/news/county-sees-a-dense-tall-future-near-light-rail-stations/

            On ST2 projects, Lynwood has some developments of the six-story height: https://www.heraldnet.com/news/lynnwood-council-oks-another-city-center-housing-development/ , https://www.heraldnet.com/news/lynnwood-plans-for-a-new-light-rail-linked-urban-village/

            Northgate Mall, one of the first enclosed shopping malls in the US, is also being converted into a massive mixed use development that at one point had 240-ft towers as part of the plans, but at least some of that land has since been earmarked for a training center for the new hockey team. https://www.theurbanist.org/2019/09/18/northgate-readies-for-light-rails-arrival/

      • michaelrjames

        If you spent 2 billion dollars on bus service (holy cow, that’s a lot of money) it would mean buses come very, very frequently in the Research Triangle. It would mean the entire region would have decent bus service. Like most U. S. cities, Raleigh has terrible bus service. Only a handful of buses run every 15 minutes.

        The flaw in that argument is that the $2 billion is capital cost and often comes from other than local sources, from the feds or state government. Whereas the real recurrent cost of such a bus service is the labour costs and that will be entirely locally funded, or worse at “full cost recovery” meaning high ticket prices that are counterproductive.
        And it is unarguable that buses don’t get anyone excited, even those who use them but least of all those car drivers and suburbanites we want coaxed out of their cars. Plus, bus routes don’t enhance property prices like fixed-rail transit does. Indeed, often the opposite.

        I remain open-minded about the rash of light-rail built in the US. Sure, they have been money gushers and boondoggles, and very “inefficient” uses of money, and the 5km barely gets out of the CBD or only serves low-density ‘burbs etc etc. But they can be, and apparently are already being extended. They are a nucleus for a system. Sure, again, like Portland doing this–making them more efficient with exclusive ROW etc–is even more expensive retrospectively. Plus, they are more likely to get more of that federal or state money to extend an existing system to make it more effective and serve more of the city etc. And this stuff happens in cycles, so with a change of government you might suddenly see a large amount of grant money become available (eg. Green New Deal if Biden gets in).
        But you’re kidding yourselves if you truly believe buses are the answer. Forgive me if I reckon many on this site making such recommendations are hypocrites. On a PBS-Newshour segment recently they showed an angry agitated man at a community meeting over such a project, challenge the room to stand up and show their bus passes or bus tickets that they used to get to the meeting, knowing full well almost all of them drove and that no matter how frequent a bus service was, they would continue to. In the US (and Anglosphere) bus advocates are planning that every other driver use a bus so as to liberate the road for themselves in their single-occupancy car; and the worst argument of all, that buses are the “cheapest”. As I have said many times on this site, buses are the most expensive “solution” for a fast-growing city because it simply delays the only real solution (in moving enough people, in avoiding congested roads, in avoiding building evermore roads etc) which makes fixed-rail even more expensive and more difficult (costs, taxes, NIMBYism etc).

        • RossB

          “The flaw in that argument is that the $2 billion … often comes from other than local sources, from the feds or state government. Whereas the real recurrent cost of such a bus service … will be entirely locally funded, or worse at “full cost recovery” meaning high ticket prices that are counterproductive.”

          So you are saying the problem exists at the federal level, and should be reformed there, so that instead of building largely symbolic, rarely used transit systems, we build what actually gets people out of their cars. I agree completely.

          ” But [light rail] can be, and apparently are already being extended.”

          Yes, but largely to areas that are even worse. Consider ST3, in Seattle. Ridership per mile will actually go *down* after this project that will cost over 50 billion dollars. That is an incredible fact, and yet it exemplifies the attitude of so many transit projects in the United States. Yes, there are good pieces (Seattle has some excellent pieces of light rail) but when you build a subway trying to mimic a freeway system (largely because it is what the people designing it understand) than you are going to get crap. Very expensive crap.

          “In the US (and Anglosphere) bus advocates are planning that every other driver use a bus so as to liberate the road for themselves in their single-occupancy car; ”

          The same can be said for light rail transit — if not more so. Why else do you think they run so many line lines right next to the freeway? It is obvious — they are trying to appeal to drivers who hope that traffic will go away when everyone else takes the train. They also hope that it will mean an end to bus lanes, so that they can have more lanes for their precious car.

          “And it is unarguable that buses don’t get anyone excited, even those who use them but least of all those car drivers and suburbanites we want coaxed out of their cars.”

          Better bus service gets more people out of their cars than poorly designed light rail projects. It is pretty easy to find studies (in America) where ridership increases as frequency increases. It is also very easy to see expensive rail projects that have barely moved the needle.

          I want to be clear — rail definitely has its place. But in low density cities — which is MOST of America (and certainly includes the Research Triangle) — they need better bus service first. It is crazy to spend billions of dollars on one transit line, when you can’t even afford to run the buses more than every half hour.

          • michaelrjames

            So you are saying the problem exists at the federal level, and should be reformed there, so that instead of building largely symbolic, rarely used transit systems, we build what actually gets people out of their cars.

            No. Higher levels of government want to spend money on structural change and that excludes buses with the possible exception of BRT. And no one wants to spend a bucketload of capital to be burdened forever with a high operational cost, like a bus system does. The claim that buses “actually gets people out of their cars” is not true, again with the feasible exception of BRT like Seattle, Ottawa, Brisbane. One can show that buses account for the majority of transit in American cities but that merely proves that most American cities don’t have transit, and after a century I think it is safe to say that buses aren’t solving the problem of either transport or urbanism. In any city with actual transit, ie. rail-based, the heavy work is done by rail and buses act as feeders. All kinds of people will use buses as feeder to a subway or regional rail but almost no one–including those forced to use them–wants to use a bus for a longer commute, or worse, a multi-seat ride. However most people would prefer a short walk to rail than reliance on buses; I know I would never willingly live in such a situation especially because bus frequency not only drops off precipitously out of peak and at night, they also tend to lose reliability even with low frequency (in my experience, ie. even with low frequency they can’t keep to any published timetable! the kind of thing that infuriates anyone dependent on them)–the reason is entirely due to the high labor costs of running such a service.

            So, in the US, it is a chicken-egg problem and that light-rail is a long-term investment in changing the structural issue of American cities. It is painfully slow but light rail, even the so-called useless 5km inner-suburban bits–or especially these bits–will promote densification around them. I doubt there are any examples in the rich world where buses have any measurable effect while light-rail has a long and commonly perceived positive catalysis of denser urbanism in the US, if only medium-density. From a short-term perspective (and local government is nothing if not short-term) these things (light-rail or subway) look extraordinarily expensive for little payoff, because it takes decades to build the structural change in the city. It was the mechanism behind the growth of London and New York suburbs (ie. Metroland, building rail transit thru cow paddocks).

          • Henry

            @michael:

            > It is painfully slow but light rail, even the so-called useless 5km inner-suburban bits–or especially these bits–will promote densification around them.

            That’s assuming you have a competent local government willing to upzone.

            San Jose VTA has a quite large light rail, but despite being home to Silicon Valley’s burgeoning job growth has had total light rail ridership declines.

          • michaelrjames

            That’s assuming you have a competent local government willing to upzone.

            Right. But surely the existence of the light-rail will itself exert pressure on those governments? Again, it takes time but is pretty much irresistible. As I understand it, San Jose itself is densifying quite well. Aren’t there big changes all around Diridon station? With a CAHSR stop, BART, CalTrain and light-rail, it’s where I’d want to live if I chose to live, carless, in that part of Silicon Valley. If no one else, the real estate speculators know years in advance where this is going to happen, and eventually NIMBY-politicians will be swept up or swept away.

            And BTW, those 6 storey buildings are just fine for densification. One doesn’t need 240ft (≈80m) hi-rises. You must know my attitude to that: they are just as likely to be counter-productive to higher density, not only physically but perhaps most of all politically.

      • Herbert

        Why did virtually every single light rail extension in Europe in the last four decades exceed ridership projections?

        • michaelrjames

          You’re such a tease, Herbert.
          So, why?
          Because they are only built in dense urban settings, thus fulfilling a long-standing need by an immediate user base. And linking into already existing rapid transit. And like in Paris, being circumferential rather than radial, performing a cross-town function that existing rapid transit doesn’t.

      • Nathanael

        Bus systems are garbage. Unless you have bus lanes everywhere — which London has done, but nowhere in the US has done — you end up with a system which is inherently slower than cars. At which point, what’s the point?

        If you’re going to put in bus lanes everywhere, you have two options. (1) Take away lanes from cars — great! Cheap, effective! And NOT incremental — you have to massively reduce car lane capacity citywide, all at once. (2) Build new lanes, in which case it’s cheaper and more effective to build light rail tracks.

        • Eric2

          That is incorrect. For one thing, bus travel does not require finding parking at either end, which can reduce the time difference significantly. But more generally, bus travel can be attractive even when somewhat slower, because it’s much cheaper and doesn’t require you to focus on the road.

          The main problem with buses is when they are MUCH slower – usually due to bad frequency and line spacing due to land use patterns. But light rail fails in that situation too (without gigantic subsidies).

          “And NOT incremental — you have to massively reduce car lane capacity citywide, all at once.” That’s not true. Any corridor you put a bus lane on will have good transit on that corridor and will attract riders on that corridor.

  2. michaelrjames

    In the current context, or back in the GFC, isn’t the biggest issue against big infrastructure projects simply time? They take years to prepare before anything starts happening on the ground.
    The Green New Deal has components that can be rolled out very quickly and which also can deliver tangible results (ie. other than employment) quickly and visibly. It’s a pity e-buses aren’t quite ready for prime time because that too would be v. useful in shifting the dial on clean vs fossil fuels in the transport sector.

    • RossB

      Not really. The big argument against big projects in the United States is that they are likely to be crap. If you were to give every city smaller than Chicago a bunch of money to spend on bus service they would have much better transit. It might not be ideal, but it wouldn’t be crap. In some cases they would be much better off investing in something big. But in almost all cases you would see a real, tangible improvement on the ground and ridership that matches the investment. On the other hand, if you simply allow them to build “something big” you will get no such return on investment.

      That’s because most American cities have really bad transit — buses that run infrequently, or make a large portion of the trips difficult. Yet these same cities are quite happy building magical, wonderful light rail lines to nowhere in the hopes that they can somehow mimic the European cities they visited on vacation.

      • michaelrjames

        I think you are missing the point. I didn’t even comment about the quality of such projects. The point is that if a government wants a big cash splash to boost the economy, most of all it wants it now. Indeed the time factor is the basis of Milton Friedman’s concept of ‘helicopter money’ because all alternatives will take too much time, target the wrong people or segment of the economy, produce unintended consequences, create ‘moral hazard’, be uncompetitive etc etc.

        • RossB

          You said what you considered to be the biggest issue. It was right there, in your first sentence. I’m saying I disagree. That is an issue, but I wouldn’t call it the biggest.

          But yeah, that is a reasonable point. From an economic standpoint, you want to invest in things that are “shovel ready” which means that the planning is already done. In general that would likely include more incremental projects. But there are projects that are big, where the planning is done, and they need to wait for funding.

          As far as global warming goes, I don’t think you can make a generalization. In some areas (especially big cities) you get more people out of their car with a new subway line. In other cities, it may be as simply as more (electric) buses. Of course even in big cities there are “incremental” things that can be done to improve the system. In New York, any large increase in transit ridership within the next five years is likely to come from regulations, improved bus service and improved frequency and reliability on the trains — not brand new subway lines. That will put additional pressure on the existing system, which obviously can be improved (as has been noted many times on this blog). It is not fancy (no ribbon cutting) but if the subway system in New York runs a lot more smoothly, there will be a lot happier riders, and they will be able to carry a lot more people.

      • Nathanael

        All bus service is terrible, unless you have exclusive bus lanes. If you’re going to build new pavement for bus lanes, it’s cheaper and much more cost-effective to build rail tracks. So the only sensible way to use buses is to take lanes from cars.

        Which they did in London. But if they ever have the political will to do it in the US, we’ll have the political will to do ANYTHING transit-related. ANYTHING I tell you!

        • Eric2

          So is rail in mixed traffic. Mixed traffic is terrible on busy routes. There is no getting around that.

        • Jay Yudof

          While we all would love to see comprehensive rail or bus in every city, we all know that almost everywhere in the US that is hugely unrealistic and not likely to be a palatable option to voters and elected officials until transit mode share is hugely higher. Rail requires unique maintenance, costs $ to lay, and $ to maintain. Bus lanes can be shared (by time of day, or with truck and bike traffic), and added selectively on areas of high bus traffic. All of the things which make up bus rapid (dedicated lanes, intersection priority, offboard fare collection, station amenities) can also be added incrementally.

  3. Henry Miller

    California should have done incrimental high speed rail. A high speed route just a few miles long in la. A high speed cross bay line. Both should connect to and work with the existing bus/Bart/whatever systems they have, and so be useful despite the short length. They would go over budget, but the much shorter length means that overall the costs are a small line item on budgets. Once they learn to make short lines do a few 30 mile lines, again within the cities to learn the lessons of how to build, the overruns will be worse, but again manageable in the budget. Only then commit to the long line building on the experience learned. This needs to be done anyway, so if management is competent they already have plans of where the various lines should go.

    Getting a system started, or starting a transform is hard. But money is limited so you need to be careful where you invest it. You also need to ensure when (not if) things go wrong that you can deal with it. Finding the unknown unknowns is hard but important. The more experience you have the less of those there are. However it is scarey to take that first step.

    • Eric2

      That’s exactly what California did. “Start with a flat simple mostly-rural segment in the Central Valley, and work out the complicate parts later”.

      • Richard Mlynarik

        That’s exactly what Parsons Brinckerhoff, now rebranded WSP, the private corporation that has always completely and totally controlled the “public” high speed rail program in California, did not do.

        What PB did is what PB always does here: create a isolated “stranded investment” connected to nothing, blow through the money available — incredible amounts of money! –, create a “too big to fail” situation, and come back pleading for more cash. Again. And again. And again. And again. They always start projects or even beyond the far end and work backwards, and not for civil engineering reasons.

        Oh and “start with a flat simple mostly-rural segment in the Central Valley” would not mean “start construction by relocating a 6+ lane freeway and multiple freeway interchanges running through downtown Fresno”. It would have meant Tracy-Bakersfield, west of Highway 99 or even close to Interstate 5, avoiding the guaranteed costs and blowouts of non-greenfield construction, and avoiding as many utility, freeway, highway and railroad impacts and crossings as possible.

        That’s exactly what PBQD=WSP DBA “Californai High Speed Rail Authority” did not do.

        Again, if you’re looking at this as anything other than financial engineering and looting, you’re not looking at it the right way. It’s not about engineering. It’s not about timid incrementalism. It’s not about local demands. It’s not about serving communities. It’s not about creating communities. It’s not about jobs. It’s not about bold visions. It’s about pure graft and pure fraud.

        • df1982

          Yep, the biggest bang for buck would have been to start with San Jose-Merced and Santa Clarita-Bakersfield (covering the gaps in the existing passenger rail system), and then work in from there. That way if there was no funds for completion it would at least have connected Central Valley cities to their nearest major metropolises, which would be much more beneficial than connecting them to each other (what can you do in Fresno that you can’t do in Bakersfield?).

          • Paul

            Agreed, and since San Jose-Merced exists in some form (legacy commuter rail via Altamont), I would have started with Santa Clarita-Bakersfield. That segment allows you to run LA-Central Valley-SF services with legacy equipment, which would then get better over time as more high-speed segments are completed.

    • Reedman Bassoon

      California HSR tried/failed at incrementalism. AND, it has not learned anything to make future steps better/easier. It started out with a clean slate. Then, when the lies to the public stopped (i.e. when the construction bids started coming in and the price tag for SF to LA hit $100 billion), Guv Jerry Brown hit the ‘pause’ button and required shared tracks at the ends. The result: Caltrain spent over $200 million on a custom train control system that didn’t work, and has had to start over completely (the FRA has threatened to shut Caltrain down completely because it has blown through so many PTC deadlines).. Caltrain is presently part-way through the worlds most expensive (per-mile) electrification. It has blown through both budgets and schedules continuously. AND, still has not got a plan for level boarding. BART is hugely expensive, but, it can “sell” itself with incrementalism. Extend from Fremont to Warm Springs. check. Then extend from Warm Springs to East San Jose. check. Then extend from East San Jose to Downtown San Jose. TBD.

    • Alon Levy

      Not really… intercity rail is completely pointless unless you have the LA-Bakersfield section, which can’t be done on a mixed or legacy alignment.

    • RossB

      I don’t know about that. High speed rail really is a case where you need to go big or go home. There is no point in having a high speed rail from a big city to a tiny one. You just won’t get the ridership. Nor is there any reason to “practice” with a short line. This isn’t something new. As Alon has pointed out, many, many countries have done that. Just because no on one the continent has, doesn’t mean you can’t borrow from their expertise. It really misses the point. California HSR isn’t a fiasco because they thought too big. It is because they aren’t building it right. Building it small (and still building it wrong) wouldn’t exactly solve the problem.

      An incremental approach would have been to leverage the existing rail, and try to at least get faster trains. I have no idea what sort of improvement you could make in that regard though. At some point you need to get a much faster line, otherwise you simply won’t get the ridership. If it takes five hours to take a train from L. A. to San Fransisco (a huge improvement over today) a lot of people will still drive or fly. But get it under three hours and things change, and people take the train.

      • michaelrjames

        I agree. The first HSR needs to be successful and widely perceived as that, where no conservative commentators can pile their usual toxic mantras down on transit or government waste blah blah. I lived in the UK at the time Europe’s first HSR opened, the Paris-Lyon TGV, and saw Thatcher herself and all the UK (and some French and European) media & business commentators, not just conservatives, lay down heavily on scepticism and accusations of wantonly irresponsible spending on a white elephant etc. IIRC, even the EU was sceptical, and many French pollies were too. It was remarkable how it all was blown away within months of it opening–because it was such an undeniable overnight success. As they say the rest is history. Without it, there would be no channel tunnel with its Eurostar connecting London, Brussels, Paris and further into Europe. In fact Thatcher still fought Eurostar in refusing any official support or money, but she couldn’t stop it, especially with the success of Paris-Lyon.

        The problem with California is the terrain, the distance and no easy shorter HSR route to act as demonstrator. In some ways LA to LV could be better, as it is shorter and has business support, and little doubt it would be successful with a wide variety of people using it who otherwise would never contemplate using a train. Thus building a constituency for further HSR, in a way in which connecting some farmers to a bigger city won’t (it’s not them who make the decisions, or pay for it, or ultimately are the users most served by it).

    • Alon Levy

      Schuylkill Valley. But yeah, these are small additions, nothing big, which is why I’m contrasting this with Boston electrification.

  4. Yoav

    I think you missed the main reason for incrementalism – huge projects often fail.
    So even if the cost is high, it is sometime best to start small, learn by doing, and expand later.

    • Alon Levy

      That’s the explanation for people who are rooted in the private sector. But transit infrastructure is different. You can’t start small, because 20% of a subway network is a lot less than 20% as useful as a full subway network. You can’t learn by doing, because there’s a craft to this and if you put people in charge of it whose experience is in American business and not in infrastructure then they’ll suck and then everyone afterward will learn to suck from them; this is why construction costs go up and not down as a country builds more stuff.

      • Yoav

        I don’t know, making something repeatedly makes you better at doing it.
        How did the Europeans became so good?

        • Alon Levy

          They didn’t “become so good,” in the early 20th century the construction costs were the same here and in the US, and then over the century they rose here but rose in the US a lot more.

        • kamoro

          A saying comes to mind: practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.

          A lot of infrastructure practices in the US sometimes feels like the folowing: Practice shooting the basketball. When a more experienced player critiques your form, write it off as “he’s taller, what works for him won’t work for me.” Wonder why you keep getting blocked. Double down on practicing with terrible form.

    • michaelrjames

      <blockquote<huge projects often fail

      Do they? They generate a lot of son et lumiere. They may often, or always, have cost blowouts and involve shoddiness, corruption or poor choices etc etc but outright fail? No, if anything the bigger the project the less likely to actually fail because … “too big to fail”. On this site people are often citing the Big Dig, but even as grossly imperfect as its execution was and its build was/is, and bloated cost, it is not really a failure except perhaps in the wider philosophical context of roads v transit etc. It did achieve most of what it set out to do (and of course the actual dig was only one component in building several new water crossings, diversions-rationalisations of road network, above-ground beautifications, urbanisations etc).
      It is also way too early to be calling CAHSR a failure. IMO it will get built–because the case for it is so compelling (and yes, too big to fail …). Even its cost, as outrageously expensive compared to Euro or Asian construction, is not as bad as claimed. Yonah Freemark argued that California HSR’s projected cost’s upper end was just 0.18% of the projected GDP of California over a 20-year construction period. The implication: the cost of high-speed rail (and public transit in general) is small relative to the ability of the economy to pay. This is even more the case in the US where conservatives continue to give trillion dollar tax cuts to the 1%. Recently Orange County voted to spend $50bn (10 years I think?) on roads but that goes unremarked–and it will be ‘hidden’ by incrementalism of the worst kind: endless, pointless, freeway widening.
      If Biden is the next prez, he should spend up big on the GND and part of that should be to support serious transit and part of that would be CAHSR–especially likely if Kamala Harris is Veep–but it should be tied to finishing it a.s.a.p. instead of the usual protracted timelines the Anglosphere adopts for such projects (I mean, the UK’s HS2 which is barely more than Paris-Lyon, is proposed to take decades, completely ridiculous as well as being counterproductive.)

      • Henry Miller

        If Biden doesn’t do something (what?) to ensure this transit you want him to build isn’t a bunch of high cost lines to nowhere he will ensure that the Republicans replace him with their words of fiscal responsibility pointing out his waste.

        The high cost of construction in the US can stand roads because everyone uses them so they see some value even at high prices (and a need to do something, the bad transaction ensure nobody can imangine good transportation so that is ruled out as an option even if it would be ultimately cheaper to start over).

        I wouldn’t pin any hopes on the next president. Maybe the next 50 years of back and forth can get somewhere.

        • Alon Levy

          High road construction costs are permitted because roads don’t require a lot of coordination, so if some aristocrat local notable who gets stuck in traffic 5 minutes a day complains they can get a highway bypass built for $100 million and nobody will notice. The political check on construction cost is various good government watchdogs plus people who want to cut taxes and spending, and those operate at the state and national levels and not the local level so they either miss local waste or are powerless to prevent it.

        • michaelrjames

          I wouldn’t pin any hopes on the next president. Maybe the next 50 years of back and forth can get somewhere.

          Sadly, I agree you are likely to be correct.
          …. However, if he has an attack of lucid non-factional vapors at the beginning of his term and appoints people who want to bring real change, then there might be some hope. I am imagining that he won’t be much of an executive hands-on president* and so a few critical talented and determined, rather than personally ambitious, people have 4 years, maybe 8 …
          These improbable events–ie. the utter horrorshow of Trump, MeToo, BLM, and the failure of US healthcare and society in general, plus the oldest, single-term president–could feasibly produce the opportunity for change. As they say, it has opened the Overton Window much wider than it’s been since the Kennedy-Johnson years.
          ……………
          *compared to Obama. I thought it at the time and even more so today, that Obama was a bit too cerebral, a bit “too cool for school” and a bit too concerned for his own stature and legacy (and of course for two terms that cripples the office). I accept that he faced ridiculous oppositionalism. But regardless of any reasons, Biden could indeed be a change agent and won’t be as divisive even/especially with many Republicans who will breathe a sigh of massive relief once Trump and Trumpism are gone. In fact these are the reasons why Obama chose Biden as VP. One hopes the Dems win the Senate, but even so Biden has the opportunity for some bipartisanship in the next few years. (Does Mitch McConnell remain Senate minority leader?)
          And BTW, Obama was a preacher for incrementalism and events have overwhelmingly proven him wrong. It’s like the small dreams/big dreams maxim. If you make small plans and they fail, what are you left with? Make big plans and fail, and you have often achieved a great deal.

          • Henry Miller

            Big plans are good, but they need to be be broken down into small chunks that you can get done. The small parts should be useful on their own. Note that useful on their own doesn’t always mean worth it, just useful enough that you can claim some success.

            Of course the real problem is everybody (both sides) wants results instantly. That isn’t possible, but everybody wants it and gets disappointed when their side doesn’t deliver.

          • michaelrjames

            That sounds typically like incrementalism.
            Whatever happens, the most important thing is achieving a change in mindset on particular issues. An opening of the American mind. Universal healthcare is one, and it would take a huge effort to bring it to the US–but the important thing is not any single initiative but convincing a majority that it should be done. I’ve even been struck by a wild idea: Biden should do his reaching across the aisle shtick and invite Mitt Romney to be his Sec of DHHS. Though I never remember exact details on MA’s Romneycare. Perhaps it is exactly the kind of incrementalism that is counterproductive to real change? The fact that it supposedly was the model for ACA is not a good thing if true, especially fatal compromises to Big Pharma. Perhaps action on Big Pharma and drug prices is something that could be achieved in one fell swoop and in a few years of pushing legislation through? In fact healthcare will be a bellweather of a Biden-Harris government: if they take your route and decide to be “pragmatic” despite all the lessons and gutpunch delivered by covid-19, then we’ll know they won’t really do anything much and on anything of real relevance.

            Anything built must be highly functional and embody the essence of the longer term goals and advantages of whatever is being proposed. A stranded HSR to nowhere from nowhere does not qualify. I’m increasingly thinking the feds should look at LA-LV HSR and get it built in the first term–it’s about 25% shorter than Paris-Lyon which took ≈4-5 years (of construction, 1977-1981).

  5. SB

    “American cities are hardly hotbeds of giant flashy construction. They barely are in highways”
    Big Dig? (its cost overruns could be one possible reason why opposition to new big projects in the Boston exist) Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement?
    “big highway construction plans are still done but in suburbs”
    Suburbs and urban core are part of the same metropolitan area. Money towards big highway construction projects in the suburbs could have gone to transportation construction.

      • jcranmer

        And Boston-area residents still fulminate about it. The cost overruns are legendary, and this is despite the ultimate quality being astonishingly bad and cancelling several components of the project (such as the NSRL).

    • Alon Levy

      The construction projects people complain about are more “highway bypass around a town of 7,000 that’s technically in the Cleveland metro area but isn’t meaningfully suburban” than “road widening in the suburbs to get people into city centers faster.”

      And the main problem with diverting money from highways to transit is that because only about eight American cities have public transit, and not many more could have some with additional subway construction, transit money would not be spread across states in a proportion Congress would accept.

      • Nathanael

        Oh, we’re back to the US Senate. I consider it the root of all evil in US politics — it will have to be abolished or rendered irrelevant, just as Britain rendered the House of Lords irrelevant with the Parliament Act. I’ve been thinking of ways to do it.

        One is to leverage the permanent presiding officer position of the Vice President. If the VP declares that the Senate has passed a bill, nobody in the Senate has standing to prevent it from being declared a law, and Supreme Court has declared that it’s none of its business. Likewise if the VP declares that the Senate has not passed a bill, nobody has standing to force it to be recognized as a law. (This is why having a permanent presiding officer is not normally done.)

  6. Henry

    So I may have missed this post. But on the topic of incrementalism and not, and considering we’re talking about California’s plagued moonshot-HSR, what’s your opinion on Via Rail in Canada pushing for its new, not-high-speed HFR line rather than going whole hog on gold-standard HSR?

    • Alon Levy

      Canada needs to just build HSR between Toronto and Montreal and stop dithering with endless studies all recommending the same thing (HSR, but with a warning that the benefit-cost ratio, while >1, is not amazing).

  7. FDW

    Honestly, America is at the point where it needs a democratic revolution too, but I think it’s getting a slide towards facism or disintegration instead. I kind of knew that a crisis was coming, still its unreal seeing it take physical form as Covid.

      • FDW

        I see this election as mere prelude and not the climax of this process. I haven’t mentioned my politics much because compared to most of people here I’m way way out in Left Field (Not a marxist though, Transhumanist). I guess it was only a matter of time though, because your articles really resonate well with all the other American Institutional Failure that I’ve been exposed to elsewhere, especially on Naked Capitalism.

        • Nathanael

          No, the polls were close in 2016. This is different. This is “either Biden wins or it was stolen”. International observers wouldn’t believe it if Trump claimed to win at this point, after his attacks on the Postal Service and all.

          Could get very messy. This is indeed only an early stage in the process.

  8. Onux

    I don’t think you correctly interpret what Strong Towns calls incrementalism. They do not say five $1B projects or a single $3B project are always preferable to a $5B project. Instead they say develop infrastructure in a logical manner (bus->dedicated lane bus->light rail, etc.). This is a variant of “form follows function” (build the mode/form that you need for demand/function) when too many politicians get seduced by form and want to jump to big.

    The ST critique is applicable to a medium sized city building a 5km streetcar downtown for $100M, when $80M might get a 40km high quality bus network with four 10km lines across the city. The bus network is more transformative despite less cost and “incremental” improvement over existing busses; it will also have higher ridership and rider benefit. If a bus line is full, then you upgrade it to tram/light rail with the assurance you can still run high frequency and gain ridership, instead of the 5km streetcar where frequency is cut when riders don’t appear. That is incrementalism to Strong Towns.

    This ties into the ST argument of “Development Oriented Transit” instead of “Transit Oriented Development.” Build infrastructure in the location and capacity required, instead of laying down a major project and then upzoning to make it viable after the fact.

    I do not believe ST opposes major projects when justified. I doubt they would oppose the subway on Broadway in Vancouver. Yet Vancouver represents incrementalism in that each Skytrain extension has been proceeded by a B-Line rapid bus route that the train replaces. If a future B-Line ended up empty, it is unlikely Skytrain would follow (at least with Vancouver’s current professional management).

    The disadvantage to the ST incremental theory is that if slavishly applied it would lead to bus lanes on Broadway to justify a surface tram to justify a subway. This is foolish and wasteful when demand justifies a subway now. ST makes this mistake frequently with zoning by rigidly adhering to the FormCode transect progression and demanding single family areas be upzoned to row houses before mid-rise, even in neighborhoods with demand for high-rise.

    For this reason I prefer the term “organic” to “incremental.” Organic processes produce huge things (redwoods hundreds of feet tall), move very fast (bamboo growing feet a day) and develop non-incrementally (caterpillars become butterflies, not butterpillars first). Yet redwoods start out as saplings, and if rains don’t come you get a forest of spruce instead. Caterpillars don’t randomly become butterflies but satisfy conditions to pupate (in the tropics they have more generations per year than colder climates).

    • Alon Levy

      A couple notes.

      1. In Vancouver, the 99-B has been the busiest bus route since it was established in the 1990s. And yet weaker bus routes turned into trains first because they were easier to build: Lougheed Highway (on a lower-ridership tail of the 99-B), Cambie, Coquitlam (on a B-line that was actually kind of weak).

      2. The BRT-then-light-rail-then-subway paradigm is often pretty bad. If the street is not wide enough for dedicated lanes (also, lol at dedicated lanes in an American city), then surface transit will underperform. If there is a parallel street that is narrower, the best route for a subway may be completely different from that for surface transit; LA at least plans to veer to hit Century City, but Tel Aviv is planning a surface route on Jerusalem Boulevard even though Yefet is more important and should get a subway.

      3. A 5 km downtown streetcar is a trash idea, but a 5 km extension of a tramway to somewhere interesting isn’t. But then also the highest-quality bus network is one that no longer has to exist, because it’s been replaced by trains. So far the US record at bus-oriented transit revival has to be viewed as a total failure: supposed bus redesign success stories have shrug-worthy records, while the one city that’s actually expanding rail and running decent frequency on it and on connecting buses, Seattle, is seeing meaningful increases in modal split and must be put in the “shit transit” bucket of Boston and Chicago and not the “no transit” one of Portland, Los Angeles, and Houston.

      • Henry

        > must be put in the “shit transit” bucket of Boston and Chicago and not the “no transit” one of Portland, Los Angeles, and Houston.

        I’m confused, are you saying that Seattle transit is shit or that it gets perceived as shit?

        Seattle is also pretty illustrative of how bad BRT-then-light-rail-then subway is. Upgrading the downtown BRT tunnel to accommodate Link still ended up costing money, the old bus tunnel has stops way too close together because it was designed for bus stop spacing, the bus and Link did not end up working well together and then the buses got shittier when they got kicked out of the tunnel to make light rail faster and more reliable. And Seattle is unlikely to ever build a true subway because it already spent so much money building the bus tunnel first then Link.

        Also it doesn’t help matters that the other medium-sized city to build heavy rail, Honolulu, fucked it up so badly that it’ll probably scare off policymakers for another generation.

        • Alon Levy

          I’m saying it’s shit, which is better than what cities like LA have, which is no transit at all.

          And yeah, HART is terrible, although thankfully most Americans view Hawaii as a foreign country and therefore are less likely to notice than if something in the contiguous US screwed up that badly.

          • FDW

            Not since Covid got underway. Sound Transit has gone full-retard, prioritizing the suburban bus routes over Link.

          • Nathanael

            HART is equivalent to a third-world country with zero expertise trying to build its first urban rail line and making every mistake in the book. They’re doing better than Jakarta.

        • Nilo

          What other city at this point would you build metro in in the US that doesn’t have it at this point? IIRC the only city left with any density that doesn’t have it is like Milwaukee, which is so poor and reviled by the state, that the universe where it’s building anything is a universe where we’ve fixed a lot of these problems at the federal level.

          • Henry

            A fair amount of cities could build light rail with a common underground trunk still, but then cheaped out and did core surface running instead. Now Dallas and Portland need to spend a lot more money fixing their problems. Many of these, once you get rid of the surface core-running bits, are so grade separated that they might as well be light metro.

            Seattle is building so much grade separation that it probably could’ve been built as a light metro without massively increasing what got spent.

      • Onux

        1. The order of the various SkyTrain extensions is not right, but the fact is that Vancouver has a strong (frequent, 7 day) bus network across the entire city, and then it maps out rail extensions with a rapid bus service before building them. This is exactly how Strong Towns would do incrementalism (as opposed to building all or part of a subway network without first establishing a bus network that served the whole city so everyone can access the train.) Vancouver also good mode share for its size and growing transit ridership despite the lower tier subway extensions.

        2. As I noted a strict adherence to mode type growth (mixed lane streetcar before dedicated lane tram before grade departed light rail….) is foolish. But improvements to bus service before rail is almost always possible (with some exceptions you note regarding street paths). Strong Towns would also probably argue it is better to put a tram network on several corridors for the money one subway line would cost. If one of those corridors shines you can build the subway down the line (which is “wasteful” in the sense the tram is obsolete, but actually common how els preceded the subway in NY or the metro replaced lots of streetcars in Paris) but if none do you still have a team network instead of an isolated subway line (like Baltimore, Cleveland and somewhat Miami and LA).

        3. A strong 5km extension is a fine idea but the 5km downtown streetcar that has been built in most US cities for the past few decades and is the type of project I believe ST objects to. A bus network fully replaced by trains is a chimera, even the biggest metro systems (Shanghai, Tokyo, NY, Paris etc) haven’t eliminated busses, and for most cities buses will always be the prime mover. The discussion of the failure of bus redesign is a non-sequitor, the redesigns are almost always revenue neutral, but we’re talking about investment. The kind of money many cities spend on rail could put shelters, arrival screens, level boarding etc at every bus stop.

        Seattle is growing rail and mode share, but it is also integrating bus network redesign into each line opening to emphasize a grid feeding the rail line. Once again I think ST might view Seattle as incremental: first the bus tunnel to improve transit in downtown, then build a rider base to downtown with express busses and BRT (branded RapidRide in Seattle), then build the rail lines to handle the growth. The contrast to so many other US city rail systems (San Jose, Dallas) built out in a vacuum is clear. I’ll also note that Seattle has passed a few levies to fund additional bus service (more operating hours, frequency, span) so ridership growth is not solely because of more light rail infrastructure.

        • df1982

          Bus lane –> subway is fine. Anything else risks wasting money on building infrastructure that is then made obsolete by the upgrade, or is recycled in an unsatisfactory and overly expensive way. The days where you can build on el and then tear it down a couple of decades later are long gone. Infrastructure needs to be built for the long, long term to be viable.

          I think the problem most people have with the 5km streetcars American cities are building is that they don’t really serve any transit purpose at all, since they tend to be circuitous one-way loops connecting a bunch of different downtown landmarks. Nobody in their right mind would use them for commuting, so the only people they attract are tourists having a day out on the town. And then people wonder why they don’t get enough patronage to even make 20-minute frequencies sustainable. The investment in those kinds of projects should really go under “city branding” rather than “transit”. That said Kansas and Detroit are not bad on principle, and could be made to work with extensions.

          • FDW

            Kansas City is actually in the process of “Building the next 5km” of its Streetcar line. Detroit wasn’t intending to build the Q-Line, rather it was angling for surface LRT on Woodward to 8 mile. Then the Great Recession hit and the project almost didn’t get built at all. That’s when the developers came with private money and proceeded to crappify the shit out of it. Portland has a similar, but different with its North-South Streetcar. It was supposed to go all the way to Lake Oswego, but NIMBY’S wound up killing the project. And keep in mind that Portland still has long-term plans to build out a network of Streetcars in core areas, though the current situation is probably going to force a rethink of it.

      • RossB

        “the one city that’s actually expanding rail and running decent frequency on it and on connecting buses, Seattle, is seeing meaningful increases in modal split”

        Much, if not all of that increase was due to two things:

        1) The subway line from the University of Washington to downtown.
        2) Increased frequency on the buses in Seattle.

        Since almost all of the ridership is on the buses, I think it is safe to say that it is mostly the latter. Seattle in some ways, did have a textbook case of incrementalism — the bus tunnel is now the train tunnel. Except — like Vancouver — they built things out of order, starting with a line to the airport as their “great leap” in transit.

        If anything, the problem was a lack of proper incrementalism. Until recently, most buses ran every half hour. Extra money for transit (passed via an initiative) changed that. An incremental approach would have added more bus service first, then started the railway with the UW to downtown line. Then a second bus tunnel, followed by an expanded rail system elsewhere.

        But instead, it is largely building crap. ST3 is crap. Extremely expensive crap, leaving much of the city with infrequent and/or slow transit, and the areas it will serve with infrequent largely empty trains (like so many systems in the U. S.). We (in Seattle) are jealous of Vancouver for both its buses and trains. The trains go to more places, and the buses run more frequently.

  9. fjod

    I tend to agree with you here, but I do think incremental infrastructure investments can sometimes be best, even when the current system requires massive change. Cycling infrastructure is an example; decision-makers are often distracted by flashy-looking big bits of infrastructure or cross-city routes which end up underdelivering, either because making it big comes at the expense of making it effective, because there are poor connections either side of your expensive grand projet, or because the infrastructure doesn’t actually accommodate the existing journeys that people want to make (all three apply to varying extents to London’s cycle ‘superhighways’). If you can get to the point where your network of cycle infrastructure allows users to make long journeys – great! But you can only get there through incrementalism.

  10. Herbert

    A Stadtbahn (at least as initially proposed) can be thought of as incrementalism in a city with existing trams compared to building a new subway…

  11. numble

    I do it think it is accurate to say a Red Line extension is delayed “mostly because there are maintenance projects ahead in line.” It is because there are 13 rail lines or extensions ahead of line on the Measure M plan.

    Measure M, which pays for transit in LA dedicates 35% to new transit construction and only 2% to state of good repair.

  12. Henry Miller

    When thinking about strong towns note the word Town. The founder lives what qualifies as a city by dictionary definition, but isn’t what most here think of as a city. The people who live there sometimes sit through 2 red lights cycles at one stoplight during the rush ten minutes and think they can sympathize with the traffic in a large city. A barely faster than walking streetcar would get about as many riders as a subway, even if the subway was world class in frequency and speed. There just isn’t the population, they are helped by the US focus on car centric transportation since they are small enough that it makes sense. (not from an environmental standpoint of course). With that background I think everyone here will agree that the common bus will serve all their transportation needs.

    The founder was a consultant to much smaer cities. Many of them are perfectly walkable in size. However you still own a car and drive everywhere because a few times a month you make the long drive to a larger city for supplies at the much cheaper stores (with better selection). Farm towns that exist to serve farmers. It makes sense to build row houses for people who don’t want a garden but there will never be a high rise.

    Both of the above types of town have delusions of grandior. They often build things or zone for things that make no sense in context of what they are. This last point is shared with most towns. I think most of us here believe that new York spends too much on subways because they make palace stations where a cheaper one would serve. However the context of is different. Incrimental in context of New York is putting in more subway. Incrimental in context of Los Angeles is skipping a level in some cases because they should have put in the missing level 150 years ago to have a system to expand on.

    Incrimental also gets messed up with geography. Most cites are built near water that the transport system much cross. There is an imaginary line in my city that would be well served by a frequent bus, but the bridge doesn’t exist. You could build it, but for not much more you could just do an elevated train the whole route. Instead the bus detours several miles (and 3 transfers) to cross the nearest bridge, with obvious effects on riders (everyone drives who wants to make the trip). There is no way to incrementally build the route, you have to commit to something big.

    • michaelrjames

      Instead the bus detours several miles (and 3 transfers) to cross the nearest bridge, with obvious effects on riders (everyone drives who wants to make the trip). There is no way to incrementally build the route, you have to commit to something big.

      Reminds me of the monologue by the Stanley Tucci character, Eric Dale, in the 2011 movie Margin Call about the Wall Street crash-GFC. Eric Dale is a risk management division head of a big Wall Street investment bank, and doubtless earning a mega-salary. He is laid off after working 19 years for the company. As he sits on the stoop of his brownstone building being harangued by the company’s security guy Will Emerson, to return to the company that has just sacked him (so he doesn’t leak anything for the next 12 hours as they liquidate the firm to the detriment of all its investors), he recalls the most satisfying work of his life when he was an engineer. The point of course was that he was contrasting physical engineering with financial engineering:

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1615147/quotes

      Eric Dale: Do you know I built a bridge once?
      Will Emerson: Sorry?
      Eric Dale: A bridge.
      Will Emerson: No, I didn’t know that.
      Eric Dale: I was an engineer by trade.
      Will Emerson: Hmmm… hmmm
      Eric Dale: It went from Dilles Bottom, Ohio to Moundsville, West Virginia. It spanned nine hundred and twelve feet above the Ohio River. Twelve thousand people used this thing a day. And it cut out thirty-five miles of driving each way between Wheeling and New Martinsville. That’s a combined 847,000 miles of driving a day. Or 25,410,000 miles a month. And 304,920,000 miles a year. Saved. Now I completed that project in 1986, that’s twenty-two years ago. So over the life of that one bridge, that’s 6,708,240,000 miles that haven’t had to be driven. At, what, let’s say fifty miles an hour. So that’s, what, 134,165,800 hours, or 559,020 days. So that one little bridge has saved the people of those communities a combined 1,531 years of their lives not wasted in a fucking car. One thousand five hundred and thirty-one years.

      Will Emerson: [as he is leaving Eric’s place] Hey Eric? Don’t beat yourself too much about this stuff, all right? Some people like driving the long way home. Who the fuck knows, right?
      ……………….

  13. Pingback: Friday’s Headlines to Round Out the Week – Streetsblog USA
  14. Jay Yudof

    Wow large capital and financing decisions come about with a lot of politics, I invite front dash line planners to make incremental projects work through thorough and realistic analyses of alternatives. while we want to avoid decades lost on “Analysis paralysis quote and environmental studies, we can present a set of alternatives in realistic cases with predictable outcomes. let the public know how the various choices might play out in terms of current and future requests, commuter volume including reverse commute, trip time, and redundancy/safety. As Alon repeatedly urges, keep a worldview and present viable options with meaningful examples.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.