Category: Personal/Admin

Our Construction Costs Report

This is awkward.

I was hoping to already release the Transit Costs Project report, but we ran into difficulties after we released and then immediately unreleased; we sent the report to the MTA for feedback, we got feedback, and then we went on a binge of edits. This led to a long cycle of almosts; I thought it would be done at the end of December, then 10 days ago, then tomorrow. The revisions were not huge – there are people who read the original version and the gap between what they’ve seen and what we’re about to release is real but is also far from the difference between complete knowledge (which we don’t have and most likely never will) and complete ignorance.

We still have minor edits to do, but they’re small, on the order of less than a full day’s work for all three of us, and we can promise that the full report – including the New York report and the synthesis of all reports combined – will be out on February 6th.

Separately, I’m going to be in New York for about a month after, mostly for non-work reasons. The timing is that there’s an election in Berlin on the 12th, a redo of the city election from 2021 (oddly, not electing for a full term but for the remainder of the term that began in 2021), in which I hope the Greens do better if only so that they’re slightly ahead of SPD and not slightly behind and can replace the scandalized Franziska Giffey as mayor. If I can vote by mail, I’ll be in New York starting a little before the election; if I can’t, I’ll be starting a little later. This will include at least one more in-person event to present our findings and our recommendations for the region and the MTA, at a time to be determined but likely in the second half of February.

There’s a lot of stuff we didn’t get into the report, because of lack of space; we could have info-dumped and made the synthesis novel-length, but some things had to go (and I will defend every decision to exclude things, and if they turn out to have been necessary, then blame me for being wrong about it). So even if you read the reports you should definitely come to events and ask me specific questions about things that are related to construction costs, such as other projects in the same cities we studied, or issues of the interplay between costs and benefits, or how this applies to urban rail construction going forward.

Quick Note on My New York Trip

I am back in Europe now (in London until Tuesday), but I was in New York for nearly three weeks, and it was interesting reconciling what I was seeing with what everyone else is saying about the city. It and my March 2022 trip were both enlightening in a way because I’d last been in the US at the end of 2019, so many New Yorkisms that I was used to in the 2000s and 2010s suddenly jarred me as foreign to what I had grown used to in Europe.

As one might expect based on the subject of this blog, I took the subway a lot. I took it so much that I was using weekly passes, and the last week I had a weekly pass for just three days and still I took 13 trips on those days, justifying its cost (which is like that of 12 single trips). I saw things, and notably didn’t see others.

What I did see: abject unreliability. I snapped a photo whenever the train arrival board was showing something weird, like low frequency or bunching; if you’re reading this post as it’s being posted and not going on a deep archive run, then go to my Twitter media and look at the last few weeks of pictures. Out of 19 days, something was going wrong 10 times, usually on the train I used to get between my Queensbridge hotel and Marron, the F train – and that’s without counting a few trips when the train frequency looked good but then I was delayed 10-20 minutes due to incidents. Something would always come up: signal failure, medical emergency, mechanical failure, cascading delays. Uday Schultz, a railfan who scares me with the depth of his knowledge of operations, maintenance, and rail history, points out how one such delay compounded due to bad interlining.

This is not normal. Berlin has delays but nowhere nearly this often – not on the U-Bahn but also not on the S-Bahn, whose interlining complexity is comparable to that of the New York City Subway. Low-frequency sections due to single-tracking for maintenance exist in Berlin, but it’s rare, and trains do not run worse than every 10 minutes except on the suburban periphery of the city. Over a similar period of time in Berlin I might see an incident bad enough to complain to BVG about it on Twitter maybe once or twice, not 10 times.

What I didn’t see: significant crime. I point out that I was staying near Queensbridge because the area is negatively stereotyped by suburbanites and city residents with I-hate-(the-rest-of-)the-city identity politics. Nothing there looked scary, at any time of day. There’s a large housing project there, which I mostly associate with people playing the Halloween theme song on 10/31 for what I imagine was a showing of the film and with some people wearing delightfully scary costumes. The worst I saw was someone selling swipes illegally when there was an unusually long line for the ticketing machines; there were cops on the platform who must have passed this person by and apparently done nothing.

I point this out because the city is convinced that the subway is dangerous. There are annoying announcements all the time: “this is an important message from the New York City Police Department…” It makes for some awful user experience – there’s no possibility of quiet on the train, for which those announcements contribute more than anything, since the panhandlers are much less common and the background noise is easier to tune out. People who speak limited English or can’t make out the phonemes garbled over bad announcer systems learn to tune everything out, including the occasional useful announcement of service changes.

And the police loves how annoying it is, which it justifies by appealing to safety theater. When Sarah Meyer tried reducing the annoyance levels, she ran into some real and some made-up technical problems, and one political problem in that nobody in management cares about UX. The police said they need those announcements, annoying and counterproductive as they are (telling tourists to watch their belongings gets them to grasp their wallets in fear, alerting every thief to the location of the wallet on their person); nobody at the agency thought to push back. In the last few days, a new disturbance has been added: the conductors announce at nearly every stop that cops are on the platform should people need assistance. This is in a safe city. Just stop this.

I Gave Two Talks About Construction Costs Yesterday

We gave two talks about construction costs yesterday, as I said in my invite earlier this week. There are no slides to upload, so I’ll just give brief overviews.

The 11 am talk had with Aaron Gordon as moderator and comprised me, Eric, Elif, and Marco, in front of an audience of about 40, including a few people in official capacity from the MTA or the more reform-oriented sections of politics. It was recorded, and the video has been uploaded via the Marron channel. The four of us went over our backgrounds and what brought us to this issue, and then we talked about what we’d done – we tallied around 200 personal interviews and correspondences and countless academic and gray studies reviewed – and what the conclusions are (see above link for some of them).

Audience questions were markedly friendly, and so were followup conversations Eric had with people at the MTA about this; Eric and I had spent the previous day catastrophizing about what if we’d encounter a hostile audience with questions insisting that no, New York can’t possibly be an order of magnitude more expensive to build subways in than our comparison cases, but none of that happened there.

The political response is also interesting. I’m not going to name names but I’ve found it striking that there’s interest in this from both politicians who ideologically identify with the radical left and the Democratic Socialists of America and ones who ideologically identify with the neoliberal movement (currently rebranding itself as New Liberals, in parallel with the New Democrat Coalition).

In a way, it’s not too surprising. Both groups are motivated by ideology and not by the petty concerns that lead to NIMBYism and to the politics of delay for its own sake. More subtly, while the term neoliberalism evokes a retreat from state methods and toward privatization, in practice the people who use the label today talk about state capacity all the time, they just have a vision of the state that centers efficiency. The sight of a New York that can, on its present capital budget, build 200 km of rail tunnel in 10 years while also completing investments in accessibility and high-capacity signaling is uplifting to such movements, even if those movements may disagree about driverless trains.

This does not mean everyone is on board, unfortunately. I can’t tell what exactly goes on at the MTA; clearly, there are some people there who are unhappy, although I can’t tell who except in the broadest, least certain outline. In politics, I will say that the people I’ve talked to are not nearly as well-known or powerful as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the staff of Pete Buttigieg.

The 8 pm talk was much less formal and was just me in front of a crowd of about 25 that was more advocacy-oriented. It was from the start the secondary event, designed for people who would like to come but couldn’t make it during business hours. I expected 12 people and got 25, with an awkward signup process at the lobby of the building, for which I am grateful to security for being understanding. I managed to possess the AV system in the room with the help of an audience member and share my screen to showcase some more examples and talk more about our report, but there was no recording.

Audience questions covered a variety of topics: the applicability of our work to California High-Speed Rail (I went on a long rant about the problems of early commitment), how the different factors mentioned in the link at the start of this post interact, what the role of utilities is, etc.

A more interesting question, which I didn’t immediately have an answer to, was what advocates can do about it. People don’t vote based on subway construction costs, or at least not directly. I did bring up the political popularity of mani pulite and the anti-corruption reforms in Italy that have helped bring down costs, and, echoing more experienced activists who I’d asked, recommended that people raise the issue with their state legislator, member of City Council, or mayor if they’re in an inner suburb and not the city. In an American context, there is no criminal corruption that we’ve found, unlike in Italy in the 1970s and 80s, but instead of mani pulite, a popular process for making government more efficient is viable. Even people whose entire political career is built on wrecking the ability of the state to do anything talk about how It’s Time to Build or about Getting to Yes.

I want to say I’m optimistic based on what we saw, but not everything has gone as smoothly, and there are people in powerful positions who should not have them – they just didn’t show up this time. So we’ll see; I’ll know much more at the end of the year.

The Transit Costs Project Conclusion is Out!

Here it is. This is the result of many months and years of work, and a lot of editing, and it should not be viewed as my work but rather as joint work of mine with Eric Goldwyn, Elif Ensari, and Marco Chitti. People should read the report, which talks about how to build in-house capacity and institutional support that does not involve American-style micromanagement and politiciziation.

We’re going to present on this in person at NYU in a day and a half, on Wednesday 10/26, at 11 am (moderated by Aaron Gordon) and again at 8 pm for people who can’t make it during work hours; this is at Marron’s office at 370 Jay Street on the 12th floor, room 1201. (I’m also separately on this panel about through-running, online, 10/25 at 6 pm New York time.)

We’ve managed to decompose much of the cost premium of New York over low-to-medium-cost comparison cases, in the following manner:

Labor

Labor costs are a total of 20-30% in our comparison cases (Turkey, Italy, Sweden). Sweden is the most relevant, as the highest-wage example; Citybanan’s costs were 23% labor. In the Northeastern United States, labor is 40-60% of the cost. Picking 25% vs. 50% as the respective averages, this means that labor costs in the Northeast are three times what they should be, and the difference contributes to a factor of 1.5 cost difference. This includes both blue- and white-collar labor – this isn’t just overstaffing of unionized workers (although that exists too) but also different agencies such as utilities demanding that their own supervisors be in the tunnel during construction. In Boston, the overhead ratio was 40-65% higher on the Green Line Extension than the norm for Bostonian construction.

Soft costs and design

In New York, and as far as we can tell across the Anglosphere, design and management add a hefty additional share. Of note, what counts as soft costs differs by country. For example, insurance is a soft cost in Italy, but in New York it’s bundled into the regular contracts. British cost breakdowns list contingency separately, but American ones do not. Taking just the project management and design contracts – what counts as soft costs for New York contracting – they add 21% on top of the other contracts. The norm in France and Italy is 5-10%. However, 21% is on top of an inflated base: while extra physical construction means a roughly proportionate increase in oversight costs, the extra labor costs do not, and so, relative to a right-size labor cost (that is, overall project cost falling by a factor of 1.5), this is 31%. This contributes a factor of about 1.2.

Procurement

Procurement problems, including lack of competition, poor management of the contractors (called “the [name of agency] factor” where this can be any American transit agency), change order litigation, risk compensation, and contingency, overall double New York’s overall construction costs. Some of this is recent enough to only have been instituted when Andrew Cuomo was governor, like debarment, a heavyhanded attempt to blacklist contractors who run over the estimated cost that leads to higher initial bids for risk compensation. But the privatization of risk goes back earlier and the closedness to working like in the rest of the world goes back much earlier. Moreover, the tendency to privatize risk and alternate between micromanaging contractors and not knowing how to supervise them at all appears pan-US.

As a note of caution, it’s perhaps best to think of procurement and soft costs together as contributing a factor of about 2.5: under different definitions from New York’s, for example those of Britain, some procurement problems like contingency and excessive contractor profit (due to risk compensation – this isn’t a freeroll for the contractors) are folded into the soft cost account.

Overbuilding

Subway stations should be built cut-and-cover, in a box barely longer than the longest train that is expected to run through them. Italian and French examples are maybe 5-10% longer than the train, and Odenplan on Citybanan is 17% (250 m box, 214 m trains). American stations are often oversize: Second Avenue Subway’s two mined stations are on average about 100% longer, and cut-and-cover 96th Street is almost 200% longer. Moreover, designs must be standardized across each project, whereas in the US they are not, to the point that there were two distinct escalator vendors for the three stations of Second Avenue Subway.

This is not seen as nicer passenger spaces – those stations still look pretty crummy compared with the standardized stations of the Nordic countries or Italy or Turkey. It goes without saying that non-standardized escalator placement does not make stations more pleasant. Moreover, the extra space is just used for back offices with full segregation between different functions and work teams that no legacy station has anywhere, or unnecessary crossovers; Odenplan looks much nicer without much superfluous digging. Political insistence on signature stations in the United States leads to waste without any improvement in user experience resulting from it.

This factor also absorbs conflict with utilities, which is seen in decisions to dig too deep and build mined stations, avoiding cut-and-cover even when the costs are more favorable. (Utility relocation costs should be reduced too, but those are second-order in New York.)

In New York, stations are 77% of the hard costs; systems and tunnels are 23%. Cutting station costs by a factor of 3 (or slightly more, counting utility conflict) means cutting overall costs by a factor of a little more than 2. In fact the overall cut should be bigger because there’s some overdesign in the systems as well. The paused, restarted, and budget-overrunning Paris Metro Line 1 extension budget is split as 30% stations, 55% tunnels and systems, but that’s for trains half the size of New York’s, and Länsimetro Phase 1, with trains three quarters the size of New York’s split about evenly between the two. With systems and tunneling made cheaper as well through scale and standardization, the overall cost difference is a factor of 2.5-3.

What does this mean?

It means you should read the report, linked at the very start of this post. But mostly it means the causes of high American (especially New York) costs are institutional, and fixable, without a revolutionary upending of the legal or social system. We can’t tell you how New York can build for the costs of Nuremberg or Turkey, both around $100 million per km, but $200 million per km, slightly higher than Italy and slightly lower than Sweden, is achievable. Moreover, because institutional problems with procurement and soft costs occur throughout (and also conflict with utilities, a bigger issue for smaller projects than subway expansion), the same reforms that should bring down tunneling costs should also bring down the costs of non-tunneling improvements like elevator accessibility and platform edge doors.

Annoying Announcements

My last two New York trips suddenly made me aware of how obtrusive and loud subway announcements can be. I visited the US many times in the years between when I left (summer 2012) and the start of the pandemic in early 2020, so even while living first in Canada and then in a succession of European capitals known to Americans chiefly as vacation spots, I found New York reassuringly familiar. The two-year gap between when corona started and when I first came back this March should not have been that big, and yet it was. And the constant annoyance of those messages hit me.

I know a lot of people writing about their experiences in New York talk about how it changed dramatically during corona. I get some of this – I see some differences, even if not in as much detail as people who have been here in the city throughout and survived the spring of 2020. But this is not, as far as I remember, a difference. The New York City Subway was always like this – always this hectic and stressful, not so much because of the passengers as because of the system itself. I’ve just, over the years, gotten used to the much more focused and less noisy European systems.

I focus on the announcements because, having talked to some other immigrants who don’t speak the language very well or used not to – a task that’s easier for me in Berlin than in New York – I’ve gotten more sensitive to the issue of tuning out announcements.

The issue here is that passengers learn to tune out unnecessary announcements. “This is 57th Street, Brooklyn-bound F, next stop is 50th Street-Rockefeller Center, stand clear of the closing doors” is a fine announcement. Passengers learn to tune out the ending, but that’s fine – the rest of the message stands and helps anchor where the train is and how long it is until my station.

The problem is announcements like “This is an important message from the New York City Police Department.” These are, at best, an irrelevant annoyance. Experienced riders tune them out and just learn to live with the random noise and distraction that they provide. Less experienced ones may wait for something useful and be disappointed it’s another useless public service announcement.

But one should not assume the best. Annoying announcements are worse than useless, for two reasons. First, any announcement telling people to be afraid of crime is counterproductive. Scared passengers react to such announcements or signs by feeling up their wallets to make sure they’re still there, alerting every thief as to their wallets’ locations on their persons.

And second, the effect on system legibility for riders who speak poor English is large and negative. Such riders strain to get the meaning until they realize it was for nothing, and they might well assume any announcement other than the stops is like this and miss real information. Announcements other than regular stops may be irrelevant PSAs, but they may also be important information about the trip, such as service changes down the line, and the more riders who tune them out, the more they are going to miss connections and attempt to get on a train that isn’t running.

This is really a matter of universal design. Even experienced riders who (like most New Yorkers) speak the language fluently sometimes tune out real announcements and make mistakes. But this effect is larger for new riders, especially immigrants who struggle with the language.

The right way to structure announcements is not to say anything that isn’t directly relevant to the trip. Stations and connections should be announced, and so should service changes on the line itself or on connecting lines. PSAs should not exist; they make the user experience worse and improve nothing except the self-satisfaction of managers who do not use their own system.

The Sweden Cost Report is Launched!

You can read it here. It evolved a lot during writing, partly because of the rising costs in the Nordic countries, partly because of the tension between the forward-looking rhetoric of what the report calls the globalized system and what interviewees with more practical involvement have said, partly because of the voluminous literature on models of capital construction and maintenance that only look at Northern Europe or the UK.

In a similar manner to the webinar about the Italian and Turkish cases, there is going to be a webinar about this one. The date is the 20th of September, 17:00 Central European Summer Time (UTC+2); here is the Zoom registration page. It will take the format of a short presentation, around half an hour, to be followed by a Q&A of indefinite duration, and I will try not to be mostly negative – even with the cost overruns, Nya Tunnelbanan is noticeably cheaper per km than the average 2020s subway, and there are a lot of commendable aspects of the Nordic model of infrastructure construction including at least one (labor efficiency) that is superior to the otherwise-cheaper Southern European models.

Watch Our Webinar on Construction Costs Tomorrow

The Italy case, done by Marco Chitti, is up on the website. I encourage people to read the entire report on how Italy has set things up in the last 20-30 years so as to have one of the lowest-cost urban rail infrastructure programs in the world. The Turkey case, by Elif Ensari, will be up shortly.

This is leading to a webinar, to be done tomorrow at 16:00 my time, 10:00 New York time, in which Marco and Elif will present their cases to the general public. I encourage people to register; you’ll be able to ask us questions and we’ll answer in chat or on video. But if you can’t make it, it will be recorded.

Notes on Accessibility and Chronic Pain

I’m surrounded by people who have various chronic pain disorders. I’m not sure why this is; people with disabilities tend to be marginalized and made invisible, and this is especially true for disabilities other than what’s become the universal symbol for the community, the wheelchair. I speculate that queer communities make chronic pain more visible because they normalize talking about one’s body, and this way people casually tell me about their Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), their chronic fatigue, their sciatica, their epilepsy, their motion sickness, their sensory issues, their car crash injuries. Not all of the people I’ve spoken to about this in the last five years are queer, but a hefty proportion are, likely a majority, and the rest tend to be public transit advocates who are sensitive to this issue. This makes it not a perfect ethnography, but I do think the combination of talking to experts and members of the lay public is good at showing some of what transit planners have unfortunately so far overlooked.

The issue of chronic pain

Public accommodations for disabled people look at a few classes of disabilities. Wheelchair users are the best-known and form the universal symbol for the group, to the point that the name of the program in Britain is “step-free access”; it makes sense since elevator installation on subways is the most expensive retrofit required, but is not the only issue. Two additional important classes are blind and deaf people; for their benefits, systems install tactile pavements on platforms and arrange things so that station announcements are both visible from the train and clearly audible.

However, chronic pain syndromes are not on the list of disabilities to be so covered by design standards. The assumption is that invisible disabilities do not really exist; one person suffering from both EDS and complications from a debilitating car crash told me that they considered walking around with a cane, not because they needed it, but because otherwise people would assume they were able-bodied and freely run into them and not accommodate their need for a seat at public facilities.

Compounding this issue is the matter of spoons. Spoons are, in the disability community, an analog of hit points or mana pool in RPGs, an abstracted level of energy that is drained by routine activities, such as household chores, work, having a difficult conversation with a romantic partner, or dealing with medical care. In addition to having a more limited pool of spoons, people with disabilities also have to deal with a medical care system that is often adversarial and hostile; doctors flat out disbelieve patients’ pain, especially when they are women or racial minorities, which issue has been publicized more broadly with post-viral fatigue for long covid. The upshot of spoons is that people with disabilities can expend a spoon and act in ways that do not appear different from the behavior of able-bodied people, such as boarding a bus with poor ride quality, but they can’t do so consistently, and accessibility standards should acknowledge this and figure out how to minimize spoon consumption.

The issue of long covid makes accommodations for people with chronic pain an especially pertinent issue. Corona is not the first infection to lead to long-term ill effects, but because it is so much more virulent than the flu and the cold, it affects many more people, including many middle-class people who are used to getting what they need from the medical system to obtain a diagnosis. A hefty fraction of the population has been made permanently disabled, outside corona fortresses like Taiwan, and this means that going forward, access for this class of people will be a serious public issue.

Disability and harassment

People with disabilities do not expect the general public or any authority to be sympathetic to them or their needs. Twitter is full of threads giving people advice about how to deal with hostile doctors, and both in public and in private, people who require regular medical care think little of the medical establishment; I suspect one of the connections with queerness is that trans people tend to have a similar negative experience.

This lack of sympathy includes outright harassment. It’s lesser-known than sexual harassment, but it follows a similar pattern: one asshole makes derisive or threatening remarks, and the general public stands by. In some cases, the public may want to be helpful but not know how and thereby make things worse: one of my interviewees spoke of a friend who has seizures and is afraid to take public transport because if they have an episode on a bus then people might try to help them in the wrong way such as sticking a spoon in their mouth, which could lead to broken teeth.

The people I’ve interviewed who mentioned harassment or public hostility to me, including women and men, did not propose the same mechanisms as women who are afraid of sexual harassment. Women who worry about sexual harassment tend to complain about a general fear of crime, mentioning problems like poor lighting, obstructed sight lines, and loitering, and positives like nearby retail and safety in numbers. I have not heard the same from the disabled people I’ve spoken to. To the extent there’s a specific ask, it’s better public awareness and training, in common with people with other disabilities (wheelchair users object to strangers touching their wheelchairs without permission).

Trains, buses, and automobiles

Most of my interviewees have said that they prefer trains to buses, often strongly. Trains have better ride quality; buses are rickety and make them feel more fatigued, motion sick, or in outright pain. Some did not mention mode choice either way; I don’t recall any who explicitly said they are indifferent between bus and rail transit. The better ride quality of trains must be viewed as a key factor behind the rail bias, the observation that at equal speed and other amenities, trains get around 40% more ridership than buses.

Other opinions are variable. Some have said that even trains induce fatigue, and as a result, they drive everywhere; others have explicitly said the otherwise and prefer trains to cars on ride quality and motion sickness grounds. Bikes are less clear – the German chronic pain podcaster I talked to said that she has difficulty riding bikes but public transit is fine, and the Americans I’ve talked to did not say much about bikes, but then American cities are in general not nearly as bike-friendly as Berlin.

The magnitude of the bus effect varies by person, type of bus, and system. Reasons people have cited for avoiding buses include sudden acceleration and deceleration cycles, uncomfortable seats, insufficient straps to hold on, brake squeal, old buses in general, the noise and rattling of the diesel engine, and the experience of waiting at a bus stop on the street with nowhere to sit. Trolleybuses, lacking a diesel engine, are better according to some but not all people I have spoken to. One person emphasized that driving on the same arterial road used by a bus was much better than riding the bus, singling out Denver for its poor ride quality in comparison with the better buses of Sydney.

Trains vary in quality too. One interviewee complained that the ride quality on the Washington Metro deteriorated after the system switched from automatic (albeit not driverless) operation with smooth acceleration and braking to manual driving, leading to motion sickness.

One thing I did not hear commonly despite asking multiple times was complaints about walking. To the contrary, one source, familiar with modern transit planning conventions, explicitly said they’re fine with walking longer to consolidated stops, and another would walk longer distances to the subway to avoid the bus. But one planner, Allan Rosen who has proposed many bus reforms in New York, has argued in public that his sciatica makes walking longer to the bus stop more difficult.

The need for seats

It’s understood that in public accommodations, the disabled, elderly, and pregnant should have first priority for seats. Signs and PSAs remind passengers on trains and buses to get up if they see such a person, designating priority seats near the doors; there are also strong social norms about getting up for elderly people (my mother taught me this when I started riding the bus alone, at age 10).

This is compounded for people with invisible disabilities. Passengers will not spontaneously get up for someone who is in physical pain. When I would get sick enough that my legs hurt, I had no expectation of being able to get people to give me a seat, and had to seize what I could on Vancouver buses. This is one of the reasons as mentioned above one of my sources considered walking with a cane, which they otherwise did not need.

The implication is that seats must be available. Every bus stop must have a bench and shelter on a system that expects people who are not desperately poor to ride public transport. Train stations and other public facilities must have ample seating space for the general public as well; the hostile architecture trend of eliminating seating in order to repel homeless people must cease.

On vehicles, the seating-standing space tradeoff is murkier. Trains that cram many seats into the same space at the expense of standing space end up cramped. Moreover, for the people I’ve interviewed, a short period of standing typical of urban rail trips, of perhaps 10 minutes or even 20, is tolerable, even at the expense of some spoon expenditure.

Motion sickness

There is ample literature studying motion sickness on various forms of transport, public and private. Examples include Dobie et al cited in Persson, and Cohen et al, regarding trains; Griffin-Turner 1 and 2 regarding buses; and Li-Reda-Butz and Ittner-Mühlbacher-Weisswange regarding car drivers and passengers with further implications to buses.

One of my sources also told me of getting vertigo on the long escalators of the deepest stations of the Washington Metro, those on the Red Line as it transitions from running under hilly terrain to ducking under Rock Creek.

In general, motion sickness levels show great heterogeneity. Backward-facing seats, which the literature implies are less comfortable and which get a 5% discount on Korean high-speed trains, are no trouble for those sources who I asked directly, and yet they are unusually bad for me, an otherwise able-bodied person. Much depends on exact characteristics of acceleration, smoothness of ride, and road quality.

Sensory issues

A pair of people who I interviewed together told me about sensory issues. Those are even worse-known than physical chronic pain, and have implications for system design that are at odds with current norms. The issue is that of lighting quality: lighting that is too harsh or unnatural can induce migraines and repel passengers. The Denver system, already bad for its physical ride quality, also has such harsh white light at stations and on vehicles.

Sensory issues are especially delicate, as the worst cases can induce seizures, and people who get seizures are an important constituency for public transportation as many cannot drive for fear they might be incapacitated while on the road and cause an accident.

The language of universal design

The trend within accessibility advocacy is toward universal design and fostering independence. To that end, wheelchair users are promulgating norms in which it is prohibited to touch a stranger’s wheelchair without consent. Gap standards incorporate this norm by mandating such narrow gaps between train or bus and platform that a wheelchair user can safely traverse it without requiring someone else to push them. For the same reason, there is some agitation by wheelchair users in the United States against local regulations that require drivers to strap them in when they board a bus, such as those of New York City Transit, robbing them of their independent mobility.

Likewise, the trend is toward universal design, rather than special accommodations. Nobody wants to be judged for demanding special treatment or delaying other passengers; my sources, all either middle-class or aspiring to that status, have never once mentioned paratransit as an option. In this mentality, elevators are a lifeline for people in wheelchairs but are also useful for able-bodied people with strollers or heavy luggage, tactile pavements help prevent accidents, and clear audiovisual announcements help able-bodied passengers who are not alert during the trip and are especially helpful for people who don’t speak the language. And far from an obscure radicalism, the practice of universal design was first explained to me by Laura Brelsford, assistant general manager of accessibility at the MBTA.

Accommodating people with EDS, motion sickness, sciatica, or especially in the coming generation long covid is likewise a matter of universal design. Better ride quality on buses and trains means that I have a better user experience and (through precise computer control) faster trips while people who are more sensitive to motion sickness can ride at all without vomiting. Railstituting buses with trams where appropriate likewise has wide-reaching benefits, accruing again the most to people with chronic fatigue, and the same is true of the intermediate option of using trolleybuses or IMC. Bus shelter has very high impact relative to its cost, and this again especially benefits people who can’t stand for 10 minutes waiting for a bus.

All of these design issues are difficult to quantify. This makes them invisible to the manager who asks for metrics and data for everything as an excuse for inaction, as invisible as the chronic pain sufferers who they most benefit. But they are real, and from a broad enough view, their impact on the use and health of a public transport network is large.

The Scope and Future of Our Project on Costs

I was on a panel at Eno’s symposium on costs, talking with other teams investigating comparative construction costs. We worked off a list of questions Eno’s Robert Puentes had sent us before, knowing that the list was too long for five people (me, Eric, Laura Tolkoff, Ethan Elkind, Romic Aevaz) to cover in an hour. So for more completeness, here are my responses – and pay attention specifically to issues of scope and what we should be doing in the future. In particular, as we’re getting funded to do other things, we will likely have room in the budget to add a few more cases, and hire people who can put them together.

What were your key takeaways on the extent of our cost premium, and key cost drivers?

I blogged this just before the panel. The only major headers I’ll add are poor interagency coordination in the United States, especially for projects that are or touch commuter rail, and a political system full of real and imagined veto points. The imagined veto points are not unique to the US – the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands all have visible problems with excessive tunneling on high-speed rail projects coming from NIMBY demands, NIMBY demands that at least in the first two cases are paper tigers that the state can ignore if it doesn’t mind a few news cycles with negative headlines.

Questions on scope

There were three separate questions on this, since our approaches differ – Eno has more cases covered in less depth (and we made sure to pick disjoint comparison cases from theirs), Berkeley focuses on California projects. So we went through questions about what our respective scopes and limitations are:

  1. Could you walk us through the general scope and bounds of your work?
  2. What were some of the limitations you ran into when collecting information on costs/timeline, and what recommendations would you have to improve data reporting for projects?
  3. What are some of the lingering questions or areas for future study that your teams have flagged?

The answer to all three is that our scope – the six cases – looks at specific issues rather than general ones. The forest comprises trees and cannot be studied as an ecosystem until one understands the biology of the tree species therein. But then, understanding the biology of the tree species requires understanding the ecosystem they have evolved in; the reason we do cases simultaneously is that hearing about issues arising in one place informs our work on other places.

That said, I think it matters that none of our six cases is typical. Medium-cost environments like France, Germany, and Japan are unfortunately not in scope; I’ve read a lot of work on cot issues plaguing Grand Paris Express, but unfortunately not in any global or even just European comparative sense. All of our cases are Western (for infrastructure purposes Turkey is a Western country); this matters because, while European and East/Southeast Asian costs are broadly the same, both covering the entire global range short of American costs, there are notable differences in how they build, so it’s plausible that there re things one side does right that the other doesn’t in both directions. All of our cases are first-world or, in Istanbul’s case, 1.5th-world.

This means that we would like to add cases. Attractive targets include anything in Spain, to beef up our set of low-cost examples, and then cases that represent examples we didn’t study, that is places that are medium-cost, non-Western, or not in or in the penumbra of the developed world. My suspicion is that medium-cost examples will interpolate practices – Germany and France both vaguely appear to mix good Scandinavian or Southern European behavior with bad British and American behavior, each in its own way. But I do not know and that’s why we’d like to add cases. In middle-income countries like Russia, Mexico, Brazil, and China, and in low-income ones like India or the Philippines, I do not really know what to expect and my only explanation so far is completely different from any first-world pattern.

We should have a budget for this, but I don’t yet know how many cases we can juggle in addition to where we’re going to shift the main of our attention starting in early 2022, that is high-speed rail and a synthesis for the Northeast Corridor. Most likely other people will write the cases (for pay of course) and we will supervise in between looking at the history and technical data of the Northeast Corridor.

We Ran a Conference About Rail Modernization (Again)

Modernizing Rail 2021 just happened. Here’s a recording of the Q&A portion (i.e. most) of the keynote, uploaded to YouTube.

As more people send in materials, I’ll upload more. For now, here are the slides I’ve gotten:

A bunch of us tweeted the talks using the hashtag #ModernRail2021, including some that were not recorded.