Eric Stoothoff is the chief engineer of the MBTA. Last month, he offered the following excuse for why the MBTA just deelectrified the trolleybuses in Cambridge, replacing them with diesel buses and hoping in a few years to obtain battery-electric buses (BEBs):
We want to leapfrog Europe, not play catch-up. If BEBs are the future, why not have the future now?https://twitter.com/mbtaroc/status/1493768313154904073
Unfortunately for Stoothoff, BEB technology still does not work in freezing temperatures. The current state of it is buses that have diesel heaters – otherwise the battery drains too fast in winter, as it did three years ago when I reported it for CityLab.
The actual cutting edge of electric bus technology is in-motion charging (IMC), in which the bus spends part of the route under wire and then part under battery, with an off-wire range of about 10 km. IMC is especially valuable for Boston, which is unusual for an American city in having an unplanned street network in which the same trunk road splits into several farther out, and then the trunk can be wired. Cambridge’s now-defunct trolleybus network had a short trunk, but could still be an attractive IMC target. In Boston proper, Washington Street is a valuable trunk for wire, with routes splitting off-wire to destinations in Dorchester and Mattapan farther south.
Stoothoff seems unaware of this, because he is an insular, ignorant, incurious manager. He uses leapfrogging as an excuse not to learn. Other American agencies buy BEBs, and then find that they don’t work in winter without diesel heaters, and instead of seeing what Europe does, he talks of leapfrogging.
Leapfrogging means something completely different. It means skipping an intermediate tech that has been obsoleted by newer tech. A classic example of leapfrogging is China’s phone network: by the time China developed enough for mass use of phones, in the 2000s, cellular phones were ubiquitous and mature enough that China skipped wired phones entirely, and did not have to spend money on building phone cable infrastructure in rural areas. More recently, mobile payments are connecting rural areas in Africa between the Sahara and the Kalahari to banking without the need for physical branches.
On the level of infrastructure, it makes sense: there is no need to invest in intermediate technology if something better is available. In the realm of rail, there are a lot of technological dead-ends that nobody needs to develop anymore – superseded electrification standards, experimental jet- or nuclear-powered trains, obsolete track geometry standards, etc. Train stations today are designed differently from in the steam era: the train is not noxious to be nearby, so the train shed is integrated into the passenger concourse, and train turn times are short, permitting much smaller station footprints even in major cities.
But on the level of knowledge, it’s daft. Leapfrogging requires knowing what the cutting edge is. Chinese development experts know exactly what technology is used in developed countries and what they should imitate and what they can bypass. The PLA began its modernization process in 1991 after Desert Storm and only began innovating rather than implementing NATO standards a few years ago. African development experts are generally aware of trends in rich countries as well.
This knowledge is especially important in public transportation, because many legacy cities had higher ridership before WW2 than they do today and there’s a lot of nostalgia for that era. Understanding why the modern train station can be compact and platform-centric, without a waiting concourse and space for a telegraph operator and baggage handlers, is crucial in limiting the construction costs of stations on new lines. Without such understanding, it’s easy to imitate historic stations; even in Europe, where trains are integrated into train sheds without the separate waiting halls characteristic of North America, most major-city stations are historic and very big, because they’re inherited from when they needed to be and the land was at the edge of the city and therefore cheaper.
But what one does not do is tear up legacy infrastructure that is still useful. Europe’s great train terminals are almost all oversize, but there’s no point in blowing them up and shrinking them just because it’s more modern. Urban renewal projects at train stations are common, but they replace goods yards that left the cities alongside industry, not passenger circulation. And at least shrinking station footprints has redevelopment value in major city centers; deelectrifying trolleybuses has no such value.
So under no circumstances should cities with existing trolleys remove the tail electrification for IMC. This is not what IMC-using cities do – they use IMC to expand the network rather than shrink it. It may be too late for Boston, but San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver should keep what they have.
And it’s even worse, because Stoothoff wasn’t justifying deelectrifying on the way to the future. No: he misstated what the future is. His incuriosity is such that he assumes BEBs are the future, from a position of interacting with American agencies that think the same and find fixed wire infrastructure too hard. Peripheries that engage in leapfrogging are voracious consumer of the metropole’s learning in order to apply it to their own circumstances, but Stoothoff cannot even bring himself to admit that the United States is a periphery and needs to absorb this knowledge.
A better MBTA is one in which Stoothoff is replaced with a more competent chief engineer, perhaps hired from abroad. But it’s not just him. He’s a removable obstacle to progress, but there are many like him – many managers who assume the future is one thing when it’s the other, and use their wrong beliefs to justify not imitating best practices. They have an assortment of excuses, and misstating what technological leapfrogging is is among them.