Americans periodically talk about the stereotype that various large cities are not Real America. The standard explanations among American liberal for why this stereotype exists are a combination of partisanship (cities vote for Democrats by large margins) and racism (cities are racially diverse), but these have never sat well with me. Stereotypes that the major cities are a different world from the rest of the country are not uniquely American – they exist in England, France, and Israel just as in the US, and sociologists in Europe increasingly try to turn them into pan-European comparisons of urban middle-class globalists in tension with The Real Nation. This also exists historically: the best reference is Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism. This post is an explanation of Gellner’s theory and how it applies today.
Gellner’s theory of nationalism
To Gellner, modern nationalism is an inevitable byproduct of industrialization and modernization. Peasants live their entire lives within walking distance of where they were born. They have an intensely local culture with local customs, and politics revolving around jockeying for favors of the local notables, who are often entitled nobility. There is no social mobility to speak of in a traditional agrarian society, hence no need for compatibility between villages in different part of the same state. Moreover, the individual usually does not interact with the state directly, but rather through intermediaries, who again may be entitled nobles, but could equally well be powerful families in any of the premodern European republics.
A national culture may appeal to the more mobile elite, but not to the large majority of the population. In Aquitaine, the nobility transitioned from speaking Occitan to speaking French at the end of the Middle Ages, but the commoners didn’t even view themselves as part of France well into the Early Modern Era, and kept speaking Occitan until the 20th century. The standard Italian language is a creation of the Renaissance, and standard German is a creation of the Reformation, but neither was spoken widely before the modern era; standard German was only written, not spoken, until the 19th century.
Industrialization changes this situation. Workers from all over urbanize, and often urbanize far away from where they were born; people from Prussia moved west to the Ruhr to work in the factories, people from small American towns moved to the big industrial cities in the North, etc. A common language is essential. Common customs are useful as well: workers become interchangeable parts in a Fordist production system, so they need to have similar needs (for example, holidays) to be useful to the capitalist elite.
Even when minorities get some recognition, the state shoehorns them into a common culture for easier governance. Today we speak of Occitan and of the French state’s imposition of Parisian French on the South, but the term Occitania is only attested from the 16th century, and did not exist in Toulouse’s medieval heyday. In the communist world, state anthropologists grouped together people who had no conception of identity beyond their immediate village or tribe and labeled them as a particular ethnic group, such as the Uighurs or the Zhuang.
Gellner stresses that the promulgation of national culture is a top-down process, driven by the needs of the urban middle class. National education enforces a standard language and shames speakers of minority languages, such as Welsh, any minority language in France, immigrants in the US, or indigenous people in North America and Australia. Even when they lack a separate identity as the Welsh or Occitans do, the state teaches the peasants to speak correctly, that is, to speak as the elite does in and around the capital. Children are taught loyalty through rituals, national history, and irredentism, and in most of Europe this culminated in conscripted armies. In the era in question, education policy is decided entirely by political elites, be they local notables (as in the US) or urban-based national parties (as in Europe).
Even the socialist conception of workers with class consciousness only arises after industrialization and national homogenization. Factory workers can go on strike; Early Modern apprentices bound to a specific master cannot, and servants on a manor compete for favors from the lord and do not act in solidarity.
Nationalism and rural romanticism
A key aspect of nationalism is rural romanticism. As with national homogenization, Gellner stresses that this process is driven by the urban middle class, and not by rural dwellers themselves, who identify with their particular village or region more than with the nation.
The art of the Belle Epoque tells this story. Impressionist and postimpressionist painters in France might paint industrial scenes, such as train stations, but they were much likelier to paint rural ones, often in faraway regions. People in modern-day Provence have used Paul Cézanne’s paintings of the area’s rural idyll to argue against high-speed rail construction, saying it would despoil their historic culture – but Cézanne himself was educated in Aix and spent most of his life in Paris. Across the Pond, New York-based artists would paint romantic scenes in Upstate New York.
To Gellner, this romanticism is bundled with capital-centrism, as in France or England; he recognizes that polycentric models exist, such as that of Germany, but focuses on France as the purest example. In France, the middle class would not romanticize its own situation in Paris, which might be too special to generalize to the rest of the country. It would happily impose Parisian French in education, but could not romanticize the life of the Parisian worker. Instead, the object of romanticism had to be far away.
Stereotypes and familiarity
Gellner’s theory studies Europe in the Second Industrial Revolution, but we can look at applications at other times and places. In the United States, we can write a bunch of stereotypes that apply to the entire country and distinguish it culturally from the rest of the developed world:
- Cities are car-oriented and low-density, but still have a high-rise central business district, ringed by mostly single-family houses and suburban job centers. If people take public transport, it’s because they are too poor to afford a car, or possibly because they commute to a large central business district at rush hour.
- Cities are much poorer than their suburbs – the middle class prefers to live outside the city and drive in. If there are sections of central cities that are nice and attract the middle class, the people living therein are usually childless, and many end up moving to the suburbs and buying houses when they have children.
- Schools are governed at a very local level, down to the individual small town, and parents spend a lot of money on buying houses in favored school districts, leading to intense school segregation by race and parental education. But within each district there is no tracking into academic versus vocational schools.
- While there is no hierarchy of schools (except across districts), there is a rigid hierarchy of universities. Harvard is the best, but is unattainable to the vast majority of the public. Generally, private universities have higher prestige than public ones. Except at the lowest level of prestige, that of the community college, it’s normal to go far away for university, often out of state, and the university will moreover often be located in a small or medium-size town and not in a big city.
- Non-Hispanic whites are the dominant group demographically, politically, and economically. They may have sub-identities, such as Italian, Scotch-Irish, or Puritan, but they will usually identify with whites with other sub-identities more closely than with nonwhite Americans. Moreover, they do not feel threatened by neighboring countries, and view themselves as the globally dominant ethnicity rather than possessing a siege mentality the way Israeli Jews and Chinese-Singaporeans do. Finally, within the white majority, Protestants from Northern and Western Europe occupy a privileged position of being the default group, to the point of not even being viewed as ethnic.
All of the above stereotypes are broadly true of the United States, but all have exceptions in various regions. New York’s high density and broad use of public transportation are well-known, and in urbanist discourse this makes it a lightning rod for accusations that it is not Real America.
And yet, some of the other stereotypes are more Northern than Southern. The school segregation picture is specifically Northern: the South is less likely to have segregated districts, and the segregation it does have comes from private (often sectarian) schools. Children in Florida grow up going to schools with children of other races, unlike children in New England. The university hierarchy is not only Northern but specifically Northeastern – in several Midwestern states, the state flagships are their respective states’ most prestigious institutions; and whether the universities are in big cities or smaller towns is idiosyncratic.
There is probably a case that New York is more different from standard average America than other regions are, but there is no plausible case regarding a number of other American cities commonly stereotyped as not Real America, such as Boston, Washington, or even San Francisco.
However, those other cities are too familiar to the cultural elites. Some frustrated liberals do try to say that the Deep South is not Real America for its various special social and political characteristics, but they cannot say with a straight face that Boston is Real America, because they are familiar enough with Boston to know its idiosyncrasies, such as its high-by-American-standards public transport usage and its job centralization pattern.
In contrast, the rural Midwest is disconnected enough from cultural production centers that people can say with a straight face that a randomly-selected Midwestern town represents Real America. It will have plenty of idiosyncrasies, and may even play them up for tourism (as at state fairs), but it will portray them as “we are unique, just like everyone else.” The uniqueness is a claim to special knowledge, and thus power, on behalf of the local elites, rather than a claim to political separateness. A politician is supposed to visit such a town, eat whatever food the locals proclaim is a local delicacy, and do photo-ops with the mayor and richest business owners, rather than to actually change national spending priorities. It’s the politics of personal connections, rather than ideology. Politicians can proclaim it Real America precisely because it is nonthreatening. Rural areas that demand ideological concessions, as the South did on segregation in the 20th century, have a harder time being taken seriously as Real America.
Gellner does not get into the homogenization of minority identity, but it is a real issue within the theory of nationalism. The same principles of nationalism equally apply to minority groups, even ones that have had to politically fight to have cultural autonomy. On the level of identity, this means that groups that did not identify as a single ethnos begin to do so under the influence of a larger, more powerful culture; this includes not just top-down examples like the Uighurs and the Zhuang, but also more organic ones like the formation of a unified Muslim American identity including Middle Easterners, South Asians, and Africans.
The formation of sub-nationalism includes rural romanticism among sub-identities as well. It’s common enough on the level of the state or province, even if it’s a region that the nation writ large denigrates. Californians see the rest of America denigrate them as either ungovernable or elitist, depending on taste, and yet within the state they display the same romanticism for the state’s rural minority. In the interminable California High-Speed Rail alignment debates, people who supported routing the trains through Gilroy would talk up the area’s garlic festival as some kind of important marker of state culture.
In Europe, too, we see people specifically overrate the rural even in minority regions. French sociologists have spilled far too much ink about how modern social changes including globalization have hollowed out small towns, and multiple articles have specifically looked at Albi. They either directly say or imply that in the era of national unity, Occitania was great, but immigration and globalization have left it in decline. The reality is that Southern France has economically boomed in the last two generations – Toulouse is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe thanks to the Airbus factory – but somehow, Toulouse and Bordeaux are not Real Midi whereas any small town where one may find extreme right voters is.
This romanticism goes even below the level of a state of province. Within cities, too, there are patterns to which neighborhoods are called Real New York and which are not, and as a rule, these neighborhoods are always the farthest-out ones. I have heard speculation that City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will face a major headwind in the 2021 mayoral election purely because he’s from Manhattan. I have spent years talking to New Yorkers and heard a lot of Real New York complaints and do not recall a single instance in which people accused Kew Gardens Hills and Midwood of being not-Real New York, never mind that their Orthodox Jewish populations behave in ways atypical of the city much more so than the upper middle class residents of the Upper West Side do.
Some regions, professions, or social classes end up having considerable charisma, in the sense that other people view them as national symbols. Often these specifically represent the past, since it’s had more time to insinuate itself into national culture than the future: all over the United States as well as Western Europe, there is more attention to declining industrial regions such as the Midwest or the Ruhr than to demographically growing regions even if they’re equally poor, such as ones with economies driven by tourism and retirement.
Usually what makes a group charismatic is that it makes no ideological demands on the state, only personal ones. And yet, there is ideology in personal demands, which leads to overspending on such groups, for example lush farm subsidies and agricultural protectionism.
This is a pitfall for urbanism specifically, since the biggest cities genuinely have different needs from small towns. Public transport can succeed in small cities (like Strasbourg, Geneva, Karlsruhe, or Brno) given supportive policies and fail in big ones (like Los Angeles) given hostile ones – but there is practically always a size gradient. New York will always have better public transport than the rest of the United States. The upshot is that the sort of investment that is designed to maximize transport usage intensity relative to spending will concentrate in a few big cities, especially New York – and much of the potential for success elsewhere in the United States involves models of transit-oriented development that in effect New Yorkize other cities.
Since the modes of transportation that move people the most efficiently – various flavors of rapid transit – are difficult to implement in most American cities other than New York, nationalists face a dilemma. They can abandon nationalism, and declare that if (say) Tampa and Grand Rapids cannot make urban rail work, they will receive less funding. But this will look insensitive, not just to locals of Tampa and Grand Rapids, but also to various New York elites that have turned small cities like Tampa and Grand Rapids into national bellwethers. Most instead choose to politicize transport decisions and argue for things that small cities can implement, no matter how poor the results are (“learn to love the bus”).
One of the two options in the dilemma is politically correct, but keeps American transportation and urbanism frozen in amber in the 1950s; nationalism always romanticizes the past more than the future. The other moves forward, but is not so politically correct. Who wants to openly argue in favor of more investment in a two-thirds nonwhite and two-fifths foreign-born city, with enough minority prosperity that its most elite school is two-thirds Asian? Who wants to euthanize the national industry that played such a big role in the mythology of postwar prosperity, at least for those who could afford it and had the correct skin color? Who wants to openly argue for greater adoption of a vernacular architecture that a large majority of America emotionally associates with the living standards of a hundred years ago, never mind that individuals like it enough that developers build it on their own at market rate wherever they are allowed to?
The future of nationalism
Nationalism was the ideology that suited the Second Industrial Revolution, and globalism is what suits the information technology era. The extent of economic specialization of 1900 lent itself well to nation-states. Those nation-states did not have to be very big – Sweden wasn’t – but if they were small they needed to have open economies and institutions allowing extensive trade even in the absence of mass migration.
The extent of economic specialization of 2020 in the developed world is not the same as that of 1900. Industrial specialization, as when each industrial Northern American city produced a different good, is in decline, but instead there are hyper-specialized clusters of academic and industrial research, drawing on international talent. This requires stepping up from nationalism toward globalism. Linguistically this means English, stripped of a few Americanisms and Anglicisms like non-metric units; in literature this means reading a selection of many different cultures’ great authors, usually in translation, and not just one linguistic canon; in science this means an academia that trends toward international exchanges and often nation-hopping in training. It’s too vast a world for cultural Fordism, which encourages post-Fordist specialization – think Starbucks and its many different options for coffee and not the McDonald’s of 20 years ago with its limited menu.
The United States happens to be very well-suited for some aspects of globalization: most importantly, it is already Anglophone. It is ill-suited for others: Americans’ sense of national pride is bound in industries and consumption patterns that are destroying the planet. Any green transition, and really any improvement in infrastructure beyond the 1950s and 60s, will offend Americans’ sense of nationhood and elevate subcultures they are used to denigrating. This is not partisan and this is not even mostly racial. Nationalism romanticizes the nation’s imagined past, and in the United States more than anywhere else the past in question must be discarded as an era of wanton pollution.
Every year that passes, climate change becomes a more urgent problem to solve: every year that emissions do not fall means that future emissions will have to fall even faster to avoid catastrophic global warming and ocean level rise. This aspect makes climate change different as an issue from air pollution, health care, education, etc., all of which can be solved tomorrow in approximately the same way as today.
Transportation is an increasingly important aspect of climate change. In the 1990s activists could focus on electricity generation, due to the prevalence of coal power in developed countries. Today, when coal has terminally declined in most of the developed world, and is controversial in China and India because of its severe air pollution emissions, the share of transportation in greenhouse gas emissions is higher, and still rising (see e.g. US data on PDF-p. 32 and UK data).
As the biggest challenge of urbanism and transportation shifts from local public health to global climate change, the need for mechanisms that enable rapid demotorization and reurbanization becomes more urgent. I wrote a lot about consensus urbanism in 2011, and a lot of what I said still works if the aim is long-term improvement of democratic decisionmaking through inclusion; in essence, the consensus process spends time on buying goodwill from various groups instead of money (through open or de facto bribes) or political capital (through controversial coercion). But if the goal is to prevent catastrophic climate change, then the value of time is high and will grow as the years go by and no action is taken, and thus the consensus process loses a lot of its appeal.
In lieu of slow attempts at consensus, there are two ways to implement policy fast: market pricing, and top-down coercion. In cultural theory terms, consensus is egalitarian, market pricing individualist, and coercion hierarchical; the fourth cultural bias, fatalism, is not really associated with any system, but rather with the government by exception that characterizes populism, and does not proceed in a particular direction.
The upshot is that governments should aim to spend money and political capital instead of time, and use governing mechanisms that facilitate rapid change. In areas where the market supports green decisions, for example urban real estate construction, it is necessary to remove restrictions on market activity. Where it cannot, for example any question of infrastructure, it is necessary to reduce delays, for example by removing the ability of individuals to sue over environmental reviews – decisions about environmental impact should be taken internally through a civil service.
Learn to say no
One of the biggest loci of opposition to the green transition is a culture war by an old guard that clings to a postwar vision of the good life that centers car ownership and either the suburbs (in the US and parts of Europe) or a small town that turned into a suburb (in the other parts of Europe). Waiting for the old guard to die off or otherwise slowing down the process of change to make it more palatable may work for other goals, such as reducing urban housing costs, curbing air pollution, and providing better mobility for people who already don’t drive. It does not work for climate change.
The upshot is that there are two valid strategies to deal with literally hundreds of millions of first-world citizens who stand to lose income, wealth, or social or cultural status from the green transition. The first is to buy them off, or at least buy off those who can be bought off without bankrupting the state. The second is to tell them no. No, we are not going to accommodate you: saving the planet is too important a goal, and turning your 20-minute car commute into a one-hour three-seat ride by a bus because you kept voting against trains is a price we are willing to pay, and even if you’re not willing to pay it, we don’t need you to vote for us.
This is easier in Europe than in the United States; Canada is somewhere in between. If NATO-Europe gets into a war with Russia tomorrow and bans personal car use the next day to conserve fuel for tanks, people will for the most part be able to adapt; the trains will get more crowded, but outside Paris and London, the main constraint on train capacity is rolling stock, which is cheap to make more of even in an environment of total mobilization. If the United States gets into a shooting war, it will not be able to do so – at most it may be able to organize car-sharing clubs as in World War Two, but even then, many weak-centered cities would cease to function.
Climate change is urgent but less urgent than a total war starting tomorrow, which gives some time for expansion of transit. There’s about a generation’s worth of time; in the same timeframe, Vancouver has turned itself from a postwar suburban hellscape into something resembling a transit city. However, two important caveats make a public works-only green transition impossible. First, there is political opposition to transit, especially cost-effective transit (for example, buses taking freeway lanes from cars rather than adding lanes to freeways). And second, without some combination of transit-oriented development and coercive taxes on fuel, public transport remains underutilized – a number of American cities have built ample urban rail but have far lower ridership than comparable European and Canadian examples. Rail expansion makes confrontational green politics more palatable; it does not remove the need for confrontation.
The one saving grace of this need for confrontational, risk-taking politics is that the status-anxious opposition is the same to everything: to urban redevelopment, to public transportation, to raising taxes on cars, and often even to a consensus-based process if this process empowers the wrong social classes or ethnic groups. Quite often this opposition is exceptionally loud and connected, but running against it, while risky, is not political suicide. California voted against expansion of rent control last year, congestion pricing proved popular in London and Stockholm after the initial controversy of implementation, carbon taxes in Sweden keep going up and emissions keep going down, the German Christian Democrats’ road warrior tendency is conservative rather than reactionary. The green movement should expect to lose battles; it should not expect to lose the war.
How France builds high-speed rail and how Spain builds subways
France and Spain have opposite approaches to cost containment. France spends time rather than money: informal political opposition in rural areas is hard to break – what the state will let the police do to suburban Arabs and blacks who protest brutality it won’t dare let it do to rural whites who protest trains despoiling their romantic Provence views – so the state painstakingly negotiates with the landowners. The resulting construction costs are reasonable: the 106 km LGV Est phase 2, with 4 km in tunnel, cost €2.01 billion euros in 2008 prices. However, the process takes a long time: in Provence, where placating the NIMBYs proved impossible, the resulting alignment is tunnel-heavy and expensive, and even though public debate goes back to 2005, the line will likely open well into the 2030s.
Spain takes the opposite approach. In the view of Manuel Melis Maynar, time is money, and the faster a project is completed, the cheaper it will be, as there will be less time for problems to accumulate. Madrid Metro awards contracts based on how fast construction can be completed as well as on the budget, and its internal planning process is designed around fast decisionmaking.
Spain builds infrastructure more cheaply than France, but that by itself is not enough to argue in favor of the Spanish approach. Spain does many things to curb costs that France does not, and the question of whether time and money are substitutes or complements occurs in many industries with different answers. In tech, there may well arise situations in which code can be written cheaply or quickly and ones in which delays add costs within the same project.
That the time or money question is delicate means that infrastructure builders need to cultivate enough expertise to be able to know when it’s one or the other and when it’s both or neither. However, that, by itself, has nothing to do with urgency; “work on building infrastructure more cheaply” is a good principle regardless of whether everything needs to be in place in 10 years or in 100.
What the urgency of climate change does mean is that there should be a bias against delays. In situations in which it is certain that time and money are substitutes, agencies should prefer to spend money, for example by buying off property owners and paying above market rates. In situations in which it is unclear, agencies should act as if time is money and aim to complete projects quickly even at the cost of budget overruns, rather than to complete them on a prescribed budget even at the cost of schedule slips.
That Spain has lower construction costs than France suggests that acting as if Spain is right and France is wrong is not likely to have too many drawbacks. It may require some internal cultural changes in how infrastructure builders think, and possibly regulatory changes streamlining environmental reviews, but it’s likely to either save money in the long run or only cost a little more.
I recently saw that San Francisco is considering fast-tracking residential development dedicated to teacher housing. There are quibbles between the moderate mayor and the progressives on city council (“Board of Supervisors”) over the exact structure of the housing subsidies, but both sides agree at least in theory that it should be easier to build housing for teachers; for more background, see article here and Twitter back-and-forth here. I bring this up because it’s an example of bad governance at the local level in the US, one that sends everyone the message, “you should get more clout to bribe politicians.”
The basic problem is that market-rate housing in San Francisco is extremely expensive; in the Mission, a two-bedroom apartment rents for about $5,000 or $5,500 a month. There’s rent control, but it requires one to have lived in the city for a very long time – friends who have lived in the city since the mid-2000s pay around $2,700, which is borderline on a teacher’s salary. Usually the city’s local notables don’t have to care about whether housing is affordable to people in intermediate professions, since our rent is their property values, but “teachers can’t afford housing here” could be a rallying cry for more housing. Thus, they feel like making an exception.
Making an exception is the hallmark of populist governance. In a system with not much rule of law and no trust that there will ever be rule of law, people don’t ask for better rules but to benefit from exceptions. That various exporters threatened to leave Britain over Brexit did not faze Theresa May – every time a company people didn’t hate made such a threat, she offered special subsidies to stay no matter what would happen with the trade agreement with the rump-EU.
The problem with populism is that it sends the message, invest in political marketing and not in productivity. A company that sees that San Francisco is subsidizing housing for teachers in preference to other workers with similar pay and skill level – clerical workers, social workers, lab techs – gets a clear incentive to give its workers more political prestige through political contributions, sponsorships of events the local politicians are interested in, etc. It faces less pressure to invest in its productivity and pay its workers better, since housing is not allocated by market pricing but by political whims.
Under liberal governance, if San Francisco wishes to give its teachers perks, it can pay them better. Programmers get paid $110,000 a year plus benefits (stock options, good health insurance, free food), and the city can if it wants raise taxes and pay teachers similarly; if it can commit to maintaining such high pay indefinitely it can ensure the profession will get more prestige and attract people who otherwise would be writing code for how to sell user data to advertisers slightly more efficiently.
However, a tax hike might fall on the local homeowners and on other rich people who have invested a lot of time and money in obtaining political influence. To avoid burdening the powerful, the city can’t do this – it has to come up with some one-off bespoke deal for teacher housing, rather than permitting more housing across the board and also raising salaries to be competitive with those of the private sector.
Improving the quality of governance requires making it harder for politicians to create such deals. The original YIMBY praxis of state preemption laws is one way to do this: it completely takes local notables out of the loop. While the YIMBY groups on the ground in California don’t go further with this, their favorite state politician, Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco in the State Senate, is consciously trying to form an informal state party with some ideological coherence based on relevant state issues, led by the question of housing.
It may be prudent to refine this preemption doctrine by interfering with local rules that favor some groups over others in housing. Thus the state should pass a preemption law that forbids dedicated housing for teachers, cops, or other charismatic professions, and requires all housing to be allocated by market pricing, or, failing that, by a clear process of rent control, such as waitlists or income limits. Private actors may continue to buy and sell housing based on their wishes, subject to the usual anti-discrimination law, but municipalities may not use incentives such as subsidies, tax breaks, access to public land, or special fast-tracking of approvals. Such a law may well succeed in the state legislature – unlike the SB 50 process preempting zoning restrictions, this law would not be nakedly offensive to the privileged group of suburban homeowners who managed to scuttle SB 50.
It is not really possible to develop rule of law in an environment in which powerful people can easily circumvent the rules. A city that can offer a way out of an onerous permitting regime to people who make it attractive offers – that is, bribery – has no incentive to make the permitting regime easier, and a powerful incentive to keep it as it is. If building housing becomes easier, politicians lose the ability to extort community benefits by threatening to withhold permits. And if there is a way out for socioeconomic classes that demagogues can’t dismiss as gentrifiers, transients, and rootless cosmopolitans, then politicians gain the ability to threaten everyone else, while employers as well as nonprofits get a powerful message that they should pay more bribes. It’s a win-win for everyone except the hapless residents governed by such corruption.
The question is whether area YIMBYs are willing to leverage the one point of power they do have – namely, their connection to nationwide ideological networks that the local notables of these cities pay lip service to. Out of four New York Times op-ed writers who online liberals like, two (Paul Krugman, Jamelle Bouie) have openly called for more housing in cities, and two (Charles Blow, Michelle Goldberg) have never opined on this issue; NIMBYs have ample local power but little national clout. YIMBYs have this advantage and need to press it to completely sideline machine politics and personality politics – that is, to form a coherent, identifiable political party in California (or New York, or Massachusetts) contesting state and local elections, and if winning local elections without assimilating to the local rot is not possible then work to delegitimize government below the state level as irredeemably corrupt.
The United States has long had private success and public failure – not just the sense of private affluence and public squalor, in which household income is high but the state of public services lags, but also in that the private sector is more productive than the public sector. American politicians generally recognize this and often propose programs to use private-sector methods to revitalize the public sector – including infrastructure.
As a rule, existing proposals are failures, such as anything with Elon Musk’s name on it, or when moderate governors like Charlie Baker put some second-rate managers like Luis Ramirez in charge of public transportation agencies. Nonetheless, a program for leveraging private-sector expertise to improve public transportation could be fruitful if politicians aimed at long-term management rather than at favorable short-term press.
Much of what I’m going to propose is an extension of what I blogged last year about the value of outside advice. But here it’s not about domain knowledge, since the American private sector knows little of how to run public transportation well, but rather about more general management principles.
Done is better than good
I encountered the aphorism that done is better than good in the context of video game development. In gamedev, multi-year delays are routine since projects commonly expand in scope or have to adapt to changing circumstances. In the 1990s, Starcraft notoriously was delayed from 1996 to 1998, at a time when one-year development cycles were normal – and then in the 2000s both Starcraft 2 and Duke Nukem Forever took longer than a decade, the latter spending 14 years in development. In such an environment, a culture has to develop that puts an emphasis on finishing something even if some compromises on features are needed.
I genuinely don’t know to what extent other industries use this maxim when projects are delayed. I was told of a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in which everything gets delayed by months or years as everything has many layers of committee review, and when I asked if the organization had heard of the maxim, my source said “lolno.” I know that TransitMatters can take months to edit a document that I can produce in a day as a blog post, and judging by the delays to FRA reform, originally slated for 2015 but only finalized about a year ago, this is also true of public planning.
Making sure things are done on a timely schedule is critical. This isn’t even about delays in construction so much as about planning and engineering. Managers should learn to cut features when in a crunch, to require teams to prioritize, and to avoid the endless layers of design by committee that lengthen the process without improving results.
State regulations, too, should aim at reducing red tape. American government at all levels uses delays as a substitute for rule of law, with federal and state regulations that require layers of mandatory review. The standard approach for achieving any social purpose is to add yet another layer, even if the delays cause more problems than they solve. For example, there are mandatory reviews of disparate impact lengthening the planning process, even though implementing public transportation improvement faster would have a positive impact on racial minorities as they ride at much higher rates than whites (and not just in the US).
Project management is an expertise that transfers well between different industries. Thus, a successful private-sector manager can transition to overseeing a complex public infrastructure project. The special aspects of the American public sector, such as high union density, are not that unusual from the perspective of a general-purpose American manager, who may well spend time running companies in traditionally unionized industries.
Boston provides a negative as well as a positive example: the Green Line Extension saw ballooning costs due to poor project management, as the MBTA had no person experienced in the supervision of such a large program of construction. But as soon as the MBTA restarted the project with an outside project manager with ample experience, it managed to cut the headline budget from $3 billion to $2.3 billion; moreover, about half the current cost is sunk from the line’s previous iteration, so going forward the cost is barely $1 billion. This is a very high cost for such a short light rail line, but the factor of three difference with the previous estimate suggests that performing the normal oversight and management could save other expensive American infrastructure projects large sums of money.
Hiring and promotion
There are three types of people: people who have never worked in any large hierarchical company, people who work at human resources, and people who loathe human resources from the bottom of their hearts.
Nonetheless, there are HR departments and there are HR departments. The worst horror stories I have heard about hiring come from the American public sector. They are worse than the worst I have seen in the private sector, like when Hyperloop One assured me they had the visa covered when I asked about it in March 2017 when the Trump administration had just revoked the visa category I was to use, and then when the company wanted to hire me in April it discovered the remaining visa category had a deadline that had passed 2 weeks before. In the public sector, there are positions that remain unfilled for years.
A catalog of problems that afflict hiring at transit agencies in New York and Boston, and presumably in the American public sector in general, includes all of the following:
- Onerous checks and long turnaround times. The best applicants will find a private-sector job in 1-2 months while the transit agency takes 6-12 months to go through the process. This affects line positions such as driving a bus as well as office work and managerial positions.
- General indifference within HR to applicants. A Boston resident was offered a job at the MTA that required residence within New York City; as the potential hire had a partner who worked in Albany, they proposed that they should live in Poughkeepsie and the MTA hire would commute by Metro-North. HR required them to file forms stating their exact address in Poughkeepsie, never mind that they still needed to find an apartment in the area and had no reason to do so without a written job offer. The applicant was unhired and the position remained unfilled for years.
- Periodic hiring freezes instituted by politicians and senior managers who wish to look prudent. Critical departments may remain understaffed, contributing to overstaffing elsewhere through inefficiency, which then provides political justification for keeping the hiring freeze.
- Uncompetitive salaries. Starting salaries at planning positions are well below what university graduates with comparable skills can fetch in the private sector. They’re balanced by high pension payouts, but first, the overall level of benefits is very competitive with generic white-collar offices but not with tech with its ample stock options, and second, your typical highly-motivated recent graduate wants a salary now and not a pension in 30 years.
- An outdated hiring process. For example, there is no dialogue with how tech companies hire employees, that is the whiteboarding system of technical interviews. The MBTA gave up on this entirely and outsourced its tech to a subsidiary that is shielded away from the rest of the org chart and run as a standard tech company.
The promotion process suffers from some of the same problems. It is outdated, based on the rigid hierarchies of postwar office work, with a tinge of the Japanese salaryman system except without the strict demands the company makes of the employee. A smart 30-year-old will take decades to be in a position to make serious decisions, even if the 55-year-old manager is detached from any new idea from the last generation and is in effect providing no value to the agency.
One additional problem with promotion is known as collision. This is when union agreements based on seniority result in a situation in which promoting an employee would reduce their salary, as they would trade many years of experience at a line position with extra pay for seniority for a higher-level position with no prior experience. The agencies are aware of this problem and have attempted to fix it, and I have heard complaints from union sources, namely Tim Lasker of OPEIU Local 453. I stress that this is the case because it’s common among some reformers on the center and right to blame unions for problems with pension cliffs and collisions, and yet the unions themselves understand that there are problems with both; the real blame should go to management, especially politicians, who refuse to back one-time investments into hiring more people or raising salaries where appropriate.
American business culture
My impression of American business culture is that it is extremely practical and anti-theory. German engineering firms like hiring people with advanced degrees in engineering; at the time of the American bailout of GM and Ford, VW was run by a CEO who had a Ph.D. in engineering and had worked in the auto industry or at suppliers ever since graduating. American firms like hiring people with management experience.
This limits the suitability of the American private sector to public transportation in several ways. The most important is that without theory, American business culture is heavily based on the idea that weak firms just die out and strong firms grow. Turnarounds exist, but a huge fraction of turnaround experts are selling snake oil, and with good connections the snake oil peddlers manage to get appointed to turn around transit agencies. Moreover, because American business culture denigrates foreign best practices, its managers are ill-positioned for an industry where little innovation exists in the US and the most important thing for Americans to do is learn to imitate Europe and East Asia.
The benefits of the private sector are then most pronounced in areas where there is genuine industry-independent management expertise. In those areas, American business absolutely shines; a good rule of thumb to remember is that with completely dysfunctional health care, infrastructure, construction, and education, the US still manages to have labor productivity on a par with the richest European countries and better than anything in Asia, so purely by averaging things out, the rest of the economy must be doing well.
Thus, project management is a core strength in which it is both useful and imperative for the American public sector to learn from private-sector success. The issues of hiring, mentoring, promoting, and firing workers are a core strength as well. Transit agencies have to transition to a model in which jobs are not sinecures, and instead of steep pension cliffs, workers get paid well now and can quit or be let go after a number of years without having to start from zero at their next job.
Finally, the culture of delays must give way to a culture of working quickly, which means knowing when cutting corners is feasible and when it isn’t even at the cost of slowing down the process. Spain achieves low infrastructure construction costs in part by setting its regulations as well as internal oversight and procurement to maximize the speed of decisions: key decisions may be made in a single day, environmental reviews take two months rather than years, and contractors are judged in part by how quickly they can construct a project, on the theory that delays create more opportunities for cost overruns.
None of this is flashy. The most applicable parts of high American private-sector productivity are the most boring. This is less about heroic entrepreneurs, who as a rule have no place in the transportation industry, and more about experienced managers, who as a rule are never written about in the business press unless they’re about to be indicted for embezzlement. Just as the latter have built up a high-performance business culture over the generations, so can they build high-performance state capacity if the politicians let them and give them the resources they need. All it takes is political conscientiousness and more macro- than micromanagement.
This post is an attempt at explaining the following set of observations concerning government interference and transportation mode choice:
- High auto usage tends to involve government subsidies to motorways and other roads
- Nonetheless, more obtrusive government planning tends to correlate with more public transport and intercity rail
- In places where state planning capacity is weak, transportation evolves in a generally pro-car direction
The main thread tying this all together is that building roads requires a lot of money, but the money does not need to be coordinated. Local districts could pave roads on a low budget and improve incrementally; this is how the US built its road network in the 1910s and 20s, relying predominantly on state and even local planning. In contrast, public transportation requires very good planning. Rapid transit as an infrastructure project is comparable to motorways, with preplanned stopping locations and junctions, and then anything outside dense city cores requires network-wide rail schedule coordination. Good luck doing that with feuding agencies.
I’ve talked a bunch about scale before, and this isn’t exactly about that. Yes, as Adirondacker likes to say in comments, cars are great at getting people to where not a lot of other people want to go. But in cities that don’t make much of an effort to plan transportation, anyone who can get a car will, even for trips to city center, where there are horrific traffic jams. An apter saying is that a developed country is not one where even the poor drive but one where even the rich use public transport.
Right of way and surface transit
The starting point is that on shared right-of-way, cars handily beat any shared vehicle on time. Shared vehicles stop to pick up and drop off passengers, and are just less nimble, especially if they’re full-size buses rather than jitneys. No work needs to be done to ensure that single-occupant vehicles crowd out buses with 20, 40, or even 60 passengers. This happens regardless of the level of investment in roads, which, after all, can be used by buses as well as by cars.
Incremental investment in roads will further help cars more than buses. The reason is that the junctions most likely to be individually grade-separated are the busiest ones, where buses most likely have to stop to pick up and discharge passengers at the side of the road at-grade, whereas cars can go faster using the flyover or duckunder. For example, in New York, the intersection of Fordham Road (carrying the Bx12, currently the city’s busiest bus) and Grand Concourse (carrying the Bx1/2, the city’s sixth and the Bronx’s second busiest route) is grade-separated, but buses have to stop there and therefore cannot have to cross more slowly at-grade.
Within cities, the way out involves giving transit dedicated right of way. This can be done on the surface, but that removes space available for cars. Since cars are faster than public transport in cities that have not yet given transit any priority over private vehicles, they are used by richer people, which means the government needs to be able to tell the local middle class no.
The other option is rapid transit. This can be quite popular it if is seen as modern, which is true in the third world today and was equally true in turn of the century New York. The problem: it’s expensive. The government needs to brandish enough capital at the start for a full line. This is where transit’s scale issue becomes noticeable: while a metro area of 1-2 million will often support a rapid transit line, the cost of a complete line is usually high compared with the ability of the region to pay for it, especially if the state is relatively weak.
The third world’s situation
The bulk of the third world has weak state capacity. Tax revenue is low, perhaps because of political control by wealthy elites, perhaps because of weak ability to monitor the entire economy to ensure compliance with broad taxes.
This does not characterize the entire middle- and low-income world. China has high state capacity, for one, leading to massive visible programs for infrastructure, including the world’s largest high-speed rail network and a slew of huge urban metro networks. In the late 20th century, the four East Asian Tigers all had quite high state capacity (and the democratic institutions of Korea and Taiwan are just fine – the administrative state is not the same as authoritarianism).
In 1999, Paul Barter’s thesis contrasted the transit-oriented character of Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore, with the auto-oriented character of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and predicted that Manila, Jakarta, and Surabaya would evolve more like the latter set of cities. Twenty years later, Jakarta finally opened its first metro line, and while it does have a sizable regional rail network, it is severely underbuilt for its size and wealth, which are broadly comparable to the largest Chinese megacities. Manila has a very small metro network, and thanks to extremely high construction costs, its progress in adding more lines is sluggish.
Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok both have very visible auto-centric infrastructure. Malaysia encouraged auto-centric development in order to stimulate its state-owned automakers, and Thailand has kept building ever bigger freeways, some double-deck. More to the point, Thailand has not been able to restrain car use the way China has, nor has it been able to mobilize resources to build a large metro system for Bangkok. However, Indonesia and the Philippines are not Thailand – Jakarta appears to have a smaller freeway network than Bangkok despite being larger, and Manila’s key radial roads are mostly not full freeways but fast arterials.
Public transportation and roads both form networks. However, the network effects are more important for transit, for any number of reasons:
- Public transportation works better at large scale than small scale, which means that urban transit networks need to preplan connections between different lines to leverage network effects. Freeway networks can keep the circumferential highways at-grade because at least initially they are less likely to be congested, and then built up gradually.
- Public transportation requires some integration of infrastructure, service, and rolling stock, and this is especially true when the national rail network is involved rather than an urban subway without any track connections to the mainline network.
- The biggest advantage of trains over cars is that they use land more efficiently, and this is more important in places with higher land prices and stronger property rights protections. This is especially true when junctions are involved – building transfers between trains does not involve condemning large tracts of land, but building a freeway interchange does.
None of this implies that cars are somehow smaller-government than trains. However, building a transportation network around them does not require as competent a planning department. If decisions are outsourced to local notables who the state empowers to act as kings of little hills in exchange for political support, then cobbling together a road network is not difficult. It helps those local notables too, as they get to show off their expensive cars and chauffeurs.
Trains are more efficient and cleaner than cars, but building them requires a more actively planned infrastructure network. Even if the total public outlay is comparable, some competent organ needs to decide how much to appropriate for which purpose and coordinate different lines – and this organ should ideally be insulated from the corruption typical of the average developing country.
The expression democratic deficit is most commonly used to refer to the European Union and its behind-the-scenes style of lawmaking. I’ve long held it is equally applicable to local politics, especially in the United States. With the EU election taking place later today, I am going to take this opportunity to zoom in one a key aspect: who gets to vote informedly? This is a critical component of the local democratic deficit. After all, there is universal franchise at the local level in modern democracies, same as at the national level, and when election dates coincide the turnout rates coincide as well. EU elections have had low turnout, but this has to be understood as a consequence rather than a cause of the democratic deficit.
This does not exist on the national level anywhere that I know of. In federal states it may not exist on the state level, either: as far as I can tell, Canada and Germany offer voters clear choices on the province/state level, and it’s only in the United States that the democratic deficit exists in the states.
On the EU level, the problem is slowly solving itself, since a highly salient issue is growing, namely, the legitimacy of the EU itself. People can clearly vote for parties that hold that the EU as it currently exists is illegitimate, such as right-populist parties under the ENF umbrella; for parties that offer continuity with the EU as it is, that is Christian-democratic, social-democratic, and liberal parties; and for various reform parties, that is greens and the far left on the left, or whatever remains of the Tories on the right. For what it’s worth, turnout so far has inched up from 2014 levels.
But on the local level, the problem remains as strong as ever. The main consequence is that local elections empower NIMBYs, simply because they have the ability to make an informed choice based on their ideology and other groups lack that power. The interest groups that benefit from housing shortages naturally get more political powers than those that benefit from abundant housing. In transportation, too, transit users tend to be politically weaker than drivers relative to their share of the electorate, but the problem is nowhere near as acute as that of general NIMBYism.
What is informed voting?
Informed voting does not mean voting the right way. A voter may be able to make an informed choice even for an uninformed position; for example, people who think cutting taxes reduces the deficit have an economically uninformed belief, but still count as informed voters if they recognize which parties they can vote for in order to prioritize tax cuts. Informed voting, at least to me, means being able to answer the following questions correctly:
- What are the political issues at stake?
- Which positions on these issues can plausibly be enacted, and how difficult would such enactment be?
- Which organs of state undertake the relevant decisions? Is it the entire legislature, a specific standing committee, the courts, the civil service, etc.?
- Which political groups have which positions on these issues, and how much they’re going to prioritize each issue? Which political groups may not have strong positions but are nonetheless potential allies?
National elections exhibit the most informed voting. For example, in the United States, most voters can identify that the key issues differentiating the Democrats and Republicans are abortion rights, tax rates (especially on higher incomes), and health care, and moreover, the abortion issue is decided through Supreme Court nominations whereas the others are in Congress with the consent of the president. Additional issues like foreign policy, environmental protection, and labor may not be as salient nationwide, but people who care about them usually know which party has what positions, where decisions are made (e.g. foreign policy is decided by the president and appointed advisors, not Congress), and which factions within each party prioritize these issues and which have other priorities.
This does not mean all voters are informed. This does not even mean most swing voters are informed. In the United States it’s a commonplace among partisans that swing voters are exceedingly uninformed. For example, here is Chris Hayes reporting on the 2004 election:
Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief–not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.
But the low levels of information among undecided voters, while important on the margins, come from a context in which a large majority of American voters consistently support one party or another, and over the generations the parties have perfected a coalition of interests ensuring each will get about half the vote.
This situation is not US-specific. Israeli voters are highly informed about the relevant issues, led by the control over the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They know which parties are prepared to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, withdraw from the settlements, and recognize an independent Palestinian state, and which will do no such thing, and vote accordingly. Parties for the most part announce in advance which bloc they are to be part of; even parties that would be fine cooperating with either side in order to get money for their special interests, such as the ultra-Orthodox parties, are compelled to announce in advance which side they’ll back (the right), and so far they have not deviated from it. Every single party in Israel’s most recent election had an obvious bloc, left or right; in 2015, every single party did but one, Kulanu, which was a member of the right bloc but at the time pretended to be undecided.
The European democratic deficit
The democratic deficit occurs when it is not possible for a large majority of voters to know in advance what the issues are and how to vote on them.
The European Parliament suffers from a democratic deficit, despite having strong, coherent political parties, because of its tradition of behind-the-scenes government by consensus of EPP and S&D. It is difficult for a voter to know what exactly the difference would be if S&D were somewhat stronger and EPP somewhat weaker. Europe Elects’ latest projection has a tight race for whether ALDE and the parties to its left will have a majority, making ALDE the median party on the left-right scale, or whether they will come just short, making EPP the median. And yet, I have no idea what it would mean, despite the fact that there are important issues, including climate change and immigration, on which there is a cleave between ALDE-and-leftward parties and EPP-and-rightward parties.
I am planning to vote for the Green Party rather than for the Social Democrats, since the Greens here opposed Article 13 whereas the Social Democrats expressed concern but mostly voted for it. But I genuinely do not know whether a stronger G/EFA and weaker S&D would matter much for digital freedom, nor do I know whether behind the scenes a stronger S&D and a weaker EPP would’ve resulted in a different law.
I found myself in a similar situation in the previous (and first) time I was enfranchised, in the Swedish local and regional elections of 2014. Thanks to EU reciprocity laws, I could vote in the local and regional elections but not the coincident national election. I had some knowledge of the salient political issues at the national level from reading the news, looking at slogans on street signs, and browsing party platforms, but had no idea what this would mean within the context of Stockholm County; lacking much of a local social network, I listened to my postdoc advisor’s advice to read the national platforms and vote based on the one I liked most, and voted Green (which, judging by my advisor’s reaction, was not what he would have preferred). Put another way, EU laws let me vote for a mayor and city council whose name I did not even know, but not for the Riksdag, where I had a decent idea of what the difference between the Greens and Social Democrats was.
The extreme right in Europe has ironically improved democracy, because it has given people something to vote against. I may not know how the EU would look different if EPP lost a few percentage points of its vote share and S&D and the Greens gained a few each, but I definitely know how it will look if ENF and parties that aren’t part of ENF but should be, like Hungary’s Fidesz, gain power. When the very existence of a multiracial EU is at stake, it is easier to figure out which parties are firmly committed (G/EFA, S&D, ALDE, and to a large extent EPP) and which aren’t, and on what grounds (GUE/NGL from the left, the Tories from the mainline right, ENF from the extreme right). That the pro-European parties will certainly win a huge majority of the vote among them is less relevant – the point is not to get more votes than ENF but to completely delegitimize ENF, so the margin of defeat counts.
The American democratic deficit
If in Europe the problem is the disconnect between voting for a party at the non-national (or non-state) level and seeing policy results, in the United States local government has no parties at all. Cities of primaries like New York, and cities with nonpartisan elections like San Francisco, make it exceedingly difficult for voters to know which politicians are likely to enact their local ideological agenda.
Knowing what the salient issues are is the easy part in the United States – education, crime, and housing tend to be the main issues across a variety of cities. The hard part is knowing which politicians will take which positions and have which priorities. Occasionally, one-party cities and one-party states have consistent factions, one moderate and more progressive or more conservative, but even then the factional identification is fluid.
David Schleicher has proposed to resolve this problem by forming state parties aiming at capturing about half the voters, on a similar model to that of Canada, where most provincial parties are distinct from federal parties, with ideological cleaves decided by provincial rather than federal voter preferences. Cities like New York and San Francisco would not have informal factions under this system but formal party institutions, one progressive and one moderate with perhaps some cross-party appeal to Republicans, and the parties could even compete in federal Democratic primaries for Congress.
Without parties, collegial institutions can create feudal results. Schleicher gives the example of councilmanic privilege, in which single-party city councils defer on local issues, such as housing, to the member representing the locality in question. Another possibility is standing committees with powerful chairs, as is the case in California today and as was the case in Congress before Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994. Despite widespread support, the YIMBY political priority SB 50 was recently frozen by fiat of one committee chair, Anthony Portantino, who represents a NIMBY suburb of Los Angeles; SB 50 passed two committees by majority vote but needed a pro forma vote from Portantino’s appropriations committee before the final vote in the entire State Senate. At the federal level, powerful postwar committee chairs tended to be Southern Democrats, who blocked civil rights law that enjoyed widespread support in Congress.
Empowerment for whomst?
Without political parties, the people who can make informed voting in local elections – that is, the people who know the salient issues, the reasonable positions, and who will prioritize what – are from specific demographics. They must have very strong social ties within the locality – they may well know the candidates personally, or know people who know them personally. They must have lived in the locality for a long time to have had these ties. There is no way I could have these ties in Berlin – I moved here three months ago, and socialize largely with foreigners.
Even though there is universal vote among citizens (and even among EU citizens here), people who lack these ties may not be able to vote informedly. Thus, their (our) vote may be completely random; in Berlin I have enough of an idea of what the difference between the left-wing parties and CDU is on transportation, but the Green-SPD difference is still subtle and unless I see more in the next few years in advance of the election I’m likely to vote based on other cues, such as which party has a more diverse slate of candidates.
With people like me not really having much political power even when enfranchised, local politics becomes the domain of the specific socioeconomic classes that do have access to information. These are typically retirees and small business owners. If you own a store, you almost certainly know all the little details of your neighborhood because that’s where your clients are located. If you work for a big business, your social network is much wider, as your coworkers are likely to commute from a wide variety of places, so even though your income is similar to that of the shopkeeper you are much weaker in local elections.
With much more power than the rest of the electorate, retirees and the petite bourgeoisie can create a political culture in which their situation is considered more moral than that of the rest – hence the use of the word transient as a pejorative.
The relevance to housing and transportation is that people with mostly local ties tend to be consistently NIMBY. They usually own housing rather than rent – if you live in one place for a long time you benefit from owning more than the average person. They have real local political power, which redevelopment may disrupt by introducing a large cohort of new people into the neighborhood. They have the ability to extort developers into providing community amenities in exchange for getting a building permit. Not for nothing, the vanguard class for YIMBY is working-age people who work for other people and have national social ties rather than local ones.
In transportation, too, the favored classes in local politics with a democratic deficit tend to be pro-car. Part of it is that enfranchised voters drive more than the disenfranchised – in the United States (per census data) and the Netherlands, immigrants drive less and use transit more than natives. Even within the electorate, the groups that have higher turnouts, such as comfortable retirees, drive more than groups that have lower turnouts, such as students. The petite bourgeoisie in particular drives a lot – if you own a store you probably drive to it because your store is on a local main street with a single bus line, whereas salaried workers are likelier to work in city center and take transit. The latter are less empowered in local politics, especially American politics, so their preferences count less than those of people who can show up to meetings during business hours and complain about bus lanes.
Democratic consensus, not democratic deficit
Tories like to use the real problem of democratic deficit at the EU level as well as the local level to argue in favor of strong unitary nations. But there are better democratic mechanisms than voting for a party once every four or five years and letting an internal party hierarchy decide everything in the interim.
Germany and Canada have strong democratic institutions at the state/province level as far as I can tell, Germany through a multiparty system and Canada through provincial parties. Canadian leftists like to complain about Rob Ford and Doug Ford, but the voters of both Toronto and Ontario knew what they were voting for. It’s not like when Donald Trump ran on promises about immigration and trade that he couldn’t keep and then cut corporate taxes.
There are glimpses of real democracy in the largest cities, at least the mayoral level: Rob Ford, Bill de Blasio, Sadiq Khan, Anne Hidalgo. This is not every city of that size class (Chicago has no such institutions), but mayors of large enough cities can at least be familiar to large enough swaths of the electorate that more than just retirees, retail landlords, and small business owners can express an opinion. In smaller cities, it may be completely impossible to have such democracy – too many residents work outside the city, or work in the city alongside suburban commuters.
Forced amalgamations of cities are likely required in the US as well as France, on the model of Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, or any other European country with postwar municipal consolidation. Below a certain size class, moreover, it is not possible to have a professional full-time legislature; smaller US states have very small districts (New Hampshire has 400 Representatives for 1.3 million people, paid $100 a year each), leading to hobbyist legislators and bills written by lobbyists.
Referendums are an important component of democracy as well, provided precautions are undertaken to ensure they are more like Swiss ones and less like Californian ones. It is appropriate to vote on individual spending packages, such as a high-speed rail project or a subway, by a simple majority; it is not appropriate to vote on part of a project, as California did for high-speed rail, and put the remaining funding sources in a magic asterisk.
Democracy and housing
Even when homeowners are the majority, as in nearly every first-world country, there is no general interest in a housing shortage. Only homeowners in the most expensive and constrained areas as well as homeowners who look down on people who move frequently have this interest. These two groups can win thanks to a sustained democratic deficit on the local level.
This is why higher-level decisionmaking is consistently more YIMBY than local decisionmaking. At the national or even state level, homeowners can easily form a housing cartel and restrict construction – and yet, higher-level decisionmaking, such as in Japan (national) or Canada (provincial) is associated with higher construction rates. At the state level, interest groups like that of NIMBY homeowners have to share power with other interest groups, including middle-class renters, organized labor, and real estate; in California the NIMBYs just scored a win thanks to control of a legislative committee, but a full legislative vote might well go the other way. But at the local level, the NIMBYs have stronger local ties than the rest and can keep outsiders out, and even manipulate local interest groups, offering them scraps of the extortion money from developers in exchange for loyalty.
In accordance with the observation that higher-level decisionmaking yields YIMBYer results, France and Sweden have recently accelerated housing construction in their expensive capitals, both by force of national power. In the 2014 election, party posters on Stockholm pledged to build more housing, and after winning the election, the Social Democrats set a target for national housing production. Local NIMBYs still maintain some power in that housing production in Sweden has come from finding new brownfield sites to redevelop rather than from replacing smaller buildings with bigger ones, but construction rates in the last few years have been high, especially in Stockholm County; The Local describes the overall rental situation in Sweden as “cooling.” In France there has been acceleration in housing production as well, powered by both national and regional concerns, over the objections of rich NIMBY suburbs over social housing mandates.
The United States has continued devolving housing decisions to hyperlocal organs, with predictable results. YIMBYs in California may not have fully theorized this, but they understand the implications enough to focus on getting the state to override local control to permit mid-rise transit-oriented development. Whatever reasoning has led to this, the praxis of state preemption is solid, and activists in the United States should work to weaken local governments until and unless they begin solving their democratic deficit problems.
You have to give Bill de Blasio credit: when someone else forces his hand, he will immediately claim that he was on the more popular-seeming side all along. After other people brought up the idea of a bus turnaround, starting with shadow agencies like TransitCenter and continuing with his frontrunning successor Corey Johnson, the mayor released an action plan called Better Buses. The plan has a bold goal: to speed up buses to 16 km/h using stop consolidation and aggressive enforcement of bus priority. And yet, elements of the plan leave a bad taste in my mouth.
The Better Buses plan asserts that the current average bus speed in New York is 8 miles per hour, and with the proposed treatments it will rise to 10. Unfortunately, the bus speed in New York is lower. The average according to the NTD is 7.05 miles per hour, or 11.35 km/h. This includes the Select Bus Service routes, whose average speed is actually a hair less than the New York City Transit average, since most of them are in more congested parts of the city. The source the report uses for the bus speed is an online feed that isn’t reliable; when I asked one of the bus planners while working on the Brooklyn route redesign, I was told the best source to use was the printed schedules, and those agree with the slower figures.
In Brooklyn, the average bus speed based on the schedules is around 11 km/h. But the starting point for the speed treatment Eric Goldwyn and I recommended is actually somewhat lower, around 10.8 km/h, for two reasons: first, the busiest routes already have faster limited-stop overlays, and second, the redesign process itself reduces the average speed by pruning higher-speed lightly-used routes such as the B39 over the Williamsburg Bridge.
The second reason is not a general fact of bus redesigns. In Barcelona, Nova Xarxa increased bus speeds by removing radial routes from the congested historic center of the city. However, in Brooklyn, the redesign marginally slows down the buses. While it does remove some service from the congested Downtown Brooklyn area, most of the pruning in is outlying areas, like the industrial nooks and crannies of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Without having drawn maps, I would guess the effect in Queens should be marginal in either direction, for essentially the same set of reasons as in Brooklyn, but in the Bronx it should slow down the buses by pruning coverage routes in auto-oriented margins like Country Club.
With all of the treatments Eric and I are proposing, the speed we are comfortable promising if our redesign is implemented as planned is 15 km/h and not 16 km/h.
How does the plan compare with the speaker’s?
City Council Speaker Johnson’s own plan for city control of NYCT proposes a bus turnaround as well. Let us summarize the differences between the two plans:
|Aspect||Johnson’s plan||De Blasio’s plan|
|Stop consolidation||Not mentioned||Yes|
|Bus lanes||48 km installed per year||16-24 km installed per year|
|Bus lanes vs. cars||Parking removal if needed||Not mentioned|
|Physically separated bus lanes||Yes||3 km pilot|
|Median bus lanes||Probably||Maybe|
|Signal priority||1000 intersections equipped per year||300 intersections equipped per year|
For the most part, the mayor’s plan is less ambitious. The question of bus lanes is the most concerning. What Eric and I think the Brooklyn bus network should look like is about 350 km. Even excluding routes that already have bus lanes (like Utica) or that have so little congestion they don’t need bus lanes (like the Coney Island east-west route), this is about 300 km. Citywide this should be on the order of 1,000 km. At the speaker’s pace this is already too slow, taking about 20 years, but at the mayor’s, it will take multiple generations.
The plan does bring up median lanes positively, which I appreciate: pp. 10-11 talk about center-running lanes in the context of the Bx6, which has boarding islands similar to those I have observed on Odengatan in Stockholm and Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris. Moreover, it suggests physically separated lanes, although the picture shown for the Bx6 involves a more obtrusive structure than the small raised curbs of Paris, Stockholm, and other European cities where I’ve seen such separation. Unfortunately, the list of tools on pp. 14-15 assumes bus lanes remain in or near the curb, talking about strategies for curb management.
The omission of Nostrand
The mayor’s plan has a long list of examples of bus lane installation. These include some delicate cases, like Church Avenue. However, the most difficult, Nostrand, is entirely omitted.
Nostrand Avenue carries the B44, the second busiest bus in the borough and fifth in the city. The street is only 24 meters wide and therefore runs one-way southbound north of Farragut Avenue, just north of the crossing with Flatbush Avenue and Brooklyn College. Northbound buses go on New York Avenue if they’re local or on Rogers if they’re SBS, each separated from Nostrand by about 250 meters. The argument for the split is that different demographics ride local and SBS buses, and they come from different sides of Nostrand. The subway is on Nostrand and so is the commerce. And yet, parking is more important to the city than a two-way bus lane on the street to permit riders to access the main throughfare of the area most efficiently.
Moreover, even the bus lanes that the plan does discuss leave a lot to be desired. The second most important street in Brooklyn to equip with high-quality physically separated bus lanes, after Nostrand, is Church, like Nostrand a 24-meter street where something has to give. The plan trumpets its commitment to transit priority, and yet on Church it includes a short segment with curb lanes partly shared with delivery trucks using curb management. Limiting merchant complaints is more important to the mayor than making sure people can ride buses that are reliably faster than a fast walk.
Can the city deliver?
The mayor has recurrently prioritized the needs of people who are used to complaining at public meetings, who are typically more settled in the city, with a house and a car. New York may have a majority of its households car-free, but to many of them car ownership remains aspirational and so does home ownership, to the point that the transit-oriented lifestyle remains a marker of either poverty or youth, to be replaced with the suburban auto-oriented lifestyle as one achieves middle-class status. Even as there is cultural change and this mentality is increasingly not true, the city’s political system keeps a process that guarantees that millions of daily transit users must listen to drivers who complain that they have to park a block away.
The plan has an ambitious number: 16 km/h. But when it comes to actually implementing it, it dithers. Its examples of bus lanes are half-measures. There’s no indication that the city is willing to overrule merchants who think they have a God-given right to the street that their transit-riding customers do not. Without this, bus lanes will remain an unenforced joke, and the vaunted speed improvements will be localized to too small a share of bus route-km to truly matter.
The most optimistic take on Better Buses is that the mayor is signaling that he’s a complete nonentity when it comes to bus improvement, rather than an active obstacle. But more likely, the signal is that the mayor has heard that there are political and technical efforts to improve bus service in the city and he wants to pretend to participate in them while doing nothing.
In advance of next month’s European Parliament election, several sources at the major mainstream parties have said that there are plans to coordinate a carbon tax, paired with investment in green infrastructure. Representatives of the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and the Greens-European Free Alliance group (G/EFA) have agreed on an outline, to be passed after the election. The unaffiliated La Republique En Marche, which is expected to be the largest party in France in the coming election, is in on the agreement as well, and has been a key driver of the deal under the leadership of President Emmanuel Macron. As the four parties as well as LREM are expected to have a large majority of the seats among them, the deal should not have difficulties passing.
At heart is an attempt to unify different national approaches to climate change. One source specifies that after frustration with the slow pace of decarbonization in France, in large part due to the Gilets Jaunes’ street riots against higher fuel taxes, Macron sought a Europe-wide approach. While the left in France was skeptical, green and social-democratic parties in the rest of Europe were supportive. Italy’s Democratic Party (S&D) was especially interested, citing worries that France’s lower fuel taxes were causing motorists in western Liguria to drive over the border to fill up in the nearby French Riviera. The Social Democrats in Sweden, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, have been supportive as well, and several sources agree that they played a role in persuading the entire S&D group to support a strong carbon tax law.
Obtaining the consent of EPP was more difficult due to its skepticism over tax increases. There is no first-hand on-the-record reporting for how this was achieved, but a large number of second-hand sources agree that Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in order to appeal to German Green Party voters, as the party is rising in the polls in the European as well as German elections and has popular state-level leadership.
The deal will impose a minimum carbon tax starting at €50 per metric ton of CO2-equivalent in 2020, rising gradually to €200 per ton in 2035. The tax will include border adjustments for the carbon content of imported goods, a clause that is said to have come at the insistence of union-affiliated S&D leaders who worried about competition from outside the EU. Controversially, the language of the draft deal permits individual member states to give industries credit toward exports.
The tax will be collected entirely at the member state level, like existing taxes on fuel and tobacco and VAT, where the EU mandates minimum floors (such as 15% for VAT) and monitors compliance but does not collect the taxes itself or redistribute the proceeds. Sweden’s existing carbon tax, currently €120 per ton, will therefore stay where it is. The EU will ensure member states collect the tax and do not give undue exceptions to industrial users; only exports and fuel for extra-EU flights and shipping may be exempted from the tax.
Simultaneously, the parties agreed to accelerate spending on EU-wide green infrastructure. As with the tax, member states will have considerable latitude, in order to mollify concerns among some Greens that the EU will stealthily mandate the construction of new nuclear power plants, as well as concerns among most EPP and ALDE parties that government spending would rise too much. Germany, in particular, has plans to reduce taxes on businesses: the Merkel cabinet has had to resist the business community’s demands for tax cuts, arguing that it is in growth times like this year that is is most tempting to engage in fiscal profligacy. There will also be additional spending on urban rail, motivated by the projected mode shift away from cars as a result of the new tax, but people close to the key decisionmakers say that massive federal spending in Germany is unlikely.
In France, the plan is to use the proceeds to invest in transportation alternatives, including a roster of new urban rail lines in Paris as well as most secondary cities. Macron is said to be in favor of accelerating the construction of new TGV lines connecting the entire country to Paris within at most 4 hours, as well as orbital lines connecting provincial cities to one another.
The timing of the leak is unusual. One source speculated that it is timed for the eve of Brexit, to nudge Britain to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU to avoid finding itself fighting another EU bureaucracy if it left without a deal. While the spokespeople for the British Conservative Party who were contacted for this story oppose the climate agreement, the agreement can pass the European Parliament even over the party’s objections.
Nonetheless, euroskeptical forces have used the leak as an opportunity to portray the EU in conspiratorial terms, particularly ones affiliated with the far-right Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) groups. The Italian Lega (ENF), expected to emerge as the single largest national party after the election, attacked the EU for dictating to member states. France’s National Rally (ENF), the party of the Le Pen family, said that Macron is immiserating France, that carbon emissions are caused by corporate shipping and not by driving, and that Europe would not have any environmental problems if it did not have population growth due to immigration. The UK Independence Party (EFDD) added that it’s not even clear if climate change is real, and said that this is why it always backed Brexit.
Nonetheless, the polls are stable enough that all observers expect ENF and EFDD, and even the UK Conservatives’ European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, to lack the power to defeat or even weaken the proposed legislation. In response to threats by the Gilets Jaunes to call a massive nationwide rally next Saturday, the leader of the opposition Republicans (EPP) threatened that perhaps France should declare martial law to forestall riots.
Both Macron and Löfven have since taken political ownership of the agreement, calling it an example of pan-European cooperation to solve global problems. After the agreement leaked, Macron touted the plan as a way forward for France as Europe’s leader in high-speed rail, and promised that French industry would manufacture the trains, wind turbines, and solar cells while combating the country’s Western Europe-leading air pollution levels at the same time. He referenced the slogan from the 1970s’ oil crisis leading to the construction of the TGV and nuclear plants: “in France we have ideas.”
In Sweden, sources close to the Löfven cabinet point out that the country’s long-time moral leadership is paying off, as there is an extensive clean industry in Sweden, including rolling stock as well as engineering professional services. A spokesperson for the Swedish Greens added that this was also an example of European moral leadership, which would exercise soft power in order to convince other big countries and blocs to follow suit, such as Japan and South Korea. But when pressed on the issue of the US and China specifically, sources demurred.
As this article goes to press, no national politicians in the United States from either party have commented, despite multiple attempts to reach out and ask if they were willing to implement a similar policy in America.
The phrase security theater refers to the elaborate selling of airport security to the public through humiliating spectacle, like making people take off their shoes, with no safety value whatsoever. By the same token, prudence theater is the same kind of ritual of humiliating people, often workers, in the name of not wasting money. Managers who engage in prudence theater will refuse pay hikes and lose the best employees in the process, institute hiring freezes at understaffed departments and wonder why things aren’t working, and refuse long-term investments that look big even if they have limited risk and high returns. This approach is endemic to authoritarian managers who do not understand the business they are running – such as a number of do-nothing political leaders who make decisions regarding public transit.
I’ve talked a bunch about this issue in the context of capital investment, for example Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker, California’s Gavin Newsom, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, and New York‘s Andrew Cuomo, using phrases such as “Chainsaw Al” and “do-nothing.” But here I want to talk specifically about operations, because there is an insidious kind of prudence theater there: the hiring freeze. The MBTA and MTA both have hiring freezes, though thankfully New York is a little more flexible about it.
Both New York and Boston have very high operating costs, for both subways and buses. They have extensive overstaffing in general, but that does not extend to overstaffing at every department. On the contrary, some departments are understaffed. Adam Rahbee told me a year and a half ago that subway operations planning in New York was short on workers, in contrast to the overstaffed department he saw in London. Of course London on average has much lower costs than New York, but individual departments can still be short on manpower even in otherwise-overstaffed cities. If anything, leaving one department understaffed can cause inefficiencies at adjacent departments, making them in effect overstaffed relative to the amount of service they can offer.
Buses require active supervision by a centralized control center that helps drivers stay on schedule. New York currently has 20 dispatchers but is planning an increase to 59, in tandem with using new technology. Boston has 5 at any given time, and needs to staff up to 15, which involves increasing hiring to about 40 full-time workers and doing minor rearrangement of office space to give them a place to work. With too few dispatchers, drivers end up going off-schedule, leading to familiar bunching, wasting hundreds of bus drivers’ work in order to save money on a few tens of supervisors.
I went over the issue of bus bunching in a post from last summer, but for the benefit of non-technical readers, here is a diagram that explains in essence what the problem of chaos is:
The marble on top of the curve is unlikely to stay where it is for a long time, because any small disturbance will send it sliding down one side or the other. Moreover, it’s impossible to predict in advance which direction the marble will land in, because a disturbance too small to see will compound to a big one over time.
Chaotic systems like this are ubiquitous: weather is a chaotic system, which is why it’s not possible to predict it for more than about two weeks in advance – small changes compound in unexpected directions. Unfortunately, bus service is a chaotic system too. For the bus to be on schedule is an unstable equilibrium. If the bus runs just a little behind, then it will have to pick up more passengers on its way, as passengers who would have just missed the bus will instead just make it. Those extra passengers will take some extra time to board, putting the bus even further behind, until the bus behind it finally catches it and the two buses leapfrog each other in a platoon.
There are ways to mitigate this problem, including dedicated bus lanes and off-board fare collection. But they do not eliminate it – they merely slow it down, increasing the time it takes for a bus to bunch.
The connection between dispatching and chaotic bus schedules may not be apparent, but it is real. The transportation engineering academic community has had to deal with the question of how to keep buses on schedule; here, here, and here are three recent examples. The only real way to keep buses on schedule is through active control – that is, dispatching. A dispatcher can tell a driver that the bus is too far ahead and needs to slow down, or that it is behind and the driver should attempt to speed up. If the traffic light system is designed for it, the dispatcher can also make sure a delayed bus will get more green lights to get back on track, a technology called conditional signal priority, or CSP. This contrasts with unconditional transit signal priority, or TSP, which speeds up buses but does not preferentially keep them evenly spaced to prevent bunching.
Moreover, some of the people who have done academic work on this topic have gone on to work in the transit industry, whether for the MBTA (such as David Maltzan and Joshua Fabian) or for thinktanks or private companies (such as Chris Pangilinan). Specific strategies to keep the buses on track include CSP giving delayed buses more green lights, holding buses at the terminal so that they leave evenly spaced, and in some cases even holding at mid-route control points. Left to their own devices, buses will bunch, requiring constant correction by a competent dispatching department with all the tools of better data for detection of where bunching may occur as well as control over the city’s streetlights.
Managers’ point view vs. passengers’ point of view
When I talk to transit riders about their experiences, I universally hear complaints. The question is just a matter of what they complain about. In suburban Paris people complain plenty about the RER, talking about crowding and about how the system isn’t as frequent or reliable as the Metro. These are real issues and indicate what Ile-de-France Mobilités should be focusing its attention on.
Americans in cities with public transit talk about bunching. In New York I’ve routinely sighted platoons of two buses even on very short routes, where such problems should never occur, like the 3 kilometer long M86. A regular rail user who talked to me a few months ago mentioned three-bus platoons in Brooklyn on a route that has a nominal frequency of about 10 minutes.
From the perspective of the transit operator or the taxpayer, if buses are scheduled to arrive every ten minutes, that’s an expenditure of six buses per hour. From that of the rider, if the buses in fact come in platoons of two due to bunching, then the effective frequency is 20 minutes, and most likely the bus they ride on will be the more crowded one as well. What looks like a service improvement to managers who never take the system they’re running may offer no relief to the customers on the ground.
I wish my mockery of transit managers who don’t use their own system were facetious, but it’s not. In New York, some of the more senior managers look at NYCT chief Andy Byford askance for not owning a car and instead using the subway to get to places. Planner job postings at North American transit agencies routinely require a driver’s license and say that driving around the city is part of the job. Ignorant of both the science of chaos and the situation on the ground, the managers and politicians miss low-hanging fruits while waxing poetic about the need to save money.
Is anything being done?
In New York there are some positive signs, such as the increase in the number of dispatchers. The warm reception Eric Goldwyn and I got from some specific people at the MTA is a good sign as well. The problem remains political obstruction by a governor and mayor who don’t know or care to know about good practices. Cuomo’s constant sidelining of Byford has turned into a spectacle among New York transit journalists.
In Boston, the answer is entirely negative. Last week’s draft of the Focus40 plan, released by the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board (FMCB), unfortunately entirely omits dispatching and operational supervision from its scope. It includes a variety of investments for the future, some of which are welcome, such as the Red-Blue Connector. But it reduces the issue of bus timetable keeping to a brief note in the customer experience section that mentions “Computer Aided Dispatch / Automatic Vehicle Location technology.” Good data is not a bad thing, but it is not everything. Warm bodies are required to act on this data.
Thus prudence theater continues. Massachusetts will talk about reform before revenue and about spending money wisely, but it is run by people with little knowledge of public transportation and no interest in acquiring said knowledge. Its approach to very real issues of high costs is to cut, even when there are parts of the system that are underfunded and undermanned. Staffing up to 15 dispatchers at a time, raising the headcount to about 40 full-time workers, would have the same effect on ridership as literally hundreds of bus drivers through better control. Will the administration listen? As usual, I hope for the best but have learned to expect the worst.
I’ve spoken my piece about why American infrastructure construction is so expensive. This is very much a work-in-progress, but it represents about the extent of my current knowledge on the subject. I want to follow up on this by talking about stereotypes and how they affect what people believe is possible when it comes to construction costs. I wrote about this to some extent here, 4.5 years ago, noting that my impression is that people on the Internet are far more willing to believe that there is efficient construction in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe even though the latter actually has lower construction costs.
Here I want to delve somewhat deeper into what stereotypes I’ve seen and how they lead people astray when it comes to infrastructure. It’s a lot more than just Southern and Northern Europe. Each of the following sections describes an aspect of infrastructure planning that doesn’t conform to American stereotypes.
The US has weak property rights
Americans are taught from a young age that America is about freedom. They’re taught about the American struggle against British tyranny, about the life-liberty-property triad, and about all manners of national origin stories that get extended to a ridiculous extent. The result is that Americans and even some immigrants who made it big in America and absorbed American ideas readily believe that they are the freest nation in the world in all ways. Faced with the reality that (for example) Germany has far stronger privacy protections, the reaction is either indifference (among most people in the US) or an attempt to castigate privacy as actually a weird imposition (among some tech boosters).
The same issue occurs with property rights. Objectively speaking, American law does not have strong protections for property rights. Japan has stronger individual protections in property rights. In addition to strong legal protections, there are strong extralegal protections in countries that have some tolerance of street protests; France is famously such a country, at least if the protesters are white, but Japan had airport riots delaying the construction of Narita and earlier riots blocking the expansion of an American military base.
In contrast to these cases, in the US, when the state wants your property, it will get it. Lawsuits can cause delays but not stop a project the state is committed to. Moreover, the state is allowed to time the market. The only thing the government is not allowed to do is excess takings – that is, taking more property than needed to build infrastructure in order to sell it at a profit later. If your property has low value due to past government activity, the government does not need to pay you extra. As mentioned in The Big Roads, the United States built the Interstates through redlined black inner-city neighborhoods because land there was cheaper; after the race riots of the 1960s Washington-area road builders even wanted to build a new round of roads since land would be especially cheap, and they were stopped only by political opposition to such optics rather than by any legal or extralegal challenge.
NIMBYism in the US in the context of infrastructure has to be understood as not a reaction to a state that is too weak but to one that is too strong. The denizens of rich suburbs like the sundown town Darien, Connecticut rely on the state to prop up their property values through exclusion, and any change that threatens such exclusion may cause losses that they have no way to recover. Lacking any way to legally prevent the state from slicing through the town to build faster roads and trains, they have to use political influence to prevent infrastructure from being built.
The US does not have safe railway operations
I made a post eight years ago scrubbing lists of rail accidents from Wikipedia and comparing the US, the EU, Japan, China, and India. I don’t believe the numbers are true for India or China as not everything may be reported in English sources, although I do believe they’re true for Chinese high-speed rail; but for Japan, the EU, and the US, the numbers are solid. American trains are several times less safe for passengers than European ones, and more than a full order of magnitude less safe than Japanese ones.
The US in theory has a culture of safety-first, but in reality it’s more safety theater than safety. Rail signaling is primitive, and automatic train protection (“positive train control,” or PTC) is not required in terminal zones with restricted speed, leading to fatal crashes. The favorite way to deal with danger is to slap an arbitrary speed limit – for example, to permit trains to use a bridge that has just been burned down but at restricted speed, with exactly the result you’d expect.
This is difficult for Americans to believe, especially with respect to Asia. I’ve repeatedly seen people insist that Japan does not prioritize safety, and the idea that China does not seems universal in the developed world. Richard Mlynarik’s report of a Caltrain official who, when told Japan turns trains faster than the official thought was possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do,” seems par for the course when it comes to Western attitudes. Westerners are certain that Asians are not fully human but are part machine, with no individuality, perhaps thinking that since Westerners can’t tell East Asians apart East Asians can’t tell one another apart either.
China is not particularly efficient
The epitome of the American stereotype of dangerous tyrannical efficiency today is China. Ray Lahood, Obama’s first-term secretary of transportation, even mentioned that in connection with high-speed rail. In reality, Chinese infrastructure construction costs do not seem especially low. Not much information makes it to English-language media, and unlike in French or German I don’t know how to look up construction costs in Chinese, but the lines for which I can find data seem to be in line with the global average. Metro Report has an article mentioning two Shanghai Metro extensions: the all-underground Line 9 extension at $225 million per km, and the 46% underground Line 17 at $123 million per km, with very wide stop spacing.
Moreover, high-speed rail in China is on the expensive side. There are studies asserting that it isn’t, but they do not control for PPP. The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line cost 218 million yuan, or about $55 billion adjusted for PPP, making it about $42 million per km, a high figure for a line with almost no tunnels (only 1.2% of the line’s length).
The other famously efficient East Asian dictatorship, Singapore, has high infrastructure costs as well, judging by what’s going on with the Thomson MRT Line.
Americans fixate on China because it’s so big and because they consider it a rival. But there is no reason to expect the best results to come from a large country. Most countries are small, so we should expect both the most successful and the least successful ones to be small. The actually cheap places to build infrastructure in, like Spain and South Korea, don’t really pattern-match to any American or European self-perception, so it’s much easier to ignore them than to look at Chinese or German efficiency.
Corruption does not work the same way everywhere
The United States has a fair amount of political corruption, but it’s not exceptional for this in the developed world. There’s widespread American belief that the public sector is incompetent, and Americans who have compared American and generic first-world public projects correctly think this is especially true of the American public sector, but this is not exactly about corruption. My quip on the subject is that Italy has low construction costs – and Italy’s high corruption levels are no mere stereotype, but are mirrored in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Moreover, low costs and high corruption perceptions seem endemic to Southern Europe and South Korea.
I’m not familiar with the precise nature of corruption everywhere. But what I’ve read from Italy and Greece suggests that it’s different from what happens in the United States. In diagnosing Italy’s stagnation over the last generation, Bruno Pellegrino and Luigi Zingales note that Italy has a widespread problem of tax avoidance, leading private companies to mostly hire within extended clans rather than by merit; the reason for the recent stagnation, they posit, is that the computer revolution has made hiring by merit especially important. In Greece the same problem of tax avoidance is endemic – see some links through Wikipedia – and Stathis Kalyvas’s paper about clientelism and political populism notes that Greece does not really have large prestigious private businesses with workers vs. bosses politics the way the US, Japan, South Korea, and the European core do.
In Southern Europe, or at least in Greece and Italy, it looks like corruption is endemic to the private sector. The public sector is affected by clientelism, but perhaps infrastructure construction is so removed from politics that there is no unusual corruption there, and thus engineers can innovate their way into lower costs, as postwar Milan did. If the public sector in Italy is as efficient in Germany, it will have lower costs than Germany simply because market wages in Italy are lower thanks to the private sector’s low productivity. This is not a complete story, since it specifically predicts that Italy should have a growing construction cost gap with Germany as their wages diverge, whereas at least based on the smattering of projects I’ve seen Italy was cheaper even in the 1990s and early 2000s, when wages were similar in both countries. Moreover, Scandinavia has low corruption, high wages, and low construction costs. But this is suggestive of how come countries with wages on the margin of the first world tend to consistently have lower construction costs.
The nature of American corruption is different. The private sector has little of it. Tax avoidance exists in the US, but not to the same extent as in Italy or Greece. Managerial fraud at big business exists, but is nowhere near the levels of Mediterranean small businesses. Instead, the public sector is inefficient, due to different problems – not quite clientelism, which describes party loyalty as a condition of hiring, but hiring based on personal loyalty to the governor or mayor. What’s more, since the problem goes all the way to the top, expecting the same authoritarian state and municipal officials to successfully privatize infrastructure to unleash private-sector productivity is fruitless.
The bureaucratic state can guarantee fairer outcomes than litigation
When writing my post about the causes of high American construction costs, I read different takes on the American tradition of adversarial legalism. A paper by Shep Melnick, which I linked in my post, asserts that adversarial legalism is good for various oppressed minorities, focusing on lawsuits forcing better accessibility for people with disabilities, looking at special education as an example.
And yet, if we look at the usual liberal standard of fair outcomes rather than fair processes, the outcomes in the United States do not seem especially fair. Workplace discrimination levels against nonwhites range widely between countries as well as between different studies in the same country, but the US seems to be roughly within the European median; there is a large set of references in the OECD’s International Migration Outlook of 2013, PDF-pp. 11-12, as well as a smaller list in the OECD’s The Price of Prejudice, p. 16. The latter source also compares international gender gaps, and the US seems fairly average as well. Only in the employment gap between second-generation immigrants and children of natives does the US do especially well, and that’s in the context of an unusually high-skill mix of immigrants, like similar high performers Canada and Switzerland, neither of which has an especially low discrimination level in equal resume studies.
When it comes to Melnick’s question of disability rights, the US is increasingly falling behind thanks to high construction costs. Berlin is about to complete installing elevators at all U-Bahn stations, aided by a process that allows it to make a station accessible for €2 million. Madrid, where this cost is about €5 million per line served by each station, has a large majority of accessible stations already and is looking at full installation next decade. Compare this with the tardiness of New York, where layers of consent decrees and grandfather clauses have created a subway system that is about as old as Berlin’s and only 25% accessible.
Incuriosity affects all American groups
I literally just saw a comment on Reddit that tried to slot the idea that the US should learn from the rest of the world into political liberalism or Democratic partisanship (“blue tribe”). This is not an idiosyncratic connection. In 2006, at Yearly Kos, a performer used the expression “French-loving” as a self-description for American liberals, and the entire audience said “preach on” in agreement; this and similar epithets hurled by conservatives in the same era may have been a unique artifact of France’s opposition to the Iraq War, but years later Republicans would keep complaining that Democrats want the US to imitate European welfare states.
The reality is very different. American indifference to rest-of-world practice is national. So is English Canadian indifference to rest-of-world practice excluding the US and occasionally Britain. If anything, New York is even more solipsistic than the rest of the US. I’ve recurrently seen New Yorkers use the same dismissive language that Americans use for the world outside their country for anything outside the city. In contrast, Bostonians do try to look at how things work in the rest of the US and the same is true of people in Sunbelt cities that build light rail.
The upshot of this is that there is not much to look for in intra-American politics. The institutions of American partisanship are not useful for this. Some good ideas can come from people who happen to identify with a party, but the distance between the legal scholars criticizing adversarial legalism and the practice of tort reform, like that between the recommendations of academic environmentalists and the practice of green jobs programs, is vast.
Moreover, the elite centrist politics that claims to be above partisanship has to be seen as yet another partisan institution, working hard to limit the scope of debate to what the same elites that have failed to provide good government services will find comfortable. The same can be said for populism. There is nothing to look for on the populist left and right, because as movements they are not concerned with governing, and tend to boost voices that are long on rhetoric and short on knowledge. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does not need to be correct for leftists to admire her, for one since the veto points on implementation details are members of Congress well to her right; why should she make an effort to educate herself about fuel taxes or about the white supremacy of the Gilets Jaunes? And the less said about ideological experiments like Walker-era Wisconsin or Brownback-era Kansas, the better.
Ultimately, not everyone has the same stereotypes
I focus on American stereotypes, and to some extent pan-Western ones, because stereotypes differ by culture. Americans self-perceive as risk-taking and entrepreneurial. Israelis perceive Americans as hopelessly square and rulebound, even in comparison with Europeans. Westerners perceive all East Asians as rulebound and machine-like. Chinese and Malay people self-perceive as dog-eat-dog societies, at least in Southeast Asia, to the point that when I learned Mahatir Mohamed’s criticism of human rights in Asia in university, I learned his take as “we Asians don’t naturally cooperate and require an authoritarian government” rather than as the more typically Western belief that Asians are naturally obedient.
The incredulity I’ve encountered when trying to tell Americans how Israelis and Singaporeans perceive things is not just a matter of American solipsism. I’ve seen similar incredulity on this side of the Pond, for example when I told Spanish mathematicians, who are not railfans, that Spain has really low construction costs; they found it hard to believe, due to the widely-shared stereotype of Southern European corruption. By their nature, stereotypes appeal to base instincts, working through unexamined prejudices. Not for nothing, the people most invested in stereotypes, the racists, tend to be the most closed, to the point that openness to experience as a personality trait is almost a proxy for antiracist politics.
Neither widely-shared stereotypes (Japanese order, Southern European corruption, etc.) nor more internationally variable ones are enlightening when it comes to actual differences in infrastructure construction costs. The importance of international variability is that Westerners who are closed to the fact that how Asians perceive themselves is different from how Westerners perceive them are likely to be equally closed to a thousand details of governance, business, and engineering between successful and failed infrastructure programs.
The most importance difference in stereotypes when it comes to infrastructure is how Americans perceive the difference between Europe and the US and how Europeans perceive it. The US is certain it’s at the top of the world, so if there’s an aspect on which it isn’t, like life expectancy or public transit, then this aspect probably doesn’t matter much and the American entrepreneurial spirit will soon fix it anyway. Few people in the core European countries share this attitude. Americans need to choose between a sense of national pride and improving their infrastructure; for all the glory infrastructure can give, the methods with which they need to build it require letting go of their prejudices against the rest of the world.