How to Waste Money on Public Transportation

This is the fourth in a series of five (not four) posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, following posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, free public transport proposals, and federal aid to operations, to be followed by a post about how to do better instead.

I think very highly of Yonah Freemark. His academic and popular work on public transport and urbanism ranges from good to excellent, and a lot of my early thinking (and early writing!) on regional rail and high-speed rail owes a debt to him.

But I think he’s wrong in his proposal for a Green New Deal for transportation. This is a proposal by the Climate and Community Project (not the Urban Institute as I said in previous posts – sorry) to decarbonize transport in the United States, through fleet electrification and investments in public transport. Yonah is one of several authors; I identify him with the public transit-related parts of the report, but I want to make it clear that it’s the report I’m criticizing, regardless of who wrote what.

The fundamental problem of the CCP report is what I’ve been building up to in the last three posts in this series: it tries to please everybody by throwing money everywhere and making conflicting promises. The Green Line Extension was built this way under Deval Patrick, and costs ballooned, and what passed for discipline under Charlie Baker just reinforced the same long-term loss of state capacity that led to the cost explosion.

For example, here’s its take on fleet electrification:

In other words, there is a compelling and immediate need to decarbonize this fleet within a decade. And that’s feasible: buses are replaced every 10 to 15 years on average, and commuter rail trains about every 25 years; currently, commuter trains in the United States are on average 22 years old. Publicly owned vehicles would be replaced with the electric equivalent; for privately owned contracted vehicles (the case for many school buses), and requirements for electrification would be written into contracts and tax credits given to assist the transition of buses from fossil fuels to electric. The commissioning of thousands of new transit vehicles would produce new, good-paying union jobs in manufacturing. The shift to electric transit vehicles would affect maintenance requirements, and the Department of Transportation must ensure the mechanic and operator workforce is fully prepared for the electric transition through workforce retraining assistance. This may require retraining, such as encouraging mechanics to retrain as electric vehicle charging installers.

(…)

Electrifying existing diesel railways would require overhead catenary electrical wires to be useful for electrified trains (though the trains themselves actually cost less than diesel vehicles). The cost of railway electrification infrastructure alone is between roughly $1 and $5 million per mile. There are roughly 6,600 miles of non-electrified commuter rail in the United States, plus roughly 20,800 miles of non-electrified Amtrak service (with some overlap between the two). Amtrak’s routes are mostly owned by freight rail companies, but we suggest joint electrification that includes both passenger trains and freight trains, using this program for Amtrak and another we lay out below for the freight lines. To electrify the national passenger rail network of existing lines would cost between $27 and $137 billion. In addition, new trains would have to be purchased to run on these electrified lines.

I cite this pair of paragraphs because of something they show about the study: it is not uniformly bad. The second paragraph is a decent idea (though $1m/mile is very cheap), and trying to workshop how to wire the national freight network is not necessarily a bad idea, even if the report doesn’t go into enough detail about what the business barrier to electrification is for the private carriers.

But the first quoted paragraph is awful. Here’s the key thing: “The commissioning of thousands of new transit vehicles would produce new, good-paying union jobs in manufacturing” is a giant waste of money. Bus vendors outside North America consistently produce equipment for much less than the protected North American market; the Boris Bus, at £350,000 per unit (around $500,000), is both cheaper than American buses and locally considered expensive, a prime example of Boris Johnson’s poor performance as mayor of London.

The passenger rail industry does not exist in the United States, and attempts by American governments to coerce it to build factories domestically in order to create well-paying jobs have resulted in ballooning costs. The premium for recent American rolling stock orders, behind bespoke regulations, protectionism, informal state-level protectionism, and agency heads that know less than recently-graduated interns who make one quarter of what they do (less, if those interns are European), looks like 50% over European equivalents. Nor does this do much job creation, except perhaps for sitework consultants: the premium for some recent orders has been $1 million per $20/hour 4-to-6-year job created. Those are not objectively good jobs – the wages are not much higher than present-day retail, food service, and delivery jobs – but backward-looking politicians consider them inherently moral, and the report coddles them instead of looking forward.

Then, the report has the following recommendations for how to spend money on improving public transportation:

End the use of federal infrastructure funding for new highway infrastructure, except for focused opportunities that improve equity. Provide immediate funds for a quick-start infrastructure program for walking and cycling. Vastly expand support for transit and metropolitan network planning.

Appropriate $250 billion over 10 years, or $25 billion annually, in federal funding bill to support transit operations funding throughout the United States.

Increase federal support for transit and intercity rail capital projects to $400 billion over 10 years, or $40 billion annually, providing funds for new lines, maintenance of existing infrastructure, and upgrades designed for equitable accessibility.

Require metropolitan planning organization voting systems to be proportional to resident population. Mandate adjustments to local zoning policy to enable more dense, affordable housing near transit in exchange for federal aid. Implement regional commuter benefits throughout the nation.

This, I’m sorry, is a bad program. The $40 billion/year capital investment is not bad, but the proposal explicitly includes maintenance, making it vulnerable to the state of good repair scam, in which agencies demand escalating amounts of money for infrastructure with nothing to show for it. The $25 billion/year operating aid is likely to be a waste as well.

Transit agencies can invest money prudently, but the report says nothing about how to do it, instead proposing to zero out highway funding (which is a good way to save money, but is less relevant to mode shift than American transit advocates think it is). The one concrete suggestion for what to do with the money is “One goal, for example, would be for all residents to have access to a bus or train with a short wait within at most a 15-minute walk at all times of the day.” This is a standard I can get behind in a dense place like New York; nearly everywhere else, it means overfunding coverage routes in low-density areas, often middle-class white flight suburbs, ahead of workhorse urban routes. Writing years ago about New Haven, Sandy Johnston noted that a bus reform there would cannibalize the circuitous suburban bus branches to add service on the core routes through the city and Hamden. The CCP report would do the opposite, boosting frequencies where they are least useful.

Finally, the MPO rules seem weak. I get what Yonah (and perhaps the other authors) wants to do here: he wants to incentivize more housing production near mass transit nodes. But MPO voting weights are not especially relevant. What is relevant is using state power to disempower local communities, which are dominated by NIMBYs even in places where the residents vote YIMBY at the state level, such as San Francisco. The report talks about banning single-family zoning (okay, but duplexes are not TOD), but that’s it. Then it suggests extracting developer profits through mandatory inclusionary housing, which acts as a tax on TOD and reduces housing production. The authors of the study are left-wing, but do not propose public housing, only taxes on TOD to subsidize some local housing; Yonah knows this is not how social housing works in Paris, but he still proposes this for the United States.

The theme of lack of willingness to prioritize flow throughout these recommendations. There is no discussion of how to prioritize good investments, how to increase efficiency (the report points out operating costs for all US transit combined are $50 billion/year; this is 2.5 times the German level, for similar ridership, not per capita), how to make sure that progress does not get extracted by programs for groups thought inherently moral.

48 comments

  1. Phake Nick

    Subsidizing maintenance of electricification facilities might be necessary to get private freight rail operators to agree installing overhead wires onto the lines. But then it seems meaningless to brainless electrify all the lines, like for lines only used by 1x train per day. Same can be said to most of Amtrak’s long distance network. The emission of installing electrification equipment for the entire route from Chicago to Los Angeles just for the 1x passenger train per day and the energy that would be consumed by maintenance of these facilities, might make it turn out to be less carbon emitting to simply load all those railway passengers onto planes instead, and then use electric intercity buses to cover settlements that have no air service.

    • Tiercelet

      Amtrak long distance, as it exists right now, is basically only good for sightseeing, and everybody knows it. I don’t think you can project current usage trends, without change, onto much-improved infrastructure. If electrification here goes along with improvements that allow HSR–to turn the current 43-hour Chicago-LA trip into 10 hours, so it’s competitive with the ~6 hours (just counting in-air time, without airport transfer, flight delays, etc) for a direct flight–you’d see a lot more demand, and then a lot more frequency as a result.

      I haven’t read the report, so I don’t know if that’s what’s proposed–if not, it seems like a big missed opportunity, because you’re right, there’s no point building infrastructure that doesn’t get used.

      • adirondacker12800

        It’s a four hour flight and most people arriving in Los Angeles come from someplace other than Chicago.

      • Phake Nick

        Not just google say flight time between Chicago and LA is 10 hours, but also that their distance are 2000 miles away by fastest road, and the track distance of the current Amtrak train is also similarly long, so your train would have to run at 200mph/360kmh continuously throughout same alignment non-stop to reach the same journey time, which is just unrealistic, even if you can somehow “improve” the entire track into its own dedicated right of way. Not to mention the cost is going to be higher than flights. Unlike aircraft where many fuel cost are spent on take off, landing, and labor cost staff rotation that doesn’t correlate too much with the trip length as long as it’s within one shift, most cost related to train scale linearly and so we’re probably looking at something like at least 300 USD for such high speed train journey cost. Also, due to high speed track maintenance requirement which you have to close down entire section of track for people to work on it unlike conventional trains where you can let trains run on one side and maintenance personnel working on the other side, even on dedicated track there will be very limited time frame that could make it possible to operate such long distance high speed train. Earliest would probably depart at 6am and arrive at 4pm, latest would probably depart on 12 noon and arrive at 10pm.

        Also, even in China where HSR are extra-cheap, journey at the length of like 8 hours high speed train would really only be taken by train enthusiasts or people who have phobia against flying. These people aren’t going to be enough to support multiple trains per days. In 2020Q4, China tried to launch a high speed train between Xi’an and Urumqi, 2600km straight distance, 13 hours journey time, all on dedicated track, compares to conventional trains that cost 25-34 hours on conventional track, yet this 1x daily train have been truncated to Xi’an-Xi’ning according to latest time table, indicating the lack of demand for such long high speed train, despite China already have great discount and subsidy for trains and especially so for high speed trains that this service only cost 100 USD. Flights time between Urumqi URC and Xi’an XIY is 3.5 hours and have about 7 flights a day (compares to 15 between ORD and LAX), and there are now ~5 conventional trains/day between Xi’an and Urumqi.

        Then, you also have to consider that significant amount of Amtrak ridership now are Amish people. It is doubtful whether they are going to accept high speed trains. And such high speed train will also be impossible to fulfill the secondary function of those long distance trains, aka connecting smaller settlements off the national highway grids that just happens to sit on Amtrak route, to major cities with basic public transportation. High speed trains would not be possible to serve at all those smaller settlements.

        • adirondacker12800

          Chicago has two airports and people in Los Angeles can argue over which of the ones in metro LA are LA airports and which ones aren’t. There are non stop flights between those other airports and Midway in Chicago. Google seems to think Southwest has a non stop from Midway to LAX.

  2. Tom M

    The report seems to be treating the symptoms and blinded to the causes. It wants to enforce top-down solutions vs. allowing emergent bottom-up creative ideas to be implemented. For example, the issue of decarbonization, if you’re serious then price carbon to target net zero by 20xx, drop any fossil fuel subsidies and let everyone else work out solutions to get there. Use a Georgian land tax and gut planning restrictions to catalyze urban development. Allow private urban mass transit to exist so it can respond dynamically to commuter’s needs…and the response to “oh but it’s going to bankrupt the public system”, well then maybe the public system isn’t very good and is better off not existing in the first place.

    • Alex Cat3

      The private sector can do some things well, but as Alon Levy pointed out, private companies are unlikely to invest in urban mass transit, because of the risk of local government regulations capturing their profits. Historical urban mass transit operations that were run by private companies still usually had heavy government involvement– for instance, although the NY Subway was originally operated by private companies, the infrastructure was built and paid for by the city. Private railroad companies in the US often started out as creations of a state government, like the Erie Railroad (New York) and the Pensylvania Railroad (Pensylvania). The returns on investment for local transit are much lower today than in the golden age of railroads, hence investors are unlikely to take much interest. And if a private company does succeed at building a mass transit line, then it will typically have a monopoly on transit in much of the area it serves (only megacities like New York can really support redundant lines) and may charge excessively high fares.

    • df1982

      The British bus system outside of London after Thatcher is what happens when you just give the private sector a free rein to transit. It’s not pretty and is being (slowly) rolled back.

      And abolishing zoning gets you the endless sprawl of Houston, not Manhattan.

      • Henry Miller

        Houston has zoning in the form of parking requirements.

        Abolishing zoning is required, but not sufficient to enable good transit enabled cities. There are many other steps that are needed as well, and none of them alone will solve our problems.

        • Sassy

          Instead of “abolishing zoning” which is really an accurate description of what is generally desired, even just limited to zoning, maybe referring to liberalization of land use policy as “liberalizing land use policy” would be better.

      • Alon Levy

        So, re zoning abolition, Houston has the following zoning rules:

        – Very high parking minimums, as mentioned by Henry.
        – A rule saying developers need to pay for platting new streets and they can pay less (50′ vs. 60′ ROW) if they deed-restrict to single-family housing.
        – Minimum setbacks.
        – Until maybe 10-15 years ago, large minimum lot sizes.

        Houston-but-with-zoning is not New York but Atlanta, an even sprawlier city. And New York-but-without-zoning is not Houston but Tokyo (which has zoning but it’s loose and nationalized, no local community in the loop).

        • df1982

          You can more effectively achieve higher-density, transit-oriented cities through progressive zoning and good urban planning than through a deregulated no zoning policy. If the latter gets you Houston rather than Atlanta then it’s a failure. Since the arrival of the car lax urban planning has meant that developers just buy up farmland to turn into single family housing, since it’s the most surefire way for them to turn a profit.

          Social-democratic urban planning, by contrast, has given us Vienna, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Zurich, Amsterdam. Nowhere is perfect but they managed to accommodate growing populations in relatively dense housing while retaining high rates of transit and active transport usage. I know where I’d rather live.

          • Sassy

            Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam are widely known for failing to accommodate growing populations. And nowhere on that list has achieved the rates of active and mass transport usage as Tokyo or Osaka.

            Deregulated zoning has achieved almost incomparably better results than government meddling, which becomes obvious when looking at the regional and national scale.

            Based on an easily findable 2014 OECD report, Japan drove 5500km per capita. This massively outperforms every country of the cities on your list. For example, Austria drives 8500km per capita, or 55% more. If you adjust for passenger cars making up a much lower share of Japanese road traffic, you’ll find that Austrians drive private passenger cars 87% more than Japanese people.

            Kansai is pretty comparable in area to The Netherlands, and Keihanshin is pretty comparable in area to Randstad. Something like 90% of people who live in Kansai live in Keihanshin. That should be about the share of Dutch who live in Randstad, but today, just under half of Dutch live in Randstad, due to a failure to promote and accommodate growth in the most suitable areas for active and mass transportation.

          • Alon Levy

            (Zurich is not especially social-democratic… but yes.)

            Sure, and the ADU zoning proposed by Yonah and by just about every North American YIMBY group doesn’t look anything like those European cities. Stockholm has a very strong structure of density with mid-rise buildings on top of the T-bana grading down to single-family housing in more remote parts. Nor does it base its social housing on inclusionary zoning or other stealth taxes on TOD – there’s market-rate construction for sale, there’s rent-controlled housing, and there’s public housing.

            And the frustrating part is that Yonah knows this. He knows how Paris is producing more housing, with a large social housing proportion. It’s based on building forms that American YIMBYs last tried using in the SB 827 era, not on ADUs and duplexes. And again this is without TOD taxes – social housing is public, built in rich areas over local objections because neither the French state nor Anne Hidalgo cares what some local NIMBY who believes that Arab and black people are dirty thinks.

          • Max Wyss

            The executive of the City of Zürich has been “red-green” for decades, where most members were from the Social Democratic Party. …and the city is doing pretty well. The executive responsible for planning who said “Zürich is built” was from that party too (although today, she would be member of the Green party).

        • adirondacker12800

          You can more effectively achieve higher-density, transit-oriented cities through progressive zoning and good urban planning than through a deregulated no zoning policy.
          In a few places, if you are very very lucky, in 2070. Many people, who have driver’s licenses now, won’t have to worry about it because they’ll be dead. And perhaps a few more by 2090. Almost everybody who has a driver’s license now will be dead in 2090.

          • df1982

            @Alon, Zürich has had a social-democratic mayor uninterruptedly since 1990, and on a national level the SP is usually the first or second biggest party in the country, whose consensus-mode of government did adopt chunks of its program.

            And @Sassy “Deregulated zoning has achieved almost incomparably better results than government meddling, which becomes obvious when looking at the regional and national scale” is an erroneous generalisation. You can point to Japan, but that’s just one country which has its own specificities. Nowhere in Europe has or will have a city with 38m people in it, for a start. In the European context progressive planning got you the cities I mentioned above, deregulated zoning got you British suburbia or the sprawl of the Nice area. It leads neither to density nor high transit usage. This is not to mention the unmitigated disaster of US urbanism.

            And I’m not sure why you think 90% of the Netherlands population should or would want to live in the Randstad. I’m sure there are plenty of people who prefer Groningen or wherever. Even small towns in that country are quite pleasant places to live and are remarkably un-car dependent.

          • Alon Levy

            Two things.

            1. Democratic East Asia vs. Europe is a very fascinating comparison in a bunch of ways, and it’s really hard to tease out factors for why public transport usage in Kaohsiung or Sapporo or Daegu is anemic by the standards of a Munich or Prague or Stockholm.

            2. How deregulated is Nice, anyway? It’s very right-wing but Estrosi is a European racist and not an American one. Sophia Antipolis is an American-style edge city, but I think it’s less deregulation and more “there was no business core so might as well build the edge city elsewhere” (and it was hardly deregulated – Laffitte was a civil servant and later a centrist politician). Monaco is at a scale where there isn’t really a private-public distinction, it’s just feudal bullshit that makes me question why the Revolution wasn’t completionist.

          • Sassy

            @Alon

            Sapporo public transport usage is anemic because the public transport network is actually kinda limited. Sapporo Municipal Subway is half the size of Munich U-Bahn and poorly integrated with the JR Hokkaido network, which itself is a lot smaller than Munich S-Bahn. Munich has an extensive tram network compared to Sapporo’s single loop, and tram and bus operations in Japan are just outdated, with all door boarding/alighting only starting to be a thing recently (and not yet in Sapporo afaik).

            From what I can gather, car mode share in Munich is ~35% (commute), and in Sapporo ~45% (all trips). While not directly comparable, and a worse showing for Sapporo, I think the liberal land use regulation really allowed Sapporo to take better advantage of the transit it has.

            Under/mal-investment in small cities is just a thing in East Asia, both Democratic and non-Democratic, so small cities have even disproportionately less transit.

            @df1982

            I could also point to Korea, which achieves also great national scale results, despite starting the car era with a minuscule railway network than Japan did, and Seoul being more car dependent than Tokyo or Osaka.

            There are certainly countries in Europe that are large and populous enough to even have enough people to live in an East Asian sized megacity. If the same ratio of people in France lived in Paris, as in Korea live in Seoul, Paris would be home to over 30 million people. It would be a big migration, but it’s a migration that would significantly reduce car usage in France.

            I know that 90% of The Netherlands does not want to live in Randstad, but they should. The Netherlands drives private passenger cars 75% more kilometers per capita per year than Japan, and more than that over Kansai. If Randstad was more like Keihanshin, and The Netherlands would be more like Kansai, car usage could be reduced by over a third, maybe even half or more.

            A lot of small towns and cities in Europe put up really good numbers for their size class, but at a regional or national scale, underperform just promoting and accommodating growth in big cities.

          • Oreg

            @df1982: You’re right about Zurich’s red-green mayors, but on the national level unfortunately the right-wing populist SVP has been the strongest Party since 1999. Switzerland is fundamentally a conservative country. All left-of-center parties taken together never had more than 1/3 of the vote. As you point out, some of their policies have still been implemented thanks to the traditional consensus government. Any policy in particular that you had in mind for this discussion?

          • Oreg

            (Typo: The three Zurich mayors since 1990 are red, not red-green.)

            To add a little background, the Zurich government is not a coalition but a group of directly elected individuals from across the political spectrum, so the mayors cannot just enact their own agenda. The right-wing influence shows for instance in the fact that cars are still strongly prioritized over bicycles.

          • Tiercelet

            > it’s really hard to tease out factors for why public transport usage in Kaohsiung or Sapporo or Daegu is anemic by the standards of a Munich or Prague or Stockholm.

            I’d be curious to hear more about this. My knee-jerk reaction is to assume the present lower transport usage can be explained by density–Daegu (at around 2700/sqkm) has a little over half the population density of Munich (4800) or Stockholm (5200), and Sapporo’s even worse.

            But that doesn’t explain Prague’s better performance or (urban) Kaohshiung’s worse performance. Prague I can kind of understand; national capital (so more investment), plus former Soviet satellite (so less entrenched car ownership or whatever). And Kaohshiung was probably on the wrong end of federal investment due to linguistic/ethnic prejudice from the Mainlander-focused KMT government until the 2000s. But that’s all very hand-wavey and I’d be interested to hear something more evidence-based.

          • Sassy

            @Tiercelet

            Kaohsiung and Daegu, like Sapporo, also have much smaller rail networks than Munich, Stockholm, or Prague. I think that is a pretty decent bit of evidence.

            Without more granular density information, I don’t think density is really that important. Sapporo has a density of 1800 people/km^2 however the vast majority of the people live in much higher density areas, and a large part of the land area is just wilderness. As of the 2010 census, 94% of Ishikari Subprefecture lived in a “densely inhabited district” over 4000 people/km^2 .

            I think being at the wrong end of federal/national investment really explains Kaohsiung, Daegu, and Sapporo. National investment in those countries are focused in Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo. Even Busan and Osaka arguably get less attention from the national government than one might expect.

            Stockholm and Prague are the largest and capital city of their respective countries. Munich isn’t, but it’s still third largest, and Germany prides itself on NOT being strongly centered around Berlin.

  3. total900

    “But the first quoted paragraph is awful. Here’s the key thing: “The commissioning of thousands of new transit vehicles would produce new, good-paying union jobs in manufacturing” is a giant waste of money.”

    This is a remarkably naive statement. Politicians and transit advocates in the US are doing this because that’s the way to make it politically feasible. The chance of getting something passed while relying on non-US manufacturing is much reduced, so in comes statements about good jobs and job retraining, etc.

    Come on now — if you want to be a good analyst of the transport space, you need to be aware of those factors.

    • Luke

      The position of Americans that transportation is a personal, “political” choice–with no reprucussions for other people, likewise free from influence of other people–is just wrong. If we can all agree that there are not yet infinite resources with which to move people around, and that we are instead working in a resource-constrained world, then there become objectively better ways to move people and things, and objectively worse ones. Politics cannot play a constructive role, and insofar as politics involvement cannot be removed completely, it must be minimzed.

      In fact, we appear to be largely blind to the fact that we still posit this–evidenced by our belief in the objective superiority of and our deference to auto-centrism in 99% of the country, and hostility to good pedestrian/cycling/rail infrastructure–we’ve just come to the wrong conclusion. Perhaps the pretend game of transportation as a personal choice is just a way, in our subconscious knowledge of a century of maldevelopment, of covering our backsides.

      • adirondacker12800

        That was 40 years ago and the usual suspects have a supply chain and assembly plants in North America.

    • Alex B.

      Yes – any large-scale change will require a political coalition in favor of that change. And assembling that kind of coalition will require compromise.

      I appreciate Alon’s efforts to call out costs, and think it’s tremendously important. That said, concerns about total cost are clearly not shared among the likely coalition partners. They are clearly willing to trade off those concerns about cost against other things that are important for coalition members. Thanks to folks like Alon, I think we should all be well aware of the impacts of those trade-offs and work to quantify and understand them.

      If, instead, Alon wants to focus solely on cost, that’s fine – just know that other decision makers will not (and cannot) share that single-minded focus.

      • Alon Levy

        Okay, but those things are complete bullshit. For example, community empowerment does not actually achieve its stated goals, like reducing racial inequality. It does the opposite, by weakening the one force that can break the segregationists (the state). Environmental lawsuits do not lead to better environmental outcomes, because judicial rulings are capricious and civil servants trained in ecology and engineering reach better decisions where they are allowed to decide.

        Fundamentally, the United States will find ways to break groups that feel like they have political claims on surplus resources, or it will not have infrastructure.

        • Alex B.

          Maybe they are complete BS; but that’s beside the point. If some BS programs are the political cost of enacting a program you favor into law, are you willing to make that deal?

          A decade ago, your technical vs. political frame for transit advocates was a brilliant bit of analysis. I’d hope to see more of that trade-off explored here. For example, in the current administration, railing against Buy America isn’t going to get you far at all. I think it’s fine (and necessary) to offer a technical critique of that policy, but also to recognize that documents like this are squarely in the political space. Some of the technical critiques of political action run the risk of being so opposed to the political dynamics that they miss the chance to actually make progress.

          • Henry Miller

            Short term, but what about longer term. If transit advocated don’t figure out how to engage the right they will never get far as every few years the power will swing. Alon is talking about some big right wing talking points here. The question is how to we get them to confront this issue where the left is a problem and do so in a way where they think that transit is a right wing issue?

            We know from other parts of the world that cost effective transit tends to be built by the right. In the US though the right isn’t building transit, they are building roads. (despite talking about costs they are not doing much about it that I know of)

      • Henry Miller

        Sure, and you ensure transport never gets anywhere because you turn off a large part of the base of the right by ignoring their concerns. (Note that I said base, not those they get elected) If you can speak to costs and get good transit out to where the right’s base is (the suburbs) you can actually get some money, but these people are concerned about cost effective, and they are often very much against those other values. However if you make cost effective the goal you can get useful transit that is helpful do the non-right than what you get only by pandering to that crowd and hoping you get money.

        So long as the left treats everything the right stands for as ways to discriminate against blacks there will be a divide and little will happen. Talk to the middle – which includes cost effective and you can get some power.

        • adirondacker12800

          The right, in the U.S., is busy talking about voter fraud, that occurred in 2020. When they aren’t busy talking about how vaccines put a tracking device in you. On their smartphones that tracks them. Hunter Biden’s laptop bubbles up now and then and Hillary Clinton’s satanic pedophilic cult, run out of the basement of pizzeria that doesn’t have a basement.

        • Tiercelet

          Transport never gets anywhere because the American political system represents land rather than people. And, to the extent that it does represent people, it is heavily tilted toward well-off, established (read: old) people who own real estate. And who understand, even if subconsciously, that a better development pattern will greatly devalue their chief asset.

          You’re not going to get major support for transit from the suburbs because the suburban, car-centric land use pattern is fundamentally incompatible with efficient and effective transit. It is not dense enough for fast, frequent service, and you will *never* convince suburban land holders–even those who aren’t part of “the right”–that their area needs to become more dense.

          The fact that car-centric development has also reached its practical limit and is choking off further growth in population or standard of living in our major cities *might* be persuasive, except nobody in American politics cares what anybody under 50 years of age or $500,000 total assets thinks about anything.

          • adirondacker12800

            better development pattern will greatly devalue their chief asset
            You pay more, sometimes a lot more, for the stuff in the real estate ads that say “walk to train”.

          • Henry Miller

            If you want to turn the old people around start pushing for stricter driving standards. It isn’t hard to find that old people decline, so mandatory testing every 4 years to retain your license would force a lot of old people to not drive – when they fail their tests. And the threat of that in the future can make them support transit since good transit means they don’t care.

            It would be good anyway. I passed my drivers test 30 years ago, I’m statistically in my safest driving years, but I often wonder how much safer I could be if I was up to date on the latest standards for safe driving.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      “But the first quoted paragraph is awful. Here’s the key thing: “The commissioning of thousands of new transit vehicles would produce new, good-paying union jobs in manufacturing” is a giant waste of money.”

      This is a remarkably naive statement. Politicians and transit advocates in the US are doing this because that’s the way to make it politically feasible. The chance of getting something passed while relying on non-US manufacturing is much reduced, so in comes statements about good jobs and job retraining, etc.

      “Buy American” bullshit — which typically devolves into “Buy [YOUR-US-STATE-HERE]” and even “Buy [YOUR-LOCAL-COUNTY-HERE]” bullshit — is simply a mechanism for privileging one economic class — the one that charges a 50 to 100% price premium, the one that sets up Potemkin assembly plants that fold as soon as the delayed, over-cost and shoddy “production” run has completed — over everybody else, including transit riders, transit maintenance workers, transit operational workers, and … all other taxpayers.

      A smaller vehicle fleet, delivered years late, with shitty quality control, and shitty local customizations specified by a shitty customer’s shitty consultants, is the gift that keeps on giving: a smaller fleet, breaking down more often, serving fewrt people.

      These handful of “good manufacturing jobs” that come and evaporate after a handful of years — are they worth more than having 1.5 to 2 times as many cheaper but higher quality vehicles, maintained over decades by a local workfore, operated by a larger local workforce, serving more passengers more reliably?

      Recall that, at competitive global prices, a regional train’s capital cost is not much more than half its lifecycle cost. I have an SBB reference that says 56% manufacturing, 25% maintenance, 11% power, 8% cleaning(!!!) for FLIRTs. Extort a 50% overhead on manufacturing — and remember much of this goes to the fixers, not to the useful idiot hard hat union dudes they trot out as fronts — and for decades you reap the “benefit” of 33% as many trains, 33% as many trains operators, 33% as many maintenance positions, 33% as many train cleaners, 33% less service.

      The “good jobs and job retraining” is just bullshit. Those jobs don’t last, the number of blue collar person-years is paltry, it’s pure rent extraction by the rent-extracting class. It would be cheaper to directly fork over tens of millions into some union’s Special Activities Fund for distribution somehow for something, or to establish and run a vocational school than it is to enrich the “Buy American” middlemen to the tune of hundreds of millions of purest grift.

  4. ray

    On the other hand, inclusionary zoning does promote mixed income neighbourhoods, which is liked to better outcomes of children.

  5. adirondacker12800

    short wait within at most a 15-minute walk at all times of the day.

    They have no idea what things look like west of Ninth Ave.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_the_World_from_9th_Avenue

    I think they might be stuck 2005 when gasoline was going to ten dollars a gallon in 2010 and when electric cars cost $100,000.

    incentivize more housing production near mass transit nodes.

    Except for parts of Chicago, Pittsburgh, the Bay Area and quite a few places in the Northeast there aren’t any. Parts of metro Cleveland? Those are places that were developed before World War II. Though most stuff built between the Wars, has parking. They have no idea what things look like west of Ninth Ave.

    Building more housing takes years. Building the mass transit to have a node to be around takes longer. Giving people who live in suburbia an electric car is the solution. We have to come up with something to replace the fossil fuel taxes.

    ….the automobile fans are busy having arguments about whether or not it’s the 2024 model year or the 2025 model year when electric cars reach purchase price parity with internal combustion cars. Once electric cars do that, it’s over for ICE cars. Once the the electric cars are cheaper TO BUY than ICE cars no one going is to want them.

  6. adirondacker12800

    state of good repair scam

    In 1980 they look around and decide to replace the stuff that’s broken or 100 years old. In 1990 they look around decide to replace stuff that is broken or 100 years old. It’s different stuff than the stuff they found in 1980 because it was only 90 years old in 1980 or wasn’t broken. The look around 2000 and decide to replace the stuff that is broken or 100 years old. Which was only 80 years old in 1980 or 90 years old in 1990 or wasn’t broken. I betcha next year there will be different stuff broken and stuff that is only 99 years old today, and will be 100 years old. And in two years, stuff that breaks in 2023 and stuff that is 98 years old today, will be 100 years old. In 2080 it will be stuff that was replaced in 1980 because it was 100 years old then and it is 100 years old again. And stuff nobody has done anything about because even though it should be replaced there was no money for it and it’s not broken. It’s fresh stuff every year, why do you find this concept difficult to understand?

  7. Pingback: How to Spend Money on Public Transport Better | Pedestrian Observations
  8. adirondacker12800

    It leads to a dynamic in which it’s useful to invest in the ability to carry large projects on a permanent basis, but not pre-commit to them.

    There is. The godless socialist commies propose it quite often. It’s called an infrastructure bank and instead of paying Wall Street to package bonds for sale to rich people who are looking for safe triple tax free places to park cash we’d cut out the rich people’s gravy. Which means we’ll never do it. The Clinton Admin. was on track to eliminate the national debt in 2011 or so. Not the annual deficit, the national debt. Do that and there aren’t any more T-Bills to give vocal advocates of the Freeeeeeeeeeee Market to a place to park cash, that is shielded from the free market, so that’s never going to happen either.

    So every agency should have access to public expertise

    Heretic!! The dogma is that the private sector does everything better.

    putting state of good repair programs in the not-funded basket;

    The population of North Dakota could all take a trip on the Second Avenue subway in five weekdays. What’s their highway budget and how much of it funded by the Federal budget? It gets ugly after that. Very ugly.

    Some fun numbers to play with. Fargo North Dakota is 196 miles from Bismarck ND on lovely I-94, according to Google maps. Wikipedia says Attleboro Mass. is more or less that distance, by rail, from New York as is Odenton MD.

    Fargo is the biggest metro in North Dakota and the capital is Bismarck. It’s twice as far from Fargo as Philadelphia is from Harrisburg. Drive between Harrisburg and Philadelphia it would likely be on I-76 also known as the Pennsylvania Turnpike which doesn’t get Federal funding. Wanna give South Dakota a whirl. Home to the lovely I-90. I have a feeling South Dakotans are mildly annoyed that Pierre isn’t on I-90.

    I’m not in the mood to find what happens to Universal Service Charge fees on things have telephone numbers. That can be very interesting.

    .. the population of North Dakota and South Dakota are almost exactly the same as Philadelphia. That has suburbs that fund things like the Minot Air Force Base, one of the biggest employers in North Dakota. Things get ugly reallll fast.

  9. Tom Buehler

    Hi Alon,

    Thanks for these posts! Would love it if you could do a post about how it took San Francisco decades of planning, six years of construction, and nearly $350M to open just 2 miles of BRT lanes.

    https://missionlocal.org/2022/04/van-ness-busway-opens-after-six-year-construction/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Ness_Bus_Rapid_Transit

    On Mon, Mar 28, 2022 at 9:59 PM Pedestrian Observations wrote:

    > Alon Levy posted: ” This is the fourth in a series of five (not four) > posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United > States, following posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, > free public transport proposals, and federal aid to operation” >

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