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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to the invitation of Adina Levin’s Friends of Caltrain, I came to the Bay Area for a few days, giving two talks about regional rail best industry practices in front of Friends of Caltrain, Seamless Bay Area, and SF Transit Riders. My schedule was packed, including a meeting with a world-leading expert in transportation systems in which I learned about the Barcelona bus service changes; a Q&A about both general and Bay Area-specific issues for Bay City Beacon subscribers; and several other meetings.
My two talks were in Mountain View and San Francisco, and used the same slides, with minor corrections. Here are the slides I used in San Francisco; I consolidated the pauses so that each page is a slide rather than a line in a slide. This was also covered in Streetsblog, which gives more background and gives some quotes from what I said during the presentation, not printed in the slides.
Unlike in my NYU presentation last year, I did not include a proposed map of service improvements. The reason is that in the Bay Area, there are more questions than answers about which service should use which piece of infrastructure. This makes fantasy maps dangerous, as they tend to fix people onto one particular service pattern, which may prove suboptimal based on decisions made elsewhere in the system. This is not a huge problem in New York or Boston, where the alignments naturally follow where the stub-end commuter lines are, with only a few questions; but in the Bay Area, the situation is more delicate, because big questions like “can/should Caltrain get a trans-Bay connection from San Francisco to Oakland and the East Bay?” can go either way.
The role of redevelopment in the area is especially important. Unlike New York, Paris, or other big transit cities, San Francisco does not have much density outside the city proper, Oakland, or Berkeley. Moreover, there is extensive job sprawl in Silicon Valley, which contributes to a last-mile problem for public transit; usually first-mile access is a bigger problem and high-end jobs tend to cluster near train stations. But conversely, the high incomes in the Bay Area and the growth of the tech industry mean that everywhere TOD is permitted in the core and the suburbs, it will be built. This impacts decisions about the total size of transit investment.
At present-day development patterns, San Francisco proper really doesn’t need more rail construction except Geary and the Downtown Extension, depending on construction costs. But general upzoning makes Geary worth it even at $1 billion per km and opens up the possibilities of four-tracking Caltrain within the city (which means expanding some tunnels), giving the N-Judah dedicated tracks and a dedicated tunnel under Mission, and extending the Central Subway to the north and northwest. The land use in the Richmond and Sunset Districts today supports a fair amount of transit, but not new subways if there’s no cost control.
The RPA has just put up its Fourth Regional Plan, recommending many new subway and commuter rail lines in New York, ranging from good (125th Street subway, Brooklyn-Lower Manhattan regional rail) to terrible (Astoria Line extension to the west rather than to LaGuardia, which gets a people mover heading away from Manhattan). I have a poll for Patreon supporters for which aspects I should blog about; I expect to also pitch some other aspects – almost certainly not what I said in my poll – to media outlets. If you support me now you can participate in the poll (and if you give $5 or more you can see some good writings that ended up not getting published). If you want to be sneaky you can wait a day and then you’ll only be charged in January. But you shouldn’t be sneaky and you should pledge today and get charged tomorrow, in December.
It’s hard to really analyze the plan in one piece. It’s a long plan with many components, and the problems with it don’t really tell a coherent story. One coherent story is that the RPA seems to love incorporating existing political priorities into its plan, even if those priorities are bad: thus, it has the AirTrain LaGuardia, favored by Cuomo, and the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), favored by de Blasio, and even has tie-ins to these plans that don’t make sense otherwise. Some of the regional rail money wasters, such as Penn Station South and the new East River tunnels from Penn Station to the LIRR, come from this story (the LIRR is opposed to any Metro-North trains going to Penn Station under the belief that all slots from points east to Penn Station belong to Long Island by right). However, there remain so many big question marks in the plan that are not about this particular story that it’s hard to make one criticism. I could probably write 20,000 words about my reaction to the plan, which is about 15 published articles, and there are, charitably, 5 editors who will buy it, and I’m unlikely to write 10 posts.
I’ll wait to see how the poll on Patreon goes, and what editors may be interested in. There are interesting things to say about the plan – not all negative – in areas including rail extensions, transit-oriented development, and livable streets. But for now, I just want to zoom in on the crayon aspects. I previously put up my 5-line map (4 MB version, 44 MB version). The RPA proposal includes more tunnels, for future-proofing, and is perhaps comparable to a 7-line map I’ve been working on (4 MB version, 44 MB version):
I was mildly embarrassed by how much crayon I was proposing, which is why what I put in my NYU presentation 3 weeks ago was the 5-line system, where Line 1 (red) is the Northeast Corridor and the Port Washington Branch, Line 2 (green) is much the same but through the new Hudson tunnels, Line 3 (orange) is the Empire Connection and the Hempstead Branch, Line 4 (blue) connects the Harlem Line and Staten Island, Line 5 (dark yellow) connects the Erie Lines with the Atlantic Branch and Babylon Branch, and Line 6 (purple) is just East Side Access. In the 7-line system, Line 6 gets extended to Hoboken and takes over the Morris and Essex Lines, and Line 7 (turquoise) connects the Montauk Line with the Northern Branch and West Shore Line via 43rd Street, to prune some of the Line 5 branches.
With all this extra tunneling, the map has 46 new double-track-km of tunnel. With just Lines 1-5, it has 30; these figures include Gateway and the other tunnels highlighted in yellow (but not the highlighted at-grade lines, like Lower Montauk), but exclude East Side Access. In contrast, here’s what the RPA is proposing:
Counting the Triboro-Staten Island tunnel and Gateway starting from the portal (not at Secaucus as the map portrays), this is 58 route-km, and about 62 double-track-km of tunnel (the Third Avenue trunk line needs four tracks between 57th and Houston at a minimum), for substantially the same capacity. The difference is that the RPA thinks Metro-North needs two more tracks’ worth of capacity between Grand Central and 125th, plus another two-track tunnel in the Bronx; from Grand Central to Woodlawn, the Fourth Regional Plan has 19 km, slightly more than 100% of the difference between its tunnel length and mine. My plan has more underwater tunnel, courtesy of the tunnel to Staten Island, but conversely less complex junctions in Manhattan, and much more austere stations (i.e. no Penn Station South).
As I said, I don’t want to go into too much detail about what the RPA is doing, because that’s going to be a series of blog posts, most likely a series of Streetsblog posts, and possibly some pieces elsewhere. But I do want to draw a contrast between what the RPA wants for regional rail and what I want, because there are a lot of similarities (e.g. look at the infill on the Port Washington Branch in both plans), but some subtle differences.
What I look for when I think of regional rail map is an express subway. I’ve been involved in a volunteer effort to produce a regional rail plan for Boston, with TransitMatters, in which we start by saying that our plan could be a second subway for Boston. In New York, what’s needed is the same, just scaled up for the city’s greater size and complexity. This means that it’s critical to ensure that the decision of which lines go where is, for lack of a better word, coherent. There should be a north-south line, such as the Third Avenue trunk in the Fourth Regional Plan or my Line 4; there should be an east-west line, such as the lines inherited from the legacy Northeast Corridor and LIRR; and so on.
The one big incoherence in my plan is the lack of a transfer station between Line 4/6 and Line 1/3 at Madison and 33rd. This is on purpose. Line 2 connects Penn Station and Grand Central, Madison/33rd is well to the south of Midtown’s peak job density, and Lines 4 and 6 shouldn’t be making more stops than the 4 and 5 subway lines, which go nonstop between Grand Central and Union Square.
The other weirdness is that in the 7-line system, unlike the 5-line system, there is no way to get between the Northern Branch or the West Shore Line and the rest of New Jersey without going through Manhattan. In the first map of this system that I made on my computer, Line 7 has an awkward dip to serve the same Bergenline Avenue station as Line 2. But I think what I posted here, with two separate stations, is correct: Lines 6 and 7 are lower priorities than a subway under Bergenline Avenue, which would make intra-state connections much easier. It’s difficult to depict rail extensions at different scales on one geographically accurate map, and doing a schematic map like the London Underground isn’t useful for depicting new lines, which should make it clear to readers where they go. But the 7-line system must be accompanied by subway extensions, some covered by the RPA (Utica, Nostrand) and some not (Bergenline, again).
I recently had to give a short description of my program for good transit, and explained it as, all aspects of planning should be integrated: operations and capital planning, buses and light rail and subways and regional rail, infrastructure and rolling stock and scheduling, transit provision and development. When I make proposals for regional rail, they may look out there, but the assumption is always that there’s a single list of priorities; the reason I depict a 7-line map, or even a 9-line map (in progress!), is to be able to plan lines 1-3 optimally. Everything should work together, and if agencies refuse to do so, the best investment is to make sure those agencies make peace and cooperate. The RPA plan sometimes does that (it does propose some regional rail integration), but sometimes it’s a smörgåsbord of different politically-supported proposals, not all of which work together well.
I expect there will be writeups about the talk (e.g. on Streetsblog). But meanwhile, here are my slides (warning: 17 MB, because of pictures). These are identical to what was shown at the talk, with two differences: I fixed one small mistake (Fordham Road vs. Pelham Parkway), and I consolidated the pauses, so each slide is a page, rather than a few pages, each page adding a line.
There were light fantasy maps in the talk. Because of size, I’m not embedding them in the post. But there are links:
- Infill stops without new tunnels: low-res/3.5 MB, high-res/20 MB
- The 3-line system (Gateway and realigned Empire Connection): low-res/4 MB, high-res/44 MB
- The 5-line system (the Lower Manhattan lines): low-res/4 MB, high-res/44 MB
Yellow highlights around a line indicate it’s new; Gateway is highlighted in one direction since it’s an existing two-track line to be four-tracked. On the infill map, solid circles are existing stations, gray circles are planned stations, white circles are my suggestions for additional infill.
I was visiting Boston last week, and am in New York this week; you can see me at NYU on Thursday
tomorrow. Last week, I met with TransitMatters activists talking about bus and rail improvements in Boston, and on the way saw something that made me understand two things. First, the MBTA is run by incompetent people. And second, even two subway lines that are perpendicular and serve completely different areas can be redundant with each other.
Two and a half years ago, I said redundancy is overrated. In this post, I’d like to argue from the opposite direction: transit networks have more redundancy than they appear to. One implication is identical to that of my older post: transit agencies should build subway lines without regard for redundant service, since not only is redundancy overrated, but also a new subway line is redundant with old lines even if they serve completely different areas. But the other implication concerns service interruptions and shutdowns.
The issue in Boston is that, although there are nighttime shutdowns, there are also occasional weekend shutdowns, as in New York, for major capital projects. The Red Line is being closed on weekends for two months on the segment between Boston proper and Cambridge. But the Orange Line is also being closed on weekends on segments, after deferred maintenance led to a meltdown in the last two months, with frequent delays and slow zones. Last weekend, I found myself having to go between Davis Square (on the Red Line, just off the edge of the map) and Jamaica Plain (near the bottom of the Orange Line) to visit Sandy Johnston, with the highlit segments shut down:
Shuttle buses replaced the subway on both segments. On the Red Line, the MBTA contracted it out to a private company that used wheelchair-inaccessible high-floor buses; there were not enough MBTA bus drivers to run the shuttles on both segments, and by union rules the MBTA could not use contract drivers on its own buses even though it did have the equipment, forcing it to use inferior private-sector buses. I am able-bodied enough to climb high-floor buses, but I would not use the shuttle buses replacing the Red Line for another reason: as can be seen in the map, there is no continuous street grid between Charles/MGH and Park Street. If there were a crossover right east of Charles/MGH then only the Kendall-MGH segment would be bustituted, and there, the buses would go on Longfellow Bridge, with a serious but not fatal slowdown. But between Kendall and Park Street the buses have to swerve through side streets that were not designed for fast traffic; in 2012, I was on such a shuttle and as I recall the trip took 15 or 20 minutes, where the subway does it in about 5.
Instead of relying on shuttles, I took a bus north of the river to get to Lechmere and use the Green Line to reach Chinatown on a chain trip. From Chinatown the options were all bad, and I rode the 39 bus, which parallels the Green Line E Branch (the southernmost one) and continues south to Forest Hills, where the Green Line once ran as well. The way back was not a chain trip, and with a bus-bus-Red Line trip and no 39 bus in sight (the online bus tracker was down), I gave up and took a taxi.
The Red Line and Orange Line look like they go in different directions, so shutting down one does not affect the other. But in reality, in a city with buses, taking the bus to a different line is a common strategy to deal with shutdowns – hence, using the Green Line to get between Davis and Chinatown, taking a bus in a place where the buses are less slow than between Charles/MGH and Park Street.
If any city in North America did not use buses at all, it would be Boston. It has legendarily narrow and twisted streets, and crawling buses. It has higher rail-to-bus ridership ratio than any other American city except possibly New York, and far higher ratio than the major English Canadian cities with their bus grids. Its transit network, inherited from midcentury, uses the buses to feed the subway, and has no bus service through downtown, where even before mass motorization there were traffic jams of streetcars.
But even in Boston, using the bus outside the core to get to a better subway line is possible, and normal when there are service interruptions. This means that any pair of subway lines could potentially be redundant with each other. This means that it is bad practice to shut down more than one line at once for repairs. The reason the Orange Line needs emergency repairs in the first place is that the MBTA maintained it poorly and wouldn’t act when it was less urgent, such as six months ago (Sandy reports noticing a consistent deterioration in service since January). Today, the shutdowns are probably unavoidable. But the Red Line shutdowns, for a capital construction project involving the Longfellow Bridge, can be delayed. The MBTA should do that in the future in order to both avoid having to use inaccessible buses and allow passengers to take a circumferential bus to a functioning subway line.
Here is my Patreon page. Donations get processed on the 1st of every month; if you contribute today, my understanding is that it will still only get processed in August. I’m still working on the Lagos post solicited via Twitter, but should be done in a week, depending on how much time I have. (The subway meltdown in New York and Cuomo’s laconic response thereto mean that I’m on deadlines at a bunch of outlets that want my opinions.) When I’m done I’ll start doing internal Patreon polls about the next post’s topic.
My posts are going to remain public. Instead, the rewards are as follows:
$2/month (“diesel bus”): you get to vote in the polls about my topics. Not all posts will be polled, but at least one per month, ideally 2-3, will be.
$5/month (“trolleybus”): you get dedicated content, in the form of various examples or caveats that are cut from my published pieces due to length. Things that I cut because I couldn’t find good enough evidence for them don’t count; only things that I’d be comfortable saying in public, but didn’t because of length or flow, do.
$10/month (“tramway”): you get listed as a supporter on a sidebar of this blog.
$25/month (“rapid transit”): you get to tell me what to write about, bypassing the polls, a couple times a year – at least twice, possibly more depending on schedule and on how many people ask for the same thing. (If two people keep asking for the same thing, they really get a minimum of two posts each, so four total.)
My current target is a total of $200/month, based on what people said on Twitter. If I get a lot more than that, I can start committing to more than one post a week.
I’d been making cryptic remarks about a possible job offer for a month, and a week ago I tweeted when I heard the final no. I didn’t want to say where I was interviewing until after I heard back, either way; now that I have, I’d like to talk more about the process, and what I think it means for transportation criticism in general.
A few weeks after I posted that I’m transitioning to working in transit or transit writing full-time, a recruiter reached out to me. I wouldn’t have applied myself, not out of ideological opposition to working on Hyperloop, but because until that point, I imagined they wouldn’t have wanted me working there anyway. But once the recruiter emailed me, I started the interview process. It went well. The company was familiar with my criticism of the initial concept and of startups’ own attempts to build it (the last link is Hyperloop One, the one before it is a different company). We talked about the technology, about which models I’d use to evaluate it, about various ways the system could be made more convenient.
People who are familiar with the interview process in the tech industry know that it is long and laborious. There are multiple rounds of interviews, with multiple people involved. Programming jobs involve something called whiteboarding, in which the interviewer will ask the interviewee to solve a coding problem on a whiteboard. I’m not a programmer, unless one counts QBASIC as programming, so I didn’t do any whiteboarding, but the same concept of interview meant there were a lot of hard on-the-spot technical questions. (In contrast, when I interviewed at Frontier, there were hard on-the-spot questions about political and social trends.)
Where I got stuck was American immigration policy. In the US, unlike in normal countries like Canada or Singapore or France, the skilled work visa process is based on a hard cap on the number of visas (called H-1B), rather than on a minimum salary requirement or a labor market analysis to make sure there are more jobs than qualified citizens, both of which criteria are easy to meet in tech. The H-1B cap is too tight – it’s oversubscribed by a factor of about 2; earlier this decade there was political consensus in the US elite that it needed to be lifted, but partisan politicking prevented this from happening. By mid-decade, even before Trump, the consensus frayed, thanks in no small part to anti-immigration reform conservatives, especially Reihan Salam (and, within the urbanist sphere, Aaron Renn). Academia and nonprofit research organizations, such as Frontier (or TransitCenter, or RPA), are exempt from the cap. Tech firms aren’t. This imposes a queue for getting a visa; HR at Hyperloop One said it would be a year, I think it would’ve been a year and a half. It took about a month to figure out whether Hyperloop One could work with me as a remote outside contractor, and when they realized they couldn’t, they had to tell me they couldn’t hire me.
My impressions of Hyperloop’s current status
Elon Musk’s original writeup was a scribble. Very little about it was salvageable. Hyperloop One is more serious. I believe that the most quotable criticism I made of the project in 2013 – the “barf ride” line – is being solved. As I said in 2013, I believe it is not too hard to solve the basic problem of curve radii; the problem is that it makes the civil engineering more expensive, by requiring more tunnels and more viaducts.
We didn’t discuss construction costs at the interview. I think of this as a point in the company’s favor, actually; they’d know that my understanding of construction costs is at too high a level, useful for policymakers but not for actual consultants or contractors. A few months ago, before this process started, I read somewhere that the company says Hyperloop would be 2/3 as expensive as conventional high-speed rail per km, up from Musk’s laughable 1/10 estimate. I’m skeptical about 2/3, but I’m willing to say “I’ll believe it when I see it” and not “yeah, right.”
The capacity constraints coming from the narrow tube diameter are also a problem that I think the company is capable of solving; the cost of a wider tube is higher, but in far less than linear proportion to the extra capacity provided.
There remain two big classes of hitches, one technical and one economic. The technical hitches involve materials engineering that I don’t understand as well, regarding sway inside the tube, ground subsidence, and construction tolerances. I am channeling other critics here; some of them are experts in the field and I am inclined to trust them. I’ve always taken these issues as a black box for conventional HSR and even 500-600 km/h service (maglev or conventional – the TGV reached 574 km/h in an experiment with a special train with a higher power-to-weight ratio), but at higher speeds, they become more serious.
My default assumption is that it’s still solvable at 1000+ km/h, but requires more delicate engineering, which may drive up construction costs even further. Even in my initial writeup I was implicitly arguing the required delicate engineering was such that it was inappropriate to generalize from the costs of oil pipelines, rather than from those of maglev. But it’s possible that the required materials and safety engineering will lead to much higher construction costs, and it’s possible that more basic research is required before it’s viable.
The economic hitch is, what is Hyperloop for? The technology suffers from tension between two opposing forces. The first force is speed: as a very fast technology, Hyperloop is the most useful for long-distance travel. At the distance of Musk’s original Los Angeles-San Francisco idea, security theater and design compromises about station locations (Sylmar and the East Bay, originally) would eat up the entire travel time advantage over conventional HSR. At longer distance, such as New York-Chicago, Hyperloop would still win on time, just as planes beat HSR on time on corridors in the 1,000 km range today. The second force is that Hyperloop still requires linear infrastructure, so it becomes less cost-effective versus planes as the distance increases.
Hyperloop One is a consulting firm. I was asked at the interview about the technology’s applicability in multiple geographies, and gave my opinions (“this place is a good candidate, that place isn’t”). So the company can’t just up and decide on an initial segment, which should probably be a connection from New York (probably in Jersey City or Hoboken) to either South Florida or Chicago. Complicating things, such an initial segment would require many tens of billions of dollars of capital investment, which is not easy for a startup to do. There’s a real problem with using the tech startup model to develop capital-intensive infrastructure, and it’s possible such vactrain technology will always fall between the conventional HSR and airplane chairs. I for one will keep putting vactrains in my 22nd-century science fiction, but not in my near-future science fiction.
One of the lines I wrote in my initial post is that tech megalomaniacs believe that “people who question [the entrepreneur] and laugh at his outlandish ideas will invariably fail and end up working for him.” I recognize the irony in my almost-working for Hyperloop One.
And yet, I think it offers a valuable lesson about what I variously call sycophancy, or a courtier mentality. I mentioned this about the tech press in the first post; the national political press is less sycophantic (since it can be loyal to an opposition party or political faction, and can draw on the opposition for criticism of current leadership). But local political actors in areas without real political opposition can act like royal courtiers at times, unreasonably praising the leader and begging for scraps. I’ve criticized the RPA for this, for example here: Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a new airport connector with negative transportation value, and while the area’s transit bloggers all said no, the RPA studied the idea seriously.
The connection with Hyperloop is that I hit the concept pretty hard, and still would’ve been hired but for the US’s broken immigration policy. I don’t know if it’s generalizable to tech. I know it is true in math academia, where if I make a serious criticism of someone’s research program, it’s quite likely we will then write a paper together. For example, my advisor formulated a conjecture he called Dynamical Manin-Mumford; two professors, Rochester’s Tom Tucker and UBC’s Dragos Ghioca, later my own postdoc advisor, found a counterexample, and wrote it up together with my advisor. Nowadays the different researchers in the field are trying to prove different weaker versions of the conjecture that might still be true.
This collaborative aspect is certainly true of transit blogging. I spend a lot of time talking about transit with my biggest critic, who argues my argument about construction costs is spurious and the US is only expensive due to inexperience; I also talk a lot to people who are more nitpickers than critics, like Threestationsquare. I’ve seen the same sentiment at a thinktank whose founder I criticized years ago, and my understanding is that the RPA too is familiar with my writings. But I don’t know if it’s true of government hiring as much – if the MTA, let alone anyone working for Cuomo, is interested in hiring a critic; but then again, MTA hiring has severe problems.
Still, I’d draw a lesson and tell people who write about transportation to be less afraid of being critical. It’s a natural fear; I have it too, when I have criticism for a blogger or Twitter user who I know or consider part of my in-group. But the only result of suppressing criticism is that people who have bad ideas keep promulgating them and either never realize they’re wrong (if they’re honest) or keep acquiring suckers (if they’re dishonest). People who are interested in better transportation recognize this and seek out the critic. Megalomaniacs who are interested in selling themselves suppress and ignore the critic. We know which side Hyperloop One is on; but where is New York’s political system?
The future of my work
I can’t legally work in the US, unless it’s for a cap-exempt institution, which means either a university (that ship sailed five months ago) or a thinktank. Canada is looking unlikely – a consultancy I applied for ended up hiring someone else they felt was more qualified, and Metrolinx isn’t going to hire me. My French is conversational, but not good enough to apply for Keolis’s planning positions here, of which they have plenty, including some I’m otherwise qualified for.
This means I’m going to do transportation writing full-time for the foreseeable future. My plan is to invest in this blog more to make it look nicer (two pieces I’ve recently sent out have decent graphics), and (almost certainly) start a Patreon account in which people who pitch in a few dollars a month can influence what I write about. My intention is to commit to a post every week, not counting personal stuff like this post. I don’t expect this to net me a lot of money, but together with freelancing income, it should be enough to live on in a developed country with universal health care.