Institutional Issues: Dealing with Technological and Social Change

I’ve covered issues of procurement, professional oversight, transparency, and proactive regulations so far. Today I’m going to cover a related institutional issue, regarding sensitivity to change. It’s imperative for the state to solve the problems of tomorrow using the tools that it expects to have, rather than wallowing in the world of yesterday. To do this, the civil service and the political system both have to be sensitive to ongoing social, economic, and technological changes and change their focus accordingly.

Most of this is not directly relevant to construction costs, except when changes favor or disfavor certain engineering methods. Rather, sensitivity to change is useful for making better projects, running public transit on the alignments where demand is or will soon be high using tools that make it work optimally for the travel of today and tomorrow. Sometimes, it’s the same as what would have worked for the world of the middle of the 20th century; other times, it’s not, and then it’s important not to get too attached to nostalgia.

Yesterday’s problems

Bad institutions often produce governments that, through slowness and stasis, focus on solving yesterday’s problems. Good institutions do the opposite. This problem is muted on issues that do not change much from decade to decade, like the political debate over overall government spending levels on socioeconomic programs. But wherever technology or some important social aspect changes quickly, this problem can grow to the point that outdated governance looks ridiculous.

Climate change is a good example, because the relative magnitudes of its various components have shifted in the last 20 years. Across the developed world, transportation emissions are rising while electricity generation emissions are falling. In electricity generation, the costs of renewable energy have cratered to the point of being competitive from scratch with just the operating costs of fossil and nuclear power. Within renewable energy, the revolution has been in wind (more onshore than offshore) and utility-scale solar, not the rooftop panels beloved by the greens of last generation; compare Northern Europe’s wind installation rates with what seemed obvious just 10 years ago.

I bring this up because in the United States today, the left’s greatest effort is spent on the Build Back Better Act, which they portray as making the difference between climate catastrophe and a green future, and which focuses on the largely solved problem of electricity. Transportation, which overtook electricity as the United States’ largest source of emissions in the late 2010s, is shrugged off in the BBB, because the political system of 2021 relitigates the battles of 2009.

This slowness cascades to smaller technical issues and to the civil service. A slow civil service may mandate equity analyses that assume that the needs of discriminated-against groups are geographic – more transit service to black or working-class neighborhoods – because they were generations ago. Today, the situation is different, and the needs are non-geographic, but not all civil service systems are good at recognizing this.

The issue of TOD

Even when the problem is static, for example how to improve public transit, the solutions may change based on social and technological changes.

The most important today is the need to integrate transportation planning with land use planning better. Historically, this wasn’t done much – Metro-land is an important counterexample, but in general, before mass motorization, developers built apartments wherever the trains went and there was no need for public supervision. The situation changed in the middle of the 20th century with mass competition with the automobile, and thence the biggest successes involved some kind of transit-oriented development (TOD), built by the state like the Swedish Million Program projects in Stockholm County or by private developer-railroads like those of Japan. Today, the default system is TOD built by private developers on land released for high-density redevelopment near publicly-built subways.

Some of the details of TOD are themselves subject to technological and social change:

  • Deindustrialization means that city centers are nice, and waterfronts are desirable residential areas. There is little difference between working- and middle-class destinations, except that city center jobs are somewhat disproportionately middle-class.
  • Secondary centers have slowly been erased; in New York, examples of declining job centers include Newark, Downtown Brooklyn, and Jamaica.
  • Conversely, there is job spillover from city center to near-center areas, which means that it’s important to allow for commercialization of near-center residential neighborhoods; Europe does this better than the United States, which is why at scale larger than a few blocks, European cities are more centralized than American ones, despite the prominent lack of supertall office towers. Positive New York examples include Long Island City and the Jersey City waterfront, both among the most pro-development parts of the region.
  • Residential TOD tends to be spiky: very tall buildings near subway stations, shorter ones farther away. Historic construction was more uniformly mid-rise. I encourage the reader to go on some Google Earth or Streetview tourism of a late-20th century city like Tokyo or Taipei and compare its central residential areas with those of an early-20th century one like Paris or Berlin.

The ideal civil service on this issue is an amalgamation of things seen in democratic East Asia, much of Western and Central Europe, and even Canada. Paris and Stockholm are both pretty good about integrating development with public transit, but only in the suburbs, where they build tens of thousands of housing units near subway stations. In their central areas, they are too nostalgic to redevelop buildings or build high-rises even on undeveloped land. Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei are better and more forward-looking.

Public transit for the future

Besides the issue of TOD, there are details of how public transportation is built and operated that change with the times. The changes are necessarily subtle – this is mature technology, and VC-funded businesspeople who think they’re going to disrupt the industry invariably fail. This makes the technology ideal for treatment by a civil service that evolves toward the future – but it has to evolve. The following failures are regrettably common:

  • Overfocus on lines that were promised long ago. Some of those lines remain useful today, and some are underrated (like Berlin’s U8 extension to Märkisches Viertel, constantly put behind higher cost-per-rider extensions in the city’s priorities). But some exist out of pure inertia, like Second Avenue Subway phases 3-4, which violates two principles of good network design.
  • Proposals that are pure nostalgia, like Amtrak-style intercity trains running 1-3 times per day at average speeds that would shame most of Eastern Europe. Such proposals try to fit to the urban geography of the world of yesterday. In Germany, the coalition’s opposition to investment in high-speed rail misses how in the 21st century, German urban geography is majority-big city, where a high-speed rail network would go.
  • Indifference to recent news relevant to the technology. Much of the BART to San Jose cost blowout can still be avoided if the agency throws away the large-diameter single-bore solution, proposed years ago by people who had heard of its implementation in Barcelona on L9 but perhaps not of L9’s cost overruns, making it by far Spain’s most expensive subway. In Germany, the design of intercity rail around the capabilities of the trains of 25 years ago falls in this category as well; technology moves on and the ongoing investments here work much better if new trains are acquired based on the technology of the 2020s.
  • Delay in implementation of easy technological fixes that have been demonstrated elsewhere. In a world with automatic train-mounted gap fillers, there is no excuse anywhere for gaps between trains and platforms that do not permit a wheelchair user to board the train unaided.
  • Slow reaction time to academic research on best practices, which can cover issues from timetabling to construction methods to pricing to bus shelter.

Probably the most fundamental issue of sensitivity to social change is that of bus versus rail modal choice. Buses are labor-intensive and therefore lose value as the economy grows; the high-frequency grid of 1960s Toronto could not work at modern wages, hence the need to shift public transit from bus to rail as soon as possible. This in turn intersects with TOD, because TOD for short-stop surface transit looks uniformly mid-rise rather than spiky. The state needs to recognize this and think about bus-to-rail modal shift as a long-term goal based on the wages of the 21st century.

The swift state

In my Niskanen piece from earlier this year, I used the expression building back, quickly, and made references to acting swiftly and the swift state. I brought up the issue of speeding up the planning lead time, such as the environmental reviews, as a necessary component for improving infrastructure. This is one component of the swift state, alongside others:

  • Fast reaction to new trends, in technology, where people travel, etc. Even in deeply NIMBY areas like most of the United States, change in urban geography is rapid: job centers shift, new cities that are less NIMBY grow (Nashville’s growth rates should matter to high-speed rail planning), and connections change over time.
  • Fast rulemaking to solve problems as they emerge. This means that there should be fewer layers of review; a civil servant should be empowered to make small decisions, and even the largest decisions should be delegated to a small expert team, intersecting with my previous posts about civil service empowerment.
  • Fast response time to civil complaints. It’s fine to ignore a nag who thinks their property values deserve state protection, but if people complain about noise, delays, slow service, poor UI, crime, or sexism or racism, take them seriously. Look for solutions immediately instead of expecting them to engage in complex nonprofit proof-of-work schemes to show that they are serious. The state works for the people, and not the other way around.
  • Constant amendment of priorities based on changes in the rest of society. A state that wishes to fight climate change must be sensitive to what the most pressing sources of emissions are and deal with them. If you’re in a mature urban or national economy, and you’re not frustrating nostalgics who show you plans from the 1950s, you’re probably doing something wrong.

In all cases, it is critical to build using the methods of the world of today, aiming to serve the needs of the world of tomorrow. Those needs are fairly predictable, because public transit is not biotech and changes therein are nowhere near as revolutionary as mRNA and viral vector vaccines. But they are not the same as the needs of 60 years ago, and good institutions recognize this and base their budgetary and regulatory focus on what is relevant now and not what was relevant when color TVs were new.


  1. Eric2

    “which focuses on the largely solved problem of electricity. Transportation, which overtook electricity as the United States’ largest source of emissions in the late 2010s, is shrugged off in the BBB”

    Once transportation overwhelmingly switches to electric vehicles, which is very likely to happen in the next couple decades, transportation will also be a largely solved problem. Solving the electricity problem allows for solving the transportation problem with minimal additional government effort.

    “Paris and Stockholm … [i]n their central areas, they are too nostalgic to redevelop buildings or build high-rises even on undeveloped land. Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei are better and more forward-looking.”

    Most of your readers are sympathetic to that nostalgia. If you want to influence them rather than confusing them to the point of their dismissing you as a nutcase, you should phrase this point in a way that acknowledges their concerns, for example: “In cities with beautiful historic centers, there is a tradeoff between preserving that atmosphere and building the most efficient form of TOD in the form of high-rises. When cities like Paris and Stockholm prohibit tall construction in their centers, the are making an aesthetic and cultural choice which has large economic and social costs.”

    • Basil Marte

      If you want to influence people, you shouldn’t insult their readership by implying that the readers cannot handle a writer whose value judgments don’t exactly line up with their own.

      • Eric2

        It’s more like “either this piece is badly written and thought-out in failing to address the obvious negatives of its proposed policy, or the writer’s values are so far from my own that I can’t trust anything they say because it’s not obvious which values I reject are behind the various arguments in the article”

    • Alon Levy

      I would not use the word “beautiful” to describe the historic center of Stockholm. More like “urban renewal hell with parking garages but not many high-rise office buildings.”

      • Eric2

        Fair, I haven’t been to Stockholm. A little Google Street Viewing suggests you are correct (regarding the CBD, not Gamla Stan). I’m curious what reasons they give there for throwing away much of the potential of the area.

        • Alon Levy

          They think tall buildings in city center is bad. It’s not exactly historic preservation – the Stockholm CBD (=T-Centralen, not Gamla Stan) is urban renewal hell, and likewise Les Halles is 1970s urban renewal built on top of the RER station. It’s just a common mentality among European urbanists that having tall buildings in city center is too American and overcentralizes jobs in one place while job sprawl is somehow more moral.

          • Frederick

            How much sunlight will be blocked by tall buildings, though? Many Swedes are already on light therapy…

            There must be some other ways to increase density without tall buildings.

          • Eric2

            Business/shopping/hotel districts should be full of skyscrapers with few gaps between them (like Manhattan/Chicago not Vancouver). Nobody lives there long term, so direct light is not an significant issue.

            I think the issue with euroblocks is that top floors get constant light, but bottom floors in narrow courtyards get virtually no light. That is very unequal. With spaced-out towers (like Vancouver), everyone gets sunlight and shadows at different points in the day, as the long shadows of the towers shift from place to place.

          • Sascha Claus

            Business/shopping/hotel districts should be full of skyscrapers with few gaps between them […]. Nobody lives there long term […]

            If you have such Sim-City-like functional segregation. That is not always the case in old-world cities; and where it is, some people long ago noticed how dead office districts are in the evenings and weekends and how empty shopping districts are when all shops are closed (the latter might not apply outside of countries with blue laws).
            During the pandemic lockdowns and mandatory work-from-home, many more people noticed how dead and “non-resilient” such areas are. Add in the expected long-term need for less office and shopping space, and in Germany everybody is now talking about diversifying such central office-only districts with more arts, entertainment and—most importantly—housing. If that takes off and spreads around, business / shopping / hotel districts won’t be relevant for the cityscape anymore.

          • Eric2

            So then the top few stories of the skyscrapers, with sunlight, can be residential. That’s enough residential to provide life to the streets. Lower stories can be in shadow.

      • oevans82

        From my single, week-long business trip to Stockholm in June 2006, I found that while it’s certainly not the most beautiful city I’ve visited, it’s also quite far from the urban renewal hellscape you mention. Pleasant and functional is how I would describe its aesthetics.

        The relative lack of tall buildings did stand out, and its unwillingness to build them is certainly distorting the real estate market and making the city more expensive and less sustainable than it had ought to be – but calling the city “urban renewal hell” strikes me as rather severely hyperbolic.

        • Alon Levy

          The city is pleasant – I’m not objecting to the residential areas in Central Stockholm, like where I lived in Roslagstull (that said, Valhallavägen is noisy and needs a road diet). But the 5 block radius around Sergels Torg is pretty bad, and the peak employment area between Hamngatan and the river gets pretty desolate after 5 pm.

  2. Basil Marte

    Anthropologically, Amtrak can very well be seen not as a dysfunctional system but as a cargo cult, an ancient religion imitating the appearance of a system, with focus on orthopraxy (the way they’ve “always” done things) rather than orthodoxy (knowing why things are done they way they are).
    “This is a recurring issue. After years of [bafflement at] Amtrak’s odd boarding procedures, we finally got an Inspector-General inquiry into it, but all the IG turned up was that nobody could explain why they do what they do. Amtrak officials had previously represented to me that it’s a security requirement but could not provide further details. They didn’t want to lie to the IG so they admitted this isn’t really the reason. But they didn’t come up with a reason. And then they also didn’t change the process.”

    • Nathanael

      Most intercity passenger rail advocates consider Amtrak’s current situation pretty much a placeholder for the hourly intercity trains which we actually want. (And you can call it nostalgia, but the hourly intercity trains did exist 100 years ago. Normal countries built on the trains they already had. Modern European services are invariably built on those services they had 100 years ago.) The goal is to make sure we don’t lose the right-of-way and keep the skeleton service going until we can improve it.

      I’ve never met a supporter of Amtrak (well, a supporter who wasn’t an Amtrak employee) who didn’t have a laundry list of Amtrak’s ludicrous and incompetent behavior. But none of us wants to see what happened to N de M in Mexico, which left Mexico in a much WORSE position for passenger rail improvements than before.

      “We need to adapt to the future” has been used by politicos as an excuse to completely trash existing passenger rail service — a phony excuse, since this does not, in fact, adapt to the future — and that must not happen. N de M is the biggest example of this sort of failure.

      It’s important to reject gee-whizzery, the attitude that everything old is automatically obsolete.

      • Eric2

        No matter how much you foam, there will never be demand for an hourly train to Williston ND.

        • Nathanael

          Who’s talking about Williston? I’m talking about New York to Chicago via Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Elkhart. That’s what Amtrak’s long-distance trains mostly are.

          Idiots like yourself looooove to cherry-pick the four trains across the Rockies in order to mislead people.

          Oh, by the way: check out many trains per day Russia runs on the remote Siberian train lines, or how many trains per day China runs to Tibet and Xinkiang. Once you understand that, you may understand the future for the trains across the depopulated prairies and Rockies.

        • Nathanael

          No matter how ignorant and addled you are, you should know that most of Amtrak’s current “one a day” trains are running to places like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Cleveland, Toledo, Raleigh, Savannah, Atlanta, Mobile, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, St Louis, Denver, Salt Lake City, Charlotte,…

        • Nathanael

          And by the way, Alon, the sort of addled bullshit we’re getting from Eric2 is yet another one of the types of abuse which mean that you have to watch out for claims to be “planning for the world of tomorrow”.

          Someone says “Oh, Williston will shrink and will never have much demand for trains”, and then uses this as a (completely logic-free) excuse to attack *NY-Chicago* service. This happens CONSTANTLY, and is a real political problem.

      • Alon Levy

        In the US, most intercity rail advocates, like RPA, think expanding Amtrak routes to 3 roundtrips a day is a major win and are about as informed about how to run a takt as Rod Diridon.

  3. adirondacker12800

    Transportation, which overtook electricity as the United States’ largest source of emissions in the late 2010s, is shrugged off in the BBB,
    Has a $12,500 tax credit for electric cars in it. Which is silly because that is also stuck in 2009. Electric cars are on track to be cheaper to BUY in 2025. Once electric cars are cheaper to buy than internal combustion cars nobody will want internal combustion cars.
    …. rooftop panels…
    Roughly half of my electric bill is for electricity and other half is to maintain a complicated system that makes my lights go out when a poorly run utility in Ohio lets things get bad. The price of batteries halves again it makes more sense for me to borrow money to put panels and batteries in than to pay transmission charges. And enough of them to run a ground sourced heat pump for heat and hot water.
    On the level of YouTube video that gets numbers from who knows where. There is enough parking lot in Los Angeles County to run Los Angeles County on 20 percent efficient solar panels. If the generation in local you don’t have to transmit it. Solid-er numbers, the National Renewable Energy Laboratories modeled the East Coast. There is enough wind to run everything. It would need a lot of transmission. Add solar and the transmission needs go down. With storage it needs a lot less.
    Want to cut my carbon emissions right now, I want a no-interest loan to insulate the house better. That’s probably buried somewhere in Build Back Better. I’m not going to worry about it until passes through the Senate’s meat grinder.

    • Alon Levy

      Building insulation would have been the best thing to do in the 2009 stimulus, in an era of high unemployment calling for labor-intensive interventions using unemployed construction workers. It was not done, because the 2009-10 Democrats were relitigating the battles of the Clinton era. The current BBB instead subsidizes EVs and renewable power transmission, cuts taxes to the upper middle class through the higher SALT cap, and has pre-K subsidies that are non-universal by design.

      • adirondacker12800

        Insulation was in the 2009 stimulus. For a few years it could be cheaper to have someone install insulation instead of buying it at retail prices and installing it yourself. Whether or not something makes it into Build Back Better doesn’t affect how much heat my house uses over a winter. Besides making it more comfortable it means I need less solar panels, batteries and heat pump. Until I have that, I use less oil.

        $12,500 subsidy for an electric car is transportation. It’s something that can be delivered right now not 20 years from now. I’m not going to attempt to find the links the New Jersey railfans sent me. Supposedly buried in Build Back Better is 12 billion for rail in New Jersey. I haven’t gone looking for what New York may or may not get or New England.

        The SALT cap is another way red states screw blue states.

        • Alon Levy

          Canada not only doesn’t have a SALT deduction at all but also has equalization payments for poorer provinces. It makes sense – you have the same income to compute provincial and federal taxes on, rather than this weird US thing where you compute state taxes first, deduct, and then compute federal taxes. Germany barely even lets the states levy their own taxes – 95% of taxes are federal and are distributed to the states by formula, so the gap in teacher pay between rich states like Bavaria and poor ones like Thuringia is nowhere near the Massachusetts/Mississippi gap.

          • adirondacker12800

            Bully for the Canadians and Germans. That doesn’t change that putting a cap on the SALT deduction and increasing the standard deduction sends more money to red states where they can use their smartphones on Federallly subsidized cell phone service to whine on Parler about how much money blue states are sending them. And then charge it using Federally subsidized electricity.

          • Eric2

            Massachusetts should pay its teachers more. Cost of living is higher there.

          • Reedman Bassoon

            1) Grenfell Tower got insulation added to improve energy efficiency. That was the problem.
            2) California (the state) collects property taxes and redistributes them to schools based on a flat per-student payment to districts. Property-rich districts therefore don’t get an advantage. (A) it doesn’t prevent schools from signing teachers contracts for more than the district’s income. Oakland schools had to be taken over by the state. The state audit discovered the district was paying for ~500 cellphones that had no discernable owner associated with the schools. (B) Poway district (near San Diego) sold parents on a bond issue “that wouldn’t cost them anything”. The 40 year “capital appreciation” bonds collected accrued interest and didn’t make any payments to investors for the first 20 years (i.e. after your kids are done with school and you have moved away).$105 million in bonds (the money was immediately spent, obviously) will cost $1 billion to pay back over their life. (C) California sales taxes, while collected by Sacramento, are sent back to the cities in the amounts collected locally. Because car dealers represent more sales taxes per square foot than any other business, every city will approve any car dealer within nanoseconds. (D) Every California political subdivision from state on-down wants higher and higher sales tax. To prevent runaway cumulative taxes, the state passed a 10% cap on the total sales tax allowed. Many/most cities/counties immediately raised their sales taxes to hit the 10% limit, thereby preventing Sacramento from raising the state sales tax any higher. The net is that you can’t save money going to a rural “low tax” dealer versus an urban “high tax” dealer, because everybody is essentially at the limit.
            3) One reason Canada didn’t have a significant 2008 mortgage meltdown is that provinces collect sales tax on home sales (Buy a $1 million home, you write an extra $130k check to the government). Speculators are not as eager to bet on a rise in property prices when there are large fixed transaction costs. (My favorite moment in THE BIG SHORT is the conversation between Wall Street finance guy Steve Carrell doing real-world research and the Florida stripper. Search Youtube for “big short stripper”. NSFW.)

          • adirondacker12800

            Grenfell Tower got insulation added to improve energy efficiency. That was the problem.
            They make insulation that isn’t fuel. They made windows that aren’t fuel. They make refrigerators that aren’t fuel.

          • Onux

            “Grenfell Tower got insulation added to improve energy efficiency. That was the problem.”
            The problem wasn’t the insulation per se, it is that it was covered by aluminum/plastic composite panels that were not fire rated and only supposed to be used in low rise structures. The insulation was never tested/approved as a system with those panels, but was with alternatives (i.e. non-combustible fibercement panels).

  4. adirondacker12800

    aiming to serve the needs of the world of tomorrow.
    Is powered by fusion and decidedly suburban. Though they saved the fusion bits for the 64-65 Fair in the General Electric Pavilion.

    • Alon Levy

      That’s what people in the 1950s thought, and they were wrong. It’s 60 years later, we don’t have to be wedded to retro-futurism.

        • Sassy

          I don’t think it takes particularly good clairvoyance skills to recognize that proposals for Amtrak style slow 1-3 trains per day service is not part of any likely future, or that incremental technological improvements in rail exist and will continue to exist and improve.

          • adirondacker12800

            And they included high speed trains in other films. They even went and passed the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 with the proposal of whisking people between New York City and Washington D.C. in two hours. There’s even a promotional film made by the Pennsylvania Railroad and Budd promising the second generation of Metroliners would be able to do 160 m.p.h.

  5. SB

    Where does autonomous trains fall under this?
    It is not new technology but fully autonomous lines are uncommon.
    Should all new grade-separated lines should be fully autonomous?

    • Nathanael

      I would say that all new fully-grade separated lines should be autonomous because it is proven technology. (Vancouver Skytrain, London Docklands Light Rail).

      It is generally a good idea to use best current practice unless there is a reason not to. The US is exceptionally bad at this, both using practices which were made obsolete decades ago, and using untested experimental practices, but being remarkably unwilling to adopt improvements proven 20+ years ago.

      I don’t get it. It isn’t just trains, either. Superinsulated housing retrofit methods. “The Super Insulated Retrofit Book” was published in *1981* and there are only a couple of minor changes to best practice since then (changes made in the 1990s). Yet, in the *2020s*, superinsulated *new-builds* remain rare, and superinsulated retrofits remain rarer.

      Meanwhile, people will try crazy gee-whiz stuff like “tiny houses built from shipping containers!!!” or “houses built out of hemp!!!”.

  6. Phake Nick

    > It’s imperative for the state to solve the problems of tomorrow using the tools that it expects to have

    But what if “the tools that it expects to have” didn’t realize on time, for example JR Kyushu’s Nagasaki Shinkansen FGT, JR Hokkaido’s rail-bus dual mode vehicle and higher-speed tilting trains, or the anticipation of ALFA-X can further increase Tohoku Shinkansen vehicle maximum speed to make Tokyo-Sapporo by Shinkansen fall within competitive travel time

    >It is critical to build using the methods of the world of today, aiming to serve the needs of the world of tomorrow.

    But what if they have a deluded vision on the world of tomorrow like which they just published for Hong Kong. Even if one accept their premise of creating a new urban center around the Northern border of HK near Shenzhen, what they are proposing doesn’t appears to be helpful in reaching the target.

    >Delay in implementation of easy technological fixes that have been demonstrated elsewhere. In a world with automatic train-mounted gap fillers, there is no excuse anywhere for gaps between trains and platforms that do not permit a wheelchair user to board the train unaided.

    Wouldn’t such automatic train-mounted gap filler cost too much time on commuter trains with headway below 120 seconds?

    • Eric2

      > Wouldn’t such automatic train-mounted gap filler cost too much time on commuter trains with headway below 120 seconds?

      The Lexington Avenue Line has this at Union Square, no?

      • Phake Nick

        Quick google search shows, that’s platform-mounted instead of train-mounted
        Also, it still have some amount of gaps between trains and platform after the extender extend, that’s almost as wide as regular gap space of some relatively straight metro train platform according to my naked eyes?

        • Eric2

          Judging by this video (the first one that came up in a Youtube search) the gap is filled pretty effectively.

          I’m not sure why train-mounted would be any slower than platform-mounted. Lexington Ave gets almost 30tph, and anecdotally the limiting station is GCT/42nd not Union Square. Looking at a few Youtube videos, it is hard to tell how much delay exactly the gap fillers add, but the physical deployment seems to take about 1 second, and I think the retraction could also take 1 second if linked to door closing signals.

          • adirondacker12800

            The current schedule, which may or may not be less from lower demand, is “every 3 to 5 minutes” which is somewhat less than 30 an hour. The extenders take time to extend and retract. And break down. Which stops the line,when they break down extended, sometimes for hours. If they break down retracted the trains skip Union Square.

          • Alon Levy

            The extenders take a few seconds to deploy and run in regular high-density service in Zurich without breaking down.

          • adirondacker12800

            That you know about. Murphy was an optimist. Machines break down.

          • adirondacker12800

            Fine. I want the source that says it never ever never ever breaks down.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I struggle to understand why they’d regularly break down, the technology seems to be more straightforward than an electric train – especially to just emergency retract.

          • Eric2

            I think an exposed start-stop mechanism is more likely than a spinning wheel or electric motor to “get stuck” – but I’ll take Alon’s word that both are infrequent

          • Henry Miller

            Preventive maintenance to prevent breakdowns can be very expensive. Oil changes are fairly cheap and so worth doing. There might be other wear parts in these that you can cheaply replace on a schedule, but eventually you need to decide how much to spend on maintenance.

            You can make these completely reliable by replacing them daily as part of your overnight maintenance plan – but that is absurd. You can wait until failure to replace them, thus saving a ton of money by only replacing them when they break, but that means you will have broken ones. You can pick a middle ground that ensures you almost never have failures while you don’t spend way too much money. Doing the middle ground right requires some math, which you need to update as new models come out.

    • Nathanael

      “But what if they have a deluded vision on the world of tomorrow”

      This is the usual problem. I made a longer comment about it below. This is always the problem.

  7. Aaron Moser

    “In electricity generation, the costs of renewable energy have cratered to the point of being competitive from scratch with just the operating costs of fossil and nuclear power. Within renewable energy, the revolution has been in wind (more onshore than offshore) and utility-scale solar, not the rooftop panels beloved by the greens of last generation; compare Northern Europe’s wind installation rates with what seemed obvious just 10 years ago.”

    It is very sad that the most intelligent people I know fall for the “renewable” energy scam. LCOE does not include the cost of transmission lines or peaker plants or the cost of downtime for that matter. The dirty secret in the US is that natural gas replacing coal is responsible for practically of the reduction of US Co2 emissions.

    • adirondacker12800

      Batteries are getting so cheap they can be cheaper than peaker plants. If the electricity is being generated above my car the transmission costs are negligible. Or above where my boiler used to be. Or above where my oil tank used to be.

      • Eric2

        “Batteries are getting so cheap they can be cheaper than peaker plants. ”


          • adirondacker12800

            ….. you can’t run a peaker plant backwards when demand drops in the middle of the night to make natural gas…
            It’s more complicated than LCOE. The batteries can do other things besides meet peak demand. They can be placed closer to the demand too.

          • Aaron Moser

            Only because of Australia’s artificially high electricity rates. They should have gone 100 percent nuclear ages ago but HRH Helen Caldicott will not allow that.

          • Aaron Moser

            ^ It only costs to much because of harpies like Helen Caldicott who sue plants into oblivion. It costs to much was not considered a valid excuse against wind and solar back in 2010.

          • adirondacker12800

            In 2010 people with a calculator, not even a copy of Excel, saw that prices for wind and solar were falling, consistently and prices for nuclear were increasing, consistently and predicted nuclear would cost too much. It’s not 2010, nuclear costs too much.

          • Aaron Moser

            Ok but for the one hundred thousandth time WHY were they not falling? Back then people were saying if we invest in renewables they will get cheaper with time but if you made that argument for nuclear you would get reeees from the likes of Helen Caldicott.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I think we should have invested a lot more in nuclear in the early 2000s as it is green and at that time was the only green electricity we could produce for a reasonable cost. That said the reason nuclear hasn’t got cheaper is that it is a mature technology. Now maybe we could roll back some of the safety stuff but politically that would be very hard given it is controversial anyway.

          • Aaron Moser

            ^ “That said the reason nuclear hasn’t got cheaper is that it is a mature technology.”
            Most of it has to do with the fact that people have not been allowed to build new plants for the last 50 some odd years again thanks to the likes of that harpie Helen Caldicott. Lots of people on this blog like Greta Thunberg well get her to say “How dare you!” to Helen Caldicot.

          • Nathanael

            Nuclear shills are boring.

            Nuclear fission is permanently unaffordable because it creates an unmanageable hot chemical stew. The cost of managing this chemical stew goes up every year as we learn more potentially catastrophic ways it can fails.

            Nuclear fusion is great, however. In its proper place. Which is the sun. It’s solar power. Problem solved. All we had to do was get good at converting it to electricity (done) and get decent at storing it (done).

          • Matthew Hutton

            Nuclear fission is still an excellent bridge technology. Better to have a few football fields of difficult to deal with waste than enormous storms and unreliable rains due to climate change.

          • Nathanael

            Since it takes 20 years to build a nuclear fission plant (yes, consistently, everywhere), its window of opportunity as a “bridge technology” is over.

            Sure, keep the old ones running until the bolts start rusting out (as happened at Indian Point).

            We can get more solar and wind and batteries built in 20 years, for the same price, as one fission plant. That’s what really killed nuclear fission: solar and batteries can be deployed FAST and CHEAP. Fission can’t.

            This is also why batteries are getting built rather than hydro projects. There are a number of perfectly good run-of-river hydro projects with no serious environmental problems which are cost effective, but they’re *slow* to build, and batteries are *quick* to build.

        • Aaron Moser

          We have had “renewables” fanboys running the agenda no questions asked for 15 plus years now.

    • Matthew Hutton

      Rooftop Chinese panels have a pay off period of around 10 years in the south of the UK when installed without subsidy by an efficient operation.

    • Henry Miller

      > he dirty secret in the US is that natural gas replacing coal is responsible for practically of the reduction of US Co2 emissions.

      That is false. While it is true that 40% of our power comes from natural gas, while wind is only 11% (2020 numbers). Natural gas is only reduces CO2 by half, while wind reduces is to 0. Wind accounts for more than twice as much CO2 reduction as natural gas.

      • Aaron Moser

        It is one hundred percent true and you already answered the reason for as to why that is. “Natural gas is only reduces CO2 by half”

          • Matthew Hutton

            Wind causes about 10g of CO2 per kWh, vs 500g per kWh for natural gas.

        • Aaron Moser

          “Wind causes about 10g of CO2 per kWh, vs 500g per kWh for natural gas.”
          Very good class. Now how many tons of coal electricity generating capacity were displaced by gas vs wind from 2010-2020?

          • Matthew Hutton

            I believe you’re right and as wind produces 1/4 of the energy of natural gas natural gas has caused twice as big a CO2 reduction overall.

  8. Pingback: Institutional Issues: Coordination | Pedestrian Observations
  9. Nathanael

    Soooooo, I agree, but I’m going to give a counterargument.

    It is frighteningly common for governments to pursue what they fictionally think is the world of tomorrow, while ignoring reality. They abuse Alon’s argument to promote monorails, Hyperloops, car tunnels, and to promote stuff like hydrogen cars and hydrogen trains which simply cannot be cost-effective due to physics.

    And — even when they use strictly existing technology — they cancel all passenger service and privatize the railways in the name of “the needs of the world of tomorrow” (N de M in the 1990s), or rip out elevated rail lines to build expressways (Nelson Rockefeller in upstate NY in the 1950s/60s). Or they reject perfectly sensible lines which are needed NOW, like the Geary Subway in SF, or the Second Avenue Subway Phase II in NYC, or the Cross-Harbor Freight Rail Tunnel in NYC, with arguments about “the world will change in some gee-whiz futuristic way so we don’t need these any more”.

    “In the future, everyone will have flying cars so we need to build infrastructure for that and get rid of all these railways” was an actual argument which had real impact on construction today.

    There are people claiming that the future is seasteading and demanding that the government serve those needs. They’re *nuts*, but they’re using (abusing) Alon’s argument quite explicitly.

    ***The argument for “serviing the needs of the world of tomorrow” is widely abused***. So you have to be careful with it. I am sure that Las Vegas would claim that they have followed Aon’s prescription in this post exactly. And I know that that’s exactly the opposite of what Alon means.

    We do not want “fast reactions to new trends”. We want reasonable-speed reactions to new trends — checking to see if they’re really long-term trends or whether they’re Pogs and Tamagotchis or short-term blips.

    The number of times I’ve heard “People are all moving out of the ciites! Cities are over!” due to a trend of a few years is massive — always used as an anti-public-transportion or anti-dense-housing argument. But the 5000-year trend is towards urbanization and continues with only tiny blips.

    So… tread carefully. It’s important to be able to distinguish between dealing with predictable near-future problems (good), and using gee-whizzery to redirect money to garbage without dealing with existing current problems (bad) — both can go by the name of “build using the methods of the world of today, aiming to serve the needs of the world of tomorrow”.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t think it’s the correct history of rapid transit abandonment in the US. It was not a particularly fast reaction to new trends – the New York els had been unpopular with business owners from the start, and in the 1890s there were lawsuits against them, before first electrification made them more tolerable (but still very noisy) and then anti-Semitic zoning laws replaced the trend of suing everything with state regulation.

      The hydrogen-will-save-us is also not a fast reaction to a new trend, because the trend of hydrogen does not exist. The trend that does exist is mass electrification with overhead wires, taking India and China from 25% electrified in 2000 to 100% later this decade. Hydrogen is the opposite of a trend: it’s some bullshit idea someone got to persuade do-nothing governments that there is no need to electrify. This do-nothing tendency is very visible if you compare Cuomo or Baker with Hochul – suddenly there’s a governor who wants to move in on things and IBX is happening pretty quickly.

      • adirondacker12800

        The sundown laws etc. were racial. The restrictive covenants were private contracts, not law. And were usually more restrictive, something along the lines of only being able to sell to white Protestants.
        The valiant efforts to solve the congestion problem goes all the way back to Boss Tweed. Someone new gets elected. promises some pie in the sky. Not much happens since Mayor Hylan was tearing down Els and Robert Moses was building them. Randy Andy manged to open the Second Avenue Subway. Maybe Hochul will be at the ribbon cutting for East Side Access. Both reiterations of proposals from the 60s which were rehashes of things even earlier. Rinse repeat.

      • Phake Nick

        I am not aware of like China doing massive electrification. There are still some lines attempting the introduction of new HXD locomotive service. And there are also lines with too few trains that electrification probably isn’t going to worth.

      • Phake Nick

        As for trend, even if most (not all) people agree hyperloop is just dream, many people think autonomous cars are the trend of the future and replacing human drivers can solve many problems of the existing cars, like inefficient use of road space due to human drivers not perfectly aligned with each others and thus the capacity argument of public transit will no longer applies, and that the electrification of car is going to solve the pollution problem, and that even if public transit is needed in the future it can be done more efficiently by having minibuses that automatically gather demand and destinations of different travel needs hence negating the needs of building dedicated transit lines now

        And sometimes, even established technologies like maglev, can cause people to push project out by waiting for the system to further develop and lower the cost instead of making adaption choice with current technology now.

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