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.