Category: Personal/Admin

I Gave a Followup Talk at TransitCon

Hayden Clarkin’s online conference TransitCon just happened, and I was drafted at the last minute to give a talk about construction costs. Here are the slides; for the most part, they’re a compressed version of slides that regular readers have seen before, except done in Beamer rather than Google Slides.

Cognizant of the fact that most people at TransitCon would have heard of me and our research and many would have read the reports or at least seen me, Eric, Marco, or Elif talk about them, I rushed through the description of our report. Instead of just going over trodden ground, I added slides at the end describing new issues we’d learned about since writing the synthesis, which was in a fairly advanced draft in late summer 2022 already. This fell into two categories: new obstacles, and reactions of people in power.

The new obstacles slide talks about the issue of last-minute squeaking (in the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” aphorism, which can and should be changed to “squeaky wheel gets replaced”). The most glaring examples of gross surplus extraction for Second Avenue Subway and the Green Line Extension all happened fairly early in the process.

In contrast, since then, Eric has spent so much time working in Seattle he could given time make an entire case out of its ongoing problems, and there, some of the extraction has been late in the project: one suburb’s fire department demanded construction in excess of the normal fire codes or else it wouldn’t certify the stations in its jurisdiction as fire-safe. In Dallas, the city itself is grabbing surplus: it’s demanding betterments and holding up the DART Silver Line until it gets them, adding $150,000 a day to the cost of the project. These two examples are both late in the process, after the Full Funding Grant Agreement has been signed; but once there is a political commitment, a local actor can still hope to grab surplus by demanding unreasonable changes.

But it’s really better to view this issue as one of top-level cowardice and unwillingness to take responsibility. The solution in Seattle is not hard: dissolve the department and have it taken over by the state or by Seattle proper. But whoever does that in effect takes ownership of every single fire in the suburb, and this requires taking more responsibility than American politicians and their appointees are used to.

The reaction of people in power plays to how they treat obstacles. I wrote a title for that slide, The Self-Hating State, and then deleted it and replaced it with the less toothy Public Officials and Consultants. But in effect what we see when we present the results to sympathetic federal and state officials who want to do better (i.e. not the MTA) is that most government officials don’t like the government very much. Their eyes glaze over the sort of technical and economic points that their counterparts here talk about, and instead they talk about how consultants have more long-term experience, when most of what the consultants know is how poorly-managed projects are built and where they do have positive knowledge (like the standardization of construction in Copenhagen) they’re not listened to.

Even more frustrating is their reaction to red tape. They take it as a given that the government must involve red tape; the same red tape in the private sector is invisible to them, such as when Seattle-area construction involves multiple jurisdictions each with its own consultants. But more fundamentally, these are people who can rewrite regulations, formally or informally, to make things easier; they just consider a government that works unthinkable.

We Gave a Talk About Our Construction Costs Report

Here are the slides; they are not in Beamer format but in Google Slides. They’re largely a summary of the New York report with analysis informed by the overview with more direct comparisons with other cities, and for example the recommendation section won’t tell you anything you didn’t know if you’ve read the overview or heard me talk about this issue before.

But I want to highlight one addition: the cost history of New York, on slides 5-8. Costs were elevated even in the 1930s; the references are JRTR for New York, Pascal Désabres for Paris, and Tube History for London. Midcentury New York costs are sourced to New York Magazine, with a Wikipedia article providing some references that match those numbers. The excessive costs of works in the 1930s ensured that the budget would not be sufficient to build desirable lines like Second Avenue Subway, an extension of the Nostrand Avenue Line to Sheepshead Bay, and a line under Utica; those costs kept growing into the 1950s and 60s, and the total amount of money at hand for Second Avenue Subway in the 1950s, about a fifth of the intended budget, would have built the entire line at the then-current costs of Milan or Stockholm. At even semi-reasonable costs, the budget identified for Second Avenue Subway in the late 1990s would have built the entire line, where instead it was cut into four phases with the money only sufficient to build the first.

The overall presentation was a bit stressful for me, especially at the beginning; the talk started at 3 in the afternoon and we finished the slide deck around 2:45. It was better afterward. One caution is that while the talk was recorded, it was a cellphone recording from the back, so Elif and I were not easy to hear. Another is that there were people I was hoping to talk to after the presentation that I didn’t get to; the attendance was on the order of 80 people, and we needed the full two hours we had the room booked for the presentation and Q&A afterward.

A number of people asked us if anything was changing. Eric seems more optimistic that people are listening. I’m less so; we’re talking to some people at government agencies but I can’t tell how important they are (I do not speak Washingtonian and cannot tell from the name and title of someone I talk to where they are on the spectrum of “someone who follows me on social media” to “Pete Buttigieg’s closest confidant”). At the MTA, things are not changing for the better; union head John Samuelsen is under the impression that French employers don’t have to pay pensions, MTA Construction and Development head Jamie Torres-Springer thinks the Second Avenue Subway stations have higher ridership than the stations of Citybanan, MTA head Janno Lieber is in full denial mode, and so on. The excuses might be getting more sophisticated, but, fundamentally, an American manager whose gut reaction to any kind of global benchmarking is to assert with perfect confidence that European employers don’t have to pay benefits needs to be fired and retrained, not given advice on how to come up with more plausibly-sounding excuses. Lieber and Torres-Springer are worth negative billions of dollars to the city and the state while they remain employed.

While some things are improving, the procurement problems are getting worse due to the growing privatization of the state, and, fundamentally, none of those people is willing to admit their mistake. There are some ongoing experiments in New York with itemized costs, but only as part of a PPP privatization, and only as pilots, where the place where itemizing costs and technical scoring are the most helpful is in the biggest and most complex contracts. Government-by-pilot doesn’t work any more than any of the other gimmicks that dimwitted political appointees use to avoid taking responsibility for decisions.

I’m Giving a Talk in New York on 3/3

We’re launching the Transit Costs Project conclusion and New York case this Friday at 3 pm. Unlike the October panel, this will not be moderated – Eric, Elif, and I will just talk about our report and take questions from the audience. While the talk will almost certainly be recorded, if you’re in the area you should still come in-person in order to be able to ask questions and interact.

As in our October event, the location is room 1201 of 370 Jay Street in Brooklyn, right on top of the subway stop that carries its name with A/C, F, and R service, and not far from other Downtown Brooklyn stops like Borough Hall on the 2/3/4/5, DeKalb Avenue on the B/Q, and Hoyt-Schermerhorn on the G. The building has access control so please tell us your name and email on this RSVP form so that security will know you can get in. If you crash the event you may still be allowed in but I won’t know until the day of, so do RSVP if you think you may attend; technically the room is capped at 180 people, around half seated, but I don’t expect to fill to even seated capacity, so don’t worry about taking someone else’s place.

Our Construction Costs Reports are Out!

Both the New York-specific report and the overall synthesis of all five cases plus more information from other cities are out, after three years of work.

At the highest level, it’s possible to break down the New York cost premium based on the following recipe:

To explain the animation a bit more:

  • New York builds stations that are 3 times too expensive – either 3 times too big (96th Street) or twice as big but with a mining premium (72nd and 86th Streets). The 2.06 factor is what one gets when one takes into account that stations are 77% of Second Avenue Subway hard costs. This is independent of the issue of overall train size, which is longer in New York than in most (though not all) comparison cities.
  • New York’s breakdown between civil structures and systems is about 53.5:46.5, where comparable cases are almost 3:1. This is caused by lack of standardization of systems and finishes, which ensures that even a large project has no economies of scale. This is a factor of about 2.3 increase in system costs, which corresponds to an overall cost increase of a factor of about 1.35. Together with the point above, this implies that the tunneling premium in New York is low, compared with system and station cost premiums, which I did notice in comparison with one Parisian project five years ago.
  • Labor is 50% of the hard costs in the Northeastern United States; in our comparison cases, it ranges between 19% and 31%, and in Stockholm, which as the highest-wage comparison city is our closest analog for the United States, Citybanan’s contract costs were 23% labor. The difference between 50% labor and 25% labor is a factor of 3 difference in labor, coming from a combination of blue- and white-collar overstaffing and some agency turf battles that are represented as more workers, and a factor of 1.5 difference in overall costs.
  • Procurement problems roughly double the costs; the factor of 1.85 is 2/1.08, dividing out by the usual 8% profit factor in Italy. Those problems can be broken out in different ways, but include red tape imposed by American agencies, red tape imposed by some specific regulations, a risk compensation factor whenever risk is privatized (just not itemizing costs by itself adds 10-20%, and there are other aspects of risk privatization).
  • Third-party design costs add more. There are two ways to analyze it, both of which give about the same figure of a factor of 1.2 increase in costs: first, third-party design and management costs add 21% to Second Avenue Subway’s hard costs where various European comparanda add 7-8%, but the 21% should be incremented to 31% by adding the factor of 1.5 labor premium; and second, the inclusion of all soft costs combined is around 25% extra in Italy and 50% extra in New York, with the caveat that what counts as soft costs and what’s bundled into the hard costs sometimes differ.

I urge people to quote the cost premium as, at a minimum, a factor of 9-10, and not 9.34; please do not mistake the precision coming from needing to multiply numbers for accuracy.

I also urge people to read the conclusion and recommendations within the synthesis, because what we’ve learned the best practices are is not the same as what many reformers in the Anglosphere suggest. In particular, we urge more in-house hiring and deprivatization of risk, the exact opposite of the recipe that has been popularly followed in English-speaking countries in the last generation with such poor results.

Finally, if people have questions, please ask away! I read all comments here, and check email, and will vlog tomorrow on Twitch at 19:00 Berlin time and write any followups that are not already explained in the reports.

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 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 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.


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.