Category: Personal/Admin

Notes on Accessibility and Chronic Pain

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

The issue of chronic pain

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

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

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

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

Disability and harassment

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

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

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

Trains, buses, and automobiles

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

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

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

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

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

The need for seats

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

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

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

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

Motion sickness

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

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

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

Sensory issues

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

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

The language of universal design

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

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

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

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

The Scope and Future of Our Project on Costs

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

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

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

Questions on scope

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Ran a Conference About Rail Modernization (Again)

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

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

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

How to Build High-Speed Rail with Money the United States Has

The bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF) just passed the Senate by a large margin, with money for both roads and public transportation. Unlike the 2009 Obama stimulus, the BIF has plenty of money for high-speed rail – not just $8 billion as in the 2009 bill, but a total of $66 billion to be spent on mainline rail. The Northeast Corridor program gets $24 billion out of this $66 billion in a dedicated program and another $6 billion out of another program within this bucket dedicated to Amtrak. This is $30 billion, which should be more than enough for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor. Together with other buckets for other parts of the US, it can even build some non-Northeastern lines, for example serving Chicago or Los Angeles.

I say should because the current plans are to waste the money. But better things are possible, so at the Transit Costs Project, we’re planning to embark on a project to write a report on how to do this better. The construction cost report will be done in early 2022, but we can overlap to some extent. A one-year program, to debut in early 2023, will include a Northeast Corridor proposal; a two-year one will also include tie-ins and starter lines elsewhere, such as Chicago-Cleveland/Detroit or Los Angeles-San Diego.

But for this, we need funding. We’re a good deal of the way there, I think around two-thirds for the two-year option – and this isn’t quite enough for the one-year option, some of the money needs to be matched. This is not the same as my Patreon in either scale (the difference is more than an order of magnitude) or scope (my Patreon funds the blog and vlog, which are way more general); if you know grants for such projects, please let us know, we can send a fuller proposal.

What’s the project’s scope?

Lots and lots of analysis, for one, like what we’re doing for subways. Intriguingly, high-cost countries for high-speed rail tend to also have high subway costs and vice versa, and this remains true even as it is easier to explain high-speed rail costs in terms of unnecessary scope and leakage. But this is not the dominant part of the project – rather, we are going to be synthetic and make a proposal. We’re not committing to an investment figure; my guess is that in 2021 dollars it should be around $15 billion to cut Northeast Corridor trip times to about 1:45 on each of New York-Boston and New York-Washington, but some variation is possible in either direction.

If there’s $30 billion for the Northeast Corridor, and high-speed rail is doable for half that, then the other half should be spent on tie-ins, for example improving regional rail in all four major metropolitan areas. Naturally, this should only include useful spending for rail operations and connections, but the Northeast doesn’t lack for those; New York can spend $17 billion on new tunnels and that’s at the per-km cost of Citybanan, one of the cheaper city center regional rail projects in our database.

Modernizing Rail 2021 Announcement

We are happy to announce that on Sunday the 29th of August we will hold this year’s Modernizing Rail conference, on the heels of the success last year.

Please register using this form. And please give details on what you’d like to see, and if you’re willing to lead sessions – the schedule of the breakout sessions is still up in the air depending on popular demand. Even the number of breakouts depends on how many registrants we get, compared with the about 200 we had last year. Perhaps the news of the infrastructure bill will tilt the demand toward more political sessions regarding how to ensure what is built is good and less toward technical best practices.

Our keynote is certainly political: Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), who represents the northern suburbs of Boston (6th district) and for years has been pushing the North-South Rail Link. He will give brief remarks at 16:00 Eastern time, or 22:00 Central Europe Summer Time, to be followed by a Q&A; if you have a question that you’d like to hear an answer to, you can mention it in the registration form, or email the organizing committee at We will be taking questions throughout the conference, which will start 11:00 Eastern, so if your questions depend on what you hear at the breakouts, you’re in luck.

High-Speed Rail Costs and Presentation

We have a database of high-speed rail construction costs up.

Separately, because of Noah Smith’s opinions about high-speed rail, today there is going to be an event featuring me and him in which we are going to discuss the issue in an American context, alongside a presentation of the database and what lessons can be drawn from it. You can register here; it’s at 13:00 Eastern US Time, or 19:00 Berlin time.

A few notes regarding our database, because I’m being asked on Twitter, and also because it’s relevant for our research:

This is a well-studied topic

Literature on comparative HSR costs already exists, and some of our internal cost references are to studies on the subject. This is not like subway costs, where the biggest databases I know of prior to ours are a Flyvbjerg paper and a Spanish analysis each with a number of items in the teens. This should not in a way be surprising: the costs and impact of megaprojects are analyzed more than those of smaller projects, and subways are megaprojects of greater size than surface transit or street reconstruction but HSR is of yet greater size. Thus, subways are significant enough that we have been able to find largely complete costs from trade and mass media and government reports, which task is far harder for bus lanes or bike lanes, whereas with HSR, not only is it possible to find complete costs, but also there is extensive public debate and analysis.

I believe our contribution to the discussion, then, is not the database itself, but two new points:

  • Contrary to the World Bank report on the subject (see here, starting printed page 39), China does not build HSR especially cheaply. Our findings are not too different from the World Bank’s for lines built up to the publication of the report measured in yuan per km, but we adjust for PPP and therefore the cost in dollars per km is higher, and, moreover, the more recent lines appear to be more expensive. In fact, Chinese costs are higher than European ones. The reason is that China builds its HSR almost entirely on viaduct, whereas in Europe, viaducts are rare, and segments that are not in tunnel are built at-grade or on earthworks.
  • There is positive correlation between a country’s HSR costs per km, net of tunnels, and its subway construction costs. This is not perfect correlation, but one can see Britain, the Netherlands, and Taiwan perform poorly in both areas. France and Germany are in the middle. Spain is very cheap. The exceptions are notable: Italy has cheap subways and expensive HSR, which Paolo Beria, author of one of our source papers, attributes to overbuilding and overdesign, with extensive tunnels and freight-friendly grades.

We only include under-construction or open lines

This contrasts with lines that are only in early design and may not yet have a cost – for example, Frankfurt-Mannheim will only publish its cost estimate next year, in a parliamentary budget setting in order to decide whether to proceed (for which the answer is certainly yes, as the benefits to the network are intensive). This also contrasts with canceled and indefinitely postponed lines, such as California High-Speed Rail and the Portuguese lines killed during the Great Recession’s austerity. Canceled lines are upward-biased: the state is likelier to cancel or choose not to build a line if it is more expensive than the average, as we can readily see with California, and therefore we do not wish to compare built with unbuilt lines.

The above analysis is equally true of our subway construction costs database – if a line is canceled, it is purged, even if design or even physical construction began. Gateway for example is under active design and engineering and is therefore included, even if they are still seeking funding, but if it is canceled it will be purged (but if it is rebooted, as I hope, then the sunk cost will be included, as with the Green Line Extension in Boston).

The difference is that our HSR cost database is more historic. It is close to complete for France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Korea, and complete for single-line Taiwan and the Netherlands and for the UK. This is because it’s just easier to find historic data for HSR than for subways, where I wish I could get a complete historic series for big cities with big systems like Paris, Madrid, and Berlin, but can’t even find 1970s-80s costs for any of them. Conversely, ongoing projects make it surprisingly difficult at times to find tunnel and viaduct percentages, and the escape path of going on Google Earth and OpenStreetMaps and measuring is not available.

What is included?

As far as possible, costs are for civil infrastructure, systems, stations, and overheads, but not rolling stock or financing charges. Austria’s Koralmbahn has two sets of numbers, differing by a factor of 2, with one source claiming that it is about whether financing is included. It is my belief that, owing to the high profitability of HSR if cost of capital is ignored, it is best to think in terms of returns on investment and not try to incorporate debt or finance charges into the actual cost.

The importance of avoiding viaducts and tunnels

The Asian tendency to build on viaduct where the line is not in tunnel leads to high costs. Likewise, the use of shallow grades and low superelevation for mixed lines or even for some dedicated lines (the Shinkansen, without any track sharing, hews to 1.5% grads) raises construction costs.

Netting out tunnels is still useful when trying to figure out itemized costs and cost control that is not about what to build, for example about labor or procurement. It is also useful when comparing lines in the mountainous terrain of Austria, Japan, Korea, and Switzerland to the easier North European Plain. But at some point, it is necessary to treat the tunnel percentage as endogenous to the planning system. The viaduct percentage, moreover, is absolutely endogenous.

France in this context does well by keeping lines at grade as much as possible. The only country with less tunneling than France is Morocco, which builds its urban and high-speed trains as if it were France, and, thanks to France’s extensive presence in the Maghreb, French contractors are intimately familiar with the local situation and build cheaply. France and Germany have similar unit costs, but Germany tunnels a lot more, less because of the terrain and more because of either politics (that is, the Erfurt detour for Berlin-Munich, forcing the line to go through thicker mountains) or a misguided attempt at building mixed lines in the 1980s and 90s.

The United States’ high projected budgets for proposed lines that never go anywhere thanks to their extreme costs come from overbuilding more than high unit prices. For example, in Baltimore, a two-track tunnel project designed for exclusive electric passenger train usage turned into a four-track tunnel with enough room for double-stacked freight with mechanical ventilation for diesel locomotives. The scope creep raised the projected budget from $750 million in the late 2000s to $4 billion in the mid-2010s.

I Gave a Talk About Canadian Construction Costs

There was a conference I got invited to, consisting of three talks, two about state capacity by me and by Tyler Cowen, and one by a Canadian extramural Conservative politician named Ginny Roth (she’s a columnist but her talk was about how Conservatives could use the insights of state capacity to win elections, hence my appellation). It was run by entrepreneurs named Chris and Matt Spoke, doing a series of online meetings trying to introduce fresh ideas to what they hope will be the next crop of Tory leaders; there’s going to be one on housing in the future, and the YIMBY comments I made seemed popular with the crowd.

Here is a link to my slides. They shouldn’t be too surprising given my usual talk on construction costs and what I said before about the growth in Canadian costs. But I made sure to put the increase in costs in Canada all together in two slides, one about Toronto, sourced to Stephen Wickens, and one about the rest of Canada, sourced to both our database and to a comparison of Calgary’s costs through the 2000s with Calgary’s West LRT costs.

The organizers are in Toronto, so I didn’t talk too much about the situation in Vancouver. I said a few sentences about how I can see there was a real increase in costs from a difference between the half-elevated Canada Line and the 87% underground Broadway subway under construction, but I didn’t go into the history of the Canada Line’s cut-and-cover method or the cost estimates from the early 2010s, which had the Broadway subway costing C$250 million/km. I talked more about Toronto, where the increase in costs is larger; Vancouver, even with the cost increases, remains North America’s lowest-construction-cost city, since the other cities have had even bigger increases, including Toronto, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

I want to highlight, as I brought up 1.5 years ago, that while Canada has American (i.e. bad) mainline rail, and Americanizing construction costs, it is YIMBYer than both the US and Europe. I worry it won’t last for long, because the style of Canadian redevelopment is at fairly small radius from an arterial or a subway station and those will eventually run out, forcing upzoning of large swaths of single-family land for the benefit of everyone except the handful of aggrieved homeowners who dominate municipal politics. (There was not enough time to talk about the importance of high-level decisionmaking, that is at the provincial level and not the municipal one.)

Streaming High-Speed Rail Crayoning

People are sharing various maps of the high-speed rail network the US could build if it were interested in alternative transportation, and I promised I’d make one myself. I did this on camera on Twitch a week ago but was not finished, so I streamed it again just now – this is going to be a regular occurrence, always at 18:00 my time every Saturday. There’s a recording, but Twitch is being weird about letting me upload it, so it might make it to YouTube instead.

Here is the map:

A full-size image can be found here. Red lines are high-speed rail. Blue lines are marginal lines: New Haven-Springfield and Milwaukee-Green Bay are good legacy lines that may or may not work as full HSR (the former probably better than the latter), while Nashville-Memphis, the Pacific Northwest system, and Phoenix-Tucson are marginal between no service at all and HSR.

Florida High-Speed Rail

I did the calculations for Atlanta-Florida on camera. I was surprised that it turned out to work out well, even with semi-decent return on investment based on my Metcalfe’s law formulas, around 3%. The rub is that Orlando is pretty big, and even though it is sprawl hell, it is also an unusually strong tourist destination, and the rail line would serve Disney World and Daytona Beach. This makes me more confident in a formula trained on Japanese and European cities with public transit than a connection between two random no-transit medium size cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati.

This itself is an example of Metcalfe’s law in action: the Miami-Orlando-Tampa system by itself only returns 2.2% per the formula, and an extension to Jacksonville 2.6%. I also have more certainty in the figures for the larger system, because the impact of sprawl on mode choice is smaller when distances get longer, because it doesn’t affect the air/rail mode choice as much as the car/rail mode choice.

Even at medium distances, observe that the South Florida urban area is linear, around 20 km wide but more than 100 long, which makes intercity rail service more reasonable. Every county can have a stop, and if the 0.8 exponent in the gravity model formula is applied to counties separately, then the sum rises to 6.1, whereas 7^0.8 = 4.74, which means that this refinement provides a 28% boost to ridership. Orlando is not linear, but its subsidiary metro areas, Lakeside and Daytona Beach, could get stops as well.

Alignment questions

I drew the system in a zoom level 7 on OpenStreetMap, which is too high-altitude to see individual railroads. I tried to approximate existing rail alignments that are worth using, but it’s not perfect, so please do not take the map as any assertion about pixel-level alignment, and even some station decisions can be quibbled with.

However, please do take the map as a definitive assertion about macro-scale alignments. The Northeast Corridor should go via I-95 and not via Hartford. This decision is fairly close and could go either way, though the benefits of HSR in the Northeast are so great that the absolute magnitude of such decisions remains momentous. Elsewhere, the Chicago-Minneapolis line could go along I-94 via Eau Claire or via a more southerly route via Rochester and the Mayo Clinic; I’ve gone back and forth on this, and it’s a second-order question, but I think the Mayo Clinic generates more trips, probably. The Albany-Montreal route could be entirely in the state of New York or take a slight detour through easier terrain in Vermont, which is likely cheaper. Toronto-Ottawa could go via Kingston or Peterborough, but the Peterborough route looks more direct. Chicago-St. Louis is sometimes proposed to detour via Champaign rather than go straight via Bloomington, but the benefit of serving UIUC probably doesn’t justify the extra cost. North Carolina HSR could go via the Triad or direct from Raleigh to Charlotte, but the model says the benefit of serving Greensboro is much greater than that of slightly faster trips coming from bypassing the Triad. Texas is a compromise route extending the under-construction line to Downtown Houston and creating a new leg connecting this system to Austin and San Antonio.

The most contentious questions are in California. HSR there should go via a partially high-speed coastal alignment from San Diego up to Los Angeles, then up the Grapevine and Tejon Pass, then across Altamont Pass and a Dumbarton tunnel. None of these decisions is close, and the official alignment decisions to detour via the Inland Empire and Palmdale and to go via Pacheco are all bad and played a role in the failure of the project. Los Angeles-San Diego is in a way the most frustrating: it was left to a future phase, but a medium-speed rail alignment along the coast could be done relatively quickly with electrification and some strategic investments, speeding up trains to about 1:45.


I talked about frequency a little bit in the video, but not in much detail. The biggest problem is that Philadelphia is set up poorly: ideally trains coming from New York should branch to either Washington or Pittsburgh, but instead, 30th Street Station requires New York-Pittsburgh trains to reverse direction. This can be handled through actual reversal, as is done today at Frankfurt, with 4-minute turnarounds (cf. 10 at Philadelphia), or through having New York-Pittsburgh trains skip Philadelphia, as was historically done, with a stop at North Philadelphia instead.

With that in mind, my best guess, based partly on the model and partly on intra-metropolitan fudge factors like New York-New Haven, is as follows:

  • 8 tph New York-Boston, 4 New York-Springfield
  • 8 tph New York-Washington, 4 New York-Pittsburgh-Cleveland, 4 Washington-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Cleveland
  • 8 tph New York-Albany, 4 short Boston-Albany, 8 Albany-Buffalo (4 short), 4 Buffalo-Toronto, 4 Albany-Montreal, 2 short Buffalo-Cleveland
  • 2 tph Cleveland-Detroit, 4 (2 short) Cleveland-Chicago, 2 Chicago-Detroit, 2 Cleveland-Louisville
  • 4 tph Chicago-Milwaukee, 2 Milwaukee-Minneapolis
  • 2 short tph Chicago-St. Louis
  • 4 tph Chicago-Indianapolis, 2 Indianapolis-Cincinnati, 2 Indianapolis-Atlanta
  • 2 short tph Nashville-Memphis
  • 6 tph Washington-Richmond, 2 Richmond-Norfolk, 4 Richmond-Charlotte, 2 Charlotte-Atlanta
  • 2 short tph Miami-Tampa, 2 Miami-Atlanta, 2 Atlanta-Tampa
  • 2 short tph Houston-DFW, 2 short DFW-San Antonio, 2 short Houston-San Antonio
  • 2 short tph Vancouver-Portland (at best)
  • 4 tph Los Angeles-San Diego, 2 Los Angeles-Phoenix, 2 Los Angeles-Las Vegas
  • 2 tph Los Angeles-San Francisco, 2 Los Angeles-San Jose, 2 Los Angeles-Sacramento, 2 San Francisco-Sacramento

Streaming Crayoning

I’m going to stream on Twitch at 18:00 tonight my time (UTC+1). This is usually intended as a platform for streaming playing video games, but can also be used for other things, such as discussions that would benefit from video and screen sharing. This may turn into a regular feature, covering a different topic every time – probably monthly, I don’t see myself having enough time to do this weekly unless it’s extremely impromptu.

Today’s topic is crayons:

  • How I make maps such as these ones: how I grab the base map, how I draw lines, etc.
  • Good tips for how to figure out which lines are useful, including very rudimentary cost-per-rider analyses.
  • An example of making a map, probably a US-wide high-speed rail map based on my Metcalfe’s law posts but maybe something else if there’s popular demand.

I Gave a Talk at Transit Con

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.