Category: Environmental Issues
Quick Note: New Jersey Highway Widening Alternatives
The Effective Transit Alliance just put out a proposal for how New Jersey can better spend the $10 billion that it is currently planning on spending on highway widening.
The highway widening in question is a simple project, and yet it costs $10.7 billion for around 13 km. I’m unaware of European road tunnels that are this expensive, and yet the widening is entirely above-ground. It’s not even good as a road project – it doesn’t resolve the real bottleneck across the Hudson, which requires rail anyway. It turns out that even at costs that New Jersey Transit thinks it can deliver, there’s a lot that can be done for $10.7 billion:
I contributed to this project, but not much, just some sanity checks on costs; other ETA members who I will credit on request did the heavy pulling of coming up with a good project list and prioritizing them even at New Jersey costs, which are a large multiple of normal costs for rail as well as for highways. I encourage everyone to read and share the full report, linked above; we worked on it in conjunction with some other New Jersey environmental organizations, which supplied some priorities for things we are less familiar with than public transit technicalities like bike lane priorities.
Berlin’s U-Bahn Expansion Plan
An obscure change in German benefit-cost analysis regulations has led to expansive proposals for urban rail construction in Germany. In Berlin, where ongoing coalition negotiations between CDU and SPD are leading in a developmentalist cars-and-trains direction, this led BVG to propose a massive program for growing the U-Bahn from its current 155 km of route-length to 318. The BVG proposal is split fairly evenly between good lines and lines that duplicate the S-Bahn and have little transportation value, and yet I’ve not seen much discussion of the individual technical merit of the program. Instead, anti-developmental activists who think they’re being pro-environment, such as BUND, regurgitate their anti-U-Bahn conspiracy theories and go to the point of associating subway tunneling with the Nazis. (I, unlike native Europeans, associate the Nazis with the Holocaust instead.)
What is the BVG proposal?
A number of media outlets have produced maps of the proposal; here is Tagesspiegel’s, reproduced here because it shows S-Bahn and regional lines as thin but visible lines.
All nine lines of the U-Bahn are to be extended, most in both directions; U3 and U4, currently a branch of U1 and a low-ridership shuttle line respectively, are to be turned into full main lines via Mitte. In addition, a ring line called U0 is to be built, duplicating the Ringbahn on its western margin and taking over some lines currently planned as radial extensions to Tegel, and running as a circumferential at consistently larger radius than the Ring to the south, east, and north.
The immediate news leading BVG to propose this plan is a combination of federal and city-level changes. The federal change is obscure and I only saw it discussed by one low-follower account on Twitter, Luke Horn. Luke points out that after years of red tape, the federal government finally released its updated benefit-cost analysis regulations. As those are used to score projects, city and state governments are required to follow exact rules on which benefits may be counted, and at what rate.
One of these benefits is modal shift. It’s notoriously hard to measure, to the point that anti-U-Bahn advocates argued based on one low-count measurement that U-Bahn construction generated more emissions than it saved through modal shift; their study has just been retracted for overestimating construction emissions, but the authors are unrepentant.
At any rate, on the 21st, the new federal rules were finally published. Greenhouse gas emissions avoided through modal shift are to be counted as a benefit at the rate of 670€ per metric ton of CO2 (see PDF-p. 243). This is a high number, but it’s only high when it comes to pushing carbon taxes through a political system dominated by old climate denialists; by scientific consensus it’s more reasonable – for example, it’s close to the Stern Report estimates for the 2020s. If Germany imposed a carbon tax at this rate, and not the current rate of 55€/t, the fuel price here would grow by around 1.50€/liter, roughly doubling the price and helping kill the growing market for SUVs and luxury cars. If that is the rate at which modal shift is modeled, then even with an undercount of how urban rail construction substitutes for cars, many otherwise marginal lines pencil out.
The city-level change is that Berlin just had a redo of the 2021 election, and while technically the all-left coalition maintained its majority, CDU got the most votes, which gave Mayor Franziska Giffey (SPD) the excuse she needed to break the coalition and go into a grand coalition negotiation with CDU. Giffey had had to resign from the federal cabinet in the late Merkel era when it turned out that she had plagiarized her thesis, leading the university to revoke her degree, but out of shamelessness she remained Berlin SPD’s mayoral candidate and won in 2021. The Greens thought little of having to serve under such a scandalized mayor, and out of personal pettiness, Giffey, politically well to the right of most SPD voters anyway, accused them of personally disrespecting her and went into negotiations with CDU.
The importance of this is that the Greens (and Die Linke) are a pro-tram, anti-U-Bahn, NIMBY party. When CDU and SPD said they’d finally develop the parade of Tempelhofer Feld with housing, an advisor to a Green Bundestag member accused them of wanting to develop the area out of personal spite, and not, say, out of wanting Berlin to have more housing. Under the all-left coalition, U-Bahn planning continued but at a slow pace, and by far the most important extension on a cost per rider basis, sending U8 north to Märkisches Viertel, was deprioritized; CDU’s campaign in the election was mostly about parking and opposition to road diets, but it also hit the Greens on their opposition to U-Bahn development.
The plan as it stands has a few sops to CDU. The U0 ring is the most significant: in a country where the median age is 45, under-18s can’t vote, and CDU is disproportionately an old people’s party, CDU’s median voter was an adult through the era of the Berlin S-Bahn Boycott, as both halves of the S-Bahn were run by the East during the Cold War. Where CSU supports the Munich S-Bahn as a vehicle for conservatives to move away from the left-wing city while still having access to city jobs, Berlin CDU is uniquely more negative toward the S-Bahn. Thus, the plan has a line that mostly duplicates the Ring. The U2 expansion to the west duplicates the S-Bahn as well, especially west of Spandau. Finally, the proposed western terminus of U1 is explicitly billed as a park-and-ride, which type of service Berlin CDU has long supported.
But other than the U0 ring, the plan is not too different from things that have long been planned. The longest segment other than U0 is the U3 extension to the northeast; this was part of the 200 km plan already in the 1950s, except originally the plan for this extension was not to hook into U3 as on post-Cold War plans but to run along an alignment closer to that of U9, whose southern terminus at Rathaus Steglitz was even built with room for this line, then numbered U10. A fair number of other sections on BVG’s map have a long history of languishing in unfavorable benefit-cost ratios. Other than U0, the plan is rather similar to what was studied in 2019:
However, this history has not prevented people from literally comparing BVG’s plan to the Nazis. The more prosaic reality is that the 1938 Welthauptstadt Germania U-Bahn expansion plan, other than its ring (built inside of the Ringbahn, the opposite of U0), made it to the 200 km plan and most of the lines it proposed were built, the largest change being that Cold War realities made West Berlin build U7 and U9 to serve the center of West Berlin at the Zoo rather than as additional lines serving Mitte.
The issue of costs
I have not seen an official cost estimate. BUND, which opposes the plan on the grounds that building tramways is better, says that it would cost 35 billion euros. Judging by recent construction costs of realized and proposed lines in Berlin, I think this estimate is broadly correct, if the project is run well.
The estimate is then about 210 million €/km, which looks realistic. The construction of the U5 extension from Alexanderplatz to Brandenburger Tor opened in 2020 at a cost of 280 million €/km in 2022 prices, but that was in the very center of the city, including a station at Museumsinsel mined directly beneath the Spree, for which BVG had to freeze the sandy soil. Conversely, the estimates of outer extensions that were already under planning before a week ago are lower: U7, the most advanced of these, is projected at 890 million € for about 8 km, or 110 million €/km, in an unusually easy (not really urbanized) tunneling environment.
The risk is that such a large project, done all at once, would strain the planning capacity of Berlin and Brandenburg. This exact risk happened in Paris: at 205 million €/km for 80% underground construction Grand Paris Express is more expensive per km than smaller Métro extensions built in the 2010s as it’s so large the region ran out of in-house planning capacity, and its response, setting up a British-style special purpose delivery vehicle (SPDV) along the lines of Crossrail, has resulted in British-style permanent loss of state capacity. Now, even the short Métro extensions, like the planned eastern M1 extension, cost more like GPE and not like similar projects from 10 years ago.
Notably, while France and the Nordic countries are seeing growing construction costs (France from a medium-low level and the Nordic countries from a very low one), Germany is not. I haven’t been able to find historic costs for Berlin with few exceptions. One of those exception, the last section of U9, cost 235 million € in 2022 prices for 1.5 or 1.6 km, or around 150 million €/km; this was built in 1968-74, in a relatively easy area, albeit with extra costs as noted above preparing for the U10 line. Another exception is the final section of U7 to Spandau, which cost around 800 million € for 4.9 km, or around 160 million €/km. Taken together with some numbers I posted here, it’s notable that in the 1970s, the construction costs per km in Italy, Germany, and the UK were all about the same but since then German costs have stayed the same or at worst inched up, Italian costs have fallen due to the anti-corruption laws passed in the wake of mani pulite, and British costs have quadrupled.
The most frustrating part of this discourse is that I’ve yet to see a single German rail advocate express any interest in the issue of costs. The critics of U-Bahn and other rail transport expansion plans who cite costs, of which BUND is a prime example, never talk about how to make metro construction in Germany cheaper; instead, they use it as an argument for why building underground railways is a waste of money, and urban rail must take the form of streetcars, which are held to be not only cheaper but also more moral from a green point of view as they annoy drivers. The same problem crops up in the discourse on high-speed rail, where Germany makes fairly easily fixable mistakes, generally falling under the rubric of over-accommodation of NIMBYs, and thus instead of figuring out how to build more lines, advocates write the idea off as impractical and instead talk about how to run trains on slow lines.
Can Berlin make do with streetcars?
The problem with streetcars is that, no matter how much priority they get over other street traffic, they’re still slow. T3 in Paris, about the most modern urban tramway I’ve seen, running in a grassy reservation in the middle of the 40 meter wide Boulevards des Maréchaux, averages 18 km/h. The Berlin streetcars average 17.6 km/h; they don’t have 100% dedicated lanes at places, but for the most part, they too are run to very high standards, and only minor speedups can be seriously expected. Meanwhile, the U-Bahn averages 30.5 km/h, which is on the high side for the 780 m stop spacing, but is without driverless operations, which raised Paris’s average speed on M1 with its 692 m interstation from 24.4 to 30 km/h, at least in theory. The best Berlin can do with tramway modernization is probably around 20 km/h; the best it can do with the U-Bahn is probably 35 km/h, and with the S-Bahn maybe 45 km/h.
And Berlin is already large enough to need the speed. Leipzig is a good example of an Eastern city maintaining modal split with no U-Bahn, just streetcars and a recently-opened S-Bahn tunnel; in 2018, its modal split for work trips was 47% car, 20% public transport, 22% bike, 11% pedestrian (source, p. 13). But most of the walkable urban area of Leipzig is contained within a four kilometer radius of the main train station, a large majority of the city’s population is within six, and by eight one is already in the suburbs. Slow transportation like bikes and trams can work at that scale, to an extent.
In contrast with Leipzig’s smaller scale, I live four km from Berlin Hauptbahnhof and I’m still in Mitte, albeit at the neighborhood’s southeastern corner where Hbf is at the northwestern one. From the most central point, around Friedrichstrasse, both the Zoo and Warschauer Strasse are four km away, and both have high-rise office buildings. At eight km, one finally gets to Westkreuz and ICC-Messe, Steglitz, Lichtenberg, and the former airport grounds of Tegel; Gropiusstadt, a dense housing project built as transit-oriented development on top of U7, is 13 km from Friedrichstrasse by straight line.
The actual average speed, door-to-door, is always lower than the in-vehicle average speed. There’s access time, which is independent of mode, but then wait times are shorter on a high-intensity metro system than on a more diffuse streetcar network, and extra time resulting from the fact that rail lines don’t travel in a straight line from your home to your destination scales with in-vehicle travel time.
Leipzig’s modal split for work trips is 47% car, 20% public transport. Berlin’s is 28% car, 40% public transport. This is partly because Berlin is bigger, but mostly related to the city’s U-Bahn network; closer to Leipzig’s size class, one finds Prague, with a larger per capita urban rail ridership than Berlin or even Paris, with a system based on metro lines fed by streetcars and high-intensity development near the metro.
Berlin’s multiple centers make this worse. The same tram-not-subway NIMBYs who oppose U-Bahn development believe in building polycentric cities, which they moralize as more human-scale than strong city centers with tall buildings (apparently, Asia is inhuman). The problem is that when designing transportation in a polycentric city, we must always assume the worst-case scenario – that is, that an East Berliner would find work near the Zoo or even at ICC and a Spandauer would find it in Friedrichshain. The Spandauer who can only choose jobs and social destinations within streetcar distance for all intents and purposes doesn’t live in Berlin, lacking access to any citywide amenities or job opportunities; not for nothing, Spandauers don’t vote for NIMBYs, but for pro-development politicians like Raed Saleh.
Truly polycentric cities are not public transport-oriented. Upper Silesia is auto-oriented while Warsaw has one of Europe’s strongest surface rail networks. In Germany, the Rhine-Ruhr is an analog: its major cities have strong internal Stadtbahn networks, but most of the region’s population doesn’t live in Cologne or Essen or Dortmund or Dusseldorf, and the standard way to get between two randomly-selected towns there, as in Silesia, is by car.
The reason BUND and other NIMBYs don’t get this is a historical quirk of Germany. The Stadtbahn – by which I mean the subway-surface mode, not the Berlin S-Bahn line – was developed here in the 1960s and 70s, at a time of rapidly rising motorization. The goal of the systems as built in most West German cities was to decongest city center by putting the streetcars underground; then, the streetcar lines that fed into those systems were upgraded and modernized, while those that didn’t were usually closed. The urban New Left thus associates U-Bahn construction with a conspiracy to get trains out of cars’ way, and Green activists have reacted to the BVG plan by saying trams are the best specifically because they interfere with cars.
That belief is, naturally, hogwash. The subway-surface trolley, for one, was invented in turn-of-the-century Boston and Philadelphia, whose centers were so congested by streetcars, horsecars, and pedestrians that it was useful to bury some of the lines even without any cars. The metro tunnel was invented in mid-Victorian London for the same reason: the route from the train terminals on Euston Road to the City of London was so congested with horsecars there was demand for an underground route. Today, there’s less congestion than there was then, but only because the metro has been invented and the city has spread out, the latter trend raising the importance of high average speed, attainable only with full grade separation.
BUND and others say that the alternative to building 170 km of U-Bahn is building 1,700 km of streetcar. Setting aside that streetcars tend to be built in easier places and I suspect a more correct figure than 1,700 is 1,000 km, Berlin can’t really use 1,700 or 1,000 or even 500 km of tramway, because that would be too slow. Saturating every major street within the Ring with surface rail tracks would run into diminishing returns fast; the ridership isn’t there, getting it there requires high-density development that even SPD would find distasteful and not just the Greens, and streetcars with so many intersections with other streetcars would have low average speed. I can see 100-200 km of streetcar, organized in the Parisian fashion of orbital lines feeding the U- and S-Bahn; M13 on Seestrasse is a good example. But the core expansion must be U- and S-Bahn.
Okay, but is the BVG plan good?
Overall, it’s important for Berlin to expand its U- and S-Bahn networks, both by densifying them with new trunk lines and by expanding them outward. However, some of the lines on the BVG map are so out there that the plan is partly just crayon with an official imprint.
The way I see it, the proposal includes 2.5 new trunk lines: U3 (again, formerly planned as U10), U4, and the western extension of U5.
Of those, U3 and U5 are unambiguously good. Not for nothing, they’ve been on the drawing board for generations, and many of their difficult crossings have already been built. Jungfernheide, where U5 would connect with U7, was built with such a connection in mind; the plan was and to an extent remains to extend U5 even further, sending it north to what used to be Tegel Airport and is now a planned redevelopment zone as the Urban Tech Republic, but the new BVG proposal gives away the Tegel connection to the U0 ring.
The U3 and U4 trunks in fact are planned along the routes of the two busiest tramways in the city, the M4 and combined M5/M6/M8 respectively (source, p. 7). The U3 plan thus satisfies all criteria of good subway construction – namely, it’s a direct radial line, in fact more direct than U2 (built around and not on Leipziger Strasse because the private streetcar operator objected to public U-Bahn development on its route), replacing a busy surface route. The U4 expansion mostly follows the same criterion; I am less certain about it because where M5 and M6 today serve Alexanderplatz, the proposed route goes along that of M8, which passes through the northern margin of city center, with some employment but also extensive near-center residential development near the Mitte/Gesundbrunnen boundary. I’m still positive on the idea, but I would rate it below the U3 and U5 extensions, and am also uncertain (though not negative) on the idea of connecting it from Hbf south to U4.
The U5 extension parallels no streetcar, but there’s high bus ridership along the route. The all-left coalition was planning to build a streetcar instead of an U-Bahn on this route. If it were just about connecting Jungfernheide to Hbf I’d be more understanding, but if the Urban Tech Republic project is built, then that corner of the region will need fast transportation in multiple directions, on the planning principle outlined above that in a polycentric city the public transport network must assume the worst-case scenario for where people live and work.
All of Berlin’s nine U-Bahn lines are planned with at least one outward extension. These are a combination of very strong, understandable, questionable, and completely drunk.
The strongest of them all is, naturally, the U8 extension to Märkisches Viertel. In 2021, it was rated the lowest-cost-per-rider among the potential extensions in the city, at 13,160€/weekday trip; the U7 extension to the airport is projected to get 40,000 riders, making it around 22,000€/trip. It has long been to the city’s shame that it has not already completed this extension: Märkisches Viertel is dense, rather like Gropiusstadt on the opposite side of the city except with slightly less nice architecture, and needs a direct U-Bahn connection to the center.
Several other extensions are strong as well – generally ones that have been seriously planned recently. Those include U7 to the airport, the combination of the one-stop expansion of U2 to Pankow Kirche and the northeastern extension of U9 to intersect it and then terminate at the S-Bahn connection at Pankow-Heinersdorf, and U7 to the southwest to not just the depicted connection to U1 at Gatower Strasse but also along the route that the new plan gives to U1 to Heerstrasse.
The U3 expansion to the southwest is intriguing in a different way. It’s a low-cost, low-benefit extension, designed for network completeness: a one-stop extension to the S-Bahn at Mexikoplatz is being planned already, and the BVG plan acknowledges near-future S-Bahn plans adding a new southwestern branch and connect to it at Düppel.
Unfortunately, most of the other radial extensions go in the opposite direction from U3: where U3 acknowledges S-Bahn expansion and aims to connect with it, these other plans are closely parallel to S-Bahn lines that are not at capacity and are about to get even more capacity soon. Spandau, in particular, sees a train every 10 minutes; the Stadtbahn’s core segment has three trains in 10 minutes, with more demand from the east than from the west, so that a train every 10 minutes goes to Spandau, another goes to Potsdam, and a third just turns at Westkreuz since demand from the west is that weak. Creating more demand at Spandau would rebalance this system, whereas building additional U-Bahn service competing with current S-Bahn service (especially the U1 plan, which loses benefit west of the Ring) or with future expansion (such as U2 – compare with the expansion on the 2019 plan) would just waste money.
The southern extensions are a particularly bad case of not working with the S-Bahn but against it. The North-South Tunnel has 18 peak trains per hour, like the Stadtbahn; this compares with 30 on the trunk of the Munich S-Bahn. The ongoing S21 project should divert southeast, but as currently planned, it’s essentially a second North-South Tunnel, just via Hbf and not Friedrichstrasse, hence plans to beef up service to every five minutes to Wannsee and add branches, such as to Düppel. This massive increase in S-Bahn capacity is best served with more connections to the S-Bahn south of the Ring, such as east-west streetcars feeding the train; north-south U-Bahn lines, running more slowly than the S-Bahn, are of limited utility.
Finally, the extension of U1 to the northeast is a solution looking for a problem. U1’s terminus is frustratingly one S-Bahn stop away from the Ring, and perhaps the line could be extended east. But it points north, and is elevated, and past the U5 connection at Frankfurter Tor there’s no real need to serve the areas with another line to Friedrichshain.
The radial component of the BVG plan includes good and bad ideas. In contrast, the U0 ring is just a bad idea all around. The problem is that it doesn’t really hit any interesting node, except Tegel and Westkreuz, and maybe Steglitz and Pankow; Alt-Mariendorf, for example, is not especially developed. Berlin is polycentric within the Ring, but the importance of destinations outside it is usually low. This should be compared with Grand Paris Express’s M15 ring, passing through La Défense and the Stade de France.
Where circumferential service is more useful is as a feeder to S- and U-Bahn lines connecting people with the center. However, metro lines don’t make good feeders for other metro lines; this is a place where streetcars are genuinely better. The required capacity is low, since the constraints are on the radial connection to the center. The expected trip length is short and a transfer is required either way, which reduces the importance of speed – and at any rate, these outer circumferential routes are likely less congested, which further reduces the speed difference. The differences in cost permit streetcars to hit multiple stations on each line to connect with (though this means two parallel lines, not ten); this is not the same as fantasies about 1,700 km of streetcar in areas where people vote Green.
Is this a good plan?
Well, it’s about half good. Of the 163 km in BVG’s proposal, I think around 68 are good, and the rest, split between the U0 ring and the less useful outer extensions, should be shelved. That’s the crayon element – parts of the plan feel like just drawing extra extensions, by which I mean not just U0 but also the southern extensions.
However, substantial expansion of the U-Bahn is obligatory for Berlin to maintain healthy growth without being choked by cars. NIMBY fantasies about deurbanizing workplace geography would make the city more like Los Angeles than like their ideal of a 15-minute bikable small city center. Berlin needs to reject this; small is not beautiful or sustainable, and the city’s transport network needs to grow bigger and better with a lot more subway construction than is currently planned.
What’s more, the fact that construction costs in Germany are fundamentally the same in real terms as they were 40-50 years ago means that the country should accelerate its infrastructure construction program. Benefits for the most part scale with national GDP per capita – for example, the value of time for commuters, students, and other travelers so scale. Ignoring climate entirely, lines that were marginal in 1980 should be strong today; not ignoring climate, they are must-builds, as is high-density housing to fill all those trains and enable people to live in a desirable city with low car usage.
FDP and Vice Signaling
Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) just tweeted that more investment in roads is good – because if traffic flows more smoothly then there will be less greenhouse gas emissions. Reaction was not positive, and as of when I’m writing, 16 hours later, it is mildly ratioed. People understand that this is wrong. Lindner himself probably gets this too. Understanding what’s going on here requires talking about bullshit in the philosophical sense of Harry Frankfurt, and about something that I don’t have a better name for than vice signaling.
Is it true?
Absolutely not. It’s standard in transport studies that the construction of more highways in high-demand areas induces more traffic, as people take advantage of the greater convenience of driving. Drivers drive to new destinations that they forwent or chose to take public transport to, and new developments are built in areas opened by new highway development.
There may be exceptions to this in declining areas. The United States loves building new grade-separated interchanges in declining regions. This doesn’t generate new demand, because traffic is already uncongested, and the purpose of roadbuilding there is a political statement more than transport policy. But that’s not Germany. The roads under discussion here are in growth regions: there’s a plan to widen the beltway around Munich, A99, to 10 lanes, and the federal and Berlin FDP have both badgered Berlin to build a further stage of A100 parallel to the Ringbahn, which the city wants not to under the influence of the Green Party. Both motorway projects are likely to lead to adverse mode shift if built, and Lindner knows this.
There’s a developmental argument that induced demand is actually good. Matt Yglesias has made it before, saying that if road building induces more traffic then it means people get to take more trips and are better off. Many roadbuilders have made that very argument, and others were aware of it; Robert Moses, for example, was perfectly aware that his parkways and bridges were inducing more car traffic, and was fine with it, because he thought more driving was good. But that’s not what Lindner is saying: Lindner is saying that building new motorways and keeping them without a speed limit reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which is just bullshit.
The term “bullshit” has a precise meaning in analytic philosophy, due to Harry Frankfurt. It comprises a type of deception about the speaker’s mindset, rather than about the facts, unlike an ordinary lie. A politician who denies a scandal they are involved with is lying: their goal is to get you to believe that they are innocent of this scandal. A politician who, having been caught in said scandal, launches a series of schlock patriotic speeches is bullshitting: their goal is to get you to think they are fundamentally aligned with your values. From Frankfurt’s original essay, we have,
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”
The statement “widening roads reduces CO2 emissions” is this kind of bullshit. It is not quite a lie: it is false, but Lindner is not especially concerned with whether it is true or false. His goal is not to persuade people that building another section of A100 and widening A99 is good for climate; nobody who cares about climate change thinks that. Rather, his goal is to position himself as the sort of person who doesn’t listen to climate advocates and will just push for road widenings. The deception is part of the positioning: if he’d said that he understands the Greens’ argument against road investment but roads are important for economic development, he’d come off as too reasonable, which is not his intention.
Sounding deliberately unreasonable is the domain of populist politicians, and Frankfurt himself and many of his followers have noticed how political bullshit is on the rise as populism grows more normalized. Nigel Farage, for example, bullshitted that smoking isn’t bad for your health. And FDP is a populist party, despite its liberal origins and relatively moderate political positioning; it swung from deficit scold at the start of the current government to tax scold precisely as inflation rose last year, the opposite of what one should expect of a Washington Consensus-following economically orthodox party.
There’s a pseudo-academic term going around the web, virtue signaling. The idea is that individuals and organizations engage in actions to signal that they’re better people than they really are; companies hire consultants on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) without ever doing anything about their glass ceiling and harassment problems.
But it may be more fruitful to discuss its opposite – that is, vice signaling. This is when people take actions to portray themselves as terrible people, for any number of reasons:
- Loyalty: criminal gangs are deliberately threatening and often require that prospective members commit murder (this is a requirement to become a made man in the Italian-American mafia), because this forces new members to have crossed both a moral and a legal event horizon from which they can’t come back; populist political movements don’t require crimes, but do require ridiculous beliefs
- Novelty: this is what in the online language of the early 2010s was called the Slate Pitch – a take that aims to be novel by saying something really out there, often by writers who can’t separate themselves from the rest of the pack by any more productive means
- Love of power: some people lie to you, with your full knowledge that they’re lying, just to flex that they can get away with it
Lindner loves this kind of vice signaling, I think out of novelty more than anything. FDP could be a party of YIMBYism, fiscal conservatism, and digital governance; younger members of the party who identify with neoliberalism wish that it were that party. The problem is that the difference between such a party and SPD is not large; Scholz ran on building more housing Germany-wide, and there’s a fair amount of consensus in favor of this in the party’s wings. SPD’s worst attributes so far are its officious leadership anchored in the Lower Saxony clique and consequently its sluggish governance and refusal to do more to support Ukraine – but FDP has the exact same problems, Lindner having told Ukraine when it asked for aid as the war started that there was no point since they’d fall in hours either way.
So to distinguish themselves from everyone else, FDP engages in vice signaling about climate and transport. They’re not trying to convince anyone that their policies are good for climate change. Rather, they’re doing the exact opposite: they’re trying to convince center-right voters that they’re an internal opposition within a coalition that is engaging in modal shift in federal funding priorities, and that they are explicitly against any climate action, because cars are good and only annoying hippies prefer trains.
Push and Pull Factors and Measuring Modal Shift
There’s a longstanding debate among activists and academics about what the best way of effecting modal shift from cars to public transport is. Pull factors concern making public transport better through building more rail lines, running them more frequently, improving service convenience, or reducing fares. Push factors concern making driving harder through speed limits, fuel taxes, congestion pricing, and reallocation of street space from cars to public and non-motorized transport. There’s a tendency on the New Left to favor push factors (but the East Asian developmental states are best characterized as push-before-pull and not pure pull).
This has been refined by researchers at the climate research institute, the Ariadne Project, who published a paper in late 2021 rating various push and pull policies on effectiveness for reducing transport emissions. They conclude that push factors dominate, and pull factors are small, with construction of new public transit almost insignificant, only worth a reduction of around 300,000 tons of CO2 a year Germany-wide, 0.039% of national emissions as of 2021; instituting a 120 km/h speed limit on the Autobahn is said to have about 10 times that effect, while the biggest effects yet would come from carbon taxes. The study laments that pull factors are so much more popular than push factors, which they admit suppress society-wide consumption.
The research suffers from the same problem as other work in this direction, in that it is bad at estimating the impact of public transport on mode shift. It briefly argues that construction of public transport increases overall consumption and therefore doesn’t do much to reduce emissions. This way, it’s like 2020’s carbon critique of U-Bahn expansion, which I criticized two months ago; the carbon critique argues that each kilometer of U-Bahn built only reduces CO2 emissions by 714 tons a year through mode shift, under the assumption that only 20% of public transport riders are diverted from cars.
This doesn’t pass a sanity check. 300,000 divided by 714 is 420 km, which is about comparable to the total route length of the four grade-separated U-Bahn systems in Germany plus the Wuppertal Schwebebahn; I think the two figures, 300,000 and 714/km, come from different sources, and judging by the other elements in the study, I suspect 300,000 assumes less construction than a full doubling of Germany’s rapid transit network length. Nonetheless, even under a more generous assumption, this is far too low compared with macro trends in public transport usage.
The best way to use macro trends as a sanity check is to look at some cases with much more and much less public transport than the present. Do they look like it’s a total difference of 0.039%? No, and that’s even taking into account that transit cities tend to be wealthier, stimulating more consumption and more production. As I pointed out in my post two months ago, while Germany averages 9.15 t-CO2/capita, Berlin only does 5.38, and while Germany averages 580 cars per 1,000 people, Berlin only does 327. The difference is largely about Berlin’s pull factors. Push factors in the city are not extensive, and what exists is implemented only in areas that already have very low car use.
Even lower household emissions in Berlin must be viewed as downstream of the density that is enabled by the presence of a large urban rail network. Cars are a low-capacity mode of transport, so an auto-oriented region, like American metro regions, has to spread out its homes and destinations to limit congestion, and this increases household emissions (single-family houses emit more than apartment buildings) and also encourages people to travel longer distances for their commute and routine non-commute trips.
This is not easy to measure. Public transport projects have gotten fairly good in the last generation at estimating ridership, but estimating the responsibility of one particular project to modal shift is hard. It interacts with the entire city region. For example, building one rail line can be measured to shift modes in the neighborhoods it serves, but it also encourages destinations to locate in city center since people from the neighborhoods the line serves can now access it, and the increase in office, retail, and community development then leads to a small modal shift citywide. Worse, trying to tease out the effect of the rail line on modal shift sufficiently carefully may lead researchers to count this citywide effect negatively, since one econometric technique is to compare the neighborhoods near the line with neighborhoods in the same city not on the line.
In practice, the construction of rail lines tends to co-occur with other policies that improve public transport, which may be pull or push factors. This means that it’s very easy to misattribute the effect of urban rail expansion to those other factors. I am convinced that this is what is happening here; the proper comparison must be at the level of an entire region, looking at the emissions of different regions with different levels of public transport usage.
The upshot is that if it is hard to measure the effect of public transport construction on modal shift and emissions, then the uncertain factors should not be set to zero. Rather, they should be set to sanity-check levels. For example, one can compare New York with the rest of the United States, since it’s a starker difference between a transit city and an auto-oriented country than anywhere in Europe, and correct for non-transport effects like climate and electricity mix, both of which are easy to measure.
Within Germany, Berlin has 42% lower emissions than the rest of the country per capita. Berlin achieves this with an urban rail network that, in 2019, got 1,289 million rail trips, nearly all within the city of 3.7 million, a minority in the suburban region of perhaps 1.3 million. This is around 250 trips/person regionwide, and 320/person citywide assigning around 20% of S-Bahn ridership to suburbs like Potsdam and Oranienburg. What’s more, Germany doesn’t start from zero; this is not the United States, with multiple large cities with around 10 annual rail trips per capita. Netting out buses from VDV’s data (p. 25) gets around 6.3 billion rail trips in Germany in 2019 including trams, or 75 per capita.
The difference between 320 and 75 is around 250 – I know it’s actually 245 but at this point I’m deliberately reducing precision because those are sanity-check estimates and I don’t want people thinking they’re correct to three significant figures (try 1.5). If we attribute the entire Berlin-Germany difference of about 3.8 t-CO2/capita to public transport and downstream changes to the urban layout, then we get 0.015 t saved per annual trip generated. To get from there to 300,000 tons saved, we just need 20 million annual rail riders, or around 65,000 daily ones, which is easy to generate on a single line; the approximately 2 km extension of U8 to Märkisches Viertel that Berlin keeps postponing is estimated to generate 25,000-30,000.
Now, to sanity-check the sanity check, the estimate here is that every trip on urban rail saves 15 kg-CO2. This is an aggressive figure; new cars nowadays average 100 g/km and averaged 180 g/km in 2001 (source, PDF-p. 15), and the average displaced car trip is not 150 km or even 80 km – Americans average around 45 km/day, or somewhat more when only adults are considered. Rather, the issue is a combination of factors:
- Because the limiting factor to car transport is capacity, in practice what happens in an auto-oriented region is that it fills from the inside outward, and any modal shift ends up displacing the outermost and longest car trips. I proposed a model for that in a blog post from four years ago.
- Public transport displaces car trips on a more than one-to-one basis (and certainly more than 20% as in the carbon critique of the U-Bahn). This is because public transport users also walk and bike, and transit cities have high modal splits for active transport by the standards of auto-oriented cities, if not by the standards of Dutch cities. Berlin’s all-trip modal split in 2018 was 26% car, 27% public transport, 18% bike, 30% walking – and the high active transport modal split exists not because of road diets, which are few and far between, but because of the presence of a large core fed by the U- and S-Bahn.
- Public transport reduces household energy usage by encouraging people to live in apartment buildings with shared walls rather than in single-family houses, which have much greater heating requirements; this is also the mechanism through which transit cities have relatively high usage of active transport even without trying very hard.
I don’t think these factors fully explain away the gap between 45 km/day and 150 km per trip (so around 300/day), but they explain a large enough fraction of it that the installation of a system like what Berlin has – or, better, what Tokyo has – should be a climate priority. If your model says it doesn’t, it needs a lot more work than to just talk about the consumption effects of more public transport (if you’re bothered by how Berlin is poor for its size, compare New York with the rest of the United States).
In fact, if estimating modal shift is hard, then it’s best to approximate it by ridership. It’s imperfect because there is the effect of walking and biking; some lines really do just compete with walking, like city-center streetcars, but usually, to first order, it’s a good enough estimate. If it’s hard to estimate the benefits then they should not be set to zero, but rather set proportionally to something easier to measure, in this case ridership. Investment should follow ridership-maximizing strategies, and only deviate from them in corner cases.
In-Motion Charging is not for Trains
Streetsblog Massachusetts editor Christian MilNeil has just asked a very delicate question on Twitter about battery power for public transportation. In-motion charging (IMC) is a positive technological development for buses, wiring part of a route in order to provide electric coverage to a much broader area. So why not use it for trains? The context is that the government of Massachusetts is doing everything in its power to avoid wiring commuter rail; its latest excuse is that a partly-wired system with battery-electric trains is cheaper. So how come IMC works for buses but not trains?
The answer is that trains and buses differ in ways that make fully wiring a train much more advantageous for equipment cost while costing less compared with IMC-style partial wiring – and the size of trains makes the equipment cost much more prominent.
The cost of a single-deck electric multiple unit (EMU) other than high-speed rail is about $100,000 per linear meter of length, and appears to have changed little over the last 10-20 years. I have a list of recent tramways built in Europe for that cost, a shorter one of subways (including more outliers due to procurement problems or bespoke designs), and some standard citations for commuter rail EMUs. For the latter, here is a recent example of a Coradia Continental order in Germany: 200M€ for 32 trainsets, 20 with five 18-meter cars and 12 with four, or 75,000€ per linear meter.
In contrast, battery-EMUs (BEMUs) are far more expensive. Comparing like with like, here is a recent Coradia Continental BEMU order for Leipzig-Chemnitz, which line should have long been wired: 100M€ for 11 three-car, 56-meter long trainsets, or 160,000€ per linear meter.
Buses do not display such a premium. Trolleybus advocate Martin Wright writes a comparison of battery-electric and trolleybuses for Vancouver, and suggests that equipment costs are largely the same in the North American market (which is expensive by European standards). TU Berlin’s Dominic Jefferies and Dietmar Göhlich find that the base cost of an electric 12-meter bus is 450,000€, rising to 600,000€ with battery (p. 25); this is a premium, but it’s small, almost an order of magnitude less than that for trains per unit of length. Kiepe says that the cost of rebuilding 16 12-meter trolleybuses with IMC for Solingen is in the single-digit millions.
How come trains display such a large premium for batteries over electric traction supplied by trackside distribution (catenary wire or third rail) and buses don’t? This is not about the cost of the batteries: Jeffries-Göhlich cite a cost of 500-800€/kWh for a battery pack on a bus, and while Alstom hasn’t said what the battery capacity of the Coradia is in kWh, based on the range (120 km) and this slide deck about BEMUs (or PDF-p. 22 of a VDE study about EMUs and BEMUs), the capacity is likely around 700 kWh for the entire three-car train, with a cost about an order of magnitude less than the observed cost premium over EMUs.
Rather, the issue is likely about fitting the batteries on the train. Railvolution reports that to fit the batteries, Alstom had to demotorize one of the three powered bogies, reducing the maximum power drawn from 2.16 MW to 1.44. As a byproduct, this also somewhat hurts performance, increasing the stop penalty from the train’s maximum speed of 160 km/h by 15-20 seconds (46 empty or 51 full for an EMU, 60 and 71 respectively for a BEMU).
The cost of wiring
The cost of trolleybus wiring, at least judging by industry brochures such as that of UITP, is linear in route-km. This makes IMC attractive in that it cuts said cost by a factor of 2 to 3 on a single route, or even more on a route that branches out of a common trunk. For this reason, IMC is ideally suited for branched bus networks such as that of Boston, and is less valuable on grids where it’s uncommon for multiple bus routes to run together for a significant portion, such as the systems in Chicago, Toronto, and Vancouver.
But rail electrification does not quite work this way. Overall, the cost of wiring is mostly proportional to route-length, but the cost appears to be split evenly between the wire and the substations. A full-size commuter train in a major metropolitan area like Boston would be drawing around 7 MW while accelerating; a Citaro bus has a 220 kW diesel engine, or 125 in the electric version. Even taking into account that buses are slower and more frequent than trains and thus run at much higher frequency per route-km, there’s nearly a full order of magnitude between the substation costs per km for the two modes.
The upshot is that while IMC saves the cost of installing wire, it does not save a single penny on the cost of installing substations. The substations still need to fully charge a train in motion – and derating the train’s power as Alstom did does not even help much, it just means that the same amount of energy is applied over a longer period while accelerating but then still needs to be recharged on the wire.
How benefits of electrification scale
Electrification has a number of benefits over diesel power:
- No local air pollution
- Much less noise, and none while idling
- Higher reliability
- Higher performance
- Much lower lifecycle costs
The first three are shared between externally-supplied electric and battery-electric power, at least when there’s IMC (pure battery power is unreliable in cold weather). The fourth is a mix: BEMUs have better performance than DMUs but worse than EMUs – whereas with buses this flips, as trolleybuses have performance constraints at trolleywire junctions. The fifth is entirely an EMU benefit, because of the high cost of BEMU acquisition.
The first two benefits are also much more prominent for buses than for trains. Buses run on streets; the pollution affects nearby pedestrians and residents as well as waiting riders, and the idling noise is a nuisance at every intersection and whenever there’s car traffic. Bus depots are an air quality hazard, leading to much environmental justice activism about why they’re located where they are. Trains are more separated from the public except when people wait for them.
In contrast, the last benefit, concerning lifecycle costs, is more prominent on trains. The benefits of electrification scale with the extent of service; that the acquisition cost of EMUs is around half that of BEMUs, and the lifecycle cost is around half that of DMUs, means that the return on investment on electrification can be modeled as a linear function of the fleet size in maximum service.
A US-standard 25 meter railcar costs $2.5 million at global EMU prices (which the US was recently able to achieve, though not anymore), and twice that at BEMU prices. 40-year depreciation and 4% interest are $162,500/year; a single train per hour, per car, is around $3,000/km (this assumes 50-60 km/h average speed counting turnaround time), or $6,000 counting both directions, and lifecycle maintenance costs appear to be similar to initial acquisition cost, for a total of around $12,000/km. At $2.5 million/km, this means electrification has an ROI of 0.5% per peak car per hour; a single 8-car train per hour is already enough for 4% ROI.
The numbers don’t work out this way for buses. Workhorse city buses run every 5 minutes at rush hour, and may occasionally run articulated buses, but the capacity is still only equivalent to a single hourly train; in the absence of IMC, electrification of buses is therefore hard to justify without the additional environmental benefits. But those environmental benefits can be provided at much lower cost with IMC.
The upshot of the above discussion is that the reasons to electrify buses and trains are not the same. Bus electrification benefits center environmental and environmental justice: diesel buses are noisy and polluting and have poor ride quality. The only reason to wire buses at all rather than go for unwired battery-electric buses (BEBs) is that BEBs are not reliable in freezing temperatures and cost far more than diesels due to their downtime for charging.
But rail electrification is different. The environmental benefits are real, but less important. Train depots have not been major sources of air pollution since the steam era, unlike bus depots. The primary reasons are technical: equipment acquisition costs, maintenance costs, performance, reliability. And those overall advantage EMUs over BEMUs with IMC.
How to Waste Money on Public Transportation
This is the fourth in a series of five (not four) posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, following posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, free public transport proposals, and federal aid to operations, to be followed by a post about how to do better instead.
I think very highly of Yonah Freemark. His academic and popular work on public transport and urbanism ranges from good to excellent, and a lot of my early thinking (and early writing!) on regional rail and high-speed rail owes a debt to him.
But I think he’s wrong in his proposal for a Green New Deal for transportation. This is a proposal by the Climate and Community Project (not the Urban Institute as I said in previous posts – sorry) to decarbonize transport in the United States, through fleet electrification and investments in public transport. Yonah is one of several authors; I identify him with the public transit-related parts of the report, but I want to make it clear that it’s the report I’m criticizing, regardless of who wrote what.
The fundamental problem of the CCP report is what I’ve been building up to in the last three posts in this series: it tries to please everybody by throwing money everywhere and making conflicting promises. The Green Line Extension was built this way under Deval Patrick, and costs ballooned, and what passed for discipline under Charlie Baker just reinforced the same long-term loss of state capacity that led to the cost explosion.
For example, here’s its take on fleet electrification:
In other words, there is a compelling and immediate need to decarbonize this fleet within a decade. And that’s feasible: buses are replaced every 10 to 15 years on average, and commuter rail trains about every 25 years; currently, commuter trains in the United States are on average 22 years old. Publicly owned vehicles would be replaced with the electric equivalent; for privately owned contracted vehicles (the case for many school buses), and requirements for electrification would be written into contracts and tax credits given to assist the transition of buses from fossil fuels to electric. The commissioning of thousands of new transit vehicles would produce new, good-paying union jobs in manufacturing. The shift to electric transit vehicles would affect maintenance requirements, and the Department of Transportation must ensure the mechanic and operator workforce is fully prepared for the electric transition through workforce retraining assistance. This may require retraining, such as encouraging mechanics to retrain as electric vehicle charging installers.
Electrifying existing diesel railways would require overhead catenary electrical wires to be useful for electrified trains (though the trains themselves actually cost less than diesel vehicles). The cost of railway electrification infrastructure alone is between roughly $1 and $5 million per mile. There are roughly 6,600 miles of non-electrified commuter rail in the United States, plus roughly 20,800 miles of non-electrified Amtrak service (with some overlap between the two). Amtrak’s routes are mostly owned by freight rail companies, but we suggest joint electrification that includes both passenger trains and freight trains, using this program for Amtrak and another we lay out below for the freight lines. To electrify the national passenger rail network of existing lines would cost between $27 and $137 billion. In addition, new trains would have to be purchased to run on these electrified lines.
I cite this pair of paragraphs because of something they show about the study: it is not uniformly bad. The second paragraph is a decent idea (though $1m/mile is very cheap), and trying to workshop how to wire the national freight network is not necessarily a bad idea, even if the report doesn’t go into enough detail about what the business barrier to electrification is for the private carriers.
But the first quoted paragraph is awful. Here’s the key thing: “The commissioning of thousands of new transit vehicles would produce new, good-paying union jobs in manufacturing” is a giant waste of money. Bus vendors outside North America consistently produce equipment for much less than the protected North American market; the Boris Bus, at £350,000 per unit (around $500,000), is both cheaper than American buses and locally considered expensive, a prime example of Boris Johnson’s poor performance as mayor of London.
The passenger rail industry does not exist in the United States, and attempts by American governments to coerce it to build factories domestically in order to create well-paying jobs have resulted in ballooning costs. The premium for recent American rolling stock orders, behind bespoke regulations, protectionism, informal state-level protectionism, and agency heads that know less than recently-graduated interns who make one quarter of what they do (less, if those interns are European), looks like 50% over European equivalents. Nor does this do much job creation, except perhaps for sitework consultants: the premium for some recent orders has been $1 million per $20/hour 4-to-6-year job created. Those are not objectively good jobs – the wages are not much higher than present-day retail, food service, and delivery jobs – but backward-looking politicians consider them inherently moral, and the report coddles them instead of looking forward.
Then, the report has the following recommendations for how to spend money on improving public transportation:
End the use of federal infrastructure funding for new highway infrastructure, except for focused opportunities that improve equity. Provide immediate funds for a quick-start infrastructure program for walking and cycling. Vastly expand support for transit and metropolitan network planning.
Appropriate $250 billion over 10 years, or $25 billion annually, in federal funding bill to support transit operations funding throughout the United States.
Increase federal support for transit and intercity rail capital projects to $400 billion over 10 years, or $40 billion annually, providing funds for new lines, maintenance of existing infrastructure, and upgrades designed for equitable accessibility.
Require metropolitan planning organization voting systems to be proportional to resident population. Mandate adjustments to local zoning policy to enable more dense, affordable housing near transit in exchange for federal aid. Implement regional commuter benefits throughout the nation.
This, I’m sorry, is a bad program. The $40 billion/year capital investment is not bad, but the proposal explicitly includes maintenance, making it vulnerable to the state of good repair scam, in which agencies demand escalating amounts of money for infrastructure with nothing to show for it. The $25 billion/year operating aid is likely to be a waste as well.
Transit agencies can invest money prudently, but the report says nothing about how to do it, instead proposing to zero out highway funding (which is a good way to save money, but is less relevant to mode shift than American transit advocates think it is). The one concrete suggestion for what to do with the money is “One goal, for example, would be for all residents to have access to a bus or train with a short wait within at most a 15-minute walk at all times of the day.” This is a standard I can get behind in a dense place like New York; nearly everywhere else, it means overfunding coverage routes in low-density areas, often middle-class white flight suburbs, ahead of workhorse urban routes. Writing years ago about New Haven, Sandy Johnston noted that a bus reform there would cannibalize the circuitous suburban bus branches to add service on the core routes through the city and Hamden. The CCP report would do the opposite, boosting frequencies where they are least useful.
Finally, the MPO rules seem weak. I get what Yonah (and perhaps the other authors) wants to do here: he wants to incentivize more housing production near mass transit nodes. But MPO voting weights are not especially relevant. What is relevant is using state power to disempower local communities, which are dominated by NIMBYs even in places where the residents vote YIMBY at the state level, such as San Francisco. The report talks about banning single-family zoning (okay, but duplexes are not TOD), but that’s it. Then it suggests extracting developer profits through mandatory inclusionary housing, which acts as a tax on TOD and reduces housing production. The authors of the study are left-wing, but do not propose public housing, only taxes on TOD to subsidize some local housing; Yonah knows this is not how social housing works in Paris, but he still proposes this for the United States.
The theme of lack of willingness to prioritize flow throughout these recommendations. There is no discussion of how to prioritize good investments, how to increase efficiency (the report points out operating costs for all US transit combined are $50 billion/year; this is 2.5 times the German level, for similar ridership, not per capita), how to make sure that progress does not get extracted by programs for groups thought inherently moral.
Institutional Issues: Dealing with Technological and Social Change
I’ve covered issues of procurement, professional oversight, transparency, and proactive regulations so far. Today I’m going to cover a related institutional issue, regarding sensitivity to change. It’s imperative for the state to solve the problems of tomorrow using the tools that it expects to have, rather than wallowing in the world of yesterday. To do this, the civil service and the political system both have to be sensitive to ongoing social, economic, and technological changes and change their focus accordingly.
Most of this is not directly relevant to construction costs, except when changes favor or disfavor certain engineering methods. Rather, sensitivity to change is useful for making better projects, running public transit on the alignments where demand is or will soon be high using tools that make it work optimally for the travel of today and tomorrow. Sometimes, it’s the same as what would have worked for the world of the middle of the 20th century; other times, it’s not, and then it’s important not to get too attached to nostalgia.
Bad institutions often produce governments that, through slowness and stasis, focus on solving yesterday’s problems. Good institutions do the opposite. This problem is muted on issues that do not change much from decade to decade, like the political debate over overall government spending levels on socioeconomic programs. But wherever technology or some important social aspect changes quickly, this problem can grow to the point that outdated governance looks ridiculous.
Climate change is a good example, because the relative magnitudes of its various components have shifted in the last 20 years. Across the developed world, transportation emissions are rising while electricity generation emissions are falling. In electricity generation, the costs of renewable energy have cratered to the point of being competitive from scratch with just the operating costs of fossil and nuclear power. Within renewable energy, the revolution has been in wind (more onshore than offshore) and utility-scale solar, not the rooftop panels beloved by the greens of last generation; compare Northern Europe’s wind installation rates with what seemed obvious just 10 years ago.
I bring this up because in the United States today, the left’s greatest effort is spent on the Build Back Better Act, which they portray as making the difference between climate catastrophe and a green future, and which focuses on the largely solved problem of electricity. Transportation, which overtook electricity as the United States’ largest source of emissions in the late 2010s, is shrugged off in the BBB, because the political system of 2021 relitigates the battles of 2009.
This slowness cascades to smaller technical issues and to the civil service. A slow civil service may mandate equity analyses that assume that the needs of discriminated-against groups are geographic – more transit service to black or working-class neighborhoods – because they were generations ago. Today, the situation is different, and the needs are non-geographic, but not all civil service systems are good at recognizing this.
The issue of TOD
Even when the problem is static, for example how to improve public transit, the solutions may change based on social and technological changes.
The most important today is the need to integrate transportation planning with land use planning better. Historically, this wasn’t done much – Metro-land is an important counterexample, but in general, before mass motorization, developers built apartments wherever the trains went and there was no need for public supervision. The situation changed in the middle of the 20th century with mass competition with the automobile, and thence the biggest successes involved some kind of transit-oriented development (TOD), built by the state like the Swedish Million Program projects in Stockholm County or by private developer-railroads like those of Japan. Today, the default system is TOD built by private developers on land released for high-density redevelopment near publicly-built subways.
Some of the details of TOD are themselves subject to technological and social change:
- Deindustrialization means that city centers are nice, and waterfronts are desirable residential areas. There is little difference between working- and middle-class destinations, except that city center jobs are somewhat disproportionately middle-class.
- Secondary centers have slowly been erased; in New York, examples of declining job centers include Newark, Downtown Brooklyn, and Jamaica.
- Conversely, there is job spillover from city center to near-center areas, which means that it’s important to allow for commercialization of near-center residential neighborhoods; Europe does this better than the United States, which is why at scale larger than a few blocks, European cities are more centralized than American ones, despite the prominent lack of supertall office towers. Positive New York examples include Long Island City and the Jersey City waterfront, both among the most pro-development parts of the region.
- Residential TOD tends to be spiky: very tall buildings near subway stations, shorter ones farther away. Historic construction was more uniformly mid-rise. I encourage the reader to go on some Google Earth or Streetview tourism of a late-20th century city like Tokyo or Taipei and compare its central residential areas with those of an early-20th century one like Paris or Berlin.
The ideal civil service on this issue is an amalgamation of things seen in democratic East Asia, much of Western and Central Europe, and even Canada. Paris and Stockholm are both pretty good about integrating development with public transit, but only in the suburbs, where they build tens of thousands of housing units near subway stations. In their central areas, they are too nostalgic to redevelop buildings or build high-rises even on undeveloped land. Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei are better and more forward-looking.
Public transit for the future
Besides the issue of TOD, there are details of how public transportation is built and operated that change with the times. The changes are necessarily subtle – this is mature technology, and VC-funded businesspeople who think they’re going to disrupt the industry invariably fail. This makes the technology ideal for treatment by a civil service that evolves toward the future – but it has to evolve. The following failures are regrettably common:
- Overfocus on lines that were promised long ago. Some of those lines remain useful today, and some are underrated (like Berlin’s U8 extension to Märkisches Viertel, constantly put behind higher cost-per-rider extensions in the city’s priorities). But some exist out of pure inertia, like Second Avenue Subway phases 3-4, which violates two principles of good network design.
- Proposals that are pure nostalgia, like Amtrak-style intercity trains running 1-3 times per day at average speeds that would shame most of Eastern Europe. Such proposals try to fit to the urban geography of the world of yesterday. In Germany, the coalition’s opposition to investment in high-speed rail misses how in the 21st century, German urban geography is majority-big city, where a high-speed rail network would go.
- Indifference to recent news relevant to the technology. Much of the BART to San Jose cost blowout can still be avoided if the agency throws away the large-diameter single-bore solution, proposed years ago by people who had heard of its implementation in Barcelona on L9 but perhaps not of L9’s cost overruns, making it by far Spain’s most expensive subway. In Germany, the design of intercity rail around the capabilities of the trains of 25 years ago falls in this category as well; technology moves on and the ongoing investments here work much better if new trains are acquired based on the technology of the 2020s.
- Delay in implementation of easy technological fixes that have been demonstrated elsewhere. In a world with automatic train-mounted gap fillers, there is no excuse anywhere for gaps between trains and platforms that do not permit a wheelchair user to board the train unaided.
- Slow reaction time to academic research on best practices, which can cover issues from timetabling to construction methods to pricing to bus shelter.
Probably the most fundamental issue of sensitivity to social change is that of bus versus rail modal choice. Buses are labor-intensive and therefore lose value as the economy grows; the high-frequency grid of 1960s Toronto could not work at modern wages, hence the need to shift public transit from bus to rail as soon as possible. This in turn intersects with TOD, because TOD for short-stop surface transit looks uniformly mid-rise rather than spiky. The state needs to recognize this and think about bus-to-rail modal shift as a long-term goal based on the wages of the 21st century.
The swift state
In my Niskanen piece from earlier this year, I used the expression building back, quickly, and made references to acting swiftly and the swift state. I brought up the issue of speeding up the planning lead time, such as the environmental reviews, as a necessary component for improving infrastructure. This is one component of the swift state, alongside others:
- Fast reaction to new trends, in technology, where people travel, etc. Even in deeply NIMBY areas like most of the United States, change in urban geography is rapid: job centers shift, new cities that are less NIMBY grow (Nashville’s growth rates should matter to high-speed rail planning), and connections change over time.
- Fast rulemaking to solve problems as they emerge. This means that there should be fewer layers of review; a civil servant should be empowered to make small decisions, and even the largest decisions should be delegated to a small expert team, intersecting with my previous posts about civil service empowerment.
- Fast response time to civil complaints. It’s fine to ignore a nag who thinks their property values deserve state protection, but if people complain about noise, delays, slow service, poor UI, crime, or sexism or racism, take them seriously. Look for solutions immediately instead of expecting them to engage in complex nonprofit proof-of-work schemes to show that they are serious. The state works for the people, and not the other way around.
- Constant amendment of priorities based on changes in the rest of society. A state that wishes to fight climate change must be sensitive to what the most pressing sources of emissions are and deal with them. If you’re in a mature urban or national economy, and you’re not frustrating nostalgics who show you plans from the 1950s, you’re probably doing something wrong.
In all cases, it is critical to build using the methods of the world of today, aiming to serve the needs of the world of tomorrow. Those needs are fairly predictable, because public transit is not biotech and changes therein are nowhere near as revolutionary as mRNA and viral vector vaccines. But they are not the same as the needs of 60 years ago, and good institutions recognize this and base their budgetary and regulatory focus on what is relevant now and not what was relevant when color TVs were new.
Institutional Issues: Proactive and Reactive Regulations
So far, in this series on institutional factors behind differences in the quality and cost of public transportation infrastructure, I’ve gone over procurement, public-sector oversight, and transparency. These three posts can be read together as a series: procurement is the keystone, and to get it right it is critical to have high-quality in-house supervision of the work, and to get that right in turn it’s important to cultivate transparency.
Today I’m going to turn the camera 90 degrees and talk about another relevant issue: that of proactive versus reactive state regulation and supervision. This is related to the issue of oversight, in that proactive regulation requires deeper in-house expertise and detachment from politics, so that the state can effectively make changes as necessary based on changes in travel and social patterns and advances in knowledge by scientists and practitioners.
Nudging and doing
One of the distinctions I’ve noticed regarding different regulatory traditions is whether the regulators do things or merely nudge. This is related to the issue of oversight, in that strong engineering bureaucracies that do design and planning in-house also come up with their own sets of clear rules.
The Italian civil service does rather than nudges: there are clear proactive rules by the Ministry of Culture about the protection of historical monuments, limiting the permitted building settlement in sensitive areas to 3 mm. Such proactive clear rules lead to a more predictable legal situation since it’s easy to measure what is and what is not legal, reducing risk. Long-term standards that impose real costs on business also soon sprout innovation for how to follow them while minimizing costs, as is the case for Japanese and Chinese zoning standards for light; ad hoc rules instead impose new costs every time, since the investment in trying to adapt to them would be spread across just one project rather than many.
The American regulatory apparatus has a mixture of doing and nudging. Environmental protection is almost entirely adversarial: the National Environmental Protection Act requires agencies to prepare environmental impact statements (EISes) before every project, but those are not judged by regulators but instead subject to lawsuit, and soon the nudge turns into red tape with hundreds of pages in an EIS aiming to anticipate every possible legal objection. Labor law is largely adversarial, but some states have passed triple damages statutes, in which the penalty for violation is specified at three times the missed wage and therefore workers do not have to litigate against much better-resourced employers.
The disability rights regime in the United States is a mix but include a significant amount of doing. There are clear standards for elevator accessibility, longest path of travel for people in wheelchairs, and maximum permitted gaps between the platform and the train; more recently, the FRA has wanted to mandate automatic gap fillers on mainline rail in order to permit passengers in wheelchairs to board unaided even across small gaps.
This is related to the issue of adversarial legalism, but is not exactly the same. There is plenty of adversarial legalism in the American disability rights regime, in which agencies refuse to follow the law and dare advocates to sue them.
Moreover, federal regulations in the United States remain a matter of nudging more than doing whenever there is any interaction with state and local authorities; instead of coordinating different authorities from a position of being able to engage in planning things itself, a federal agency will often try to nudge through offering incentives.
Two examples of equity
There’s a sense in much of the planning world in both the United States and Europe that it is necessary to proactively plan cities and transportation for the benefit of disadvantaged groups, or else even well-meaning planners would make unquestioned assumptions that harm such groups. It’s worthwhile examining the differences between the approaches to such planning, because one is proactive and the other reactive.
Before going on, I would like to point out a huge difference that is not about proactive planning: in the United States, the Title VI process for egalitarian planning (currently in revision, for which I’m very likely to submit comments make this and other points) centers racial equity, as a legacy of the civil rights movement that it came out of. In Europe, planners persistently ignore the problem of racism, and people of color are severely underrepresented in the civil services that I’ve seen, which issue is so glaring it makes Americans discount any European experience. However, European planners do look at class equity (for example, in Paris) and gender equity (for example, in Sweden), and there, they aim for proactive changes to reduce barriers to access.
The Swedish system is accessible to the English speaker, because feminist writers in English have occasionally looked to the Nordic world for inspiration, and outlets like Streetsblog have examined gender-based planning in Sweden. In 2015, Stockholm examined travel patterns by gender and found that women walk and take public transportation more and drive less than men, and as a result, it changed its snowplowing patterns to prioritize sidewalks over roads.
I was similarly told that when Swedish cities do surface construction, such as the cut-and-cover stations of Västlänken in Gothenburg or the cut-and-cover entry halls into the deep mined stations of the Stockholm T-bana extensions, by regulation the contractors must preserve sufficient sidewalk space on the street for pedestrians. If they need to open up most of the street, they can take car traffic lanes. The reasoning isn’t corrective discrimination, but rather that past planners, who prioritized keeping roads open over sidewalks, had erred because of conscious or unconscious discounting of the experience of women. The change in snowplowing practices led to a fall in injuries, since three times as many people in Sweden were injured walking in icy conditions as driving.
The Swedish system is proactive: the municipality or the state comes up with actionable, concrete changes based on its understanding of travel pattern. Researchers working for the city, perhaps in partnership with activists, notice a discriminatory practice, and come up with an alternative.
Now consider the American system. Title VI does not offer a clear set of practices for anti-racist transportation planning. It instead requires agencies to engage in review of their practices whenever they propose a change, leading first to status quo bias and second to arbitrary enforcement of rules. Much of the enforcement is not done top-down by regulators who are apolitical subject matter experts, but bottom-up from lawsuit or the threat thereof with supervision by judges trained in law but not in the specifics of transportation.
Status quo and reactivity
The worst aspect of reactive planning is that it leads to status quo bias. American regulations for civil rights and environmental protection require review of changes, but not of the status quo. The process can stop an agency from implementing a change or delay implementation until mitigations are done, but it cannot compel an agency to take an action it does not wish to take.
To nuance this somewhat, a judge can put an agency under a consent decree. But that already assumes an adversarial relationship between the state and itself. The process can imposing fines and constraints on an agency that does not want to do something, such as following ADA law and installing elevators at every subway station (something Berlin, an older system than New York, is about to complete systemwide). But it cannot literally build elevators there itself. It’s akin to the Jewish concept of a get, in which a rabbinical court can impose arbitrary fines on a husband who refuses to grant his wife a divorce, where what is needed is to permit women to initiate divorce without their husband’s permission.
A more proactive and less reactive regulatory culture can break out of the status quo trap. The first thing it must do is create a system that does not privilege the status quo: if a change is subject to review on such grounds as accessibility, racial equality, and environmental protection, then current practice must be as well. If it turns out that current practice falls short or is discriminatory, as Sweden’s snowplowing priorities were a decade ago, the agency must change its ways based on clear, concrete standards.
More proactive regulations are more obtrusive and visible, but they reduce costs and improve service quality. They are more sensitive to the current economic and social conditions and to the state of present-day knowledge than to the conditions and knowledge of a generation ago. They are more legible to the public and to contractors, who can then come up with ways to follow them without gambling on favorable judicial or political rulings. And they are less likely to surprise agencies deep into the process with a sudden imposition.
A state that acts as a helping hand rather than a grabbing hand helps more by governing more. Making it easier to ditch a status quo that worked for the world of yesterday but doesn’t for that of today or tomorrow, or one that never worked but was falsely believed to work, allows it to govern more efficiently. It’s necessary then to ensure that the highest-level civil servants who regulate transportation be empowered to make concrete decisions and coordinate lower-level agencies rather than just nudging in the right direction.
Randal O’Toole Gets High-Speed Rail Wrong
Now that there’s decent chance of US investment in rail, Randal O’Toole is resurrecting his takes from the early Obama era, warning that high-speed rail is a multi-trillion dollar money sink. It’s not a good analysis, and in particular it gets the reality of European and Asian high-speed rail systems wrong. It displays lack of familiarity with rail practice and rail politics, to the point that most nontrivial assertions about rail in Europe and Asia are incorrect.
More broadly, the way O’Toole gets rail investment here wrong comes from making unexamined American assumptions and substituting them for a European or Japanese reality regarding rail as well as rail politics. If the US can’t do it, he thinks other countries can’t. Unfortunately, he’s even unfamiliar with recent work done on American costs, when he compares the Interstate system positively with recent high-speed rail lines.
High-Speed Rail Profitability: France
I’m currently working on building a database similar to our urban rail costs for high-speed rail. Between this and previous iterations of analyzing the TGV, I’ve been reading a lot of internal French reports about its system. Thankfully, France makes available very good public information about the costs and technical specifications of its system. It helps that I read French, but the gap between what’s available for France and Belgium (see for example line schemas) is vast. This provides crucial background that O’Toole is missing.
The most important thing to understand is that the TGV network is profitable. The Spinetta report on the fiscal losses of SNCF makes it clear, starting on p. 60, that the TGV network is profitable, and recommends favoring its development over the money-losing legacy networks, especially the branch lines. The report even calls for closing weak branch lines with only a few trains a day, which I called the Spinetta Axe at the time, in analogy with the Beeching Axe. Due to public outcry the state rejected the cuts and only implemented the organizational changes promoted by the report.
Moreover, all lines are very profitable excluding the cost of fixed capital. The Spinetta report’s TGV section says that operating costs average €0.06/seat-km, which is around 0.085€/p-km, despite overstaffing of conductors (8 per conventional 400-car TGV) and extensive travel on legacy track at low speed and higher per-km labor costs. Average TGV fare revenue per an ARAFER report from 2016 is 0.10€/p-km – compare p-km on p. 15 and revenue on p. 26. This is typical for Europe – RENFE and DB charge similar fares, and the nominal fares seem to have been flat over the last decade.
What’s dicier is cost of capital. In all other European countries for which I’m aware of the process, all of which are Northern rather than Southern, this is done with benefit-cost analysis with a fixed behind-the-scenes discount rate. France, in my view wisely, rates lines by their financial and social rates of return instead. A 2014 report about the Bordeaux-Toulouse LGV, recently given the go-ahead for 7.5 billion €, warns that the profitability of LGVs decreases as the system is built out: the LGV Sud-Est returned 15% to SNCF’s finances and 30% to French society (including rider consumer surplus), but subsequent lines only returned 4-7% to SNCF’s finances, and Bordeaux-Toulouse is likely to return less, 6% including social benefits per the study and at this point slightly less since the study assumed it would cost slightly less than the current budget.
The general theme in the French discourse on trains is that the TGV network is an obvious success. There absolutely is criticism, which focuses on the following issues:
- Regional rail, that is not intercity rail, is underdeveloped in France outside Paris. The ridership of TER networks is pitiful in comparison with German-speaking and Nordic metropolitan areas of comparable size. For example, sourced to a dead link, Wikipedia claims 64,300 TER PACA trips per day, comprising the metropolitan areas of Marseille (1.8 million), Nice (1), Toulon (0.6), and Avignon (0.5); in Helsinki (1.5) alone, there are 200,000 daily commuter rail trips. But this isn’t really about high-speed rail, since TER planning and subsidies are devolved to regional governments, and not to SNCF.
- SNCF has contentious labor relations. In the early 2010s, the unions went on a wave of strikes and got wage concessions that led to the evaporation of SNCF’s 600 million €/year primary surplus. The railway unions in France (“cheminots”) are unpopular, and Macron has been able to pass reforms to SNCF’s governance over their strikes and objections.
- Future LGVs are not as strong as past ones. Real costs in France are rising, and the network already links Paris with all major secondary cities in airplane-competitive time save Nice. Interprovincial links on the network are weak, despite the construction of the LGV Rhin-Rhône, and nothing like the Deutschlandtakt is on the horizon enabling everywhere-to-everywhere travel.
- SNCF thinks like an airline and not like a railroad. It separates passengers into different buckets as airlines do, has many executives with airline background (and Spinetta is ex-Air France), thinks passengers do not ride trains for longer than 3 hours even though at 4 hours the modal split with air is still better than 50-50, and has poor integration between the TGV and legacy rail.
- SNCF still has a lot of accumulated debt from past operating losses, some predating the TGV and the start of regional subsidies for regional rail. It was hoped that TGV profits could cover them, but they can’t. This mirrors the controversy in Japan in the 1980s, where, in the breakup of JNR into the JRs and their privatization, debt from past operating losses was wiped but not debt from Shinkansen construction (see Privatization Best Practices, PDF-p. 106).
However, saying that the existing network is a failure is the domain of cranks and populists. It is unrecognizable from the discussion of transportation investments in France.
What O’Toole says about high-speed rail
O’Toole’s understanding of internal French (or Spanish, or Japanese) issues is weak. This isn’t surprising – Americans to a good approximation never have good insights on the internal issues of any other country, even when it speaks English. The American political sphere, which includes political thinktanks like Cato, is remarkably ignorant globally, and rather incurious. As a result, what he says about the TGV is based on an Americanized understanding. To wit:
The Northeastern United States has a weak rail network: Amtrak averages vintage 1960s speeds and charges 2-4 times the per-km fare of the TGV. As a result, an ecosystem of private intercity buses has developed, starting with unregulated ones like Fung Wah and, as they were shut down, corporate systems like Megabus and Bolt. O’Toole is fond of these buses, with their lower fares and road-like lack of integration between infrastructure and operations.
And thus, he claims, falsely, that European high-speed rail cannibalized profitable buses. This is unrecognizable from within Europe, where intercity buses were underdeveloped until recently. In France, US-style intercity buses are called Macron buses, because the deregulation that brought them into existence passed in the mid-2010s, when Macron was the economy minister. They complement high-speed rail but do not replace it, because trains get me from Paris to the German border in 1:45 and buses don’t.
To be fair, TGV ridership has been stagnant in the last few years. But this stagnation goes back to the financial crisis, and if anything ridership picked up starting 2017 with the opening of the LGV Sud-Europe-Atlantique. So the buses are not even outcompeting the trains – they thrive in the gaps between them, just as historically they did on international routes, where rail fares are considerably higher and ridership lower.
High-speed rail construction costs
O’Toole looks at the most expensive few lines possible:
Britain’s 345‐mile London–Scotland HS2 high‐speed rail line was originally projected to cost £32.7 billion (about $123 million per mile) and is currently expected to cost £106 billion ($400 million per mile).
International comparisons of high-speed rail costs exist, and Britain’s costs are by far the worst. For example, a 2013 Australian comparison looking at the prospects for such a system in Australia finds that High-Speed 1/CTRL, the line linking the Channel Tunnel with London, cost A$134 million/km, and the second costliest line in the dataset was thee 94% tunneled Bologna-Florence line, at A$95 million/km.
French costs up until the LGV Bordeaux-Toulouse stood around $25-30 million per km in 2021 dollars, net of tunnels. German costs are similar, but German lines have far heavier tunneling than France, a range of 26-51% in tunnel compared with 0-6% in France. One reason is topography. But another is that Germany prefers mixed-use passenger-freight lines, which forces higher construction costs as freight requires gentler grades and, since superelevation must be lower, wider curves; France, like Japan and China, builds dedicated passenger lines, and, unlike Japan or China, keeps them largely at-grade to reduce costs.
O’Toole says, without more references, that it would cost $3-4 trillion to build a US-wide high-speed rail network. But the official Obama-era crayon, at 20,000 km, would be $500 billion at tunnel-free European costs, or maybe $600 billion with 5% tunneling, mostly in difficult places like California and across the Appalachians.
O’Toole proposes more freeways, and says that to build the Interstate system today would cost $530 billion so it’s better than high-speed rail. Here is where his lack of knowledge of the most recent literature on infrastructure costs is a serious drag on his analysis: Brooks-Liscow establish that there was a large real increase in Interstate cost throughout the life of the program, so a budget that’s really a mixture of cheaper early-1960s construction and more expensive construction in the 1970s is not applicable today.
The same issue affects rail costs: the LGV Sud-Est cost, in today’s money, around $8 million/km, which cost would never recur. Brooks-Liscow explain this by greater surplus extraction from citizen voice groups, which demanded detours and route compromises raising costs. This appears true not just diachronically within the US but also synchronically across countries: so far, the low-cost subways we have investigated are all in states with bureaucratic rather than adversarial legalism, while medium-cost Germany is more mixed. Politicized demands leading to more tunneling are well-documented within Germany – the Berlin-Munich line was built through a topographically harder alignment in order to serve Erfurt, at Thuringia’s behest.
So no, today costs from the 1960s are not relevant. Today, urban motorway extensions cost double-digit millions of dollars per lane-km, sometimes more. The I-5 improvement project in Los Angeles is $1.9 billion for I-5 South, a distance of 11 km, adding two lanes (one HOV, one mixed traffic) in each direction. It’s possible to go lower than this – in Madrid this budget would buy a longer 6-lane tunnel – but then in Madrid the construction costs of rail are even lower, for both metros and high-speed lines.
The discourse on profits
In contrast with the basic picture I outlined for the TGV, French media and researchers often point out threats to rail profitability. This can easily be taken to mean that the TGV is unprofitable, and if one has an American mindset, then it’s especially easy to think this. If SNCF officials say that 20% of TGVs lose money, then surely they must be hiding something and the figure is much higher, right? Likewise, if Spinetta says that the TGV network is profitable but not all trains are, then surely the situation is even worse, right?
But no. This is an Americanized interpretation of the debate. In the US, Amtrak is under constant pressure to show book profits, and its very existence is threatened, often by people who cite O’Toole and other libertarians. Thus, as a survival strategy, Amtrak pretends it is more profitable than it really is.
This has no bearing on the behavior of railroads elsewhere, though. SNCF is not so threatened. The biggest threat from the perspective of SNCF management is union demands for higher wages, and therefore, its incentive is to cry poverty. Nobody in France takes out yardsticks of farebox recovery ratios, and therefore, nobody needs to orient their communications around what would satisfy American libertarians.
Within the European high-speed rail research community, the energy efficiency of high-speed rail is well-understood, and many studies look at real-world examples, for example the metastudy of Hasegawa-Nicholson-Roberts-Schmid. In fact, it’s understood that high-speed rail has lower energy consumption than conventional rail. For example, here is García Álvarez’s paper on the subject. This is counterintuitive, because higher speeds should surely lead to higher energy consumption, as Hasegawa et al demonstrate – but high-speed lines run at a uniform speed of 200 or 250 or 300 or 350 km/h, whereas legacy rail has many cycles of acceleration and deceleration. At speeds of up to about 200 km/h, nearly all electricity consumption is in acceleration and not maintaining constant speed, and even at 300 km/h, a late-model high-speed train consumes only above one third of its maximum power maintaining speed.
Instead of this literature, O’Toole picks out the fact that all else being equal energy consumption rises in speed, which it is not equal. Garcia in fact points out that higher speeds are better for the environment due to better competition with air, in line with environmental consensus that trains are far superior on well-to-wheels emissions to cars and planes. Worse, O’Toole is citing Chester-Horvath’s lifecycle analysis, which is not favorable to California High-Speed Rail’s energy efficiency. The only problem is that this paper’s analysis relies on a unit conversion error between BTUs and kWh, pointed out by Clem Tillier. The paper was eventually corrected, and with the correct figures, high-speed rail looks healthy.
Competition with cars and planes
Where high-speed rail exists, and the distance is within a well-understood range of around 300-800 km, it dominates travel. A 2004 report by Steer Davies Gleave has some profiles of what were then the world’s main networks. For Japan, it includes a graphic from 1998 on PDF-p. 120 of modal splits by distance. In the 500-700 km bucket, a slight majority of trips all over Japan are made by rail; this is because Tokyo-Osaka is within that range, and due to those cities’ size this city pair dominates pairs where rail is weaker, especially inter-island ones. In the 300-500 km bucket more people drive, but the Shinkansen is stronger than this on the Tokyo-Nagoya pair, it’s just that 300-500 includes many more peripheral links with no high-speed rail service. It goes without saying that high-speed rail does not get any ridership where it does not exist.
In France, this was also studied for the LGV PACA. On p. 14, the presentation lists modal splits as of 2009. Paris-Toulon, a city pair where the TGV takes around 4 hours, has an outright majority for the TGV, with 54% of the market, compared with 12% for air and 34% for driving. Paris-Cannes is 34% and Paris-Nice is 30%, both figures on the high side for their 5:00-5:30 train trips. Lyon-Nice, a 3:30 trip with awful frequency thanks to SNCF’s poor interprovincial service, still has a 25% market share for the TGV.
In general, competition with cars is understudied. Competition with planes is much more prominent in the literature, with plenty of reports on air-rail modal splits by train trip length. JR East, Central (PDF-p. 4), and West all report such market shares, omitting road transport. Many European analyses appeared in the 2000s, for example by Steer Davies Gleave again in 2006, but the links have rotted and Eurostat’s link is corrupt.
O’Toole misunderstands this literature. He lumps all air and road links, even on markets where rail is weak, sometimes for geographical factors such as mountains or islands, sometimes for fixable institutional ones like European borders. In fact, at least measured in greenhouse gas emission and not ridership, all air travel growth in Europe since 1990 has been international. International high-speed rail exists in Europe but charges higher fares and the infrastructure for it is often not built, with slowdowns in border zones. This is a good argument for completing the international network in Europe and a terrible one against building any network at all.
Even at the level of basic topography, O’Toole makes elementary errors. He discusses the Tokaido Shinkansen, pointing out its factor-of-2 cost overrun. But its absolute costs were not high, which he characterizes as,
The Tokyo–Osaka high‐speed rail line supposedly made money, but it was built across fairly flat territory
So, first of all, the “supposedly” bit is painful given how much JR Central prints money. But “fairly flat territory” is equally bad. Japan’s mountainous topography is not an obscure fact. It’s visible from satellite image. Per Japanese Wikipedia, 13% of the route is in tunnel, more than California High-Speed Rail.
The United States can and should do better
The report is on stronger grounds when criticizing specifics of Amtrak and California High-Speed Rail. American rail construction is just bad. However, this is not because rail is bad; it’s because the United States is bad.
And there’s the rub. Americans in politics can’t tell themselves that another country does something better than the US does. If it’s in other countries and the US can’t do it, it must be, as O’Toole calls rail, obsolete. This is especially endemic to libertarians, who are intellectually detached from their European right-liberal counterparts (Dutch VVD, German FDP, etc.) even more than the American center-left is from social democrats here and the right is from the mainline and extreme right here.
So here, faced with not too hard to find evidence that high-speed rail is profitable in Europe and Asia, and in fact intercity rail is profitable here in general (direct subsidies are forbidden by EU law unless the line is classified as regional), unlike in the United States, O’Toole makes up reasons why trains here are unprofitable or unsuccessful. He says things that are not so much wrong as unrecognizable, regarding topography, buses, construction costs, debt, the state of the TGV debate, or greenhouse gas emissions.
O’Toole is aware of our transit costs comparison. I imagine he’s also aware of high-speed rail cost comparisons, which exist in the literature – if he’s not, it’s because he doesn’t want to be so aware. And yet, no matter how loudly the evidence screams “the United States needs to become more like France, Germany, Japan, Spain, etc.,” American libertarians always find excuses why this is bad or unnecessary. And then, when it comes to expanding freeways, suddenly the cost concerns go out the door and they use unrealistically low cost figures.
But figuring out why the US is bad requires way deeper dives. It requires delving into the field and understanding how procurement is done differently, what is wrong with Amtrak, what is wrong with the California High-Speed Rail Authority, how engineering is done in low- and medium-cost countries, various tradeoffs for planning lead time, and so on. It requires turning into the kind of expert that libertarians have spent the last 60 years theorizing why they need not listen to (“public choice”). And it requires a lot of knowledge of internal affairs of successful examples, none of which is in an English-speaking country. So it’s easier to call this obsolete just because incurious Americans can’t do it.
Meme Weeding: Climate Resilience
I recently heard of state-level American standards for climate resilience that made it clear that, as a concept, it makes climate change worse. The idea of resilience is that catastrophic climate change is inevitable, so might as well make the world’s top per capita emitter among large economies resilient to it through slow retreat from the waterfront. The theory is bad enough – Desmond Tutu calls it climate apartheid – but the practice is even worse. The biggest, densest, and most desirable American cities are close to the coast. Transit-oriented development in and around those cities is the surest way of bringing green prosperity, enabling emissions to go down without compromising living standards. And yet, on a number of occasions I have seen Americans argue against various measures for TOD and transit improvements on resilience grounds.
The worst exhibit is Secaucus Junction. The station is a few kilometers outside Manhattan, on New Jersey Transit’s commuter rail trunk, with excellent service. So close to city center, it doesn’t even matter that the trains are full – the seats are all occupied but there’s standing room, which may not appeal to people living 45 minutes out of Midtown but is fine at a station that is around 10 minutes away today and should be 6 minutes away with better scheduling and equipment.
The land use around Secaucus is also very conducive to TOD. Most of the area around the station is railyards and warehouses, which can pretty easily be cleaned up and replaced with high-density housing, retail, and office development. A small section of the walkshed is wetlands, but the large majority is not and can be built up to be less ecologically disturbing than the truck traffic the current storage development generates.
Politically, this is also far from existing NIMBY suburbia. In North America, the single-family house is held to be sacrosanct, and even very YIMBY regions like Vancouver only redevelop brownfields, not single-family neighborhoods; occasionally there are accessory dwelling units, but never anything that has even medium density or visibly looks like an apartment building. Well, Secaucus Junction is far from the residential areas of Secaucus, so the most common form of NIMBYism would be attenuated.
And yet, there is no concerted effort at TOD. This is not even just a matter of unimaginative politicians. Area advocacy orgs don’t really push for it, and I’m forgetting whether it was ReThinkNYC or the RPA that told me explicitly that their regional rail proposal omits Secaucus TOD on climate adaptation grounds. The area is 2 meters above sea level, and building there is too risky, supposedly, because a 2 meter sea level rise would only flood tens of millions of South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Africans, and those don’t count.
This goes beyond just wasting money on needless infrastructure projects like flood walls, or leaving money on the table that could come from TOD. In the 2000s, New York City was emitting 7 metric tons of CO2 per capita, which was better than Germany and a fraction of the US average. This must have gotten better since – New York had an abnormally high ratio of building emissions (i.e. energy) to transportation emissions (i.e. cars), and in every developed country I’m aware of, only energy emissions have fallen, not car emissions.
A bigger New York, counting very close-in suburbs as New York, is an important part of the American green transition. To have the emissions of the inner parts of the city within the city is a luxury people pay $3,000 a month in rent for; to have it in exurbia means having a smaller car than everyone else in an environment in which accumulating lots of stuff is the only way one can show off status. Breaking the various interests that prevent New York (and Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Boston, and Washington) from growing denser is a valuable political fight. But here, no such breaking is even needed, because the anti-growth interests think locally, and the only locals around Secaucus Junction live in one high-rise development and would if anything welcome more such buildings in lieu of the warehouses.
And yet, Americans argue from the position of climate resilience against such densification. Normally it’s just a waste of money, but this would not just waste money (through leaving money on the table) but also lead to higher emissions since housing would be built in other metropolitan regions of the US, where there is no public transportation. Once adaptation and resilience became buzzwords, they took over the thinking on this matter so thoroughly that they are now directly counterproductive.
Somehow, the goal of avoiding catastrophic climate change has fallen by the wayside, and the usual American praxis of more layers of red tape before every decisions can be made (about climate resilience, design for equity, etc.) takes over. The means justify the ends: if the plan has the word climate then it must be environmentally progressive and sensitive, because what matters is not outcome (it’s too long-term for populists, and all US discourse is populist) but process: more lawsuits, more red tape, more accretion of special rules that everyone must abide by.