Institutional Issues: Who is Entrusted to Learn?

I know I’ve been on hiatus in the last few weeks; here is the continuation of my series on institutional factors in public transportation. I have harped for more than 10 years about the need to learn best practices from abroad, and today I’d like to discuss the issue of who gets to learn. Normally it should be a best practices office or various planners who are seconded to peer agencies or participate in exchange programs, but the United States does things differently, leading to inferior outcomes.

The American pattern is that senior officials revel in junket trips while ordinary civil servants are never sent abroad. Any connections they make are sporadic: if they go to Europe on vacation at their own expense then they are allowed to attend professional conferences. This is the exact opposite of how good learning happens. A few days of a junket trip teach nothing, while long-lasting connections at the junior and middle levels of the bureaucracy facilitate learning.

This is connected with the issue of downward trust. When I confront Americans with the above pattern and explain why it is problematic, the response I get is always the same: senior officials do not trust junior ones. This is often further elaborated in terms of low- versus high-trust societies, but it is not quite that. It’s not about whether people trust their leaders, but whether the leaders, that is the layer of political appointees and senior managers, trust the people who they have parachuted to oversee. If they see themselves as mentors and guides and their charges as competent people to be coordinated, the institutional results will be superior to if they see themselves as guards and scourges and their charges as competitors.

Some examples

New York City Mayor-Elect Eric Adams, for example, spent much of the second half of this year flying over to Europe to experience urbanism outside the United States. He is not the only elected official to have done so. Mike Bloomberg reveled in his personal connections with Ken Livingstone in the 2000s, leading to his attempt to import London’s congestion pricing system into New York.

Below the mayoral level, senior officials engage in the same behavior. They fly to the Netherlands, France, Denmark, or any other country they seek to learn from for a few days, experience the system as a tourist, and come back with little more knowledge than when they left but a lot more self-assurance in their knowledge.

This is called the junket trip, because to the general public, it’s viewed as just a taxpayer-funded vacation. It isn’t quite that, because at least the ones who I’ve spoken to who engage in such behavior genuinely believe that they learn good practices out of it. But realistically, it has the same effects as a vacation. Spending a week in a city where you are an important person meeting with other important people who are trying to impress you will not teach you much.

My pedestrian observations

I would travel regularly before corona. Some of my early blog posts are literally called Pedestrian Observations from [City], describing my first impressions of a place; the name of this blog comes from a photo album I took in 2011 a few months before I started blogging, called Pedestrian Observations from Worcester.

Those observations were always a mixed bag, which I was always aware of. Overall, I think they’ve held up reasonably well – my pedestrian observations from Providence were mostly in accordance with how I would experience the city later after I moved there. But there were always big gaps; in my Providence post, note that in my first visit to the East Side I named Wickenden and South Main as the major commercial streets, missing the actual main drag, Thayer, which I only discovered during my next visit.

The same is true of transit observations. Shortly before corona, I spent a week in Taipei. I took the MRT everywhere, and was impressed with its cleanliness and frequency, but there isn’t too much more I could say about the system from personal experience. I could only tell you how it deep-cleaned the system in early 2020, when people thought corona was spread by fomites rather than aerosols, from a report sent to me by long-term resident Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism. I knew construction costs were high because I looked them up, but that’s not the same as personal experience, and I only have a vague understanding of why, coming from both Alex and papers I would later read on the subject.

In Berlin, at a queer meetup in 2019 on a Friday night, months into living here, I was expressing worry around midnight that I might miss the last train. One of the people there chided me. I was working in the transit industry, broadly speaking – how could I not know that trains here run overnight on weekends? I knew, but had forgotten, and I needed that person to remind me.

Secondment and exchange

The short junket trip reveals nothing. But this does not mean learning from abroad is impossible – quite to the contrary. The path forward is to take these trips but go for months rather than days. There are journalists who do this: Alec MacGillis, a Baltimore-based journalist, spent months in Germany to study how the country is dealing with economic and environmental issues, and when I met him toward the end of his stay, he could tell me things I did not know about the coal industry in Germany.

Within Europe and East Asia, there are exchange programs. DB sends its planners abroad on exchange missions for a few weeks to a few months at a time, not just within Western Europe but also to Japan and Russia – even in those countries enough people speak English that it’s possible to do this. The people who take these trips are ordinary middle-class civil servants and not a class of overlords; the locals who they interact with are their peers and will correct them on errors, just as my queer meetup friend corrected me when I forgot that Berlin trains run overnight on weekends.

This program must also include routine connections at conferences. These are short trips, but a planner who goes on one makes connections with planners abroad and hears about advances in the field, from a peer who will have a discussion as an equal about their own experience and expertise. Over many trips the attendees can then figure out patterns to travel, notice changes, and come up with their own suggestions. This is no different from the academic process, in which research groups across multiple continents would regularly meet to discuss their work, and form connections to produce joint papers.

This way, it’s possible to learn details. This includes consumer-level details, similar to how I learn a city by taking public transit there many times and finding out hidden gems like Berlin’s timed transfer stations at Mehringdamm and Wuhletal. But this also includes the back end of how planning is done, what assumptions everyone makes that may differ from one’s home country’s, and so on.

The United States has done this before, by accident. Veteran and planner R. W. Rynerson has long pointed out that first-generation light rail in North America, covering such systems as Edmonton, Calgary, San Diego, and Portland, was planned by veterans who’d served in Germany during the Cold War and were familiar with ongoing trends here. Army tours of duty abroad last years, and soldiers are often happy to extend them to offer their families stability.

This way, American light rail bears striking similarities to the German Stadtbahn concept. It exhibits convergent evolution with tram-trains, modified to avoid track-sharing with mainline rail. The vehicles used were developed for German Stadtbahn systems, and the concept of having a streetcar system that runs faster than a traditional streetcar came out of this history as well. However, the generation of vets has retired, and today American planners no longer keep up with European advances in the field. Civilian connections through conferences, secondments, and exchange programs do not really exist, and the militarization levels of the 1960s and 70s are a thing of the past.

Downward trust

When I confront Americans with the distinction between valuable but uncommon long-term, routine international links for ordinary engineers and planners and worthless but all too common executive junket trips, the excuses for the pattern all fall into the same family: executives just do not trust their workers. Senior management in this industry in the United States views the people they oversee as little devils to be constantly disciplined, and never supported.

Based on this pattern, the peons do not get professional development – only the executives do. If tabloid media criticizes European conferences as vacation trips then it is used as an excuse to prohibit civil servants from going, but somehow the executives still go on junket trips, figuring that someone at Eric Adams’ level can just ride out the media criticism.

Likewise, the civil servants do not get to develop any knowledge that the executives don’t have. If they come with prior knowledge – say, Hispanic immigrants who work in New York and keep abreast of developments in their country of origin – then they must be broken down. They are peons, not advisors, and the layer of political appointees parachuting to oversee them are scourges and not mentors.

I focus on mentorship because good advisors understand that their advisees’ success reflects positively on them. In academia, professors who successfully place their students at tenure-track research positions are recognized as such behind the scenes and the rumor mill will inform new students that they should seek them out as advisors; there is a separate whisper network for women to discuss which advisors are abusive to them.

And this mentorship requires a minimum level of downward trust. Academia, for all of its toxicity and drama, has it, but somehow the American public-sector planning field does not. This is especially bad considering that the American public sector has set up its benefits system to ensure that people stay at the same workplace for life, which environment is perfect for investing in the junior employees. And yet, senior management does not deem $60,000/year planners with lush pensions important enough to pay $1,500 to send them to a conference abroad.

A high-trust environment is not one where the broad public trusts the elite. Germany has a culture of incessant complaints about everything; every middle-class German is certain they can do better than the state in many fields, and regrettably, many are correct. No: a high-trust environment is one where the elite trusts both the broad public and its own subordinates. This is what European public transit agencies have to varying extents, the ones that are more trusting of the riders generally having better outcomes than the ones that are less trusting, and what American ones lack.

71 comments

  1. Borners

    I’ve encountered different version of this contrast. My planning course in the UK has a number of South Korean civil servants on a two year junket, 1 year for a masters, 1 year for a placement in the UK planning system*. And at the same time I have my UK civil servant friends talking about doing a 2 week intro courses in Europe before directly working for the minister. I try to imagine the UK sending civil servants to study South Korean transportation and urban planning for 2 years and that’s already 2/3’s of a usual Civil Servant placement before they are off to another ministry. And there would be “civil servants partying in Seoul on taxpayers money” articles (although in Korea late night drinking is part of the job).

    And the thought of UK political parties treating the electorate as something to be trusted rather than scammed… that won’t happen until the parties have given up trying to turn England into “Great Britain”.

    *Yes I have asked them what the hell they are doing studying UK urban policy when ROK is way better at British urban planning than the British are (Greenbelts and New Towns).

    • バニートルーパー (@archie4oz)

      I suspect there’s probably a bit of “Things are different in South Korea” or “They can get away with things that wouldn’t be tolerated here..” type of nonsense arguments that we see in the US. Usually associated with silly notions that Asians somehow don’t value life as much as westerners do. Basically old school, out of touch prejudices that leave scratching my head and wondering WTF..?

      “*Yes I have asked them what the hell they are doing studying UK urban policy when ROK is way better at British urban planning than the British are (Greenbelts and New Towns).”

      What was the answer? 😏

      • Borners

        I didn’t really get one. I should have asked after we spent a 12 week course studying the British/English Planning system. In fairness they weren’t in development and transportation topics. I was a bit miffed cause I wanted to talk GTX.

        But definitely you would get people making excuses like. That is changing but its still gonna at least decade before the weebs and the BTS militia takeover in Whitehall etc. That said among planning/housing technocrats Tokyo is very much a example, if not always understood. But those in power see Asia as a place to escape to/buccaneer around/get help/eat Sushi. For English Nativists and British nationalists that populate the two main parties only 1 country matters and that’s the US.

      • Borners

        Yep, TOD is way better, not just because of the apartments, but because they have better commercialisation of the new towns plus a street layout that thinks pedestrians matter (grids!). Also first class bus systems too. The one negative being too many town bisecting motorways!

        • Luke

          I still get the impression that too many new Korean developments are very much so tower-in-a-park, although there seems to be a lot more ground-level activity in those which are built in the big cities. Additionally, building over multi-story parking garages is almost required, which is particularly galling considering how good transit is, even in secondary cities outside Sudogwon and Yeongnam (e.g., Jeonju, Mokpo, Gangneung, Chuncheon, Suncheon, etc.). This, paired with the almost complete absence of cycling infrastructure and the ubiquity of very wide roads that could certainly accomodate it, point to a lack of integration between urban design standards and transportation planning. Korea could probably learn from the UK (and others) in that regard.

          • Borners

            I said Korea was better not the best! UK is terrible at intergrated transport-development schemes apart from the Dockland. Korea should definitely have hewed more closely to Japanese models of road diet tod or borrowed from the Denmark-NDL toolbox. And judging from some of the English language materials is there is some awareness of the lack of biking a problem.

  2. Benjamin Turon (@BenjaminTuron)

    Great post, explains a lot about American state DOTs, regional transit authorities, Amtrak, and other public transport agencies. I wonder if these observations extent to the private sector as well, both consulting firms and the freight rail industry? Would in part go a long way to explaining the failures of the CaHSR project… and perhaps the success of Brightline?

    • plaws0

      the success of Brightline?

      Brightline seems to be making all the right noises and seem to be headed to the same goal despite the pandemic of the unvaccinated … but is there any evidence that they have spent a “semester abroad”?

    • Mark N.

      Brightline is super successful at killing people, I guess, but it doesn’t seem like that’s something which other rail systems should strive to emulate.

  3. Matthew Hutton

    To be honest senior figures in TfL going to second tier or even first tier Asian cities on a junket would at least expose them and to some degree at least people in the transport space to the idea that the Asians have pretty good public transport.

    But secondment is definitely something that should be done more.

    • Borners

      I don’t think TfL that far behind East Asian best practice in core operations, no subway in East Asia surpasses the Victoria line in tph. Its planning to get rid of the Northern Line’s reverse branching and using the Bakerloo line extension to get rid of the Hayes line’s reverse branching. Crossrails are an appropriate equivalent to subway through-running. Its main problem is Anglo-cost disease and that’s not TFLs control since new build is done by DfT quangos.

      The real problem is DfT and Network Rail. You compare various franchises in the London area to equivalent Japanese ones (Nankai and Hankyu in Osaka which have relatively little through running and big terminals), frequencies are much lower despite similar infrastructure and that’s before we get to the reliability issues. I suspect there is a lot of fat to be cut with Southern and Southwestern in particular. And Thameslink’s operators need to have JR West’s Special Rapid Service rammed down their throats.

      And as for the rest of Britain, the East Asian megacity tool kit is a little less obviously useful outside the Northern Industrial Belt regional rail. Europe is probably the best to learn from for Birmingham, Edinburgh and Bristol etc.

    • Tunnelvision

      There is quite a lot or least was quite a lot of mobility between MTR in HK, LTA in Singapore and London Underground back in the day. Not so sure about now since MTR localized post 1997

      • Borners

        And London’s renovated and expanded terminal buildings e.g. London Bridge show some influence of MTR station commercialisation adapted for historic preservation rules. Or at least the Hong Kong model is the one most often invoked in UK discussions of “mixed-use buildings” and “value-capture”. I suspect the number of non-HKers in the UK who understand how the HK land/transport systems work is less 20 and none of them work in Government. Heck UK Socialists invoke it as a positive example because they think they’ll get a magic socialist Labour government that will impose an LVT in peacetime.

  4. Eric2

    You would do well to solicit (and publish) comments from people within the industry on this topic.

    • R. W. Rynerson

      Well, before I retired in 2014, I was within the industry. There are certainly exceptions, but unfortunately Alon is correct overall. I can think of a number of attempts to expand the “aware” planning community, but there has been a lack of continuity. One executive will identify the need and support an effective educational effort — which might include assigned reading in the internet, as well as conferences and travel — and then the next will want to demonstrate tight budgeting and cancel the program.

      The inconsistency can be traced up to political leadership. That was true at Oregon DOT, Edmonton Transit, and Colorado’s RTD. I should add to the “aware” list that Edmonton and Calgary had over-the-arctic low air fares to Europe long before the American West, and had large European immigrant populations. Until the 1981 census, Germans were the largest ethnic group in Edmonton after the British Isles, so there was a level of understanding in the community that helped with the politics.

      • Eric2

        It seems everywhere you worked was a small city without a reputation for major planning errors. I would like to hear from people at places like the MTA in NY, Chicago Metra, Los Angeles Metrolink, or Caltrain – where the reputation is worse, the mistakes bigger, and the management competence seemingly lower.

        • R. W. Rynerson

          We made errors to scale! All of the commuter rail systems that you mentioned except for Metrolink were set up to rescue failing private rail operations, picking up the demoralized, defeated staff along with the broken down equipment and infrastructure. My surmise is that Metrolink hired people from those other agencies. Many smaller operations were set up to rescue failing bus operations and then set up rail lines from scratch later on. One distinction that might affect the commuter rail agencies is that they were and are regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Railway Labor Act. They are subject to the Railroad Retirement program rather than the broader and less attractive Social Security program. The Federal Transit Administration only got involved when federal funds became available.

          LRT, tram, and bus systems only deal with FTA and normal state and federal labor laws and retirement programs. And the FTA’s founding mission was to improve public transportation while the FRA’s mission was gradually shifted from improvement to regulation. I’m not referring to any specifics but just to their general approaches.

  5. Patrick Jensen

    To address this, one first has to understand the root cause and I believe thinking of competence development and acquisition in terms of game theory might be instructive.

    The pool of competent people is limited and training people is hard and time-consuming. Poaching employees from another company or agency in the same industry is much faster.

    This might explain why extensive employee training has become rare as industry monopolies like AT&T and British Rail have been broken up and mobility has increased both in the geographical and vocational sense.

    My hypothesis is that the free-riding problem is the main reason companies and agencies have come to expect employees to emerge out of institutions of higher learning fully formed.

    Then there’s also the issue that sending people to study abroad requires a level of staff redundancy that’s just unheard of in this day and age.

    • R. W. Rynerson

      Sending people abroad also requires long-term thinking. This evening the program Freakonomics Radio carried an interesting discussion of academic work on differences between national cultures. In a Dutch professor’s study Americans came out as very short-range oriented. That shouldn’t be surprising, but the discussion puts it in context with other characteristics. The program should be at https://freakonomics.com/podcast/season-11-episode-18/ .

      • Matthew Hutton

        If New York and London put two people on secondment with each other and have the people on secondment a free 2 bedroom flat that was paid for with government debt at 1% and assuming you could buy a 2 bed flat for $500k each and paid for 4 trans-Atlantic flights that would cost each of them $12k/year or something. They’d clearly save vastly more than that in learning benefits.

        • Henry Miller

          New York needs people in Turkey though – to learn from someplace that has done a lot of construction recently, and keeps a tight budget. Language becomes much harder though.

          • Matthew Hutton

            To be fair professional Turks probably speak English decently enough.

          • Tunnelvision

            Hmm. Turkey has undertaken a lot of construction but many of the environmental practices and construction techniques would be questionable when used in the US due to liability issues……. I worked in Istanbul for 4 years, am married to a Turk and still talk to folk in the Turkish construction industry, so this is not a US is best sentiment believe me. Sometimes I wish we could do in the US what they do in Turkey, but some of it just would not fly…. concrete pours at 2am next to our apartment building when I lived in Istanbul was one of the more annoying aspects…….

          • Matthew Hutton

            Plus Turkish labour costs are much lower. When you pay someone $10k a year automation can make less sense than when you pay them $100k a year.

          • Henry Miller

            We need to be selective in what we learn. However that doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn. Ideally we would have people in South Korean, China, India, Japan, Spain, and a bunch of other countries I’m not aware of that have been building.

            This is one reason to hire consultants: they should have useful experience. The trick is getting the right thing out of them.

          • Eric2

            ” concrete pours at 2am next to our apartment building when I lived in Istanbul was one of the more annoying aspects…….”

            Definitely annoying, but think of how many hours in traffic jams were saved by finishing the project as fast as possible.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, but the American public sector does not have this mobility. People stay at the same agency for a long time, and the pay system incentivizes this because cash pay is low and pension benefits require one to stay at the same agency for around 25 years to vest.

      • adirondacker12800

        Civil servants complain bitterly that they are underpaid. They aren’t. Most states have a few pension plans that state and local employees also participate in. You can move between agencies and plans. If you job title is “bookkeeper” you can be a bookkeeper anywhere. Vesting is usually in five years or some formula that vests fully in 7 or 8.

        • Alon Levy

          You can move between public agencies in the same state, but you can’t move between states or between public- and private-sector employers in your field, and when you’re white-collar the private sector has a way higher cash pay.

          • adirondacker12800

            Private sector employees can’t move between states either. Mostly because the vast majority of them their employer won’t let them. Or don’t operate there. I know you may find this shocking but if quit your job at someplace that actually has a defined benefit plan your chances of finding another one are slim and you rarely can transfer benefits. You might, if you are lucky move it to the new employer’s defined contribution plan. If they have one. You still vest in five years.

          • Alon Levy

            Yes, and my entire point is that those defined-benefit systems reduce employee mobility. If you’re in the private sector you can quit with relatively little pain, and this is supposed to be the reason why American firms don’t invest in employee professional development – but the defined-benefit public sector doesn’t invest in such professional development either.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Defined benefit pensions are great but they aren’t that wonderful – if you are going to get a huge pay rise in the private sector that’s still worth having.

          • Alon Levy

            In the US you can’t do this, and there are big issues with pension cliffs. Trump even personally interfered to fire some senior FBI agent he didn’t like a few months before his pension vested, so he got nothing; vindictive public-sector managers do it sometimes, and it’s even referenced on The Wire.

          • Eric2

            @Alon so the solution is to raise salaries and lower benefits in planning departments?

          • Henry Miller

            In the private sector it is rare to get a defined benefit plan. Instead we get defined contribution plans. If you contribute (not everyone does), and you don’t make bad investment choices (getting better but a lot of people don’t even have good options) they are are on average a better deal but you never really know how much you have to live on since you might die at 68 or 108.

            I don’t know how to get organizations in the US to pay for development. A few do, but for many it is limited to tuition reimbursement if you the skills are useful in your job and you stay. This is one reason why MBA programs are popular: the company will pay for it and it is easy to show you learned a new skill. it is harder to convince anyone more study in your field is helpful, and even harder if you get interested in a different field.

          • adirondacker12800

            Trump even personally interfered to fire some senior FBI agent he didn’t like a few months before his pension vested,

            A few days before he was entitled to fuller benefits. At age 50. He was still vested. The fuller benefits have been reinstated. At age 50. He can go out and double dip or even triple dip.

            defined-benefit systems reduce employee mobility.

            I thought the problem was the revolving door. That they swap between public and private sector and never gain the right kind of experience.And are never given the right kind of authority.

            https://pedestrianobservations.com/2021/11/18/institutional-issues-professional-oversight/

      • Tunnelvision

        Not sure about that. If you work for a NY state agency its quite easy to move between them and keep the same pension. Plus you get to retire at 50, get a good pension, keep your health benefits, the major benefit to working for the State, and pick up a job at a consultant for a few years, contribute to a 401K and not touch your State pension until you leave the Consultants.. underpaid my ass..

        • adirondacker12800

          The pension moves between levels of government too. Work for the state for a few years, you can take a job with the county or municipality. It’s just an different employer contributing. It can move between plans too. YMMV depending on the state.

          • adirondacker12800

            Once you are vested you will collect one way or another.

  6. Patrick Jensen

    I don’t know how it works in America but on this side of the Atlantic I’ve observed a similar pay structure resulting in the following trajectory for the promising young planner:

    1. Learn the ropes at an agency.
    2. Switch over to consulting for higher wages.
    3. Get re-hired by the agency at a higher pay grade.
    Repeat 2. and 3. as many times as necessary.

    • R. W. Rynerson

      Sometimes the 1.2.3 process works the same way here in the States. In 1973, the Oregon DOT was only four years old and I was a Research Analyst 1, earning about the same pay and benefits there as I had in my last U.S. Army pay grade. Keep in mind that there were people who loathed the idea of a multi-modal department for various reasons, mainly due to their concern that pennies might be squeezed from the highway funds. With two weeks to go in the fiscal year, a clever legislative maneuver eliminated my position and the other researcher, too. Our main tasks at that point were urgent preparations for what was known as the Energy Crisis, which the State of Oregon had accidentally stumbled onto before it was generally known. It was said that it would be more economical for the Highway Division to do the research.

      I was able to patch together interesting work, including consulting on the first pro-LRT study for Portland, work in the office for a charter bus and tour operator, and then hired away by a Japanese tour wholesaler. All through that time the pressure on ODOT to offer any sort of non-highway alternatives kept growing.

      In Spring 1974 the legislature created six new positions for an intermodal team in ODOT and I was hired back for 40% more than I had been paid before. I was qualified for the job due to the experience I had during the interval outside of ODOT. The colleague who was defunded with me took a different approach and went to Multnomah County, where he worked out the scheme that gave two major obsolete bridges in Portland to ODOT, shifting millions of dollars in urgent renovations into the state highway budget.

      The unexpected moves were no fun, but it worked out well. Both of my brothers had to move hundreds of miles more than once in their careers in order to avoid being dead-ended. The U.S. Army personnel system had logical promotion paths and training potentials for all but one entry-level soldier’s classification. Local and state/provincial governments may not.

    • R. W. Rynerson

      That shows that if the issue is urgent enough overseas arrangements are possible. However, NYPD has conducted anti-terrorism activities since before World War 1. The NYPD had regular working relationships with British police for all sorts of criminal matters and that segued into counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism due to the pre-FBI vacuum at the federal level. I believe they had links with the Rotterdam police before WW1, also.

      My youngest brother, a demographer, went to Dortmund on an exchange program for a half year of work and he learned a lot. However, his employer is a branch of Portland State University and academics are open to that concept.

      In 1997 I went to the Rail-Volution conference in St. Louis from Denver, A year or two later I was interviewed as to why there was no record of it other than using my education allowance to pay the conference fee. Well, it’s because I paid the expenses myself because we were going through a budget squeeze.

      In 1999, New Jersey Transit could not send a scheduling expert to the annual APTA Operations Planning Workshop because it would require foreign travel. It was held in Montreal.

      When the (Colorado) RTD sent a Board of Directors group with the General Manager and a couple of his direct reports on a European trip my boss suggested that I accompany them to have someone who could put things in context. The GM was horrified at the idea. I remember they went to Bordeaux, but we never heard what they learned.

      As the Germans say “u.s.w.”

  7. Tunnelvision

    $1500 for a conference. Forget about it. That’s just the airfare. So let take the World Tunnel Congress that’s happening in Copenhagen in April this year. $950 registration fee. To attend the gala dinner add another $180. Hotel $170/night for say 5 nights = $850, flight from the US to DK say $1500. Meals etc. say $150/day for everything = $750. So lets see that’s $4230 and that’s with the cheap hotel option. That’s why Agencies don’t send staff to conferences, even senior staff, even if they have co-authored a paper. For real learning agencies should be, visas permitting, sending staff on medium to long term secondments, with specific learning goals to other agencies that they want to learn from.

    Quite honestly these days its the consultants, and the major international contractors, who have the worldwide experience, who have the knowledge of what is happening in different countries and on different systems. From planning down to the latest product developments as they work with and attend conferences with suppliers, manufacturers, installers, contractors etc. Most of the big consultants have offices around the world and routinely work in the Anglosphere as well as the Asian, European and other areas. And most of them share information at conferences and in house. In 2021 I worked on bids and ongoing underground projects for everything from PM to design build for clients in Thailand, Singapore, HK, Australia, India, UK, US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Chile. Each was different, had different challenges and required different solutions but there was also considerable cross pollination of ideas and solutions. However the major problem in implementing many of the best solutions, technical, commercial, operational and procurement to meet the individual clients needs is that many agencies not just in the US don’t want to or cannot implement them, as they have established codes of practice. Take tunnel ventilation, In HK on a recent highway tunnel tender jet fans could not be proposed for the tunnel as the HK fire dept requires a positive smoke evacuation system, which would require a plenum over the roadway and fan plants at the tunnel entrance and exits. Now, I’m sure that the HK Authorities have a good and valid reason for their requirements and its probably based on local experience, but without a change in the regulations it does not matter what learning and opportunities are taken, the systems wont change. And its not like the Highway’s folk in HK are not aware of trends around the world, but there’s nothing they can do about it as long as the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) requires a certain method. Contrast that with a recent Design Build project proposal in the US for a road tunnel rehab where the existing vent plenum was to be removed and Sacardo Nozzles installed at the existing fan plants, to manage smoke in the event of fire. And I’m sure that there are many more examples of these kind of issues from system planning, operations, facility and asset management as well as design and construction, project procurement, financing and administration.

    • Alon Levy

      1. Yeah, fair, conference registration fees are a scam. But airfare is not that expensive, the flight I canceled to the US was $800 and that was a high-season (over New Year’s) last-minute buy; the tickets for low-season dates are around $400-450 roundtrip and that’s in line with what I was paying to go to LARP cons in the mid-2010s. Meals are not $150/day even in Switzerland – try $30/day in Switzerland and less in the eurozone. Hotels… Berlin has a bunch for around $100. $1,500 net of registration fee is pretty close to what I was paying to go to Joint Mathematics Meetings.

      2. The consultants I’ve spoken to are very familiar with the sort of projects that use international Anglosphere-based consultants. They are not particularly familiar with (say) high-speed rail construction in France, because SNCF does it in-house. This is also where you get the incorrect line from consultants that Europe uses design-build a lot: the sort of projects here that bring consultants do design-build, but those are unusual and typically more expensive (Copenhagen has the highest construction costs in the Nordic countries).

    • Matthew Hutton

      Ok so I spent 10 minutes doing some Googling. Flights from Chicago to Copenhagen were $450 from the 21st to 28th April return with SAS. I also found a micro apartment rated 9.3 on booking.com near the conference centre for $700 for the week.

      Then food. Well for breakfast I’d suggest breakfast cereal or toast and coffee/tea or fruit juice, I think $20 for the week should be sufficient to buy that from a local supermarket. For lunch I think $10/day should be enough to get a supermarket meal deal or something similar. For dinner I found a curry house nearby that for poppadoms, pilau rice, a chicken tikka misala and a large (presumably 660ml) kingfisher would cost $60/day including 10% service.

      So overall on top of the conference fee the extras come to $1660, so a total of $2600 including the conference fee – maybe you skip the gala dinner.

      • Matthew Hutton

        And if we assume your total cost of employment is $150k a year (typically you treat the total cost of employment as double salary, but for the public sector with very generous pension benefits it’s probably a little more) and that you work 220 days a year after holiday and sickness, then your day rate would be $680 so this trip is going to cost an extra 4 days of your time for your organisation.

      • Eric2

        Flights are unusually cheap now because it’s a pandemic. Airbnb, booking.com and so on are questionably legal, that’s not going to bother you or me, but very likely will bother a government agency.

        • Matthew Hutton

          Would government agencies avoid Uber? Uber is way more dodgy than Airbnb which is way more dodgy than booking.com which is a hotel booking aggregator.

        • Alon Levy

          I’ve been paying sub-$500 for trans-Atlantic roundtrips since I first moved to Europe; my last trip before corona was $335-ish, flying direct Berlin-New York.

          • Matthew Hutton

            The to Europe flight is in the Easter school holidays too – and is a couple of days after Easter. So you’d be competing with anyone going away for that. And the Danish have Maundy Thursday off as well so a Wednesday-Wednesday US trip would only need 3 days annual leave.

  8. Phake Nick

    But how to avoid learning bad things?
    In late 19th to early 20th century, numerous Chinese students were sent to like Japan, France and the United States for study. What they learned from those countries greatly changed the course of history of China. That included not just good things but also bad sides of those relevant societies at the time. Including for example ultranationalist sentiment, or utopian idea of uprooting the entire society to create a new society where every laborer are supposedly “equal”.
    Likewise, nowadays, in urban planning, there are also no lack of countries learning from American suburban car-centric design due to America’s prominent role in the world.
    Is this something even possible to prevent?

    • Borners

      Hey, murderous Xenophobia in China long predates them getting the idea of popular sovereignty from us, you don’t conquer most of East Asia at a dinner party. You can’t blame that on us! And the Utopianism has a history to, Yellow Turbans, Red Turbans, White Lotus, Taiping…ok maybe the last one had something to do with us…

      • Phake Nick

        In the early 20th century, I think China could be less nationalistic, if not for them seeing the success (at the time) of Japan which in turn copied Prussia in unifying and expanding their territories.
        And I would not say those revolution with ideal in Chinese history of revolutions are mainly due to utopianism, rather I see many of them as from utilitarian ground that attempts to trip the power balance which with the status quo was making those involved becoming harder ans harder to continue their life. They used banners like utopia and religion to attract and gather sizable group of civilian military force to fight against whatever governments in place at the time, but the ultimate reason behind those revolts are lack of sustainability of their existing lifeform under existing government policies. This is unlike the time near middle 20th century, when the country have been restoring from chaos from the end of previous dynasty and see the economy improving over that period of time, but the ideology from France and Soviet Union influenced some into believing a more total reform in power is necessary despite the domestic situation in China at the time.

  9. Herbert

    In Dresden and Prague tram drivers do a binational training in both cities… No idea how the language issue is handled, given that Germans overwhelmingly speak no Slavic languages unless they have a family connection (and even then, Germans of Polish descent are losing their ancestral language at less generations than most other immigrant groups)

  10. navthecoz

    It seems to me that many American policymakers think that somehow copy pasting” models from European cities will automatically transform public systems into something better or enhance the efficiency as a direct consequence of direct implementing policies or ideas related to public management without any oversight of its implications on the existing American policies in place. I think a better way to improve as a way of “learning from other cities or countries” is to see how far some concepts can be tailored into the existing system rather than forcing a completely bureaucratic “changing process” on existing North American policies and systems related to planning, traffic management and many other public policy issues.

    If I remember correctly there was a Norwegian offshore drilling company that tried to improve its drilling operations in the North Sea by copying blue prints of drilling techniques from other companies than tailoring it to their existing system and lay a future development framework to develop on the newly modified/tailored model. It eventually lead them to becoming one of the most efficient and profitable oil drilling companies from what I’ve heard.

    Now this analogy may not be the best in terms of suggesting a better way to improve by learning from foreign places but I think it’s essential to distinguish between “copy-paste/force” and “copy-tailor develop” when it comes to improving things efficiently with an existing system in service in order to prevent large scale bureacratic changes.

    • Borners

      Where has America copy-pasted European practice in transportation in the 30 years?
      I think this a problem that doesn’t exist in America, it does in the developing world.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Where has America copy pasted any European anything? Even though for example the EU is the regulatory superpower.

  11. adirondacker12800

    Roads, canals and railroads? The Romans figured out durable roads. They figured out water supply and sewers too.

  12. Patrick Jensen

    I’m currently reading a book about the joint phenomena of suburbanization and the pursuit of efficiency in Finland in the 1960s. One prominent topic is the importance of Fulbright grants in shaping European transportation and urban design policy in the image of America.

    Sadly, the political incentives to put in the effort needed to wield this kind of soft power are currently slim for low-cost (or even medium-cost) countries.

  13. Nathanael

    ” No: a high-trust environment is one where the elite trusts both the broad public and its own subordinates.”

    This has implications waaaaay outside of transportation.

    I’m going to point to the history of slavery in the US as one of the original examples of the elite not trusting the broad public and not trusting its own subordinates, which is still reverberating in the US today.

    Question, also, what the modern state of Israel would look like if the elite who conquered it had trusted (a) the Palestianian people who already lived there (b) the Mizrahi Jewish people who already lived there, and those who immigrated shortly after 1948. They didn’t.

    Sometimes elites deliberately set up systems where they distrust their subordinates and the public, *because the elites’ plan is to abuse and mistreat their subordinates and the public*. So those elites are rational in expecting that the people they are planning to abuse and mistreat will distrust them.

    This mentality can become an entire culture, as it most certainly did in the US South before the Civil War. Such cultures of mistrusting their subordinates and mistrusting the public can hang around and infect people who aren’t evil jackasses, people who aren’t actually planning to abuse and mistreat their subordinates or the general public. I wonder if this is the origin.

    • Eric2

      I’m pretty sure that slavery was popular with a majority of the population in slave states. The white majority, sure, but that’s how democracy works, by majority vote. The “broad public” as you put it.

    • Nathanael

      So, thinking about the construction-planning context in particular, here’s a hypothesis.

      The planning departments in the US were modeled on 1950s highway planning departments and on 1950s “slum clearance”/”urban renewal” planning departments. (Or, occasionally, modelled on the private railroad companies during their “chase away the unprofitable passengers by making service miserable” era.) The highway planning departments had been organized specifically to bulldoze poor neighborhoods and often to bulldoze rich black neighbohoods. The urban renewal planning departments even more so.

      Anyway, all three of these origins are departments where their *job* was to oppress and abuse the public. The culture followed, and has stuck around even in places which aren’t doing that shit any more. That’s the hypothesis.

      The US planning departments were not based on the model of the 19th century “expand to serve the customers” private transit companies. And they were not based on the late-19th-century model of the “sewer socialist” governments, “give the voters stuff they will appreciate”, either.

    • Alon Levy

      I mean, in the 18th-19th centuries, the US was not unique in how little the elites trusted everyone else; the enfranchisement rate remained the highest in the world until Switzerland got universal male franchise in 1848. None of this is especially deeply-rooted, it’s all mid-20c or even more recent than that; when NEPA passed, the EISes were single-digit pages and were not enforced by lawsuit. In the UK much of it looks like Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite hate for the civil service; there’s a reason Thatcher’s favorite TV series was Yes, Minister. In the peripheral Anglosphere it’s even more recent, imported from the UK and US through the latter two countries’ cultural dominance and soft power.

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