Transit-oriented development, or TOD, means building more stuff in places with good access to public transportation, typically the immediate vicinity of a train station. This way people have more convenient access to transit and are encouraged to take it because they live or work near the train, or ideally both. In practice, American implementations heavily focus on residential TOD, and secondarily on commercial TOD, the latter focusing more on office than retail. I covered some retail issues here; in this post, I’m going to look at a completely different form of TOD, namely public-sector institutions that government at various levels can choose the location of by fiat. These includes schools, government offices, and cultural institutions like museums. Of these, the most important are schools, since a huge share of the population consists of schoolchildren, who need convenient transportation to class.
This principle here is that the state or the city can site public schools where it wants, whether it’s by diktat or by inducements through funding for school construction. This occurs even in situations with a great deal of autonomy: American suburban schools are autocephalous, but still receive state funding for school construction, and if anything that incentivizes moving to new suburban campuses inaccessible by public transit. Other cultural institutes are usually less autonomous and more strapped for cash, and getting them to move to where it’s easier for people to access them without a car should be easier.
School siting: central cities
Urban schools tend to spread all over the city. There are more schools in denser and younger neighborhoods; there also are more high-end schools (Gymnasiums, etc.) in richer neighborhoods. But overall, there isn’t much clustering. For example, here is what I get when Googling both Gymnasiums in Berlin:
There are many Gymnasiums in rich areas like Wilmersdorf and few in poor areas (the map shows one in Neukölln and none in Gesundbrunnen and Wedding, although a few that aren’t shown at this zoom level do exist). But overall, the school locations are not especially rail-oriented. They’re strewn all over the middle-class parts of the city, even though most students do not live close enough to walk. Only the most specialized of the elite schools is in city center, the French school.
The situation in New York is similar to that of Berlin – the schools in the city are all over. This is despite the fact that there’s extensive school choice at the high school level, so that students typically take the subway and bus network over long distances. New York’s school stratification is not the same as Berlin’s – its Specialized High Schools serve the top 3% of city population, Germany’s Gymnasiums serve maybe 30% – but there, too, schools that explicitly aim to draw from all over the city are located all over the city. Only the most elite of New York’s schools, Stuyvesant, is in the central business district, namely in Lower Manhattan; the second and third most elite, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, are just outside Downtown Brooklyn and in the North Bronx, respectively. A huge fraction of Bronx Science’s student population commutes from feeder neighborhoods like Flushing, Sunset Park, Chinatown, Jackson Heights, and the Upper West Side, and has to wake up early in the morning for an hour-long commute.
If schools are not just for very local neighborhood children, then they should not be isotropic, or even middle-class-isotropic as in Berlin. They should be in areas that are easily accessible by the city’s rapid transit network, on the theory that the time of children, too, is valuable, and replacing an hour-long commute with a half-hour one has noticeable benefits to child welfare and educational outcomes.
Urban school nodes
So to improve transit access to school in transit cities, it’s useful to get schools to move to be closer to key nodes on the rail network. City center may be too expensive – the highest and best use of land around Times Square or Pariser Platz is not a school. But there are other useful nodes.
The first class of good locations is central and near-center areas that don’t have huge business demand. In New York, Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn both qualify – business prefers Midtown. In Berlin, there are a lot of areas in Mitte that don’t have the development intensity of Potsdamer Platz, and to some extent the French school picked such an area, on the margin of Mitte.
The second is key connection points on the rail network that are not in the center. Berlin is rich in such connections thanks to the Ring. To some extent there are a bunch of schools close to Ringbahn stations, but this isn’t perfect, and for example the Europasportspark shown on the map is between two Ringbahn stations, at one of the few arterial roads through the Ring that doesn’t have an S-Bahn station. In New York, there is no ring, so connections are more sporadic; desirable nodes may include Queensborough Plaza, Metropolitan/Lorimer in Williamsburg, and East New York.
East New York supplies an example of the third class: an area that is rich in transit connections but is commercially undesirable because the population is poor. (The Berlin equivalent is Gesundbrunnen – non-German readers would be astounded by the bile Germans I know, even leftists who vote for anti-racist politicians, heap on U8 and on Gesundbrunnen and Neukölln.) Since everyone goes to school, even working-class children, it is valuable to site schools and other cultural amenities in such areas for easy accessibility.
One important caveat is that freeways, which make office and retail more attractive, have the opposite effect on schools. Air pollution makes learning more difficult, and children do not own cars and thus do not benefit from the convenience offered by the car. If rail lines are near freeways, then schools should be set somewhat away, on the principle that the extra 5-minute walk is worth the gain in health from not sitting hours in a polluted environment.
Outside the cities, the place for schools is the same as that for local retail and offices: the town center, with a regional rail station offering frequent access by train and timed connections by bus. Even when the student population is local, as it is in American suburbs, the density is too low for people to walk, forcing some kind of mechanized transportation. For this, the school bus is a poor option – it is capital-intensive, requiring what is in effect a second bus system, one that is as useless for non-students as the regular buses are for students if the school is far away from the local transit network.
Instead, a central school location means that the suburban bus network, oriented around city center, is useful for students. It increases transportation efficiency rather than decreasing it – there is no duplication of service, and the school peaks don’t usually coincide with other travel peaks, like the office worker peak and the retail worker peak. The bus network, designed around a 15- or 30-minute clockface schedule, also means that students can stay in longer, if they have on-campus club activity or if they have things to do in the town center, such as going shopping.
In some distant suburbs the school peak, arriving around 8 in the morning, may be the same as the peak for office workers who take the bus to the train to go to the central city. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – for parents who insist on driving, this makes it easier to drop off children on the way to work. If this turns out to create real congestion on the bus, then the solution is to move school start time later, to 9 or so.
It’s crucial to use state power to effect this change when possible. For example, Massachusetts funds school construction through state funds but not renovation, which has encouraged schools to move to new campuses, generally in harder-to-reach areas. Fitchburg’s high school used to be in city center but recently moved to a suburban location close to nothing. Even in environments with a lot of local autonomy, the state should fund school construction in more central areas.
Normally, the best interstation distance between subway or bus stops does not depend on population density. To resurrect past models, higher overall density means that there are more people near a potential transit stop, but also that there are more people on the train going through it, so overall it doesn’t influence the decision of whether the stop should be included or deleted. Relative density matters, i.e. there should be more stops in areas that along a line have higher density, for example city centers with high commercial density, but absolute density does not. However, there is one exception to the rule that absolute density does not matter, coming from line spacing and transfer placement. This can potentially help explain why Paris has such tight stop spacing on the Métro and why New York has such tight stop spacing on the local subway lines.
Stop spacing and line spacing
The spacing between transit stops interacts with that between transit lines. The reason is that public transportation works as a combined network, which requires every intersection between two lines to have a transfer. This isn’t always achieved in practice, though Paris has just one missed connection on the Métro (not the RER), M5/M14 near Bastille; New York has dozens, possibly as many as all other cities combined, but the lines built before 1930 only have one or two, the 3/L in East New York and maybe the 1/4-5 around South Ferry.
The upshot is that the optimal stop spacing depends on the line spacing. If the line spacing is tight – say this is Midtown Manhattan and there is a subway line underneath Lex/Park, Broadway, 6th, 7th, and 8th – then crossing lines have to have tight stop spacing in order to connect to all of these parallel lines. In the other direction, there were important streetcars on so many important cross-streets that it was desirable to intersect most or ideally all of them with transfers. With so many streetcar lines extending well past Midtown, it is not too surprising that there had to be frequent subway stops.
So why would denser cities have tighter line spacing?
Line spacing and density
The intuitive relationship between line spacing and density is that denser cities need more capacity, which requires them to build more rail lines.
To see this a bit more formally, think of an idealized city on a grid. Let’s say blocks are 100*100 meters, and the planners can figure out the target density in advance when designing the subway network. If the city is very compact, then the subway could even be a grid, at least locally. But now if we expect a low-density city, say 16 houses per block, then the subway grid spacing should be wide, since there isn’t going to be much traffic justifying many lines. As the city densifies, more subway is justifiable: go up to missing middle, which is around 30-40 apartments per block; then to the Old North of Tel Aviv, which would be around 80; then to a mid-rise euroblock, which is maybe 30-40 per floor and 150-200 per block; then finally a high-rise with maybe 500-1,000 apartments.
Each time we go up the density scale, we justify more subway. This isn’t linear – an area that fills 500 apartments per block, which is maybe 100,000 people per km^2, does not get 20 times the investment of an area on the dense side of single-family with 16 houses per block and 5,000 people per km^2. Higher density justifies intensification of service, with bigger and more frequent trains, as well as more crowding. With more subway lines, there are more opportunities for lines to intersect, leading to more frequent stop spacing.
Even if the first subway lines are not planned with big systems in mind, which New York’s wasn’t, the idea of connections to streetcar lines was historically important. A stop every 10 blocks, or 800 meters, was not considered on the local lines in New York early on; however, stops could be every 5 blocks or every 7, depending on the spacing of the major crosstown streets.
Dense blobs and linear density
Line spacing is important to stop spacing not on parallel lines, but crossing lines. If a bunch of lines go north-south close to one another, this by itself says little about the optimal spacing on north-south lines, but enforces tight spacing on east-west lines.
This means that high density encourages tight stop spacing when it is continuous in a two-dimensional area and not just a line. If large tracts of the city are very dense, then this provides justification for building a grid of subway, since the crosstown direction is likely to fill as well; in New York, 125th Street is a good candidate for continuing Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 as a crosstown line for this reason.
In contrast, if dense development follows a linear corridor, then there isn’t much justification for intense crosstown service. If there’s just one radial line, then the issue of line spacing is moot. Even if there are two closely parallel radial lines in the same area, a relatively linear development pattern means there’s no need for crosstown subways, since the two lines are within walking distance of each other. The radial urban and suburban rail networks of Tokyo and Seoul do not have narrow interstations, nor do they have much crosstown suburb-to-suburb service: density is high but follows linear corridors along rapid transit. Dense development in a finger plan does not justify much crosstown service, because there are big low-density gaps, and suburb-to-suburb traffic is usually served efficiently by trips on radial lines with a transfer in city center.
I’m sometimes asked about the private sector’s role in infrastructure. I’ll cover this more broadly in the future, but for now, let me pour some cold water on the idea that a private actor could build an urban rail system for profit. This is a political and not technical problem: it is possible to build a few (but not many) urban rail lines that, at good but not unheard of construction and operating costs, would generate decent financial returns. However, such lines are extremely vulnerable to confiscation of profits by government at all levels, especially the local level. Moreover, it is not possible for a local government to give any credible guarantee of security of property for a private rail line.
Lines and extensions
There is a great many rail lines in the world where new construction can be profitable. For example, Tokyo subway lines turn a profit, and the government is not building more because it demands a minimum of 3% rate of financial return – and Tokyo has high construction costs. Seoul has low costs, and it’s plausible that if Tokyo could build subways at the cost of Seoul, it would go over the 3% threshold. London is roughly breaking even on the Underground, and I think Berlin is on the U-Bahn, so some of the stronger extensions might be profitable too.
However, in such cases, the profitable additions are mostly extensions of existing lines. These can be profitable, but not to a private operator, only to the agency that controls the existing line. Even new lines often come as part of a broader system designed around transfers; for example, a short line under consideration in Tokyo is designed to connect existing rail lines in Central Tokyo with the growing waterfront area. Usually, these lines work best with free transfers, so an independent operator can’t easily build them – it’s possible Tokyo will build the line as an independent one with extra fares for transfers rather than as a Toei subway, but if so this will be unusual by global standards.
That said, there do exist places where an independent actor could build an entirely new line and not have to worry too much about connections. The example I keep going back to is Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, where a line could connect Downtown San Francisco, say around Transbay Terminal (or even Union Square to save money and avoid tunneling under Market Street), with the Outer Richmond. The bus along this route has 57,000 riders per weekday, and the total including closely parallel routes is 110,000. Bus connections are useful, but a subway on Geary could succeed without them. The same is true of connections to the BART and Muni subways at Market Street – free transfers would be really useful, but the San Francisco central business district is strong enough that a private investor might well take the hit on ridership to avoid being too entangled with public governance.
A few more plausible independent lines include the Downtown Relief Line planned for Toronto, an east-west line between Queens and New Jersey via Midtown Manhattan, and and maybe even the dormant U10 for Berlin; U10 is unlikely to work at all without fare integration, but fortunately the Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg provides a local mechanism for revenue sharing without getting too entangled in public governance, though even then I don’t think the returns would be high enough to interest a private investor.
Some technically plausible returns
Let’s focus on Geary in San Francisco. Total ridership on or parallel to the route is 110,000 per weekday, but that’s on slow buses. A rapid transit line would get much more than that – 250,000 is plausible on a very frequent driverless train averaging 35 km/h end-to-end. High frequency would also encourage off-peak ridership, but let’s keep the annual-to-weekday ridership ratio at 300, typical of New York, and not the higher figures seen in London, since passengers would have to pay a separate fare to connect to non-CBD destinations. So this is 75 million riders a year.
What’s the plausible average fare? The Richmond is a middle-class neighborhood, but even there, fares significantly above the current Muni rate are likely to discourage ridership. Muni currently charges $2.50 one-way or $81 for a monthly ($98 with BART, but we’re assuming no free transfers). Assuming New York behavior again, a pass holder averages 46 trips a month; averaging with occasional riders, let’s say this is $2/trip, or $150 million a year.
Against this, what’s the operating cost? If 75 million trips a year average 5 km (half the route length), and there are 30 passengers per car (the New York subway average, and 20% more than the commuter-oriented BART average), this is 12.5 million car-km per year. This is equivalent to 19 5-car trains per hour in each direction 18 hours a day every day. The non-New York first-world range of operating costs is $4-7.5 per car-km as of 2014, but none of the systems studied in the report is all or even mostly driverless, and entirely driverless operations as in Vancouver would reduce costs to the low end of this range. So make it around $50 million a year in operating costs, plus maybe $8 million in depreciation on rolling stock – and let’s even bump it up a bit to $70 million because the maintenance workers are local, even if everything else can be offshored, and San Francisco wages are high. So, $80 million in operating profits per year.
Finally, the construction costs. This is a 10 km line, so at the global median of construction costs this is $2.5 billion. But Scandinavia, Southern Europe, and Korea are all capable of substantially below-median construction – and Nordic working-class wages aren’t necessarily lower than Californian ones. $1.5 billion is plausible, and even $1 billion is ambitious but not outside the realm of possibility if the line only runs to Union Square, not Transbay Terminal.
Profiting $80 million a year on $1.5 billion in investment is thus plausible, giving somewhat better returns than 5%. There’s risk inherent in the figure – costs may escalate, ridership may disappoint, operating costs may be higher than expected. All three happened almost from the dawn of rail technology – they all were rampant in the Railway Mania. The good news is that there is also some upside – office growth in the center of San Francisco could generate more demand, and mass upzoning in the Richmond could happen and was recently a near-miss in the state legislature.
Nonetheless, 5% returns at this level of risk, given decent confidence in one’s cost control, are still reasonable. However…
The government will confiscate profits
Unfortunately for any prospective private investor, the city and state governments have a large toolkit with which to confiscate all profits:
- Impact fees – such a subway would have positive impact on the neighborhood, but the city can still find grounds to levy fees.
- Nuisance suits – groups can invent grounds to sue on and demand bribes (“community benefits”) in exchange for dropping the suit.
- Construction regulations demanding more expensive methods that are (or seem) less disruptive, e.g. a ban on the use of cut-and-cover even for stations.
- Requirements that all workers be unionized and that nothing be outsourced, even things that can be done remotely like the control center.
- Rules calling all new housing construction along the line a benefit to the company, for which the company has to pay a fee.
- Unfunded mandates for fare discounts for seniors, children, the poor, and other groups; the city can pay these discounts out of its own budget, but why not claw into the profits of a private rail operator?
- Hearings at the inevitable objections (someone is always unhappy) in which legislators demand personal favors (“community benefits,” again) in exchange for a yes vote.
The operating requirements, like the unfunded discount mandate, can always be imposed in the future in case the operator profits more than expected. This means that there is not much upside – if profits are higher, there will be more confiscation. The effective profit rate net of the cost of compliance with regulations approaches zero. It may well be negative – the city has every interest in driving a private operator that just spent $1.5 billion of its own money on a subway into liquidation, buy out the infrastructure, and operate service itself.
This in fact happened in New York in the 1920s and 30s. Starting under Mayor John Hylan, the city used regulatory denials to deliberately drive the private streetcar companies out of business. Simultaneously, through the construction of the IND to compete with the private IRT and BMT subways and through denial of a fare hike from 5 cents a ride to 10 cents even after post-WW1 inflation halved the value of the dollar, the city did the same to the private subway operators; the IRT went bankrupt in the Depression, and in 1940 the city bought it and the BMT out.
Obedience, emigration, or the graveyard
The state, or any actor more powerful than you, always offers you this choice. The meaning of obedience is flexible (the political opposition in a democracy is still obedient), and the meaning of the graveyard is usually not literal (“you’ll never work in this town again,” not “you will be killed”). But the choice is still this.
The main way of avoiding the graveyard, emigration, is not available here. Subways are physically fixed infrastructure. If a local government doesn’t like you, you can’t take your capital and move somewhere else. For this reason, owners of tangible property, like small business owners, have had anti-socialist politics going back to the emergence of socialism as a real political force around the Paris Commune, whereas skilled workers didn’t mind socialism as much.
Modifying the meaning of obedience is possible in a place with stronger norms of rule of law. In a capitalist country, earning a profit and paying the normal corporate tax rather than 100% is obedience – the risk is not federal confiscation but state or local confiscation, where the United States never established such norms, relying on the threat of capital flight to lower-tax, lower-regulation states to discipline governments.
I brought up the example of Berlin because I think that here the threat of local confiscation is smaller (but not zero – witness the rent control bill), but even then it’s unlikely to be a 250,000 riders/10 km line – it’s probably a breakeven line or slightly better, ideal for public but not private construction. For the most part, the subway lines that can be profitably built in the EU have already been built; there aren’t huge cities here with unique construction cost problems, except London, where I don’t think there’s an even semi-decent case for any rail line that’s not an extension of existing lines (counting Crossrail as an inward extension of suburban lines).
However, within the US and probably also Canada, even a well-capitalized corporation can’t really modify the meaning of obedience to include profitably constructing urban infrastructure. It can only emigrate, which in this case means knowing not to allocate capital to fixed infrastructure in the first place. Even if apparent returns beat the market, which I don’t think they do, the real returns will be zero so long as state and local governments remain as they are.
MTA Chair Pat Foye and Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, have announced that the subway will close overnight in order to improve subway cleaning. For the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, the subway will close between 1 and 5 every night for disinfection. Ben Kabak has covered this to some extent; I’m going to focus on best industry practices, which do not require a shutdown. There are some good practices in Taipei, which has regular nighttime shutdowns but sterilizes trains during the daytime as well. It appears that the real rub is not cleaning but homelessness – the city and the state are both trying to get homeless people off the subway and onto the street.
How to disinfect a subway system
Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism shared with me what the Taipei MRT plans on doing in response to the virus, depending on how much it affects the system. As soon as there are any domestic cases within Taiwan, the plan says,
a. Sterilize equipment in each station that passengers might frequently come into contact with. (Sterilize once every 8 hours)
b. Carriages: Cleaning and sterilization before the daily operational departure and again when the carriage returns back to the terminal each day.
c. Place hand sanitizer devices at the information counter of the station for public use.
Moreover, if an emergency is declared, then the frequency of cleaning is to increase:
a. Station :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come into contact with at each station. (Sterilize once every 4 hours)
2. Daily disinfection of public station facilities: After operational hours the whole station, including passenger traffic flow areas and facilities, will be disinfected.
b. Carriage :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come in contact with. Sterilize once every 8 hours when the carriage returns to the terminal station.
2. Daily wipe down of entire carriages with disinfectant before each day’s first departure.
3. Once notified by the health authority about any confirmed or suspected case that have traveled on the MRT, intensify the cleaning and disinfection along the route taken by the passenger within 2 hours.
Moreover, the Taipei plan calls for providing all frontline workers with protective equipment, including masks, goggles, and hand sanitizer, as soon as any domestic case of the virus is detected. Moreover, all staff are subject to temperature checks at the start of the day, to prevent sick workers from infecting healthy ones. This way, infection levels among workers can be kept to a minimum, allowing service to proceed without interruption.
It is noteworthy that the frequent cleaning regimen operates during the daytime, and not just overnight. Sterilizing trains every 8 hours means working around their service schedules, disinfecting them during off-peak periods with lower frequency. Taipei has not cut weekday service frequency, only weekend frequency, and the weekday peak-to-base ratio is low, about 1.5 on the Green Line.
With these measures in place, and similar vigilance across Taiwanese society, the country has gone 6 days without any new case of the virus. There is no lockdown and never was one, and Taipei MRT ridership only fell 15-16% on weekdays.
What New York is doing
Foye and Feinberg announced that the subway would close overnight between 1 and 5 am so that trains could be disinfected once per day. Is daily disinfection sufficient? Almost certainly not, given the spread of the virus around the city. Does it take four hours? Of course not, cleaning can be done in minutes. And must it be done at night? Again no, New York has cut so much service that there’s a large fleet of spare trains, making rotating equipment between service and cleaning easy. It’s likely that it is possible to sterilize trains every roundtrip while they wait at the terminal.
The goal here is not about cleanliness. The subway is dirty and getting worse as cleaning staff get sick and can’t come to work, but a program designed to improve the system would look profoundly different. It would equip subway workers with protective gear, especially the cleaners; it would keep running service; it would look for ways to eliminate fomites like the push turnstiles; it would disinfect trains and stations at short intervals.
The homelessness issue
There are serious concerns with homelessness in New York, as in many other cities. This is aided by sensationalist reporting that blames homeless people for any number of problems, playing to middle-class prejudices about visible poverty. As Ben notes, NYPD swept the subway with cops but not social workers. Hotels are empty all over the city, but there is no attempt at using them for either centralized quarantine or extra shelter space. There are existing shelters, but they are unsafe and people who have been unsheltered for a while know this and avoid them for a reason.
New York is a big, expensive, high-inequality city. It has visible poverty, including homelessness. It could offer homeless people housing – empty hotels would do, employing hotel workers to do work that is already done at shelters by overtaxed volunteers. The problem is that many aggrieved people want medieval displays of police power against people who it is okay to be violent toward; they do not want to solve problems. This issue is not unique to New York: in San Francisco, sanisette installations ran into the problem that one stall had people defecating on the floor, leading the city to decide to staff every sanisette 24/7, turning what was designed as a self-cleaning system for high-cost cities for €14,400 a year per unit into a $700,000/year money sink. American cities spend millions in enforcement to avoid spending pennies on social work.
Who is being empowered?
The broader question is whether the subway is dirty because of homeless people or because of inadequate cleaning, poor training for cleaners, lack of protective equipment, etc. The vast majority of dirt one sees on trains has pretty obvious origins in ordinary if antisocial riders: spilled drinks, gum stuck to the floor, overflowing trash cans, wrappers thrown on the tracks. However, it is convenient to blame homeless people for this – they can’t politically fight back, and many law-and-order voters and political operatives relish the sight of a cop dragging someone off the train.
This leads to the question, who is being empowered by blame? Any explanation of why things don’t work empowers someone, and explanations are easier to accept if they empower local political forces that the mainstream pays attention to. For example, if I say costs are high because of union pensions, then this automatically empowers the Manhattan Institute and other anti-union forces in the city; and if I say costs are high because managers micromanage and humiliate workers too much, then this empowers the unions.
The upshot is that blaming flagging subway ridership on homeless people making riders uncomfortable empowers law-and-order voters and middle-class people who dislike seeing visible poverty, both of which are groups that even relatively liberal political operatives pay attention to. In contrast, blaming flagging ridership on technical issues with speed and frequency empowers technocrats, who are usually politically invisible, and when they’re not, this can lead to a clash of authority, as seen in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sidelining of Byford, leading to the latter’s resignation.
This cascades to cleaning. Taipei shows how one can clean trains and stations during service. New York should learn, but that means listening to people who are familiar with Taiwanese practices, and maybe synthesize with other clean Asian systems. Shutdowns that force essential workers onto slow buses and taxis are a terrible policy, but they’re a policy the current leadership does not need to talk to people in a foreign country to implement.
I want to follow up on what I wrote about speed zones a week ago. The starting point is that I have a version 0 map on Google Earth, which is far from the best CAD system out there, one that realizes the following timetable:
This is inclusive of schedule contingency, set at 7% on segments with heavy track sharing with regional rail, like New York-New Haven, and 4% on segment with little to no track haring, like New Haven-Providence. The purpose of this post is to go over some delicate future-proofing that this may entail, especially given that the cost of doing so is much lower than the agency officials and thinktank planners who make glossy proposals think it should.
What does this entail?
The infrastructure required for this line to be operational is obtrusive, but for the most part not particularly complex. I talked years ago about the I-95 route between New Haven and southern Rhode Island, the longest stretch of new track, 120 km long. It has some challenging river crossings, especially that of the Quinnipiac in New Haven, but a freeway bridge along the same alignment opened in 2015 at a cost of $500 million, and that’s a 10-lane bridge 55 meters wide, not a 2-track rail bridge 10 meters wide. Without any tunnels on the route, New Haven-Kingston should cost no more than about $3-3.5 billion in 2020 terms.
Elsewhere, there are small curve easements, even on generally straight portions like in New Jersey and South County, Rhode Island, both of which have curves that if you zoom in close enough and play with the Google Earth circle tool you’ll see are much tighter than 4 km in radius. For the most part this just means building the required structure, and then connecting the tracks to the new rather than old curve in a night’s heavy work; more complex movements of track have been done in Japan on commuter railroads, in a more constrained environment.
There’s a fair amount of taking required. The most difficult segment is New Rochelle-New Haven, with the most takings in Darien and the only tunneling in Bridgeport; the only other new tunnel required is in Baltimore, where it should follow the old Great Circle Tunnel proposal’s scope, not the four-track double-stack mechanically ventilated bundle the project turned into. The Baltimore tunnel was estimated at $750 million in 2008, maybe $1 billion today, and that’s high for a tunnel without stations – it’s almost as high per kilometer as Second Avenue Subway without stations. Bridgeport requires about 4 km of tunnel with a short water crossing, so figure $1-1.5 billion today even taking the underwater penalty and the insane unit costs of the New York region as a given.
A few other smaller deviations from the mainline are worth doing at-grade or elevated: a cutoff in Maryland near the Delaware border in the middle of what could be prime 360 km/h territory, a cutoff in Port Chester and Greenwich bypassing the worst curve on the Northeast Corridor outside major cities, the aforementioned takings-heavy segment through Darien continuing along I-95 in Norwalk and Westport, a short bypass of curves around Fairfield Station. These should cost a few hundred million dollars each, though the Darien-Westport bypass, about 15 km long, could go over $1 billion.
Finally, the variable-tension catenary south of New York needs to be replaced with constant-tension catenary. A small portion of the line, between New Brunswick and Trenton, is being so replaced at elevated cost. I don’t know why the cost is so high – constant-tension catenary is standard around the world and costs $1.5-2.5 million per km in countries other than the US, Canada, and the UK. The Northeast Corridor is four-track and my other examples are two-track, but then my other examples also include transformers and not just wires; in New Zealand, the cost of wires alone was around $800,000 per km. Even taking inflation and four tracks into account, this should be maybe $700 million between New York and Washington, working overnight to avoid disturbing daytime traffic.
The overall cost should be around $15 billion, with rolling stock and overheads. Higher costs reflect unnecessary scope, such as extra regional rail capacity in New York, four-tracking the entire Providence Line instead of building strategic overtakes and scheduling trains intelligently, the aforementioned four-track version of the Baltimore tunnel, etc.
The implications of cheap high-speed rail
I wrote about high-speed rail ridership in the context of Metcalfe’s law, making the point that once one line exists, extensions are very high-value as a short construction segment generates longer and more profitable trips. The cost estimate I gave for the Northeast Corridor is $13 billion, the difference with $15 billion being rolling stock, which in that post I bundled into operating costs. With that estimate, the line profits $1.7 billion a year, a 13% financial return. This incentivizes building more lines to take advantage of network effects: New Haven-Springfield, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, Washington-Virginia-North Carolina-Atlanta, New York-Upstate.
The problem: building extensions does require the infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor that I don’t think should be in the initial scope. Boston-Washington is good for around a 16-car train every 15 minutes all day, which is very intense by global standards but can still fit in the existing infrastructure where it is two-track. Even 10-minute service can sometimes fit on two tracks, for example having some high-speed trains stop at Trenton to cannibalize commuter rail traffic – but not always. Boston-Providence every 10 minutes requires extensive four-tracking, at least from Attleboro to beyond Sharon in addition to an overtake from Route 128 to Readville, the latter needed also for 15-minute service.
More fundamentally, once high-speed rail traffic grows beyond about 6 trains per hour, the value of a dedicated path through New York grows. This is not a cheap path – it means another Hudson tunnel, and a connection east to bypass the curves of the Hell Gate Bridge, which means 8 km of tunnel east and northeast of Penn Station and another 2 km above-ground around Randall’s Island, in addition to 5 km from Penn Station west across the river. The upshot is that this connection saves trains 3 minutes, and by freeing trains completely from regional rail traffic with four-tracking in the Bronx, it also permits using the lower 4% schedule pad, saving another 1 minute in the process.
If the United States is willing to spend close to $100 billion high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor – it isn’t, but something like $40-50 billion may actually pass some congressional stimulus – then it should spend $15 billion and then use the other $85 billion for other stuff. This include high-speed tie-ins as detailed above, as well as low-speed regional lines in the Northeast: new Hudson tunnels for regional traffic, the North-South Rail Link, RegionalBahn-grade links around Providence and other secondary cities, completion of electrification everywhere a Northeastern passenger train runs
I hate the term “incremental” when it comes to infrastructure, not because it’s inherently bad, but because do-nothing politicians (e.g. just about every American elected official) use it as an excuse to implement quarter-measures, spending money without having to show anything for it.
So for the purpose of this post, “incremental” means “start with $15 billion to get Boston-Washington down to 3:20 and only later spend the rest.” It doesn’t mean “spend $2 billion on replacing a bridge that doesn’t really need replacement.”
With that in mind, the capacity increases required to get from bare Northeast Corridor high-speed rail to a more expansive system can all be done later. The overtakes on Baltimore-Washington would get filled in to form four continuous tracks all the way, the ones on Boston-Providence would be extended as outlined above, the bypasses on New York-New Haven would get linked to new tracks in the existing right-of-way where needed, the four-track narrows between Newark and Elizabeth would be expanded to six in an already existing right-of-way. Elizabeth Station has four tracks but the only building in the way of expanding it to six is a parking garage that needs to be removed anyway to ease the S-curve to the south of the platforms.
However, one capacity increase is difficult to retrofit: new tracks through New York. The most natural way to organize Penn Station is as a three-line system, with Line 1 carrying the existing Hudson tunnel and the southern East River tunnels, including high-speed traffic; Line 2 using new tunnels and a Grand Central link; and Line 3 using a realigned Empire Connection and the northern East River tunnels. The station is already centered on 32nd Street extending a block each way; existing tunnels going east go under 33rd and 32nd, and all plans for new tunnels continuing east to Grand Central or across the East River go under 31st.
But if it’s a 3-line system and high-speed trains need dedicated tracks, then regional trains don’t get to use the Hell Gate Line. (They don’t today, but the state is spending very large sums of money on changing this.) Given the expansion in regional service from the kind of spending that would justify so much extra intercity rail, a 4-line system may be needed. This is feasible, but not if Penn Station is remodeled for 3 lines; finding new space for a fourth tunnel is problematic to say the least.
The point of integrated timetable planning is to figure out what timetable one want to run in the future and then building the requisite infrastructure. Thus, in the 1990s Switzerland built the tunnels and extra tracks for the connections planned in Bahn 2000, and right now it’s doing the same for the next generation. This can work incrementally, but only if one knows all the phases in advance. If timetable plans radically change, for example because the politicians make big changes overruling the civil service to remind the public that they exist, then this system does not work.
If the United States remains uninterested in high-speed rail, then it’s fine to go ahead with a bare-bones $15 billion system. It’s good, it would generate good profits for Amtrak, it would also help somewhat with regional-intercity rail connectivity. Much of the rest of the system can be grafted on top without big changes.
But then it comes to Penn Station. It’s frustrating, because anything that brings it into focus attracts architects and architecture critics who think function should follow form. But it’s really important to make decisions soon, get to work demolishing the above-ground structures starting when the Madison Square Garden lease runs out, and move the tracks in the now-exposed stations as needed based on the design timetable.
As with everything else, it’s possible not to do it – to do one design and then change to another – but it costs extra, to the tune of multiple billions in unnecessary station reconstruction. If the point is to build high-speed rail cost-effectively, spending the same budget on more infrastructure instead of on a few gold-plated items, then this is not acceptable. Prior planning of how much service is intended is critical if costs are to stay down.
The MTA has weekly data on ridership by train station, which it divides into fare data, i.e. data by what kind of fare it is (single-use, monthly, etc.), and turnstile data, i.e. data by what bank of turnstiles was used to enter the station. MTA chief communications officer Abbey Collins talked to me briefly when I was writing this New York Daily News op-ed, and told me that the turnstile data is less accurate, so I am using the fare data.
Here is the table I’m using, comparing ridership in mid-January and the fourth week of March. It’s not fully sanitized, so some stations appear twice, which reflects multiple major entrances, e.g. the Times Square and the Port Authority sides of a single complex with in-system transfers. The relevant column is column E, labeled ratio. The highest-ratio station is Alabama Avenue on the J/Z, which has kept 53.5% of its January ridership; the next proper subway station, Bay Parkway on the F, is just at 38.6%, and it goes down from there. Overall, the ratio is 14.1%.
The general pattern is that the Manhattan CBD stations got pummeled. Grand Central has kept 7.5% of its pre-crisis ridership, and the Times Square side of the Times Square-Port Authority complex has kept 7.2%. A couple of Midtown and Lower Manhattan stations, like Rockefeller Center, are at the 5% mark. Practically no non-CBD station is this low, but one notable exception is Bedford Avenue on the L, in the center of Williamsburg. A few additional notable areas are in the 8-10% area, including more stations in Williamsburg, stations in Downtown Brooklyn and South Brooklyn, most stations on Central Park West, and Columbia. It’s notable that Columbia is low even though it has a major hospital, but it’s even more of a university.
Despite the stereotype, much of the Upper West and East Sides are not in the single digits. The key express stations, like 86th on the 4/5/6 and 72nd and 96th on the 1/2/3, are around 13-14%. Harlem is much higher, especially the busiest Harlem stations, 125th Street on the A/B/C/D and on the 4/5/6, both express stops, which have maintained 19.5% and 27.2% of ridership, respectively. 168th Street on the 1/A/C in Washington Heights is at 23.8%.
In general, working-class and lower middle-class stations seem to have maintained the most ridership. Jamaica Center, a key bus connection point to much of Eastern Queens, is by far the busiest among the >30% stations, at 35.3%. Utica Avenue on the 3/4 in Crown Heights is at 28.7%, and 149th Street on the 4/5/6 in the South Bronx is at 29.2%. Bedford-Stuyvesant is all over the map – Nostrand Avenue on the A/C is at 17.5%, Utica Avenue on the A/C is at 21.7%, the two Flushing Avenue stations are at about 27%, the Broadway stations on the J/Z past Flushing are in the teens.
I give those descriptive statistics because it relates to the question of subway ridership and the Covid-19 crisis. The crisis has hit outer neighborhoods harder than inner ones and working-class neighborhoods harder than middle-class ones, but beyond that pattern there is not much correlation at the level of detail. Bed-Stuy and Central Harlem have low infection rates and have maintained much more of their subway ridership than the city average.
The patterns probably concern essential workers. There are essential workers in all social classes, but more in the working class – cleaners, transit workers, sanitation workers, nursing assistants. The middle class supplies doctors and registered nurses, but there are fewer of these on the list of essential workers than lower-income, lower-education workers. Thus, middle-class neighborhoods, like the Upper East and West Sides, Astoria, Williamsburg, Sunnyside, Forest Hills, and Bay Ridge have below-average ratios, that is they’ve kept less of their ridership than the rest of the city.
One final pattern, or rather non-pattern, is that I can’t really see the hospitals on the table. The stations on the 2/5 closest to the Kings County Hospital, Winthrop Street and Church Avenue, are at 22.4% and 22.8% respectively, not too different from the rest of the Nostrand Avenue Line. The two Flushing Avenue stations have similar ratios, even though one is on top of Woodnull Medical Center and the other isn’t. 96th and 103rd Streets on the 6, the closest to Mount Sinai, have similar ratios to 110th and 116th farther up in East Harlem.
I refined my train performance calculator to automatically compute trip times from speed zones. Open it in Python 3 IDLE and play with the functions for speed zones – so far it can’t input stations, only speed zones on running track, with stations assumed at the beginning and end of the line.
I’ve applied this to a Northeast Corridor alignment between New York and Boston. The technical trip times based on the code and the alignment I drew are 0:36:21 New York-New Haven, 0:34:17 New Haven-Providence, 0:20:40 Providence-Boston; with 1-minute dwell times, this is 1:33 New York-Boston, rising to maybe 1:40 with schedule contingency. This is noticeably longer than I got in previous attempts to draw alignments, where I had around 1:28 without pad or 1:35 with; the difference is mainly in New York State, where I am less aggressive about rebuilding entire curves than I was before.
I’m not uploading this alignment yet because I want to fiddle with some 10 meter-scale questions. The most difficult part of this is between New Rochelle and New Haven. Demolitions of high-price residential properties are unavoidable, especially in Darien, where there is no alternative to carving a new right-of-way through Noroton Heights.
The importance of speeding up the slowest segments
The above trip times are computed based on the assumption that trains depart Penn Station at 60 km/h as they go through the interlocking, and then speed up to 160 km/h across the East River, using the aerodynamic noses designed for 360 km/h to achieve medium speed through tunnels with very little free air. This require redoing the switches at the interlocking; this is fine, switches in the United States are literally 19th-century technology, and upgrading them to Germany’s 1925 technology would create extra speed on the slowest segment.
Another important place to speed up is Shell Interlocking. The current version of the alignment shaves it completely, demolishing some low-rise commercial property in the process, to allow for 220 km/h speeds through the city. Grade separation is obligatory – the interlocking today is at-grade, which imposes unreasonable dependency between northbound and southbound schedules on a busy commuter railroad (about 20 Metro-North trains per hour in the peak direction).
In general, bypasses west of New Haven prioritize the slowest segments of the Northeast Corridor: the curves around the New York/Connecticut state line, Darien, Bridgeport. East of New Haven the entire line should be bypassed until Kingston, even the somewhat less curvy segment between East Haven and Old Saybrook, just because it’s a relatively easy segment where the railroad can mostly twin with I-95 and not have any complex viaducts.
The maximum speed is set at 360 km/h, but even though trains can cruise at such speed on two segments totaling 130 km, the difference in trip time with 300 km/h is only about 3 minutes. Similarly, in southwestern Connecticut, the maximum speed on parts of the line, mostly bypasses, is 250 km/h, and if trains could run at 280 km/h on those segments, which isn’t even always possible given curvature, it would save just 1 minute. The big savings come from turning a 10 miles per hour interlocking into a modern 60 km/h (or, ideally, 90+ km/h) one, eliminating the blanket 120 km/h speed limit between the NY/CT state line and New Haven, and speeding up throats around intermediate stations.
Bypasses are easier to draw than curve modifications. Curves on the Northeast Corridor don’t always have consistent radii – for example, the curves flanking Pawtucket look like they have radius 600 meters, but no, they have a few radii of which the tightest are about 400 meters, constraining speed further. Modifying such curves mostly within right-of-way should be a priority.
Going outside the right-of-way is also plausible, at a few locations. The area just west of Green’s Farms is a good candidate; so is Boston Switch, a tight curve somewhat northeast of Pawtucket whose inside is mostly water. A few more speculative places could get some noticeable trip time improvements, especially in the Bronx, but the benefit-cost ratio is unlikely to be good.
Bush consulting on takings
In some situations, there’s a choice of which route to take – for example, which side of I-95 to go on east of New Haven (my alignment mostly stays on the north side). Some right-of-way deviations from I-95 offer additional choice about what to demolish in the way.
In that case, it’s useful to look for less valuable commercial properties, and try to avoid extensive residential takings if it’s possible (and often it isn’t). This leads to some bush consulting estimates of how valuable a strip mall or hotel or bank branch is. It’s especially valuable when there are many options, because then it’s harder for one holdout to demand unreasonable compensation or make political threats – the railroad can go around them and pay slightly more for an easier takings process.
How fast should trains run?
Swiss planners run trains as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible. This plan does the opposite, first in order to establish a baseline for what can be done on a significant but not insane budget, and second because the expected frequency is high enough that hourly knots are not really feasible.
At most, some local high-speed trains could be designated as knot trains, reaching major stations on the hour or half-hour for regional train connections to inland cities. For example, such a local train could do New York-Boston in 2 hours rather than 1:40, with such additional stops as New Rochelle, Stamford, New London (at I-95, slightly north of the current stop), and Route 128 or Back Bay.
But for the most part, the regional rail connections are minor. New York and Boston are both huge cities, so a train that connects them in 1:40 is mostly an end-to-end train, beefed up by onward connections to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. Intermediate stops at New Haven and Providence supply some ridership too, much more so than any outlying regional connections like Danbury and Westerly, first because those outlying regional connections are much smaller towns and second much of the trip to those towns is at low speed so the trip time is not as convenient as on an all-high-speed route.
This does not mean Swiss planning maxims can be abandoned. Internal traffic in New England, or in Pennsylvania and South Jersey, or other such regions outside the immediate suburbs of big cities, must hew to these principles. Even big-city regional trains often have tails where half-hourly frequency is all that is justified. However, the high-speed line between Boston and New York (and Washington) specifically should run fast and rely on trips between the big cities to fill trains.
How much does it cost?
My estimate remains unchanged – maybe $7 billion in infrastructure costs, closer to $9-10 billion with rolling stock. Only one tunnel is included, under Bridgeport; everywhere else I’ve made an effort to use viaducts and commercial takings to avoid tunneling to limit costs. The 120 km of greenfield track between New Haven and Kingston include three major viaducts, crossing the Quinnipiac, Connecticut, and Thames; otherwise there are barely any environmentally or topographically sensitive areas and not many areas with delicate balance of eminent domain versus civil infrastructure.
I repeat, in case it is somehow unclear: for $7 billion in infrastructure investment, maybe $8 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars deflated to the early 2020s rather than early 2010s, trains could connect New York and Boston in 1:40. A similar project producing similar trip times between New York and Washington should cost less, my guess is around $3 billion, consisting mostly of resurrecting the old two-track B&P replacement in lieu of the current scope creep hell, building a few at-grade bypasses in Delaware and Maryland, and replacing the variable-tension catenary with constant-tension catenary.
None of this has to be expensive. Other parts of the world profitably build high-speed rail between cities of which the largest is about the size of Boston or Philadelphia rather than the smallest; Sweden is seriously thinking about high-speed trains between cities all of which combined still have fewer people than metropolitan Boston. Better things are possible, on a budget, and not just in theory – it’s demonstrated every few years when a new high-speed rail line opens in a medium-size European or Asian country.
New York is the capital of the coronavirus pandemic, with around 110,000 confirmed cases and 10,000 confirmed deaths citywide, and perhaps the same number across its suburbs. There must be many reasons why this is so; one possibility that people have raised is infection from crowded subways, so far without much evidence. Two days ago, MIT economist Jeffrey Harris wrote a paper claiming that the subways did in fact seed the Covid-19 epidemic in New York, but the paper cites no evidence. Sadly, some people have been citing the paper as a serious argument, which it isn’t; the purpose of this post is to explain what is wrong with the paper.
New York and other subways
In multiple other countries, one cannot see the transit cities in the virus infection rates. In Germany the rates in the largest cities are collectively the same as in the rest of the country. In South Korea, the infection is centered on Daegu; Seoul’s density and high transit usage are compatible with an infection rate of about 700 in a city of 9.5 million, about 1.5 orders of magnitude less per capita than in most Western countries and 2.5 orders of magnitude less than in New York. In Taipei, the MRT remains crowded, with weekday ridership in February and March down by 15-16%. In Italy, car usage is high outside a handful of very large cities like Milan, and Milan’s infection rate isn’t high by the standards of the rest of Lombardy.
However, rest-of-world evidence does not mean that the New York City Subway is safe. The Taipei MRT has mandatory mask usage and very frequent cleaning. German U- and S-Bahn networks are a lot dirtier than anything I’ve seen in Asia, but much cleaner than anything I’ve seen in New York, and also have much less peak crowding than New York. New York uniquely has turnstiles requiring pushing with one’s hands or bodies, and the only other city I know of with such fare barriers is Paris, whose infection rates are far below New York’s but still high by French standards.
So the question is not whether rapid transit systems are inherently unsafe for riders, which they are not. It’s whether New York, with all of its repeated failings killing tens of workers from exposure to the virus, has an unsafe rapid transit system. Nonetheless, the answer appears to be negative: no evidence exists that the subway is leading to higher infection rates, and the paper does not introduce any.
What’s in the paper?
A lot of rhetoric and a lot of lampshade hanging about the lack of natural experiments.
But when it comes to hard evidence, the paper makes two quantitative claims. The first is in figure 3: Manhattan had both the least increase in infections in the 3/13-4/7 period, equivalent to a doubling period of 20 days whereas the other boroughs ranged between 9.5 and 14, and also the largest decrease in subway entries in the 3/2-16 period, 65% whereas the other boroughs ranged between 33% and 56%.
The second is a series of maps showing per capita infection levels by zip code, similar to the one here. The paper also overlays a partial subway map and asserts that the map shows that there is correlation of infection rates along specific subway routes, for example the 7, as people spread the disease along the line.
I will address the second claim first, regarding line-level analysis, and then the first, regarding the borough-level difference-in-differences analysis; neither is even remotely correct.
Can you see the subway on an infection map?
Here is a static version of the infection map by zip code:
This is cases for 1,000 people – note that my post about Germany looks at rates per 10,000 people, so the range in New York is consistently about an order of magnitude worse than in Germany. The map shows high rates in Eastern Queens, the North Bronx, and Staten Island, hardly places with high public transportation ridership. The rates in Manhattan and the inner parts of Brooklyn are on the low side.
There are no ribbons of red matching any subway line – there are clumps and clusters, as in Southern Brooklyn in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, and in Central Queens around Corona and East Elmhurst. There is imperfect but noticeable correlation with income – working-class areas have higher infection rates, perhaps because they have higher rates at which people are required to still show up to work, where they can be infected. East Asian neighborhoods have lower rates, like Flushing and environs, or to some extent Sunset Park; Asians are infected at noticeably lower rates than others in New York and perhaps in the rest of the Western world, perhaps because they took news in China more seriously, began practicing social distancing earlier, and wear masks at higher rates. There are many correlates, none of which looks like it has anything to do with using the public transportation network.
What’s more, the paper is not making any quantitative argument why the graph shows correlation with subway usage. It shows the graph with some lines depicted, often misnamed, for example the Queens Boulevard Line is called Sixth Avenue Local, leading to a discussion about higher infection rates on local trains than on express trains where in fact the F runs express in Queens. But it does not engage in any analysis of rates of subway usage or changes therein, or in infection rates. The reader is supposed to eyeball the graph and immediately agree with the author’s conclusion, where there is no reason to do so.
The claim about Manhattan is the only real quantitative claim in the paper. Unlike the zip code analysis, the borough analysis does make some statistical argument: Manhattan had larger reduction in subway usage than the rest of the city and also a slower infection rate. However, this argument relies on an N of 2. Among the other boroughs, there is no such correlation. The argument is then purely about Manhattan vs. the rest of the city. This is incorrect for so many reasons:
- Manhattan is the highest-income borough, with many people who can work from home. If they’re not getting infected, it could be from not commuting as much, but just as well from not getting the virus at work as much.
- The Manhattan subway stops are often job centers, so the decline in ridership there reflects a citywide decline. A Manhattanite who stops taking the subway is seen as two fewer turnstile entries in Manhattan, whereas a New Yorker from the rest of the city who does the same is likely to be seen as one fewer Outer Borough entry and one fewer Manhattan entry.
- Many Manhattanites left the city to shelter elsewhere, as seen in trash collection data.
- Manhattan’s per capita subway usage is probably higher than that of the rest of the city counting discretionary trips, so 65% off the usual ridership in Manhattan may still be higher per capita than 56% off in Brooklyn or 47% in Queens. (But this is false on the level of commuting, where Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn all have 60% mode share.)
Does the paper have any value?
I have heard people on Twitter claim that correlation is not causation. This argument is too generous to the paper, which has not shown any correlation at all, since the only quantitative point it makes has an N of 2 and plenty of confounders.
For comparison, my analysis of metro construction costs has an effective N of about 40, since different subway projects in the same country tend to have similar costs with few exceptions (such as New York’s extreme-even-for-America costs), and I consider 40 to be low enough that Eric Goldwyn and I must use qualitative methods and delve deep into several case studies before we can confidently draw conclusions. The paper instead draws strong conclusions, even including detailed ones like the point the paper tries to make about local trains being more dangerous than express trains, from an N of 2; it’s irresponsible.
But what about the workers?
A large and growing number of New York City Transit workers have succumbed to the virus. The current count is close to the citywide death toll, but transportation workers are by definition all healthy enough to be working, whereas citywide (and worldwide) the dead are disproportionately old or have comorbidities like heart disease. Echoing the union’s demands for better protection, Andy Byford had unkind words to say about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appointees in charge of the system, MTA chair Pat Foye and acting NYCT chair Sarah Feinberg.
However, this is not the same as infection among passengers. The dead include workers who are in close proximity to passengers on crowded vehicles, such as bus drivers, but also ones who are not, such as train operators, maintenance workers, and cleaners. Train cleaners have to remove contaminated trash from the platforms and vehicles without any protective equipment; NYCT not only didn’t supply workers with protective equipment, but also prohibited them from wearing masks on the job even if they’d procured them privately. Contamination at work is not the same as contamination during travel.
So, should people avoid public transportation in New York?
If the best attempt to provide evidence that riding the subway is a health hazard in a pandemic is this paper, then that by itself is evidence that there is no health hazard. This is true even given New York City Transit’s current level of dirt, though perhaps not given its pre-crisis peak crowding level. Social distancing is reducing overall travel and this is good, not necessarily because travel is hazardous, but mostly because the destination is often a crowded place with plenty of opportunity for person-to-person infection.
In preparation for going back to normal, the current level of cleanliness is not acceptable. The state should make sure people have access to masks, even if they’re ordinary ones rather than N95 ones, and mandate their usage in crowded places including the subway once they are available. It should invest far more in cleaning public spaces, including the subway, to the highest standards seen in the rich countries of Asia. It should certainly do much more to protect the workers, who face more serious hazards than the riders. But it should not discourage people who are traveling from doing so by train.
The US Census Bureau has just released 2019 population estimates by county. Metro New York, after slowly rising for decades more than making up the 1970s losses, went down by 60,000 people, or 0.3% of the population. The city is down 53,000 people.
The city chooses stagnation and ignorance. In the 1970s, the city was losing an average of 80,000 people per year, but the situation now is profoundly different. Incomes are up: the metro area’s per capita income as a proportion of the US average went from 126% in 1970 to 118% in 1980; but more recently it went from 135% in 2010-5 to 141% in 2018, the last year for which the BEA has data. Crime is down, the murder rate falling below the national average starting in 2013. Rent is up, sending a strong signal: more people want to live here.
But the entire political constellation of the city chooses not to grow. Housing growth is anemic, permits averaging around 21,000 per year in 2010-9, maybe 2.6 per 1,000 New York residents. It accelerated over the decade but not by much, reaching 26,500 in 2019, or 3.2/1,000. In the in-state suburbs, growth is even lower, less than 1 unit per 1,000 in each of Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties. New Jersey has somewhat higher growth rate, around 4/1,000, thanks to the Mount Laurel doctrine requiring high-cost municipalities to approve some affordable housing, which they typically do in the most out-of-the-way place they can find. The metro area overall approves about the same amount of housing as the city proper, around 2.5/1,000.
The most recent data I have for Korea is from the first half of 2019. In six months, Seoul, a shrinking city of 9.5 million, approved 38,000 dwellings, and the metro area writ large approved 129,000 on a population of about 26 million, an annualized rate of 10/1,000 (less in the city, more in the suburbs). This is a suburbanizing region, but suburbanization often means moving to a planned new town built on top of a subway or commuter rail line, like Ilsan, Bundang, and Anyang.
It’s not Tokyo that has high housing growth. It’s Tokyo, and Seoul, and to a lesser extent the metro area of Taipei (more suburbs than city proper), and Paris. In the presence of a strong economy and a state that doesn’t choose stagnation the way rich American regions choose with local empowerment, housing growth in a large city should be high, as more people want to move there to take advantage of its higher incomes and opportunities.
But New York chose differently. It chose stagnation and eventually decline. It chose to be expensive.
Why are they like this?
The US has an unusual system of governance, in which not only is there a separation of federal and state governments, as in Germany or Canada or Australia or Switzerland, but also the states delegate unusual powers to local governments. Education, policing, and housing are largely local responsibilities. Even when states do get involved, there is usually no partisan competition (most states are safe), leading to empowerment of local representatives on what are considered local issues, and even when there is people vote based on national issues.
But even that raises questions. For example, why do locals consider new development bad? Even YIMBY activists let NIMBYs whip them into thinking this way – they talk about sharing the burden, as if new buildings and new people are a burden that everyone must endure for some grand moral reason.
What if the reason people take it for granted that growth is bad is that the people who are most locally empowered are a specific anti-growth lobby? People who work for a living don’t have time to go to a citizen engagement meeting at 3 in the afternoon. They work and socialize with people from other neighborhoods, so they have little interest in neighborhood rags that report individual counts of parking spaces lost to a bus lane. They are far more interested in job growth than in hobby community gardens. A political system that requires very high levels of local social capital for one’s opinions to count will naturally undervalue their opinions and overvalue those of idle people and professional intermediaries.
The high levels of Covid-19 infection in New York are part of this system. The specific cause is not hyperlocalism, but rather the murky authority of the state. The city is plagued by the feud between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo. Both enjoy unlimited executive power, I think Cuomo more so than de Blasio. Both need it for their higher political aspirations. But neither can have it while the other exists as an independent political entity, nor is there a clear delineation of state and local authority. Thus, they are obligated to sabotage each other’s ideas, to the detriment of the city that has the misfortune to be governed by them. The entire West delayed its reaction to the virus, but New York especially so, as Cuomo and de Blasio tried denying each other credit.
I’ve been writing a lot about the role of incuriosity in high construction costs in the English-speaking world in general, and New York in particular – see for example this recent coronavirus-tainted piece, or this more random piece about Metro-North’s executives’ ignorance.
But this can apply more generally, as it did to the virus. Americans are quite provincial when it comes to the rest of the world, and New Yorkers especially so – go ahead, try telling a New Yorker that some other city does something better than New York. The out-of-town comparison, a powerful tool that places that view themselves as more peripheral (like Israel) use to correct errors, dos not work in a place like New York. New York literally made the collective decision to die and not to learn from the rest of the world. Mass death is not making New Yorkers demand the immediate removal of their mass manslaughterers who are their governor and mayor; why would a dip in population?
Part of it is related to local empowerment. Acquiring local social capital comes at the expense of worldliness; those years one spends learning foreign languages, living abroad, and socializing with foreigners are dead years for most political ambitions, including all ambitions that start locally.
But an even greater part of it is that New York self-perceives as the center of the world, which is not true elsewhere. Korea self-flagellates all the time: about its legal system (it adopted a limited jury system in 2009), about its engineering (see e.g. here), about its elevated air pollution levels (it’s adopting EU standards). The United States instead views all variations with the rest of the world as evidence of America’s unique greatness, and New York does the same both internationally and domestically. The city brims with immigrants, and yet it tells them, your home country is deficient and you must become a real New Yorker, that is someone whose world does not extend past city limits, to be a whole person. Until that changes, the government of New York will remain managed by dregs and incompetents and housing, transportation, and as we see health care will earn the mockery of other big first-world cities.
Entrenched hierarchies do not like outside criticism, especially when it’s right. They fight off knowledge that they don’t have or can’t control. In a business setting, the main way out is to found a competing company and drive the one that won’t change out of business. But when it’s not possible, the way out involves a massive crisis – something like a total war, in which people can rapidly rise through the ranks through demonstrating success in battle.
I bring this up because the coronavirus crisis in not such a total war. Branko Milanovic compares it with World War Two, contrasting economists who view it purely as an economic crisis akin to the 2008 crisis or the Depression. That comparison is apt when it comes to looking at non-economic aspects of it, namely the need to centrally plan a public health response. But the scale of the crisis is much smaller, it seems. The rich countries of Asia are emerging only somewhat battered, and even in the West some places seem to be over the hump judging by growth rates in the last few days, especially the Nordic countries but possibly also France. This isn’t the next Spanish Flu, a crisis so big that it would force Westerners to reckon with the fact that the West needs to learn from other places. Even in the United States, where things look worse, the solipsistic population looks for internal comparisons (e.g. between blue and red states) more than international ones, let alone international ones with Asia.
A small crisis is not going to nudge the hierarchy in a more open direction. I see this often in public transportation – institutions that feel embattled respond by entrenching and refusing any reform. The standard excuse is “we’re too busy fighting fires,” often by people that fires seem to erupt around regularly. The virus seems to have the same effect so far – less openness, less sanity checking proposals by looking at what works elsewhere, more digging in around traditional social hierarchies.
American nationalists are saber-rattling with the Chinese government, as in the “Chinese virus” dysphemism and Tom Cotton’s blaming the entire death toll on the PRC. But they still do this on the usual American terms, that is without any assurance that Taiwan is a success story to learn from, or even South Korea and Japan, two American allies that unlike Taiwan the US formally recognizes. If a virus that demonstrates to starkly that Taiwan governs itself better than the PRC won’t get American nationalists to start speaking favorably of Taiwan, what will? To people like Cotton, a crisis is a perfect time to proclaim American superiority, no matter what reality is.
Domestically, too, the American response seems to be to repeat old wives’ tales – for example, traditional American hostility to big cities. Governor Andrew Cuomo went as far as saying that New York is too dense; Seoul, a bigger and denser city, has 700 infections as of 2020-3-22 out of a metro population of 26 million, maybe a factor of 20 better than New York. But he’s the governor and he keeps giving speeches and appearing on television, and a few hundred and even a few thousand dead New Yorkers is not enough to make people ask questions about his and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s squabbling. After all, when nearly 3,000 New Yorkers died on 9/11, few asked why Mayor Rudy Giuliani had put the city’s anti-terrorism response center at World Trade Center against the advice of security experts who pointed out the Twin Towers were a likely target; 9/11’s effect on Giuliani’s popularity was an unmixed blessing.
In an environment in which more national pundits say Cuomo is looking presidential than say he should resign in disgrace, it’s unlikely the crisis will lead Americans in a more open direction. The magnitude of the crisis isn’t enough to create a new crop of leaders. It’s a good thing in the sense that the death toll will not be apocalyptic, but it just underscores what I mean when I say this isn’t World War Two.
Budget-cutting administrations, demanding reform before revenue, have not produced any reform. American state building stalled in the middle of the 20th century when various white middle-class interests realized localism could protect them from too much racial and economic equality. Then around the 1980s and 90s it went into reverse, with a continued assault on state capacity through public-private partnerships, outsourcing planning to consultants, and impositions of managers whose experience was in the private sector in unrelated industries. American construction costs were already high beforehand, but in Canada and Singapore, both of which seem to have had the same trend, costs exploded in the 2000s and 2010s.
The question remains: how come the reform-before-revenue mentality never produced any reform?
I bring this up because I believe the answer is the same as what we are seeing right now with the response to the coronavirus crisis. Budget-cutting or timid politicians are not an existential crisis to the civil service. They can scare off ambitious people the way Cuomo ran Andy Byford out of New York City Transit leadership; they can create a hostile work environment; they can force managers to contend with scarcity; they can force the unions to agree to wage reductions for entering workers. But they do not have the power to close entire departments, to stop running schools or public transportation or firefighting entirely, and the managers and workers both know this.
Just as the Covid-19 crisis is not World War Two, all attempts at privatizing the state in the Anglosphere have amounted to much less than a total war of extermination. It’s a cold war. Like the original Cold War, it has the same stupefying effect as a hot war – hierarchs are all too happy to be unaccountable to the broad public and to pretend their cloak-and-dagger politics achieve any results. Unlike a hot war, it is too low-intensity for people who disagree with the hierarchy but are right to demonstrate competence – nor is the other side going to be destroyed at the end.
The construction cost crisis in the United States, particularly New York, might actually be a big enough crisis to have the same effect on the established order as a total war. It’s unclear, but before the virus came to the United States, there was a lot of genuine interest in making things better, though not in every city.
I suspect the mechanism for costs is that they are so high that there must be a significant enough reduction to make a career without screwing some politically necessary constituency. I don’t know; I don’t yet know the drivers of high New York costs in sufficient detail. But the magnitude and breadth of the problem point to many different explanations each increasing costs by a significant but not apocalyptic amount. Moreover, the fact that there must be many causes seems to be accepted in the local political ecosystem. Thus, people can afford to make reforms, perhaps focusing on the politically low-hanging fruits.
This is less cynical than it may sound. A small success story, such as if Ned Lamont had figured out a way to build 30-30-30 or if the MTA manages to noticeably reduce the cost of some project, creates a visible trail of success, creating more pressure to keep the reforms. Nothing succeeds like success.
A New York that can build subways even at $300 million per kilometer, let alone $100 million per kilometer, and builds housing at a pace befitting a rich global city with considerable immigration, is a completely different place from the failed city that it is today. That New York is a dynamic, rapidly growing city in which there is far more kvetching about how it’s sucking in jobs and people from more static places than kvetching about how it’s exporting jobs and people to cheaper places. I’m using analogy here because low costs by themselves do not protect a city from disease (Italy and Switzerland both have low costs and high coronavirus infection levels), but the same kind of public-sector resurgence can presumably be done for public health, ensuring New York will respond to the next pandemic like Seoul or Tokyo or Taipei.