Doing Projects Right and Doing the Right Project
I’d like to develop a distinction between two modes of success or failure in infrastructure projects, which I’ve mentioned in brief in past post. An infrastructure project may be done right or wrong – that is, it could be built at a reasonable lifecycle cost and offer high quality of service or it could fail to do this, typically through very high upfront construction costs with no future benefit. But it could also be the right project to build or the wrong one – that is it could be the right priority for the region that builds it based on expected usage and future development or it could be a low priority, typically due to politicization of engineering and planning. Those are distinct judgments, and I’m not even sure they are strongly correlated.
The right project, done wrong
I’ve mentioned in a few past posts as well as videos that New York is for the most part building the right projects right now. Based on any reasonable cost per rider calculation, the highest priorities in the region excluding mainline rail are Second Avenue Subway phases 1 and 2, an extension of phase 2 under 125th Street, subway extensions under Nostrand and Utica Avenues, an orbital line following the Bay Ridge Branch toward Jackson Heights and Yankee Stadium, and a subway extension to LaGuardia Airport. Phase 1 has been built, and the current priorities are phase 2 and the orbital line under the moniker IBX, the latter giving the governor’s personal imprimatur to this important project. The only lower-priority extension built ahead of these is the 7 extension to Hudson Yards, which is a small fraction of the good projects by total cost.
In mainline rail, on the New Jersey side, the biggest priority is the Gateway tunnel and this is indeed what the state and Port Authority are most invested in. Even on the New York side, mainline rail is invested in in roughly the right priority order, especially if one fixes the assumption of bad present-day operations; the only real problem is that due to politics from the late 1990s, the MTA overinvested in New York-side mainline rail (that is, East Side Access) to secure suburban Republican support for Second Avenue Subway phase 1.
The problem for New York is that every single project it touches is executed in almost the worst way possible. It can’t build, and to an extent it doesn’t even want to build. The $50 billion in New York-side capital investment every five years are a large multiple of what peer cities spend, and what this buys is a few kilometers of subway every decade, escalating maintenance costs, and a vague promise to not quite finish making the subway accessible in the 2050s. But the little it does build is, for the most part, the right project.
New York is not the only city in this situation. The prioritization in Toronto seems fine to me, including the Downtown Relief Line rebranded as the Ontario Line, electrification and general modernization of commuter rail as part of the RER project, and rail on Eglinton. London, likewise, seems to be building projects in the right priority order, but it lost its ability to build in the 1980s and 90s so that its urban rail growth rate is roughly one new line per monarch and its step-free access program is proceeding at a slower pace than that of any peer except New York (which can’t build anything) and Paris (which can and does but doesn’t believe in accessibility).
In contrast with the example of New York or Toronto, there are places where the prioritization is completely out of whack. The best example I can give of is Los Angeles. Like New York and other English-speaking cities, Los Angeles can’t build; unlike New York, it clearly wants to build, and has a large expansion program based on two separate sales tax referenda, with lines programmed through the 2060s due to the extreme construction costs. However, the capital prioritization is just wrong, in several ways:
- The priority list puts low-usage extensions to the suburbs, like the Foothills Extension of the Gold Line and the West Santa Ana Branch, above core lines replacing high-usage buses like South Vermont and connectivity projects like linking Burbank and Pasadena directly.
- The suburban extensions often use the wrong mode or alignment – Los Angeles loves freeway medians for light rail rights-of-way, is building some lines parallel to or even in the right-of-way of commuter rail in lieu of improving Metrolink, and was starting to run into capacity problems on the shared street-running section of the Expo and Blue Lines before corona even on an otherwise low-intensity system.
- There is no transit-oriented development plan – the region is likely the NIMBY capital of the United States, and perhaps the developed world, with large swaths of valuable near-center land that’s about to get subway stations that’s still zoned single-family; in the state legislature, YIMBY bills increasing housing production typically get a large majority of the votes of politicians representing the Bay Area and a small minority of those representing the Los Angeles region.
- Much of the referendum money is not even rail expansion, but road programs, including new freeway lanes.
The upshot is that while New York builds the right projects wrong, Los Angeles builds the wrong projects, besides its issue of very high construction costs.
In reality, most places are on a spectrum, or even evolve from one to the other based on political changes. San Francisco built the almost totally useless Central Subway due to demands by people in Chinatown who don’t even ride public transportation; the line is so short and deep that even ignoring its construction costs, its trip time benefit over the buses it’s replacing is maybe 30 seconds. However, the future projects it wants to build but can’t due to high costs – the Downtown Extension tunnel taking Caltrain from its present near-center terminus to the actual city center and a second BART tube across the Bay with an extension under Geary – are exactly the right priorities, and would have long been built anywhere that could tunnel for $250 million/km and not $1 billion/km.
Boston, likewise, is building the right priorities at the level of what lines are visible on the map, but it has the second of Los Angeles’s four problems in droves. The Green Line Extension should have been commuter rail; the commuter rail electrification project should be all-catenary and not the current plan of a combination of catenary and experimental battery technology; the deelectrification of the trolleybuses was just embarrassing. But the actual alignments – the Green Line Extension, the planned Red-Blue Connector, and the Regional Rail project – are the right priorities, at least.
The wrong project, done right
So far I’ve given American examples of poor construction practices. But there are also examples of places that build effectively but have poor prioritization. My own city, Berlin, is the best example I can think of: its construction costs are pretty average – higher than in Southern Europe, lower than anywhere that uses international English-dominant consultants – but its project prioritization is terrible.
The obviously lowest-cost-per-rider extension, that of U8 to Märkisches Viertel (see some references linked here), has been deprioritized due to bad politicking. The Green Party and the heir to the East German communist party, Die Linke, both oppose subway construction on ideological grounds and prefer trams, the Greens because they associate subway construction with making room on the surface for cars and Die Linke for a combination of being used to East German trams and general wrecker politics. In the outgoing coalition, the pro-subway Social Democrats pushed for the lines that were the most important for its own priorities and those happen to be in Spandau and at the airport rather than Märkisches Viertel; thus, the U8 extension was placed behind those.
As with the American examples in the previous two sections, here we must qualify judgment in that it’s rather common for cities to be on a spectrum. Even Berlin has better project prioritization than Los Angeles: for one, it is not as NIMBY, and the U7 airport extension does come with a transit-oriented development plan.
A more typical example is perhaps Paris. Paris’s project prioritization raises some questions, but there is no obviously low-hanging fruit like U8 that remains unbuilt due to East Germany and 1970s New Left dead-enders. The current expansion plans underrate core capacity, by which I mean separating the RER B and D tunnels, currently shared between Gare du Nord and Châtelet-Les Halles; but such a project would be disruptive if highly beneficial, and another core capacity project, namely the expansion of the RER E through the city to La Défense and western suburbs, is proceeding. The outward expansion of the Métro seems to be largely in line with what the most important priorities are; Grand Paris Express is a mix of good lines, that is Métro Lines 14, 15, and 16, and bad that is Line 17 to the airport and Line 18 linking two rich suburbs with little density in-between.
Moreover, the Paris suburbs, where practically all expansion is done, are fairly YIMBY. Francilien housing production in the late 2010s was 80,000-90,000 a year (in 2019 it was 82,000, or 6.7/1,000 people), with virtually no construction in the city proper – and moreover, the housing built in the suburbs tends to be infill replacing disused industrial land, or else it’s on top of planned Grand Paris Express or RER stations.
The poor project prioritization in the cities I’ve given the most attention to – Los Angeles but also Berlin and San Francisco and glimpses of Paris and New York – is entirely about politics. As the worst city of the bunch, Los Angeles has illuminating features that we can use to judge the others.
In Southern California, the most significant misfeature is the statewide requirement that all tax increases be approved in a referendum by a two-thirds majority. In San Francisco, the electorate is so left-wing that this hurdle is not hard to clear, and agencies can plan as always. In Los Angeles and San Diego, it is not, and to secure enough votes, agencies have to essentially bribe clientelistic actors with specific lines on a map that those actors will never use but still take credit for. This leads to all of the following misfeatures:
- Ballot propositions that include not just expansion of the rail network but also subsidies to reduced fares for people with local New Left politics who identify politically against state planning, road expansion money for local notables who don’t mind rail expansion but think it’s too political to prioritize rail over cars, and long-term maintenance for unambitious bureaucrats who love spending that isn’t expected to produce concrete results.
- An expansion program that gives each subregion its own line – in Los Angeles, this is the Orange Line BRT for the Valley, the Gold Line for San Gabriel Valley, and so on; the core is a subregion in its own right and can get a project too, like the Regional Connector subway, but it can’t be expected to get too many projects, and interregional connections are less important since the regions they serve already have their lines.
- The planning is haphazard and avoids paradigmatic changes like modernizing the commuter rail system – Los Angeles has some advocates pushing for electrification, like Paul Dyson, and long-term plans to actually do it, but those plans are far behind what Caltrain electrification in the Bay Area (a perfect example of the right project done wrong) and what technical advocates are doing in Philadelphia and Boston.
In effect, a constitutional change intended to prevent California from wasting taxpayer money has had the opposite effect: the two-thirds majority requirement for tax hikes ensures that in Southern California, every petty actor is a veto point and therefore can get extra money. The New Left may comprise 1970s dead-enders trying and failing to reconcile their NIMBYism with the challenges of the 21st century, but it’s the New Right that destroyed the ability of the state to build anything.
With this in mind, we can look at the deviations in Berlin, San Francisco, and New York through the same lens. Berlin lacks any kind of New Right veto point system for investment; a majority in the Abgeordnetenhaus is sufficient, and its typical party of government, SPD, has decently developmental and YIMBY views, hobbled just now by an atypically bad leader and federal headwinds. However, the coalitions it’s in require it to provide sops to either NIMBYs (that is, the Greens) or drivers (that is, CDU). The outgoing all-left coalition deprioritized the U-Bahn to build trams, while the incoming CDU-SPD coalition wants U-Bahns but with park-and-rides and cessation of road diet programs. The difference is that the system in Los Angeles requires agencies to offer sops to both groups at once in addition to others.
One of the other actors, not present in Berlin beyond their influence on CDU, is the local notables. These are typically business owners, who as a constituency drive and overestimate the share of their customers who drive. In the United States (but not France or Germany) they may also trade on an ethnically marked identity, which is usually local and pro-car again since the (say) Chinese-Californians who take the train are usually Downtown San Francisco workers who socialize outside the neighborhood. The Central Subway was specifically a demand of such interests from Chinatown, who had opposed the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway and demanded something that would look like a replacement, and in a way is, in the sense that neither the freeway nor the Central Subway is of any use for urban travel. Here, the difference with drivers as an interest is that drivers want more car infrastructure that feels to them like it makes their trips more convenient, whereas local notables want to be seen extracting money from the city or state to prove to their clients that they are powerful; for the notables, the cost is itself the benefit.
Excessive empowerment of local notables – that is, any empowerment – leads to both poor project prioritization and high costs. I don’t think there’s a high correlation between the two judgments, but it’s telling that the best example I know of of bad prioritization is high-cost Los Angeles, while medium-cost Berlin is much less bad. The other political mechanisms seem independent of costs: a system in which the state and developmental interests are hobbled by NIMBYism or by actors who want to annoy Greta Thunberg will underbuild or build the wrong things, but NIMBYs rarely manage to meaningfully raise costs and were entirely absent from any of the mechanisms we’ve found for high costs in our New York and Boston reports.
Generational Investment and Politicized Delay
Investments that are pitched as once in a generation tend not to work very well. They’re delayed, they’re expensive in both absolute and relative terms, they’re compromised by competing demands that are rarely about good service. Looking at both the ongoing situation in the United States and Germany, I’m seeing parallels; one of my motivations for writing this post is New York-area problems, but the other is response by German tram advocates to my post about the Berlin U-Bahn expansion plan. In short: there’s nothing inherently easier about lower-intensity infrastructure like trams or legacy rail than about high-intensity alternatives like subways and high-speed rail.
There is an artifact of politicization there. At the end of the day, every generational investment is vulnerable to political micromanagement. If you build an U-Bahn, the streetcars will not be politicized; if you don’t and instead make the streetcars your urban rail centerpiece, they will be politicized instead. If your city has a problem with construction costs or with timelines, it’s likely political and therefore will attach to whatever mode you choose; downgrading to a lower-intensity mode will just make that mode as expensive as the higher-intensity mode used to be.
The issue of political micromanagement
There are countries that are capable of building infrastructure efficiently. All of them do so in a remarkable depoliticized manner, even extremely polarized Turkey, where AKP’s attempt to choke metro funding to Istanbul after the opposition won the election under Ekrem İmamoğlu failed and İmamoğlu got funding from the European Investment Bank. The engineers and planners choose the alignments and construction methods; the politicians say yes or no and have little or ideally no further input.
The upshot is that this is the most politically sustainable in an environment of regular ongoing construction. Setting up this system in a country that can’t build is hard and requires a lot of public breaking of implicit promises to political actors who think they matter but don’t. But if this preexists, then this is sustained through regular construction in which politicians show up twice, once for the groundbreaking and once for the opening, and never again. The civil service runs technical matters under the aegis of technical experts.
As soon as major politicians make more decisions than the most general ones, things go awry. This is for two reasons.
The first reason is that the politicians want to show that they are important and therefore like overruling or changing previous plans just because. Such changes are by themselves neutral: usually the changes are relative to a plan that was itself developed with political input (for example, changes in the alignment of Grand Paris Express in the early 2010s). However, they introduce delays, which raise costs, permit more cruft to accumulate, and lead to projects that solve yesterday’s problems.
The second reason is that petty actors are likelier to find audience with politicians, who don’t want to annoy them, than with civil servants. Those petty actors can include NIMBYs who demand more expensive methods to avoid real or perceived negative local impact, but also their opposite number, local groups that want a diversion of service to reach them or bigger construction to act as a signature piece. In the United States, there is a lot of preemptive surrender to such groups (“good neighbor policy”). Other groups just send input for its own sake. Others hog other people’s money (OPM), such as when the New York Parks Department and got $15 million to permit staging subway construction in a playground, or when an American municipal department insists on building more than the federal and state fire code requires. This happens regardless of the project, but politicians want to please and will not generally back the civil service against the petty actors, and if the politicians are involved, it’s also a signal that there’s plenty of OPM.
Of note, neither of these mechanisms depends on the technical details of the project. All that matters is that the project is perceived as big enough to merit political attention.
Also of note, local environmental organizations generally cause more environmental problems than they solve through their praxis of making it harder to govern. In Brussels, the construction of Métro Line 3 is delayed due to complaints by local NIMBYs, signal-boosted by Ecolo/Groen, that staging construction in a park hurts the neighborhood; this is then held up by the same green NIMBYs as evidence that subways take too long to build and decarbonization has to be done by 2030. The praxis of such organizations is deliberately adversarial and disruptive – whatever the city decides is its primary form of transport investment will be opposed.
Downgrades don’t solve the problem
There are German anti-subway NIMBYs who think that trams are literally as good as subways; one person on Reddit reacting to my post said that the Berlin average speeds I posted (streetcars 17.6 km/h, U-Bahn 30.5 km/h), sourced to BVG, are just an opinion. People like that are obviously risible. The more common anti-U-Bahn take recognizes that metro trains provide better service than trams, but questions whether it’s worth the higher cost. This is in places reasonable: cities don’t literally build a subway on every street, and there’s a growing system of using peripheral trams to feed metro trunks.
However, this analysis is only true at the relative level. If a city that builds subways also builds trams, the trams will look easier, precisely because they’re beneath the notice of politicians, who care about the highest-end projects. As soon as the city decides to forgo the subway and focus only on trams, the problem of political micromanagement instead attaches itself to the tram system.
This is also true of downgrades in quantity and not quality. A large metro expansion project, like Grand Paris Express or the Istanbul Metro investment program, is a flashy project that attracts political attention and sometimes includes weak lines, such as Métro Lines 17 and 18 in Paris. If there’s political controversy over the project, it will likely center the weakest lines, as these are the easiest to rally against, while often the critics will acknowledge that the strongest lines should still be built. The downgrade in quantity occurs when, in anticipation of future controversy over the program, it is decided to only build a small program comprising the strongest lines or even just a single line. The strongest line is genuinely strong, but if the problem comes from politicization, then this strong line will have many interests demanding tie-ins and OPM and often this line will then be more marginal just from the extra costs.
This is not hypothetical: this exact problem has happened in the United States in the last 45 years. Subway construction costs exploded in the 1970s: the Washington Metro’s per-km tunneling costs were in today’s money on the order of $300 million, continuing at this level through the 1990s (source; old costs are on PDF-p. 4 and 1990s costs are taken from segment 3 on PDF-p. 11). This was seen as too expensive for most cities, so they instead built light rail.
The early light rail program in the United States looked successful; its Canadian equivalent, of the same provenance, actually was successful. One of the planners involved, R. W. Rynerson, occasionally comments here, and points out that it was developed by American veterans who had been stationed in Germany and were intentionally adapting the German Stadtbahn concept to the North American context. The cities involved in this were all Western, because this system was ideal for cities that did not have preexisting urban rail and Western cities were newer; early examples include Edmonton, San Diego, Calgary, Portland, Denver, and Sacramento, with Los Angeles building a mix of light rail and subway and Seattle building a different mix.
This bought those cities maybe 15 years of reprieve. Subsequently, costs exploded. Once light rail was not just a simple way to plan future growth, under the aegis of trusted engineers, but rather a political program, the same politicization that made New York incapable of building beyond its Depression-era plan (that is, the IND) and Washington and San Francisco incapable of building beyond their Great Society-era plans (that is, the initial Metro and BART networks) now made those newer cities incapable of building. Portland opened the at-grade Orange Line of its light rail system in 2015 for $160 million/km in 2022 dollars. Minneapolis is taking forever to build its Southwest light rail line, with plenty of politicization of where and how to go. Boston built the Green Line Extension for $370 million/km in 2022 dollars, a higher real cost than that of tunnels in densely built-up parts of Washington in the 1990s – and it had severe politicization problems at all levels, even eclipsing the problem of insufficient project management capacity. Canada has had the same problem: Calgary’s light rail-centric investment was extraordinarily cheap in the late 20th century, but starting with the West LRT, costs have exploded so much that the city lost its ability to build and its modal split is stagnating around 16%.
Of note, American environmental and local-left organizations have not made light rail expansion easy. The first iteration of the Boston Green Line Expansion plan included $100 million, maybe $130 million in today’s money, for a short bike path, based on the demands of Somerville. In Los Angeles, left-NIMBYs oppose rail construction and have complained about transit-oriented gentrification. American left-NIMBYs have grown enamored of the idea of transit-oriented gentrification that they make demands of any city that builds light rail that it should pair it with spending on affordable housing and oppose any program that doesn’t include such additional funds, for example in Nashville in alliance with the anti-spending right. Any German readers who have any notions that such advocacy couldn’t happen here are invited to see the rhetoric that Green Party officials deploy against Tempelhofer Feld redevelopment.
If you can build, then build
The construction costs report we put out at the Transit Costs Project are pitched to an American audience, or very occasionally a Canadian or possibly British one, those countries sharing the American problem of poor project delivery and high soft costs. However, there are a lot of conclusions that can be drawn for the case of a medium-cost country that manifestly can build, like France or Germany. Such a country must look carefully at what goes on in the United States and to an extent the United Kingdom, as an example to avoid.
In particular, under no circumstances should cities downgrade, shrink, or slow down construction as a means of dealing with high project costs. The political problems are going to happen to the primary program no matter whether it is pitched as a metro- or tram-centric system.
Next to politics, the second most important thing to avoid is problems with project delivery. Here, I’m happy to report that Germany doesn’t seem to have such problems, except perhaps on the Munich S-Bahn, which has an even bigger political problem (namely, it’s a generational project for CSU politicians and was not properly overseen when CSU also controlled the federal transport ministry). Tellingly, other than the Munich S-Bahn, I’m not seeing substantial cost increases in actual (not projected) costs from the 1970s to the present in Germany. If an expansion program is larger than the city has recently had, it should staff up the civil service, hiring in-house to ensure the civil service retains lessons learned, and avoiding relying on private consultants or British-style Special Purpose Delivery Vehicles (SPDVs).
And if you can build, you should. Germany is a growing country with demand for further growth, especially in and next to its largest cities, such as Berlin. It should expand its U- and S-Bahn networks, using trams as a subsidiary feeder; that the trams look easier doesn’t make them so, not when they are turned into the centerpiece of the urban rail program – the same petty actors who induce delays to whatever the biggest project in town is do it no matter what the biggest project is.
Berlin’s U-Bahn Expansion Plan
An obscure change in German benefit-cost analysis regulations has led to expansive proposals for urban rail construction in Germany. In Berlin, where ongoing coalition negotiations between CDU and SPD are leading in a developmentalist cars-and-trains direction, this led BVG to propose a massive program for growing the U-Bahn from its current 155 km of route-length to 318. The BVG proposal is split fairly evenly between good lines and lines that duplicate the S-Bahn and have little transportation value, and yet I’ve not seen much discussion of the individual technical merit of the program. Instead, anti-developmental activists who think they’re being pro-environment, such as BUND, regurgitate their anti-U-Bahn conspiracy theories and go to the point of associating subway tunneling with the Nazis. (I, unlike native Europeans, associate the Nazis with the Holocaust instead.)
What is the BVG proposal?
A number of media outlets have produced maps of the proposal; here is Tagesspiegel’s, reproduced here because it shows S-Bahn and regional lines as thin but visible lines.
All nine lines of the U-Bahn are to be extended, most in both directions; U3 and U4, currently a branch of U1 and a low-ridership shuttle line respectively, are to be turned into full main lines via Mitte. In addition, a ring line called U0 is to be built, duplicating the Ringbahn on its western margin and taking over some lines currently planned as radial extensions to Tegel, and running as a circumferential at consistently larger radius than the Ring to the south, east, and north.
The immediate news leading BVG to propose this plan is a combination of federal and city-level changes. The federal change is obscure and I only saw it discussed by one low-follower account on Twitter, Luke Horn. Luke points out that after years of red tape, the federal government finally released its updated benefit-cost analysis regulations. As those are used to score projects, city and state governments are required to follow exact rules on which benefits may be counted, and at what rate.
One of these benefits is modal shift. It’s notoriously hard to measure, to the point that anti-U-Bahn advocates argued based on one low-count measurement that U-Bahn construction generated more emissions than it saved through modal shift; their study has just been retracted for overestimating construction emissions, but the authors are unrepentant.
At any rate, on the 21st, the new federal rules were finally published. Greenhouse gas emissions avoided through modal shift are to be counted as a benefit at the rate of 670€ per metric ton of CO2 (see PDF-p. 243). This is a high number, but it’s only high when it comes to pushing carbon taxes through a political system dominated by old climate denialists; by scientific consensus it’s more reasonable – for example, it’s close to the Stern Report estimates for the 2020s. If Germany imposed a carbon tax at this rate, and not the current rate of 55€/t, the fuel price here would grow by around 1.50€/liter, roughly doubling the price and helping kill the growing market for SUVs and luxury cars. If that is the rate at which modal shift is modeled, then even with an undercount of how urban rail construction substitutes for cars, many otherwise marginal lines pencil out.
The city-level change is that Berlin just had a redo of the 2021 election, and while technically the all-left coalition maintained its majority, CDU got the most votes, which gave Mayor Franziska Giffey (SPD) the excuse she needed to break the coalition and go into a grand coalition negotiation with CDU. Giffey had had to resign from the federal cabinet in the late Merkel era when it turned out that she had plagiarized her thesis, leading the university to revoke her degree, but out of shamelessness she remained Berlin SPD’s mayoral candidate and won in 2021. The Greens thought little of having to serve under such a scandalized mayor, and out of personal pettiness, Giffey, politically well to the right of most SPD voters anyway, accused them of personally disrespecting her and went into negotiations with CDU.
The importance of this is that the Greens (and Die Linke) are a pro-tram, anti-U-Bahn, NIMBY party. When CDU and SPD said they’d finally develop the parade of Tempelhofer Feld with housing, an advisor to a Green Bundestag member accused them of wanting to develop the area out of personal spite, and not, say, out of wanting Berlin to have more housing. Under the all-left coalition, U-Bahn planning continued but at a slow pace, and by far the most important extension on a cost per rider basis, sending U8 north to Märkisches Viertel, was deprioritized; CDU’s campaign in the election was mostly about parking and opposition to road diets, but it also hit the Greens on their opposition to U-Bahn development.
The plan as it stands has a few sops to CDU. The U0 ring is the most significant: in a country where the median age is 45, under-18s can’t vote, and CDU is disproportionately an old people’s party, CDU’s median voter was an adult through the era of the Berlin S-Bahn Boycott, as both halves of the S-Bahn were run by the East during the Cold War. Where CSU supports the Munich S-Bahn as a vehicle for conservatives to move away from the left-wing city while still having access to city jobs, Berlin CDU is uniquely more negative toward the S-Bahn. Thus, the plan has a line that mostly duplicates the Ring. The U2 expansion to the west duplicates the S-Bahn as well, especially west of Spandau. Finally, the proposed western terminus of U1 is explicitly billed as a park-and-ride, which type of service Berlin CDU has long supported.
But other than the U0 ring, the plan is not too different from things that have long been planned. The longest segment other than U0 is the U3 extension to the northeast; this was part of the 200 km plan already in the 1950s, except originally the plan for this extension was not to hook into U3 as on post-Cold War plans but to run along an alignment closer to that of U9, whose southern terminus at Rathaus Steglitz was even built with room for this line, then numbered U10. A fair number of other sections on BVG’s map have a long history of languishing in unfavorable benefit-cost ratios. Other than U0, the plan is rather similar to what was studied in 2019:
However, this history has not prevented people from literally comparing BVG’s plan to the Nazis. The more prosaic reality is that the 1938 Welthauptstadt Germania U-Bahn expansion plan, other than its ring (built inside of the Ringbahn, the opposite of U0), made it to the 200 km plan and most of the lines it proposed were built, the largest change being that Cold War realities made West Berlin build U7 and U9 to serve the center of West Berlin at the Zoo rather than as additional lines serving Mitte.
The issue of costs
I have not seen an official cost estimate. BUND, which opposes the plan on the grounds that building tramways is better, says that it would cost 35 billion euros. Judging by recent construction costs of realized and proposed lines in Berlin, I think this estimate is broadly correct, if the project is run well.
The estimate is then about 210 million €/km, which looks realistic. The construction of the U5 extension from Alexanderplatz to Brandenburger Tor opened in 2020 at a cost of 280 million €/km in 2022 prices, but that was in the very center of the city, including a station at Museumsinsel mined directly beneath the Spree, for which BVG had to freeze the sandy soil. Conversely, the estimates of outer extensions that were already under planning before a week ago are lower: U7, the most advanced of these, is projected at 890 million € for about 8 km, or 110 million €/km, in an unusually easy (not really urbanized) tunneling environment.
The risk is that such a large project, done all at once, would strain the planning capacity of Berlin and Brandenburg. This exact risk happened in Paris: at 205 million €/km for 80% underground construction Grand Paris Express is more expensive per km than smaller Métro extensions built in the 2010s as it’s so large the region ran out of in-house planning capacity, and its response, setting up a British-style special purpose delivery vehicle (SPDV) along the lines of Crossrail, has resulted in British-style permanent loss of state capacity. Now, even the short Métro extensions, like the planned eastern M1 extension, cost more like GPE and not like similar projects from 10 years ago.
Notably, while France and the Nordic countries are seeing growing construction costs (France from a medium-low level and the Nordic countries from a very low one), Germany is not. I haven’t been able to find historic costs for Berlin with few exceptions. One of those exception, the last section of U9, cost 235 million € in 2022 prices for 1.5 or 1.6 km, or around 150 million €/km; this was built in 1968-74, in a relatively easy area, albeit with extra costs as noted above preparing for the U10 line. Another exception is the final section of U7 to Spandau, which cost around 800 million € for 4.9 km, or around 160 million €/km. Taken together with some numbers I posted here, it’s notable that in the 1970s, the construction costs per km in Italy, Germany, and the UK were all about the same but since then German costs have stayed the same or at worst inched up, Italian costs have fallen due to the anti-corruption laws passed in the wake of mani pulite, and British costs have quadrupled.
The most frustrating part of this discourse is that I’ve yet to see a single German rail advocate express any interest in the issue of costs. The critics of U-Bahn and other rail transport expansion plans who cite costs, of which BUND is a prime example, never talk about how to make metro construction in Germany cheaper; instead, they use it as an argument for why building underground railways is a waste of money, and urban rail must take the form of streetcars, which are held to be not only cheaper but also more moral from a green point of view as they annoy drivers. The same problem crops up in the discourse on high-speed rail, where Germany makes fairly easily fixable mistakes, generally falling under the rubric of over-accommodation of NIMBYs, and thus instead of figuring out how to build more lines, advocates write the idea off as impractical and instead talk about how to run trains on slow lines.
Can Berlin make do with streetcars?
The problem with streetcars is that, no matter how much priority they get over other street traffic, they’re still slow. T3 in Paris, about the most modern urban tramway I’ve seen, running in a grassy reservation in the middle of the 40 meter wide Boulevards des Maréchaux, averages 18 km/h. The Berlin streetcars average 17.6 km/h; they don’t have 100% dedicated lanes at places, but for the most part, they too are run to very high standards, and only minor speedups can be seriously expected. Meanwhile, the U-Bahn averages 30.5 km/h, which is on the high side for the 780 m stop spacing, but is without driverless operations, which raised Paris’s average speed on M1 with its 692 m interstation from 24.4 to 30 km/h, at least in theory. The best Berlin can do with tramway modernization is probably around 20 km/h; the best it can do with the U-Bahn is probably 35 km/h, and with the S-Bahn maybe 45 km/h.
And Berlin is already large enough to need the speed. Leipzig is a good example of an Eastern city maintaining modal split with no U-Bahn, just streetcars and a recently-opened S-Bahn tunnel; in 2018, its modal split for work trips was 47% car, 20% public transport, 22% bike, 11% pedestrian (source, p. 13). But most of the walkable urban area of Leipzig is contained within a four kilometer radius of the main train station, a large majority of the city’s population is within six, and by eight one is already in the suburbs. Slow transportation like bikes and trams can work at that scale, to an extent.
In contrast with Leipzig’s smaller scale, I live four km from Berlin Hauptbahnhof and I’m still in Mitte, albeit at the neighborhood’s southeastern corner where Hbf is at the northwestern one. From the most central point, around Friedrichstrasse, both the Zoo and Warschauer Strasse are four km away, and both have high-rise office buildings. At eight km, one finally gets to Westkreuz and ICC-Messe, Steglitz, Lichtenberg, and the former airport grounds of Tegel; Gropiusstadt, a dense housing project built as transit-oriented development on top of U7, is 13 km from Friedrichstrasse by straight line.
The actual average speed, door-to-door, is always lower than the in-vehicle average speed. There’s access time, which is independent of mode, but then wait times are shorter on a high-intensity metro system than on a more diffuse streetcar network, and extra time resulting from the fact that rail lines don’t travel in a straight line from your home to your destination scales with in-vehicle travel time.
Leipzig’s modal split for work trips is 47% car, 20% public transport. Berlin’s is 28% car, 40% public transport. This is partly because Berlin is bigger, but mostly related to the city’s U-Bahn network; closer to Leipzig’s size class, one finds Prague, with a larger per capita urban rail ridership than Berlin or even Paris, with a system based on metro lines fed by streetcars and high-intensity development near the metro.
Berlin’s multiple centers make this worse. The same tram-not-subway NIMBYs who oppose U-Bahn development believe in building polycentric cities, which they moralize as more human-scale than strong city centers with tall buildings (apparently, Asia is inhuman). The problem is that when designing transportation in a polycentric city, we must always assume the worst-case scenario – that is, that an East Berliner would find work near the Zoo or even at ICC and a Spandauer would find it in Friedrichshain. The Spandauer who can only choose jobs and social destinations within streetcar distance for all intents and purposes doesn’t live in Berlin, lacking access to any citywide amenities or job opportunities; not for nothing, Spandauers don’t vote for NIMBYs, but for pro-development politicians like Raed Saleh.
Truly polycentric cities are not public transport-oriented. Upper Silesia is auto-oriented while Warsaw has one of Europe’s strongest surface rail networks. In Germany, the Rhine-Ruhr is an analog: its major cities have strong internal Stadtbahn networks, but most of the region’s population doesn’t live in Cologne or Essen or Dortmund or Dusseldorf, and the standard way to get between two randomly-selected towns there, as in Silesia, is by car.
The reason BUND and other NIMBYs don’t get this is a historical quirk of Germany. The Stadtbahn – by which I mean the subway-surface mode, not the Berlin S-Bahn line – was developed here in the 1960s and 70s, at a time of rapidly rising motorization. The goal of the systems as built in most West German cities was to decongest city center by putting the streetcars underground; then, the streetcar lines that fed into those systems were upgraded and modernized, while those that didn’t were usually closed. The urban New Left thus associates U-Bahn construction with a conspiracy to get trains out of cars’ way, and Green activists have reacted to the BVG plan by saying trams are the best specifically because they interfere with cars.
That belief is, naturally, hogwash. The subway-surface trolley, for one, was invented in turn-of-the-century Boston and Philadelphia, whose centers were so congested by streetcars, horsecars, and pedestrians that it was useful to bury some of the lines even without any cars. The metro tunnel was invented in mid-Victorian London for the same reason: the route from the train terminals on Euston Road to the City of London was so congested with horsecars there was demand for an underground route. Today, there’s less congestion than there was then, but only because the metro has been invented and the city has spread out, the latter trend raising the importance of high average speed, attainable only with full grade separation.
BUND and others say that the alternative to building 170 km of U-Bahn is building 1,700 km of streetcar. Setting aside that streetcars tend to be built in easier places and I suspect a more correct figure than 1,700 is 1,000 km, Berlin can’t really use 1,700 or 1,000 or even 500 km of tramway, because that would be too slow. Saturating every major street within the Ring with surface rail tracks would run into diminishing returns fast; the ridership isn’t there, getting it there requires high-density development that even SPD would find distasteful and not just the Greens, and streetcars with so many intersections with other streetcars would have low average speed. I can see 100-200 km of streetcar, organized in the Parisian fashion of orbital lines feeding the U- and S-Bahn; M13 on Seestrasse is a good example. But the core expansion must be U- and S-Bahn.
Okay, but is the BVG plan good?
Overall, it’s important for Berlin to expand its U- and S-Bahn networks, both by densifying them with new trunk lines and by expanding them outward. However, some of the lines on the BVG map are so out there that the plan is partly just crayon with an official imprint.
The way I see it, the proposal includes 2.5 new trunk lines: U3 (again, formerly planned as U10), U4, and the western extension of U5.
Of those, U3 and U5 are unambiguously good. Not for nothing, they’ve been on the drawing board for generations, and many of their difficult crossings have already been built. Jungfernheide, where U5 would connect with U7, was built with such a connection in mind; the plan was and to an extent remains to extend U5 even further, sending it north to what used to be Tegel Airport and is now a planned redevelopment zone as the Urban Tech Republic, but the new BVG proposal gives away the Tegel connection to the U0 ring.
The U3 and U4 trunks in fact are planned along the routes of the two busiest tramways in the city, the M4 and combined M5/M6/M8 respectively (source, p. 7). The U3 plan thus satisfies all criteria of good subway construction – namely, it’s a direct radial line, in fact more direct than U2 (built around and not on Leipziger Strasse because the private streetcar operator objected to public U-Bahn development on its route), replacing a busy surface route. The U4 expansion mostly follows the same criterion; I am less certain about it because where M5 and M6 today serve Alexanderplatz, the proposed route goes along that of M8, which passes through the northern margin of city center, with some employment but also extensive near-center residential development near the Mitte/Gesundbrunnen boundary. I’m still positive on the idea, but I would rate it below the U3 and U5 extensions, and am also uncertain (though not negative) on the idea of connecting it from Hbf south to U4.
The U5 extension parallels no streetcar, but there’s high bus ridership along the route. The all-left coalition was planning to build a streetcar instead of an U-Bahn on this route. If it were just about connecting Jungfernheide to Hbf I’d be more understanding, but if the Urban Tech Republic project is built, then that corner of the region will need fast transportation in multiple directions, on the planning principle outlined above that in a polycentric city the public transport network must assume the worst-case scenario for where people live and work.
All of Berlin’s nine U-Bahn lines are planned with at least one outward extension. These are a combination of very strong, understandable, questionable, and completely drunk.
The strongest of them all is, naturally, the U8 extension to Märkisches Viertel. In 2021, it was rated the lowest-cost-per-rider among the potential extensions in the city, at 13,160€/weekday trip; the U7 extension to the airport is projected to get 40,000 riders, making it around 22,000€/trip. It has long been to the city’s shame that it has not already completed this extension: Märkisches Viertel is dense, rather like Gropiusstadt on the opposite side of the city except with slightly less nice architecture, and needs a direct U-Bahn connection to the center.
Several other extensions are strong as well – generally ones that have been seriously planned recently. Those include U7 to the airport, the combination of the one-stop expansion of U2 to Pankow Kirche and the northeastern extension of U9 to intersect it and then terminate at the S-Bahn connection at Pankow-Heinersdorf, and U7 to the southwest to not just the depicted connection to U1 at Gatower Strasse but also along the route that the new plan gives to U1 to Heerstrasse.
The U3 expansion to the southwest is intriguing in a different way. It’s a low-cost, low-benefit extension, designed for network completeness: a one-stop extension to the S-Bahn at Mexikoplatz is being planned already, and the BVG plan acknowledges near-future S-Bahn plans adding a new southwestern branch and connect to it at Düppel.
Unfortunately, most of the other radial extensions go in the opposite direction from U3: where U3 acknowledges S-Bahn expansion and aims to connect with it, these other plans are closely parallel to S-Bahn lines that are not at capacity and are about to get even more capacity soon. Spandau, in particular, sees a train every 10 minutes; the Stadtbahn’s core segment has three trains in 10 minutes, with more demand from the east than from the west, so that a train every 10 minutes goes to Spandau, another goes to Potsdam, and a third just turns at Westkreuz since demand from the west is that weak. Creating more demand at Spandau would rebalance this system, whereas building additional U-Bahn service competing with current S-Bahn service (especially the U1 plan, which loses benefit west of the Ring) or with future expansion (such as U2 – compare with the expansion on the 2019 plan) would just waste money.
The southern extensions are a particularly bad case of not working with the S-Bahn but against it. The North-South Tunnel has 18 peak trains per hour, like the Stadtbahn; this compares with 30 on the trunk of the Munich S-Bahn. The ongoing S21 project should divert southeast, but as currently planned, it’s essentially a second North-South Tunnel, just via Hbf and not Friedrichstrasse, hence plans to beef up service to every five minutes to Wannsee and add branches, such as to Düppel. This massive increase in S-Bahn capacity is best served with more connections to the S-Bahn south of the Ring, such as east-west streetcars feeding the train; north-south U-Bahn lines, running more slowly than the S-Bahn, are of limited utility.
Finally, the extension of U1 to the northeast is a solution looking for a problem. U1’s terminus is frustratingly one S-Bahn stop away from the Ring, and perhaps the line could be extended east. But it points north, and is elevated, and past the U5 connection at Frankfurter Tor there’s no real need to serve the areas with another line to Friedrichshain.
The radial component of the BVG plan includes good and bad ideas. In contrast, the U0 ring is just a bad idea all around. The problem is that it doesn’t really hit any interesting node, except Tegel and Westkreuz, and maybe Steglitz and Pankow; Alt-Mariendorf, for example, is not especially developed. Berlin is polycentric within the Ring, but the importance of destinations outside it is usually low. This should be compared with Grand Paris Express’s M15 ring, passing through La Défense and the Stade de France.
Where circumferential service is more useful is as a feeder to S- and U-Bahn lines connecting people with the center. However, metro lines don’t make good feeders for other metro lines; this is a place where streetcars are genuinely better. The required capacity is low, since the constraints are on the radial connection to the center. The expected trip length is short and a transfer is required either way, which reduces the importance of speed – and at any rate, these outer circumferential routes are likely less congested, which further reduces the speed difference. The differences in cost permit streetcars to hit multiple stations on each line to connect with (though this means two parallel lines, not ten); this is not the same as fantasies about 1,700 km of streetcar in areas where people vote Green.
Is this a good plan?
Well, it’s about half good. Of the 163 km in BVG’s proposal, I think around 68 are good, and the rest, split between the U0 ring and the less useful outer extensions, should be shelved. That’s the crayon element – parts of the plan feel like just drawing extra extensions, by which I mean not just U0 but also the southern extensions.
However, substantial expansion of the U-Bahn is obligatory for Berlin to maintain healthy growth without being choked by cars. NIMBY fantasies about deurbanizing workplace geography would make the city more like Los Angeles than like their ideal of a 15-minute bikable small city center. Berlin needs to reject this; small is not beautiful or sustainable, and the city’s transport network needs to grow bigger and better with a lot more subway construction than is currently planned.
What’s more, the fact that construction costs in Germany are fundamentally the same in real terms as they were 40-50 years ago means that the country should accelerate its infrastructure construction program. Benefits for the most part scale with national GDP per capita – for example, the value of time for commuters, students, and other travelers so scale. Ignoring climate entirely, lines that were marginal in 1980 should be strong today; not ignoring climate, they are must-builds, as is high-density housing to fill all those trains and enable people to live in a desirable city with low car usage.
FDP and Vice Signaling
Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) just tweeted that more investment in roads is good – because if traffic flows more smoothly then there will be less greenhouse gas emissions. Reaction was not positive, and as of when I’m writing, 16 hours later, it is mildly ratioed. People understand that this is wrong. Lindner himself probably gets this too. Understanding what’s going on here requires talking about bullshit in the philosophical sense of Harry Frankfurt, and about something that I don’t have a better name for than vice signaling.
Is it true?
Absolutely not. It’s standard in transport studies that the construction of more highways in high-demand areas induces more traffic, as people take advantage of the greater convenience of driving. Drivers drive to new destinations that they forwent or chose to take public transport to, and new developments are built in areas opened by new highway development.
There may be exceptions to this in declining areas. The United States loves building new grade-separated interchanges in declining regions. This doesn’t generate new demand, because traffic is already uncongested, and the purpose of roadbuilding there is a political statement more than transport policy. But that’s not Germany. The roads under discussion here are in growth regions: there’s a plan to widen the beltway around Munich, A99, to 10 lanes, and the federal and Berlin FDP have both badgered Berlin to build a further stage of A100 parallel to the Ringbahn, which the city wants not to under the influence of the Green Party. Both motorway projects are likely to lead to adverse mode shift if built, and Lindner knows this.
There’s a developmental argument that induced demand is actually good. Matt Yglesias has made it before, saying that if road building induces more traffic then it means people get to take more trips and are better off. Many roadbuilders have made that very argument, and others were aware of it; Robert Moses, for example, was perfectly aware that his parkways and bridges were inducing more car traffic, and was fine with it, because he thought more driving was good. But that’s not what Lindner is saying: Lindner is saying that building new motorways and keeping them without a speed limit reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which is just bullshit.
The term “bullshit” has a precise meaning in analytic philosophy, due to Harry Frankfurt. It comprises a type of deception about the speaker’s mindset, rather than about the facts, unlike an ordinary lie. A politician who denies a scandal they are involved with is lying: their goal is to get you to believe that they are innocent of this scandal. A politician who, having been caught in said scandal, launches a series of schlock patriotic speeches is bullshitting: their goal is to get you to think they are fundamentally aligned with your values. From Frankfurt’s original essay, we have,
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”
The statement “widening roads reduces CO2 emissions” is this kind of bullshit. It is not quite a lie: it is false, but Lindner is not especially concerned with whether it is true or false. His goal is not to persuade people that building another section of A100 and widening A99 is good for climate; nobody who cares about climate change thinks that. Rather, his goal is to position himself as the sort of person who doesn’t listen to climate advocates and will just push for road widenings. The deception is part of the positioning: if he’d said that he understands the Greens’ argument against road investment but roads are important for economic development, he’d come off as too reasonable, which is not his intention.
Sounding deliberately unreasonable is the domain of populist politicians, and Frankfurt himself and many of his followers have noticed how political bullshit is on the rise as populism grows more normalized. Nigel Farage, for example, bullshitted that smoking isn’t bad for your health. And FDP is a populist party, despite its liberal origins and relatively moderate political positioning; it swung from deficit scold at the start of the current government to tax scold precisely as inflation rose last year, the opposite of what one should expect of a Washington Consensus-following economically orthodox party.
There’s a pseudo-academic term going around the web, virtue signaling. The idea is that individuals and organizations engage in actions to signal that they’re better people than they really are; companies hire consultants on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) without ever doing anything about their glass ceiling and harassment problems.
But it may be more fruitful to discuss its opposite – that is, vice signaling. This is when people take actions to portray themselves as terrible people, for any number of reasons:
- Loyalty: criminal gangs are deliberately threatening and often require that prospective members commit murder (this is a requirement to become a made man in the Italian-American mafia), because this forces new members to have crossed both a moral and a legal event horizon from which they can’t come back; populist political movements don’t require crimes, but do require ridiculous beliefs
- Novelty: this is what in the online language of the early 2010s was called the Slate Pitch – a take that aims to be novel by saying something really out there, often by writers who can’t separate themselves from the rest of the pack by any more productive means
- Love of power: some people lie to you, with your full knowledge that they’re lying, just to flex that they can get away with it
Lindner loves this kind of vice signaling, I think out of novelty more than anything. FDP could be a party of YIMBYism, fiscal conservatism, and digital governance; younger members of the party who identify with neoliberalism wish that it were that party. The problem is that the difference between such a party and SPD is not large; Scholz ran on building more housing Germany-wide, and there’s a fair amount of consensus in favor of this in the party’s wings. SPD’s worst attributes so far are its officious leadership anchored in the Lower Saxony clique and consequently its sluggish governance and refusal to do more to support Ukraine – but FDP has the exact same problems, Lindner having told Ukraine when it asked for aid as the war started that there was no point since they’d fall in hours either way.
So to distinguish themselves from everyone else, FDP engages in vice signaling about climate and transport. They’re not trying to convince anyone that their policies are good for climate change. Rather, they’re doing the exact opposite: they’re trying to convince center-right voters that they’re an internal opposition within a coalition that is engaging in modal shift in federal funding priorities, and that they are explicitly against any climate action, because cars are good and only annoying hippies prefer trains.
Free Public Transport, Fare Integration, and Capacity
There’s an ongoing debate about free public transport that I’m going to get into later, but, for now, I want to zoom in on one aspect of the 9€ ticket, and how it impacted public transport capacity in Germany. A commenter on the Neoliberal Reddit group claimed that during the three months of nearly free public transport fares, there was a capacity crunch due to overuse. But in fact, the impact was not actually significant on urban rail, only on regional trains, in a way that underscores the importance of fare integration more than anything.
What was the 9€ ticket?
Last year, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fuel prices shot up everywhere. This created populist pressure to alleviate the price of fuel through temporary tax cuts, which further exacerbated last year’s high inflation. The center-right element within the German coalition, FDP, moved away from its traditional position as deficit scold and demanded a cut in the fuel tax; as a compromise, the Greens agreed to it on condition that during the three months of reduced fuel tax, June through August, public transport fares would be cut as well. Thus the 9€ monthly was born.
The 9€ ticket applied throughout Germany. The key feature wasn’t just the deep discount but also the fact that on one ticket, people could travel all over Germany; normally, my Berlin monthly doesn’t let me ride the local trains in Leipzig or Munich. This stimulated massive domestic tourism, since people could travel between cities on slow regional trains for free and then also travel around their destination city for free as well.
The 9€ ticket clearly raised public transport ridership in the three months it was in effect. This led to demands to make it permanent, running up against the problem that money is scarce and in Germany ticket fares generate a significant proportion of public transport revenue, 7.363 billion € out of 14.248 billion € in expenses (source, p. 36).
One partial move in that direction is a 29€ monthly valid only within Berlin, not in the suburbs (zone C of the S-Bahn) or outside the system; unlike the 9€ ticket, which was well-advertised all over national and local media and was available at every ticketing machine, the 29€ monthly is only available via annual subscription, which requires a permanent address in the city, and the regular machines only sell the usual 86€ monthly and don’t even let you know that a cheaper option exists. The subscription is also not available on a rolling basis – one must do it before the start of the month, which is not advertised, and Ant6n‘s family was caught unaware one month.
Negotiations for a nationwide 49€ ticket are underway, proceeding at the pace of a German train, or perhaps that of German arms deliveries to Ukraine. This was supposed to start at the beginning of 2023, then in April, and now it’s expected to debut in May. I’m assuming it will eventually happen – German trains get you there eventually, if hours late occasionally.
What’s the impact on capacity?
The U- and S-Bahn systems didn’t at all get overcrowded. They got a bit more crowded than usual, but nothing especially bad, since the sort of trips induced by zero marginal cost are off-peak. Rush hour commuters are not usually price-sensitive: whenever one’s alternative to the train is a car, the difference between a 9€ monthly and an 86€ one is a fraction of the difference between either ticket and the cost of owning and using a car, and at rush hour, cars are limited by congestion as well. Off-peak ridership did visibly grow, but not to levels that congest the system.
But then the hourly regional trains got completely overcrowded. If you wanted to ride the free trains from Berlin to Leipzig, you’d be standing for the last third of the trip. This is because the regional rail system (as opposed to S-Bahn) is designed as a low-capacity coverage-type system for connecting to small towns like Cottbus or Dessau.
The broader issue is that there is always a sharp ridership gradient between large cities and everywhere else, even per capita. In some places the gradient is sharper than elsewhere; the difference between New York and the rest of the United States is massive. But even in Germany, with a smaller gradient than one might be used to from France or the UK or Japan, public transport ridership is disproportionately dense urban or perhaps suburban, on trams and U- and S-Bahns.
The regional trains are another world. Really, European and Japanese trains can be thought of as three worlds: very high-use urban and suburban rail networks, high-use intercity rail connecting the main cities usually at high speed, and low-usage, highly-subsidized regional trains outside the major metropolitan regions. Germany has relatively good trains in the last category, if worse than in Switzerland, Austria, or the Netherlands: they run hourly with timed connections, so that people can connect between them to many destinations, they just usually don’t because cities the size of Dessau don’t generate a lot of ridership. The 9€ ticket gave people a free intercity trip if they chained trips on these regional trains, at the cost of getting to Leipzig in a little less than three hours rather than 1:15 on the ICE; the regional trains were not expanded to meet this surge traffic, which is usually handled on longer intercity trainsets, creating standing-room only conditions on trains where this should not happen off-peak or perhaps ever.
The issue of fare integration
The overcrowding seen on the regional trains last summer is really an issue of fare integration, which I hope is resolved as the 49€ gives people free trips on such trains permanently. A cornerstone of good public transport planning is that the fare between two points should be the same no matter what vehicle one uses, with exceptions only for first-class cars if available. Ein Ticket für alles, exclaims the system in Zurich, to great success. Anything else slices the market into lower-frequency segments, providing worse service than under total fare integration. Germany understands this – the Verkehrsverbund was invented in Hamburg in 1965, and subsequently this idea was adopted elsewhere until the country has been divided into metropolitan zones with internal fare integration.
The regional trains that cross Verkehrsverbund zones have their own fares, and normally that’s okay. Intercity trains were never part of this system, and that’s okay too – they’re not about one’s usual trip, and so an intercity ticket doesn’t include free transfers to local public transport unless one pays extra for that amenity. The fares between intercity trains and chains of regional trains were not supposed to be integrated, and normally that’s fine too, because any fare savings from chaining trips on slower trains are swamped both by the headache of buying so many tickets and by the difference in trip time and reliability.
The 9€ ticket broke that system, and the 49€ ticket will have the same effect: for three months, trips on slower trains were free, leading to overcrowding on a low-capacity network that normally isn’t that important to the country’s overall public transport system.
Worse, the operating costs of slow trains are higher than those of fast trains: they are smaller and so have a higher ratio of crew to passengers than ICEs, and their slowness means that crew and maintenance costs per kilometer are higher than those of fast trains. Even energy costs are higher on slow trains, because high-speed lines run at 300 km/h over long stretches, whereas regional lines make many stops (which had very little usage compared with the train’s volume of passengers last summer) and have slow zones rather than cruising at 130 or 160 km/h over long stretches. So the system gave people a price incentive to use the higher-cost trains and not the lower-cost ones.
This is the most important thing to resolve about any future fare reductions. Some mechanism is needed to ensure that the most advantageous way to travel between two cities is the one that DB can provide the most efficiently, which is IC/ICE and not RegionalBahn.
Push and Pull Factors and Measuring Modal Shift
There’s a longstanding debate among activists and academics about what the best way of effecting modal shift from cars to public transport is. Pull factors concern making public transport better through building more rail lines, running them more frequently, improving service convenience, or reducing fares. Push factors concern making driving harder through speed limits, fuel taxes, congestion pricing, and reallocation of street space from cars to public and non-motorized transport. There’s a tendency on the New Left to favor push factors (but the East Asian developmental states are best characterized as push-before-pull and not pure pull).
This has been refined by researchers at the climate research institute, the Ariadne Project, who published a paper in late 2021 rating various push and pull policies on effectiveness for reducing transport emissions. They conclude that push factors dominate, and pull factors are small, with construction of new public transit almost insignificant, only worth a reduction of around 300,000 tons of CO2 a year Germany-wide, 0.039% of national emissions as of 2021; instituting a 120 km/h speed limit on the Autobahn is said to have about 10 times that effect, while the biggest effects yet would come from carbon taxes. The study laments that pull factors are so much more popular than push factors, which they admit suppress society-wide consumption.
The research suffers from the same problem as other work in this direction, in that it is bad at estimating the impact of public transport on mode shift. It briefly argues that construction of public transport increases overall consumption and therefore doesn’t do much to reduce emissions. This way, it’s like 2020’s carbon critique of U-Bahn expansion, which I criticized two months ago; the carbon critique argues that each kilometer of U-Bahn built only reduces CO2 emissions by 714 tons a year through mode shift, under the assumption that only 20% of public transport riders are diverted from cars.
This doesn’t pass a sanity check. 300,000 divided by 714 is 420 km, which is about comparable to the total route length of the four grade-separated U-Bahn systems in Germany plus the Wuppertal Schwebebahn; I think the two figures, 300,000 and 714/km, come from different sources, and judging by the other elements in the study, I suspect 300,000 assumes less construction than a full doubling of Germany’s rapid transit network length. Nonetheless, even under a more generous assumption, this is far too low compared with macro trends in public transport usage.
The best way to use macro trends as a sanity check is to look at some cases with much more and much less public transport than the present. Do they look like it’s a total difference of 0.039%? No, and that’s even taking into account that transit cities tend to be wealthier, stimulating more consumption and more production. As I pointed out in my post two months ago, while Germany averages 9.15 t-CO2/capita, Berlin only does 5.38, and while Germany averages 580 cars per 1,000 people, Berlin only does 327. The difference is largely about Berlin’s pull factors. Push factors in the city are not extensive, and what exists is implemented only in areas that already have very low car use.
Even lower household emissions in Berlin must be viewed as downstream of the density that is enabled by the presence of a large urban rail network. Cars are a low-capacity mode of transport, so an auto-oriented region, like American metro regions, has to spread out its homes and destinations to limit congestion, and this increases household emissions (single-family houses emit more than apartment buildings) and also encourages people to travel longer distances for their commute and routine non-commute trips.
This is not easy to measure. Public transport projects have gotten fairly good in the last generation at estimating ridership, but estimating the responsibility of one particular project to modal shift is hard. It interacts with the entire city region. For example, building one rail line can be measured to shift modes in the neighborhoods it serves, but it also encourages destinations to locate in city center since people from the neighborhoods the line serves can now access it, and the increase in office, retail, and community development then leads to a small modal shift citywide. Worse, trying to tease out the effect of the rail line on modal shift sufficiently carefully may lead researchers to count this citywide effect negatively, since one econometric technique is to compare the neighborhoods near the line with neighborhoods in the same city not on the line.
In practice, the construction of rail lines tends to co-occur with other policies that improve public transport, which may be pull or push factors. This means that it’s very easy to misattribute the effect of urban rail expansion to those other factors. I am convinced that this is what is happening here; the proper comparison must be at the level of an entire region, looking at the emissions of different regions with different levels of public transport usage.
The upshot is that if it is hard to measure the effect of public transport construction on modal shift and emissions, then the uncertain factors should not be set to zero. Rather, they should be set to sanity-check levels. For example, one can compare New York with the rest of the United States, since it’s a starker difference between a transit city and an auto-oriented country than anywhere in Europe, and correct for non-transport effects like climate and electricity mix, both of which are easy to measure.
Within Germany, Berlin has 42% lower emissions than the rest of the country per capita. Berlin achieves this with an urban rail network that, in 2019, got 1,289 million rail trips, nearly all within the city of 3.7 million, a minority in the suburban region of perhaps 1.3 million. This is around 250 trips/person regionwide, and 320/person citywide assigning around 20% of S-Bahn ridership to suburbs like Potsdam and Oranienburg. What’s more, Germany doesn’t start from zero; this is not the United States, with multiple large cities with around 10 annual rail trips per capita. Netting out buses from VDV’s data (p. 25) gets around 6.3 billion rail trips in Germany in 2019 including trams, or 75 per capita.
The difference between 320 and 75 is around 250 – I know it’s actually 245 but at this point I’m deliberately reducing precision because those are sanity-check estimates and I don’t want people thinking they’re correct to three significant figures (try 1.5). If we attribute the entire Berlin-Germany difference of about 3.8 t-CO2/capita to public transport and downstream changes to the urban layout, then we get 0.015 t saved per annual trip generated. To get from there to 300,000 tons saved, we just need 20 million annual rail riders, or around 65,000 daily ones, which is easy to generate on a single line; the approximately 2 km extension of U8 to Märkisches Viertel that Berlin keeps postponing is estimated to generate 25,000-30,000.
Now, to sanity-check the sanity check, the estimate here is that every trip on urban rail saves 15 kg-CO2. This is an aggressive figure; new cars nowadays average 100 g/km and averaged 180 g/km in 2001 (source, PDF-p. 15), and the average displaced car trip is not 150 km or even 80 km – Americans average around 45 km/day, or somewhat more when only adults are considered. Rather, the issue is a combination of factors:
- Because the limiting factor to car transport is capacity, in practice what happens in an auto-oriented region is that it fills from the inside outward, and any modal shift ends up displacing the outermost and longest car trips. I proposed a model for that in a blog post from four years ago.
- Public transport displaces car trips on a more than one-to-one basis (and certainly more than 20% as in the carbon critique of the U-Bahn). This is because public transport users also walk and bike, and transit cities have high modal splits for active transport by the standards of auto-oriented cities, if not by the standards of Dutch cities. Berlin’s all-trip modal split in 2018 was 26% car, 27% public transport, 18% bike, 30% walking – and the high active transport modal split exists not because of road diets, which are few and far between, but because of the presence of a large core fed by the U- and S-Bahn.
- Public transport reduces household energy usage by encouraging people to live in apartment buildings with shared walls rather than in single-family houses, which have much greater heating requirements; this is also the mechanism through which transit cities have relatively high usage of active transport even without trying very hard.
I don’t think these factors fully explain away the gap between 45 km/day and 150 km per trip (so around 300/day), but they explain a large enough fraction of it that the installation of a system like what Berlin has – or, better, what Tokyo has – should be a climate priority. If your model says it doesn’t, it needs a lot more work than to just talk about the consumption effects of more public transport (if you’re bothered by how Berlin is poor for its size, compare New York with the rest of the United States).
In fact, if estimating modal shift is hard, then it’s best to approximate it by ridership. It’s imperfect because there is the effect of walking and biking; some lines really do just compete with walking, like city-center streetcars, but usually, to first order, it’s a good enough estimate. If it’s hard to estimate the benefits then they should not be set to zero, but rather set proportionally to something easier to measure, in this case ridership. Investment should follow ridership-maximizing strategies, and only deviate from them in corner cases.
Paris-Berlin Trains, But no Infrastructure
Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Macron and Scholz announced new train service between Paris and Berlin to debut next year, as intercity rail demand in Europe is steadily rising and people want to travel not just within countries but also between them. Currently, there is no direct rail service, and passengers who wish to travel on this city pair have to change trains in Frankfurt or Cologne. There’s just one problem: the train will not have any supportive infrastructure and therefore take the same eight hours that trains take today with a transfer.
This is especially frustrating, since Germany is already investing in improving its intercity rail. Unfortunately, the investments are halting and partial – right now the longest city pair connected entirely by high-speed rail is Cologne-Frankfurt, a distance of 180 km, and ongoing plans are going to close some low-speed gaps elsewhere in the system but still not create any long-range continuous high-speed rail corridor connecting major cities. With ongoing plans, Cologne-Stuttgart is going to be entirely fast, but not that fast – Frankfurt-Mannheim is supposed to be sped up to 29 minutes over about 75 km.
Berlin-Paris is a good axis for such investment. This includes the following sections:
- Berlin-Halle is currently medium-speed, trains taking 1:08-1:16 to do 162 km, but the flat, low-density terrain is easy for high-speed rail, which could speed this up to 40-45 minutes at fairly low cost since no tunnels and little bridging would be required.
- Halle-Erfurt is already fast, thanks to investments in the Berlin-Munich axis.
- Erfurt-Frankfurt is currently slow, but there are plans to build high-speed rail from Erfurt to Fulda and thence Hanau. The trip times leave a lot to be desired, but newer 300 km/h trains like the Velaro Novo, and perhaps a commitment to push the line not just to Hanau but closer to Frankfurt itself, could do this section in an hour.
- Frankfurt-Saarbrücken is very slow. Saarbrücken is at the western margin of Germany and is not significant enough by itself to merit any high-speed rail investment. Between it and Frankfurt, the terrain is rolling and some tunneling is needed, and the only significant intermediate stops are Mainz (close enough to Frankfurt it’s a mere stop of opportunity) and Kaiserslautern. Nonetheless, fast trains could get from Frankfurt to the border in 45 minutes, whereas today they take two hours.
Unfortunately, they’re not talking about any pan-European infrastructure here. Building things is too difficult, so instead the plan is to run night trains – this despite the fact that Frankfurt-Saarbrücken with a connection to the LGV Est would make a great joint project.
The Four Quadrants of Cities for Transit Revival
Cities that wish to improve their public transportation access and usage are in a bind. Unless they’re already very transit-oriented, they have not only an entrenched economic elite that drives (for example, small business owners almost universally drive), but also have a physical layout that isn’t easy to retrofit even if there is political consensus for modal shift. Thus, to shift travel away from cars, new interventions are needed. Here, there is a distinction between old and new cities. Old cities usually have cores that can be made transit-oriented relatively easily; new cities have demand for new growth, which can be channeled into transit-oriented development. Thus, usually, in both kinds of cities, a considerably degree of modal shift is in fact possible.
However, it’s perhaps best to treat the features of old and new cities separately. The features of old cities that make transit revival possible, that is the presence of a historic core, and those of new cities, that is demand for future growth, are not in perfect negative correlation. In fact, I’m not sure they consistently have negative correlation at all. So this is really a two-by-two diagram, producing four quadrants of potential transit cities.
The history of public transportation is one of decline in the second half of the 20th century in places that were already rich then; newly-industrialized countries often have different histories. The upshot is that an old auto-oriented place must have been a sizable city before the decline of mass transit, giving it a large core to work from. This core is typically fairly walkable and dense, so transit revival would start from there.
The most successful examples I know of involve the restoration of historic railroads as modern regional lines. Germany is full of small towns that have done so; Hans-Joachim Zierke has some examples of low-cost restoration of regional lines. Overall, Germany writ large must be viewed as such an example: while German economic growth is healthy, population growth is anemic, and the gradual increase in the modal split for public transportation here must be viewed as more intensive reuse of a historic national rail network, anchored by tens of small city cores.
At the level of a metropolitan area, the best candidates for such a revival are similarly old places; in North America, the best I can think of for this are Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Americans don’t perceive any of the three as especially auto-oriented, but their modal splits are comparable to those of small French cities. But in a way, they show one way forward. If there’s a walkable, transit-oriented core, then it may be attractive for people to live near city center; in those three cities it’s also possible to live farther away and commute by subway, but in smaller ones (say, smaller New England cities), the subway is not available but conversely it’s usually affordable to live within walking distance of the historic city center. This creates a New Left-flavored transit revival in that it begins with the dense city center as a locus of consumption, and only then, as a critical mass of people lives there, as a place that it’s worth building new urban rail to.
Usually, if a city has a lot of recent growth from the era in which it has become taken for granted that mobility is by car, then it should have demand for further growth in the future. This demand can be planned around growth zones with a combination of higher residential density and higher job density near rail corridors. The best time to do transit-oriented development is before auto-oriented development patterns even set in.
There are multiple North American examples of how this works. The best is Vancouver, a metropolitan area that has gone from 560,000 people in the 1951 census to 2.6 million in the 2021 census. Ordinarily, one should expect such a region to be entirely auto-oriented, as most American cities with almost entirely postwar growth are; but in 2016, the last census before corona, it had a 20% work trip modal split, and that was before the Evergreen extension opened.
Vancouver has achieved this by using its strong demand for growth to build a high-rise city center, with office towers in the very center and residential ones ringing it, as well as high-density residential neighborhoods next to the Expo Line stations. The biggest suburbs of Vancouver have followed the same plan: Burnaby built an entirely new city center at Metrotown in conjunction with the Expo Line, and even more auto-oriented Surrey has built up Whalley, at the current outer terminal of the line, as one of its main city centers. Housing growth in the region is rapid; YIMBY advocacy calls for more, but the main focus isn’t on broad development (since this already happens) but on permitting more housing in recalcitrant rich areas, led by the West Side, which will soon have its Broadway extension of the Millennium Line.
Less certain but still interesting examples of the same principle are Calgary, Seattle, and Washington. Calgary, a low-density city, planned its growth around the C-Train, and built a high-rise city center, limiting job sprawl even as residential sprawl is extensive; Seattle and the Virginia-side suburbs of Washington have permitted extensive infill housing and this has helped their urban rail systems achieve high ridership by American standards, Seattle even overtaking Philadelphia’s modal split.
The four quadrants
The above contrast of old and new cities misses cities that have positive features of both – or neither. The cities with both positive features have the easiest time improving their public transportation systems, and many have never been truly auto-oriented, such as New York or Berlin, to the point that they’re not the best examples to use for how a more auto-oriented city can redevelop as a transit city.
In North America, the best example of both is San Francisco, which simultaneously is an old city with a high-density core and a place with immense demand for growth fueled by the tech industry. The third-generation tech firms – those founded from the mid-2000s onward (Facebook is in a way the last second-generation firm, which generation began with Apple and Microsoft) – have generally headquartered in the city and not in Silicon Valley. Twitter, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Dropbox, and Slack are all in the city, and the traditional central business district has expanded to South of Market to accommodate. This is really a combination of the consumption-oriented old-city model, as growing numbers of employees of older second-generation firms chose to live in the city and reverse-commute to Silicon Valley, and the growth-oriented new-city model. Not for nothing, the narrower metropolitan statistical area of San Francisco (without Silicon Valley) reached a modal split of 17% just before corona, the second highest in the United States, with healthy projections for growth.
But then there is the other quadrant, comprising cities that have neither the positive features of old cities nor those of new cities. To be in this quadrant, a city must not be so old as to have a large historic core or an extensive legacy rail network that can be revived, but also be too poor and stagnant to generate new growth demand. Such a city therefore must have grown in a fairly narrow period of time in the early- to mid-20th century. The best example I can think of is Detroit. The consumption-centric model of old city growth can work even there, but it can’t scale well, since there’s not enough of a core compared with the current extent of the population to build out of.
Berlin Greens Know the Price of Everything and Value of Nothing
While trying to hunt down some numbers on the costs of the three new U5 stations, I found media discourse in Berlin about the U-Bahn expansion plan that was, in effect, greenwashing austerity. This is related to the general hostility of German urbanists and much of the Green Party (including the Berlin branch) to infrastructure at any scale larger than that of a bike lane. But the specific mechanism they use – trying to estimate the carbon budget – is a generally interesting case of knowing the costs more certainly than the benefits, which leads to austerity. The underlying issue is that mode shift is hard to estimate accurately at the level of the single piece of infrastructure, and therefore benefit-cost analyses that downplay ridership as a benefit and only look at mode shift lead to underbuilding of public transport infrastructure.
The current program in Berlin
In the last generation, Berlin has barely expanded its rapid transit network. The priority in the 1990s was to restore sections that had been cut by the Berlin Wall, such as the Ringbahn, which was finally restored with circular service in 2006. U-Bahn expansion, not including restoration of pre-Wall services, included two extensions of U8, one north to Wittenau that had begun in the 1980s and a one-stop southward extension of U8 to Hermannstrasse, which project had begun in the 1920s but been halted during the Depression. Since then, the only fully new extension have been a one-stop extension of U2 to Pankow, and the six-stop extension of U5 west from Alexanderplatz to Hauptbahnhof.
However, plans for much more expansive construction continue. Berlin was one of the world’s largest and richest cities before the war, and had big plans for further growth, which were not realized due to the war and division; in that sense, I believe it is globally only second to New York in the size of its historic unrealized expansion program. The city will never regain its relative wealth or size, not in a world of multiple hypercities, but it is growing, and as a result, it’s dusting off some of these plans.
Most of the lines depicted in red on the map are not at all on the city’s list of projects to be built by the 2030s. Unfortunately, the most important line measured by projected cost per rider, the two-stop extension of U8 north (due east) to Märkisches Viertel, is constantly deprioritized. The likeliest lines to be built per current politicking are the extensions of U7 in both directions, southeast ti the airport (beyond the edge of the map) and west from Spandau to Staaken, and the one-stop extension of U3 southwest to Mexikoplatz to connect with the S-Bahn. An extension to the former grounds of Tegel is also considered, most likely a U6 branch depicted as a lower-priority dashed yellow line on the map rather than the U5 extension the map depicts in red.
The carbon critique
Two days after the U5 extension opened two years ago, a report dropped that accused the proposed program of climate catastrophe. The argument: the embedded concrete emissions of subway construction are high, and the payback time on those from mode shift is more than 100 years.
The numbers in the study are, as follows: each kilometer of construction emits 98,800 tons of CO2, which is 0.5% of city emissions (that is, 5.38 t/person, cf. the German average of about 9.15 in 2021). It’s expected that through mode shift, each subway kilometer saves 714 t-CO2 in annual emissions through mode shift, which is assumed to be 20% of ridership, for a payback time of 139 years.
And this argument is, frankly, garbage. The scale of the difference in emissions between cities with and without extensive subway systems is too large for this to be possibly true. The U-Bahn is 155 km long; if the 714 t/km number holds, then in a no U-Bahn counterfactual, Berlin’s annual greenhouse gas emissions grow by 0.56%, which is just ridiculous. We know what cities with no or minimal rapid transit systems look like, and they’re not 0.56% worse than comparanda with extensive rapid transit – compare any American city to New York, for one. Or look again at the comparison of Berlin to the German average: Berlin has 327 cars per 1,000 people, whereas Germany-wide it’s 580 and that’s with extensive rapid transit systems in most major cities bringing down the average from the subway-free counterfactual of the US or even Poland.
The actual long-term effect of additional public transport ridership on mode shift and demotorization has to be much more than 20%, then. It may well be more than 100%: the population density that the transit city supports also increases the walking commute modal split as some people move near work, and even drivers drive shorter distances due to the higher density. This, again, is not hard to see at the level of sanity checks: Europeans drive considerably less than Americans not just per capita but also per car, and in the United States, people in New York State drive somewhat shorter distance per car than Americans elsewhere (I can’t find city data).
The measurement problem
It’s easy to measure the embedded concrete of infrastructure construction: there are standardized itemized numbers for each element and those can be added up. It’s much harder to measure the carbon savings from the existence of a better urban rail system. Ridership can be estimated fairly accurately, but long-term mode shift can’t. This is where rules of thumb like 20% can look truthy, even if they fail any sanity check.
But it’s not correct to take any difficult to estimate number and set it to zero. In fact, there are visible mode shift effects from a large mass transit system. The difficulty is with attributing specific shifts to specific capital investments. Much of the effect of mode shift comes from the ability of an urban rail system to contribute to the rise of a strong city center, which can be high-rise (as in New York), mid-rise (as in Munich or Paris), or a mix (as in Berlin). Once the city center anchored by the system exists, jobs are less likely to suburbanize to auto-oriented office parks, and people are likelier to work in city center and take the train. Social events will likewise tend to pick central locations to be convenient for everyone, and denser neighborhoods make it easier to walk or bike to such events, and this way, car-free travel is possible even for non-work trips.
This, again, can be readily verified by looking at car ownership rates, modal splits (for example, here is Berlin’s), transit-oriented development, and so on, but it’s difficult to causally attribute it to a specific piece of infrastructure. Nonetheless, ignoring this effect is irresponsible: it means the carbon benefit-cost analysis, and perhaps the economic case as well, knows the cost of everything and the value of little, which makes investment look worse than it is.
I suspect that this is what’s behind the low willingness to invest in urban rail here. The benefit-cost analyses can leave too much value on the table, contributing to public transport austerity. When writing the Sweden report, I was stricken by how the benefit-cost analyses for both Citybanan and Nya Tunnelbanan were negative, when the ridership projections were good relative to costs. Actual ridership growth on the Stockholm commuter trains from before the opening of Citybanan to 2019 was enough to bring cot per new daily trip down to about $29,000 in 2021 PPP dollars, and Nya Tunnelbanan’s daily ridership projection of 170,000 means around $23,000/rider. The original construction of the T-bana cost $2,700/rider in 2021 dollars, in a Sweden that was only about 40% as rich as it is today, and has a retrospective benefit-cost ratio of between 6 and 8.5, depending on whether broader agglomeration benefit are included – and these benefits are economic (for example, time savings, or economic productivity from agglomeration) scale linearly with income.
At least Sweden did agree to build both lines, recognizing the benefit-cost analysis missed some benefits. Berlin instead remains in austerity mode. The lines under discussion right now are projected between 13,160€ and 27,200€ per weekday trip (and Märkisches Viertel is, again, the cheapest). The higher end, represented by the U6 branch to Tegel, is close to the frontier of what a country as rich as Germany should build; M18 in Paris is projected to be more than this, but area public transport advocates dislike it and treat it as a giveaway to rich suburbs. And yet, the U6 branch looks unlikely to be built right now. When the cost per rider of what is left is this low, what this means is that the city needs to build more infrastructure, or else it’s leaving value on the table.
S-Bahn Frequency and Job Centralization
Commuter rail systems with high bidirectional frequency succeed in monocentric cities. This can look weird from the perspective of rail advocacy: American rail advocates who call for better off- and reverse-peak frequency argue that it is necessary for reverse-commuters. The present-day American commuter rail model, which centers suburban commuters who work in city center between 9 am and 5 pm, doesn’t work for other workers and for non-work trips, and so advocates for modernization bring up these other trips. And yet, the best examples of modern commuter rail networks with high frequency are in cities with much job centralization within the inner areas and relatively little suburbanization of jobs. What gives?
The ultimate issue here is that S-Bahn-style operations are not exactly about the suburbs or about reverse-commutes. They’re about the following kinds of trips, in roughly descending order of importance:
- Urban commuter trips to city center
- Commuter trips to a near-center destination, which may not be right at the one train station of traditional operations
- Urban non-work trips, of the same kind as subway ridership
- Middle-class suburban commutes to city center at traditional midcentury work hours, the only market the American commuter rail model serves today
- Working-class reverse-commutes, not to any visible office site (which would tilt middle-class) but to diffuse retail, care, and service work
- Suburban work and non-work trips to city center that are not at traditional midcentury hours
- Middle-class reverse-commutes and cross-city commutes
The best example of a frequent S-Bahn in a monocentric city is Munich. The suburbs of Munich have a strong anti-city political identity, rooted in the pattern in which the suburbs vote CSU and the city votes SPD and Green and, increasingly, in white flight from the diverse city. But the jobs are in the city, so the suburbanites ride the commuter trains there, just as their counterparts in American cities like New York do. The difference is that the same trains are also useful for urban trips.
I don’t know the ridership by segment in Munich, but I do know it in Berlin, as of 2016 (source, p. 6):
Between Ostkreuz and Hauptbahnhof, just west of the meeting point with the North-South Tunnel, the east-west Stadtbahn has 160,000 daily riders. The proper suburbs are mostly less than 10,000 each, and even the more suburban neighborhoods of the city, like Wannsee, don’t contribute much. Overall, the majority of S-Bahn traffic is urban, consisting of trips taken either within the Ring or in the more urban outside-the-Ring areas, like Pankow, Steglitz, and especially Lichtenberg.
The high-frequency model of the S-Bahn works not because there is a mass of people who work in these outer areas. I don’t know the proportion of jobs in the Berlin region that are within the Ring, but I doubt it’s low. For reference, about 35% of Ile-de-France jobs are in a 100 km^2 blob (about the same area enclosed by the Ring) consisting of Paris, La Défense, and the suburbs in between. New York likewise has about 35% of metro area jobs in a 100 km^2 blob chosen to include Manhattan and the major non-Manhattan job centers like Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City, and the Jersey City waterfront. I imagine Berlin should be the same or even somewhat higher (this proportion is inversely correlated with city population all else being equal) – Berlin is polycentric but all of its centers are on or within the Ring.
Rather, the reason the high-frequency model works is that there is a lot more ridership in urban areas than in low-density suburbs generating strictly unidirectional trips. The main users of the S-Bahn are city residents, or maybe residents of dense inner suburbs in regions with unusually tightly drawn city limits like Paris. If the highest demand is by people whose trip is 20 minutes and not 90 minutes, then the trains must run very frequently, or else they won’t ride. And if the highest demand is by people who are traveling all over the urban core, even if they travel to the central business district more than to other inner neighborhoods, then the trains must have good connections to the subway and buses and many urban stops.
In this schema, the suburbs still get good service because the S-Bahn model, unlike the traditional metro model (but like the newer but more expensive suburban metro), is designed to be fast enough that suburb-to-city trips are still viable. This way, middle-class suburbanites benefit from service whose core constituency is urban, and can enjoy relatively fast, frequent trips to the city and other suburbs all day.
I emphasize middle-class because lower-income jobs are noticeably less centralized. I don’t have any European data on this, but I do have American data. In New York, as of 2015, 57% of $40,000-a-year-and-up workers worked in Manhattan south of 60th Street, but only 37% of under-$40,000-a-year workers did. Moreover, income is probably a better way of conceptualizing this than the sociological concept of class – the better-off blue-collar workers tend to be centralized at industrial sites or they’re owner-operators with their own vans and tools and in either case they have very low mass transit ridership. The sort of non-middle-class workers who high-frequency suburban transit appeals to are more often pink-collar workers cleaning the houses of the middle class, or sometimes blue-collar workers with unpredictable work assignments, who might need cross-city transit.
In contrast, the sort of middle-class ridership that is sociologically the same as the remnants of the midcentury 9-to-5 suburban commuters but reverse-commutes to the suburbs is small. American commuter rail does take it into account: Metro-North has some reverse-peak trains for city-to-White Plains and city-to-Stamford commuters, and Caltrain runs symmetric peak service for the benefit of city-to-Silicon Valley commuters. And yet, even on Caltrain ridership is much more traditional- than reverse-peak; on Metro-North, the traditional peak remains dominant. There just isn’t enough transit-serviceable ridership in a place like Stamford the way it looks today.
So the upshot of commuter rail modernization is that it completely decenters the suburban middle class with its midcentury aspirations of living apart from the city. It does serve this class, because the S-Bahn model is good at serving many kinds of trips at once. But the primary users are urban and inner-suburban. I would even venture and presume that if, on the LIRR, the only options were business-as-usual and ceasing all service to Long Island while providing modern S-Bahn service within city limits, Long Island should be cut off and ridership would increase while operating expenses would plummet. The S-Bahn model does not force such a choice – it can serve the suburbs too, on local trains making some additional city stops at frequencies and fares that are relevant to city residents – but the primacy of city ridership means that the system must be planned from the inside out and not from the outside in.