Category: Personal/Admin

Modernizing Rail Unconference

On Sunday the 12th of July, a few of us public transit activists are going to hold a conference online called Modernizing Rail, focusing on better service and integration in the Northeastern United States. Our keynote speaker will be Vukan Vuchic, the Serbian-American UPenn transportation professor who imported German rail modernization schemas from the 1970s, including the concept of regional rail; he will speak about the history of this in the context of SEPTA, which built much of the S-Bahn infrastructure (e.g. S-Bahn through-running tunnel) but has not done many other important things such as fare integration and coordinated planning with urban transit.

Update 2020-07-04: due to a family health emergency, Vuchic cannot make it. Therefore we will have an alternate keynote address by Michael Schabas, entitled Using Business Case Analysis to Design Better Railways.

Schabas has been finding ways to make railways deliver more and cost less for 40 years, shaping urban, intercity, and high speed rail projects in Canada, England, and the USA, and operating passenger and freight railways in England and Australia. He is the author of The Railway Metropolis – how planners, politicians and developers shaped Modern London. Since 2014 he has been advising Toronto’s Metrolinx on the $20 billion upgrading and electrification of the GO Rail system, and the $28.5 billion expansion of Toronto’s subway system. Michael is a Partner in FCP, a rail strategy boutique based in the UK advising clients on rail developments and projects around the world

The keynote will be between 11 am and noon Eastern time.

After the keynote, we will hold unconference-style sessions. For people who have not seen this style before, this means that we solicit ideas from the entire body of attendees for breakout sessions, and then by consensus, depending on the number of attendees and what they are interested in, split into rooms for further discussion of the selected topics. There will be three slots for breakouts: 1-2, 2:15-3:15, 3:30-4:30 pm, all Eastern time; the number of breakouts will depend greatly on the number of attendees, which at this point we are uncertain about. The breakouts may include pure discussions or presentations, and we also solicit expressions of interest in presenting if there’s an issue you have particular interest and expertise in.

There will be more information available on social media, but to register, please complete this form. You can create an account on Journey for this if you’d like, in which case you can save your progress and come back later, but this is not a long form and you can complete it in one go without registration.

The conference will be held on Zoom, with link emailed shortly before the event takes place.

Quick Note: Queer Urbanism

I came out on Twitter the other night. I bring this up here because I was asked something I didn’t, and still don’t, have a really good answer for: how come there are so many queer people, especially ones who are trans or genderqueer, in rail advocacy? This may be just an American question – my impression of German rail advocacy is that it’s much straighter.

On Twitter, there were a few explanations, none of which too satisfying:

  • Autism correlates with queerness (see e.g. here for autism-LGB spectrum correlation and here and here for dysphoria) and also with interest in trains. But then even if one only looks at allistic people, a pretty hefty share of people at (say) TransitMatters are LGBT.
  • Urbanism. The visible queer community is more urban than the general population, for reasons that I don’t want to get into because serious urbanists and Richard Florida have discussed them for decades. Even conditioned on living in a big city with public transportation, the advocacy community is disproportionately queer (again, TransitMatters), but it’s plausible that the same factors making the queer community more urban also make its travel patterns more transit-oriented.
  • Something about American liberal politics mostly drawing from a few groups: queers, Jews, and black people (and maybe other nonwhites). But that is clearly not true of every single political issue, for example the people I can think of in American health care advocacy are straight, and queer activism on health care is often about queer-specific topics like AIDS and trans health care.
  • YIMBY is specifically a fairly queer movement, and the most successful American one, that of San Francisco, is extremely queer; good public transportation advocacy in the US is very YIMBY. But that correlation raises separate questions regarding why good transit advocacy is so YIMBY and why YIMBY has so many LGBT members.

I genuinely don’t know how much of this even holds outside the US. It’s plausible that in countries where passenger rail planning is a career that the average voter of the mainline right party approves of, people with the sexual orientation that the average voter of the mainline right party approves of are more likely to pursue rail advocacy. I don’t have enough knowledge of the political landscape in enough cities to be able to speak comparatively across countries, and if you know more, I urge you to share in comments.

Our Project

Eric Goldwyn and I have just signed a two-year grant contract for our big construction cost project; we’re working via NYU, him on-site in New York and me remotely in Berlin (at least for now).

We’re hiring!

Our budget includes extensive spending on people who are not Eric or me. For now, we are looking for part-time grad student work to help with data collection. We have an ad circulating internally around NYU, but it’s also open to outsiders:

We are looking to hire up to three students from around the university to help us compile data on infrastructure costs from around the world, especially those of urban subway lines. Specifically, we are looking to understand the drivers of costs—why do public transportation infrastructure projects in one city cost more than in another city? We have already begun collecting this data on projects from around the world and would like to extend these efforts.

We are particularly looking to extend our coverage outside countries where information is readily available in English, such as the English-speaking world or Western Europe. The information we need consists first of all of headline costs of public transportation infrastructure costs, but then of more detailed breakdowns, such as construction techniques, ancillary projects, financing mechanism, the environmental review process, the legal situation, labor size, etc.

The ideal candidate will thus have the following skills:

  • Reading fluency in a foreign language used in a country or countries with major ongoing urban rail construction, such as Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Russian, or Arabic.
  • Either preexisting familiarity with engineering terms (such as “cut-and-cover”) or the ability to learn them quickly.
  • Database software, such as Excel or more advanced statistical analysis software.
  • Data analysis or data science techniques useful for small N.
  • Self-motivation and independence, for example in finding relevant information to add to the database.
  • Good oral and written communication skills.
  • Punctuality and promptness – deadlines are written in stone.

Drs. Alon Levy and Eric Goldwyn will supervise all students and work side by side with them to extract the most value from the data. There will also be opportunities to collaborate on writing projects related to the data collection efforts.

If you’re interested, please email both me at and Eric at If you only have half the listed skills, you should probably still apply, especially if these skills include a foreign language that other applicants won’t know.

We will also hire more people as time goes by. We have a budget for a postdoc-level research scholar, so if you’re graduating this year please keep in touch – I’ll post updates when we know our exact timeline, since the grant period isn’t neatly in line with academic years, but it’s a minimum one-year full-time position at NYU, one that for visa purposes is treated as an academic job (thus exempt from the work visa cap).

The goal

The ultimate deliverable in the project is a long report – I’m guessing mid-3 figures number of pages – detailing why American costs are high and what can be done about it. The report should include the following:

  • The database of construction costs, broken down to include not just headline costs but also details about construction methods, construction costs by component (stations, tunnels, systems, etc.), rock type, procurement methods, and other relevant variables.
  • A highlight of what the important variables are for explaining differences in construction costs, including hopefully a few sentences about the situation in each major city in the database (or if not each then many, on the order of 30+).
  • Potentially related databases of construction costs if we get them in sufficient detail and judge them to be comparable, such as for road tunnels, high-speed rail, rail electrification, surface tramways, and urban rail accessibility retrofits.
  • A brief how-we-got-here historical overview covering institutional and engineering background to how American infrastructure construction differs from that of most other countries.
  • Six (at least) detailed city-level case studies. New York may or may not end up as one of them; Boston almost certainly will, for work we have been doing about the Green Line Extension. The case study selection needs to happen early – this calendar year, and not near its end – and this means we need to identify solid sources who will speak to us about the historical, institutional, legal, and social factors at play.
  • A conclusion synthesizing everything to give a coherent recipe for how American (and really English-speaking in general) cities can reduce their construction costs to rest-of-world levels, and ideally even further to match the costs in cheaper countries like Spain, Switzerland, Italy, South Korea, Romania, and the Nordic countries.
  • A higher level of synthesis suggesting what a rail network for New York could look like at the lower costs we are proposing.

If you know sources who can talk to us – for example, people at agencies that are building urban rail outside the English-speaking world – then please reach out to us.

The test

I feel good about this – about the recognition, and about the ability to study comparative costs without the stress of looking for temporary gigs. I’m reaching out to various contacts and contacts-of-contacts in a number of cities that are building urban subways, and if anyone has suggestions for who I should talk to, please shoot me an email or mention what you know in comments, as this is a field with a huge base of knowledge.

But at the same time I feel terrified, because I can fail. The project is not going to completely flop, because the database already exists and there’s even more data out there that we already got but just haven’t published. But from getting even an exhaustive database to being able to make actionable recommendations the route is long, and involves case studies and qualitative research and emailing people who have no reason to have heard of me or Eric and often just don’t respond. I think it’s very likely we’ll be able to come up with a useful writeup, and decently likely that this writeup will include a recipe for building subways in New York for $200-300 million per kilometer rather than $2 billion ($100 million/km, as in Madrid and such, is aspirational).

But it’s not guaranteed. We can fail at any number of places: managing the students, finding detailed enough cost breakdowns to identify where the US fails, having broad enough coverage to write multiple case studies, getting enough experts who’ve built cheap subways to talk to us, and so on. The report I mentioned above will get written and published, but whether there is an actionable conclusion remains to be seen, and even if the conclusion is actionable, I don’t know how politically realistic it will be.

Doing this research without really knowing what we’ll find is frustrating this way. The conclusion may well be “the US needs to bust the construction unions.” I don’t think such a conclusion is likely from what we’ve seen so far, but I cannot 100% rule out that it is a significant factor. Or it may be “the US needs to get rid of common law,” which is even less likely to happen; I thought this was an important factor until 2018 or 2019. What is likelier is that a lot of local notables and small-time bureaucrats may need to be cut out of the loop entirely through more streamlined project reviews with fewer veto points, which is politically plausible but requires a governor or a federal government with a modicum of political courage to execute.

What it means for this blog

I’m going to keep posting, at the usual rate of twice a week averaged over time. If I find interesting snippets, I may post them before releasing the report; to some extent I’ve already been doing that with smaller projects. I am still going to think a lot about issues of network design and urbanist politics and will keep writing about those topics.

My Patreon is still around if people want to give me money even though I’m not lacking for it at this point. I’ve been slouching on some of the rewards as I spent months not freelancing (thus, not getting ideas to mine for extra backers-only posts and polls) but finalizing this contract, and now that I have the contract at hand and the project is starting I can go back to it as promised.

In parallel with the costs project, I am going to keep thinking about network design and come up with proposals like this one for New York and New England or this one for Germany; I’ve been thinking about an integrated America-takt or a Europe-takt, at vastly larger scale than any national plan so far, even China’s (which only covers high-speed rail and has no regional rail worth mentioning). Subject to upcoming election results, the scope of what budget is realistic may be narrow enough that I can think in terms of what a specific dollar or euro figure could do.

This of course relates to construction costs – the lower the costs, the more stuff can be built for the same amount of money. Moreover, at high enough level, absolute costs do matter: a Green Deal with €150 billion investment Germany-wide or a Green New Deal with $600 billion US-wide is a big enough proportion of GDP so as to hit real limits to tax capacity and deficit spending, so reductions in unit costs are in 1-to-1 correspondence with building more green infrastructure.

This is why costs ultimately matter. A single subway project may look like a drop in the bucket of the national budget, but when it’s bundled with the costs of an entire public transportation network, and those costs in turn are bundled with those of other major government priorities, the drop becomes a bucket and then a river and then an ocean. The biggest successes in public transportation are plans that look at everything simultaneously and integrate every aspect of operations and infrastructure, and the more cost-efficient these plans are, the further they can reach. There is no way around it.

I’m Giving a Talk About Construction Costs Tomorrow

By popular demand, I’m giving the talk I gave 2 weeks ago at NYU, again. The database will be revised slightly to include more examples (like Ukraine, which I added between when I gave the talk and when I blogged about it), and I may switch around a few things, but it should be similar to what I already said.

Where? Halyards in Brooklyn at 3rd Avenue and 6th Street, near the 4th Avenue/9th Street subway stop where the F/G and R intersect.

When? Monday December 2nd at 9 pm, for an hour.

Do I need to RSVP? No.

Will there be food? To some extent – the bar has minimal selection, although what it does have on the menu seems better for the price than most American bar food (which, to be fair, is like saying “better public transportation than Los Angeles”).

I Gave a Talk About Transportation in Connecticut

I gave a second talk this week about transportation, this time at Hartford Station, concerning the plans for Connecticut transportation. The starting point is Governor Lamont’s $21 billion plan for investment, including both expansion and repairs (read: the State of Good Repair black hole), of which $14 billion is highways, $6.2 billion is rail, and $450 million is buses. But most of the talk concerns what Connecticut should be doing, rather than the specifics of Lamont’s plan.

Here are my slides. The talk itself took around 40-45 minutes out of a nearly 2-hour meeting, so it was designed around taking many questions, and around further explanations. Something I didn’t put in the slides but explained verbally is how easy the modern track renewal process is. Nowadays, there are machines that use no infrastructure except the tracks themselves, running on the tracks at very low speed (slower than walking) and systematically replacing the rails, ties, and ballast. They can also regrade the tracks’ superelevation angle independently of the drainage angle, changing the tracks’ cant as they go. The upshot is that increasing the cant on tracks is almost cost-free, and would enable large increases in train speed on both regional and intercity trains.

Other technology that has negative cost in the future is getting higher-performance EMUs than the current equipment. The current trains are obsolete technology, built around superseded federal regulations. There’s no point in getting more of the same. They’re okay to run until end of life, but new purchases should involve electrification and modern European EMUs. Whereas infrastructure costs are rising (see here and here), technology costs are falling in real terms. The fall in train costs is not so quick as that of computer costs, but still the rolling stock factories are designed around making products for the 2020s, not the 1990s, and retooling them for older technology costs extra.

Hence my slogan from the talk: better things are possible, on a budget.

One question I was asked at the talk that I didn’t have an answer to was, why is construction in Connecticut so expensive? Plans for infill stations are budgeted extravagantly, ranging between $50 million and $100 million without any special construction difficulties. Boston builds infill stations (counting high-platform upgrades as infill since the preexisting stations have no facilities) for $20-30 million counting various hidden costs (e.g. regular MBTA employees, like project managers, count as operating and not capital costs even if they only work on capital costs); Berlin does for €10-20 million.

After the talk, Roger Senserrich explained to me (and a planner at the MBTA confirmed to me) that in Connecticut there’s no in-house design at all. Massachusetts has a mix of in-house design review, with the team stymied by uncompetitive wages making hiring and retention difficult, and outsourcing work to consultants. CDOT exclusively outsources to consultants, and has no in-house expertise to evaluate whether the contracts are fair or whether it’s being overcharged.

I Gave a Talk About Construction Costs

Two years ago, I gave a talk at NYU about regional rail, and as promised, uploaded slides the next day for discussion. Yesterday I gave another such talk, about construction costs.

But here there are two things to upload: the slides, and the data table. I’ve been intermittently adding cities to a spreadsheet of various urban rapid transit lines and their construction costs, and by now there is a total of 207 distinct items, ranging from 1 km extensions to 3-figure packages like 200-km GPX and 160-km Delhi Metro phases. The total length of the lines in this database right now is 3610 km, of which 2090 are underground. These are almost exclusively new lines – most of them aren’t even open, and most of the rest opened this decade, so be cautious since much of the cost estimation is ex ante and a number of the soon-to-open line on the list have had serious cost overruns.

I hope people make use of this dataset and the preliminary analysis contained in the slides, and I ask that people look at both, since the slides do have some interpretive notes about confounding variables. One note that I did not include in the slides and explained verbally is what source means in the table: media means I’m drawing costs from popular media, trade means trade media like Railway Gazette, plan means official plans (either ex ante or ex post), wiki means Wikipedia (as always, a reliable source for line length and station count, never cost), measured means I measured line length on Google Earth lacking any alternative. One item, Crossrail, has its tunnel cost coming from a freedom of information request submitted by an alert reader who I will credit upon request; the headline budget is somewhat higher as it includes surface improvements, a common confounder for regional rail projects (the RER E extension, for example, splits its budget about 50/50 between the tunnel and above-ground works).

More detailed analysis is forthcoming, either here or in print.


The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago.

I feel weird about where I’m writing this post from. I was expecting to be writing this from Berlin, after visiting the commemorations. But I’m visiting Boston (and New York) right now and the connotation of talking about November 9th as a day of celebration is different from that of Germany, and within Germany the connotation is different in Berlin and elsewhere. The official unification day in Germany is German Unity Day, celebrated on October 3rd; November 9th is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, which is why many (like Elie Wiesel) pushed Germany to pick a date other than Mauerfall.

But in Berlin, where the wall was, Mauerfall celebrations are unavoidable. The Wall itself is unavoidable. One sees it in satellite photos of the northern margins of Mitte. Walking along Bernauerstrasse, one sees the remains of the wall, a park along the Death Strip, the trace of the Tunnel 57 escape route, memorial plaques to the people killed trying to cross. There are historical exhibits farther east of early escape attempts, including one involving a small child whose mother wanted returned but could not get an exit visa to West Berlin lest she defect, leading to a diplomatic spat over who would hand over the child.

As I’m writing this, there’s an exhibit in another escape tunnel, opened to the public for the 30-year anniversary. The mayor of Berlin, a Social Democrat governing in coalition with the Greens and the communist-descended Left, is quoted as saying “One can authentically experience the courage of the women and men who tried to take people to freedom and resisted the East German regime.” This is not a peculiarity of the current mayor or the neoliberal turn of the center-left: then-mayor of West Berlin, future West German Chancellor Willy Brandt dubbed it the Wall of Shame as soon as it came up.

There’s something about the reality of East German communism that turns pacifist social democrats into America Cold Warriors. And that reality is gone now. The immigration debate in the developed world is about entry visas, not exit visas. The communists used to have the world’s second largest political and economic power for inspiration, and today they have a depopulating middle-income country of 30 million.

The Wall fell for East Germany

Branko Milanovic asked five years ago, for whom did the Wall fall?. He was writing from a pan-Eastern European context, one in which a handful of countries prospered, such as Poland and Estonia, while many only tread water, including Russia, and some are poorer than they were in the 1980s, like Ukraine and Serbia.

East Germany must be classified together with Poland in this scheme. Even articles that talk about resentment of the EU and growing racism in East Germany admit that East German economic growth since the end of the Cold War has been impressive. To the extent I can find claims that East Germany has not really been economically integrated, they come from far outside Europe: Paul Krugman argues that former East Germany got massive aid from the West in the 1990s but still depopulated, and a translated Chinese article that I can no longer find, by a cynic opposed to both democracy and the CCP, mocks East Germany for not having gone the Chinese route and not getting Chinese growth rates.

But in reality, there are parts of Berlin, such as the east and southeast sectors coming out of Mitte, where one no longer even notices the Wall. Some Eastern suburbs have high poverty and crime rates; so do many suburbs of entirely Western cities, like Paris. The pattern is that the media likes to focus on high crime rates if those suburbs are populated by ethnic minorities (as in Seine-Saint-Denis) and on the failure of the state to deliver on promised convergence if they’re populated by white people (as in Marzahn).

What of East Germany outside Berlin? The incomes there, according to Eurostat, are better than in most of provincial England and France Spain and in Southern Italy. Brandenburg, which exists as a negative space of suburbs and exurbs around Berlin, is almost as rich as provincial France’s richest regions, Rhône-Alpes and Alsace, and almost as rich as Tuscany, Lazio, and Liguria, all of which are solidly in the rich half of Italy whenever one divides Italy into a rich North and poor South. The poorest former East German state, Saxony-Anhalt, is still richer than Southern Italy and the most deprived parts of Britain, like South Yorkshire and the West Midlands, and comparable to parts of the Midlands and North that are not so often used as metonyms for regional poverty.

The depopulation is real, but should if anything have the opposite effect on incomes: ambitious workers move to the West for the higher wages of Munich and Frankfurt and Hamburg and Stuttgart, retirees and people who cannot work (perhaps because of disabilities) stay in the East and drag the market income down. And yet, with the depopulation, East Germany’s incomes are steadily converging.

Even the racism is not such a big change from before. Under communism, Vietnamese guest workers were deported if they had children. Milanovic himself talks about how beneath the rhetoric of international brotherhood, communism taught people to fear the stranger as a spy or saboteur. Today, the extreme right is getting a lot of votes in most of the East, but is far from a majority, and meanwhile the rest of the political spectrum treats them as illegitimate Nazis; Die Linke governed Thuringia as pro-immigration and froze deportations, and CDU’s record on immigration under Merkel is well-known in and outside Europe.

Cities and integration

A person nearing retirement after a life of low-productivity industrial work building Trabis is not going to have the exact same living standards as a successful engineer. A social state can redistribute incomes through high taxes and transfers; it can compress market incomes through unionization; it can improve income mobility through investment in worker training, free education, and institutions giving people second chances even if they didn’t score well on tests at age 17. Germany has done okay if not amazing well on all three measures.

There’s a rather individualistic way of looking at mobility and integration, focusing on the success of a working-class individual who through hard work, luck, or both managed to make it near the top. But we cannot all be in the top quintile of the income distribution. A better way of looking at integration is to consider the collective range of outcomes of people who grew up in the disfavored group: ethnic minorities, the bottom quintile, East Germany. Integration in this scheme means a combination of income compression and well-mixed percentile ranks within the entire population.

In this scheme, Mauerfall should be considered an unqualified success, and perhaps a model for other cases of integration. This includes interregional inequality in such countries as the UK, Italy, France, and the US, and potentially intraregional inequality in high-inequality areas such as every part of the United States.

Leaving Paris for Berlin

I’m sitting on a train heading to Germany, about to depart Paris. I’m less comfortable writing about myself than some other urbanists I admire like Alex Baca and Kristen Jeffers, but I will still try to explain.

I didn’t intend to live here long-term. As I said two years ago, I moved here for the universities, and stayed even after I left academia, and even as I stayed, I didn’t know it would be for such a long period of time. I kept renting on three-month cycles because with my self-employment and variable income landlords wouldn’t rent to me on an annual contract. Many of the renewals were uncertain, depending on various circumstances like whether I would hear from NYU about grants. But this turned into my longest stint living in the same apartment in my adult life: two years and three months. And now it’s ending.

I spent 2017 building my professional life, sending pitches to anyone I could find an email for. I knew I was in an expensive city, but even then, I looked at housing costs elsewhere and didn’t think I’d even save money net of moving expenses. I still don’t; I don’t expect my living expenses to fall in Berlin once you add mandatory health insurance to rent. This is not why I’m leaving.

Rather, the situation in 2018 got to the point that I needed to ask myself where I really wanted to live. The rule was, anywhere in the EU or where EU citizens could live freely, like Norway. In July I visited London, which was an option depending on how EU migrant rights would be treated under Brexit, but between high rents and trademark Theresa May hostile environment rules in the Brexit deal, it wasn’t so attractive.

So far, all of my moves had been job-related: New York for grad school, then Providence, Vancouver, and Stockholm for a string of postdocs, then Paris to intersect my grad school advisor while I was waiting on an answer from Calgary. Working from home means I had to choose where to live based on which city in Europe I actually liked. I had to ask myself the same question every three months:

Do I like Paris?

For a while, I really did like it here. I saw things that I never got to see in the United States or in Sweden: at the nearby high school, as well as at Bois de Vincennes, white and Arab and black children were playing together. Eastern Paris is the kind of integrated neighborhood that, in North America, everyone pretends to want to build and yet nobody seems capable of building.

I knew about the diesel pollution from my first winter here, but things seemed to be getting better, with a steady decrease in the proportion of cars powered by diesels, Anne Hidalgo’s pedestrianization of streets and city squares, and the Macron cabinet’s hike in taxes on fuel. My best recollection is that the pollution was less bad in the winter of 2017-8 than in 2016-7, and I took it at a sign things were getting better.

The Gilets Jaunes

Macron is not a popular president. Polls consistently put his approval rate in the 30s, even as, as the median French politician on the main issues, he was and still is handily winning reelection against the cadre of sacrificial lambs offered by the parties on the left and right. Previous protest movements concerned labor issues, sometimes winning, as when they defeated his 2017 labor law reforms (since passed in a weaker form last year), and sometimes losing, as when the railway workers struck to fight the SNCF governance reforms.

And then came the Gilets Jaunes, so-called because of the mandatory reflective yellow vests within cars. Their initial grievances were the diesel taxes and the reduction in the speed limit on non-motorway roads from 90 km/h to 80. The taxes were no more popular than any other tax hike, and they got sympathy early, protesting in the usual French way of blocking roads.

Even then, in late November, there were signs they were nastier than the usual. CRIF warned about anti-Semitism at the protests; SOS Racism warned about harassment of immigrants. White Christian France did not listen. Then the Gilets Jaunes escalated to rioting, and even as the public grew hostile to their methods, the state dithered.

The political movements outside En Marche maintained their support. I never had any illusions about La France Insoumise and other far left movements, but the Green Party joined in, echoing the fake news of the extreme right about how what really matters is taxing ship fuel rather than cars. Soi-disant green protesters tried to connect their agenda to that of the Gilets Jaunes, saying “the fight for the climate and the fight for purchase power are the same.” Antifa joined in, having some internal fights with the most overtly fascist members, but not with the main of the movement, which is still about half National Front voters. Nobody saw fit to mention the racism. Politics in France is so white—Macron’s rainbow coalition has a less racially diverse cabinet than Trump, and he’s still under criticism for not being racism enough from both directions; the top far left leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, wrote an angry blog post saying that France did not collaborate with the Nazis in WW2.

The big protest, on December 8th, involved vandalism in central Paris. At Nation things were tamer. I visited briefly and saw an all-white crowd in a neighborhood where these are not the usual demographics. Two people who looked my age or slightly younger, both white, sat on a bench near the square, one taping “down with the state” on the back of the other’s jacket. Everything about that crowd screamed “hipsters going through the motions.” Eastern Paris has a lot of that, too.

Elsewhere, things got a lot worse, with violent threats against foreigners, Jews, and racial minorities. Protesters vandalized stores with graffiti like “Rothschild” and “Juden,” and the reaction among supporters on Twitter was either justification and denial that the Rothschild tag was anti-Semitic, or denial that the Gilets Jaunes were the vandals. This is on top of homophobia (Gilets Jaunes protesters have demanded a referendum on repealing gay marriage) and general idiocy (they oppose mandatory vaccination).

Macron did what France does best in the face of fascism: he surrendered. In overseas France he’d declared martial law, but at home, facing white people, he didn’t; he canceled the planned tax increase, and announced a host of tax cuts and pension benefit increases to try to mollify them. The difference between that and how the state treated Muslim rioters in 2005 was jarring.

A single spineless leader might be survivable, but the entire political system here supports rioters provided they are white. This percolates outside the country. The alt-right is of course in full support, but the decidedly non-extreme Wall Street Journal positively spun the movement as a tax revolt. On the other side, the alt-left celebrated, since it’s always hated Macron. Pan-European anarchists like Quinn Norton celebrated the Gilets Jaunes. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in support of the movement, in response to a tweet saying the police was threatening to join them if the state didn’t increase cops’ pay, and nearly every American socialist I’ve interacted with since has tried to defend her in ways they never would if she’d tweeted in enthusiasm about Pinochet.

Why do I need to be here?

The pollution will not get better, or, if it does, it will be at a glacial rate; the revocation of the diesel taxes will make sure of that. Neither will the French state’s responsiveness to the needs of the city and the people who live here, many of whom are not the grandchildren of the Milice but of its and of the French colonial army’s victims. White Europe’s public intellectuals pattern-matched the movement to a right-populist resurgence that they love to blame on neoliberalism and not on the populists’ racism.

While this was going on, I was glued to AQI. There were days in December when the air here was worse than in Milan, worse than in Katowice. Germany was entirely clean. This is not just an issue of Germany having a government that feels sufficiently guilty about leading the pan-European project that was the Holocaust that it dials down the racism. Somehow, German cities manage far cleaner air than Paris, and the political system there looks forward. The Greens there fight for an open society rather than looking for excuses to protest fuel taxes.

Paris keeps defining itself by global city attractions, like the Opera or the cafes or the museums. But that’s not a reason to live in a city. It’s a reason to visit for a week. Already Hidalgo is unpopular for her attempt to make the city livable, and the poster boards of Nation, once filled with communist slogans and with the face of one crank calling for Frexit, are now filled with posters complaining that the mayor is immiserating the French. If the city and the state are not going to provide basic necessities like clean air and streets that I can cross safely, I don’t really need to live here.

All the programs in the world won’t keep me in a place where I do not get these basic necessities. Even before Macron, France tried to build up tech clusters, which effort has only intensified in the last two years. The state will do anything except improving the business climate and providing services like protecting foreigners from marauding hordes of vandals.

The message the surrender has sent is not just that air quality will remain among Europe’s worst but also that foreigners are not really welcome here. This is not the message Macron wants to send; I get the impression he genuinely wants a more open and more globalized France. But he is unwilling to do what it takes to send the right message. In that way, he is like many ineffectual leaders in semi-democracies like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where there’s no autocracy in the sense of China or Russia, just a crowd of traditionalist pogromchiks who the state either can’t or won’t stop from hacking at gays, religious minorities, or journalists who offended some local notable.

I will miss Paris. I really will. Eastern Paris is delightful and supposed no-go zones like Belleville have grocery stores selling good food items that the European-owned stores don’t. It’s the supposed Real France that’s a problem, defined around closedness, monolingualism, and an ethnic hierarchy.


If I’m looking for a place that’s functional enough I can expect it to not just have clean air but also deal with other social problems appropriately, I don’t have that many options. Eastern Europe is out, Mediterranean Europe not much better, France by definition not good. Ireland might be an option because they speak English there, but moving by plane is a chore and Dublin is ultimately not a large city. Scandinavia is Anglophone and has food items I’m craving at supermarkets that I can’t find anywhere in Paris, but it’s expensive and my two years there were two more than enough.

I told a Twitter follower I was moving to Germany and their first question was “are you a Berlin person or a Munich person?” I of course don’t know the answer to this question, not knowing the subtleties. The Germans I know tend to be northerners; I asked a German professor in Stockholm why the Germans at KTH seem to all be northerners and was told that Scandinavia and northern Germany are similar in ways that are distinct from southern Germany. So I don’t have a basis of comparison, I just know what the rents are and which governments are in charge.

Two years ago, I noticed Berlin’s cheapness, but wasn’t sure where to live, and knew the moving expenses would be high. But given that I have to undertake these moving expenses anyway, I might as well move to the cheaper city. The job market there is weak in the private sector, but since I’m not getting work at someone else’s company either way I might as well go for the cheap rents.

What does this mean?

I will of course keep blogging. I imagine I will talk more about the details of proof-of-payment systems and S-Bahn scheduling and less about driverless metro implementation, but ultimately I read trade publications and look at timetables rather than writing about my experiences taking urban rapid transit. Not much will change—expect a few days’ gap in new posts, but with my schedule of posting eight or nine times per month such gaps are routine anyway. I will just say “here” and mean Berlin and not Paris.

YIMBYTown 2018

I was in New York last week presenting my and Eric Goldwyn’s bus redesign (see post here, with revisions coming soon). YIMBYTown happened just afterward, this weekend in Boston, so I hopped on the train up to go to the conference. I went to the plenary sessions and a selection of the breakout sessions, and, in between the sessions, had a lot of not-especially-heated conversations with various YIMBYs I’d long known online. For the most part I did not have a good time, and I want to explain why, because it’s relevant to the future of YIMBY in general and to any synergy between transportation and development.

The talks

I livetweeted two of the plenary sessions, by Ed Glaeser and Kristen Jeffers. My general impression of Ed Glaeser’s talk is that the first half was boilerplate and the second half included references to various studies, most (all?) by his grad students, regarding zoning, US migration patterns, and other relevant issues. Kristen‘s speech was extremely personal, and built up Kristen’s life story toward the climax of insisting planners must viscerally love the cities they work in. I felt weird about that, since I have the exact opposite visceral reaction to Boston, which gets stronger every time I visit.

The breakout sessions ran the gamut. I went to three on the schedule proper on Friday and two on the unconference schedule on Saturday. The first three were Jarred Johnson and Ted Pyne‘s session on equity and transit-oriented development, Emily Hamilton‘s presentation of her and Eli Dourado’s paper finding that more walkable places in the US have higher property values, and John Myers‘ proposal to encourage more homebuilding by empowering individual blocks (of, say, 20 homeowners or 20 tenants) to upzone. They all had slides and a fair bit of structure (as a moderated discussion in the first one and as economics or policy talks in the second two).

The unconference had four session slots, but I was discussing things individually with other people in the first and last, and only went to the middle two. These were Where New Housing is Being Built, which turned out to be a paper talk by Mercatus’s Salim Furth, with similar structure to Emily’s talk, and an inclusionary housing session, in theory run by Eric Herot and in practice run by Alex Baca and SF YIMBY’s Laura Foote.

My general impressions

The conference was heavily geared toward political marketing. There was very little discussion of policy as is. There are extensive disagreements among people who identify as YIMBY on actual policy issues:

  • Government interventions for housing affordability, including rent control, inclusionary zoning, and public housing; the first and third weren’t discussed at any panel I attended or looked at (judging by the description), and even the IZ discussion was more about discussing IZ than about IZ itself. Some people brought up rent control as a solution to displacement, but for the most part in the context of politically appealing to the poor rather than in the context of asking whether it’s good policy.
  • The relative importance of residential and commercial upzoning; there was just one talk about that subject, which conflicted with another talk I wanted to go to.
  • The typology of housing that’s most useful at scale. Practices differ greatly between cities (e.g. high-rise, mid-rise, missing middle), and to some extent so do YIMBY beliefs about what is most important to encourage. And yet, I didn’t see any discussion of this, in particular the missing middle vs. mid-rise question.
  • Whether demand for urban housing is driven by consumption amenities (like nice sidewalks, cafes, good schools, etc.) or production amenities (proximity to jobs, which cluster for reasons like strong institutions, geography, or preexisting industrial clusters). Ed Glaeser’s talk brought up a few correlates with consumption but did not probe further.

Likewise, the interests of the attendees were different from what I was used to from transit discussions. Many were officials (e.g. city council members) of high-income NIMBY suburbs of Boston, with several coming from Newton. Many were organizers; the conference seemed to be geared toward them. Few were analysts, writers, or the sort of nerds who nitpick everything I say about subway planning and disturbingly often find serious holes in my proposals.

Despite the dominance of organizers, there were some serious organizational gaps, most importantly the unconference structure. It was poorly announced; there was no central space within which one could suggest ideas for unconference talk topics, and instead everything had to be done through the website, which was difficult to access since we were expected to network with other YIMBYs for about twelve hours a day. I only learned how I could either suggest or vote on a topic on Saturday morning after the list had been finalized; I wanted to suggest a discussion of TOD best practices, especially in light of the problem of market-rate housing inherently not being TOD in auto-oriented cities.

The libertarians

The two libertarian talks I went to – Emily’s presentation, and Salim’s unconference talk – were both good. I call them libertarian talks but what Emily showed is that housing is more expensive in American zipcodes with high walk scores, and what Salim showed is that more housing is built in US census tracts in density deciles 1-4 and 9-10 than deciles 5-8 (while an analysis of market pricing shows demand growing monotonically with density, so deciles 5-10 all have shortages). Market urbanism is the philosophy they’re informed by, but not the main focus.

The difference between their talks and the others is that they were presenting academic papers. I had many questions for both regarding definitions and robustness checks, and they engaged on that level; Emily in particular had already done all the robustness checks I was asking about (about definitions of zip code center, housing prices vs. rents, etc.), and her results held up.

Leftists like to complain about the ideological line of the Mercatus Center, and they’re right, but in housing economics, the Mercatus Center’s line is more or less the same as that of a broad spectrum of experts. So to them, talking about housing economics is the same as presenting results to a lay audience, same way I might have talked about dynamical systems to an audience with no more than undergrad math education.

White guilt

The conference was 85-90% white; this covers both the attendees and the speakers. The plenary speakers included multiple black urbanists (not just Kristen but also a panel for one of the closing plenary talks); clearly, there was some attempt at diversity. And yet, the entire way the conference presented diversity reminded me of what I hate most about Boston: 90% white groups talk about diversity and how to be welcoming and yet remain 90% year after year.

People who follow my Twitter rants know I constantly harangue Americans about their hostility to immigrants. Here, there was a pub crawl, which on its face is neutral, but when people congregated at a bar that checked IDs, and wouldn’t accept my Swedish ID card as valid because foreigners are required to show a passport, I could not talk to people who I’d made plans with. Nobody who I mentioned this to thought much of it; to the Americans it was a mistake, not an injustice. I doubt that nonwhite Americans who came with similar complaints would be treated any better.

There was a group of about 150 protesters who interrupted one of the talk, ironically by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. They were about 50% white, 50% black, in a neighborhood that’s almost 100% black. They, too, seemed not to think too much about their own representation (and to be fair, Boston is extremely segregated).

The London talk

The London housing talk was strange. The PowerPoint projector failed, requiring John Myers to use printed slides, which had poor color contrast for many key charts. John argued that there’s a U-shaped curve in housing construction: a lot built with individual decisionmaking (e.g. regimes before zoning), some built with nationwide decisionmaking (e.g. England), little built with local decisionmaking (e.g. individual suburbs, San Francisco). Based on the U-curve, he proposed empowering very small groups, down to the block level, to move to the left of the U curve and not the right.

I had a lot of criticism even within the talk, as did frequent commenter ThreeStationSquare. San Francisco builds more housing per capita than England, which is toward the low end of unitary states (Sweden, France, and the growing parts of Japan all build more). John said that rent-controlled tenants are NIMBY because they’re insulated from the consequences of a housing shortage; in reality, a paper studying NIMBYism among renters finds no difference between market-rate and rent-controlled tenants in San Francisco, and Becca Baird-Remba‘s reporting in New York also sees no such difference within the city.

More fundamentally, empowering a group of (say) 20 people enhances group solidarity to the point of not being so willing to (in effect) take a buyout from developers to permit more housing. In Israel, even empowering groups of 6-8 owners in an Old North apartment building generally leads to hostility to developers and reluctance to make deals.

Inclusionary zoning

There was an unconference discussion about inclusionary zoning. Unfortunately, the discussion broke down early, with many more people than expected, around 30 or 40, more than the other events in the same time slot. Alex Baca and Laura Foote had to salvage it, running it the way they’re used to running group discussions.

But even with their management, making sure people talked one at a time, the discussion was too meta and too unfocused. We were talking about how to talk about IZ rather than about IZ itself. I wanted to bring up non-IZ models of affordability like the social housing so common in France or Sweden, but there was no time beyond my saying “there’s social housing in France and Sweden.” With nobody in attendance from Baltimore, there was no discussion of the city’s own recently-passed plan, focusing on very low-income people – nor any agreement to follow up on it with people more familiar than we were.

In effect, the way the discussion evolved seemed like the first hour of a six-hour conversation, and not like the one-hour conversation it really was.

Will I go again?

If it’s in a city I happen to actually be in, then probably. But it’s all organized by local groups, even though politically the entire point of American YIMBY is to leverage national social and political networks to make the professional middle class a stronger force in local politics relative to the local homeowner class (anchored by retirees, heirs to houses in the top wealth decide or two short of the top 1-2%, and shopkeepers). There’s no national attempt to site YIMBYTown in cities that are easy to get to domestically, let alone internationally. The next conference is likely to be somewhere where I have no reason to go except YIMBYTown, rather than in New York.

And in that case, I’m not likely to make it again. The productive conversations I’ve had are with people I’d have good conversations with anyway on Twitter and by email. It’s not a conducive environment for exchanging ideas with people I don’t already know; the panels are too much about how to pretend to be nice to the local working class (and I guarantee that the conference won’t get any less white or any less middle-class), and not enough about policy or analysis.

Buses in Brooklyn: Frequency is Freedom, but 15 Minutes isn’t Frequency

I’ve recently started working part-time on a project for the Marron Institute at NYU about bus restructuring in Brooklyn; at the end of this summer, I expect to release a proposal for service upgrades and a new map. I’m working on this with Marron scholar Eric Goldwyn, who is funded by the TWU, which is worried that ridership collapse may lead to service cuts and job losses, but I’m funded directly by Marron and not by the union.

Some of what’s likely to appear in the final report should be familiar to regular readers of this blog, or of Human Transit, or of the work TransitCenter has been doing. As I wrote in Curbed earlier this year, bus operating costs in New York are unusually high because the buses are slow, as the main operating costs of buses scale with service-hours and not service-km. Thus, it’s important to speed up the buses, which allows either providing higher frequency at the same cost or the same frequency at lower cost. A bus speedup should include systemwide off-board fare collection and all-door boarding (common in the German-speaking world but also in San Francisco), wider stop spacing, dedicated lanes wherever there is room, and signal priority at intersections; the TWU is an enthusiastic proponent of off-board fare collection, for reasons of driver safety rather than bus speed.

While bus speedups are critical, their impact is not as Earth-shattering as it might appear on paper. New York’s SBS routes have all of the above features except signal priority, and do save considerable time, but are still slow city buses at the end of the day. Brooklyn has two SBS routes: the B44 on Nostrand, averaging 15 km/h (local B44: 11.3), and the B46 on Utica, averaging 13.7 (local B46 on the shared stretch: 10.8). Their speed premiums over the local routes are toward the high end citywide, but are still 30%, not the 200% speed premium the subway enjoys. Moreover, the speed premium over non-SBS limited routes is 15-20%; put another way, between a third and a half of the speed premium comes purely from skipping some stops.

I mentioned in my last post that I met Carlos Daganzo at Berkeley. Daganzo was responsible for the Barcelona bus redesign, Nova Xarxa; you can read some details on Human Transit and follow links to the papers from there. The guiding principles, based on my conversation with Daganzo and on reading his papers on the subject, are,

  • Barcelona has high, relatively uniform density of people and jobs, so there’s no need for buses to hit one CBD. Brooklyn has about the same average residential density as Barcelona, but has a prominent CBD at one corner, but as this CBD is amply served by the subway, it’s fine for buses to form a mesh within the subway’s gaps.
  • Nova Xarxa involved widening the stop spacing in Barcelona from less than 200 meters to three stops per km, or a stop every 300-350 meters; Daganzo recommends even wider stop spacing.
  • While Barcelona’s street network is strictly gridded, the buses don’t run straight along the grid, but rather detour to serve key destinations such as metro stops. This is an important consideration for Brooklyn, where there are several distinct grids, and where subway stops don’t always serve the same cross street, unlike in Manhattan, where crosstown routes on most two-way streets are assured to intersect every north-south subway line.
  • The percentage of transfers skyrocketed after the network was implemented, standing at 26% at the end of 2015, with the model predicting eventual growth to 44%, up from 11% before the redesign.
  • The network was simplified to have 28 trunk routes, the least frequent running every 8 minutes off-peak.

The high off-peak frequency in Barcelona is a notable departure from Jarrett Walker’s American network redesigns; the evidence in Houston appears mixed – ridership is about flat, compared with declines elsewhere in the country – but the percentage of transfers does not seem to have risen. Jarrett says in his book that having a bus come every 10 minutes means “almost show-up-and-go frequency” with no need to look at schedules, but his work in Houston and more recently in San Jose involves routes running every 15 minutes.

Moreover, unreliable traffic in these car-dominated cities, in which giving buses dedicated lanes is politically too difficult, means that the buses can’t reliably run on a schedule, so the buses do not run on a clockface schedule, instead aiming to maintain relatively even headways. (In contrast, in Vancouver, a less congested street network, with priority for all traffic on the east-west main streets on the West Side, ensures that the buses on Broadway and 4th Avenue do run on a fixed schedule, and the 4th Avenue buses have a 12-minute takt that I still remember four years after having left the city.)

I’ve talked about the importance of radial networks in my posts about scale-variant transit. I specifically mentioned the problem with the 15-minute standard as too loose; given a choice between an untimed 15-minute network and a timed 30-minute network, the latter may well be more flexible. However, if the buses come every 5 minutes, the situation changes profoundly. Daganzo’s ridership models have no transfer penalty or waiting penalty, since the buses come so frequently. The models the MTA uses in New York have a linear penalty, with passengers perceiving waiting or transferring time on the subway as equivalent to 1.75 times in-motion time; bus waiting is likely to be worse, since bus stops are exposed to the elements, but if the average wait time is 2.5 minutes then even with a hefty penalty it’s secondary to in-vehicle travel time (about 18 minutes on the average unlinked bus trip in New York).

Unfortunately, that high frequently does not exist on even a single bus line in Brooklyn. Here is a table I created from NYCT ridership figures and timetables, listing peak, reverse-peak, and midday frequencies. Five routes have better than 10-minute midday frequency: the B12, the B6 and B35 limited buses, and the B44 and B46 SBSes, running every 7, 7.5, 8, 8, and 6 minutes respectively. In addition, the B41 limited and B103 have a bus every 9 and 7.5 minutes respectively on their trunks, but the B41 branches on its outer end with 18-minute frequencies per branch and the B103 short-turns half the buses. Another 14 routes run every 10 minutes off-peak, counting locals and limiteds separately.

The problem comes from the split into local and limited runs on the busiest buses. The mixture of stopping patterns makes it impossible to have even headways; at the limited stops, the expected headway in the worst case is that of the more frequent of the two routes, often about 10 minutes. The average ridership-weighted speed of Brooklyn buses is 10.75 km/h. An able-bodied passenger walking at 6 km/h with a 10-minute head start over a bus can walk 2.25 km before being overtaken, which can easily grow to 3 km taking into account walking time to and from bus stops. To prevent such situations, it’s important to run buses much more frequently than every 10 minutes, with consistent stopping patterns.

This does not mean that NYCT should stop running limited buses. On the contrary: it should stop running locals. The SBS stop spacing, every 800 meters on the B44 and B46, is too wide, missing some crossing buses such as the B100 (see map). However, the spacing on the B35 limited is every 400 meters, enough to hit crossing buses even when they run on one-way pairs on widely-spaced avenues. The question of how much time is saved by skipping a stop is difficult – not only do different Brooklyn buses give different answers, all lower than in Manhattan, but also the B35 gives different answers in different directions. A time cost of 30 seconds per stop appears like a good placeholder, but is at the higher end for Brooklyn.

The question of how many stops to add to SBS on the B44 and B46 has several potential answers, at the tight end going down to 400 meters between stops. At 400 meters between stops, the B44 would average 13 km/h and the B46 12 km/h. At the wide end, the B44 and B46 would gain stops at major intersections: on the B44 this means Avenue Z, R, J, Beverly, Eastern Parkway, Dean, Halsey, and Myrtle, for an average interstation of 570 meters and an average speed of 14 km/h, and on the B46 this means Avenue U, Fillmore, St. John’s, and Dean, for an average interstation of 610 meters an average speed of 13 km/h. Consolidating all buses into the same stopping pattern permits about a bus every 2.5 minutes peak and every 4 minutes off-peak on both routes.

On the other routes, consolidating local and limited routes required tradeoffs and cannibalizing some peak frequency to serve the off-peak. While it may seem dangerous to limit peak capacity, there are two big banks that can be used to boost off-peak frequency: time savings from faster trips, and greater regularity from consolidating stop patterns. The B82 is an extremely peaky route, running 7 limited and 10 local buses at the peak and just 6 buses (all local) for a four-hour midday period; but there is a prolonged afternoon shoulder starting shortly after noon with another 6 limited buses. Some peak buses have to be more crowded than others just because of schedule irregularity coming from having two distinct stop patterns. Consolidating to about 15 buses per hour peak and 10 off-peak, cannibalizing some frequency from the peak and some from the shoulders, should be about neutral on service-hours without any additional increase in speed.

The sixth post on this blog, in 2011, linked to frequent maps of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Bronx buses, using a 10-minute standard. There has been some movement in the top buses since 2011 – for one, the B41 route, once in the top 10 citywide, has crashed and is now 16th – but not so much that the old map is obsolete. A good place to start would be to get the top routes from a 10-minute standard to a 6-minute standard or better, using speed increases, rationalization of the edges of the network, and cannibalization of weak or subway-duplicating buses to boost frequency.