On the 27th, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announced the creation of a new program called Momentum, to export what he calls best practices around the world. Buttigieg said he invites global civil society to engage with USDOT, linking to the Momentum website – not so that the US can learn from the rest of the world, but so that the rest of the world can learn from the United States on matters of transportation and climate change.
It’s remarkable that the areas covered by Momentum are consistently ones on which the only thing to learn from the United States is what not to do. There are seven target areas: transport infrastructure projects, climate change mitigation, transport safety, regional corridors, logistics supply chains, emerging tech (e.g. smart cities), good regulatory practices.
That the US has the world’s worst urban rail construction costs is just the beginning. Climate change, so central to this plan, is another example of American failure; Wikipedia’s list has the US near the top in CO2 emissions per capita, and the US is lagging in not just decarbonizing transport, which the entire developed world is failing at, but also in installing renewable energy (or nuclear power). Transport safety is almost always better in rich countries than in poor ones, but in 2018 the US had the highest per capita car accident death rate in the developed world, and rates rose during corona (in Germany, they fell). The supply chain issues in the US are often localized to the one country – the baby formula shortage is worse than in Europe. Good regulatory practices are to be learned from countries with strong apolitical civil service apparatuses, and not from the US, with its grabbing-hand regulators and government by lawsuit.
There is approximately one thing the US has to teach other countries, but it’s nowhere within USDOT’s portfolio: people who are familiar with the history of infrastructure construction in the early 20th century, when it was labor-intensive because everything was labor-intensive then by today’s standards, should teach these methods to countries with similar GDP per capita to Gilded Age and Progressive Era America, like India or Nigeria, so that they can use their advantage in low-cost labor and avoid importing expensive machinery or use techniques that only make sense with modern first-world wages.
However, exporting that history requires taking the exact opposite approach of Momentum. Momentum tells other places “you can be like the US!”. The historical approach tells them “your GDP per capita is $5,000, get over your cultural cringe and your tendency toward isomorphic mimicry and think how to get from $5,000 to $20,000.” As it is, any country that participates in the Momentum program is likely to be importing bad practices, including a politicized civil service, anti-housing NIMBYism, slow government that is supposed to protect civil rights and environmental standards but doesn’t, and a can’t-do attitude.
I don’t know where the idea for such a stupid scheme came. I know USDOT was interested in dialog with other countries to learn best practices, but I don’t know how far up that idea went. Not knowing Washingtonian well, I can’t tell from Buttigieg’s language whether his junket trip to Germany impressed him with how public transport here is run. But somewhere in that game of telephone, the notion that the US should learn from other countries turned into that the US should teach other countries, and that’s just wrong.
I’ve heard the Momentum program analogized to having Saudi Arabia export its human rights practices. And this analogy, unfortunately, goes further than intended. It’s not just that Saudi Arabia is a notorious human rights abuser and the US is (among people with comparative knowledge) notorious for the poor state of its transport infrastructure. It’s that Saudi Arabia does in fact export its human rights practices – dictators all over the world are impressed by Mohammed bin Salman and wish they had the ability to murder international journalists with a US green card. Countries with wealth or cultural cachet have soft power like this.
And unfortunately, this is not just hypothetical when it comes to infrastructure. A lot of public transit construction badness originates in the United Kingdom, where the privatization of the state in the late 20th century exerts considerable soft power anywhere that interacts with the London elite. The peripheral Anglosphere learned those practices and has subsequently seen its construction costs explode: Canada, Singapore, and Hong Kong all built subways at reasonable costs until, depending on the country, 15-25 years ago, and in Canada the explosion can be traced to the adoption of bad practices like design-build contracts and poor oversight of consultants. The Nordic countries and France are British-curious as well – the bibliography of the Stockholm cost report, to appear very soon, is replete with papers discussing how Sweden should privatize infrastructure construction and maintenance on the British model, written by the Swedish civil service or by academics who are contracted to do research for it, none questioning whether such privatization is wise.
The US has fortunately not been able to export its own variety of dysfunction so far, which differs in some key ways from the British dysfunction that consultants so often recommend. This is because Americans have been insular in both directions so far; after the failure of programs in the 1960s to create heaven on Earth (and defeat communism) within the span of one presidential administration, the US reduced its global presence, and now it’s much more likely that a poor country seeking infrastructure advice will buy Japanese or Chinese dysfunction (and almost never the positive things in those countries’ infrastructure – Chinese investments in African railways build palatial stations outside city centers, but not actual high-speed rail).
Unfortunately, Momentum seems set up to export this dysfunction after decades of neglect. And even more unfortunately, American dysfunction is worse than British dysfunction and much worse than Japanese or Chinese dysfunction. Japan builds subways domestically for maybe $400 million per km – more in Central Tokyo, less in very suburban areas; Japanese-financed projects elsewhere in Asia, such as the Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh, and Dhaka Metros, are largely elevated, but correcting for that, they’re more expensive, and the mostly-but-not-wholly-underground Dhaka MRT manages to get up to $600 million per km even without such correction. But Los Angeles, San Jose, and Seattle are all worse than this, and New York is worse than all three with its $2 billion/km projects. Far from acknowledging that these are all failures, the Biden administration named San Jose’s Nuria Fernandez as the head of the Federal Transit Administration, and in her capacity as FTA head, Fernandez gave a keynote talk at Eno’s symposium on construction costs that displayed total indifference to the problem and consisted of a litany of excuses.
I hope that nobody should make the mistake of participating in the Momentum program. USDOT should take it down and replace its pretense of teaching the world with the humility of learning from it. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law touted by Buttigieg in the video spends tens of billions on urban mass transit and tens more on intercity rail. Done right – that is, done not in the American way – it can create amazing things for American transportation and set up a success that will leave Americans wanting more and then going ahead and building more. But the US needs to lower its head and learn from places that build urban rail for $150 million/km instead of stepping on a soapbox and towering over everyone else.