I was asked a very good and very difficult question in comments yesterday:
What, specifically, are the best practices we all should be learning from the lower cost countries? I’m reading a lot of what not to do, but not on what do to.
I’ve gone a lot over bad industry practices leading to high costs in the Anglosphere, especially the United States, especially New York, and to some extent also on bad practices in developing countries like India. These I am contrasting with a set of good practices from a host of low-cost countries like Spain and Italy as well as medium-cost ones like Germany and France.
However, the question remains, what distinguishes low- and medium-cost countries? The differences between them are not small – underground rail extensions in German cities are averaging around 250 million euros per kilometer, and ones in French cities are around 200 million or just less than that, whereas Milan and Turin average around 100 million, and Spanish cities average even less. Germany is a higher-cost and higher-wage country than Italy and Spain, but Berlin wages are not higher than Madrid and Milan wages, and within these countries, richer cities don’t really have higher costs (Milan is cheaper to tunnel in than Naples, Madrid has lower costs than Barcelona and similar costs to the rest of Spain, the cheapest German tunneling seems to be in Hamburg of all places). No: this is almost certainly a real difference in institutions that enables Southern Europe, Scandinavia, South Korea, and Turkey to dig tunnels at one third to one half the cost of Germany.
This argues in favor of doing a deep dive case on a medium-cost example like Paris or Berlin, in addition to the work we’re doing on low-cost Milan and Istanbul. The problem is that it’s not clear, so far, what to even look at. I have a decent idea of what the difference between the high-cost world and the rest of the world is – but applying it to the low- and medium-cost world is dicey.
In-house engineering capacity
So much of the problem in the Anglosphere seems to come from the loss of in-house engineering capacity, and its replacement with private consultants. The latest iteration of this is the penchant for design-build contracts, in which the state contracts with one company to handle the entire process and doesn’t have much if any public-sector oversight. Design-build doesn’t exist in any of the countries in Continental Europe I have any familiarity with; France is looking into it as a reform in the future, but only under the aegis of a large public-sector planning team coordinating the private-sector design and construction. Moreover, Canada’s recent adoption of design-build, coming from an ideology imported from Britain and then falsely claimed to come from Madrid, preceded an explosion in costs.
However, this does not really explain the difference between France or Germany and Scandinavia or Southern Europe. Norway and Spain have separation of design and construction; so does France. Italy and Spain have in-house engineering teams responsible for a great deal of the design, but to some extent France does too, with a large in-house planning team overseeing the private-sector designs.
Procurement issues can’t really distinguish the low- from medium-cost world either. Madrid does not hand out lowest-bid contracts – at least in its big wave of expansion in the 1990s and 2000s, contracts were given 50% on the basis of a technical score marked by the in-house engineering team, 30% on that of cost, and 20% on that of how fast they could finish the project. Paris doesn’t have a 50-30-20 split but a 60-40 one; that may be significant, but I doubt it. Both systems contrast with the American system of lowest bid, or sometimes 30-70 in California. Moreover, Turkey is lowest-bid, but it’s a repeated game due to the country’s fast growth and construction – contractors who screw up do get penalized in future projects.
Citizen voice and NIMBYism
Germany has a huge problem with NIMBYism. Key segments of the national passenger rail network, for example Hamburg-Hanover, remain slow because local NIMBYs who don’t like fast trains have litigated high-speed rail to death. France has had anti-LGV NIMBYism in Provence as well, which NIMBYism is often extralegal (that is, aggrieved drivers blocking roads); this forced the state to change its plans for a high-speed railway to Nice from a mostly above-ground inland route to a tunnel-heavy coastal route through the Maritime Alps and, as the cost was prohibitive, eventually downgrade into a mixture of high- and low-speed rail line.
As I understand it, this is less of an issue in Southern Europe. I do not know to what extent it’s a problem in Scandinavia and Switzerland; Switzerland does have a lot of bucolic NIMBYism, where “bucolic” means “the city as it looked in 1957,” but I don’t think it’s had any that successfully scuttled infrastructure, and overall the political imperative there seems to reduce costs more than anything.
The NIMBY issue is also important in the US and UK. In the US, NIMBYs are not legally strong, but politicians prefer to avoid the appearance of controversy and therefore give local actors whatever they ask for, no matter the cost; many sources told Eric and me versions of this story regarding the high cost of stations on the Green Line Extension (which are, to be clear, maybe 20% of the cost of the whole project). Brooks-Liscow favor this explanation for the internal increase in the cost of highways in the US from the 1970s onward.
I do not know to what extent there’s an institutional explanation here. I do not even know if this is a real difference between on the one hand France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, most of the 2004-7 EU accession countries, and Japan, and on the other hand Southern Europe, Bulgaria, Turkey, and South Korea. It’s possible that this is a bigger problem in Northern Italy than I realize.
The most worrying possibility is that this is a real difference, and it comes not from something about institutions, but from surplus extraction. The European core and Japan are rich, and at $150 million/km, subways there would create immense social surplus and decent financial surplus. (The Japanese state is refusing to build at $500 million/km because it wants a 30-year financial payback). Southern Europe is less rich, so there is less social surplus to extract by local actors wanting to dip their beaks in state money; Switzerland and the Nordic countries are rich, but their cities are smaller and farther-apart, so there is less surplus there too.
There are a lot of objections that can be raised to the surplus extraction hypothesis: there is plenty of surplus in Seoul and not much in Vienna or Prague or Bucharest or Warsaw or Tel Aviv, Japan already reached $250 million/km in the 1970s when it was a lot poorer than Korea is today, the surplus hypothesis predicts that there should be higher costs in richer cities within the same country and yet this is not observed, local interference with Métro expansion in Paris unlike with LGVs doesn’t seem very significant.
There’s no good answer to what distinguishes low- from medium-cost countries. I wish more people here and in France were interested in this question – the activist sphere in Berlin seems far more interested in trams and bike lanes than in rapid transit. Nor do I imagine Germans and French are ready to hear that there’s something the Italians and Spaniards and Turks do better than they do. But it’s something Germany is going to need to learn to deal with if it wants better infrastructure; on the same budget, it can get 2-3 times as much as it’s getting now.