An online conference just concluded in which I gave a half-hour presentation about construction costs. Instead of giving my usual spiel, showing parts of our growing database and pointing out patterns, I spent a lot of time on why this is important. I’d written about this before, twice, but I’ve since looked more carefully at an example of two countries that are similar enough in their rail and public transit tradition that their large difference in costs must be the primary reason one has a bigger and more successful urban rail system than the other. I focused on developed countries, that is countries that manifestly have high incomes, good public health, good education, and so on; however, I believe the importance of costs is also a big reason behind delays in public transportation in high-cost developing countries like India.
You can read the slides here; this was recorded, and I’ll update this post with a link when it gets published.
I’ve periodically written about consumption and production theories of cities – that is, whether people mostly move to cities based on consumption or production amenities. The production theory is that what matters is mostly production amenities, that is, jobs, and this underlies YIMBYism. Consumption theory is that people move for consumption amenities, and, moreover, these amenities are not exactly consumption in the city, for example good health outcomes, but consuming the city itself, that is neighborhood-level amenities in which who lives in the city matters. The latter theory, for example promulgated by Richard Florida, is that jobs follow consumption amenities like gay bars, and not the other way around. It is wrong and production theory is right, and I’d like to give some personal examples from Berlin, because I feel like Berliners all believe in consumption theory.
The situation in Berlin
Berlin is an increasingly desirable city. After decades in which it was economically behind, the city is growing. Unemployment, which stood at 19% in 2005, was down to 7.8% last year. With higher incomes come higher rents, and because Berlin for years built little housing as there was little demand, rents rose, and it took time for housing growth to catch up; on the eve of corona, the city was permitting about 6 annual dwellings per 1,000 people, up from about 1 in the early 2000s.
This is generally attributed to tech industry growth. There are a lot of tech startups in the city. I don’t want to exaggerate this too much – Google’s biggest Germany office is by far Munich’s, and the Berlin office is mostly a sales office with a handful of engineers who are here because of a two-body problem. But the smaller firms are here and the accelerator spaces are very visible, in a way that simply didn’t exist in Paris, or even in Stockholm.
Berlin’s production amenities
I might not have thought that Berlin should attract so much tech investment. My vulgar guess would be that tech would go to cities with many preexisting engineers, like Munich and Stuttgart, or maybe to Frankfurt for the international flight connections. But Berlin does make sense in a number of ways.
The city is mostly fluent in English. Jakub Marian’s map has France 39% Anglophone and Germany 56%, which doesn’t seem too outlandish to me. But Paris seems in line with the rest of France, whereas in Berlin, service workers seem mostly Anglophone, which is not the case in (say) Mainz or Munich.
The global tech industry is Anglophone, and good command of English is a huge production amenity. Other English-dependent industries seem to favor Anglophone European cities as well, for example various firms fleeing Brexit moved their European headquarters not to Paris but to Amsterdam or maybe Dublin.
The federal government is here. This is not relevant to tech – the startups here don’t seem to be looking for lobbying opportunities, and at any case German lobbying works differently from American lobbying and firm-level proximity to the capital is unimportant. However, the government stimulates local spending, which has increased employment. The government’s move here has been gradual, with institutions that during division were spread all over West Germany slowly migrating to Berlin.
The quality of infrastructure in Berlin is very good. The urban rail network was built when Berlin was Western Europe’s third largest city, after London and Paris, and has even grown after the war because the West built U7 and U9 to bypass Mitte. This means that commute pain here is not serious, especially on any even vaguely middle-class income. Moreover, Berlin has benefited from post-reunification investment, including Hauptbahnhof and two high-speed rail lines.
Consumption theory and the counterculture
The queer counterculture that I am involved with in Berlin tells a different story. To hear them tell it, Berlin has a quirky, individualistic, nonconforming culture, unlike the stifling normality of Munich. Artists moved here, and then other people moved here to be near the artists, paying higher rents until the artists could no longer afford the city. This story is told at every scale, from Berlin as a city to individual neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg and Neukölln. A lot of the discourse about Berlin repeats this uncritically, for example Feargus O’Sullivan at CityLab/Bloomberg Cities writes about the cool factor and about gentrification of old buildings.
It is also a completely wrong story. This is really important to understand: nobody that I know in the sort of spaces that are being blamed for gentrification, that is the tech industry and its penumbra, has any interest in the counterculture. I go to board games meetups full of tech workers who are fluent in English and often don’t know any German, and they have no connections at all to the local counterculture. They interact with immigrant culture spaces, not with the 95%+ white counterculture as defined by queer spaces in Neukölln that complain about gentrification in a neighborhood undergoing white flight at the rate of postwar New York (compare 2019 data, PDF-pp. 25 and 28, with 2016, PDF-pp. 28 and 31). Occasionally there are crossovers, as when an American comedian hosted live standup in February and then there were tech workers and said American also interacts with the counterculture, but a standup comic is not why Berliners complain.
Nor do I find foreign tech workers especially interested in German minutiae comparing Berlin with Munich. By my non-German standards, Berliners already jaywalk at indescribably lower rates, and I gather that Munich is stuffier but that’s not why I’m here and not there, the rents and the language are.
We’re not even particularly oppositional to the counterculture. I personally am because seeing queer space after queer space host indoor events during corona without masks was a horrifying experience; I went to a queer leftist meetup in late October in which people huddled together maskless and I was the only one with a mask on, except for one trans Australian physicist who drank a beer and then masked after finished. But the rest? They don’t care, nor should they. The counterculture is not the protagonist or the antagonist of Berlin’s story; it’s barely a bystander. Consumption theory is just what it promotes in order to convince itself that it’s important, that it spreads ideas and not viruses.
550 new coronavirus cases in Berlin yesterday. 7,000 in Germany. 110,000 in the European Union, which at 240 per million people is even higher than the US, which is at 200/million. French hospitals are flooded with corona patients, and the state expresses its grave concerns but will still not set up quarantine hotels or universalize the use of surgical masks or do anything else that Taiwan did in less time. This is the second wave, and seven months after Taiwan showed the way how to deal with this and ended up being the only country this year to have positive economic growth to boot, Europe (and the US) still stays in its comfort zone of mass death.
It’s worth discussing the excuses, because so many of them port well to the realm of public transportation, where Europe is not so bad (there are even things East Asia can learn from us); Europe’s real disaster compared with rich Asia is in urbanism and its resistance to tall buildings. But the United States is horrific on all matters of transportation and urban redevelopment and the excusemaking there is ensuring no infrastructure can be built.
Excuse #1: the restricted comparison
The Max Planck Society (MPG) put out a statement three weeks ago, with some interesting insights about the need for a multi-pronged strategy, including contact tracing, hygiene, and social distancing. But it kept engaging in these silly intra-European comparisons, praising Germany in contrast with Britain. At no point was there any engagement with East Asia, even though we know that Taiwan has not had community spread since April, and that in Korea and Japan the current rates are about 2 and 4 daily cases per million people respectively.
Excuse #2: bullshit about culture
I’m told that there is general understanding within Germany that Taiwan and South Korea are doing far better. However, people keep making up cultural reasons why Europe can’t have what East and Southeast Asia have. This excuse unfortunately is not restricted to people who are totally unaware: a few months ago, Michel Bauwens, a Belgian degrowth advocate who lives in Thailand, talked up Thailand’s corona suppression, but attributed it to a communitarian, collectivist culture. The Thais are mass-protesting their autocratic government’s state of emergency (while wearing masks, unlike Western anti-regime protesters); what collectivism? The actual policy differences – mandatory centralized quarantine for people who test positive, mask wearing mandates – were not mentioned.
When I bring up the necessity of centralized quarantine, and even the fact that Israel used corona hotels to nearly eradicate the virus in the first wave (the second wave came from mass abandonment of social distancing – MPG is right about multi-pronged strategies), Europeans and Americans keep making a “but freedom” line. It’s strange. Yes, Thailand is autocratic. But Taiwan and South Korea are not – and they had authoritarian governments within living memory, and both are currently run by political parties that emerged out of democratic opposition to autocracy in the 1980s and 90s, and that far from becoming autocrats themselves, ceded power peacefully when they lost reelection in the past.
Excuse #3: the fake tradeoff
Many aspects of policy involve genuine tradeoffs. But many others don’t, and corona protection is one. Taiwan is the only developed country that is projecting positive economic growth in 2020. South Korea is projecting 1% contraction, the smallest contraction in the OECD, of which Taiwan is not a member. There is no economy-death tradeoff. Plowing through with reopening before the virus has been suppressed just means mass closures later and a weaker economy. The only major suppression country that is seeing economic contraction is Thailand, whose economy is based heavily on tourism and therefore more sensitive to crises outside its borders than are the industrial export-based economies of Taiwan and Korea.
Excuse #4: learned helplessness
I write occasionally about the importance of state capacity, but centralized quarantine is not some specialized technique only available to the most advanced states. It was routine in developed countries until the 1960s, when the incidence of infectious disease had fallen to a point that it was no longer necessary. The same is true of social distancing – Nigeria for example has used it and appears to be successful, with semi-decent test positivity rates and lower per capita confirmed infections than Korea.
However, various leaders keep saying “we can’t.” This is not about technical matters. Rather, it’s about political ones: we can’t established corona hotels, we can’t ban indoor dining and drinking, we can’t scale up surgical mask production like Taiwan did 8 months ago and require people to wear surgical masks in public. The only thing Europe seems capable of doing is prohibiting travel from countries that at this point often have less corona than we do.
This is learned helplessness. Risk-averse politicians who know on some level what needs to be done are still too spineless to do it, even knowing very well that successfully suppressing corona is an amazing crowd booster.
The connection with infrastructure
All of the above problems also lead to disastrous infrastructure projects. This is to some extent a problem in Germany, where “we can’t” is a common excuse for surrender to NIMBY opposition; this is why certain key high-speed rail segments have yet to be built. But it’s a truly massive drag on the English-speaking world, especially the United States. I have seen advocates engage in internal-only comparisons within the last 24 hours; the other excuses, I saw earlier this week, and many times in the last few months, with so many different American transit managers incanting “it’s not apples-to-apples” whenever Eric and I ask them about costs. One literally said “we can’t” and “it’s not possible” and is regionally viewed as progressive and forward-thinking.
In the same manner Europeans discount any knowledge produced outside of Europe and the United States, Americans discount everything produced outside their country. Occasionally they’ll glance at Canada and Britain to affirm prior prejudices. They treat foreign language fluency as either dilettantism or immigrant poverty and not as a critical skill in the modern world right next to literacy and numeracy. They’ll flail about as they die of corona and blame one another when, just as the EU flag today is twelve yellow coronaviruses on a field of blue, the US flag is fifty white viruses on a field of blue with red and white stripes.
Go here to see the our construction costs website. The static dataset is here, but I encourage people to go to the site, which has some interesting mapping – in particular, because the coverage is close to comprehensive, it is easier to see where many subways are being built (China!) and where they are not.
There are still gaps in coverage, plus some numbers that I am not perfectly certain about because the projects are still under construction. Please email us if you have corrections or additional data, whether it’s current or historic. For example, I wish I had complete historical data for Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo – in all three cities I have current data, and in the first two I also have early 20th century costs, but I don’t know what the postwar costs were, or the 1930s costs in Berlin. (In London and New York I have better though still imperfect historical costs, they’re just not integrated into the site yet.)
And please thank everyone who has worked on this. The lines in the database that I added are not even a plurality of the database – the Chinese data comes from Yinan Yao, the Arab data comes from Anan Maalouf, we’re adding massive amounts of current and historic Korean data due to Abdirashid Dahir, Marco Chitti has added some Italian data, Eric has been invaluable in checking some of the Spanish-language numbers, and the Turkish data comes from Elif Ensari, who also built the website and is responsible for the data visualization and mapping.
Eric and I recently sent in a list of criteria for case selection. We’re currently funded for 6 detailed case studies, of which one is the Green Line Extension in Boston due to funding from a different grant. My guess is that we need about 15-20 different cities to have near-perfect information about the institutional and geographic factors that influence infrastructure construction costs. Because different subway lines in the same city tend to cost the same to build, and even in the same country, our 500 lines in the database are more like 50 independent observations, and there are even identifiable clusters of countries.
These clusters are important, because ideally we should have 2 cases per cluster. With 6 cases in total, we’d like to have a case for at least one per cluster, even though it’s unlikely, depending on where we can find the most detailed information and the most people who will talk to us.
1. Very low-cost countries
The first cluster is the success cases. These really come in two flavors: one is Switzerland and the Nordic countries, and the other is everywhere else with costs lower than $150 million per km, that is Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, and South Korea. The difference between the two flavors is that the first one consists of very high-wage countries with populations that trust their institutions, and the second consistent of countries with wages at the bottom of the first world or top of the second with populations who don’t believe me when I tell them their infrastructure construction is cheaper than in Germany. Even then, there are some important differences – for example, contracts in Turkey are lowest-bid, using the country’s high rate of construction and multitude of firms (a contract must have a minimum of 3 bids) to discipline contractors into behaving, whereas Spain instead has technical scoring for bids and only assigns 30% weight to cost.
2. Middle-range countries
This is countries close to the global average, which is around $250 million per kilometer for underground construction. China has about the same average cost as the rest of the world, and since a slight majority of our current database is Chinese, it falls in this category. France and Germany are definitely in this category; Austria, Czechia, and Romania are also in this category but have fewer distinct metro tunnels; Japan may be in this category but it’s unclear, since the few tunnels it’s building nowadays are both more expensive and more uniquely complicated, rather like regional rail. Big parts of Latin America fall into this category too, though they bleed with the high-cost category too. There’s a good case for separating China, France, Germany, and Japan into four separate categories (Austria should probably be institutionally similar to Germany), each of which gets different things right and wrong.
3. Countries with recent cost growth
This cluster consists of places that have high costs but didn’t until recently. Canada and Singapore are both competing for worst construction costs outside the United States but were not until well into the 2000s. Australia may be in this category too – it’s unclear, since Melbourne is extremely expensive to tunnel in but Sydney isn’t. New Zealand’s regional rail costs suggest it might be too – initial electrification was cheap but the regional rail tunnel is expensive. All of these countries share the characteristic of extreme cultural cringe toward Britain and the US, adopting recent British and American ideas of privatization of the state, and it would be valuable to follow up and see if this is indeed what happened with all of their infrastructure programs.
4. Rich countries with very high costs
This cluster is dominated by the US and UK. Taiwan is there too but is much smaller and likely has completely different institutional reasons – one person told me of political corruption. Hungary and Russia might be in this category too – they have very high costs (Budapest is scratching $500 million per km), but their wages are at the first/second world boundary, rather like Bulgaria or Turkey.
5. Countries on the global periphery with very high costs
This cluster consists of the high-cost world that is too poor or peripheral to be in cluster 4. This includes ex-colonies like India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and Vietnam, but also the never- or more-or-less-never-colonized Gulf states; these two categories, the Gulf and the rest, must form two distinct flavors, but I lump them together because both seem to have extreme levels of cultural cringe and to associate bringing in European and East Asian consultants with modernity and success. (Meanwhile, parts of Europe, at least in the less self-assured East, bring in Turkish contractors.) The higher-cost Latin American countries, like Brazil and possibly Colombia, belong here too, and may form a distinct flavor. Thailand is on the edge between this cluster and cluster 2, which may befit its liminal colonial status before and during World War 2.
Where we struggle
We’ve been sending feeler messages to people in a number of places. This is far from perfect coverage – so far none of these countries is poorer than Turkey. In general, we’ve had early success in the lower-income range in cluster 1 (Italy, Spain, Korea, Turkey) and in cluster 4. Cluster 3 seems reachable too, especially since Stephen Wickens did much of the legwork for Toronto’s cost growth; we may be able to look at Sydney as well, and Singapore and Auckland seem like it shouldn’t be too difficult to find sources, nor to get people to listen if our conclusion ends up being “your government reforms in the last 15 years are terrible and should be reversed.”
Within the rich world, so far getting sources in Germany and Scandinavia has proved the hardest. I don’t know if it’s random or if it’s the fact that in countries that believe their standards of living are higher than those of the US and UK people are less likely to be forthcoming to someone who writes them in English. I’ve seen a decent amount of written material about rail capital construction projects in Germany, though not about the one I’m most interested in, that is the U5-U55 connection here in Berlin; but the rail advocates I’ve talked to are not quite in metro construction, though I have learned a lot about public transportation issues in Germany from them.
In Scandinavia things are even harder. Costs there seem pretty consistently low. A common explanation is that the rock in both Stockholm and Helsinki is gneiss, which forms a natural arch and makes tunnel boring easy, but a short tunnel in Oslo, the Løren Line, was even cheaper in softer rock. Moreover, the planned Helsinki-Turku high-speed rail is currently budgeted at €2 billion for 94 km of which 10 are in tunnel, so maybe equivalent to 140 km of at-grade line; this is noticeably below French costs, let alone German ones.
The low-income world is an entirely different situation. My suspicion is that the same cultural cringe that makes India build turnkey Shinkansen at something like 3 times its domestic cost (correcting for tunnel length) would make India eager to talk to us – if we were covered in the first-world discourse first. People in India, Nigeria, etc. know their countries are poor and are desperate to absorb the knowledge of richer places; they don’t understand the US as well as Americans do, but they understand it better than Americans understand the third world.
The reasons I’d ideally like to have 20 case studies are that there are a lot of questions about internal differences, and that things that look like clusters from cost data may not actually be similar. There are a lot of questions that doing more cases might explain.
- South Korea and Japan share many institutional similarities, and many of those are also shared with Taiwan. How come South Korea near-ties for lowest costs in the world, Taiwan near-ties for highest costs in the non-Anglophone first world, and Japan is somewhere in the middle?
- What explains why different Eastern European countries with similar histories and institutions have such cost divergence?
- Why does Italy have low metro construction costs (more in the North than in Rome and the South, but Rome is at worst average) and high costs of high-speed rail construction?
- Why does Japan have high metro construction costs where it builds and low costs of Shinkansen tunneling?
- Turkey seems similar in costs to Southern Europe, but it does things very differently – for one, it uses lowest-bid contracting. To what extent this is about Turkey’s very high rates of construction recently, and does this generalize elsewhere? Of note, there are extremely high construction rates all over middle-cost China, and also decently high rates in high-cost India, Singapore, and California.
- The Netherlands is institutionally within the same range of what’s seen elsewhere in Northern Europe, and yet its construction costs are high. Is this just a matter of alluvial soil tunneling? If so, why did HSL Zuid cost so much?
The Modernizing Rail (Un)Conference happened last Sunday. We’re still gathering all the materials, but here are video uploads, including the keynote by Michael Schabas.
We will also have slides as given by presenters who used them. But for now, here are the slides used by the keynote. You may notice that the recording does not begin on the first slide; we missed Schabas’s introduction and some remarks on his background, detailing his 40 years of experience designing public transit systems in a number of countries, mainly Britain and Canada but also elsewhere in the developed world.
My session on construction costs was slide-free (and was not recorded), since I mostly just showed people around our under-construction cost dataset and answered a lot of questions. Some of those questions were annoying, by which I mean they questioned my thinking or brought up a point I haven’t considered before. I am not talking too much about it partly because I was mostly (mostly) repeating things I’ve said here, and the full database should be out later this summer, with all the mistakes I’ve made in currency conversion rates and in not updating for cost overruns fixed.
After my breakout, I was uncertain between which of two sessions to attend – one on HSR-legacy rail compatibility by María Álvarez, and one on equity issues in rail planning, by Grecia White and Ben She. I ended up going to the latter, which featured interesting discussions of inclusion of low-income people and minorities, both as riders (that is, serving people who are not middle-class whites better on regional rail) and as workers (that is, diversifying planning and engineering departments).
It went well in that there was no monopolization of discussion by people who have more a comment than a question, or any open racism or sexism; but it was somewhat frustrating in that while there was a lot of productive discussion of racial equality in rail planning, there was very little of gender equality even though we did intend to talk about both; Grecia was specifically interested in discussing these, for example women’s perceptions of public safety. This is in line with conference demographics – the organizing team and the breakout presenters were each one-third people of color, in line with US demographics; but the organizing team had 2/18 active women and the presenters 3/15. TransitMatters is similar in that regard – racial diversity is comparable to that of the Boston region, and the proportion of regulars who are queer is enormous, but there are very few women.
Finally, I hosted a session on how to set up a transport association, a.k.a. Verkehrsverbund. Christof Spieler did the most talking, and German attendees explained a lot about the difference between a transport association and agency amalgamation. But for the most part that session felt like an ersatz conclusion to the entire conference; it technically lasted an hour, but once the hour had lapsed, people from other sessions came to the room and the conversation continued naturally, talking a bit about different transit planning issues in Germany and a bit about applicability to rail reform in the Northeastern US.
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.
Update 2020-07-11: here is the timetable. Email us at email@example.com for the Zoom password if you’ve registered.
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.
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).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and Eric at email@example.com. 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 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.
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.
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”).