How to Spend Money on Public Transport Better

After four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, here’s how I think it’s possible to do better. Compare what I’m proposing to posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, free public transport proposals, federal aid to operations, and a bad Green New Deal proposal by Yonah Freemark.

If you’re thinking how to spend outside (for example, federal) money on local public transportation, the first thing on your mind should be how to spend for the long term. Capital spending that reduces long-term operating costs is one way to do it. Funding ongoing operating deficits is not, because it leads to local waste. Here are what I think some good guidelines to do it right are.

Working without consensus

Any large cash infusion now should work with the assumption that it’s a political megaproject and a one-time thing; it may be followed by other one-time projects, but these should not be assumed. High-speed rail in France, for example, is not funded out of a permanent slush fund: every line has to be separately evaluated, and the state usually says yes because these projects are popular and have good ROI, but the ultimate yes-no decision is given to elected politicians.

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. So every agency should have access to public expertise, with permanent hires for engineers and designers who can if there’s local, state, or federal money build something. This public expertise can be in-house if it’s a large agency; smaller ones should be able to tap into the large ones as consultants. In France, RATP has 2,000 in-house engineers, and it and SNCF have the ability to build large public transport projects on their own, while other agencies serving provincial cities use RATP as a consultant.

It’s especially important to retain such planning capacity within the federal government. A national intercity rail plan should not require the use of outside consultants, and the federal government should have the ability to act as consultant to small cities. This entails a large permanent civil service, chosen on the basis of expertise (and the early permanent hires are likely to have foreign rather than domestic experience) and not politics, and yet the cost of such a planning department is around 2 orders of magnitude less than current subsidies to transit operations in the United States. Work smart, not hard.

However, investing in the ability to build does not mean pre-committing to build with a permanent fund. Nor does it mean a commitment to subsidizing consumption (such as ongoing operating costs) rather than investment.

Funding production, not consumption

It is inappropriate to use external infusions of cash for operations and, even worse, maintenance. When maintenance is funded externally, local agencies react by deferring maintenance and then crying poverty whenever money becomes available. Amtrak fired David Gunn when the Bush administration pressured it to defer maintenance in order to look profitable for privatization and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman, and then when the Obama stimulus came around Boardman demanded billions of dollars for state of good repair that should have built a high-speed rail program instead.

This is why American activists propose permanent programs – but those get wasted fast, due to surplus extraction. A better path forward is to be clear about what will and will not be funded, and putting state of good repair programs in the not-funded basket; the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework’s negotiations were right to defund the public transit SOGR bucket while keeping the expansion bucket.

Moreover, all funding should be tied to using the money prudently – hence the production, not consumption part. This can be capital funding, with the following priorities, in no particular order:

  • Capital funding that reduces long-term operating costs, for example railway electrification and the installation of overhead wires (“in-motion charging“) on bus trunks.
  • Targeted investments that improve the transit experience. Bus shelter is extremely cost-effective on this point and a federal program to fund it at a level of around $15,000/stop (not more – it’s easy to make local demands that drive it up to $50,000) would have otherworldly social rates of return. Washington bureaucrats are loath to be this explicit about what to do – they try to speak in circumlocutions, saying “standards for bus stops” instead of just funding shelter, or “transit asset management” instead of just committing to not playing the SOGR game.
  • Accessibility upgrades. This require close federal control to eliminate local waste, because much of the money would be going to New York, which has a long-term problem of siphoning accessibility money to other priorities like adding station access points or repairing stations, and has a uniquely incompetent local environment when it comes to construction costs.
  • Planning aid for improving bus-rail interface; these two modes are often not planned together in American cities, and commuter rail is not planned in conjunction with other modes. San Jose, for example, has a proposal for large expansion of bus service, part of which is parallel to Caltrain; the local agency, VTA, owns one third of Caltrain and could expand rail service within the county and integrate it with bus service better, but does not do so.
  • Rail automation, to reduce long-term operating costs. Bus automation could go in this bucket too but is at this point too speculative; save it for one or two stimuli in the future.

Avoiding local extraction

Local government has very little democratic legitimacy. It’s based on informal power arrangements, in which direct elections play little role; partisan elections are rare and instead primaries reign with severe democratic deficits (for example, it’s hard to form any kind of base for opposition to challenge a sitting New York mayor or governor). Without national ideology to guide it, it is the domain of cranks and people with the time and leisure to attend community meetings on weekdays at 3 pm. Local community takes its illegitimate power and thieves what others create, whether it is the market or the state.

Recognizing this pattern means that federal funding should not under any circumstances coddle local arrangements. If, for example, California cannot spend money cost-effectively because it is constrained by referendum, federal funding can be used to bypass this system, but never work under its rules. If the local business community is traumatized by cut-and-cover construction in the distant past, the feds should insist that subway money that they give will be used for cut-and-cover instead of mined stations.

The typical surplus extraction pattern concerns car dominance. State DOTs are in effect highway departments; transit planning is siloed, usually at separate agencies. They use their power to demand the diversion of transit money to roads. For example, in Tampa, a plan to increase bus service led to a DOT demand to pave the routes with concrete lanes at transit agency expense (with federal or state transit funding). The list of BRT projects that were just highway widenings is regrettably too long. The feds should actively demand to keep transit funding for transit, and not roads, social services, policing, or other priorities.

In particular, the feds should give money for some bus improvements, but demand that agencies prioritize the bus over the car. No bus lanes? No signal priority? No money. Similarly, they should demand they engage in internal efficiency measures like stop consolidation and all-door boarding with proof of payment ticket collection, which a larger and more expert FTA can give technical assistance for.

It may also be prudent to give transitional resources, up to a certain point. Funding private-sector retraining for workers displaced by automation is good, and in some limited cases public-sector retraining, as long as it doesn’t turn into workfare (there is no way for the subway in New York to absorb redundant conductors or surplus maintenance staff). If moderate amounts of capital funding are required for bus improvements, such as traffic signal upgrades to have active control and conditional TSP, then they are good investments as well.

Conclusion

Funding public transportation is useful, provided there is enough of a connection between the source of funds and the management thereof that the money is not wasted. A larger and more technocratic federal government is an ideal organ for this, with enough planning power to propose bus network redesigns, rail planning, integrated fare systems, and intermodal coordination. It can and should have technical priorities – shelter is far and away the lowest-hanging fruit for American bus systems – and state them clearly rather than hiding behind bureaucratic phrases (again, “transit asset management” is a real phrase).

It’s fundamentally an investment rather than consumption. And as with all investments, it’s important to ensure one invests in the right thing and the right people. A local transit agency with a track record of successful projects, short lead times from planning to completion, technical orientation, and the ability to say no to highway departments and other organs that extract surplus is a good investment. One that instead genuflects before antisocial groups that launch nuisance lawsuits is not so good an investment, and funding for such an agency should be contingent on improvement in governance of the kind that will make local notables angry.

43 comments

  1. Benjamin Turon

    I have long thought that funding properly the creation of bus transit stops with shelters, good signage, connecting sidewalks and crosswalks would go a long way to making transit a more convenient and attractive in suburban America were I live. Here in Saratoga County I see bus passengers walking on narrow highway shoulders, waiting in the rain at stops marked by little signs on telephone poles. The end points of the local trunk bus line — which now runs so regularly that I see the blue CDTA buses all the time in my daily life — have good walkable, dense, mixed-use urban centers (Saratoga Springs/Ballston Spa, Scotia/Schenectady) but some decent sidewalks and transit-oriented multi-family housing in-between (apartments are being built up along the state highway of the interurban bus route) could really help make Saratoga County a more affordable and sustainable place to live and work.

    • Henry Miller

      Bus shelters and the like should only be put in when you have either a large number of riders at the stop, or frequent service. If the bus comes every 30 minutes (or worse) then you need to fix that problem, otherwise the shelter is just a reminder to every tax payer of how much their tax dollars are wasted on transit that nobody uses.

      There are a few stops (near communities of the disabled) that get a lot of riders despite poor service, but for the most part if you can’t run at least 15 minute service you shouldn’t put in a shelter as your service is too bad to attract anyone with upgraded stops.

      • Eric2

        Waiting for a bus in the cold or heat or rain is miserable, and a shelter does a lot to mitigate that misery. That’s worth doing even if it doesn’t add new riders.

    • adirondacker12800

      I freely and openly admit that I’m rarely in downtown Saratoga Springs during commute hour. There is no rush hour. I also admit that I sneak up on things, avoiding Broadway, unless it’s on Broadway. Just because once an hour bus routes converge on Broadway doesn’t mean people with a car will use them. Do any of these buses have more than a passenger or two on them?
      ….. I am not going to drive to a bus stop in Wilton, on Route 50, to catch a bus into Saratoga Springs. And then have to cross, eight lanes? of Route 50 on my return trip.
      People tell me “I don’t go downtown in Saratoga Springs, it’s hard to park and and the parking is too far away” and then tell me how they went to Walmart. The busier part of Downtown Saratoga Springs, 3 or 4 blocks on either side of Church, is that less walking than from the middle of Walmart’s parking lot to the back of the store? Or any of the other big box stores in Wilton? One of the other reasons I wouldn’t take a bus is because they think it’s hard to park in Saratoga Springs and I don’t have any significant problem, even during the racing season. They have their perceptions, I have mine, you have yours and people with cars ain’t getting on a bus. Not in Saratoga County.

      • Benjamin Turon

        I drive Route 50 often between Ballston Spa and Schenectady, there are always people waiting for the CDTA 450 bus, which I frequently pass on the highway, it runs twice hourly, but not at 30 min intervals. Between Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs there are additional local buses. You don’t need a shelter at other stops, but there are several places I always see people waiting that deserve a shelter.

        • adirondacker12800

          It would be nice to have shelters for the people who can’t drive for one reason or another For the bus that you pass. Because you aren’t on it. No amount of lavish accommodations are going to get car owners on a bus in Saratoga County because they can drive there faster and there is parking.

  2. DGL

    If funds were used to build bus lanes, or make modest investments in infrastructure geared towards operating existing service more efficiently (and only build full rapid transit or rail for big TOD, underserved corridors in megacities, and needed future capacity), then it would free up service dollars and the “operations funding” would materialize. Somehow this is just too damn hard, apparently, and we would rather build new infrastructure with only a vague idea of what type of service makes sense, poor coordination with “land use” and wait decades to build subways under the same half a dozen streets that should have had service a century ago.

    Sometimes being boring is fine, and probably better than what we have now.

  3. Stephen Bauman

    For example, in Tampa, a plan to increase bus service led to a DOT demand to pave the routes with concrete lanes at transit agency expense (with federal or state transit funding).

    Diesel engine exhaust distillates dissolve asphalt. The distillate is separated from the exhaust gases and drips onto the pavement. This improves the exhaust emissions but is hell on the pavement. It’s the reason that bus stops in NYC are concrete oases within asphalt streets.

    Somebody ultimately has to pay for road maintenance or its lack. There are more incremental costs associated with bus operation than fleet maintenance. Perhaps, if right-of-way maintenance were included, bus operators would convert to electric buses more quickly.

    • Paul

      Actually, the main reason for concrete bus pads is that asphalt tends to deform (ruts and ripples) when you have a lot of heavy vehicles braking at the exact same location. Concrete pads at stops make sense, but asking the transit agency to pave entire bus routes with concrete does not. Transit should not pay for roads that are used by all vehicles. That’s the same logic that bankrupted the streetcar companies in the ’50s.

    • Alon Levy

      I think it’s more about axle loads and road wear? But also, trucks exist; that’s pure money-grabbing by DOT, figuring it can get FTA money for a road project.

      • Max Wyss

        Correct.

        Buses have a very high axle load, particularly when fully loaded. Also, at stops, they always run in the same path, which causes those ruts and ripples to appear. (FWIW, they can also appear on “normal” highways when trucks always run in the same tracks).

        A concrete roadbed is a necessity for dense BRT trunk operation. That’s also the reason why BRT done right does not cost that much less than light rail infrastructure.

    • Sassy

      Cars, and particularly trucks, should be charged for their share of road maintenance as well.

      Charging for road maintenance would probably kill articulated buses though, since those really destroy roads that aren’t specifically built for them.

      • Max Wyss

        Wrong. The axle load of a standard bus can be higher than of an articulated one. And it is the axle load (actually the wheel load) which inflicts damage to the road.

        Absolute weight and weight per length unit matter on bridges. And the second number is worse with buses/coaches of standard length and a twin axle at the rear. “Worst” in this respect are doubledeckers.

        • Sassy

          Everything I’ve read suggest that axle loads for articulated buses are significantly worse than regular buses. I’m open to more up to date information, but someone somewhere came up with typical 1.85 ESAL for regular buses and typical 5.11 ESAL for articulated, which seem to be widely accepted.

          • Max Wyss

            Your information are IMHO incorrect. https://www.gesetze.ch/sr/741.11/741.11_013.htm is the Swiss law for size and weight of road vehicles. It states that the maximum axle load is 10 t. It also states that the maximum weight of an articulated bus is 28 t. Therefore it is not possible to have higher axle loads than standard buses.

    • PS

      Modern transit busses are generally overweight – even diesel only busses, but the hybrids and electrics are even worse, especially the articulated ones. My home state has higher axle weight limits for transit busses than for other commercial vehicles. Even so, they generally run over their limit. Interestingly, motor coaches (such as Greyhound) are held to the same limits as other commercial vehicles.

      As of a few years ago, California had to eliminate weight limits entirely for transit busses, because CHP started pulling over some of them, weighing them on portable scales and ticketing them. There was a lot of talk about what limits were appropriate for transit busses at that time – I haven’t checked back in to see if anything came of that, or if they are still entirely outside the law.

      Since pavement damage is roughly proportional to the fourth power of axle weight, overweight vehicles are very disproportionately the cause of maintenance costs. Damage to asphalt pavement is also a function of speed, with slow speed (or stopped) vehicles doing much more damage than high speed vehicles (asphalt binder is essentially a very thick liquid). Concrete pavement is pretty insensitive to loading rate (i.e. vehicle speed), which is the real reason that bus pads and lanes are preferentially built out of concrete.

      I haven’t heard about “diesel engine exhaust distillates” before as a cause of pavement damage, and am pretty sure that’s bogus. In areas with stopped vehicles – especially where old clunkers park, like auto parts stores, but also at stop lights – you do see damage from dissolved asphalt . Usually engine oil drippings from poorly maintained vehicles, or vehicles with old “road draft” crankcase ventilation (i.e. prior to PCV)

      • adirondacker12800

        Whoever came up with this fantasy is seeing air conditioning system condensate?
        The bus fans take pictures of the destination sign. I can’t any good ones of the back of a bus. I hadn’t thought of this, buses and trucks exhaust at the roof. Anything that is that is condensing is going to dribble back down to the hotter parts and evaporate. By then the cold parts are warmer and stuff stops condensing.

        • Sassy

          At least some buses exhaust near the ground and not at the roof. I have vivid memories of huddling around the exhaust of the bus in college. Most drivers wouldn’t let passengers on until service officially started, but would sit in the bus idling at the terminal to keep themselves warm, probably laughing maniacally at the hapless kids breathing in exhaust fumes to avoid freezing to death.

      • Max Wyss

        Note that speed also has an effect (not as much as the static axle load, agreed). Transit buses are usually running at slower speed.

        A concrete road surface at stops is an adequate approach (because at stops, the bus is always in the same track).

  4. Reedman Bassoon

    The problem with using civil servants as engineers is that they are employed as “once hired, never fired”. As has been pointed out multiple times, when the government gives a commitment, “prudent” financial management is gone. It is the same problem as the one listed as government commitment to a project — once there is public commitment, money is no object. In California, CalTrans engineers are contractually given the right-of-first-refusal for any work, even if an outside group is less expensive or more experienced.

      • Tiercelet

        I think you’re right that having permanent in-house staff with job security and a mandate to look for work (rather than get downsized if there isn’t any) is the right thing to do. But I do want to point out that there’s a natural tension here between having hard-to-fire in-house expertise, and the very convincing points you make elsewhere about getting rid of hard-to-fire dead weight from incompetent (admin & planning) staff.

        Do you have any plans to do a piece on how to resolve that tension? Of course we want to keep the good ones and fire the bad ones, but how (systemically) would a well-designed civil service police itself without falling victim to the same inward-focused bias & incompetence-complacency that captures our current agencies?

          • Tom M

            My flippant response would be incentives matter…always the issue when you move from the private profit orientation to somehow maximizing the public benefit and minimizing the unexpected downside. Also of course useful transparency – is there a correlation between this and low construction costs?.

  5. adirondacker12800

    technocratic federal government

    We tried that in the 50s and 60s and it didn’t work out.

    early permanent hires are likely to have foreign rather than domestic experience

    The usual suspects, for rolling stock, have North American supply chains and assembly plants. Them?

    The Romans figured out how to build roads. You dig a hole, fill it with rocks and put smooth ones on top. We figured out in the 19th century how to make the top smooth, cheaper. Railroads are Roman roads with rails on top instead of something smooth. We do both all the time. Them?

    The customer service experience?

    SEPTA just build a nice station, from the looks of it on WIkipedia, in Levittown, for 37 million, that?

    • Alon Levy

      In the 1950s-60s, the federal government was politically appointing Harvard legacies and called them The Best and the Brightest. It wasn’t technocratic even in the contemporary sense developed in other democracies.

      And no, the usual suspects for rolling stock don’t have a North American supply chain, except for equipment that’s 30 years out of date at this point.

      • adirondacker12800

        There aren’t enough Ivy legacies much less Harvard legacies to fill the Department of Transportation in 50 states. Though back then it was the Department of Roads. You do understand the Federal government creates a bunch of standards that more or less say “Here’s what the New Jersey Turnpike looks like, build those” and the states do it. With state university graduates. They get together with the state university graduates in the Housing Bureau, who also saw GM’s Futurama at the ’39 World’s Fair and as long as they are tearing down slums, build some towers in a park. The Secretary of Transportation is not Dagny Taggart, neither is the state official who was appointed by the Governor and they have little if anything do with getting a two-for-one by tearing down slums to build highways and towers in the park. Poor people will be in Nash Ramblers and rich people will be in Packards or Hudsons. They all go to ’64 World’s Fair, see the new version of Futurama at the GM pavillion and the mock up of a fusion power plant at the GE pavillion. By that time they have all seen one of those weird little cars from Germany that looks like a beetle. The cheap electricity and almost free hydrogen is going to solve all the problems those bohemians from places like NYU and Lady Bird Johnson are grumbling about. Jackie Kennedy gets into the act when they propose tearing down Grand Central to build anonymous office towers and relegate the commuters to a big underground bus terminal that has trains instead of buses, up on 48th. She was living in Manhattan during the killer smog.
        It’s not 1980 anymore. The appropriate kind of engineers in Japan, Germany, France or Spain get together and send CAD files electronically to the to the appropriate parts plant in Asia, Europe or North America. They all make the same parts and ship to them the nearby – on the same continent – sub assembly plant. The sub assembly plants get parts from all over the world, because some of the parts can only be sourced in Southeast Asia. Like the microcontrollers in everything from toasters to railroad locomotives and multiple units. The sub assembly plants then send sub assemblies to the final assembly plant. They do that with 20 dollar toasters, bigger appliances, cars and things like railroad locomotives or multiple units. Even airplanes because jet engines have very few sources. Or the commodity grade microcontroller that makes the overhead light come on when you press a button. It’s not 1980 anymore.

    • Reedman Bassoon

      FYI,
      In London right now is a new play by David Hare called STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY starring Ralph Fiennes. It is about the rise and fall of Robert Moses.

    • Reedman Bassoon

      Speaking of London —
      the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail, $20 billion) opens on May 24, before the Platinum Jubilee.

  6. Matthew

    This is all wonderful but in the real world decisions are made for political reasons, not by logic or technical merit.

    The big unsolved question is how to play politics in such a way that it produces technically sound, high value, low cost decisions. Building a constituency of people who expect and demand these outcomes.

    Railing against community groups or whatever doesn’t help get their votes. As long as decision makers need votes, they’re going to take actions to get votes, no matter how terrible that might be.

    I would be most interested in finding answers to these challenges that realistically take into account politics.

    • Alon Levy

      But community groups don’t actually supply votes. Remember, very few people in modern urban society orient their lives around a small community, and political moves that disempower such communities tend to be big crowd pleasers (look at e.g. the housing opinions of who San Franciscans vote for at citywide scale, in elections that turn on that).

      • Matthew Hutton

        The people who volunteer for the Labour Party or the Democratic Party or whatever to do leafleting and canvassing absolutely are mates with the people in the community groups you are talking about – and often it’s the same people.

        • Alon Levy

          Yes, but canvassing isn’t particularly effective. In the US it’s done by volunteers, but managing them is so labor-intensive that it costs more relative to its effect on voter behavior than TV ads, by multiple orders of magnitude. (That’s David Shor’s central insight, and not the bits about rhetoric.)

          • Matthew Hutton

            Is David Shor right?

            I’m not sure the Democratic Party did particularly well in the 2020 election.

            Certainly the UK Labour Party’s Twitter game looks much stronger than the Democratic Party’s frankly. And Labour is doing a lot of repetition and simple messages that are good approaches according to the business world, whereas the Democratic Party doesn’t do that.

          • Alon Levy

            I think he is? But also, he’s not involved in the party – he was only directly involved in the 2012 campaign and his role was to do data analysis, I don’t know if he had the power to say “run ads, ignore field.”

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s because the majority of us live in places with half acre zoning and canvassing door-to-door takes forever.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Alon you’re a data person! Certainly over the long term canvassing works and increases vote share substantially.

            In Oxford East Labour has done deep canvassing for 50+ years and there’s a long history of canvassing and campaigning in Exeter too. Both of those seats are safe Labour seats whereas other similar sized cities across the Thames Valley and South West are much more marginal or are Conservative held.

            Regardless the fact that the community groups have a fair amount of crossover means that if you can begin to work with them you can get all of the community groups in an area to begin to support your goals. Don’t forget that there are community groups supporting the poor or refugees who will probably support more housing for example.

            This is why I’ve said before that there should be money for local community groups as part of big projects. Making every village hall in Buckinghamshire a Passivhaus and adding a heat pump/rooftop solar and fixing any maintenance issues would allow them to be rented by community groups more cheaply which would be extremely popular with them and therefore with some of the most influential people in a given community.

      • Matthew

        Community groups was just one example. Add up a bunch of small groups, sooner or later you have a big deal. Especially at the local level where elections are decided by matters of hundreds of votes or less. Sure, that’s why cost-saving measures may have to come from higher levels of governance. But that certainly doesn’t render elected officials at higher levels immune from such pressures. For one thing they tend to prefer to try and help their fellow partisans at lower levels. For another, there are larger pressure groups more sophisticated than a local community group may be, who operate at the higher level (many of them do good things too, don’t forget). And if you want to turn out your voters in large numbers across many regions, it’s relatively ‘cheap’ to spend or promise to spend money on lots of little things, something important for each area, which overall adds up. It’s a much harder to sell the message ‘please come out to vote for candidate X who is going to cut funding to / jobs for your region but hey it makes the government much more efficient’. Austerity measures tend to get sold as ‘hurting somebody else’, regardless of their true effects.

        There isn’t enough of a constituency for ‘technically sound decision-making’ to sustainably win elections at any level that I can see, by itself. Transport nerds are not enough. Sure, there are plenty of people who say they want to see non-corrupt and overall good government. But it is very easy to mislead people about what that is, exactly, and such tactics are widespread.

        Furthermore, if some pressure groups manage to persuade a political party to adopt their stance then that can further be transmitted to a large proportion of the population who simply vote with ‘their party’ whatever that is. A ‘rally round the flag’ effect. This is quite common in the UK from what I have observed (and a few other commenters have noted). Election-time turns into ‘silly season’ and all sorts of nonsense gets aired, the substance doesn’t matter, only whether they’re on ‘your side’ or not.

        Numbers and arguments don’t convince (most) people to vote for you or your ideas. That isn’t how human beings work. People are tribal and generally vote with the side that most appeals to their identity or culture, to their feelings and prejudices. This is especially exacerbated by first-past-the-post voting systems with winner-take-all outcomes.

        It could be said that this means people are irrational, and from a certain standpoint it is true they are irrational by not considering all benefits and costs of decisions in an impartial manner. However, from a human perspective they are perfectly rational: after all, who has time for all this weighing and consideration of such difficult and highly technical topics about which even the experts are uncertain and for which the underlying information might be faulty? Just vote for whoever you trust the most, or who is recommended by the people you trust; there are so many other things that the average person has to deal with. It is a real time- and headache-saver just to offload your thinking to something like your party, or alternatively perhaps to the consensus of your family/social group. It takes a lot of work to resist peer pressure; some people relish it, many others don’t.

        I am not happy about the way things are but it is what it is and any real attempt to change the system has to grapple with it. It is all the more reason to cherish places where there has been success at aligning politics and technical merit, and to understand how that was accomplished and is currently maintained. Or perhaps it is just luck?

  7. Nathanael

    “It’s especially important to retain such planning capacity within the federal government. A national intercity rail plan should not require the use of outside consultants, and the federal government should have the ability to act as consultant to small cities. This entails a large permanent civil service, chosen on the basis of expertise (and the early permanent hires are likely to have foreign rather than domestic experience) and not politics, and yet the cost of such a planning department is around 2 orders of magnitude less than current subsidies to transit operations in the United States. Work smart, not hard.”

    Because we have a political party (the Republican terrorists) intent on sabtoaging the federal government — any bureaucracy which works, they attempt to corrupt it into incompetent patronage and graft — I don’t think this is going to be practical in the near future. However, we could probably do it at the state level in California or New York, and have the state civil service act as consultants even to out-of-state entities.

    • Eric2

      Ironically, cities in Republican-dominated states often seem more functional than Democratic-dominated cities in Democratic-dominated states like SF and NYC.

      • Tiercelet

        This would be an interesting observation to unpack a bit more. Like, how do we compare Atlanta or Houston to NY or SF? Do residents have comparable demands for the local government? Are there different challenges for NYC’s 10x-greater population density, or SF’s 4x-more-constricted land area, compared with Houston? Does being a blue city in a red state tend to focus the mind admirably? How does the role of the absentee population & burgeoning landlord class in the two global-prestige cities (NYC, SF) compare to that in more sprawling red-state cities? etc.

        I’m not sure whether I agree or disagree with your impression; just wondering what happens if it’s made more precise & anticipating some of the possible explanations.

Leave a Reply to Matthew Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.