The Baboon Rule

I made a four-hour video about New York commuter rail timetabling on Tuesday (I stream on Twitch most Tuesdays at 19:00 Berlin time); for this post, I’d like to extract just one piece of this, which informs how I do commuter rail proposals versus how Americans do them. For lack of a better term, on video I called one of the American planning maxims that I violate the baboon rule. The baboon rule states that an agency must assume that other agencies that it needs to interface with are run by baboons, who are both stupid and unmovable. This applies to commuter rail schedule planning but also to infrastructure construction, which topic I don’t cover in the video.

How coordination works

Coordination is a vital principle of good infrastructure planning. This means that multiple users of the same infrastructure, such as different operators running on the same rail tracks, or different utilities on city streets, need to communicate their needs and establish long-term horizontal relationships (between different users) and vertical ones (between the users and regulatory or coordinating bodies).

In rail planning this is the Verkehrsverbund, which coordinates fares primarily but also timetables. There are timed transfers between the U- and S-Bahn in Berlin even though they have two different operators and complex networks with many nodes. In Zurich, not only are bus-rail transfers in the suburbs timed on a 30-minute Takt, but also buses often connect two distinct S-Bahn lines, with timed connections at both ends, with all that this implies about how the rail timetables must be built.

But even in urban infrastructure, something like this is necessary. The same street carries electric lines, water mains, sewer mains, and subway tunnels. These utilities need to coordinate. In Milan, Metropolitana Milanese gets to coordinate all such infrastructure; more commonly, the relationships between the different utilities are horizontal. This is necessary because the only affordable way to build urban subways is with cut-and-cover stations, and those require some utility relocation, which means some communication between the subway builders and the utility providers is unavoidable.

The baboon rule

The baboon rule eschews coordination. The idea, either implicit or explicit, is that it’s not really possible to coordinate with those other agencies, because they are always unreasonable and have no interest in resolving the speaker’s problems. Commuter rail operators in the Northeastern US hate Amtrak and have a litany of complaints about its dispatching, and vice versa – and as far as I can tell those complaints are largely correct.

Likewise, subway builders in the US, and not just New York, prefer deep tunneling at high costs and avoid cut-and-cover stations just to avoid dealing with utilities. This is not because American utilities are unusually complex – New York is an old industrial city but San Jose, where I’ve heard the same justification for avoiding cut-and-cover stations, is not. The utilities are unusually secretive about where their lines are located, but that’s part of general American (or pan-Anglosphere) culture of pointless government secrecy.

I call this the baboon rule partly because I came up with it on the fly during a Twitch stream, and I’m a lot less guarded there than I am in writing. But that expression came to mind because of the sheer horror that important people at some agencies exuded when talking about coordination. Those other agencies must be completely banally evil – dispatching trains without regard for systemwide reliability, or demanding their own supervisors have veto power over plans, or (for utilities) demanding their own supervisors be present in all tunneling projects touching their turf. And this isn’t the mastermind kind of evil, but rather the stupid kind – none of the complaints I’ve heard suggests those agencies get anything out of this.

The baboon rule and coordination

The commonality to both cases – that of rail planning and that of utility relocation – is the pervasive belief that the baboons are unmovable. Commuter rail planners ask to be separated from Amtrak and vice versa, on the theory that the other side will never get better. Likewise, subway builders assume electric and water utilities will always be intransigent and there’s nothing to be done about it except carve a separate turf.

And this is where they lose me. These agencies largely answer to the same political authority. All Northeastern commuter rail agencies are wards of the federal government; in Boston, the idea that they could ever modernize commuter rail without extensive federal funding is treated as unthinkable, to the point that both petty government officials and advocates try to guess what political appointees want and trying to pitch plans based on that (they never directly ask, as far as I can tell – one does not communicate with baboons). Amtrak is of course a purely federal creature. A coordinating body is fully possible.

Instead, the attempts at coordination, like NEC Future, ask each agency what it wants. Every agency answers the same: the other agencies are baboons, get them out of our way. This way the plan has been written without any meaningful coordination, by a body that absolutely can figure out combined schedules and a coordinated rolling stock purchase programs that works for everyone’s core passenger needs (speed, capacity, reliability, etc.).

The issue of utilities is not too different. The water mains in New York are run by DEP, which is a city agency whereas the MTA is a state agency – but city politicians constantly proclaim their desire to improve city infrastructure, contribute to MTA finances and plans (and the 7 extension was entirely city-funded), and would gain political capital from taking a role in facilitating subway construction. And yet, it’s not possible to figure out where the water mains are, the agency is so secretive. Electricity and steam are run by privately-owned Con Ed, but Con Ed is tightly regulated and the state could play a more active role in coordinating where all the underground infrastructure is.

And yet, in no case do the agencies even ask for such coordination. No: they ask for turf separation. They call everyone else baboons, if not by that literal term, but make the same demands as the agencies that they fight turf wars with.


  1. Matthew Hutton

    I’m not sure secrecy is an Anglosphere issue. The location of our utilities are in a map that you can view online. I’ve seen it for my street.

    And the map isn’t perfect – there are errors – but I guess that happens everywhere.

    • Alon Levy

      In New York, you can’t – the utility treats it as some kind of state secret.

      I know the UK is pretty good about utilities in general – the secrecy is seen elsewhere, for example in how even getting the highest-level cost itemization (say, projected cost per Crossrail station) requires filing a freedom of information request.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, I saw such a request filed about Crossrail 2 station costs, but instead of per-station costs, there were groups of stations with rough cost ranges for each. The entire process is extremely beware-of-tiger and the contrast with how much information is already public in Sweden or Italy is glaring.

  2. Olivier

    “The Baboon Rule” is one hell of a clickbait title! Have you tried your hand at copywriting? You might be good at it.

  3. adirondacker12800

    culture of pointless government secrecy.
    The sewers are usually government owned. It’s not unusual for the water to be owned by one company, the gas by a second and it’s rare that the electricity and telecom are the same company. In many places there are two competing telecoms. Even out here in the woods there are four different entities I call, depending on what isn’t working, up on the pole. Sometimes fifth. Last time I did that, a sixth showed up. There was the night when five called seven, seven got annoyed because it’s eight’s problem and five should have known that.
    You are also assuming that somebody somewhere has something to keep secret. Record keeping was a bit hazy in the past.

    • Matthew Hutton

      Yeah but the record keeping was hasy in Britain in the past, there are multiple private companies involved and we have (relatively) good utilities maps.

      • adirondacker12800

        It’s not the government that isn’t quite sure where the service is precisely located. If they don’t have the information you can’t expect them to give it to you.

    • Alon Levy

      In New York, the water and sewers are city-owned, and middle managers at DEP (not just the top ones) get skittish when asked where all the pipelines are. It’s a combination of not caring much to keep records and actively thinking revealing those records is bad.

      • adirondacker12800

        They don’t know where they are. They can’t be held responsible for stuff that did or didn’t get done before they were born. It’s too bad the omniscient draftsmen you think exist, don’t.

        • jack

          I mean, “omniscient draftsmen” may not exist but GIS data gets you most of the way there. That and a few motivated grad students, and you can make just about anything.

          It would be shocking if the DEP offices didn’t have all this info as GIS data — stingy/paranoid is one thing, but “they don’t know” is inexcusable.

        • Henry Miller

          I’m fine with not knowing where they are. However I expect that when there is an area where they might have something and they are asked that they go – at their own expense – and find whatever they have to a small margin of error (half a meter?), and update GIS maps. It will be decades to find everything, but I’m not asking for everything, just places where I want to build a project. If the project goes through they will need to locate these anyway.

          Yes there needs to be a bit of protection so a malicious actor doesn’t demand data for everything now, (thus costing a lot of money). However if you have infrastructure it is a given that eventually someone will need to work near it, so they need the ability to find it.

          • Alon Levy

            Re “it will be decades to find everything,” it’s a misconception that it’s all about really old utilities. The issue is that current work is done without much coordination – for example, electrical work is sometimes done around parked cars that were not properly moved for alternate side parking so there’s an unmarked deviation. In Amsterdam I was told that because of ongoing work their underground utility maps are perpetually out of date (cf. very good utility mapping in London or everywhere in Italy).

          • Henry Miller

            I don’t care what the excuse is, just find where things are. If there is an as-installed deviation from plan they should document that. The pain of documenting that may get them to call a tow truck and get that car moved instead which I’m fine with. (and that may be better anyway – running in a different from planed path probably uses more material, and rounding errors like that add up)

    • Richard Mlynarik

      Apropos of nothing (ie of meaningless content-free shit posts from a baboon who “needs” to have and express a shit opinion on every subject) here is every sewer line in San Francisco. Hey, somebody here gets it right here, accidentally, once in a while!

      San Francisco GIS Portal Sewer Collection System Map.

      Enjoy! This map will be invaluable following the onset of the Zombie Holocaust induced by overwhelming bullshit blog comment spam. Fun for the while family! You’re welcome!

      • Bryan Anderson

        The fact that good, publicly-available sewer mapping seems to exist here makes the Van Ness BRT utility dumpster fires even more inexplicable (although perhaps this surprising competence does not extend to other utilities that aren’t city-owned).

        • Henry Miller

          Ask the local sewer authority – they need to know this to do this job anyway. Where they don’t know (there are some pipes in the ground more than 200 years old) they need the ability to find them at sometime, and really should have a team looking for them (though this team might be 90% replacing broken pipes, they should have some free time to locate otherwise working pipes)

    • Mark

      One reason I like living in Vancouver so much is that all the essential utilities (everything but gas) are provincially-owned, either by the crown corp of BC Hydro or through Metro Vancouver (an organ of the province). As a result, utilities are very cheap, very reliable, and very open about their information – because if they weren’t, the Legislature would punish them.

      • AL

        Mark, you’re forgetting about telecom: TELUS for wireline telephone and Shaw for wireline coax. Both have extensive legacy cabling and newer fibre optics. There’s also a range of second tier telecom that has ducts running every which way, especially in the CBD. Also some privately owned pipelines (Trans Mountain, a jet fuel pipeline from the south, etc).

  4. Reedman Bassoon

    What was the duration of disruption on Wilshire Blvd in LA for the combined utility moves followed by station construction?

  5. Daniel

    My first guess when an organization is secretive is that they just don’t know. I suspect that the utility agencies are as difficult as they are because they don’t trust their own guesses about where the lines are.

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  7. Tunnelvision

    Bollocks. NY utility locations are generally well known, there’s open source material for a lot of it. The real problem is that there’s so much stuff that was installed, and taken out of service that they have no records of that’s the problem….. if records are not accurate then they are of little use to a baboon or any other creature…….

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