Category: Environmental Issues

Public Transit is Greener Than It Seems

The main way to judge how good public transportation is for the environment is to measure how many car trips it displaces. But in reality, it’s better, and I’d like to explain why. As a warning, this is a theoretical rather than empirical post. My main empirical evidence for it is that European car usage is lower relative to American levels than one might expect given public transit mode shares; in a way, it’s an explanation for why this is the case.

While the explanation relies on changes in land use, it is not purely a story of zoning. The population density in much of my example case of auto-oriented density – Southern California – is well below the maximum permitted by zoning, thanks to the lack of good transit alternatives. Thus, even keeping zoning regimes mostly as they are, public transportation has an impact on land use and therefore on car pollution.

Transit always displaces the longest car commutes

In an auto-oriented city, the limiting factor to the metro area’s density is car traffic. Adding density with cars alone leads to extra congestion. Devin Bunten’s paper entitled Is the Rent Too High? finds that, assuming no changes in travel behavior (including no change in the option of public transit), zoning abolition would actually reduce American welfare by 6%, even while increasing GDP by 6%, because of much worse congestion; optimal upzoning would increase GDP by 2.1% and welfare by 1.4%, which figures are lower than in the Hsieh-Moretti model.

The upshot is that if there is no public transportation, people live at low density just because the alternative is the traffic jams of dense car-oriented cities; Los Angeles is the most familiar American example, but middle-income examples like Bangkok are denser and worse for it. Low density means people travel longer to reach their jobs, by car, increasing total vehicle travel.

In the presence of mass transit, people don’t have to sprawl so far out. Los Angeles’s “drive until you qualify” mentality is such that, if there were room for a million transit users in the inner parts of the region, then no matter which exact group of million people from the five-county area started taking transit, ultimately the shuffle would be such that there would be a million fewer people driving in from Antelope Valley, Victor Valley, and the Inland Empire.

The model

Consider a city that comprises concentric rings, as in the following diagram:

The average density of the city region is 1,660 people per square kilometer, and the weighted density is about 3,400; both figures are typical for the denser American Sunbelt cities, like Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, and Las Vegas (see table as of 2000 here).

Let us assume that the amount of v-km per inhabitant within each concentric circle is proportional to the outer radius of the circle, so people in the outermost ring drive 5 times as long as those in the inner circle. For concrete numbers, let us assume these figures are 5,000, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000, and 25,000 v-km per year; they average about 13,550 v-km/capita, which is somewhat less than the US average, just below 16,000 per FRED. Note that the outermost ring has 10.8% of the city’s population and 20% of its v-km.

If the modeled density is close to optimal for congestion management given the current state of public transit, then adding transit means subtracting people from the outer ring, not from the inner rings. Say the city builds rapid transit reaching the inner two rings, allowing these areas to densify by exactly 22.5%, which is the ratio of the outer ring’s population to the inner two’s total’s. The total non-auto mode share will rise by 10.8 percentage points, divided between public transit and walking because people in dense, walkable neighborhoods have the option of non-motorized transport; but v-km and the attending greenhouse gas emissions will fall 20%.

If the city keeps growing, the situation is even more extreme. We can add a sixth ring, on the same model, with a density of 250 people per km^2, 30,000 annual v-km per capita, and population equal to 6.6% of the total of the five existing rings or 6.2% of the six-ring total. This 6.6% increase in population raises v-km by 14.7%; in contrast, a transit system capable of supporting this population increase would show an increase of 6.2 points in the non-auto mode share even while avoiding a 14.7% increase in car traffic.

European car usage

We can obtain total v-km per capita by country from a table of traffic accident fatalities: the OECD reports numbers per capita and per v-km, so if we go to PDF-p. 60 of its report, divide the per-capita figure by the per-v-km figure, and multiply by a scaling factor of 10,000, we get v-km per capita. In the US, this figure is just short of 16,000, just as in the FRED graph. The US’s transit mode share for work trips is 5%, so this is about as close as possible to a purely auto-oriented country.

In the Western European countries for which there’s data, including France and Germany, the figure is just short of 10,000. This is close to INSEE’s figure of 756 billion passenger-km in 2016, the difference accounted for by the fact that sometimes multiple people ride in the same car.

The reason people here travel 40% less by car than in the US is not that they instead travel the same distance by public transit. INSEE reports 132 billion passenger-km in buses, trams, and trains excluding TGVs in 2016, and this includes a fair amount of intercity bus and rail travel (9 billion p-km on intercity rail as of 2010 per p. 53 here). Overall, the French modal split is 70% car, 15% transit, 6.7% walk, 4.3% work from home, 4% bike and motorcycle. The American one is 85% car, 5% transit, 2.7% walk, 5.2% work from home. Even relative to the volume of car commuters, the Americans drive 40% further than the French.

Much of my understanding of how provincial France works comes from the Riviera. The Riviera is not the best representative: Alpes-Maritimes is among the richest departments outside Ile-de-France, is among the most conservative, and near-ties Toulouse’s Haute-Garonne and Strasbourg’s Bas-Rhin for third highest provincial transit mode share (13%, behind Rhone’s 23% and Bouches-du-Rhone’s 14%). But it’s a good representative nonetheless of a major provincial city region. There, the coastal towns as well as some interior ones are filled with sprawl, even going up the mountains. There is density in Monaco and Nice, and public transit ridership mostly consists primarily of people who live in Nice and secondarily of people who commute to Monaco. It’s the tramway, the buses, and the general walkability that permit Nice to be what it is, coexisting alongside the offices parks of Sophia-Antipolis and the low-density sprawl up the mountains.

What about zoning?

Devin’s paper is about the economic cost of zoning. Even with the assumption of no change in built form or in transportation modal choice, it does find welfare gains from upzoning, saying that high-demand areas would gain 10-15% in population. This implies that realizing the full environmental gains from public transit requires upzoning areas near stations, to permit the inner two rings in my model city to gain residents who would have otherwise populated a sixth ring.

And yet, the appropriate zoning to some extent already exists. California abolished single-family zoning in 2016 and 2017: accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are permitted anywhere that residential development is permitted, and homeowners are free to build ADUs in their backyards or carve out ADUs out of their existing buildings. Moreover, in select zones, cities have encouraged transit-oriented development through upzoning or relaxing parking minimums: San Francisco’s TDM process abolished parking minimums anywhere that buildings with at least 10 apartments are permitted, and San Diego slashed parking minimums in an attempt to encourage TOD in North Park along the University Avenue corridor.

The results of TDM in San Francisco are still unclear – the program passed too recently. The same is true of ADUs – existing homeowners react slowly, and new developers may build more two-family houses and fewer single-family houses, but new tract housing would go in the exurbs, not in the coastal cities. But in San Diego the results are clear: developers build more parking than the required minimum at University and 30th, because the public transit option there is a north-south bus that comes every 15 minutes and an east-west bus that comes every 10, which is not actually enough to persuade people who can afford a car not to drive one.


It is difficult to build TOD without public transport. The urban middle class of the 21st century expects travel convenience, which can come in the form of a large rapid transit network or in that of cars and freeways. Thus, even when development sites are available, even in expensive cities, developers sometimes build less than they are allowed to, or insist on more parking than is required, if alternative transportation is inadequate.

The upshot is that adding the layer of transit is likely to stimulate development in the affected urban neighborhoods. The people who would live in this development would not otherwise drive to the outer margin of the city to save on rent, but they would still drive, displacing people would then drive further. The exact details of the churn matter less than the net impact, which is that absent urban transit, cities end up sprawling farther out, forcing people to drive ever-longer distances to work and to other destinations.

A city that succeeds in replacing half of its car trips by public transit, such as Paris, will end up replacing far more than just half of its vehicle-km by transit. Even if the trains are densest within the city core, as is the case even in Paris and other cities with expansive regional rail, the net impact of the transit network is reduction in car travel in the outer parts of the built-up area, where distances are the longest. Planetoscope’s figures for car travel and average distance in Ile-de-France point to a total of just 2,900 v-km/capita in this region – less than one third the national average, and barely one half the national average per car commuter.

The benefit of transit thus goes well beyond the people who use it. The car trips it displaces, even if indirectly, are the ones that cause the worst problems – congestion, pollution, car accidents, greenhouse gas emissions – because they are the longest. Building urban rapid transit can have twice the direct mitigating effect on the harms of car travel as might appear based purely on counting mode choice. With twice the apparent positive environmental impact, mass transit must become a higher priority: nearly every new rapid transit line that’s judged as good must be a top priority for public investment, and many projects that appear marginal must be reevaluated and constructed as planned.

Green New Deal

American progressive media is talking about the possibility of a Green New Deal, which involves spending money in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. So far details are scant, and most likely no real plan is likely to emerge for a number of years, since the proposal is pushed by the Democratic base, which is no more supportive of cooperation with President Trump than I am. Because the plan is so early, people are opining about what should go in it. My purpose in this post is to explain what I think the main priorities should be, and to leave to others the politics of how to package them.

The primacy of transportation

The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation, electricity generation, and industry. In the US this is in descending order, transportation having just overtaken power generation; the reduction in coal burning and the collapse in solar power production costs are such that in the long term, electricity generation should be viewed as a solved problem in the long term. Lingering issues with storage and base load are real, but the speed of progress is such that ordinary taxes on carbon should be enough to fix whatever is left of the problem.

Transportation is the exact opposite. American transportation emissions fell in the 2007-8 oil price spike and ensuing economic crisis but are now increasing again. Newer cars have higher fuel efficiency, but Americans are buying bigger cars and driving more. Electric cars, the favored solution of people who think spending $50,000 on a new car is reasonable, are still a niche luxury market and have trouble scaling up. Scratch an American futurist who looks exclusively at electric cars and denigrates mass transit and you’ll wound a solipsist who looks for excuses to avoid the humiliation of having to support something where other countries lead and the US lags.

The upshot is that the primary (but not the only) focus of any green push has to be expansion of public transportation. This includes ancillary policies for urban redevelopment and livable streets, which have the dual effects of buttressing public transit and reducing residential emissions through higher-density living. Overall, this turns any such program into a large public works project.

Spend money right

It’s paramount to make sure to avoid wasting money. A large infrastructure program would run into an appreciable fraction of federal spending; money is always a constraint, even when the goal is to spend funds on economic stimulus. The first lesson here is to keep construction costs under control. But an equally fundamental lesson is to make sure to spend money on transit expansion and not other things:

Don’t spend money on roads

A large majority of American public spending on transportation is on roads. Adding in subsidies for cars makes the proportion go even higher. It reflects current travel patterns, but if the goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of driving, the government can’t keep pumping money into road infrastructure. Accept that in developed countries the generally useful roads have already been built, and future construction just induces people to suburbanize further and drive longer distances.

Congress spends transportation money in multi-year chunks. The most recent bill passed in 2015 for five years, totaling $300 billion, of which $50 billion went to public transit and $200 billion went to highways. Raiding the road fund should be the primary source of additional transit funding: most of the line workers and engineers can build either, and even the physical act of building a freeway is not too different from that of building a high-speed railway. In contrast, outside of a deep recession, increasing total spending on transportation infrastructure requires hiring more workers, leading to large increases in costs as the program runs up against the limit of the available construction labor in the country.

$60 billion a year on public transit is a decent chunk of money for a long-term program, especially with expected state matches. Over the next decade it would be $600 billion, and around a trillion with state and local matches, if they are forthcoming (which they may not be because of how political incentives are lined up). That is, it’d a decent chunk of money if the federal government understands the following rule:

Fund expansion, not maintenance or operations

The sole legitimate source of regular budgeting for public transit is regular spending at the relevant level of government, which is state or local in the United States. Outside infusions of money like federal spending are bad government, because they incentivize deferring maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then crying poverty when it is generous. Amtrak did just that in the 2000s: faced with pressure from the Bush administration to look profitable for future privatization, Amtrak fired David Gunn, who wouldn’t defer maintenance, and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman; then in the economic crisis and the stimulus, it discovered a multi-billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, permitting it to ask for money without having to show any visible results.

If the federal government credibly commits to not funding state of good repair backlogs or normal replacement, and to penalizing agencies that defer maintenance and giving them less money for expansion, it can encourage better behavior. Unlike ongoing maintenance, capital expansion is not necessary for continued operations, and thus if funding dries up and a transit agency stops expanding, there will not be problems with service cancellation, slow zones, frequency-ridership spirals, and other issues familiar to New Yorkers in the 1970s or Washingtonians today.

One potential way to change things is to federally fund expansion without expecting much if any local match, provided the agency commits to spending the required operating funds on running the service in question. This separation of federal and local responsibility also reduces the political incentives to grandstand by rejecting federal money in order to make the president look bad.

Build the rail lines that are appropriate

Each region in the US should be getting transit expansion money in rough proportion to its population. However, the meaning of transit depends on the local and regional geography:

  • In big cities it means rapid transit expansion: new lines for the New York City Subway, the Chicago L, etc. In somewhat smaller cities with light rail-based systems it means light rail expansion, which may also involve upgrading at-grade light rail to full rapid transit: Dallas is considering a downtown tunnel for its light rail network and Los Angeles is already building one, and those could lead to upgrading capacity elsewhere on the system to permit longer trains.
  • In suburbs and some smaller cities with large mainline rail networks, it means commuter rail. It’s especially valuable in the Northeast and secondarily in the Midwest and the odd older Southern city: cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati don’t really have compelling corridors for greenfield urban rail, but do have interesting S-Bahn corridors.
  • In periurban and rural areas, it means longer-range regional rail, transitioning to intercity rail in lower-density areas. In some smaller metro areas, it means actual intercity rail to bigger cities. Examples include Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, both of which can be connected with Denver, and Hans-Joachim Zierke’s proposed regional rail line for Medford, Oregon.

I focus on rail and not buses for two simple reasons: rail has higher capital and lower operating costs, so it’s more relevant for a capital program, and rail gets higher ridership for reasons including better right-of-way quality and better ride quality.

Transmit knowledge of best practices

The federal government has the ability to assimilate best practices for both limiting construction costs and designing good transit networks. Local governments can learn the same, but for the most part they don’t care. Instead they run their transit systems in manage-the-decline mode, only occasionally hearing about something done in London, hardly the best-run European transit city.

The best practices for network design are especially important given the magnitude of the program. The US is not spending $60 billion nationwide a year on transit expansion. The NTD says annual spending on capital among the top 50 American transit agencies was $14.6 billion as of 2016 (source, PDF-p. 11), and a lot of that (e.g. most of the MTA’s $3.5 billion capital expenditure) is the black holes that are state of good repair and normal replacement. $60 billion a year apportioned by population is on the order of $2 billion for New York City annually, which is $20 billion over 10 years, and the city doesn’t necessarily know how to spend that money even at today’s construction costs, let alone rational construction costs.

At least New York has an internal bank of enthusiasts at the MTA and at shadow agencies like the RPA who have ideas for how to spend this money. Smaller cities for the most part don’t. Does Cleveland have any idea what it would do with $5 billion over ten years for regionwide transit expansion? Does Tampa? The federal government has to play an educational role in giving regions sample zoning codes for TOD, network design guidelines, and procurement guidelines that help reduce costs.

Start planning now

A large infrastructure bill planned for 2021 has to be planned now. Its proponents do not intend for it to be a regular jobs program based on existing local wishlists: they intend for it to represent a shift in national priorities, which means that each item of spending has to be planned in advance, mostly from scratch. It means the political work of aligning various interest groups toward the same goal has to start early, which seems to be what the proponents are doing; even the name Green New Deal evokes progressive nostalgia for olden days before neoliberalism.

But alongside the political work, there must be good technical work. Regional planning agencies have to be aware this may be coming and have to have solid ideas for how they’d like to spend a few billion dollars over the decade. Simultaneously, organs including federal offices like the GAO, transit agencies, shadow agencies, and thinktanks have to learn and transmit a culture of good operating and capital practices. A government that plays a bigger role in the economy or in society has to become more competent; managerial competence is required for any program that allocates money with any precision, and very good cost control is a must to make sure the available budget goes to a green transition and isn’t wasted on red tape.

How Transit and Green Tech Make Economic Geography More Local

The theme of winners and losers has been on my mind for the last few months, due to the politics of the Brooklyn bus redesign. In a rich country, practically every social or political decisions is win-lose, even if the winners greatly outnumber the losers. It’s possible to guarantee a soft landing to some of the losers, but sometime even the soft landing is disruptive, and it’s crucial that backers of social change be honest with themselves and with the public about this. Overall, a shift from an auto-oriented society to a transit-oriented one and from dirty energy to clean energy is positive and must be pursued everywhere, but it does have downsides. In short, it changes economic geography in ways that make certain regions (like Detroit or the Gulf Cooperation Council states) redundant; it reorients economies toward more local consumption, so oil, gas, and heavy industry jobs would not be replaced with similar manufacturing or mining clusters but with slightly more work everywhere else in the world.

Dirty production is exportable

The United States has the dirtiest economy among the large developed countries, so it’s convenient to look at average American behavior to see where the money that is spent on polluting products goes.

Nationally, about 15.9% of consumer spending is on transportation. The vast majority of that is on cars, 93.1% (that is, 14.7% of total consumer spending). The actual purchase of the car is 42% of transportation spending, or 6.7% of household spending. This goes to an industry that, while including local dealerships (for both new and used cars), mostly consists of auto plants, making cars in suburban Detroit or in low-wage Southern states and exporting them nationwide.

In addition to this 6% of consumer spending on cars, there’s fuel. Around 3% of American household spending is on fuel for cars. Overall US oil consumption in 2017 was 7.28 billion barrels, which at $52/barrel is 5% of household spending; the difference between 5 and 3 consists of oil consumed not by households. This is a total of about 2% of American GDP, which includes, in addition to household spending, capital goods and government purchases. This tranche of the American economy, too, is not local, but rather goes to the oil industry domestically (such as to Texas or Alaska) or internationally (such as to Alberta or Saudi Arabia).

Historically, when coal was more economically significant, it was exportable too. Money flowed from consumers, such as in New York and London, to producers in the Lackawanna Valley or Northeast England; today, it still flows to remaining mines, such as in Wyoming.

The same is true of much of the supply chain for carbon-intensive products. Heavy industry in general has very high carbon content for its economic value, which explains how the Soviet Union had high greenhouse gas emissions even with low car usage (15.7 metric tons per capita in the late 1980s) – it had heavy industry just as the capital bloc did, but lagged in relatively low-carbon consumer goods and services. The economic geography of steel, cement, and other dirty products is again concentrated in industrial areas. In the US, Pittsburgh is famous for its historical steel production, and in general heavy manufacturing clusters in the Midwestern parts of the Rust Belt and in transplants in specific Southern sites.

All of these production zones support local economies. The top executives may well live elsewhere – for example, David Koch lives in New York and Charles Koch in Wichita (whose economy is based on airplane manufacturing and agriculture, neither of which the Kochs are involved in). But the working managers live in city regions dedicated to servicing the industry, the way office workers in the oil industry tend to live in Houston or Calgary, and of course the line workers live near the plants and mines.

Clean alternatives are more local

The direct alternatives to oil, gas, and cars are renewable energy and public transportation. These, too, have some components that can be made centrally and exported, such as solar panel and rolling stock manufacturing. However, these components are a small fraction of total spending.

How small? Let’s look at New York City Transit. Its operating costs are about $9.1 billion a year as of 2016, counting both the subway and buses. Nearly all of this is wages, salaries, and benefits: $7.3 billion, compared with only $500 million for materials and supplies. This specifically excludes vehicle purchases, which in American transit accounting are lumped as capital costs. The total NYCT fleet is about 6,400 subway cars, which cost around $2.3 million each and last 40+ years, and 5,700 buses, which cost around $500,000 each and last 12 years, for a total depreciation charge of around $600 million a year combined.

Compare this with cars: New York has about 2 million registered cars, but at the same average car ownership rate as the rest of the US, 845 per 1,000 people, it would have 7.3 million cars. These 5.3 million extra cars would cost $36,500 each today, and last around 20 years, for a total annual depreciation charge of $9.7 billion.

Put another way, total spending on vehicles at NYCT is one sixteenth what it would take to raise the city’s car ownership rate to match the national average. Even lumping in materials and supplies that are not equipment, such as spare parts and fuel for buses, the total, $1.1 billion, is one ninth as high as buying New Yorkers cars so that they can behave like Americans outside the city, and that’s without counting the cost of fuel. In particular, there is no hope of maintaining auto plant employment by retraining auto workers to make trains, as Michael Moore proposed in 2009.

The vast majority of transit spending is then local: bus and train operations, maintenance, and local management. The same is true of capital spending, which goes to local workers, contractors, and consultants, and even when it is outsourced to international firms, the bulk of the value of the contract does not accrue to Dragados or Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Clean energy is similarly local. Solar panels can be manufactured centrally, but installing them on rooftops is done locally. Moreover, the elimination of carbon emissions coming from buildings has to come not just from cleaner electricity but also from reducing electricity consumption through passive solar construction. Retrofitting houses to be more energy-efficient is a labor-intensive task comprising local builders sealing gaps in the walls, windows, and ceilings.

Low-carbon economic production can be exported, but not necessarily from Detroit

A global shift away from greenhouse gas emissions does not mean just replacing cars and oil with transit and solar power. Transit is cheaper to operate than cars: in metro New York, 80.5% of personal transportation expenditure is still on cars, and the rest is (as in the rest of the country) partly on air travel and not transit fare, whereas work trip mode shares in the metropolitan statistical area are 56% car, 31% transit. With its relatively high (for North America) transit usage, metro New York has the lowest share of household spending going to transportation, just 11.4%. This missing consumption goes elsewhere. Where does it go?

The answer is low-carbon industries. Consuming less oil, steel, and concrete means not just consuming more local labor for making buildings more efficient and running public transit, but also shifting consumption to less carbon-intensive industries. This low-carbon consumption includes local purchases, for example going out to eat, or hiring a babysitter to look after the kids, neither of which involves any carbon emissions. But it also includes some goods that can be made centrally. What are they, and can they be made in the same areas that make cars and steel or drill for oil and gas?

The answer is no. First, in supply regions like the Athabascan Basin, Dammam, and the North Slope of Alaksa, there’s no real infrastructure for any economic production other than oil production. The infrastructure (in the case of North America) and the institutions (in the case of the Persian Gulf) are not suited for any kind of manufacturing. Second, in real cities geared around a single industry, like Detroit or Houston, there are still lingering problems with workforce quality, business culture, infrastructure, and other necessities for economic diversification.

Take the tech industry as an example. The industry itself is very low-carbon, in the sense that software is practically zero-carbon and even hardware has low carbon content relative to its market value. Some individual tech products are dirty, such as Uber, but the industry overall is clean. A high carbon tax is likely to lead to a consumption shift toward tech. And tech as an industry has little to look for in Detroit and Houston. Austin has booming tech employment, but Houston does not, despite having an extensive engineering sector courtesy of the oil industry as well as NASA. The business culture in the space industry (which is wedded to military contracting) is alien to that of tech and vice versa; the way workers are interviewed, hired, and promoted is completely different. I doubt the engineers oil and auto industries are any more amenable to career change to software.

On the level of line workers rather than engineers, the situation is even worse. A manufacturing worker in heavy industry can retrain to work in light industry, or in a non-exportable industry like construction, but light industry has little need for the massive factories that churn out cars and steel. And non-manufacturing exports like tech don’t employ armies of manufacturing workers.

In Germany the situation is better, in that Munich and Stuttgart may have little software, but they do have less dirty manufacturing in addition to their auto industries. It’s likely that if global demand for cars shifts to a global demand for trains then Munich will likely keep thriving – it’s the home of not just BMW and Man but also Siemens. However, the institutions and worker training that have turned southern Germany into an economically diverse powerhouse have not really replicated outside Germany. Ultimately, in a decarbonizing world, southern Germany will be the winner among many heavy industrial regions, most of which won’t do so well.

There’s no alternative to shrinkage in some cities

A shift away from fossil fuel and cars toward green energy and public transit does not have to be harsh. It can aim to give individual workers in those industries a relatively soft landing. However, two snags remain, and are unavoidable.

The first is that some line workers have deliberately chosen poor working conditions in exchange for high wages; the linked example is about oil rig workers in Alaska, but the same issue occurs in some unionized manufacturing and services, for example electricians get high wages but all suffer hearing loss by their 50s. It’s possible to retrain workers and find them work that’s at the same place on the average person’s indifference curve between pay and work conditions, but since those workers evidently chose higher-pay, more dangerous jobs, their personal preference is likely to weight money more than work conditions and thus they’re likely to be unhappy with any alternative.

The second and more important snag is the effect of retraining on entire regions. Areas that specialize to oil, gas, cars, and to some extent other heavy industry today are going to suffer economic decline, as the rest of the world shifts its consumption to either local goods (such as transit operations) or different economic sectors that have no reason to locate in these areas (such as software).

Nobody will be sad to see Saudi Arabia crash except people who are directly paid by its government. But the leaders of Texas and Michigan are not Mohammad bin Salman; nonetheless, it is necessary to proceed with decarbonization. It’s not really possible to guarantee the communities a soft landing. Governments all over the world have wasted vast amounts of money trying and failing to diversify from one sector (e.g. oil in the GCC states) or attract an industry in vogue (e.g. tech anywhere in the world). If engineering in Detroit and Houston can’t diversify on its own, there’s nothing the government can do to improve it, and thus these city regions are destined to become much smaller than they are today.

This is bound to have knock-on regional effects. Entire regions don’t die quietly. Firms specializing in professional services to the relevant industries (such as Halliburton) will have to retool. Small business owners who’ve dedicated their lives to selling food or insurance or hardware to Houstonians and suburban Detroit white flighters will need to leave, just as their counterparts in now-dead mining towns or in Detroit proper did. Some will succeed elsewhere, just as many people in New Orleans who were displaced by Katrina found success in Houston. But not all will. And it’s not possible to guarantee all of them a soft landing, because it’s not possible to guarantee that every new small business will succeed.

All policy, even very good policy, has human costs. There are ways to reduce these costs, through worker retraining and expansion of alternative employment (such as retrofitting older houses to be more energy-efficient). But there is no way to eliminate these costs. Some people who are comfortable today will be made precarious by any serious decarbonization program; put another way, these people’s entire livelihood depends on continuing to destroy the planet, and most of them are not executives at oil and gas companies. It does not mean that decarbonization should be abandoned or even that it should be pursued more hesitantly; but it does mean climate activists, including transit activists, have to be honest about how it affects people in and around polluting industries.

Transit Versus Other Transportation Alternatives

Where is private rapid transit? Private companies built the London Underground, the els in New York, the Chicago L, the first line of the Tokyo subway. Construction costs are up since then, but so are ridership (in the second half of 1905, London’s Central line carried 23 million people; today, its annual ridership is 289 million, a sixfold increase) and people’s ability to afford higher fares. In most cities transportation works as an interconnected complex system with little room for a private upstart, but this is not universal. In particular, in San Francisco, a subway under Geary wouldn’t need to interface much with BART or Muni. So how come none of the tech companies in California, which have invested in many different kinds of transportation and haven’t shied from reinventing the wheel, seems interested?

Only in the last week, talking to people at the ecomodernism conference I discussed last post, did I fully understand the answer. It’s sobering: investing in transit isn’t going to let a private company dominate the world. The companies that operate trains around the world by contract, like the MTR and Veolia, make money, but much of that is government subsidies for which they have to compete on level field, and even then their margins are low by the standards of Airbnb, let alone older tech firms like Facebook and Google. With good cost control it’s possible to get a positive return on investment, but it’s on the order of 3%*, which is not what a venture capital fund is looking for. It’s looking for ten different ideas, of which eight will flop, one will tread water, and one will make a windfall. Committing billions upfront to something for low returns with extensive regulatory risk is not really on its radar.

Instead of transit, the business world, by which I mean the constellation of VC, tech, tech media, business media, and new investors, is looking at things that can start small. Uber paved the way, making dirty travel by taxi much easier; more recently, companies have imitated the model for green transportation, first dockless bikes and now e-scooters. A tech press that in 2014 was replete with “Uber, but for ___” turned to dockless by 2017 and scooters this year.

The reaction of most of my green transportation Twitter feed to the newer trends is positive. To the extent people express skepticism, it’s almost always rooted in a leftist disdain for private businesses. The only other criticism I’ve heard, from Eric Goldwyn, is that transportation revolutions require dedicated right-of-way, such as car-dominated roads, grade-separated rapid transit, BRT lanes, separate bike lanes, or the extensive corrals of docked bikes. But even this line recognizes the synergy between dockless bikes or scooters and public transit.

However, synergy does not imply similarity. That rail networks can use bikes to extend their station access radii outside urban cores does not imply that transit is like other green transportation, and certainly does not imply that bikes (let alone scooters) are a substitute for transit. They work at completely different scales.

Transit works at a large scale. I know of a small handful of transit cities below 2 million people, like Karlsruhe, Geneva, and Strasbourg, none of which has the per capita rail ridership of Paris. In the 2 million area, transit cities exist, but rely on total systemwide integration, sometimes (e.g. in Zurich) extending to the open national railway network. There exist some edge cases where a single line can be profitable, like Geary in San Francisco, but the single line is not massively profitable. A 3% return is great for a government that sets its own regulations and can borrow at sovereign rates; for a private business facing regulatory risk, this return is too low to bother with.

Everything else works at a small scale. Cars are self-evidently like that: they’re great at getting people to places where few people want to go or at times when few people travel. At midnight, taxis will handily beat the RER on travel time. At midday, they are slower than a delayed Washington Metro train or a local New York City Subway line. The startup costs are low, too: grading and paving a two-lane road supporting 70-80 km/h (less in rough terrain) is cheap. It will have grade crossings, but outside urban areas, stop signs and road hierarchies are good enough.

However, this is equally true of bikes and scooters. This isn’t as obvious as with cars, since bikes are too slow to work in rural areas less dense than Holland. But the same speed limitation ensures bikes are only useful in relatively small cities. The Netherlands is somewhat unique in having compact cities with sharp boundaries, and even there, people mostly use bikes when they can live close to work (the average urban bike speed is 12.4 km/h). At intercity scale, the train and car dominate.

Bikes clearly scale up to dense cities; Amsterdam’s urban typology is mid-rise, dense enough for the purposes of this question. Scooters most likely are the same – their speeds and total amount of space consumed are similar to those of bikes. Their scaling problem is about distance more than capacity. 12.4 km/h is too slow. Buses in New York are almost as fast, and the average bus trip in the city is 3.5 km, with riders typically using the bus to transfer to the subway.

The problem with the American and Chinese business world’s convergence on dockless bikes and scooters as the next big thing is then that, like New York buses, their main use case is to extend a faster mode of transportation, that is, the train. Without the train, they are not worth much. Ofo is realizing this as it pulls out of the US, Israel, and Australia, focusing on its core market of large Chinese cities and only maintaining an international foothold in a few transit cities like Paris and Singapore.

In contrast, the train without the dockless bike or scooter works quite well. Paris had a perfectly functional transit system in 2017, before dockless came in, and even in 2006, before Velib. This means that the train needs to come first in a city that wishes to reduce its car use and shift trips to eco-friendly modes of transportation. Private businesses won’t build it, unless it’s to extend a preexisting system that they already own (as is the case for the private railroads in Japan).

There is no alternative to a functioning state. To a functioning state, a few billion dollars or euros for a metro line is a serious expense, but one that it can take if the ridership projections are adequate. To a functioning state, VCs that talk about changing the world through scooters are a nuisance to be ignored. The scooters can play a role and the regulations on them shouldn’t be too onerous, but their role is secondary, and the predominant effort in planning should go to fixed routes.

*Assume $2 billion to tunnel under Geary from Union Square to the VA Hospital. This is a little more than $200 million per km, which is normal for a developed country that’s not the United States; figure that better cost control than the average cancels out with abnormally high market wages in San Francisco. Operating costs cluster in the $4-7/car-km; BART is at $5.36 as of 2016 with long cars, and a driverless operation could do somewhat better, so figure 150-meter trains at $30/train-km, or $300 for a one-way run. At 18 base tph, 30 peak tph, annual operating costs are in the $80-90 million/year range. Bus ridership on and parallel to Geary is 110,000/weekday today; without making any assumptions on development, 250,000/weekday, or 75 million/year, is reasonable. Muni is full of transfers, so getting clean revenue/trip data is hard, but the subway in New York charges around $2 per trip, and the Richmond District could probably function without free transfers to Muni without taking too much of a hit to revenue, making $150 million/year in revenue reasonable. (150,000,000-90,000,000)/2,000,000,000 = 3%.

Trust and Environmentalism

I’m at Ecomodernism 2018, a conference by the Breakthrough Institute in exurban Northern Virginia. It’s not much of an infrastructure or transportation conference (although Breakthrough tells me they are getting interested in these subjects), so I instead went to a breakout session about nuclear power. The session was better than other parts of the conference, but was still not great in the sense that what I saw of it made me less sympathetic to nuclear power than I was before. I want to describe my thought process here, not because nuclear power is a relevant subject to this blog (whatever opinion on it I hold is tepid) but because it showcases how trust works and how people in power need to listen to critics.

Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I did not go to the entire session. It was a two-hour discussion in a circle; an hour in I had to run to the bathroom, and while there I discovered that my flight back to Paris got canceled due to airline bankruptcy and had to run to my room to look for alternatives. So it’s entirely possible my concerns were addressed in the second hour, although judging by where the discussion was going when I left, I doubt it.

What I saw at the discussion concerned technical issues regarding costs and regulations. As far as I remember, everyone at the 19-person discussion other than me had some ties to nuclear advocacy or the industry, except possibly one law professor who was involved in the debate over nuclear regulations. People with background in the industry talked about how American regulations are excessively cautious about safety zones (and in response to my question told me the rest of the world mostly follows American regulations). The law professor asked if modernizing the regulations would always mean loosening controls or if there were places where tightening was required; two people gave convoluted replies that basically said they were only talking about loosening rules without explicitly saying so.

Missing from the entire discussion as far as I could see was the issue of trust. Nuclear power requires immense personal trust in the firms building the plants and in the state. Nuclear advocates keep explaining that first-world regulatory regimes are a lot stronger than whatever the Soviet Union had during Chernobyl. But it’s hard to understand to what extent this is true without very deep ties to the conversation. On a car or a train, it’s easy for a passenger to feel that something is wrong – that there is a lot of sway, that the train driver is overrunning platforms, that the road is visibly in poor condition, etc. There’s no need to trust that the system is safe because passengers can readily see that it is safe. A nuclear plant is different: one minute it’s working, the next minute it’s blowing up.

In cultural theory, trust is mostly an egalitarian issue. To the egalitarian, the exact details of the regulations don’t matter nearly as much as the population’s ability to trust that the regulators are honest. Producing this kind of honesty is hard.

Even hierarchical institutions are full of folklore about people in power being stupid or dishonest. World War Two, the epitome of hierarchy, still produced Catch-22 and copious enlisted folklore about obstructive officers. Even my grandfather at one point asked if the anonymous commander of his resistance group in the ghetto was helping dig shelters or whether he was just telling grunts to do so (later he learned that the person he was asking this question of, while they dug the shelters together, was the anonymous commander). Even at their best, hierarchical organizations are necessarily compartmentalized and secret, and never immune to the occasional social climber, narcissist, or asshole (in fact the word “asshole” came out of WW2 lexicon referring to obstructive officers).

To the extent there is a direct connection to transportation, the mode of transportation that elicits the biggest trust concerns is the self-driving car. The airplane elicits a similar fear, but the airline industry has spent the last few decades ruthlessly prioritizing safety over anything else – cost, comfort, flexibility, speed, fuel efficiency. In contrast, the tech industry’s “move fast and break things” ethos not only causes visible accidents (such as Tesla’s occasional crashes or Uber’s fatal AV crash) but also reminds the public that to the industry, safety is a secondary concern to world domination.

This problem gets worse when the industry or the state does not understand it has a trust deficit. In France, I’m pro-nuclear. In the US, I’m more skeptical, because of the morass of conflicting federal and state regulations, local NIMBYism, and industry efforts; at the discussion, when someone brought up financing, I explicitly asked about the state-built plants of South Korea, which the moderator had brought up in a report about nuclear plant costs, and was told that this is not on the agenda for the US.

French regulators have proven themselves more trustworthy to me than American ones, so when Macron calls for expanding nuclear energy I react more positively than when third way American thinktanks do. Similarly, France simultaneously implements or at least tries to implement parallel green policies, such as building more public transit, which helps convince me that Macron’s vision of the future treats decarbonization as a priority. In contrast, Ecomodernism 2018 saw fit to treat “is climate change a serious problem?” as a debate that reasonable people may disagree about, and treats oil and gas expansion as a respectable minority opinion within the movement, which helps convince me its support of nuclear is about pissing off the mainstream green movement and not about providing an extra tool for base load power to avoid the intermittency problem of renewable energy.

If the people who are responsible for implementing such technology misunderstand that they have a trust deficit, they will not do anything about it. At worst, they will talk about how to market the technology, as if the problem is about convincing the public that they’re trustworthy and not about actually putting safety first.

In rationalism, there is something called “steelmanning.” To steelman a position is to find the strongest possible argument for it, even if it is not what one’s interlocutor exactly said. This contrasts with strawmanning, i.e. finding the weakest possible argument and attacking it as unreasonable. Ecomodernism 2018’s first proper session, a discussion with people who changed their minds on environmental issues, brought this term up as a positive, contrasting it with partisan polarization.

As far as I saw at the discussion, the discussion of nuclear power did not steelman the anti-nuclear movement and its emphasis on trust and (in Germany and Japan) the issue of American military involvement.

That said, I don’t believe in steelmanning, because if a movement recurrently fails to make what I think the strongest arguments for its position is, I reserve the right to use it to judge what it considers important. This way I dismiss movement libertarians’ opposition to public transit, because they seem indifferent to cost comparisons; those are a free shot at many US transit projects, but make transit look like a reasonable proposition in some circumstances and suggest improvements that would make it cost-effective, conflicting with Wendell Cox’s maximalist attitude that cars are always superior.

But by the same token, I am compelled to dismiss the ecomodernist line about nuclear energy, which I was sympathetic to until the conference began. There are strong arguments in favor of nuclear power: its safety record in developed countries in the last few decades has been positive, it is less intermittent than solar power, and Germany’s decommissioning of nuclear plants without adequate renewable replacement has not been great for its carbon footprint. On the bus shuttle from Washington to the conference I sat next to someone who convincingly made some of these arguments, explaining that solar costs per watt are understated due to intermittency. But at least the first half of the discussion I attended today neither brought them up (except in the context of the desirability of loosening regulations) nor adequately wrestled with the opposition.

In public transit and urbanism, the same issue sometimes occurs. It’s not as stark as with nuclear plants because people can see changes more readily, but getting people to trust public transit authorities that have recurrently proven themselves incompetent or dishonest is not a trivial task. It is imperative that people who support good transit make it clear that everything has tradeoffs: cost-effective subway lines involve surface disruption (which can be reduced but not eliminated), regional rail modernization means people at some suburban stations will no longer be guaranteed a seat and will definitely not be guaranteed first-class status elevated over the urban working class, fare integration usually comes with an increase in base fares for people who don’t transfer, bus network redesigns make some people’s trips longer and are net negative for passengers with especially high transfer and walking penalties.

Transit is a world of heterogeneous preferences. An optimal network is necessarily a compromise between many different people’s personal weights on reliability, walking time, in-vehicle travel time, etc. As a compromise, it will piss some people off, and it’s necessary to make it very clear what is happening, as agencies reform themselves from the swamp of most American operators to proper transport associations. Trust is critical: just as passengers’ trust in the schedule is crucial to ensure they wait for the bus or train rather than driving or forgoing the trip, people’s trust in the authority to make good decisions is crucial to ensure they participate in and respect the process rather than checking out and treating transportation as an imposition to be avoided whenever possible.

Cities and Cultural Theory

I ran a Patreon poll about sociological theories as applied to urbanism, offering two options: cultural theory of risk, and cultural cringe. The poll was tied, so I feel compelled to do one post on each (when cultural theory was ahead I was outlining two separate posts on it, one about transit and one about housing).

Psychologists and sociologists have long known that people’s perceptions of risk can vary widely from actual risks (e.g. people are more afraid of flying than of driving even though planes are safer), and, moreover, different people have different evaluations of risk. Early theories analyzed differences in risk perception along lines of class, race, or gender, but subsequently a group of social scientists, many (though not all) libertarians, argued for an ideology-based cultural identity. In 1982, the anthropologist Mary Douglas and the political scientist Aaron Wildavksy published Risk and Culture, arguing for three different identities (later expanded to four). Douglas used her past insights from analyzing premodern societies’ social taboos to analyzing risk perception within industrialized societies, especially the rise of the environmental movement during a time of falling pollution levels.

Urbanism and public transit are intimately connected with environmentalism. A large fraction of transit advocacy is environmental in nature, and both early NIMBYs and present-day YIMBYs come from green progressivism. Even when the arguments are not explicitly ecological, the parallels are unavoidable: Jane Jacobs’ critique of urban renewal has strong similarities with Rachel Carson’s critique of DDT. Legally, the mechanisms that exist to protect both endangered species and neighborhoods are often the same (e.g. the American environmental impact report process). Thus, understanding a sociological theory developed originally to analyze environmentalism should have straightforward applications to cities and urban transportation.

Grid-group typology

Cultural theory begins with the distinction between markets and hierarchies. These are two distinct ways of organizing society, leading to different institutions and different social views. Douglas and Wildavsky’s innovation is to distinguish two different axes of separation between markets and hierarchies, which they call group and grid, leading to a 2*2 chart:

Group measures group solidarity among members of the system; grid measures the restrictions placed on the individual’s ability to exit the system. While individualism and hierarchy are politically stronger than the other two cultural identities, group and grid are fairly independent on the level of personal politics and there are numerous examples of egalitarianism and fatalism.

I strongly recommend reading the original book, but this review does it and the theory’s subsequent developments justice.

Individualism arises in institutions that are atomized and like it. The free market is the best example, but professions with mostly independent workers (like academia and the law, especially historically) also fit. Individualists view nature as resilient, returning to a stable equilibrium no matter what happens, and thus business control of the environment is to be celebrated as development; I had this aspect of cultural theory in mind when I wrote one of my early posts critiquing the idea that cities have a single equilibrium. Rejecting systemic or environmental risks, individualists focus on risks that disrupt the market’s operation, like war or recession.

Hierarchy arises in institutions where everyone has a predetermined role to play. Examples include the military, premodern feudalism, and modern bureaucracies. Hierarchists view nature as perverse or tolerant, capable of adapting to change to an extent but not beyond circumscribed limits, and therefore employ what their society considers expert opinion (e.g. scripture, bureaucratic process, big science, etc.) to figure these limits. Hierarchists focus on risks that indicate social deviance, like crime.

Douglas and Wildavsky call the above two tendencies the center, distinguished from what they call the border, whose growth they ascribe to the erosion of trust in institution in the 1960s and 70s (coming in the US from the Vietnam War and Watergate, in France from the reaction to the social protests of 1968, etc.).

Egalitarianism was the border tendency studied in Risk and Culture, which polemically called it sectarianism. It occurs in groups that rely on intensive solidarity among members but cannot enforce their collective will on the individual, and thus require other mechanisms to encourage people not to leave. These include internal equality, to stave off discontentment, and the precautionary principle, to prevent change from inducing disaffected members to exit. Thus they view nature as fragile, prone to collapse at any moment if the system endures any change in direction, and focus on low-probability, high-impact risks (such as environmental collapse), which enhance the group’s internal solidarity against outside enemies.

One of the key oppositions Douglas and Wildavsky point out is between the Hutterites and the Amish. Both denominations are high-group, socializing almost exclusively among their own kind, adhering to strict religious principles. But despite their common Anabaptist origin, they differ in one crucial aspect: the Hutterites have communal ownership of property, the Amish don’t. This makes the Hutterites high-grid, since members who leave start from zero, whereas Amish who leave get to keep their land. The Amish openly adhere to the precautionary principle, which they famously interpret extremely conservatively; the Hutterites have formal rules for group size and adopt modern farming technology easily.

Fatalism is the last tendency, so politically weak that it was ignored in the original book and only discussed in subsequent refinements of the theory. It arises in institutions whose lower-ranked members (whether by market poverty or low rank in the hierarchy) are disaffected, unable to leave and yet not sharing any of the group’s purported values. They tend to view nature as capricious, moving without clear direction, and do not have any particular risk focus, but tend to be especially concerned about things they do not understand (such as unfamiliar or complex technology). Transgressive fiction like The Wire tends to depict fatalist institutions; geekier readers may also recognize H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos as fatalist, portraying a universe so far beyond human understanding that any who begins to figure any of it out goes insane or slowly becomes a monster.

Some political movements have obvious cultural identities. Libertarianism is individualist. The New Left is egalitarian. The far right is hierarchist: Cas Mudde calls it pathological normalcy, and its issue focus (crime, immigration as genetic pollution, terrorism) is hierarchical, even as it rejects traditional hierarchical institutions. However, the broader left vs. right distinction does not neatly map to any of the four cultural biases. About the only generalization that can be made is that activists are usually not fatalists.

Cultural theory and transportation

Transportation planning is an inherently hierarchical industry. The technologies involved are old and continuously tweaked within well-understood parameters. With so much accumulated knowledge, work experience matters, requiring companies in the industry to adopt a hierarchical setup. Moreover, the transportation network itself is complex and interconnected, with changes in one region cascading to others. Changes to the bus network, the train schedule, etc. are possible but only if the people implementing them know what they’re doing, creating a picture of the network much like the hierarchical view of nature as tolerant up to a limit.

The individualist ethos of tech companies – move fast and break things – works for fast-growing industries. Individualism is by far the fastest of the four biases in reacting to sudden changes. The tech industry’s denigration of public transit as an old hat has to be understood as individualists reacting poorly to an industry that has to be run by a business culture they find alien.

Readers who have been following me closely may ask, well, what about me? I’m an individualist. I evidently talk more to startups than to transportation consulting megacorps. One reader notes that I’ve called for people in positions of authority to be fired for incompetence so many times that a post like this one may read as hesitant purely because I only call for removing the governor of Massachusetts and the secretary of transportation and not also for firing planners.

The answer is that while there is extensive accumulated knowledge about good public transit in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea, there is very little in the area I’m most involved in, North America. This is especially true when it comes to regional rail: the existing mainline rail in the US should be treated as more or less tabula rasa. Adopting best practices requires extensive expert knowledge, but the methods in which they should be implemented have little to do with the internal bureaucracy of hierarchical organizations, since the railroads that would ordinarily be in charge (like the LIRR or the MBTA) are the problem and not the solution.

But if the actual process of running a transportation network is hierarchical, the politics are completely different. As with left-right politics, the politics of public transit don’t neatly fit into any of the four tendencies. Center-right hierarchists tend to support extensions of the status quo, which means more urban transit in New York, London, Paris, and other large cities, as well as high-speed rail on strong corridors (High Speed 2 in the UK is bipartisan), but more roads everywhere else. Individualists on the right tend to be anti-rail, partly because it looks so hierarchical, partly because of peculiarities like Koch funding of American libertarianism (which has been exported to Israel, at least).

Egalitarian environmentalists tend to be pro-transit, but their discomfort with hierarchy sometimes shows up as mistrust of big infrastructure projects. The radical environmentalist Chris Clarke, opposed early attempts to fast-track California High-Speed Rail and called Robert Cruickshank of California HSR Blog a shill for developer interests. Jane Jacobs herself ended up arguing late in her life that mass transit was at the wrong scale and instead cities should encourage community jitney services.

The process itself has issues of trust that activate egalitarians and fatalists, the latter often reflexively opposing reforms since they assume things must always get worse. It leads to tension between community outreach, which helps defuse this opposition, and speed of implementation.

Cultural theory and housing development

Whereas transportation politics isn’t neatly slotted into the grid-group paradigm, the politics of urban development is: YIMBY is an individualist movement, with near-universal support from people who identify with that cultural bias. The other three tendencies are split. The market urbanist proposition of abolition or near-abolition of zoning doesn’t appeal to hierarchists (who want to be able to control where housing goes) or egalitarians (who worry about the consequences of empowering market actors); but there are egalitarian left-YIMBYs and hierarchical city leaders who favor transit-oriented development.

In fact, when analyzing NIMBYism, it’s useful to slot it not by class or political opinion, but by cultural identity. There is much less difference between working-class and middle-class NIMBYs than leftists posit, and in some cases anti-gentrification politics and racist opposition to fair housing blend together (as in South Tel Aviv, where the local far right has argued black refugees are part of a gentrification ploy).

The key is that egalitarianism really consists of two distinct concepts, both necessary to maintain high group solidarity without grid: internal equality, and strong boundedness (which refers to sharp distinctions between insiders and outsiders). The cultural geographer Stentor Danielson argued once that surveys consistently show people approve of internal equality but not of strong boundedness, which is why egalitarian communities are so rare even though many people agree with most of their tenets.

Thus, when NIMBYs argue that more development would bring outsiders or change the character of the neighborhood, this is as compatible with egalitarianism as with hierarchy. Gentrification is just the name for when these outsiders are not begging for scraps. The real difference is in where this is taken. Egalitarian NIMBYism emphasizes irrevocable change, high-impact risks (e.g. that a new development would induce runaway gentrification), and trust. Hierarchical NIMBYism instead talks about behavioral norms, usually referring to middle-class moral panics about crime, but occasionally flipping to black American fears that white people would call the police more often.

The fatalists, too, have their own criticism of redevelopment – namely, that it represents another sudden change involving forces they have no control over. “Nobody asked us” has to be understood as a fatalist and not egalitarian cry, even though egalitarians often try to organize fatalists.

It’s not really possible to promise any of the other groups what it really wants: protection from change for egalitarians, a more concrete relationship between development and their actual lives for fatalists, or ethnic or other kinds of homogeneity for hierarchists. Nonetheless, alliances are possible with some egalitarians and hierarchists. SF YIMBY has to be viewed as an attempt at an individualist-egalitarian alliance for more housing, ceding ground on rent control to curry favor with ideological socialists (and its East Bay offshoot is run by actual socialists). In the other direction, Theresa May’s making noises about releasing more land for housing to get young people on the “housing ladder,” invoking a hierarchical sense of normality regarding when it’s appropriate to buy a house.

Where are Transportation and Housing Politics Going?

It’s hard to escape the conversation about the decline of the center-left. Whether it’s about non-populist US Democrats, the Israeli Labor Party, Nordic social democrats, German SPD, or French PS, there’s a pan-first world conversation about the crisis of social democracy. People give any number of reasons for it, some suggesting it can be reversed in some ways, but some more skeptical. Branko Milanovic brings up the change in the nature of work from manufacturing with interchangeable workers within one plant to services with fractionalized workers often working remotely as an economic cause of the decline of unions.

Public transportation is sufficiently close to social democracy that it’s important to ask where it’s going politically, if SPD is slipping to third in the polls, PS is irrelevant, the most exciting Democrats are left-populists, etc. YIMBYism can go anywhere politically, but in practice it’s an anti-populist neoliberal policy, affected by the same trends that hollow out social democracy. Fortunately, both issues have a strong likelihood of surviving the decline of the traditional party system with its bosses vs. workers divisions. My goal is to explain why I believe so, and where support for urbanism and public transit will end up politically in the remainder of the century in developed countries.

Patterns of Democracy

In college I read Patterns of Democracy, a study by comparativist Arend Lijphart classifying the world’s stable democracies (including some third-world ones like India and Botswana) along two dimensions: majoritarian (i.e. two-party) vs. consensus-based (i.e. multiparty), and federal vs. unitary. It’s a book-length overview of the elements that go into each dimension, culminating in some regressions showing that majoritarian democracies are not more politically stable and do not economically overperform multiparty ones.

For the purposes of this post, the interesting part of the book is how it treats the various dimensions of partisan political debate within each country. The most popular analysis is one-dimensional left vs. right, followed by two-dimensional schemes separating economic and liberal vs. authoritarian issues (on the Internet, this is Political Compass). But Lijphart uses a seven-dimensional analysis (pp. 76-78), with each country only having at most three or four active at a time:

  1. Socioeconomic issues, by far the most common point of controversy within each democracy, including the usual left-right issues like tax rates, health, education, etc.
  2. Religious vs. secular issues, such as the role of religion in education, abortion rights in the US, or sectarian conflict in multisectarian states like Israel, India, and the Netherlands.
  3. Cultural-ethnic issues, which in most countries pit majority-group hegemony against multiculturalism, but can also include Belgian language politics or Ashkenazi-Mizrahi tensions in Israel.
  4. Urban vs. rural issues, such as farm aid.
  5. Regime support, historically the main cleave between social democratic and communist parties, and today the cleave between extreme right parties like the National Front and AfD (or individuals like Donald Trump) and hard right mainstream parties like Sarkozy and Wauquiez’s Republicans and CSU (or individuals like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker).
  6. Foreign policy, for examples decolonization in postwar France and Britain and the conflict with the Palestinians in Israel.
  7. Post-materialist issues, including the environmental issues that underlie the New Left, representing the cleave between social democratic and green parties.

The decline of class-based politics

The crisis of social democracy that Milanovic and others observe is about the decline of class-based politics, pitting workers versus bosses, or the working class versus the middle class. Economic differences between mainstream parties are decreasing, to the point that grand coalitions (as in Germany) or de facto grand coalitions (such as the cordon sanitaire agreement in Sweden excluding the far right) are normalized, joined by an elite consensus that’s for the most part neoliberal. In their stead, the growing issue in salience in Lijphart’s classification is cultural-ethnic, incorporating the sectarian aspects of the religious-secular dimension, including immigration, multiculturalism, and various forms of racism.

However, it’s better to divide socioeconomic issues into issues that are class-based and issues that are not. The most familiar issues across the developed world today pit the rich against the poor: tax rates, health care, education, welfare, unions, labor regulations.

But a large number of issues divide people in different industries, with a fair degree of agreement between labor and capital within each industry. One such issue is the environment, on which oil executives and oil rig workers tend to vote the same way while executives at green tech or low-energy intensity companies and their workers tend to vote the other way. Another issue is free trade, where the battle lines today separate import-competing industries from exporters and industries that rely on a global supply chain (including finance). Historically, the Populist movement in turn-of-the-century America was rooted in farmers’ grievances, demanding free silver, which had little appeal to either the bourgeoisie or the urban working class, which channeled its disaffection into socialism instead. Thus the set of non-class-based economic issues should take over Lijphart’s urban-rural and postmodern dimensions.

Transportation as a politically contentious issue has always had one leg in rich vs. poor politics and one leg outside it. On the one hand, the poor generally use public transit more than the rich, and historically suburbanization in the US as well as the UK was fueled by middle-class flight from the city. On the other hand, the issue intersects with environmentalism and with urban-rural politics. Within cities, the differences often revolve around one’s job descriptions: people who need to drive for a living, such as plumbers and generally people who work outside the CBD, are more hostile to road diets than people who do not, who include both professional downtown workers and downtown service workers.

Non-class-based economic issues are not in any decline. On the contrary, the parties designed around them, including green parties and left-liberal parties (such as D66 or the Danish Social Liberal Party), are for the most part doing fine, taking refugees from declining social democratic parties. In the Schröder cabinet, it was the Greens who pushed for an increase in fuel taxes; support for transit over cars will survive whatever happens to the center-left.

The new class divide

While labor vs. capital is increasingly not a big political cleave in the developed world, other class cleaves are rising to take its place. Non-class-based economic issues pit different industries against one another, and often there’s no consistent pattern to who is on what side, and the same is true on non-economic issues. However, in a large number of cases, there is a consistent pattern, which can be approximated as liberal versus conservative, in the 19th century British sense.

In the case of YIMBYism, the debate over housing is really a fight between two elite classes. The YIMBY side is represented by the professional middle class; the other side is represented by homeowners. Moreover, the professional middle class tends to specifically come from globalized industries, drawing workers from all over, most famously tech in the Bay Area. This class has high labor income and low capital income as well as local social capital, which explains both YIMBYs’ indifference to preserving property values and preference for preemption laws disempowering local notables. Homeowners are the exact opposite: they tend to have high local property values and local social capital relative to their labor income, which means they favor restrictions on housing construction economically and a hyperlocal process in which they’re privileged participants politically.

For the most part, other non-economic issues correlate with the same cleave between the two elites. Middle-class newcomers are overwhelmingly attracted to production amenities of specific global industries (again, Bay Area tech, but also New York and London finance, Paris conglomerates, etc.), which benefit from free trade and have such diverse worker bases that they fall on the liberal side of most debates over immigration. They also tend to cluster in specific job centers, which are at least in principle serviceable by public transportation, leading to high transit ridership relative to income. The urban jobs that are most likely to require driving are local services, which are overwhelmingly owned by people who either were born in the city or immigrated so long ago that they are politically and socially equivalent to natives.

I bring up 19th-century Britain and not the US because Britain had an alignment between free trade, urban over rural interests, and internationalism in the Liberal Party, whereas in the US the Democrats were also the white supremacist party and (outside the Northeast) the agrarian party. But 19th century Europe fits the situation in the first world today between than the 19th century United States, which had free land (courtesy of the Indian Wars) and no real landed gentry apart from the antebellum Southern planter class.

So where are the poor?

If both sides of the debate over zoning and urban housing production are middle-class elites, then where is the working class? The answer is, nowhere. There are working-class organizations on the NIMBY side, such as tenant unions and community groups that try to extract maximum value from developers. There are also poor people on the YIMBY side: in the Houston zoning referendum the poor voted against zoning and the middle class voted for, with poor blacks voting the most strongly against zoning, and at a recent hearing in Brooklyn for a mixed high-rise project most whites spoke against the project and most nonwhites spoke in favor.

To the extent there’s a pattern, organized local groups of poor people and/or minorities are NIMBY and generally unreliable about public transit, but when it goes to ballot there is not much difference between how the poor and middle class vote. Organized local groups of the middle class aren’t any less NIMBY than organized low-income groups, but the middle class more readily dismisses local activists as crackpots and nincompoops. It matters that political activists with more talent and ambition than the typical king of a hill can advance to higher levels of government if they come from favored socioeconomic strata.

The situation with public transit remains profoundly different, because it really does maintain some class-based content. But in general transit cities, even flawed ones like New York, tend to have alignment between working- and middle-class organizations in favor of more investment, and then questions like congestion pricing, bus lanes, bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas cut across class lines and cleave people based on where they work and how they get there. In my Brooklyn bus redesign project, I expect allies to include the bus drivers’ union (the drivers are strong supporters of reforms speeding up buses, since they’d make their work safer and more comfortable) and middle-class reformers and opponents to include working- as well as middle-class drivers (since we’re going to propose stronger bus lane enforcement and street redesigns that prioritize buses). Overall drivers outearn transit riders, but the difference tends to be smaller in cities with even semi-decent public transportation than in places like Los Angeles, where transit is so bad that most riders are people too poor to afford a car.

The result is that it’s very easy on both sides to dismiss the other side as an elite fighting the working class, even in public transit (since a substantial segment of the working class really does drive, even though it’s a smaller segment than in the middle class). In reality, on non-class-based issues it’s hard for the poor to truly be relevant as political actors. In the bus redesign project the union has a voice, but the premise of this post is that the political power of unions is in decline; public transit just happens to be an industry that, owing to its Fordist layout, is unusually friendly to unionization, at least until driverless buses are deployed at scale.

In this context, people should avoid dismissing their opponents as rich. Both sides have vanguards that are mostly middle-class, with some rich people sprinkled around. It’s a fight between two elites, and the YIMBY elite has grounds to portray itself as superior to the NIMBY elite, as it’s defined by skilled professions rather than passive property income, but it’s still a privileged elite and not the poor.

Whither transit and urbanism?

I already see some evidence that support for mass transit and urban growth (which mostly, but not exclusively, means YIMBY) is concentrated in the segments that are underlying where left-liberalism is going. New Left parties, including center-left ones (i.e. D66 and the Danish Social Liberals), are fans of transit. Greens tend to have a small-is-beautiful mentality toward cities, but I believe that this will change soon as green parties become vehicles for more internationalist voters, just as these parties flipped last decade from euroskeptical to europhilic.

What this means is that transit and urbanism as politics are likely to remain important political issues and if anything grow in salience, as they play well to growing cleaves between urban and rural, or between international and local. Whatever happens to specific political parties, these issues will survive.

Climate Apartheid

There are floods in Houston, thanks to Hurricane Harvey‘s making landfall close to the city, dumping about a meter of rain within just a few days. So far, the best explanation I’ve seen about the city’s drainage system is Matt Corbett’s tweetstorm, about how the city keeps building flood control systems but due to population growth they are perpetually five years behind current development. The confirmed death toll so far is 30. There is a connection to climate change: warmer ocean temperatures make tropical storms more likely, and also make it likelier that they will move slowly and dump more rain onto one area; as a result, Harvey is the Houston region’s third 500-year flood in three years, while one neighborhood was hit by three such floods in a decade.

There are floods all over South Asia, thanks to unusually strong summer monsoon rains. Mumbai got about 200 mm of rain in 12 hours yesterday. The worst impact is in more rural areas and smaller cities in the north, including Bangladesh, West Bengal, Nepal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh. The confirmed death toll so far is 1,200, of whom only 6 are in Mumbai – Bihar and Nepal seem like the worst-hit areas. There is once again a connection to climate change: the seasonal monsoon rainfall in South Asia is fairly stable, but extreme events dumping more than 100 or 150 mm of rain on one day are happening at increasing frequency, and climate models predict an increase in extreme rainfall events.

It is not my intention to attack American media for undercovering India. Rather, it is my intention to attack American public intellectuals and wonks for proposing adaptation to climate change. This means building flood walls to protect low-lying cities at risk of storm surges like New York, using zoning and public investments to steer development toward higher ground, and building infrastructure to deal with higher future flood risk. This contrasts with reducing the extent of climate change in the first place, called mitigation in environmentalist parlance, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Examples of calls for adaptation, in lieu of or in addition to mitigation, abound:

  • The Obama administration passed a directive requiring flood control standards for federally-funded projects in areas vulnerable to climate change. The Trump administration rescinded this directive, to widespread criticism from liberals in the media, for example in the Guardian.
  • ThinkProgress just published an article calling for both adaptation and mitigation.
  • ProPublica’s investigative reporting about Houston mentions that Fort Lauderdale and Boulder are both addressing adaptation in their long-term city plans, and compares Houston negatively with them.
  • CNN negatively compared US flood control efforts with the Dutch Delta Works. The article does mention American climate change denial, but talks about the Netherlands’ flood control and not about its pro-bike transportation policy, doing its part to mitigate catastrophic climate change.
  • In a personal conversation with ReThinkNYC‘s Jim Venturi about transit-oriented development near Secaucus Station, he said that the area is vulnerable to climate change, at only 2 meters above sea level. I don’t want to blame him, because he might have been channeling the Regional Plan Association or statewide plans, but one of those three (ReThink, RPA, the state) is giving up the United States’ best TOD spot on climate adaptation grounds.

All of these adaptation plans should be prohibited on grounds of climate apartheid. The term climate apartheid is not my own: it comes from Desmond Tutu, who says,

[Link, PDF-p. 181] For most people in rich countries adaptation has so far been a relatively painfree process. Cushioned by heating and cooling systems, they can adapt to extreme weather with the flick of a thermostat. Confronted with the threat of floods, governments can protect the residents of London, Los Angeles and Tokyo with elaborate climate defence systems. In some countries, climate change has even brought benign effects, such as longer growing seasons for farmers.

Now consider what adaptation means for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people—the 2.6 billion living on less than US$2 a day. How does an impoverished woman farmer in Malawi adapt when more frequent droughts and less rainfall cut production? Perhaps by cutting already inadequate household nutrition, or by taking her children out of school. How does a slum dweller living beneath plastic sheets and corrugated tin in a slum in Manila or Port-au-Prince adapt to the threat posed by more intense cyclones? And how are people living in the great deltas of the Ganges and the Mekong supposed to adapt to the inundation of their homes and lands?

There’s a lot of nuance to add on top of Tutu’s admonition. The most important is that Mumbai is not Port-au-Prince or Malawi; it’s not even Bihar. But it’s not New York or the Netherlands either. Catastrophic flooding is still a serious risk, and its urban policy gives the poor a choice between substandard slum housing in flood-prone areas and housing projects in suburbs far from any jobs. And this is the richest city in India, while India is richer than practically every African state between South Africa and the Sahara. The poorest countries in the world, in turn, have very low emissions, even relative to their low GDPs – Bangladesh emits the equivalent of 1 metric ton of CO2 in greenhouse gases per capita annually.

Moreover, we can already know what climate adaptation will really mean. A 1-meter rise in sea level is projected to flood 17.5% of Bangladesh, corresponding at today’s population level to about 25 million people. Now, add the effects of crop failures: David Roberts quotes a paywalled Nature Climate Change article saying that rice yields go down by 10% per degree of nighttime temperature above 26. The minimal scenario would dwarf the Syrian refugee crisis, affecting 5 million people, by an order of magnitude. A more catastrophic scenario, involving flooding in Nigeria and increased droughts in the interior of Africa, could dwarf the Syrian crisis by two orders of magnitude.

The reaction to migration crises has been to militarize the border, to push the refugees away before they can get close and attract local sympathy. The US built a wall along much of the border with Mexico, long before Trump; Europe is stepping up patrols in the Mediterranean, and as we speak France is trying to open detention camps in Libya. This is not just a first-world reaction: India is fencing its border with Bangladesh. Climate adaptation means a little bit of money for flood control schemes, and a lot of money for pushing away refugees on threat of gunning them down, and building an entire apparatus of intermediate detention camps to be able to pretend that it’s not the fault of the US or Europe or Japan that the refugees are dying.

The implication is that, in parallel with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in the Cold War, adaptation should be banned throughout the developed world. A country that spends money on trying to avoid the consequences of climate change is unlikely to be interested in avoiding it in the first place – just as a country with ABM protections is unlikely to be interested in avoiding nuclear war. Tackling a global problem like climate change requires ensuring that no single high-emissions country or economic bloc can insulate itself from its consequences.

Far from discouraging development in floodplains, first-world governments should prohibit any consideration of post-2000 temperature rise. If Secaucus is terra firma today, New Jersey should be compelled to treat it as terra firma forever and develop it as the TOD site that it is. If sea levels rise, none of the residents will be as negatively affected as the median Bangladeshi, but the residents might still agitate for future mitigation.

Fragile Chinese Democracy to Invest in Anti-Pollution Measures

After a week of raging protests in Beijing and the other major Chinese cities calling for measures to fight corruption, inequality, and pollution, the military moved to arrest Xi Jinping and release several high-profile dissidents from prison. In a statement, the military said it would schedule free elections to the National People’s Congress for the end of this year. Based on statements by leaders of the New Citizens’ Movement, the new government will prioritize building infrastructure and enacting regulations to fight pollution, adding that the measures passed by Xi had too many loopholes and did little to improve public health.

Sources within the transitional government say that the hukou registration system will be abolished in the coming days, as will the two-child policy. With rich cities like Beijing and Shanghai expecting a surge in internal migration, there is friction between urban middle-class protesters and migrants over future development policy. Protesters in Shanghai indicated that they would prefer local control over housing development and education policy. The degree of federalism is up in the air and will not be settled until after the election, but most of the freed dissidents believe that the new government should devolve substantial autonomy to the provinces.

Political leaders, including both freed dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and CCP faction leaders within the National People’s Congress, have said they will work on anti-pollution measures, to be passed after the election. Environmentalist protesters have proposed a national cap on the purchase of new cars, akin to existing policies in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, and stricter emission controls on cars. They have also proposed a national program to build more solar plants and retrofit apartments to be more energy-efficient in order to close coal plants; within Beijing, middle-class reformers identified with the political right have proposed ending government subsidies to coal heating.

In the near term, the largest cities plan to continue building out their subway networks at the same pace as before. Planners at the Beijing Subway and Shanghai and Guangzhou Metros said they expect passenger numbers to rise modestly as the abolition of hukou leads to higher population growth, but all three cities already have low car ownership rates, so replacement of car trips by subway trips is unlikely. However, in some other cities, where car ownership rates are higher today, planners expect higher rail traffic in the future. Because there already are plans for rapid expansion of subway service, it is unlikely any city will build out its system faster; however, some long-term plans without a timeline may be accelerated and built in the next decade.

There is some nationalistic element to the proposed infrastructure and environmental policies. Planners at China Railways have expressed dismay that Chinese passenger rail traffic density is not the highest in the world, but ranks second, after Japan. This is part of a broader split between democracy activists who are pro-Western, like Liu, and ones who are not and came to oppose the CCP out of recent concerns about economic and environmental problems. The latter activists take it for granted that China should reunify with Taiwan on its terms; some have proposed an undersea rail tunnel connecting Taiwan with the mainland.

But sources within the Japanese rail industry expressed some pessimism about the ability of the new democratic China to solve its pollution problems via better infrastructure. They note that Chinese urban train stations are poorly located, usually well outside city centers, and urban rail lines lack express tracks, limiting train speeds. Nearly all protesters oppose China’s use of eminent domain to clear areas for new development, making it hard to build more central train stations.

The transitional government said that it would welcome a global climate change agreement and that China would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions provided the rich industrialized countries committed to sharper reductions. Analysts within Europe and Japan believe that this proposal is aimed at the United States, which has substantially higher per capita emissions than the rest of the developed world, and is the world’s second largest emitter after China. A minority of anti-American protesters in China have proposed declaring trade war on the United States until it agreed to combat climate change, but the views of both the transitional government and most growing political factions are that there should not be any change to Chinese foreign policy, outside the issue of Taiwan.

A faction of protesters, currently planning to form a green party and contest the upcoming election, has proposed far-reaching taxes, investments, and regulations, intending to ban cars for non-emergency uses by 2025, and phase out all coal plants by 2025 and gas plants by 2035. Members of this faction have said that this would ensure Chinese supremacy in the realm of green technology, which China could then export to the United States, India, and industrializing African states as it sheds low-value added manufacturing industries. The majority of Chinese reformers do not support those measures, and it is unlikely the conservative factions within the CCP will agree to any further regulation. However, the upcoming green party is likely to be a key component of any reformist coalition, and substantial additional regulations stopping short of a ban can be expected.

Where is Electrification Warranted?

At the beginning of the month, I published a piece in Voice of San Diego calling for medium-speed rail investment in the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor, centering electrification. This was discussed in a 500-comment thread on California HSR Blog, in which area rail activist Paul Dyson ripped into my plan, arguing (among other things) that electrification is costlier and less useful than I think. Instead of reopening the debate on that particular corridor, I want to discuss a more general set of guidelines to when rail lines should be electrified.

I haven’t said so in these exact words, but I think North American rail authorities and activists underrate electrification. As a result, I find myself persistently prescribing electrification and defending it when it’s already on the table, even as I attack other rail investments as wasteful. On social media and in blog comments I find myself having to constantly explain to people that no, a $20 billion New York regional rail plan should not use dual-mode locomotives but rather spend $250 million on New Jersey-side electrification.

A year and a half ago I wrote about why small, dense countries should fully electrify. The reasons laid out in that post are included in the guidelines below, but there are some additional circumstances justifying electrification.

Narrow stop spacing

Each train has a stop penalty – a total amount of time it loses to making each stop. The penalty is based on dwell time, line speed, and train acceleration and braking performance. If the line speed is 130 km/h, then the penalty excluding dwell time is about 35 seconds for a FLIRT and 80 seconds for a diesel GTW. This 45-second difference per stop is the same if there is a stop every 3 km or if there is a stop every 50 km.

Stop spacing is narrower on commuter lines than on intercity lines, so electrification usually starts from commuter rail. The first mainline electrification in the world was in Paris on the commuter lines serving Gare d’Orsay; subsequently the commuter lines in Paris, London, Tokyo, Berlin, New York, Philadelphia, and other major cities were wired. In many of these cases, commuter rail was electrified decades before intercity mainlines: for example, Japan started electrifying Tokyo’s innermost commuter lines in the 1900s and completed them in the 1920s and early 30s, but took until 1956 to electrify the first intercity line, the Tokaido Line.

However, in some dense regions, even the intercity lines have many stops. Cities in Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are just not very far apart, which blurs the distinction between regional and intercity lines somewhat. Switzerland is all-electrified, and my post from 2015 argued that the first three should be, too. In the US, there are specific regions where continuous sprawl has led to the same blurring: the Northeast Corridor, Southern California, Central and South Florida, New England. All are characterized by high population density. New England has closely spaced cities, whereas the LA-San Diego corridor and corridors within Florida have so much sprawl that there have to be several stations per metro area to collect people, reducing stop spacing.

Frequent sharp curves between long straight segments

Electric multiple units (EMUs) can make use of their high acceleration not at stations, but also at slow restrictions due to curves. They are also capable of higher cant deficiency than top-heavy diesel locomotives, since they have low center of gravity, but the difference for non-tilting trains is not so big. A uniformly curvy line does not offer EMUs much advantage, since all trains are slow – if anything, the lower the top speed, the less relevant acceleration is.

The big opportunity to accelerate is then when a mostly straight line is punctured by short, sharp curves. Slowing briefly from 130 km/h to 70 km/h and then speeding back up costs a FLIRT on the order of 15 seconds. A diesel train, whether powered by a locomotive or by diesel multiple units (DMUs), can’t hope to have the required power-to-weight ratio for such performance.


EMUs’ better acceleration profile makes them better-suited for climbing hills and mountains. Modern EMUs, especially low- and medium-speed ones optimized for high acceleration, can effortlessly climb 4% grades, at which point DMUs strain and diesel locomotives require helper engines. When the terrain is so mountainous that tunnels are unavoidable, electric trains do not require ventilation in their tunnels. As a result, some long rail tunnels were electrified from the start. The combination of uphill climbs and tunnels is literally toxic with diesels.

Cheap, clean electricity

Electrification has lower operating costs and lower greenhouse gas emissions in areas where the electricity is powered by cheap hydro or geothermal power than in areas where it is powered by fossil fuels. Switzerland became the only country with 100% rail electrification because it had extensive hydro power in the middle of the 20th century and was worried about relying on coal shipments from Nazi Germany during the war.

This is especially useful in far northern countries, like Sweden and Canada, which have low population density and little evaporation, leading to extensive hydro potential per capita. Despite its low density, Sweden has electrified about two thirds of its rail network. In the US, this is the most relevant to the Pacific Northwest.

But in the future, the falling cost of solar power means that clean electricity is becoming more affordable, fast. This favors electrification in more places, starting from sunny regions like most of the US.

Small installed diesel base

A rich or middle-income country building railroads for the first time, or expanding a small system, needs to build new yards, train maintenance crews, and procure spare parts. It should consider electrifying from the start in order to leapfrog diesel technology, in the same manner many developing countries today leapfrog obsolete technologies like landline phones. In contrast, a larger installed base means electrification has to clear a higher bar to be successful, which is why Japan, France, and other major core networks do not fully electrify.

The US situation is dicey in that it does have a lot of diesel equipment. However, this equipment is substandard: reliability is low, with mean distance between failures (MDBF) of about 45,000 km on the LIRR compared with 680,000 on new EMUs (source, pp. 30-31); the trains are very heavy, due to past FRA regulations; and the equipment is almost universally diesel locomotives rather than DMUs, which makes the acceleration problem even worse than it is for GTWs. Total acceleration and deceleration penalty on American diesel locomotives is not 80 seconds but 2-2.5 minutes.

Because North America underrates electrification, some people who self-identify as forward-thinking propose DMUs. Those require new maintenance regimes and facilities, creating an entire installed base from scratch instead of moving forward to EMUs.

Globally, the installed diesel base for high-performance lines is vanishingly small. The technology exists to run diesel trains at more than 200 km/h, but it’s limited in scope and the market for it is thin.

Through-service to electric lines

Whenever a diesel line is planned to run through to an electric line, it should be a prime candidate for electrification. Dual-mode locomotives exist, but are heavy and expensive; dual-mode multiple units are lighter, but are still boutique products.

This is especially true for the two biggest investments a network can make in passenger rail: RER tunnels, and HSR. RER tunnels involve expensive urban tunneling. When a kilometer of urban subway costs $250 million and a kilometer of catenary costs $2 million, the economics of the latter become stronger. Not to mention that RERs are typically short-hop commuter rail, with frequent stops even on the branches. HSR is a different beast, since it’s intercity, but the equipment is entirely electric. Running through to a diesel branch means towing the train behind a diesel locomotive, which means the expensive HSR traction equipment is idle for long periods of time while towed; this is at best an interim solution while the connecting legacy line is wired, as in the line to Sables d’Olonne.

Nearly complete electrification

Areas where the rail network is almost completely electrified benefit from finishing the job, even if individually the diesel lines are marginal candidates for electrification. This is because in such areas, there is a very large installed electric base, and a smaller diesel base. In small countries the remaining diesel base is small, and there are efficiencies to be had from getting rid of it entirely. This is why the Netherlands and Belgium should finish electrification, and so should Denmark and Israel, which are electrifying their main lines.

This is somewhat less applicable to larger countries, such as Sweden, Poland, and especially Japan. However, India is aggressively electrifying its rail network and planning even more. Note that since networks electrify their highest-trafficked lines first, the traffic can be almost completely electrified even if the trackage is not. For example, Russia is about 50% electrified, but 86% of freight tonnage is carried on electric trains, and the share of ton-km is likely higher since the Trans-Siberian Railway is electrified.

This also applies to networks smaller than an entire country. Commuter rail systems that are mostly electrified, such as the LIRR, should complete electrification for the same reason that mostly electrified countries should. In New England and Southern California, regional rail electrification is desirable purely because of the acceleration potential, and this also makes full electrification desirable, on the principle that a large majority of those two regions’ networks have enough potential traffic to justifying being wired without considering network effects.


Every place – a country, an isolated state or province, a commuter rail system – that is at least 50-60% electrified should consider fully electrifying. The majority of the world that is below that threshold should still wire the most important lines, especially regional lines. Capital-centric countries like Britain and France often get this wrong and focus on the intercity lines serving the capital, but there are low-hanging fruit in the provincial cities. For example, the commuter rail networks in Marseille, Lyon, and Bordeaux are almost entirely electrified, but have a few diesel lines; those should be wired.

In North America, electrification is especially underrated. Entire commuter rail networks – the MBTA, Metra, Metrolink, MARC/VRE, GO Transit, AMT, tails on the New York systems – need to be wired. This is also true of short-range intercity lines, including LA-San Diego, Chicago-Milwaukee, Boston-Portland, Toronto-Niagara Falls, and future New York-Scranton. It is important that good transit activists in those regions push back and support rail electrification, explaining its extensive benefits in terms of reliability and performance and its low installation cost.