How Comparisons are Judged

I’m about to complete the report for the Transit Costs Project about Sweden. For the most part, Sweden is a good comparison case: its construction costs for public transport are fairly low, as are those of the rest of Scandinavia, and the projects being built are sound. And yet, the Nordic countries and higher-cost countries in the rest of Northern Europe, that is Germany and the Netherlands, share a common prejudice against Southern Europe, which in the last decade or so has been the world leader in cost-effective infrastructure. (Turkey is very cheap as well but in many ways resembles Southern Europe, complete with having imported Italian expertise early on.)

This is not usually an overt prejudice. Only one person who I’ve talked to openly discounted the idea that Italy could be good at this, and they are not Nordic. But I’ve been reading a lot of material out of Nordic countries discussing future strategy, and it engages in extensive international comparisons but only within Northern Europe, including high-cost Britain, ignoring Southern Europe. The idea that Italians can be associated with good engineering is too alien to Northern Europeans.

The best way to illustrate it is with a toy model, about the concept of livable cities.

Livable cities

Consider the following list of the world’s most livable cities:

  1. Vienna
  2. Stockholm
  3. Auckland
  4. Zurich
  5. Amsterdam
  6. Melbourne
  7. Geneva
  8. Copenhagen
  9. Munich
  10. Vancouver

The list, to be clear, is completely made up. These are roughly the cities I would expect to see on such a list from half-remembering Monocle’s actual lists and some of the discourse that they generate: they should be Northern European cities or cities of the peripheral (non-US/UK) Anglosphere, and not too big (Berlin might raise eyebrows). These are the cities that urbanist discourse associates with livability.

The thing is, prejudices like “Northern Europe is just more livable” can tolerate a moderate level of heresy. If I made the above list, but put Taipei at a high place shifting all others down and bumping Vancouver, explaining this on grounds like Taipei’s housing affordability, strong mass transit system, and low corona rates (Taiwan spent most of the last two years as a corona fortress, though it’s cracked this month), it could be believed. In effect, Taipei’s status as a hidden gem could be legitimized by its inclusion on a list alongside expected candidates like Vienna and Stockholm.

But if instead the list opened with Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung, and Tainan, it would raise eyebrows. This isn’t even because of any real criteria, though they exist (Taiwan’s secondary cities are motorcycle- and auto-oriented, with weak metro systems). It just makes the list too Taiwanese, which is not what one expects from such a list. Ditto if the secondary Taiwanese cities were bumped for other rich Asian cities like Singapore or Seoul; Singapore is firmly in the one-heresy status – it can make such a list if every other city on the list is as expected – but people have certain prejudices of how it operates and certain words they associate with it, some right and some laughably wrong, and “livable” is not among them.

The implication for infrastructure

A single number is more objective than a multi-factor concept like livability. In the case of infrastructure, this is cost per kilometer for subways, and it’s possible to establish that the lowest-cost places for this are Southern Europe (including Turkey), South Korea, and Switzerland. The Nordic countries used to be as cheap but with last decade’s cost overruns are somewhat more expensive to dig in, though still cheaper than anywhere else in the world; Latin America runs the gamut, but some parts of it, like Chile, are Sweden-cheap.

Per the one-heresy rule, the low costs of Spain are decently acknowledged. Bent Flyvbjerg even summarized the planning style of Madrid as an exemplar of low costs recently – and he normally studies cost overruns and planning failures, not recipes for success. But it goes deeper than just this, in a number of ways.

  1. While Madrid most likely has the world’s lowest urban subway costs, the rest of Southern Europe achieves comparable results and so does South Korea. So it’s important to look at shared features of those places and learn, rather than just treat Spain as an odd case out while sticking with Northern European paradigms.
  2. Like Italy, Spain has not undergone the creeping privatization of state planning so typical in the UK and, through British soft power, other parts of Northern Europe. Design is done by in-house engineers; there’s extensive public-sector innovation, rather than an attempt to activate private-sector innovation in construction.
  3. Southern European planning isn’t just cheap, but also good. Metro Milano says that M5 carries 176,000 passengers per day, for a cost of 1.35b€ across both phases; in today’s money it’s around $13,000 per rider, which is fairly low and within the Nordic range. Italian driverless metros push the envelope on throughput measured in peak trains per hour, and should be considered at the frontier of the technology alongside Paris. Milan, Barcelona, and Madrid have all been fairly good at installing barrier-free access to stations, roughly on a par with Berlin; Madrid is planning to go 100% accessible by 2028.
  4. As a corollary of point #3, there are substantial similarities between Southern and Northern Europe. In particular, both were ravaged by austerity after the financial crisis; Northern Europe quickly recovered economically, but in both, infrastructure investment is lagging. In general, if you keep finding $10,000/rider and $15,000/rider subways to build, you should be spending more money on more subway lines. Turkey is the odd one out in that it builds aggressively, but on other infrastructure matters it should be viewed as part of the European umbrella.
  5. Italian corruption levels in infrastructure are very low, and from a greater distance this also appears true of Spain. Italy’s governance problems are elsewhere – the institutional problems with tax avoidance drag down the private sector, which has too many family-scale businesses that can’t grow and too few large corporations, and not the public sector.

I’m not going to make a list of the cities with the best urban rail networks in the world, even in jest; people might take this list as authoritative in ways they wouldn’t take a list I made up about livability. But in the same way that there are prejudices that militate in favor of associating livability with Northern Europe and the peripheral Anglosphere, there are prejudices that militate in favor of associating good public transport with Northern and Central Europe and the megacities of rich Asia. All of those places indeed have excellent public transportation, but this is equally true of the largest Southern European cities; Istanbul is lagging but it’s implementing two large metro networks, one for Europe and one for Asia, and already has Marmaray connecting them under the Bosporus.

And what’s more, just as Southern Europe has things to learn from Northern Europe, Northern Europe has things to learn from the South. But it doesn’t come naturally to Germans or Nordics. It’s expected that every list of the best places in Europe on every metric should show a north-south gradient, with France anywhere in between. If something shows the opposite, it must in this schema be unimportant, or even fraudulent. Northerners know that Southerners are lazy and corrupt – when they vacation in Alicante they don’t see anyone work outside the hospitality industry, so they come away with the conclusion that there is no high-skill professional work in the entire country.

But at a time when Germany is building necessary green infrastructure at glacial rates and France and Scandinavia have seen real costs go up maybe 50% in 20 years, it’s necessary to look beyond the prejudice. Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Istanbul, Lisbon, and most likely also Athens have to be treated as part of the European core when it comes to urban rail infrastructure, with as much to teach Stockholm as the reverse and more to teach Berlin than the reverse.


  1. Phake Nick

    – Is economic differences between northern and southern europe a factor behind southern europe having lower cost?
    – Somehow people in Taiwan doesn’t seems to accept that Taiwanese property price is considered low.

    • Alon Levy

      No, the surplus extraction that characterizes Germany is absent in Southern Europe thanks to stronger civil service and weaker empowerment of NIMBY groups.

    • Jason

      Taipei property price is actually very high. Apartments vary from $500k ~ $1M NTD/ping, which roughly corresponds to about $500 ~ $1000 USD / ft^2, or $5000 ~ $10000 / m^2. If you adjust for PPP, it becomes as expensive as San Francisco.

  2. BindingExport

    One thing the Nordics shine is Tramway construction costs – Especially Tampere with just 300 million euros (34 million under budget) for a complete system (including rolling stock, depot, etc). At €18.75 million per km it beats everything i have seen in Southern Europe in a comparable setting so far – Bologna’s Green Line did cost €34 million per km for comparison.

  3. Ernest Tufft

    I think Barcelona is one of the most liveable cities in Europe. It has a great transit system

  4. Patrick Jensen

    The reputation of Italian engineering in particular suffers from a number of poor implementations in the Nordic countries that dovetail with existing prejudices.

    The Finnish experiment of coupling Pendolino EMU:s together at a junction station worked about as well as coupling any two trains on the fly does anywhere. Add to this that the tilt function rarely works and it reinforced the idea of unreliable Italian engineering. Same goes for the Danish IC4/2 fiasco.

    Of course a lot of German stuff fails to work too, but that isn’t attributed to them being German.

    • Oreg

      Your last sentence is making an excellent point. It’s related to confirmation bias, I guess.

      To be fair, the trains with the nicest passenger experience I know are German (ICE) and Swiss (anything Stadler, RABe 501 / Giruno in particular). But the Italian ETR 500 “Frecciarossa” (AnsaldoBreda) is also in that class.

      The Cisalpino Pendolinos (ETR 480, 600 by Fiat/Alstom Ferroviaria) were always crap – extremely unreliable, bad interior. in the meantime, however, they have been matched by Bombardier’s TWINDEXX Express (SBB RABDe 502 / FV Dosto, a Swiss/German project) – initial reliability problems, cheap interior and the worst tilting system ever, making passengers and staff extremely uncomfortable.

  5. Justin L

    I think you make a lot of good points here. We all put too much stock in broad comparisons, which often have metrics which are unclear or unfair, for example college rankings.

    The key takeaway is that there are lessons to be learned from any country, whether it is what to do, or what not to do. For example, Germany and Switzerland show effective ways to design different tiers of urban rail transit, to effectively serve different types and distances of trips. However Southern Europe has more effective implementation of urban rail transit projects, with better cost control, allowing for more rapid progress and expansion. America on the other hand displays both poor design and poor implementation. All these countries provide learning opportunities in their own way. Unfortunately the impacts of prejudice often prevents even examining the potential learning opportunities presented by other nations.

    • rylandlu

      was on a livestream with reece martin and jonathan english earlier this evening. jonathan english noted that american freight railroads move more goods than their european counterparts due to bigger trains and more advanced technology in areas like coupling.

      I. e., yes even america has something to teach wrt rail

  6. LeeEsq

    Livable is a term that is vague for voidness because it means too many things to too many people. One reason why I’m guessing Northern European cities get voted as most livable over Asian cities besides racism is that North European cities are going to be more aesthetically pleasing to the eye for the people that read these articles because of their architecture and generally less jumbled appearance.

  7. fgsjr2015

    It’s no longer prudent to have all or even most infrastructure reliant on such traditional sources of power, regardless of — or, maybe, due to — collective humankind’s vulnerable over-reliance on planet-warming fossil fuels.

    But if the universal availability of a renewable-energy alternative, such as mass solar-energy harvestation, would come at the expense of the traditional ‘energy’ production companies’ large profits, one can expect obstacles, including the political and regulatory sort. That applies here in the West as well as Asia.

    If something notably conflicts with long-held and deeply entrenched corporate interests, even very progressive motions are greatly resisted, often enough successfully. And, of course, there will be those who will rebut the renewable-energy type/concept altogether, perhaps solely on the illogic that if it was possible, it would have been patented already and made a few people very wealthy.

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