The Modernizing Rail (Un)Conference happened last Sunday. We’re still gathering all the materials, but here are video uploads, including the keynote by Michael Schabas.
We will also have slides as given by presenters who used them. But for now, here are the slides used by the keynote. You may notice that the recording does not begin on the first slide; we missed Schabas’s introduction and some remarks on his background, detailing his 40 years of experience designing public transit systems in a number of countries, mainly Britain and Canada but also elsewhere in the developed world.
My session on construction costs was slide-free (and was not recorded), since I mostly just showed people around our under-construction cost dataset and answered a lot of questions. Some of those questions were annoying, by which I mean they questioned my thinking or brought up a point I haven’t considered before. I am not talking too much about it partly because I was mostly (mostly) repeating things I’ve said here, and the full database should be out later this summer, with all the mistakes I’ve made in currency conversion rates and in not updating for cost overruns fixed.
After my breakout, I was uncertain between which of two sessions to attend – one on HSR-legacy rail compatibility by María Álvarez, and one on equity issues in rail planning, by Grecia White and Ben She. I ended up going to the latter, which featured interesting discussions of inclusion of low-income people and minorities, both as riders (that is, serving people who are not middle-class whites better on regional rail) and as workers (that is, diversifying planning and engineering departments).
It went well in that there was no monopolization of discussion by people who have more a comment than a question, or any open racism or sexism; but it was somewhat frustrating in that while there was a lot of productive discussion of racial equality in rail planning, there was very little of gender equality even though we did intend to talk about both; Grecia was specifically interested in discussing these, for example women’s perceptions of public safety. This is in line with conference demographics – the organizing team and the breakout presenters were each one-third people of color, in line with US demographics; but the organizing team had 2/18 active women and the presenters 3/15. TransitMatters is similar in that regard – racial diversity is comparable to that of the Boston region, and the proportion of regulars who are queer is enormous, but there are very few women.
Finally, I hosted a session on how to set up a transport association, a.k.a. Verkehrsverbund. Christof Spieler did the most talking, and German attendees explained a lot about the difference between a transport association and agency amalgamation. But for the most part that session felt like an ersatz conclusion to the entire conference; it technically lasted an hour, but once the hour had lapsed, people from other sessions came to the room and the conversation continued naturally, talking a bit about different transit planning issues in Germany and a bit about applicability to rail reform in the Northeastern US.
I’m sometimes asked about the private sector’s role in infrastructure. I’ll cover this more broadly in the future, but for now, let me pour some cold water on the idea that a private actor could build an urban rail system for profit. This is a political and not technical problem: it is possible to build a few (but not many) urban rail lines that, at good but not unheard of construction and operating costs, would generate decent financial returns. However, such lines are extremely vulnerable to confiscation of profits by government at all levels, especially the local level. Moreover, it is not possible for a local government to give any credible guarantee of security of property for a private rail line.
Lines and extensions
There is a great many rail lines in the world where new construction can be profitable. For example, Tokyo subway lines turn a profit, and the government is not building more because it demands a minimum of 3% rate of financial return – and Tokyo has high construction costs. Seoul has low costs, and it’s plausible that if Tokyo could build subways at the cost of Seoul, it would go over the 3% threshold. London is roughly breaking even on the Underground, and I think Berlin is on the U-Bahn, so some of the stronger extensions might be profitable too.
However, in such cases, the profitable additions are mostly extensions of existing lines. These can be profitable, but not to a private operator, only to the agency that controls the existing line. Even new lines often come as part of a broader system designed around transfers; for example, a short line under consideration in Tokyo is designed to connect existing rail lines in Central Tokyo with the growing waterfront area. Usually, these lines work best with free transfers, so an independent operator can’t easily build them – it’s possible Tokyo will build the line as an independent one with extra fares for transfers rather than as a Toei subway, but if so this will be unusual by global standards.
That said, there do exist places where an independent actor could build an entirely new line and not have to worry too much about connections. The example I keep going back to is Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, where a line could connect Downtown San Francisco, say around Transbay Terminal (or even Union Square to save money and avoid tunneling under Market Street), with the Outer Richmond. The bus along this route has 57,000 riders per weekday, and the total including closely parallel routes is 110,000. Bus connections are useful, but a subway on Geary could succeed without them. The same is true of connections to the BART and Muni subways at Market Street – free transfers would be really useful, but the San Francisco central business district is strong enough that a private investor might well take the hit on ridership to avoid being too entangled with public governance.
A few more plausible independent lines include the Downtown Relief Line planned for Toronto, an east-west line between Queens and New Jersey via Midtown Manhattan, and and maybe even the dormant U10 for Berlin; U10 is unlikely to work at all without fare integration, but fortunately the Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg provides a local mechanism for revenue sharing without getting too entangled in public governance, though even then I don’t think the returns would be high enough to interest a private investor.
Some technically plausible returns
Let’s focus on Geary in San Francisco. Total ridership on or parallel to the route is 110,000 per weekday, but that’s on slow buses. A rapid transit line would get much more than that – 250,000 is plausible on a very frequent driverless train averaging 35 km/h end-to-end. High frequency would also encourage off-peak ridership, but let’s keep the annual-to-weekday ridership ratio at 300, typical of New York, and not the higher figures seen in London, since passengers would have to pay a separate fare to connect to non-CBD destinations. So this is 75 million riders a year.
What’s the plausible average fare? The Richmond is a middle-class neighborhood, but even there, fares significantly above the current Muni rate are likely to discourage ridership. Muni currently charges $2.50 one-way or $81 for a monthly ($98 with BART, but we’re assuming no free transfers). Assuming New York behavior again, a pass holder averages 46 trips a month; averaging with occasional riders, let’s say this is $2/trip, or $150 million a year.
Against this, what’s the operating cost? If 75 million trips a year average 5 km (half the route length), and there are 30 passengers per car (the New York subway average, and 20% more than the commuter-oriented BART average), this is 12.5 million car-km per year. This is equivalent to 19 5-car trains per hour in each direction 18 hours a day every day. The non-New York first-world range of operating costs is $4-7.5 per car-km as of 2014, but none of the systems studied in the report is all or even mostly driverless, and entirely driverless operations as in Vancouver would reduce costs to the low end of this range. So make it around $50 million a year in operating costs, plus maybe $8 million in depreciation on rolling stock – and let’s even bump it up a bit to $70 million because the maintenance workers are local, even if everything else can be offshored, and San Francisco wages are high. So, $80 million in operating profits per year.
Finally, the construction costs. This is a 10 km line, so at the global median of construction costs this is $2.5 billion. But Scandinavia, Southern Europe, and Korea are all capable of substantially below-median construction – and Nordic working-class wages aren’t necessarily lower than Californian ones. $1.5 billion is plausible, and even $1 billion is ambitious but not outside the realm of possibility if the line only runs to Union Square, not Transbay Terminal.
Profiting $80 million a year on $1.5 billion in investment is thus plausible, giving somewhat better returns than 5%. There’s risk inherent in the figure – costs may escalate, ridership may disappoint, operating costs may be higher than expected. All three happened almost from the dawn of rail technology – they all were rampant in the Railway Mania. The good news is that there is also some upside – office growth in the center of San Francisco could generate more demand, and mass upzoning in the Richmond could happen and was recently a near-miss in the state legislature.
Nonetheless, 5% returns at this level of risk, given decent confidence in one’s cost control, are still reasonable. However…
The government will confiscate profits
Unfortunately for any prospective private investor, the city and state governments have a large toolkit with which to confiscate all profits:
- Impact fees – such a subway would have positive impact on the neighborhood, but the city can still find grounds to levy fees.
- Nuisance suits – groups can invent grounds to sue on and demand bribes (“community benefits”) in exchange for dropping the suit.
- Construction regulations demanding more expensive methods that are (or seem) less disruptive, e.g. a ban on the use of cut-and-cover even for stations.
- Requirements that all workers be unionized and that nothing be outsourced, even things that can be done remotely like the control center.
- Rules calling all new housing construction along the line a benefit to the company, for which the company has to pay a fee.
- Unfunded mandates for fare discounts for seniors, children, the poor, and other groups; the city can pay these discounts out of its own budget, but why not claw into the profits of a private rail operator?
- Hearings at the inevitable objections (someone is always unhappy) in which legislators demand personal favors (“community benefits,” again) in exchange for a yes vote.
The operating requirements, like the unfunded discount mandate, can always be imposed in the future in case the operator profits more than expected. This means that there is not much upside – if profits are higher, there will be more confiscation. The effective profit rate net of the cost of compliance with regulations approaches zero. It may well be negative – the city has every interest in driving a private operator that just spent $1.5 billion of its own money on a subway into liquidation, buy out the infrastructure, and operate service itself.
This in fact happened in New York in the 1920s and 30s. Starting under Mayor John Hylan, the city used regulatory denials to deliberately drive the private streetcar companies out of business. Simultaneously, through the construction of the IND to compete with the private IRT and BMT subways and through denial of a fare hike from 5 cents a ride to 10 cents even after post-WW1 inflation halved the value of the dollar, the city did the same to the private subway operators; the IRT went bankrupt in the Depression, and in 1940 the city bought it and the BMT out.
Obedience, emigration, or the graveyard
The state, or any actor more powerful than you, always offers you this choice. The meaning of obedience is flexible (the political opposition in a democracy is still obedient), and the meaning of the graveyard is usually not literal (“you’ll never work in this town again,” not “you will be killed”). But the choice is still this.
The main way of avoiding the graveyard, emigration, is not available here. Subways are physically fixed infrastructure. If a local government doesn’t like you, you can’t take your capital and move somewhere else. For this reason, owners of tangible property, like small business owners, have had anti-socialist politics going back to the emergence of socialism as a real political force around the Paris Commune, whereas skilled workers didn’t mind socialism as much.
Modifying the meaning of obedience is possible in a place with stronger norms of rule of law. In a capitalist country, earning a profit and paying the normal corporate tax rather than 100% is obedience – the risk is not federal confiscation but state or local confiscation, where the United States never established such norms, relying on the threat of capital flight to lower-tax, lower-regulation states to discipline governments.
I brought up the example of Berlin because I think that here the threat of local confiscation is smaller (but not zero – witness the rent control bill), but even then it’s unlikely to be a 250,000 riders/10 km line – it’s probably a breakeven line or slightly better, ideal for public but not private construction. For the most part, the subway lines that can be profitably built in the EU have already been built; there aren’t huge cities here with unique construction cost problems, except London, where I don’t think there’s an even semi-decent case for any rail line that’s not an extension of existing lines (counting Crossrail as an inward extension of suburban lines).
However, within the US and probably also Canada, even a well-capitalized corporation can’t really modify the meaning of obedience to include profitably constructing urban infrastructure. It can only emigrate, which in this case means knowing not to allocate capital to fixed infrastructure in the first place. Even if apparent returns beat the market, which I don’t think they do, the real returns will be zero so long as state and local governments remain as they are.
I have a pretty concrete institutional theory for why the United States, and to some extent the rest of the Anglosphere, lags in infrastructure. It mostly fits the available evidence, but “mostly” and “available” are the operative words, and I don’t want to expound on it too much before doing more interviews to contrast American infrastructure planning with Continental European and democratic Asian examples, to see if there’s basis to what I’m saying.
But one piece of the theory is worth talking about early: the concept of managerialism. The relevance to infrastructure is roughly the following set of propositions that constitute this theory as applied to public policy:
- Big outfits should be run by professional managers, who should be trained primarily in management and not in a specific industry; it is acceptable and even desirable for a CEO to bounce between different industries. A successful founder or manager in one field should be presumed capable of quickly acquiring expertise in another field if they move to a new industry.
- Domain knowledge is suspect, because the people who hold it are self-interested – in public policy this relates to public choice theory. At best, domain knowledge means you get to work for a manager.
- Managers should set up the right incentives to force underlings with domain knowledge to innovate, and do not need to acquire detailed domain knowledge themselves. For example, they should set up objective metrics to evaluate employees by rather than have close enough relationships with the employees to know intuitively who to promote.
- The recruitment pipeline for the managers should combine a set of institutions producing a single elite (Oxbridge, Ivy League) with a proof-of-pudding system measuring success by earned wealth.
The upshot is that if you don’t trust any of your workers (public choice theory, again) and do trust the managerial elite to be able to run all industries equally, then you can just do whatever you want and blame the inevitable failure on the workers being too stupid or incompetent.
Note that even though this is often an anti-government theory of how to run public-sector agencies, it is as written politically neutral, and even used by leaders on the left. Politicians of all stripes appoint people with the wrong skillset to run public agencies, preferring political appointees (who in both the US and UK come from the same institutions as the private-sector managerial elite) to career professionals. Career professionals may be too politically independent and have long-term plans that are not compatible with self-aggrandizing schemes to build visible infrastructure that a politician can claim full credit for.
Note also that even though the full set of propositions I associate with managerialism comes from the English-speaking world, segments of it can be found elsewhere. France, for example, has a Grande Ecole-educated elite that views itself as omnicompetent. It differs from the Anglo-American model somewhat in that the institution that produces engineering executives (Polytéchnique) are not the same as the one that produces politicians (ENA), and a a lot in that bouncing between industries is narrower, so that SNCF is run by airline executives without experience in railways rather than by industrialists and financiers without experience in transportation.
I make no claim about whether managerialism works in other spheres, like general business. That said, in the fastest-growing high-end segment of the American economy, tech, the business culture is very different: everyone, including management, is expected to know how to code; managers are recruited from among experienced programmers; the culture regards external managers much less than it does coder-founders like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, or Mark Zuckerberg, to the point that most people in tech and tech media regard Microsoft’s stagnation in the 2000s as the fault of the transition from founder Bill Gates to the more managerial Steve Ballmer.
But in the public sector, at least in infrastructure, managerialism has not succeeded. Any of the following reasons may be relevant to the failure of turnaround experts, political appointees, private-sector CEOs, and other non-industry professionals to improve American public transportation.
- American business culture assumes that the same methods work regardless of scale. Public transit is scale-dependent, which fries a lot of common private-sector assumptions. Most importantly, starting small is not always possible, especially in trains. Managers who are used to starting small end up deemphasizing the most productive parts of public transportation, like rail operations, in favor of things that can be done incrementally, like bus lanes.
- American culture is generally closed to foreign knowledge. It is also pragmatic and anti-theoretical, viewing foreign knowledge as a kind of theory that must be tested at very small scale before being applied widely; one American big-city transit manager denigrated international cost comparisons as “Paris or something.” The difference between managers and industry professionals is that some of the latter understand that public transportation works better in Europe and East Asia and try to learn, whereas managers see nothing to learn in countries with living standards that are (on average) comparable to the US’s or (for senior managers) much lower.
- Public transportation has a lot of moving parts that have to be planned together – timetable, infrastructure, equipment, and more broadly also development. Even within operations, there are different departments that affect one another closely, like dispatching and actual operations. This makes typical responses to bad news, like a hiring freeze, atrocious, because an overstaffed agency may have one understaffed department creating too much work for everyone else; only an experienced transportation professional would know to fix the problem department by hiring more people even in a bad economy in order to increase productivity elsewhere.
- Infrastructure has very long time horizons. Agency heads have to think on the scale of decades, not quarterly earnings calls with the shareholders.
- Competition is destructive. The real competition is cars, and not other modes of public transportation. Competitive private businesses generally understand coordination (“synergy” was a much-mocked buzzword in the 1990s and 2000s), but less deeply than researchers with familiarity with the situation of multimodal public transportation.
What this means is that the penchant of so many American politicians to hire outsiders to the field is not part of the solution to the problem of failing transit agencies, but rather part of the problem. Success comes from hiring people who are experienced in the field, and if the agency bureaucracy seems too inflexible, then hiring from other countries. There’s a reason Andy Byford, a career transportation planner with experience in London and Toronto, was such a hit success in New York – and there’s a reason this success involved developing much greater levels of mutual trust between management and the workers. In contrast, a string of people whose background is in a culture that treats everything as an American business to be turned around with tough management does not produce good results – rather, such leaders create problems that justify their own continued existence, blaming their own failures on the people below them.
There’s a quote bouncing around urbanist media, attributed to Fiorello LaGuardia, that there is no Republican or Democratic way of taking out the garbage; see for examples CityLab and Governing. The idea of this quote is, there is no ideology in urban governance, only pragmatism. In this framework, important questions about how to govern a city are assumed away, as is any conflict between different class-based, ethnic, or industry-based interests.
The object-level political questions
There are key political questions about how to provide city services as delegated to the local government by the state. Berlin is a city as well as a state of Germany and thus has especially high levels of autonomy, with lively political debate about housing, education, and transportation. But even cities with less autonomy, like Paris, still have debates regarding land use, public housing, and street usage. These can be any of the following:
- Is this service worth spending more money on, or should the city prioritize other services?
- Should this service be provided directly by the city government, or by the private sector? If the latter, what kind of regulations are appropriate, if any?
- Where should the city prioritize service? For example, in education, should the city prioritize class integration or build segregated schools (“Gymnasien”)? In garbage, which neighborhoods should the city make sure to prioritize in collection?
- Should the workers be unionized? Should the city side more with the unions or with management in industrial disputes?
- How should the service be run? For example, in education, what should the curriculum focus on, how should assessment work, what is the priority for investment, and how big should schools be? In policing, which crimes should get the most resources, should the city side with the police more or with civil rights activists, and which theories of policing should be implemented (broken windows, community policing, etc.)?
The earlier questions on the above list tend to be the same regardless of service, and generally people who like privatizing one service also like privatizing others. But shouldn’t this be an open ideological debate? A multiparty governing coalition might compromise on which services should be municipal and which private, and political parties would have to put their ideas to the test by either crafting a workable privatization contract or competently running service publicly.
The later questions on the list depend more on the service in question, and usually the biggest ideological load is on bigger issues than sanitation, like education or policing, the former of which especially animates the New Right in Germany and white flighters in the United States. However, even with sanitation, there are questions of priorities like what frequency to collect, how much to prioritize low-income neighborhoods, and how much space to make for dumpsters on the streets. New York infamously has open trash on the sidewalks because dumpsters would have to take up space that is currently devoted to street parking, which the most powerful mass groups of voters in the city consider sacrosanct.
The meta questions
Beyond questions of how to run various services, there are even broader questions about what is appropriate to be decided at what level. For examples:
- How big should the city be? That is, should it annex its suburbs for a greater regional government, as in London, Berlin, and Toronto, or remain more local, as in Paris and most American cities? Should local governments outside the city be very fractionalized as in France and the Northeastern United States, or should there be amalgamations of regional municipalities as in most of non-France Europe?
- Which issues are appropriate to be decided at what level? Should local governments have taxing power at all, or should they only have to make do with the budgets given to them by state taxes? Should education, policing, sanitation, transport, parks, electricity, and water be responsibilities of the state, a regional government, or the city?
- What role, if any, should referendums have in budgetary and other political questions?
- Regardless of what services are provided at what level, how should the bodies providing them be overseen? Should there be an elected board, a ministerial appointment, a civil service, or any combination of those three?
These questions sometimes do and sometimes don’t carry ideological load, but even when they don’t, they deserve to be debated and voted on in the open. In France, Sweden, and Japan, questions regarding zoning and housing production are decided at the national level, so in the 2014 election campaign, political parties in Sweden had posters all over Stockholm promising to build more housing to alleviate the country’s severe shortage. In the United States and in Germany these decisions are more local, but it’s completely legitimate for a political movement to demand that decisions be transferred upward to the state level, and to a large extent the YIMBY movement in California argues openly for state-level mandates and against local control.
This is especially important when there is consistent ideological load. Questions of annexation and boundaries between local or regional governments frequently intersect with inequality. In Israel, there are revenue-generating industrial zones in non-urban regional councils adjacent to low-income cities, where local interests agitate for the right to annex these zones to enhance those cities’ tax bases; conversely, the kibbutzes within those regional councils agitate for keeping borders as they are, and have so far succeeded in forestalling any change.
Interaction between different questions
The various object-level and meta questions about how to run city government – or whether to even have much local empowerment in the first place – interact in ways that make the answers to some questions depend on others.
The issue of pragmatism and apolitical government is especially instructive, because if the idea is to reduce the role of ideology in answering object-level questions, then certain meta elements follow. Specifically, if there is no ideological conflict, then there is no need for elected government. Consensus can be formed entirely at the elite civil service level, and in particular the number of political appointments should be kept to a minimum, ideally zero except for the minister.
The analog here is the military, which is depoliticized in every democracy, to the point that a politicized military generally means a country is not fully democratic. The military appoints its own officers, and even when the elected government must sign off on officer commissions, it is a pure rubber stamp, as the decisions are made internally. Only at the highest levels do politicians decide on appointment to provide civilian oversight, such as the IDF chief of staff. The role of the political system is to make decisions on war and peace and allocate the budget, and even then the military gets considerable latitude in internal allocation of funding. What is more, this arrangement is not a cloak-and-dagger affair – the public fully knows what is going on and is supportive, because the public has high levels of trust in the military as an institution, even in times and places with low public support for war.
Pragmatism and excuses
In practice, self-identified pragmatism in politics tends to mean treating certain positions as so obvious that they do not require any further defense. But then the question of what is obvious depends on time and place; for example, in the late 20th century through today, English-speaking governments have assumed that public-private partnerships with multi-decade contracts are obviously the superior way to provide services, whereas the Nordic countries prefer regionwide governance with more ubiquitous but shorter-term contracting and France and Germany keep most services in the public sector.
Most people do not stop to ask whether a foreign way works better. This has nothing to do with pragmatism – people who identify differently do it just as much. However, the lack of political pluralism means that it is not possible for an opposition movement to point out that other places do things differently and use this to come up with concrete proposals for change. This problem occurs often where there is no regular change in government; multiparty elections can ameliorate it by giving people the option of voting for a different coalition members, for example voting Green in Berlin within the dominant red-red-green coalition to express a wish to stop building highways, but even that works less well than the threat of the opposition actually taking over. In cities with no real ideological choice, it becomes completely impossible to adopt new practices, and this should be viewed as a primary reason why local governance in the United States is so bad by European standards.
Democratic consensus as mediation
In contrast with the idea of a leader who stands about mere politics, democratic consensus governance permits debate on different urban questions, including meta-discussions of which questions are most important. The key here is multiparty elections that force coalition governments. This has three benefits.
- It reduces the ability of an executive to engage in an authoritarian takeover, since junior coalition members in nearly all cases have an incentive to defect – if the opposition is destroyed, they are next on the chopping block.
- It widens the space of permissible ideas, since niche groups can take over smaller parties; environmentalism made the jump from street protests to serious politics through green parties in multiparty states. In cases of extremism it’s still possible to form a cordon sanitaire against unwanted parties like AfD, and this puts pressure on parties to behave in socially acceptable ways to avoid being treated as illegitimate.
- It allows junior members to advocate on a specific issue and get the relevant ministerial portfolio to make changes that can succeed or fail in the real world.
This is a set of answers to meta-questions, much more so than to object-level questions. As always, there is interaction between answers: if political parties are the vessel that mediates between individual voters and the state, then the polity size must be large enough to maintain ideological vote and ideological diversity, which argues in favor of more extensive annexation and against very small, homogeneous municipalities like Eastern and Midwestern American suburbs.
There is extensive room for pragmatism here, since this is a governance method that lives on political compromise, denying any single faction a majority. But it’s a pragmatism layered on ideological questions, because different parties will have different ideas about how to run the police, provide sanitation, allocate street space, etc., and this is fine. Different parties will have different ideas about whether to side with workers or management more, and this too is fine. And different parties will have different ideas about how to prioritize the budget and which services to provide in the first place, and that, like the previous points of contention, is also fine.
There’s a tendency among a number of important American YIMBYs that bothers me – they speak of development as a bad thing, a great burden that must be shared equally across neighborhoods. I’ve even seen this take regarding immigration, portraying it as such a terrible burden that Germany must undertake to redeem itself after the Holocaust. The underlying assumption is that growth is bad, and the ideal world is static and has people living in small communities.
But what if growth is good? What if more urban development is good? What if immigration is good, and immigrants are good people individually and collectively?
Growth is good
There’s a “growth for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell” meme out there. Well, no. Growth is not for its own sake. It’s for the sake of the things you can do in a society that produces more stuff: live longer, own refrigerators and other appliances, travel beyond walking range, communicate with people beyond travel range, get your own room, eat more interesting food than whatever scraps concentration camp prisoners fight over, wear more interesting clothes than concentration camp prisoner uniform, play interesting games, etc.
What is true is that no single element of these is in perfect correlation with wealth. You can even devise a large subset of these that aren’t, and focus on places that are exceptional relative to their income levels; Kerala is popular for its high literacy and life expectancy relative to its wealth. But usually these early investments then pay off in growth – this was the case in 1960s and 70s’ Korea, which was approaching universal literacy at the start of this period with astonishingly low incomes, and then used its advantage in relatively skilled, low-wage work to industrialize.
Urban development is good
The ability to access more stuff easily is a good thing and there’s a reason both employers and residents pay extra to have it. More and bigger buildings stimulate this kind of access. On the production side, this means thicker social networks for people who work in related industries and can come up with new innovations – this is why the tech industry sticks in San Francisco and environs, and not the bay view or the state of California’s public services. This, in turn, raises wages. On the consumption side, this means more variety in what to buy.
Moreover, this is true down to the neighborhood level. A denser neighborhood has more amenities, because more people is a good thing, because new people stimulate new social events, new consumption, and new opportunities for job access. If more people move to your neighborhood, that means first of all that employers are more likely to site jobs where convenient for you, and second of all that the city is likelier to want to build more subway lines in your direction.
A corollary of this is that private developers, as a class, are good, because they convert factors of production like labor and capital into finished, habitable apartments and offices. Yes, they can individually be terrible people. But collectively as a class their effect is good and the state needs to stop treating them as a source of loot to be doled to sympathetic neighborhood groups.
The most frustrating thing about it is that New York specifically likes to extol its own size as a reason for its supposed greatness. But then the idea that an even bigger city is a better city makes the political system there wince, and therefore the city permitted not many more than 20,000 housing units per year at the peak of the pre-virus economy, about one quarter the per capita rate of the Seoul metropolitan region or Tokyo (the city proper, but I think the suburbs have similar housing growth), and one third that of Ile-de-France.
Immigrants are good
Vancouver is a racist city, and I say this having lived in Israel. I somehow found myself in a room at a meetup where an all-white group of people were talking about black men’s penis size. Anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, Sinophobia, hate for indigenous people: you name it, I saw it there, used casually, by people who didn’t even think they were saying something controversial. The representatives of the people of that city have come across the realization that there is extensive immigration to their city and therefore it may be prudent to choke housing development because it’s all for immigrants anyway.
There’s a weird kind of defensiveness about immigration, even in societies where it’s fairly popular. Germany and Sweden both think they’re shouldering a great burden by taking in refugees, and even Germans who identify as left-wing and antiracist seem scared of diverse neighborhoods that immigrants of all social classes don’t find anything wrong with. But Germans at least have the excuse of not being used to diversity, and I think they’re slowly learning to be more tolerant. Vancouverites are used to diversity and decided they prefer racial purity to growth. Housing growth in Vancouver was healthy before the crisis but a lot of political forces in the city seem intent on making sure this doesn’t happen again, and with the transit-oriented development sites filling fast, the region will soon have to make tough decisions on upzoning single-family neighborhoods 600 meters from the train rather than 100 meters.
For the same reason a bigger city is a better city, the movement of immigrants into a country is an unalloyed good for the recipient country, unless perhaps that country is extremely dependent on primary resources, which Germany isn’t and even British Columbia isn’t.
Developers may be individually bad people but collectively good as a class; with immigrants, the good is both individual and collective. Immigrants as individuals are good, and it’s better for a country to have more of them (us, really): if anyone wants me to babble about all the statistics about employment (even for refugees in Germany), lower crime rates, cultural emphasis on skills and education, etc., I’ll be happy to do so in comments. Immigrants as a collective are likewise good, through introducing more cultural variety to a place and promoting cultural and social ties to parts of the world this place may not have thought to learn much from.
Practically any change has some beneficiaries (why else would it happen?), but a separate question, often with a separate answer is, who does it empower? For examples, expansion of education benefits students but empowers teachers and school administrators, and expansion of health care benefits patients but empowers medical care providers, especially ones below the prestige level of doctors. In both cases, the groups that were empowered back expansion, and at least in the case of teachers, the other side assumes that there are no beneficiaries, hence for example Humphrey’s comment in Yes, Minister that comprehensive education was adopted only because of the teachers’ unions.
The relevance of this distinction is that improvements in public transport mostly have the same set of beneficiaries – current and potential transit riders – but empower different groups of people depending on what the proposed improvement is. This matters, because it’s easier for change to happen if it empowers people who are already important. This is not restricted to politics – a change in how a business is run is easier to accept if it empowers senior management than if it empowers grunt workers, even if the ultimate beneficiary, that is the shareholders, is the same. The upshot is that there are changes in how to run public transportation that empower the already-powerful, and those changes are not necessarily best for the riders.
Politicians and civil servants
Politicians, especially high-level ones, are more powerful than civil servants. It is therefore easier to pass changes that empower them than ones that empower the civil service.
I think the Anglosphere’s fascination with design-build comes from this, at least partially. Traditional design-bid-build procurement means that an in-house team reviews bids and selects separate contractors for design and construction. In contrast, design-build removes power from the civil service. The consultants who get to draw design specs get empowered, but I don’t think this is why governments adopt design-build. Rather, design-build means that high-level politicians get to make big decisions, first since they often have casual ties to the consultants through a revolving door, and second since each bid is bigger (one firm might do everything) and therefore it is evaluated at a higher level.
Consulting in business is a good analogy, since there are some analogies between how the state is run and how big businesses are. The relevant one is the tyranny of the org chart; see some examples here and here by Aaron Renn, and here and here by other consultants. Senior management in the private sector has serious problems with listening to people who the org chart asserts are subordinates, from middle management all the way down. Management consultants often succeed by talking to lower-level workers, getting good ideas from them, and then packaging them to senior management in glossy presentations that look like they came from the consultants, who have nebulous job titles so as to convince senior management that the consultants are their peers. In effect, consultants are a workaround to the fact that senior management is unlikely to adopt ideas that empower subordinates.
The greatest irony here is that the sort of political operatives who are most educated in public choice theory are the ones who most consistently act according to its precepts. They dislike public-sector unions, so they institute public-sector hiring freezes and instead outsource work to consultants. In effect, they empower themselves, as senior political operatives who get to make more important decisions when the decisions are about higher-level things (that is, who gets the work among design-build bidders).
National vs. international comparisons
The issue of outside comparisons depends heavily on what the agency is to be compared to. The difference is that in the United States, managers are well-traveled domestically but not internationally, so domestic comparisons empower them and international ones do the opposite. In Europe, managers are more internationally traveled but largely within Europe, so comparisons to Asia are as problematic for them as comparisons to non-English-speaking European countries are to American managers.
What this means is, a study delivered to Boston or Los Angeles or Chicago that does a domestic comparison will bring up things that top managers and politicians are at least somewhat familiar with. A manager in Boston may have happened to work only in New England, but this is not common, and the manager’s social circle will include people with experience from other parts of the United States. This manager can read a report employing domestic comparison and will have heard about some of the success cases in the report, and if anything is unclear, the manager can call up friends and former coworkers and get clarifications. The manager is thus empowered to implement the report’s recommendations.
An international comparison has the opposite effect. The American manager might be facing a report that brings up case studies from European and East Asian countries, where few Americans have ever lived. The report might mention things that all American transit managers have convinced themselves are impossible, because those managers only ever talk to other Americans. It devalues most of the expertise of the American insider. If anyone within the agency is empowered, it is often a junior planner who has delved into foreign cases out of interest, or perhaps an immigrant whose knowledge is foreign and not just American. It completely upends the hierarchy: the senior manager has no way to contribute to the process and is at the mercy of outsiders and subordinates.
The trick that management consultants use to persuade senior managers to accept recommendations that came from below is not useful here. The report cannot hide its foreign provenance; it screams right there, “your experience as a senior American manager is not as valuable as you think it is.”
Is there a way out?
I believe that there is. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have some circumstantial evidence pointing in a more optimistic direction.
First, not only is the idea of the tyranny of the org chart well-known to consultants, but also a brief Googling revealed a number of different consultants openly pitch their skills to management in how to avoid the problem. That people who get paid to give outside expert advice to corporate leaders believe they can tell to those leaders’ faces, “you need to listen to your subordinates better and here’s how you can do it” suggests that it is possible to get at least some managers to listen.
Second, on an abstract level, managing others is a valuable skill on top of the deep experience managers must possess in the industry they lead, and moreover, general management skills are highly valued in American business culture in the private as well as public sector. This means that even though the use of foreign advice devalues senior managers’ industry-internal skills, and maybe even some precepts that they’ve learned in other industries if they’ve jumped around from industry to industry, it still does not devalue general management skills, not should it.
Third, beneficiaries matter, rather than just the people whose skills are valued more under the changes required to improve American public transportation. This means that a politician who is seen as successfully improving infrastructure will get accolades from the public, because there’s general political consensus that infrastructure is good, and specific political consensus in the parts of the United States with the most public transit ridership that public transportation infrastructure is good. Political advisors may be sidelined by change that relies on knowledge they don’t have, but elected politicians who are seen building infrastructure cheaply become more popular.
And fourth, the situation in the United States in general and New York is particular is so bad that change is possible even while respecting at least some degree of turf. Gradual replacement is possible, if New York implements one change that reduces costs by a factor of 2 while leaving other causes of high costs unchanged, and then the people who successfully shepherded the change implement more such changes. Future changes can devalue the skills of managers who only know how to build and run bad transit and not good transit, but a manager who was responsible to a large cost reduction will get enough internal and public clout that empowering this manager further through further-reaching reforms will be easier for the hierarchy to swallow.
Remember the Ohio Hub? Back in 2009-10, Ohio was planning on running five low-speed trains per day between Cleveland and Cincinnati and branded this exercise as high-speed rail called the Ohio Hub. The Republican victory in the gubernatorial election put it out of its misery (as unfortunately happened to the far better Florida project), but the idea of little facts-on-the-ground kinds of rail investment persists among American advocates who don’t understand how rail operations work. Now that there’s serious talk of infrastructure funding in the United States as part of a stimulus package, I’d like to explain, to prevent the debacles of the late 2000s from happening again.
The central conceit is that public transportation is not cars. It’s a different, more complex system. The road network has fewer moving parts – one just builds roads based on traffic projections. Public transportation has schedules, transfers, and equipment, all of which must be planned in coordination. “This junction gets congested, let’s build a bypass” works for road advocacy, but fails for rail, because maybe speeding up the trains by a few minutes doesn’t really help get to any timed connections and is therefore of limited value to the system.
Rail works when everything is planned together. This makes little additions not too valuable: a small speedup may not be useful if connecting lines stay the same, infrastructure investment may have limited effect on trip times if the rolling stock doesn’t change, etc.
The upshot is that it’s very easy to find 80/20 problems: 80% of the money gets you 20% of the benefits. In addition to examples of lack of coordination between infrastructure, the timetable, and rolling stock, there are issues with insufficient frequency. When frequency is low relative to trip time, the long-term elasticity of ridership with respect to service is more than 1 – that is, running more service makes the trains and buses fuller, as better service encourages more ridership. Thus, service with insufficient frequency will fail, trains and buses getting too little ridership to justify additional investment, whereas if initial frequency were higher from the start then it would succeed.
The Ohio Hub was one such example: five roundtrips a day, starter service. It makes sense to someone who thinks like a manager or a general-purpose activist: start small and build from there. But to someone who thinks like a public transportation planner, it’s a disaster. Already 10 years ago, Max Wyss in comments was warning that such service would fail – the original Intercity brand in Germany succeeded by running trains every two hours, with hourly service on stronger city pairs, often with timed transfers at junctions.
Regional rail projects suffer from a similar urge to start small. Peak-only service will invariably fail – the operating costs will be too high for ridership even if almost all seats fill. This covers just about every American effort at starting up new commuter rail service.
More fundamentally, the issue is that nobody likes failure. Insufficient, poorly-optimized service creates facts on the ground, but these facts don’t lead to any effort toward better service if people perceive what has been built to be a failure. If a handful of trains per day that average 70 km/h are called high-speed rail, then it doesn’t lead passengers to want high-speed rail; it leads them to avoid the train and conclude that high-speed rail is slower than driving on the freeway.
The passengers on such service may not be a great constituency for better service, either. If the train is very slow, then the riders will be the sort of people who are okay with slow trains. Older American railfans are filled with nostalgia for traditional railroading and openly say that slower is better. Such people are not going to advocate for modern high-speed rail, nor for learning from successful Asian and European examples.
Another group of people who ride trains and often advocate against better service is peak commuters on trains serving high-income suburbs. They are used to an adversarial relationship with the state; to them, the state taxes them to give money to poorer people, and they instead prefer hyper-local forms of government providing segregated schools and policing. Representatives of such riders engage in agency turf warfare, such as when state senators from Long Island opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access because it would use train slots into Penn Station that the LIRR believes are its property. On social media, people sporadically yell at me when I propose fare integration, on grounds that boil down to viewing any urban riders who would be attracted to lower fares as interlopers.
There’s an ultimate proof-of-pudding issue here. Americans have to a good approximation never seen a working public transportation system. At best, they’ve seen a megacity where people use the trains even though they are dirty and expensive to run because there is no alternative and construction was done 100 years ago when costs were lower. There is no coordinated planning; Americans do not demand it because only a handful of people know what it is, who are often young and have often lived abroad for an extended period of time, both of which make one less likely to be listened to in politics.
The result is that the sort of bottom-up activism people are used to is not useful in this context. In Germany it’s different – enough people have seen what works in Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands and know what to call for. But in the United States, it won’t work – the knowledge base of how to build reliable, interconnected public transportation exists but is too thinly spread and is the domain of people who do not have much political prestige.
It’s critical to then get things right from the start. Do not assume future activism will fix things. Half-measures are much more likely to lead to disillusionment than to any serious efforts to improve things to turn them into full measures. If the choice is between a high chance of bad service and low chance of good service, don’t settle for bad service and make a gamble for good service; bad public transportation is a waste of money and the general public will correctly perceive it as such.
The military historian Danny Orbach writes about the popular analogy of the Covid-19 crisis to war, and what kinds of lessons from military history policymakers can learn. He of course understands the big differences – he doesn’t talk about tactics or operations, but rather about common issues regarding public support and the price of war. It’s not my intention to talk about the virus in the post, but rather, of an even bigger long-term global crisis: catastrophic climate change. Danny’s insights form a good guideline to why climate action is so difficult.
Popular willpower in crisis
The core of Danny’s post is that the public’s willingness to bear personal costs is limited, and can change during the crisis, usually for the worse. He gives a number of examples from historic wars, and concludes (bold in original),
Thus, the main moral is as follows: if you’re a leader facing a crisis like a war or a pandemic, the public trust must always be on your mind. Remember that it is always limited, and tends to run out much faster than you imagine. Most of the American public, for example, was willing to sacrifice a lot to save South Vietnam and Southeast Asia from communism, but not to pay an unlimited economic and human cost as General Westmoreland demanded. The Viet Cong and North Vietnam did not manage to defeat the United States, only to stall for time and exhaust it until the public trust of the American public ran out.
When fighting a pandemic, like the corona crisis, it’s equally necessary to think about the consequences of each move not just for the fight against the plague but also for the public trust for facing it. The main factor here is time. The more time passes, and the economic damage grows, the more the public trust runs out at an ever increasing rate. For this reason, policymakers must understand that they have limited time, and they must take every step to shorten it: for example, massive and fast increase in testing (even at research labs, which the Ministry of Health harassed for weeks), shortening red tape in obtaining results, handing out masks even at an early stage, and fast contact tracing to replace the general lockdown with targeted lockdowns. In Israel, the Ministry of Health understood this too late, in my estimation because of the public pressure to end the lockdown after Passover. It’s also important to understand that every further tightening wastes the public trust even faster, especially if it looks petty and redundant (the 100-meter limit on out-of-home trips, harassment of beach surfers, cutting the quota of permitted workers per business from 30% of normal to 15%). Finally, so that the public trust will last longer, personal example of the leaders is also important. When the Israeli public saw [PM Bibi] Netanyahu, [President Rubi] Rivlin, [Immigration and Absorption Minister Yoav] Galant, [Health Minister] Litzman, and other policymakers flout their own guidelines, the public’s willingness to sacrifice for a length period of time naturally decreased.
The details are naturally tailored to the situation of Israel, whose infection rates are low by Western standards (but high by democratic Asian ones), but the broad outline isn’t. Capricious rules lead to widespread derision even among people who support the overall program, even in relatively high-trust societies like Germany.
The implications for climate change
If public trust is a limited resource, then climate action has to involve a plan for conserving it. It’s related to plans by political operatives to conserve political capital, but is not the same – political capital refers to the support of political elites, especially elected officials, whereas public trust is broader. Disempowering some local group costs political capital but may increase public trust if it gives the appearance of faster and more decisive action; authoritarian leaders habitually surround themselves with corrupt sycophants who they can publicly remove to popular acclaim.
So how can governments fight climate change while maintaining public support for such measures? Visible green infrastructure helps, which nearly everyone understands, but what people don’t understand so easily is that the program itself cannot have too high a cost. The sort of leftists who propose Green New Deal programs don’t think trillions of dollars in deficit spending is ever bad, but the general public differs; when unemployment is not too high, it’s important to limit the costs. Shortening lead time from when a project is announced to when it opens is important as well.
Good interim measures are helpful, too, but they have a limit. Paris is one of the most polluted cities in Europe, but it is not Delhi; reducing pollution there is helpful but evidently did not get unanimous support. So reducing pollution and car accidents buys some public trust, but not to infinite extent. Building more housing to reduce rents in expensive cities is the same – it helps alleviate the stereotype that dense cities are expensive, but this doesn’t equal universal public patience for programs that abolish mobility by car.
The good news is that the highest carbon tax regime in the world, Sweden, has also had one of the stronger economic growth rates in the first world. So the economic cost of what’s been done so far does not exist. It’s a matter of the cost of further action, which includes limiting flights and cars, directing development to dense transit-oriented cities, etc.
The issue of personal example
Danny brings up the personal example issue among top leaders. I would add that personal example among a broader segment of the population is even more important – the EU plans for a Green Deal call for fairly high (though not Swedish, let alone fully damage-mitigating) taxes on aviation fuel within the EU, a policy that would help with public trust because of perceptions that domestic carbon taxes do not levy the tax on the rich because they do not cover international flights.
Among the literal leaders, the situation is more delicate. The threat model of a national leader, who is a personal target for state-level actors and major terrorist groups, is not the same as that of the ordinary person, who to the terrorist is just a statistic. To the ordinary person, a train has lower terrorism risk than a plane, since a bomb can’t kill the people on an entire train. To the national leader, a train has higher risk, because attacks on the fixed infrastructure (such as bridges) are easier to the group that wants to kill a particular person. When François Hollande traveled France by TGV rather than by plane to lead by example, soldiers had to guard every bridge. In this situation, it is not hypocritical for leaders to fly even when a train is available.
All of this is much easier when national leadership is more distributed and there is no executive president who provides a juicy target to hostile actors. Switzerland’s plural executive does not have the massive security of an ordinary head of government, and its members do take the tram around Bern, which would be unthinkable for a French president.
But even that has a real limit. Populists make up stories of hypocrisy all the time. Emmanuel Macron does not supply any proper scandals, and may be the first leader in the history of France who is faithful to his wife, so rumormongers and fake news sites step in with fake quotes and stories. The point of personal example isn’t to get unanimous consent; repression is not an avoidable aspect of climate action, or for that matter of having a state to begin with. The point is to shrink the opposition to the most risible elements, who the general public won’t mind seeing ignored or repressed if need be.
Climate change as forever war
A more interesting case study of war, not in the original post, is the modern forever war. The US has been in Afghanistan since 2001, in a conflict that has no end in sight; France is likewise in a forever war in its former Sahelian colonies. There’s a lot of mockery about this, but the general public is broadly okay with this situation, because the cost to the public in the US and France is so low. (Afghans, Malians, and Nigeriens naturally do not get a vote.) Even the limited extent of sacrifice the French and American voting publics endured trying to hold on to Vietnam would not be acceptable over such a long time, let alone that of a total war like World War Two. Thus, a forever war cannot be a total war.
The rhetoric about climate change is that of a total war, but that means little – leaders routinely engage in apocalyptic rhetoric in limited wars, like Israel’s cold war with Iran (“the year is 1938 and Iran is Germany” per Netanyahu), the American war on Iraq in 2003 (“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” per Condoleeza Rice). Everything else about climate change points to a forever war. The time horizon is far, with discussions of reducing emissions sharply by 2030 and eliminating them by 2050.
So if it’s a forever war, public trust is especially limited. It makes it especially important to make climate action feel like not much of a sacrifice, but an opportunity to live in rich, dynamic transit cities while paying affordable rents. This is not going to be a universal positive feeling, but the point, again, is not to get universal support, just to conserve public trust enough to implement the requires programs successfully.
I have a lot of readers who come from a rationalist or Effective Altruism background, and some more who come from an economics background, and both communities put a lot of stock in the idea of correct predictions about current events. The idea is that scientists have to make testable predictions about the results of their experiments, and therefore social scientists must equally make predictions about the state of the world. It’s become relevant in the corona crisis and is also relevant to my and Eric Goldwyn’s construction cost project in a specific way, so I’d like to talk about the complexities of what it exactly means to get things right.
Consider the following prediction: the economy is overheated and a recession will come soon. It’s a vague prediction. One can fill in details to make it strictly testable – “the German economy will have >6% unemployment in 2 years” – but what exactly is the point of one detail or another?
The real answer is that different classes of people have different uses for the prediction of recession, and therefore depend on different details. The investor wants to sell stocks near the peak. The Nasdaq went from 2,200 at the beginning of 1999 to a peak of 5,100. To the investor, knowing that there was a bubble at the beginning of 1999 would not have been useful – cashing out then would have meant missing on a stock market doubling over the year. It would take until about the onset of the 2001 recession for the Nasdaq to fall below January 1999 levels. To the successful investor, it is critical to know the exact timing of the peak to maximize income, and in pursuit of that goal it’s fine to miss some recessions, let alone to miss other important details like the length of the recession and the unemployment rate.
In contrast with the investor, the skilled worker has different concerns, like unemployment. In that environment, knowing that there’s going to be a recession is useful even if the timing is vague – such a worker can save more money, delay major purchases, avoid quitting a stable salaried job to start a small business, and maybe shift to a more recession-proof job even if it means taking a pay cut. Knowing how deep the recession will be is important as well, and remains important knowledge even as the recession takes place – the worker needs to know how stressed to be about savings running out if there is prolonged unemployment. All of this is equally valuable to the prospective immigrant who needs to make a decision on whether to emigrate.
The investor-worker duality is especially important for economists, and to some extent to rationalists who try to follow popular economists. They have money to invest, and often work as advisors to finance firms that pay them for investor-relevant information. But they are also researchers, who can respond to an impending recession by acquiring recession-relevant skills, like studying the history of depressions and conducting empirical research about unemployment and anti-poverty interventions. These are such big research programs that the exact timing of the recession doesn’t really matter, whereas its depth and length matter. An economist who can answer questions like “what is the impact of unemployment programs on long-term welfare?” is useful in a general period of economic weakness even if the papers appear a year into the beginning of the recession.
Predictions and construction costs
Before we started our current project, I had been writing about construction costs here, in comments, and on social media going back to 2009-10. I had some theories over the years, of which some would be confirmed by additional data and others wouldn’t:
- The theory that common law leads to higher costs, based on high costs across the US, Singapore, the UK, Australia, Canada, India, and Bangladesh. I no longer believe this theory holds up; in the developed world, important edge cases disagree with the theory, including Quebec (expensive) and Israel (about average), and moreover Canadian and Singaporean costs only exploded in the last 15 years.
- The theory that costs are consistent across projects in the same country, especially the same city; I’m pretty sure I brought it up even in the early 2010s, when I was saying Chinese costs seemed pretty average to me, but the starkest formulation is from 2019. This has subsequently been confirmed when thanks to Yinan Yao our knowledge of Chinese costs grew from two lines in Shanghai to more than 5,000 kilometers’ worth of lines across all major Chinese cities.
- The theory that costs in developing countries are higher in ex-colonies than in never-colonized countries (like China and Iran) and distantly-colonized ones (like all of Latin America). As stated, there are counterexamples: I will report on our ongoing research into Arab construction costs, thanks to Anan Maalouf, but so far this is indicating that costs in never-colonized Saudi Arabia are pretty high. Call it half a correct prediction because Saudi Arabia is atypical enough I would not lump it a priori with China, Turkey, Mexico, or Iran.
With all that said, I am not too worried if my theories aren’t all confirmed by finding additional data. The reason is that this is not an experimental science but an observational one with a small, finite amount of data, so it’s much more important to have coherent mechanisms that can lead to actionable changes than to be able to predict every country’s construction costs from partial data.
In this case, the mechanisms posited in the 1.5 theories that do not stand up to additional data seem useful. The colonial theory is that high cultural cringe levels and weak state capacity lead ex-colonies to privatize planning to first-world (or Chinese) consultants, who use methods that are not appropriate for local conditions. On account of that explanation, I kept saying ex ante that I refused to make a prediction regarding Thailand, because it was never colonized but also has much more cultural cringe than China and uses first-world consultants; Thai costs are higher than Chinese ones but lower than ex-colonial ones. Saudi Arabia is similar – for all its bluster about rejecting Western governance norms, it craves first-world acceptance and the trappings of modernity, and extensively uses contractors from more developed countries. So the upshot regarding the importance of domestic state capacity and methods tailored for local urban geography and wages remains useful.
Likewise, the high costs across the Anglosphere remain a useful fact. Even more useful is the history of Singapore and Canada, which only aligned with British and American costs starting in the 2000s. The cost explosion in Singapore, Montreal, Toronto, and to some extent Calgary and Vancouver is a recent event, in accessible English-speaking cities; Stephen Wickens just wrote a long report about the Canadian cost explosion, which is of value in teasing out what happened. Even better, the persistent low costs in Scandinavia, Southern Europe, and South Korea provide ready-made sanity checks in knowing what to look for.
In one sense, I made a critical error that poses a serious threat to the project: I got the timing of the recession wrong. When applying for this grant throughout 2019, my assumption was that the American economy was overheated and would soon experience a demand-side recession, leading to stimulus – but that the contraction would be slow enough that the stimulus would come in 2021. With a jobs program announced in 2021, preliminary versions of our report would already be out, the full report with detailed case studies would be out later that year in time for agencies to request funding, and there would be enough time for agencies to implement our recommendations by the time of actual construction.
This may still happen, but the timeline is much less certain. People are talking about stimulus with infrastructure money now. I can promise a report with some actionable recommendations in 2021, but I can’t promise what costs I can promise, nor can I promise what investment to focus on. Our report centers on metro tunnels, but if there’s another push for high-speed rail then we’ll need to be able to adapt metro-based recommendations to a somewhat different context, in which high American costs may have different roots.
What’s more, based on what everyone knows in the United States, costs are so high there’s no point in planning for more. Maybe New York thinks it can finagle $40 billion in stimulus money; this can do a lot at Nordic costs, but unless New York thinks right now that this is possible, it won’t even try to plan more than a few lines like Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 and Gateway, each costing more than a full order of magnitude more than it would in Scandinavia or Southern Europe.
I am not that worried in the long run. There is ongoing investment in enough of the US for whatever we come up with to be relevant to at least some extent. And here too, a cost comparison with the cheaper parts of Europe would be instructive to many a German rail advocate or civil servant. I don’t expect to be in the situation of an investor who bet everything on a company that went bankrupt, just perhaps in that of one who missed a big stock market rally. Ultimately, don’t worry about me, worry about the virus this year and the unemployment rate of potentially the entire world in the next few years.
MTA Chair Pat Foye and Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, have announced that the subway will close overnight in order to improve subway cleaning. For the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, the subway will close between 1 and 5 every night for disinfection. Ben Kabak has covered this to some extent; I’m going to focus on best industry practices, which do not require a shutdown. There are some good practices in Taipei, which has regular nighttime shutdowns but sterilizes trains during the daytime as well. It appears that the real rub is not cleaning but homelessness – the city and the state are both trying to get homeless people off the subway and onto the street.
How to disinfect a subway system
Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism shared with me what the Taipei MRT plans on doing in response to the virus, depending on how much it affects the system. As soon as there are any domestic cases within Taiwan, the plan says,
a. Sterilize equipment in each station that passengers might frequently come into contact with. (Sterilize once every 8 hours)
b. Carriages: Cleaning and sterilization before the daily operational departure and again when the carriage returns back to the terminal each day.
c. Place hand sanitizer devices at the information counter of the station for public use.
Moreover, if an emergency is declared, then the frequency of cleaning is to increase:
a. Station :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come into contact with at each station. (Sterilize once every 4 hours)
2. Daily disinfection of public station facilities: After operational hours the whole station, including passenger traffic flow areas and facilities, will be disinfected.
b. Carriage :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come in contact with. Sterilize once every 8 hours when the carriage returns to the terminal station.
2. Daily wipe down of entire carriages with disinfectant before each day’s first departure.
3. Once notified by the health authority about any confirmed or suspected case that have traveled on the MRT, intensify the cleaning and disinfection along the route taken by the passenger within 2 hours.
Moreover, the Taipei plan calls for providing all frontline workers with protective equipment, including masks, goggles, and hand sanitizer, as soon as any domestic case of the virus is detected. Moreover, all staff are subject to temperature checks at the start of the day, to prevent sick workers from infecting healthy ones. This way, infection levels among workers can be kept to a minimum, allowing service to proceed without interruption.
It is noteworthy that the frequent cleaning regimen operates during the daytime, and not just overnight. Sterilizing trains every 8 hours means working around their service schedules, disinfecting them during off-peak periods with lower frequency. Taipei has not cut weekday service frequency, only weekend frequency, and the weekday peak-to-base ratio is low, about 1.5 on the Green Line.
With these measures in place, and similar vigilance across Taiwanese society, the country has gone 6 days without any new case of the virus. There is no lockdown and never was one, and Taipei MRT ridership only fell 15-16% on weekdays.
What New York is doing
Foye and Feinberg announced that the subway would close overnight between 1 and 5 am so that trains could be disinfected once per day. Is daily disinfection sufficient? Almost certainly not, given the spread of the virus around the city. Does it take four hours? Of course not, cleaning can be done in minutes. And must it be done at night? Again no, New York has cut so much service that there’s a large fleet of spare trains, making rotating equipment between service and cleaning easy. It’s likely that it is possible to sterilize trains every roundtrip while they wait at the terminal.
The goal here is not about cleanliness. The subway is dirty and getting worse as cleaning staff get sick and can’t come to work, but a program designed to improve the system would look profoundly different. It would equip subway workers with protective gear, especially the cleaners; it would keep running service; it would look for ways to eliminate fomites like the push turnstiles; it would disinfect trains and stations at short intervals.
The homelessness issue
There are serious concerns with homelessness in New York, as in many other cities. This is aided by sensationalist reporting that blames homeless people for any number of problems, playing to middle-class prejudices about visible poverty. As Ben notes, NYPD swept the subway with cops but not social workers. Hotels are empty all over the city, but there is no attempt at using them for either centralized quarantine or extra shelter space. There are existing shelters, but they are unsafe and people who have been unsheltered for a while know this and avoid them for a reason.
New York is a big, expensive, high-inequality city. It has visible poverty, including homelessness. It could offer homeless people housing – empty hotels would do, employing hotel workers to do work that is already done at shelters by overtaxed volunteers. The problem is that many aggrieved people want medieval displays of police power against people who it is okay to be violent toward; they do not want to solve problems. This issue is not unique to New York: in San Francisco, sanisette installations ran into the problem that one stall had people defecating on the floor, leading the city to decide to staff every sanisette 24/7, turning what was designed as a self-cleaning system for high-cost cities for €14,400 a year per unit into a $700,000/year money sink. American cities spend millions in enforcement to avoid spending pennies on social work.
Who is being empowered?
The broader question is whether the subway is dirty because of homeless people or because of inadequate cleaning, poor training for cleaners, lack of protective equipment, etc. The vast majority of dirt one sees on trains has pretty obvious origins in ordinary if antisocial riders: spilled drinks, gum stuck to the floor, overflowing trash cans, wrappers thrown on the tracks. However, it is convenient to blame homeless people for this – they can’t politically fight back, and many law-and-order voters and political operatives relish the sight of a cop dragging someone off the train.
This leads to the question, who is being empowered by blame? Any explanation of why things don’t work empowers someone, and explanations are easier to accept if they empower local political forces that the mainstream pays attention to. For example, if I say costs are high because of union pensions, then this automatically empowers the Manhattan Institute and other anti-union forces in the city; and if I say costs are high because managers micromanage and humiliate workers too much, then this empowers the unions.
The upshot is that blaming flagging subway ridership on homeless people making riders uncomfortable empowers law-and-order voters and middle-class people who dislike seeing visible poverty, both of which are groups that even relatively liberal political operatives pay attention to. In contrast, blaming flagging ridership on technical issues with speed and frequency empowers technocrats, who are usually politically invisible, and when they’re not, this can lead to a clash of authority, as seen in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sidelining of Byford, leading to the latter’s resignation.
This cascades to cleaning. Taipei shows how one can clean trains and stations during service. New York should learn, but that means listening to people who are familiar with Taiwanese practices, and maybe synthesize with other clean Asian systems. Shutdowns that force essential workers onto slow buses and taxis are a terrible policy, but they’re a policy the current leadership does not need to talk to people in a foreign country to implement.