My interactions with Americans in the transit industry, especially mainline rail, repeatedly involve their telling me personally or in their reports that certain solutions are impossible when they in fact happen every day abroad, usually in countries that don’t speak English. When they do reference foreign examples, it’s often shallow or even wrong; the number of times I’ve heard American leftists attribute cost differences to universal health care abroad (in most of these countries, employers still have to pay health benefits) is too high to count. Within the US, New York stands head and shoulders above the rest in its incuriosity. This is part of a general pattern of who learns from who, in which the US’s central location in the global economy and culture makes it collectively stupid.
Some learning is symmetric. The Nordic countries learn from one another extensively. The Transit Costs Project’s Sweden case study has various references in the literature to such comparisons:
- Eliasson-Börjesson-Odeck-Welde compare Sweden and Norway in the use of benefit-cost analyses for road projects.
- Smith-Sochor-Sarasini compare Sweden and Finland in Mobility as a Service.
- The Finnish transport ministry compares Finland’s public transport system with those of the other Nordic countries and a selection of other Northern European countries.
- The Nordic Council of Ministers has long worked on pan-Nordic horizontal ties; here is its report on investment in transport infrastructure.
- Södrström-Schulman-Ristimäki compare Stockholm and Helsinki’s urban forms.
- Nilsson-Nyström benchmark Sweden’s privatization of maintenance to Finland, the Netherlands, and Britain.
- LO’s report on labor rights and repression in Swedish tunnel projects compares the situation to that of Norway (where immigrant workers readily join unions) and Denmark (where they do at much lower rates, albeit higher than Sweden’s).
This goes beyond transportation. People in the four mainland Nordic states constantly benchmark their own national performance to that of the other three on matters like immigration, education, energy, corona, and labor. This appears in the academic literature to some extent and is unavoidable in popular culture, including media and even casual interactions that I had in two years of living in Sweden. Swedes who criticize their country’s poor handling of the corona crisis don’t compare it with Taiwan or South Korea but with Norway. Likewise, Swedes who think of a country with open hostility to immigration think of Denmark rather than, say, the United States, Italy, or Lithuania.
Other macro regions exist, too, with similar levels of symmetric learning. The German-speaking world features some of this as well: the advocacy group ProBahn has long championed learning from Switzerland and Austria, and the current Deutschlandtakt plan for intercity rail is heavily based on both Swiss practice and the advocacy of ProBahn and other technically adept activists. Switzerland, in turn, developed its intercity rail planning tradition in the 1980s and 1990s by adopting and refining German techniques, taking the two-hour clockface developed in 1970s Germany under the brand InterCity and turning it into a national investment strategy integrating infrastructure construction with the hourly timetable.
This, as in the Nordic countries, goes beyond transport. Where Swedes’ prototype for hostility to immigrants is Denmark, Germans’ is Austria with its much more socially acceptable extreme right.
Most of the learning from others that we see is not symmetric but asymmetric: one place learns from another but not vice versa, in a core-periphery pattern. Countries and cities prefer to learn from countries that are bigger, wealthier, and culturally more dominant than they are. In our Istanbul case, we detail how the Turks built up internal expertise by bringing in consultants from Italy, Germany, and France and using those experiences to shape new internal practices.
In Europe, the biggest asymmetry is between Southern and Northern Europe. Few Spaniards, Italians, and Turks believe that their respective countries build higher-quality infrastructure than Germans – some readily believe that the costs are lower but assume it must be lower quality rather than higher efficiency. The experts know costs are low, but anything better from Northern Europe or France penetrates into Southern European planning with relative ease. It didn’t make it to the infrastructure-focused Italian case, but Marco Chitti documents how the German clockface schedule is now influencing Italian operations planning, for example here and here on Twitter. Spain’s high-speed rail infrastructure provides another example: it was deeply influenced by France in the 1990s, including the idea of building it, the technical standards and the (unfortunate) operating practices, but the signaling system is more influenced by Germany.
In contrast, in the other direction, there is little willingness to learn. Nordic capital planners and procurement experts cite other Northern European examples (in and out of Scandinavia) as cases to learn from but never Southern European or French ones. The same technically literate German rail activists who speak favorably of Swiss planning look down on French high-speed rail, and one American ESG investor even assumed Italy is falsifying its data. In the European core-periphery model, the North is the core and the South and East are the periphery, and the core will not learn from the periphery even where the periphery produces measurably better results.
Domestically, it’s often the case that smaller cities learn from larger ones in the same country. Former Istanbul Metropolitan staff members were hired by the state, and many staff and contractors went on to build urban rail projects in Bursa, İzmir, and Mersin. In France, RATP acts as consultant to smaller cities, which do not have in-house capacity for metro construction, and overall there is obvious Parisian influence on how such cities build their urban rail. In Italy, Metropolitana Milano has acted as consultant to other cities. This is the primary mechanism that makes construction costs so uniform within countries and within macro regions like Scandinavia.
In this core-periphery model, the Anglosphere is the global core, the United States views itself as its core (Britain disagrees but only to some extent), and New York is the core of the core. New Yorkers respond to any invocation of another city or country with “we are not [that country],” and expect that their audience will believe that New York is superior; occasionally they engage in negative exceptionalism, but as with positive exceptionalism, it exists to deflect from the possibility of learning.
This asymmetry may not be apparent in transportation – after all, Europe and Asia (correctly) feel like they have little to learn from the United States. But on matters where the United States is ahead, Europeans and Asians notice. For example, the US military is far stronger than European militaries, even taking different levels of spending into account – and Europeans backing an EU army constantly reference how the US is more successful due to scale (for examples, here, here, and here). Likewise, in rich Asia, corporations at least in theory are trying to make their salaryman systems more flexible on the Western model, while so little learning happens in the other direction that at no point did Europe or the US seriously attempt to imitate Taiwan’s corona fortress success or the partial successes of South Korea and Japan.
In this schema, it is not surprising that New York (and the United States more generally) has the highest construction costs in the world, and that London has among the highest outside the United States. Were New York and London more institutionally efficient than Italian cities, Italian elites would notice and adapt their practices, just as they have begun to adapt German practices for timetabling and intermodal integration.
On the surface, Americans do learn from the periphery. There are immigrant planners at American transit agencies. There’s some peer learning, even in New York – for example, New York City Transit used RATP consultants to help develop the countdown clocks, which required some changes to how train control works. And yet, most of this is too shallow to matter.
What I mean by “shallow” is that the learning is more often at the level of a quip comment, with no followup: “[the solution we want] is being used in [a foreign case],” with little investigation into whether it worked or is viewed positively where it is used. Often, it’s part of a junket trip by executives who hoard (the appearance of) knowledge an refuse to let their underlings work. Two notable examples are ongoing in Boston and the Bay Area.
In Boston, the state is making a collective decision not to wire the commuter rail network. Instead, there are plans to electrify the network in small patches, using battery trains with partial wiring; see here and follow links for more background. Battery-electric trains (BEMUs) exist and are procured in European examples that the entire Boston region agrees are models for rail modernization, so in that sense, this represents learning. But it’s purely superficial, because nowhere with the urban area size of Boston or the intensity of its peak commuter rail traffic are BEMUs used. BEMUs trade off higher equipment cost and lower performance for lower infrastructure costs; they’re used in Germany on lines that run an hourly three-car train or so, whereas Massachusetts wants to foist this solution on lines where peak traffic is an eight-car train every 15 minutes.
And in San Jose, the plan for the subway is to use a large-diameter bore, wide enough for two tracks side-by-side as well as a platform in between, to avoid having to either mine station cavern or build cut-and-cover stations. This is an import from Barcelona Metro Lines 9 and 10, and agency planners and consultants did visit Barcelona to see how the method works. Unfortunately, what was missing in that idea is that L9 is by a large margin Spain’s most expensive subway per kilometer, and locally it is viewed as a failure. In Rome, the same method was studied and rejected as too risky to millennia-old monuments, so the most sensitive parts of Metro Line C use mined stations at very high costs by Italian standards. Barcelona’s use case – a subway built beneath a complex underground layer of older metro lines – does not apply to San Jose, which is building its first line and should build its stations cut-and-cover as is more usual.
No such superficiality is apparent in the core examples of both symmetric and asymmetric learning. Swedes, Danes, Finns, and Norwegians are acutely aware of the social problems of one another, and will not propose to adopt a system that is locally viewed as a failure. At most, they will propose an import that is locally controversial, with the same ideological load as at its home. In other words, if a Swede (or more generally a Western European) proposes to import a solution from another European country that is in its home strongly identified with a political party or movement, it’s because the Swede supports the movement at home. This can include privatization, cancellation of privatization, changes to environmental policy, changes to immigration policy, or tax shifts.
This includes more delicate cases. In general the US and UK are viewed as inegalitarian Thatcherite states in Sweden, so in most cases it’s the right that wants to Anglicize government practice. But when it comes to monetary policy, it was Stefan Löfven who tried to shift Riksbank policy toward a US-style dual mandate from the current single mandate for price stability, which the left views as too austerian and harsh toward workers; globally the dual mandate is viewed as more left-wing and so it was the Swedish left that tried to adopt it.
In contrast, in superficial learning, the political load may be the opposite of what it is in its origin country, because the person or movement who purport to want to import it are ignorant of and incurious about its local context. Thus, I’ve seen left-wing Americans proposing education reforms reinvent the German Gymnasium system in which the children of the working class are sent to vocational schools, a system that within Germany relies on the support of the middle-class right and is unpopular on the left.
Individual versus collective knowledge
Finally, I want to emphasize that the issue is less about individual knowledge and learning than about collective knowledge. Individual Americans are not stupid. Many are worldly, visit other countries regularly and know how things work there, and speak other languages as heritage learners or otherwise. But their knowledge is not transmitted collectively. Their peers view it at best as a really cool hobby rather than a key skill, at worst as a kind of weirdness.
For example, an American planner who speaks Spanish because they are a first- or second-generation Hispanic immigrant is not going to get a grant to visit Madrid, or for that matter Santo Domingo, and form horizontal ties with planners and engineers there to figure out how to build at low Spanish or Dominican costs. Their peers are not going to nudge them to tell them more about Hispanic engineering traditions and encourage them to develop their interests. American culture writ large does not treat them as benefiting from bicultural ties but instead treats them as deficient Americans who must forget the Spanish language to assimilate; it’s the less educated immigrants’ children who maintain the Spanish language. In this way, it’s not too different from how Germany treats Turks as a social problem rather than as valuable bicultural ambassadors to a country with four times Germany’s housing production and one third its metro construction costs.
Nor is experience abroad valued in planning or engineering, let alone in politics. A gap year is a fun experience. Five years of work abroad are the mark of a Luftmensch rather than valued experience on a CV, whereas an immigrant who comes with foreign work experience will almost universally find this experience devalued.
Even among the native-born, the standard pipelines through which one expresses interest in foreign ideas are not designed for this kind of learning. The United States most likely has the strongest academic programs in the world for Japanese studies, outside Japan itself. Those programs are designed to critique Japanese society, and Israeli military historian of Japanese imperialism Danny Orbach has complained that from reading much of the critical theory work on the country one is left to wonder how it could have ever developed. It goes without saying such programs do not prepare anyone to adapt the successes of the big Japanese cities in transportation and housing.
This, as usual, goes beyond transportation. I saw minimal curiosity among Americans in the late 2000s about universal health care abroad, while a debate about health care raged and “every rich country except the US has public universal health care” was a common and wrong line among liberals. Individual Americans and immigrants to the US might be able to talk about the French or Japanese or Israeli or Ghanaian health care system, but nobody would be interested to hear except their close friends; political groups they were involved with would shrug that off even while going off about the superiority of those countries’ health care (well, not Ghana’s, but all of the other three for sure, in ignorance of Israel’s deep problem with nosocomial infections, responsible for 9-14% of the national death rate).
The result is that while individual Americans can be smart, diligent, and curious, collectively the United States is stupid, lazy, and ignorant on every matter that other parts of the world do better. This is bad in public transportation and lethal in those aspects of it that use mainline rail, where the US is generations behind and doesn’t even know where to start learning, let alone how to learn. It’s part of a global core-periphery model in which Europe hardly shines when it comes to learning from poorer parts of Europe or from non-Western countries, but the US adds even more to that incuriosity. Within the US, the worst is New York, where even Chicago is too suspect to learn from. No wonder New York’s institutions drifted to the point that construction costs in the city are 10 times higher than they can be, and nearly 20 times as high as absolute best practice.