Advocates for mass transit often have to confront the issue of competing priorities for investment. These include some long-term tensions: maintenance versus expansion, bus versus rail, tram versus subway and commuter rail, high-speed rail versus upgraded legacy rail, electronics versus concrete. In some cases, they genuinely compete in the sense that building one side of the debate makes the other side weaker. But in others, they don’t, and instead they reinforce each other: once one investment is done, the one that is said to compete with it becomes stronger through network effects.
Urban rail capacity
Capacity is an example of when priorities genuinely compete. If your trains are at capacity, then different ways to relieve crowding are in competition: once the worst crowding is relieved, capacity is no longer a pressing concern.
This competition can include different relief lines. Big cities often have different lines that can be used to provide service to a particular area, and smaller ones that have to build a new line can have different plausible alignments for it. If one line is built or extended, the case for parallel ones weakens; only the strongest travel markets can justify multiple parallel lines.
But it can also include the conflict between building relief lines and providing extra capacity by other means, such as better signaling. The combination of conventional fixed block signaling and conventional operations is capable of moving maybe 24 trains per hour at the peak, and some systems struggle even with less – Berlin moves 18 trains per hour on the Stadtbahn, and has to turn additional peak trains at Ostbahnhof and make passengers going toward city center transfer. Even more modern signals struggle in combination with too complex branching, as in New York and some London lines, capping throughput at the same 24 trains per hour. In contrast, top-of-line driverless train signaling on captive metro lines can squeeze 42 trains per hour in Paris; with drivers, the highest I know of is 39 in Moscow, 38 on M13 in Paris, and 36 in London. Put another way, near-best-practice signaling and operations are equivalent in capacity gain to building half a line for every existing line.
Reach and convenience
In contrast with questions of capacity, questions of system convenience, accessibility, reliability, and reach show complementarity rather than competition. A rail network that is faster, more reliable, more comfortable to ride, and easier to access will attract more riders – and this generates demand for extensions, because potential passengers would be likelier to ride in such case.
In that sense, systematic improvements in signaling, network design, and accessibility do not compete with physical system expansion in the long run. A subway system with an elevator at every station, platform edge doors, and modern (ideally driverless) signaling enabling reliable operations and high average speeds is one that people want to ride. The biggest drawback of such a system is that it doesn’t go everywhere, and therefore, expansion is valuable. Expansion is even more valuable if it’s done in multiple directions – just as two parallel lines compete, lines that cross (such as a radial and a circumferential) reinforce each other through network effects.
This is equally true of buses. Interventions like bus shelter interact negatively with higher frequency (if there’s bus shelter, then the impact of wait times on ridership is reduced), but interact positively with everything else by encouraging more people to ride the bus.
The interaction between bus and rail investments is positive as well, not negative. Buses and trains don’t really compete anywhere with even quarter-decent urban rail. Instead, in such cities, buses feed trains. Bus shelter means passengers are likelier to want to ride the bus to connect the train, and this increases the effective radius of a train station, making the case for rail extensions stronger. The same is true of other operating treatments for buses, such as bus lanes and all-door boarding – bus lanes can’t make the bus fast enough to replace the subway, but do make it fast enough to extend the subway’s range.
Mainline rail investments
The biggest question in mainline rail is whether to build high-speed lines connecting the largest cities on the French or Japanese model, or to invest in more medium-speed lines to smaller cities on the German or especially Swiss model. German rail advocates assert the superiority of Germany to France as a reason why high-speed rail would detract from investments in everywhere-to-everywhere rail transport.
But in fact, those two kinds of investment complement each other. The TGV network connects most secondary cities to Paris, and this makes regional rail investments feeding those train stations stronger – passengers have more places to get to, through network effects. Conversely, if there is a regional rail network connecting smaller cities to bigger ones, then speeding up the core links gives people in those smaller cities more places to get to within two, three, four, five hours.
This is also seen when it comes to reliability. When trains of different speed classes can use different sets of track, it’s less likely that fast trains will get stuck behind slow ones, improving reliability; already Germany has to pad the intercity lines 20-25% (France: 10-14%; Switzerland: 7%). A system of passenger-dedicated lines connecting the largest cities is not in conflict with investments in systemwide reliability, but rather reinforces such reliability by removing some of the worst timetable conflicts on a typical intercity rail system in which single-speed class trains never run so often as to saturate a line.
Recommendation: invest against type
The implication of complementarity between some investment types is that a system that has prioritized one kind of investment should give complements a serious look.
For example, Berlin has barely expanded the U-Bahn in the last 30 years, but has built orbital tramways, optimized timed connections (for example, at Wittenbergplatz), and installed elevators at nearly all stations. All of these investments are good and also make the case for U-Bahn expansion stronger to places like Märkisches Viertel and Tegel.
In intercity rail, Germany has invested in medium-speed and regional rail everywhere but built little high-speed rail, while France has done the opposite. Those two countries should swap planners, figuratively and perhaps even literally. Germany should complete its network of 300 km/h lines to enable all-high-speed trips between the major cities, while France should set up frequent clockface timetables on regional trains anchored by timed connections to the TGV.