Bad Public Transit in the Third World

There’s sometimes a stereotype that in poor countries with low car ownership, alternatives to the car are flourishing. I saw a post on Mastodon making this premise, and pointed out already in comments that this is not really true. This is a more detailed version of what I said in 500 characters. In short, in most of the third world, non-car transportation is bad, and nearly all ridership (on jitneys and buses) is out of poverty, as is most walking. While car ownership is low, the elites who do own cars dominate local affairs, and therefore cities are car-dominated and not at all walkable, even as 90%+ of the population does not own a car.

What’s more, the developing countries that do manage to build good public transportation don’t stay developing for long. The same development model of Japan, the East Asian Tigers, and now China has built both rail-oriented cities and high economic growth, to the point that Japan and the Tigers are fully developed, and China is a solidly middle-income economy. The sort of places that stay poor, or get stuck in a middle-income trap, also tend to have stagnant urban rail networks, and so grow more auto-oriented over time.

The situation in Southeast Asia

With the exception of Singapore, nowhere in Southeast Asia is public transit good. What’s more, construction costs have been high for elevated lines and very high for underground ones, slowing down the construction of metro systems.

In Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, motorization is high and public transit usage is weak. Paul Barter’s thesis details how both cities got this way, in comparison with the more transit-oriented model used in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The thesis also predicts that the poorer megacities of Southeast Asia – Jakarta and Manila – will follow the auto-oriented path as they develop, which has indeed happened in the 13 years since it was written.

The situation in those cities is, to be fair, murky. Manila has a large urban rail under construction right now, with average to above average costs for elevated lines and high ones for subways. But the system it has today consists of four lines, two branded light rail, one branded MRT, and one commuter line. In 2019, the six-month ridership on the system was 162 million. A total of 324 million in a metro area the size of Manila is extraordinarily low: the administrative Metro Manila region has 13.5 million people, and the urban or metropolitan area according to both and Demographia is 24-26 million. On the strictest definition of Metro Manila, this is 24 trips per person per year; on the wider ones, it is about 13, similar to San Diego or Portland and only somewhat better than Atlanta.

Jakarta is in the same situation of flux. It recently opened a half-underground MRT line at fairly high cost, and is modernizing its commuter rail network along Japanese lines, using second-hand Japanese equipment. Commuter rail ridership was 1.2 million a day last year, or around 360 million a year, already higher than before corona; the MRT had 20 million riders last year, and an airport link had 1.5 million in 2018. This isn’t everything – there’s also a short light metro called LRT for which I can’t find numbers – but it wouldn’t be more than second-order. This is 400 million annual rail trips, in a region of 32 million people.

The future of these cities is larger versions of Bangkok. Thailand is sufficiently middle-income that we can see directly how its transport system evolves as it leaves poverty, and the results are not good. Bus ridership is high, but it’s rapidly falling as anyone who can afford a car gets one; a JICA report about MRT development puts the region’s modal split at 5% MRT, 36% bus, and the rest private (PDF-p. 69) – and the income of bus riders is significantly lower than that of drivers (PDF-p. 229), whereas MRT riders are closer to drivers.

Even wealthier than Bangkok, with the same auto-oriented system, is Kuala Lumpur. There, the modal split is about 8% bus, 7% train, and the rest private. This is worse than San Francisco and the major cities of Canada and Australia, let alone New York or any large European city. The national modal split in England, France, Germany, and Spain is about 16% – the first three countries’ figures predate corona, but in Spain they’re from 2021, with suppressed public transport ridership. Note that rail ridership per capita is healthier in Kuala Lumpur than in Jakarta or Manila – all rail lines combined are 760,000 riders per day, say 228 million per year, in a region of maybe 7 million people. This is better than a no-transit American city like San Diego, but worse than a bad-transit one like Chicago or Washington, where the modal split is about the same but there is no longer the kind of poverty that is common in Malaysia, let alone in Indonesia, and therefore if people ride the trains it’s because they get them to their city center jobs and not because they’re poor.

Even in Singapore, the best example out there of a transit-oriented rich city, it took until very recently for MRT coverage to be good enough that people willingly depend on it; it only reached NUS after I graduated. In the 1990s, the epitome of middle-class Singaporean materialism was described as owning the Five Cs, of which one was a car; traffic suppression, a Paul Barter describes, has centered fees on cars, much more car purchase than car use (despite the world-famous congestion pricing system), and thus to those wealthy enough to afford cars, they’re convenient in ways they are not in Paris, Berlin, or Stockholm.

The situation in Africa

African countries between the Sahara and the Kalahari are all very poor, with low car ownership. However, they are thoroughly car-dominated.

From the outside, it’s fascinating to see how the better-off countries in that region, like Nigeria, are already imitating Southeast Asia. Malaysia overregulated its jitneys out of existence because they were messy and this bothered elites, and because it wanted to create an internal market for its state-owned automakers. Nigeria is doing the same, on the former grounds; to the extent it hasn’t happened despite years of trying, it’s because the state is too weak to do more than harass the drivers and users of the system.

It’s notable that the Lagos discourse about the evils of the danfo – they are noisy, they are polluting, they drive like maniacs – there is little attention to how cars create all the same problems, except at larger scale per passenger served. The local notables drive (or are driven); the people who they scorn as unwashed, overly fecund, criminal masses ride the danfo. Thanks to aggressive domination by cars and inattention to the needs of the non-driving majority, Lagos’s car ownership is high for how poor it is – one source from 2017 says 5 million cars in the state, another from 2021 says 6.5 million vehicles between the state and Kano State. The denominator population in the latter source is 27 million officially, but unofficially likely more; 200 vehicles per 1,000 people is plausible for Lagos, which to be clear is not much less than New York or Paris, on an order of magnitude lower GDP per capita. Tokyo took until about 1970 to reach 100 vehicles per 1,000 people, at which point Japan had almost fully converged with American GDP per capita.

This is not specific to Lagos. A cousin who spent some time in Kampala told me of the hierarchy on the roads: pedestrians fear motorcycles, motorcycles fear cars, cars fear trucks. There is no pedestrian infrastructure to speak of; a rapid transit system is still a dream, to the point that a crayon proposal that spread on Twitter made local media. That the vast majority of Ugandans don’t own cars doesn’t matter; Kampala remains dominated by the few who do.

Transit and development

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the sort of developing countries that build successful urban rail systems don’t stay poor for long. Part of it is that public transportation is good for economic development, but that’s not most of it – the United States manages to be rich without it except in a handful of cities. Rather, I suspect the reason has to do with state capacity.

More specifically, the reason cities with 100-200 cars per 1,000 people are thoroughly dominated by cars is that those 10-20% drivers (or people who are driven) are the elites. Their elite status can come from any source – passive business income, landlordism, active business income, skilled professional work – but usually it tilts toward the traditional, i.e. passive. These groups tend to be incredibly anti-developmental: they own small businesses, sometimes actively and sometimes passively, and resent being made redundant through economies of scale. India has problems with economic dwarfism and informality, and this is typical of poor countries; if anything, India is better than most at developing a handful of big businesses in high-value added industries.

The upshot is that the sort of people who drive, and especially the sort of drivers who are powerful enough to effect local changes to get incremental upgrades to roads at the expense of non-drivers, are usually anti-developmental classes. The East Asian developmental states (and Singapore and Hong Kong, which share many characteristics with them) clamped down on such classes hard, on either nationalist or socialist grounds; Japan, both Koreas, and both Chinas engaged in land reform, with characteristic violence in the two socialist states and without it but still with forcible purchase in the three capitalist states. The same sort of state that can eliminate landlordism can also, as a matter of capital formation, clamp down on consumption and encourage personal savings, producing atypically low levels of motorization well into middle-income status. Singapore, whose elite consumption centers vacations out of the country, has managed to do so even as a high-income country – and even more normal Tokyo and Seoul have much higher rail usage and lower car usage than their closest Western analog, New York.

India is in many ways anti-developmental, but it does manage to grow. Its anti-developmentalism is anti-urban and NIMBY, but it is capable of building infrastructure. Its metro program has problems with high construction costs (but Southeast Asia’s are generally worse) and lack of integration with other modes such as commuter rail, which the middle class denigrates as only befitting poor people; but the Delhi Metro had 5.5 million daily riders just before corona, slightly behind New York in a slightly larger metro area, perhaps a better comparison than Jakarta and Manila’s San Diego.

It’s the slower-growing developing countries that are not managing to even build the systems India has, let alone East Asia. They don’t have high car use, but only because they are poor, and in practice, they are thoroughly car-dominated, and everyone who doesn’t have a car wants one. A rich country really is not one where even the poor have cars but where even the rich use public transportation – and those countries aren’t rich and don’t grow at rates that will make them rich.


  1. Matthew Hutton

    Kuala Lumpur did have different tickets for everything until late in 2011. So 2014 data is probably still going to be suppressed due to that to be fair. I’d expect it to be healthier now.

  2. Tiercelet

    My own limited experience with Bangkok MRT drove home the importance of network effects. Basically, the problem is transit there just doesn’t go anywhere. I can’t speculate about the exact explanation for this–limited state capacity? Runaway elites? Honestly, as a rider, it didn’t seem like a service targeted to the lower classes–if anything it felt like a Potemkin subway, designed to seem luxurious to passengers, but just not functional for actually getting anywhere that wasn’t the mall; like more of an elite folly or a prestige line than something that might actually connect residents to employment or entertainment. Combine this with how aggressively pedestrian-hostile the city is, and it’s obvious that you just can’t grow this system one line at a time, it simply won’t work due to roundabout pathing and how far you’re dropped from your destination. At one point we wound up taking a river boat (very hot, occasionally splashed with sewage) just because it would save an hour over trying to detour to the subway.

    Of course cars are a status symbol, and I can’t speak to the bus network (wasn’t even going to try as a tourist). But I cannot imagine anybody in that environment who had both the need to commute to anything like a center and the means to do so by private vehicle choosing anything else.

    That does raise another question though–being not at all familiar with the jobs geography of the cities under discussion–how big of a role does a more diffuse job market, or employment focused more on local neighborhoods, play in preventing the implementation of a clearly envisioned transit network?

    • Frederick

      “Honestly, as a rider, it didn’t seem like a service targeted to the lower classes–if anything it felt like a Potemkin subway, designed to seem luxurious to passengers, but just not functional for actually getting anywhere that wasn’t the mall; like more of an elite folly or a prestige line than something that might actually connect residents to employment or entertainment.”

      Very astute observation. But I want to add one thing: Retail, and thus the mall, is an important part of Bangkok’s economy. And since most factories have already moved out of Bangkok proper, the malls are job centers.

      And to be honest, the wealth and political clout of mall owners in Thailand cannot be overstated. If not for the malls, the lines won’t even get built. The golden line is for Iconsiam mall and the purple line is for Central Westgate. In other words, the malls cause the rail to get built, instead of planners prioritizing the malls.

  3. Eric2

    Most of the third world cities we’re talking about here are so large (in population and population density) that even if everyone there could afford a car, most won’t be able to drive a car because there won’t be space on the roads for them. And it seems likely that construction of additional roads will be limited due to the massive displacement that would be needed. So no, there won’t be US-level driving in these cities.

    • Luke

      Any reason to think that we won’t just see massive “urban renewal” like we did in the U.S. in the mid-20th century? After all, “one more lane” is still the mindset amongst most Americans, certainly among the only-drives elite. It’s a depressing possibility, but “it’ll be different this time” is a mindset that everyone everywhere is susceptible to. Especially given that car ownership and promulgation of private spaces is still considered a major signification of wealth and development, I don’t see why we can’t expect at least some level of auto-centric sprawl in places like Lagos or Nairobi.

      • Alon Levy

        Yeah, these cities are enormous, and the one more lane mentality in the United States is in greenfield areas and small cities, not New York. Los Angeles is widening freeways but rarely, since it’s that expensive to do this in such a large metropolitan region.

        • Luke

          Sure, but NYC and LA aren’t growing anything like e.g. Lagos; the elites in these cities mostly drive, too. And I’d be thrilled to hear any evidence to the contrary, but do we have any reason to believe that elites in large third world cities don’t, in at least some corner of their minds, think cars are the ultimate status symbol? The examples from SE Asia suggest the opposite.

          Certainly, in the developed world, pure car-centric infrastructure has lost its sheen, and these developing cities will need to build SOME road infrastructure, but Lagos is already working on an elevated highway, and its metro is, so far, diesels. Make of that what you will.

          • Eric2

            The LA area has about 10 times as much freeway per capita as Lagos (and LA’s freeway is much higher quality). Look at a map of Lagos and tell me where exactly you are are going to put 9 times its current length, and all the massive interchanges needed to connect them. I don’t think it’s reasonably possible. And the difficulties will get even worse with time – Lagos’ population is growing fast while LA’s is stagnant.

          • Henry Miller

            Cars are the status symbol of the middle and upper middle class. At the elite level everyone can afford a new Ferrari and Rolls Royce every month, scrapping the old one if they felt like it, so your nice car won’t impress anyone. (I don’t think there is enough supply to do that, but at least in theory everyone has that kind of money). At the middle class level though a car is an expense purchase that you can use to show off as everybody knows how much they cost, and so can be impressed that you managed to afford a nice one – and it is just possible to stay on the roller rcoaster of replacing your car every few years.

            The elite still have expensive cars, but it isn’t to impress their peers. It can sometimes impress their middle class friends.

          • Luke

            @Eric2 Again, I’m not saying Lagos needs no new roadway infrastructure; that’d be patently absurd, given the economic convergence space it has to work with. I am saying that the priorities seem to be suspect, already, and more wealth seems unlikely to bias physical development towards more efficient uses of infrastructure development as it accumulates.

            @Henry Miller. Sure, but the elites will still want nice roads to drive or be driven in their cars on. Being a member of the elite will remain desirable for members of the middle class, and if car ownership and a car-based lifestyle becomes identified with it, then you end up with a middle class that wants cars, too. So on and so forth on down the economic pyramid, until all but the most destitute have cars and therefore want more car infrastructure, i.e., the American scenario.

            I don’t mean to seem alarmist or otherwise dramatic, but we’ve seen this pattern happen before. The stakes have always been very high, and now are too high to tolerate repeating the same pattern of mistakes.

          • Lee Ratner

            Pure car-centric infrastructure might have lost its sheen in the developed world but at least in the United States, the Right is still opposed to mass transit on culture war issues and there is no evidence most Americans are going to give up driving everywhere or live in more dense, walkable and transit friendly places for a variety of reasons.

          • Herbert

            Unlike people in Los Angeles, many people in Lagos do not have good lawyers, political clout and legal title to their land. Bulldozing them is gonna be more like 1950s America than like 2020s America…

        • AJ

          The one-more-lane mentality is still strong in the US sunbelt, where the cities are still growing. Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, etc. are not ‘small cities.’ Freeway building in urban California and the Northeast may be dead because it’s too expensive, but in rapidly growing cities like Seattle and Austin it is alive & well. Austin has a single project to widen the its downtown freeway that is the same cost as its entire transit capital plan.

  4. Tunnelvision

    Ignoring costs for a moment, but isn’t the difference here that HK and Sing basically started transit development much earlier than the other cities? Also when HK was a colony vehicle ownership was not massively high as it was not that simple to get across the border plus the Zhuhai Macau link did not exist. I was there 1995 to 2001 and only bought a second hand car after a couple of years when kids came along. Having said that I commuted to work by a combination of bus and MRT and/or cycled (younger, fitter and stupider) for the 6 years I was there. The car was a luxury at the weekends. Sing of course made car ownership something else. HK with its heavy bus and minibus network that linked into the MTR and KCR was and is an excellent system, it went almost everywhere and any gaps could be filled with a Taxi ride. Also both are city states with very well defined land boundaries and very centralized planning systems. The other cities you mention would appear to be coming to Mass Transit late in life and their systems may be more constrained because of this? Or by the time a line is built you need 5 others due to continued population growth so the informal transport network remains key to folk getting around, and maybe the initial line is no longer the line of most critical need hence the lower than anticipated ridership as land is rezoned etc?. On of the greatest problems are the megacities that keep on sucking money, resources and people into centralized locations. I sometimes get the feeling that transit systems are built as a way of saying look were doing something even if its a Band Aid for a broken leg. Even Istanbul for example, the ever increasing system is barely making a dent in moving folk. Travelling into the CIty from the Buycekmece area even after the advent of the MetroBUs system can take hours as car ownership increases and folk don’t want to stand nose to nose with 200 other folk. Not sure what the answer is but its an interesting philosophical discussion and I’m sure there must be research on this…..

    • Borners

      A bit of push-back against the Japan narrative there. Most of the core surface urban rail network (and the first lines of Osaka and Tokyo’s subways) is built pre-land reform by Private railway companies aggressive using Land-readjustment projects to get the land and to replot it especially around the stations. LR projects are effectively joint ventures in Japan. Japan had very strong class divisions pre-land reform, but local landowner-entrepreneurs were very pro-development. Indeed its local businessmen who stop the bureaucracy from implementing a Green Belt in the 1960’s (bullet dodged there) as they are the backbone of the urban LDP.

      Indeed I’d argue that Japan was very lucky to have 1945-68 an era where the local real estate developer had the edge over the Planner bureaucrat in urban policymaking. By the time they do a proper zoning law in 1968 an urban TOD vernacular had matured enough that planners stop trying to make Kanto into Postwar Exurban England. Not that there weren’t costs, but for transport policy it worked wonders. And that leaked into Japan’s neighborhood (Taiwan and Korea especially).

      Of course things are different, lots of developing countries don’t have as strong property rights and corporate organisational forms as Japan pre-war* and more cars. That said I do think more could be learned from the experience of Japanese private surface rail systems in the 20th century, the focus on the catenary EMU as the core infrastructure, the use of co-operative land pooling, station commercialisation etc.

      * I am aware that sounds ridiculous given 1937-45 but you don’t engage in mad hyper-violent campaigns of world conquest without being functional in your dysfunction.

      • Sassy

        > the use of co-operative land pooling

        Japan’s, and to lesser extent Korea’s and Taiwan’s, success with land readjustment hasn’t gone unnoticed, and there have been attempts to spread it, both by Japan, and NGOs.

        However, from what I gather, it’s mostly successful in still pretty poor countries, where the local landowners are extremely pro-development. Once there is an entrenched “anti-developmental class” it’s hard to get the buy in necessary for land readjustment.

        While land readjustment is most associated with Japan, it originated in Europe hundreds of years before Japan had any land that didn’t technically belong to the Emperor. However, land readjustment did not find continued success in Europe, probably because not enough landowners want development. And the anti-development shift happened when Europe was much poorer than it is today.

        • Borners

          Europe lacks private LR in the way the East Asian’s do it. Could you imagine DB or SNCF doing what Tokyu’s doing right now in Shibuya.

          Also Edo Japanese land did not belong to the Emperor. Pre-1871 Land reforms there were intense restrictions on land usage prioritising Samurai privileges and separation in cities, heritidary sucession in status/resources and rice cultivation in the countryside. Rights also varied extremely across Japan given the 200 domains and the strong place of customary law. Samurai in the Edo period did not “own” law they had hereditary stipends paid out of taxes.

          LR has died down in Japan more because a lot of the replotting urban land to modern conditions has happened and space demands are falling with the population. (I tried and failed to find good statistics on this).

        • Alon Levy

          It’s not just about YIMBYism and NIMBYism. Landlords are anti-developmental in much more pervasive ways. In European history, this can be seen in the politics of the English gentry in the 18th and 19th century, with its desire for protective tariffs that starved the commoners and indifference to any governance reform. The German landlord class was more developmental to an extent, but its main national project was starting a series of wars that led to the destruction of the state, much like the Japanese military culture that it inspired. In the US, there was practically no landlordism in the North, but the South was governed by slaveowners and then by landlords whose land was worked by sharecroppers, and that class opposed any kind of economic development (e.g. the Confederate constitution banned internal improvements); the South only began converging with Northern incomes after a combination of federal transfers and the political destruction of the rural magnates through one-person-one-vote civil rights rulings.

          • Herbert

            Oh East Elbian Junkers were very much into protective tariffs and opposed to industry.

            Well at least opposed to industry in their area. They were surprisingly tolerant of Krupp recruiting away their serfs….

      • Lee Ratner

        Japan was also helped by not having a bunch of activists and reformers that thought it was weird that private railway companies also owned department stores, supermarkets, and mass entertainment venues like sports teams. Some of the trolley and interurban companies were also involved in real estate, electrical power, and amusement parks but this really freaked out Americans of the early 20th century and they passed laws against it. I try to explain the Japanese private railway companies as imagine the LIRR also owned the New York Mets, the Knicks, Macy’s, and a chain of supermarkets located near every LIRR station. Many Americans seem to find this distasteful for inchoate reasons no matter what their politics are.

        • Alon Levy

          Note that the US was like this in the middle of the 20th century. When it involved infrastructure it was ended by anti-trust enforcement (e.g. streetcar and power companies were split), but in pure corporate America it stayed, with a bunch of conglomerates making a lot of different products in different industries surviving to the 1970s-80. This was replaced by a focus on core competencies in which a company should make itself more legible to shareholders by only focusing on one industry and spinning off the rest to independent firms. Japan has only begun to undergo this process, and overall its corporate culture still resembles that of midcentury America, with about the same productivity.

          • Lee Ratner

            Conglomerates don’t always work but coupling transportation services with real estate development and commerce/mass entertainment does make a certain amount of sense.

          • Borners

            Japanese private rail actually was under pressure to be nationalised during the war from the military/”reform” bureaucrats just like 1907 had nationalised most of the trunk network into what became JNR. There were substantial mergers most of which were reversed by the occupation authorities. And had the Japanese Socialist party ever come to power they probably would have at least tried nationalisation (but they were pointedly not a party interested in governance).

            I think the thing that really killed off private rail in the US was the zoning system. Unless you have a TOD permissive zoning system and company law private railways will go bankrupt. By the time Japan gets a zoning system in 1968 the TOD vernacular has matured enough that the state implements it as well (e.g. see some of the major Danchi such as Tokiwadaira or Senri New Town etc).

            You do see strategies suggesting the core-competency strategy might happen (Tokyu removed railways from the Holding company title). But I think the station’s role as a physical hub makes the rail-real estate-retail core pretty durable. Indeed the success of JR privatisation suggests it too. In particular JR Kyushu’s aggressive leveraging of non-rail profits to avoid the fate of JR Hokkaido and Shikoku. Furthermore state run bits of the rail systems show convergent evolution and find integration works for them (the metros, Tsukuba express etc).

            I actually think that we need to see Japanese private rail showing convergent evolution with the state on transport-real estate planning, the untold story of JR privatisation is how much it was copying an existing model (which pro and anti factions both continue to ignore because they are terrible).

          • Lee Ratner

            It isn’t like private rail did that better in the places in the United States with relatively relaxed zoning systems like NYC, Chicago, and Boston. European cities are generally less strictly zoned than American, Australian, and Canadian ones but even Europeans seem to want something stricter than the Japanese system.

          • Henry miller

            Private rail in the US didn’t have the idea. Japan was building in the mid 1900s, the US was long done building rail, instead it was build more roads. By the time the Japanese example was proven it was far too late. Single use zoning was just taking off when the Japanese were experimenting with the idea.

            Though the idea exists in other countries. Can anyone comment on the history of it in counties not torn up by WWII?

          • Borners

            “relaxed” zoning in the US implies sprawl inducing zoning, its actually quite strict. And that’s not including Euclidean zoning which insanely stupid unless you plan for cars everywhere. Chicago/NY where not “relatively relaxed” at all given parking minimums, redlining etc etc. Older cities have pre-zoning neighbourhoods not better zoning.

            Switching to Europe, most systems where nationlised before electric urban rail had a chance to take off in the Interwar years. The big exception is in Southern England, where the three expansionary rail operators the Metropolitan Railway, Southern Railways and the Underground group are profitable right up to nationalisation. Only the Met does much real estate investment because of its partial exemptions Victorian restrictions on railway diversification and land use. The other two did fine because the massive population-building boom around their systems meant a steady flow of growing ticket revenue. This was so successful that the Labour and the Tories nationalised them and implemented the 1947 system to stop it because they hated the idea of Northern Industrial workers becoming Southern suburbanites like them.

          • Herbert

            In Germany there was the idea – apparently dreamt up by Edzard Reuter, son of the famous Berlin mayor and public transit visionary – to create a “Deutschland AG” by all major firms having stakes in one another so as to in practice make them all one giant Tsaibatsu. It was never fully implemented, but Franz Josef Strauss certainly flew around the world promoting KWU and Airbus and whatnot (with lots of Baksheesh) like it already existed…

            France in its “most French” decades was similar and Sarkozy did a lot of this corporate diplomacy, too. Macron seems to try to do it without the corruption, which is of course d.o.a.

  5. plaws0

    “In short, in most of the third world, non-car transportation is bad, and nearly all ridership (on jitneys and buses) is out of poverty, as is most walking. While car ownership is low, the elites who do own cars dominate local affairs, and therefore cities are car-dominated and not at all walkable, even as 90%+ of the population does not own a car.”

    Literally in the first para and stopped to comment. Except for the “90%+” this is the USA.

    • Alon Levy

      So, in the US, the average income of transit commuters is about the same as that of drivers, first because transit riders usually live in rich metro areas like New York, and second because even internally to those regions, transit riders have solid incomes relative to those of drivers (a bit lower in New York, a bit higher in most secondary transit cities like San Francisco) because they usually work in city centers.

    • Herbert

      Mexico City very much has an elite that doesn’t use the metro. Some of them even use helicopters, because PeMex for some reason gets fuel cheap :p

  6. Borners

    Alon what’s your current opinion on recent French projects in the 3rd world, I’m thinking Morocco HSR and Dhakar TER. They look a little less cursed than the examples you list here, but that could be misreading (I can’t read French).

    • Alon Levy

      I can’t find Al-Bidaoui ridership numbers, but the Casablanca Tramway has 220,000 riders/day, so maybe 66 million/year, so about 15 per person. In Algiers, the metro had 40 million trips in 2018 and the tramway has 60,000/day, so maybe 60 million for both combined, again around 15/capita.

      The Dakar TER is plausibly the best commuter rail in Africa, but ridership is 75,000/day, so maybe 23 million/year, in a metro region of 3.6 million; it’s comparably terrible to French TERs, and to the extent secondary French cities have even semi-decent public transport, it comes from tramways and metros and not from their TERs.

      • Borners

        So less cursed? The costs of construction lower right?

        Yeah eyballing from Gmaps, Dakar looks so close to being good. It needs 10 more stations learning to run it like a metro/Japanese urban rail with cheap frequent services and then if they want to separate the hoi polloi from elites/foreigners just a special airport shuttle. The corridor is 4 track right?

        Does anywhere in France have that kind of service on surface rail?

        • BindingExport

          It’s as expensive to ride as Gautrain locking out quite a few people. Even though the entire corridor has been rebuilt it uses low-floor rolling stock without longitudinal seating. Also phase two bulldozes through built-up areas (even though other alignments bypassing and not bulldozing through Sebikotane wouldn’t even add more than 200 meters to the project) without adding any station but the airport station.

          One good thing it has going for it is that almost every crossing in the corridor has been prepared for 4-tracks so in a hypothetical future the regional trains coming from Thies (half a million people and 70 km from Dakar Gare de Central), Djourbel (200,000/150 km) and Touba (1.5 million/200 km) can use their own express tracks with limited stops.

          Dakar is also building a World-Bank blue print closed BRT with BEB costing 70 million PPP-Dollars per km. The really upsetting thing though is the concession model for operations mandated by WB: Informal competition is band from operating in adjacent streets, fares increases have to be shielded from political “interference” to ensure the operating margin of the french company holding the concession. BEB buses costing 1.6 million nominal (4.4 PPP) Dollars per vehicle. In Dar Essaalam the start of the first phase of WB-BRT also meant fare increases of up to 55% compared to the previous informal operators – something people who did previously spend 30% of their income on commuting simple could not afford.

          The other french flagship project is the metro in Abidjan which like TER sticks to the rail corridor but will use appropriate rolling stock and frequencies. While TER had to stick to the existing rail corridor simply due to the standard used without prohibitive costs – the metro in Abidjan could deviate where it makes sense but doesn’t – so a lot of it’s catchment area is a rain forest reserve and industrial areas with negligible ridership. Following Boulevard Valéry Giscard d’Estaing instead of the rail corridor going through Treichville and Marcory would add 100,000s of people to the catchment area costing maybe $350 million more (in nominal $).

          The problem of all of these “solutions” is that no SSA government (bar Angola during a sustained period of high oil prizes) could build and or extend those systems using it’s own funding and is limited to only a few corridors the WB/AFDB/AF/KfW is willing to sponsor. There are only three transit systems (with significant ridership) operating (almost) independent of outside funds:

          Anbessa and Sheger Bus in Addis move 1.05 million people per day on fixed routes with 1,500 buses of which about 1,000 are built locally. A bus goes for about 9 million Birr or 420,000 PPP-Dollars.

          Lagos has an “indigenous” version of open BRT transporting about 130,000 people per day – it has simple side platforms and low-floor buses that can operate outside the dedicated protected lanes on normal streets extending coverage of the system significantly. It also means that every new meter of infrastructure can be utilized immediately compared to closed WB-BRT that uses high floor buses that can ethically operate outside of the expensive dedicated infrastructure. The system is expanded by local state funds mainly and every year new lanes are added (at the rate funding allows).

          The last is Kigali. Rwanda forced all informal operators to consolidate into three enterprises that hold a concession for about a third of the city each. Routes are centrally planned and operators have to adhere to a fixed schedule (about , payment is entirely cash-less with funds collected by the city and payed out to the concessionaires. Across all three operators 250,000 people are carried with about 450 buses.

          • Borners

            Ah, so much for hopes!

            N/b the better examples sound a bit like South Korea before they really started investing in subways in late 1980’s.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Speaking of Gautrain: what an impossibly stupid colonial export for South Africa elites to have saddled their country with.
            Teeny tiny ilttle twee English trains, on a line designed and engineered by Britons at almost British costs, teleported from Merry Olde England onto Gauteng with pretty much no consideration for anything.

          • Herbert

            Much of Africa has one commodity which is critical for success that Europe almost entirely lacks.

            A youth that looks optimistically into a future it wishes to shape and knows will be better than the present.

            France had that in the Treinte Glorieuse and ran on its fumes during the Messmer Plan. The U.S. had more of it than Europe until recently. China has had it in spades in recent decades.

            If you have that resource, it’s much easier to “sell” temporary downsides for the bright future.

            If all talk of the future is doom and gloom and society is dominated by those who won’t see the future (bright or not) anyway, there’s much more inherent opposition to change, because it cannot be anything *but* negative, right?

    • Matthew Hutton

      Didn’t do the high speed bit but the Moroccan trains generally are pretty non shit. They seem to spend a fair chunk of time going faster than the cars even if not high speed.

      Reliability seemed decent too.

      • Borners

        It must have the highest % of electrification in Africa, and eyeballing it its actually semi-okay by European standards as % of the network (better than the UK).

        • Alon Levy

          In Ethiopia, all standard-gauge lines (2/3 of the overall length) are electrified, as they are a recent Chinese-built project. Lots of PRC investment there, including the Addis Ababa Light Rail (daily ridership: 150,000) and the career arc of Dr. Tedros (global corona death toll: 20 million and counting).

          • Herbert

            Ethiopia is one of the interesting stories in Africa because it has potential to go either way….

            It could either become an “African tiger” or the “next Zimbabwe”…

            And it all depends on political leadership…

  7. adirondacker12800

    not at all walkable, even as 90%+ of the population does not own a car.
    How do they get around? Swim?

    • Alon Levy

      They walk on streets that are dominated by cars, which can and will run them over, and often have commutes way longer than Marchetti’s constant. Same thing that people who don’t own cars do in zero-transit parts of the US, like Phoenix, except in Phoenix approximately everyone owns a car.

      • adirondacker12800

        It’s too bad they offend your upper middle class, first world sensibilities. They walk on them anyway. If there are a lot of people walking on them, they are walkable. Just like people in Manhattan will walk in traffic lanes during busy times.

        • mindstalk0

          That’s unjustifiably rude of you, adironbacker. The ‘sensibility’ you sneer at is the idea that ‘walkable’ implies “safely walkable”. Yes, poor people walk on Third World streets and US arterials. And they die, killed by drivers. Perhaps that loss of human life doesn’t offend you, but it really should.

          • Lee Ratner

            Or even if there isn’t any danger from cars, the distances could simply be too great. A one or more hour walking commute isn’t necessarily ideal.

          • adirondacker12800

            My definition of walkable is the presence of pedestrians. That people do get run down is evidence they considered it walkable. Pedestrians getting run down by automobiles is an automobile problem, not a pedestrian problem.

          • Herbert

            It’s the old debate between “people who have a choice” and “people who don’t”.

            I think every decent human should strive for people to live in a world where the desirable choice from a societal standpoint is also individually desirable. And how do we do that? By making the desirable choice attractive. And we know how to do that in many fields and are working on it in others (nutrition, energy, mobility etc.)

  8. Lee Ratner

    Once car culture takes hold, it is almost impossible to dislodge it. Even if you build good transit, many people seem to prefer to stick with their car and hope it is other people that start taking transit. You also need some stick measures to get people out of their cars and few politicians want to implement them because they know they will be kicked out of office next election.

    • Frederick

      Because the car is a superior mode of transport which can bring a passenger from anywhere to anywhere at anytime you want. The car gives you freedom of mobility.

      I can only think of two ways where public transit is better: a) Fuel consumption and environmental friendliness. b) Capacity.

      • Alon Levy

        Adirondacker likes saying that cars are great at getting you to places where and when other people don’t want to go. Anywhere with sufficiently high demand, cars don’t actually give you freedom, unless you like sitting in traffic and circling for parking.

        • Frederick

          That’s why I say public transit is better when it comes to the problem of capacity. It’s obvious that, once a settlement reached a certain level of density, then no amount of road infrastructure will be enough to solve the mobility problem.

          For some Americans, the answer to this problem is “NOT to have a dense downtown or a dense city.” This is not an option for Europeans because their city centers are historical, prestigious, and rich. But I digress.

          Outside of dense cities my point still stands, that cars are better than public transit.

          • xh

            It is density that makes city a city, via economies of scale. Low density cities shouldn’t be an option for anyone on this planet. They were created by massive government subsidy and can’t sustain themselves.

          • Henry Miller

            It isn’t density, it is the access to a large number of options. that makes cities work. Which is why sprawling US cities works, the options everyone needs (food, schools, parks) are everywhere, the options only a few people care about (magic, blacksmith supplies…), or you only use rarely (zoo, museums…) can be anywhere in the large sprawling metropolis, those who care where make the long but acceptable trip often enough to keep them open.

            Sure a dense are makes those places faster to access which is better for them. However they are still in range either way and that is good enough.

      • mindstalk0

        Public transit is also cheaper, even with the greater subsidies that cars receive relative to transit. If drivers had to pay the full social costs of driving, it would be a lot worse.

        Transit is also much safer; the death rate per passenger-km of trains and buses is like 10% that of cars, or even 1%.

        Many humans cannot drive, from age or disability; cars aren’t freedom of mobility for _them_.

        • Frederick

          Be reminded that trucks exist and they are the backbone of an industrial society. That’s why it makes sense to subsidize roads.

          And nearly all humans have friends and relatives who are able enough to drive.

          • mindstalk0

            Being dependent on the availability and goodwill of your driving-enabled friends and family is not a superior freedom to just being able to take public transit (or walk, or bike) by yourself.

            Trucks may need roads. They do not need an abundance of subsidized curbside or off-street parking, and the land-use distortions to provide such parking. They do not need recurrent rounds of road-widening to (fail to) address congestion. They do not, I think, kill nearly as many people in crashes as private cars do. They do not emit as much pollution as cars do.

            “Outside of dense cities my point still stands, that cars are better than public transit.”

            Most people now live in cities. Mostly in cities dense enough to make mass driving problematic, except when prohibited by zoning — and even the USA’s low density big cities like LA or Atlanta have massive traffic problems.

            And dense cities are more efficient in multiple dimensions, so trying to ban density means embracing inefficiency for the sake of an inefficient transportation mode, as well as _less_ freedom of mobility when you consider all humans, not just drivers of sufficient ability and financial means.

          • xh

            Should remind you that industrial revolution preceeds mass motorization.Trucks didn’t make industrial society. Trains did. With the help of direct and indirect government subsidy, trucks just took freight traffic away from existing markets served by rails instead of creating new ones. They almost succeeded in killing the entire freight rail business by encouraging decentralization of industries – the same way private cars enabled mass surbanization and caged people in car-dependent suburbs.

            Although freight rails in the US proved to be more resilient and survived, they were forced into an “efficiency” trap. Given that trucking industry don’t need to pay for roadway construction or maintenance, freight rails think they have to imitate – minimizing their infrastructure assets to remain efficient and competitive. That’s why the Class Is keep dismantling their legacy tracks and signals year over year, meanwhile investing in advanced train technology like DPUs.

            Uday Schultz wrote an excellent blog on this:


          • Frederick


            Given how many people moved into the suburbs, we can say that people (especially the US people) love to live in suburbs more than in dense cities.

            And economical efficiency is less important than the will of the people. It is more productive to work seven days a week, but people don’t want to, and you just can’t tell the people it’s for “teh ekonomikal effishensie”. If you force the people, bad things will happen.


            Neither trucks nor trains made industrial society. Ships did. Even as of now, ships are still the cheapest (thus preferred) method of transporting a lot of cargo.

          • Alon Levy

            Have you seen how expensive city centers are? There’s plenty of will to live there, but the US is unusually bad at redeveloping already developed places over NIMBY opposition. Western Europe is better but still not great – it respects anti-skyscraper NIMBYs way too much.

          • mindstalk0

            Sure, people love suburbs when other people are picking up the check. Tons of middle-class welfare and handouts subsidizing them.

            But given relative housing prices, we could say that more Americans want to live in cities than in suburbs. Or at least that there’s a huge unmet demand for urban living.

          • Luke

            @Frederick This whole line of reasoning is such B.S. It’s right there in the name: look at the word “suburb”. You can’t have a “suburb” without an “urb”. Those cities without dense, employment and consumption-heavy areas are so inefficient with that without constant growth, subsidy, or both, they fail. Look at the Rust Belt cities: heavily suburbanized, but for exogenous reasons, their population shrank, and many of them have had to declare bankruptcy, or at least have become bywords for failure (e.g., Detroit and Cleveland).

            And as Alon says, the high price of housing in urban areas is precisely a sign of success. It people didn’t want efficient, low-cost access to urban areas, proximity would be irrelevant to cost. The only cities where proximity to a geographic core is irrelevant are those without an actual economic core, clouds of activity waiting to a strong enough wind to disperse them completely. Phoenix springs to mind, especially, but this applies to other U.S. sunbelt cities (i.e., Texas, and even LA), as well. As soon as their state governments are forced to see these areas as the fiscal drains they are, they’ll fail, and eventually cease to exist.

            It seems like it can never be said enough: car-centric urban planning is a luxury that places can never truly justify, only justify.

          • Herbert

            You don’t need trucks if you do railroads right.

            A Belle Epoque era railway pioneer company could build a makeshift “last mile” Feldbahn in a week or two. There’s no reason we couldn’t do better with modern technology if we wanted to.

            And most industrial transport needs have the advantage of being relatively constant in place and scope…

  9. Lee Ratner

    It’s amazing how the idea that rail was dated technology managed to take hold throughout a good chunk of the world in the mid-20th century. Even in places where most people could not afford cars, the preference seemed to be for informal transit jitneys and buses over rail in any form and built by private or government bodies. Seoul and Sao Paulo started building their subway at the same time but Seoul managed to develop it faster and remain less of a car city. This is despite both South Korea and Brazil not being democracies at the time and democratizing around the same time in the 1980s. The car was seen as more modern in Brazil by just about everybody and got favored as the mode of transportation.

    • Alon Levy

      So, re democratization, I considered writing it in the post but decided against it on flow grounds.

      The issue is, practically no state wants to have a mixed regime (Iran is the only exception I can think of). It wants to be either democratic or undemocratic: the US, Germany, Taiwan, Israel, India, and Brazil want to be democratic, while China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Egypt want to be authoritarian. Mixed regime features are a product of either some kind of instability, as in Turkey, or more likely out of the inability of the state to fully realize its idealized regime; these features may include the Pakistani deep state, the populism and personality politics of the Philippines, the political dynasties of India and Bangladesh (and, let’s face it, the US and South Korea), the constant coups of Thailand, and whatever is happening in Bolivia right now. The same is true in autocracies that feel unable to murder all political opponents, like Venezuela with Guaidó.

      What this means is that if a regime is mixed – as in Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Indonesia, or even in more strongly democratic Brazil or Mexico – then it’s probably because the state is too weak to enforce a regime type. In East Asia, this was the situation in prewar Japan, which had 15 years of constant assassinations and coup attempts, all lightly punished as long as the perpetrators were motivated by right-wing nationalism, before settling on a totalitarian military regime that promptly started a war that led to the destruction of the state. But subsequently, the East Asian model has avoided mixed regimes – Japan has been democratic, China has been authoritarian, and South Korea and Taiwan moved rapidly from authoritarian to democratic, both transitions taking about a decade (cf. France taking from 1789 to 1871).

      Of note, I am convinced that the reason Taiwan has such high construction costs, unlike Japan and South Korea, is that it happened to be planning and building the MRT in that decade of mixed-regime instability. Seoul began building the subway in the 1970s, so it built it as a stable state with little worry about its survival, and this depoliticized characteristic survived the 1987-97 transition. Taipei, a smaller city, only did in the late 1980s, at which point the KMT could see a future in which it might not be in power, and therefore did what a lot of corrupt mixed regimes do and splurged on politically favored contractors in order to make sure the money would stay in the hands of allies rather than falling into Green hands. Taipei MRT construction was infamous for corruption in the 1990s, and involved blurred lines between party and state money precisely because the KMT party-state was in decline. The splurging in turn persisted into the current era of stable democracy.

      • Herbert

        France only allowed women the vote in its *fourth* republic.

        And if *one guy* hadn’t had a weird disdain for la Tricolore, France would’ve a monarchy before the third Republic turned eighteen…

    • Borners

      Remember Korea is a dictatorship but the combo of Land reform and a very tight labour market meant Korea was relatively equal wheras Brazil was very very unequal. Also Korean politics are highly unstable pre-democratisation; multiple coups, false democratisation moments, assassinations etc. The presence of the DPRK means legitimacy problems and a direct military threat so the state had to perform to survive, and its important to understand that the regimes often did have some democratic buy-in (think Erdogan with respect of bureaucratic expertise/practice). Regional divisions and ideological divisions added further pressure on the regime to perform (there was a right democratic opposition as well as left one, that’s where Kim Young Sam came from).

      There isn’t a good history of Korean urban development and transport yet unfortunately. Clearly there is a lot of Japanese influence on what ideas for a successful city look like, but the greater role of buses and the much more top-down land planning system mean major differences. It was and is a much more centralised society than Japan.

      • Luke

        I think it’s important to note, too, that in South Korea, the political elite on the right, which held power from Sygman Rhee until democratization after Chun Doo-hwan, were and are much more pro-Japan. Pair that elite deference to the Japanese example (Park Chung-hee’s looking at Japan’s highways and ironworks and saying, “I want that”) with the leftover infrastructure from the colonial period (both the Gyeongin Line and the Gyeongbu Line stick out in my mind), and it’s not surprising that Korea’s urban forms and transport paradigm fairly strongly resemble Japan.

        • Herbert

          In some ways the Korean War was a Japanese-Chinese proxy fight overlaid on a Soviet-American one.

          North Korea of course reverted to mean far more after 1989/1991 by aligning strongly with China whereas South Korea has dared defy Japan diplomatically on some occasions, most notably with regard to WW2 atrocities which Japan refuses to admit…

    • Herbert

      I think in Latin America it is important to remember the deep and lasting legacy of caudillismo.

      The charismatic personality of a leader (Chavez got his start with a failed coup for example) is often far more important than any alleged ideological commitment.

      If you try to understand e.g. Nicaraguan politics 1979-present on an ideological basis, you’ll have to conclude that some people went from Maoist to Trotskyist to Fascist to Leninist to liberal to Maoist. Which is of course absurd.

      Just try to analyze the career of Eden Pastora without reference to whether he personally thought allying with Ortega was in his interest at any given time. And that’s one of the guys who “invented” Sandinismo, the alleged governing ideology of Ortega…

    • Borners

      How rural is rural here? Are we talking Gunma (sprawl with industry) or Akita (rice fields lots of rice fields)? And what kind of rural Europe are we talking about? “Rural” Switzerland which probably has the best rural transit in the world is relatively dense and has freight, tourism on a scale Littoral East Asia doesn’t (Switzerland is more dense than Tohoku and Shikoku).

      Fully rural is just very hard. The real problem is not rural but in the regional cities, Yamagata, Utsunomiya Niigata, Okayama, Oita etc all have the track they need to s-bahn like services, but don’t do it. And that feeds into rural transportation weakness. These countries are dense enough that urban focused services could reach out into the rural areas quite easily.

      Japanese real estate systems are also not optimised for shrinking poor rural cities (partial exceptions like Toyama) because people want newer housing but its cheaper to build on greenfield than replace existing housing. This means you have rotting inner cores of many regional cities with increasingly decentralised employment and retail which in turn pushes people towards cars (Hachinohe, Iwaki, Fukui, Tsuruga). The exceptions are areas where rail networks are strong and there is tourism demand e.g. the prefectural capitals and their Shinkansen stations or tourist hotspots like Takayama or Kakenodate

        • Borners

          Then yeah Japan is not very good at all. I’m currently writing a dissertation on infill stations along the regional mainlines since privatisation in 1987. Short version: pretty much all of these stations are successes with 2000-6000 passengers per day, but that implies they should have at least 2x more and decades ago.

          Japanese regional transport failure is based on 1. failure to do enough electrification/infill stations to provide s-bahn style service on the regional cities 2. Lacking light rail/trams to cover the gaps for where the legacy heavy rail lines don’t go.

          • Phake Nick

            Isn’t the “LRT-ka” Conversation to LRT, recently proposed for some low ridership lines risking closure, an attempt to infill the lines?

          • Borners

            Yeah there is a real shift to loving the light rail again. And there are some real cases where its appropriate…which aren’t really happening. Integrating Iyotetsu’s trams and trains into LRT in Matsuyama and Kumaden-Kumamoto Trams in Kumamoto. Kyoto should also consider connecting up Keihan’s trams and light rail systems in northern Kyoto to relieve congestion and pressure on bus finances. They’ll say their bankrupt and I’d tell them to stop being Nimbies and build more apartments/hotels.

            Problem is that the demographic profile of most places is such that conversions are judged to have low payoff. And LRT isn’t a good option for low population DMU lines in rural Japan. Had they done it before the population decline really set in over the last 10 years, the cities could shape themselves around the system sustainably.

            We’ll see with the upcoming Utsunomiya LRT, as a former Utsunomiya commuter I have mixed feelings since it may be too little to late (Utsunomiya is wealthier and demographically healthier than most places). And I think turning the Nikko-Tohoku-honsen-Karasuyama lines into an s-bahn would have been faster, easier and cheaper.

    • Alon Levy

      Half of South Korea lives in Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi, and half of the people in that region commute by public transport. Add in Busan, Daegu, and Daejeon, and you get to a national modal split of around 30%, which I think is the highest in any developed country that isn’t a city-state (and if you define it as formal transit then I think you can also remove the qualification “developed”).

      Taiwan is more auto-oriented, yeah. I think it really does boil down to construction costs, at least in the capitals; in the second cities I’m less sure – Busan has nearly three times the ridership per km of Kaohsiung.

      • xh

        Taiwan followed the auto-oriented US as the model during its post-war reconstruction. Now it has auto-oriented infrastructures and a motorcycle-oriented population.

        • Borners

          I wouldn’t call Taiwan a US model at all. If anything South Korean’s street design (especially new Towns) is more auto-oriented than Taiwan. The real problem is a failure to build enough rail mass transit which is related to the high costs Alon has detailed and the buses aren’t as good as in Korea too (but you’d want to move to subways given the wage cost problem and….you’d want more bomb shelters).

      • JL

        There has been an effort to build more Transit in Taiwan’s secondary cities. Kaohsiung, Taichung and Taoyuan are all planning and constructing major metro expansions currently. These systems are aiming to eventually reach a 3-4 line network, which would begin to make rail transit truly useful in these cities. Kaohsiung was planned as auto-oriented city, with wide boulevards, however it’s core areas still have more than enough density to support rail transit. With these expansions, hopefully transit ridership will improve significantly. However Taiwan’s secondary cities do have relatively small metropolitains, Kaohsiung is about 2.6 million, Taichung is about 2.6 million and Taoyuan is about 2.2 million.

        In addition, Taiwan Railways Administration(TRA) has implemented several grade separation projects in urban areas, adding infill stations too. I think this actually one of the most impressive efforts to grade separate and enhance rail service around the world. Kaohsiung’s tunnel and Taichung’s viaduct have been completed, and Taoyuan’s tunnel is currently under construction. Taoyuan area’s stations for example increase from 3 stations, to 8 stations. Kaohsiung increased from 3 to 10 stations. TRA has moved towards serving commuter and short-distance trips, as the THSR replaced it on longer routes. As such, it is aiming to provide a S-Bahn like corridor which supplements existing urban transit. These new expansions have yet to lead to large ridership increases, but with metro completions in the coming decade, this should improve overall connectivity and ridership on urban transit in Taiwan.

        • xh

          Alon once said that grade separation projects are inherently roadway improvement projects rather than rail improvement projects. I think this is the case, especially for those TRA underground-ization projects.

          Take Taipei rail underground-ization project as an example. An elevated boulevard (the Civic Boulevard) was built along the ex-ROW of the now underground-ized surface rail. It’s clear that actual purpose of this underground-ization project is to relieve traffic congestion, at the cost of Railway Reconstruction Bureau’s huge capital investment and TRA’s skyrocketing operation budget, since underground rails are costlier to operate.

          Rail service did not see any improvement. Tracks though Taipei Main Station have been at capacity for a long while. Should underground-ization didn’t proceed, it would be much cheaper to quadruple this section today.

        • Joseph

          The current Taiwanese consensus is that there should be transit, but there should also be ample car infrastructure. So they push forward, slowly but surely, with new rail lines, but at the same time undermine demand with lots of new highways, underground garages, and greenfield development. Moreover, it appears to me that alignments are chosen more for coverage rather than to meet actual demand. For example, the Wanda Line makes a strange S turn through Yonghe and southern Wanhua, instead of going straight for central Taipei, and then stops a km or so short of Main Station. Meanwhile, there are no plans to relieve the overcrowded Banqiao line, and only vague discussion of relieving the Neihu line.
          Overall it sounds very similar to Korea, except maybe the poor alignment choices, but much too late to meaningfully hold off auto-oriented development.

          • Eric2

            Won’t the Wanda line (especially Phase II) and circular line both relieve the Banqiao line?

          • Joseph

            I’m not sure how? Wanda Phase 1 is too far to the east. Phase 2 is closer but only to the lower-ridership tail end which runs at half capacity anyway. Even if it was closer to the Banqiao Line, the Wanda Line doesn’t take you to any of the major destinations the Banqiao line does, or arguably to any major destination at all. If you’re headed to any of Taipei’s job or commercial centers you’re stuck with a transfer at CKS.
            The circular line is probably adding more trips to the Banqiao Line than it relieves, since it’s perpendicular and makes the Banqiao Line a more convenient option for anyone traveling from Xinzhuang, western Zhonghe/eastern Banqiao to central Taipei. It does improve travel between Banqiao and eastern Zhonghe/Yonghe/Xindian, but it’s so slow that it barely beats taking the Banqiao line to get from Xindian.
            If they really wanted to get crowds off the Banqiao Line they’d need better TRA service, a Xinzhuang Line that takes a more direct route to central/east Taipei, or improved transit on Xianmin Blvd or Zhongshan Rd.

          • Eric2

            The current Wanda Line is definitely suboptimal but I wouldn’t say a disaster.

            And yes it definitely needs an extension north, something like this (current line in orange, proposal in blue).

          • Joseph

            Perhaps not a disaster, but certainly a wasted opportunity.
            I don’t think the blue extension will work, what I saw suggested the Wanda Line will be level with and therefore blocked by CKS station. Also there is very little going on along Minzu, though the Blue Line transfer would be nice. I think the best thing they could do would be to merge it with the Minsheng Line, which also awkwardly avoids Taipei Main Station. Sending it up Bo’ai or Chonqing could provide a good transfer to the Green Line at Xiaonanmen, the Airport Line at Taipei Main, and the Red Line at Shuanglian, while providing some relief from the Red Line’s busiest section. Even better, you’d get direct access to the job centers near Taipei Main and Ximen, not to mention a two seat ride to Neihu.

        • Luke

          Yes, and a lot of public pressure goes into ensuring that future railway projects don’t interfere with road traffic. All of Seoul’s new tram-service-quality lines are almost if not entirely underground (Ui, Wirye, Sillim, Dongbuk), and one on Yeongdo in Busan is trying to be descoped by locals concerned by the possibility of essentially turning a major roadway into a tramway. There’s some real discordance in how much railway and roadway infrastructure is built in Korea.

  10. Yom Sen

    My experience with some African cities:
    In Yaoundé, Cameroun (4M people) there was no bus network within the city when I was there, I know there was one until the 80s and there have been several failed attempts of coming back. Public transport is really only collective taxis. They have bad reputation there, mostly for safety and comfort reasons, but I found the system quite efficient, you shout your destination and price (generally 100f = 0.15€ for short distances) and the driver decides to stop or not, you rarely wait for long time but sometimes need to take 2 or 3 taxis if you destination is far. They’re almost all very old Toyota Corollas painted in yellow and take up to 6 people + the driver. You can pay a little more and get a regular “taxi dépot” but you’ll need more time to get one.
    Many streets are quite walkable… due to their poor state and often not being paved. All main roads have sidewalks there is no urban freeway
    In Douala (also 4M) and smaller cities, it’s more or less the same except you also have a lot of moto-taxi (not allowed in Yaoundé, I think). I heard there used to be many bicycles but you rarely see them anymore, neither in hilly Yaoundé nor in flat Douala
    Everybody that can afford a car have it but they’re generally old cars that cost 0 in Europe because they can’t even pass the technical inspections so you don’t need to be very rich to have a car. There were in 2018 over 1.2M cars registered in the country (Vs 0.2M in 2000) for around 25M people and it’s growing fast in spite of the economy not growing.
    Any correct bus, tramway, metro or RER system would have huge success as the cities are dense and compact, but but there would need to be state capacity that current regime spent last 40 years to kill so until then cars are developing fast. Of course you have more and more traffic jams so cars won’t be a solution neither if no infrastructure improvement. The taxi system might be politically difficult to replace as many people live from that and drivers have been quite active in the past with obvious capacity to block the city.
    In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, there is supposed to be a bus network but never saw one bus, no collective taxis (and very few regular taxis) so people use cars, motorbikes or bicycles or walk depending on how rich they are.
    In Dakar, Senegal, I was there before the TER started, there was a decent bus network and no collective taxis but very efficient and safe regular taxis. You have also better roads with kind of freeways but it still remains quite walkable overall. State capacity looks indeed much better than in Cameroon in spite of lower GDP.

  11. electricangel

    This post recalls your magnificent examination of the avoided depreciation costs in New York City because people who don’t need a car can avoid thousands of dollars a year in depreciation costs. It’s a source of upward mobility for poor people not saddled with depreciation, gas, and insurance costs.

    What keeps poor cities poor is the inability of the poor to build wealth. NYC makes owning property too expensive because of housing costs, but it doesn’t saddle the poor with thousands of post-tax dollars in costs annually to own and maintain an automobile. I’d imagine the poor in Bangkok or KL might get a down payment nut out of the thousands wasted annually on cars, ignoring the cost in wasted time.

    • Tiercelet

      Well, in NYC this is sort of a give-with-one-hand, take-away-with-the-other situation. You save a lot of money on car costs, but housing supply being so tight means a lot of that savings is extracted by the landlord class (who of course have a vested interest in further suppressing the housing supply)–add to which that the real estate industry’s shenanigans create such mistrust that even the poorer people who would benefit from more housing don’t trust the only institutional mechanisms available to provide it.

      At the same time, if the non-owning class collectively are *all* accumulating a down payment but the city isn’t building excess housing, then it’s a game of musical chairs: what used to be enough of a down payment now isn’t any more, since there’s still only X apartments for offer. For that wealth to be realized, people have to leave the city, which means they no longer benefit from either the resources available from cities or from the savings of a transit-oriented lifestyle.

  12. Herbert

    This reminds me a bit of that Marxian aside about Russian village communities having proto socialist elements and whether one could jump from that to true socialism without having to tear it down via capitalism first. I think history gave a pretty definitive “no” answer…

    But then we *do* see examples of the global South “skipping steps”. Like landlines. Or large amounts of paper money (instead paying with phone credit based systems). And some wish to skip fossil fuels by going nuclear from the get-go… Unfortunately KWU is no more, Rosatom is a shady supplier and the Hualong One isn’t yet being exported in large numbers. Are the Koreans up for it?

    • Alon Levy

      In developing countries, there are big trust issues that reduce acceptance of nuclear power. The same is true of the developmental Asian states; the center-left in Taiwan calls itself the Pan-Green Coalition after the green movement, specifically its anti-nuclear aspects, because who the hell could trust the 1980s’ KMT (or, let’s be real, the 2010s’ KMT) to operate these plants safely.

      In India, there is some construction of nuclear power, but not much – right now it’s 1.5% of installed capacity and falling, not because plants are taken offline (they’re not, they’re growing) but because everything else is growing faster; supposedly a bunch of new thorium reactors are going to come online in the next few years, but the program is not massive. The closest thing to a recognizable center-left in India, AAP (in charge of two small states), is anti-nuclear on anti-corruption grounds, and meanwhile, renewables are growing very fast and are 40% of overall capacity. The renewable share of actual electricity is of course much lower – just 22%, about half of which is hydro, with nuclear adding another 3%, but that 22% is rising pretty quickly.

    • Phake Nick

      Answer to first part of your comment is pretty easy – That Marx’s vision of socialism being a more progressive form of capitalism is incorrect

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