Category: Politics and Society

Consumption Theory and Gentrification

I recently saw an article about location decisions by education in the Netherlands. The article discusses the impact of rail investment on different social classes, and claims that,

A recent study by Teulings et al. (2018) uses microdata to quantify the differences in the willingness to pay for particular locations between the high and low educated (omitting the medium education level) (Figure 2). It shows willingness to pay for the job availability (based on the locally available transport infrastructure to commute to these jobs) and urban amenities such as parks and historic scenery at the location. The highly educated (right panel) are very sensitive to the quality of a location.

The claim is that educated people prefer central cities, in this case Amsterdam, because of their consumption amenities. This is the consumption theory of gentrification, which holds that the process of gentrification is caused by a middle-class taste for urban amenities. However, this theory appears incorrect, on several levels. The references cited in the paper for location decisions do not really bear out consumption theory. Moreover, the history of gentrification strongly suggests that, if consumption amenities are at all involved, then they have been stable for at least a hundred years.

Instead of consumption theory, the best explanation is that location decisions are about jobs. Certain cities have higher production amenities, especially for the middle class, leading the middle class to preferentially move to them to obtain higher-income jobs. The choice of neighborhood is then driven by access to skilled jobs, usually in the CBD but sometimes also in new job clusters. If there’s gentrification, the cause is insufficient housing in closer-in areas, leading to spillover to adjacent neighborhoods.

The references

The internal reference cited for it in the paper, the work of Coen Teulings, Ioulia Ossokina, and Henri de Groot, breaks down willingness to pay higher rents in expensive cities (i.e. Amsterdam) based on job access and several consumption amenities. The paper’s headline numbers superficially bear out consumption theory: table 7 on page 23 says that job availability is only responsible for 38% of low-education people’s variance in willingness to live in expensive cities and 28% of high-education people’s variance; the rest comes from amenities. However, a closer reading suggests that this is not really about consumption amenities.

First, that 28% of middle-class location choice comes from job access does not mean 72% comes from amenities. Observed consumption amenities are only 18% (and only 14% for low-education workers); the rest is unobserved amenities (30%), which are a residual rather than any identified amenities, and covariances between jobs and amenities.

Moreover, the consumption amenities listed are proximity to restaurants, monuments, parks, and a university. Is a university really a consumption amenity for the middle class? This is unlikely. Graduates don’t really have the same consumption basket as students. Instead, what’s more likely is that universities provide skilled employment for a particular set of high-education workers (namely, academics and other researchers), who are willing to pay extra to be near work; academic job markets are so specialized that access to non-academic high-education work isn’t as important. Of course, universities also have extensive working-class employment, but a university janitor can get a similar job at a non-academic environment, and therefore has no reason to locate specifically near a university rather than another source of work, such as a hospital or office building.

Finally, there is a second reference in the article, reinforcing its claims about location decisions with American data. This is a paper by David Albouy, Gabriel Ehrlich, and Yingyi Liu. Albouy, Ehrlich, and Liu’s text does not endorse consumption theory – on the contrary, their discussion blames “policies and regulations that raise rents by creating artificial shortages in housing supply” (pp. 28-29). On the question of consumption theory, the results of the study are inconclusive. They do not look directly at amenities that critics of gentrification typically implicate in causing the middle class to displace the poor; the amenities they consider include mild climate, clean air, and a sea view.

The history of gentrification

The word “gentrification” was coined in 1964 to describe the process in Islington. However, Stephen Smith has argued from looking at historical rents that the process goes much further back. He finds evidence of gentrification in Greenwich Village in the 1910s and 20s. Already then, the middle class was beginning to move into the Village, previously a working-class district. Jane Jacobs moved in in 1935. She was income-poor, as were many other people in the Depression, but on any marker of class, she was solidly comfortable: her father was a doctor, she herself was a high school graduate and had some college education at a time when most Americans had never gone to high school, and her job was in journalism, at the time a middle-class career path.

In the 1950s and 60s, this process continued in full swing, in the Village and other inner neighborhoods of New York, such as the Upper West Side, which unlike the Upper East Side was originally rowdy (West Side Story is set there). Developers were building taller buildings, to Jacobs’ consternation, to house the growing middle-class demand.

I focus on early gentrification in New York and not London, because in this era, the American middle class was fleeing cities. In the 1950s New York was poorer than its suburbs. The wealthiest strata of the city had decamped to Westchester and Fairfield Counties starting in the 1910s and 20s (in 1930 Westchester had 520,000 people, more than half of today’s level, and more than Long Island). Then in the 1950s and 60s this process spread to the entire white middle class, causing a population surge on Long Island, in New Jersey, and in the parts of Westchester and Fairfield that the rich hadn’t already settled in. Moreover, companies were moving out of city centers, often to be closer to the CEO’s home, including General Electric (which moved to the town of Fairfield in 1974) and IBM (which moved to Armonk in 1964). Middle-class taste at the time was firmly suburban.

A better explanation for the early history of gentrification in New York concerns the subway. Before the subway opened, the working class had to live right next to the Lower Manhattan CBD and commute on foot. The els did provide some options for living farther uptown, but they were slow and noisy (they were only electrified around the time the subway opened) and until the early 20th century the working class could not afford the 5-cent fare. This led to extreme levels of overcrowding just outside the CBD, most infamously on the Lower East Side. In 1900, most of Manhattan was open to the middle class but only the Lower East and West Sides were open to the working class. By 1920, the fast subway and the 5-cent fare (held down despite post-WW1 inflation) made all of Manhattan open to everyone, making it easier for the middle class to outbid the poor for housing in the Village.

Production theory

The paper cited at the beginning of this post does not profess consumption theory; it claims that both production and consumption amenities explain gentrification. However, the actual work within the paper leans heavily toward production. It looks at the effect of opening a new rail line from the suburbs to Amsterdam, and finds that this leads to middle-class displacement of lower-education residents, who have less use for the train service. This is also consistent with what working-class residents of some Parisian banlieues think: a newspaper article I can no longer find cites people within Seine-Saint-Denis complaining that all Grand Paris Express will do is raise their rents.

In addition to being more consistent with Dutch and American evidence and American history, production theory benefits from not relying on special local explanations for a global trend. A process that began at similar development levels in the US and Western Europe is unlikely to be about American race relations. Even Tokyo is seeing gentrification in the sense that industrial waterfront areas are redeveloped, if not in the sense of mass displacement seen in New York, London, and other cities with stricter zoning.

There is no burning middle-class desire to live near poor people – quite the opposite, in fact. When the middle class does begin gentrifying a neighborhood, it’s because it offers convenient access to jobs. The same is true on the level of an entire city: San Francisco did not magically become a nicer place to live in when the current tech boom began – if anything, rising rents have led to a homelessness problem, which makes professional workers uncomfortable. A city that wishes to forestall gentrification will make it easy to build housing in the areas with the best job access, in order to encourage people to have short commutes rather than seeking increasingly marginal neighborhoods to move to.

Do Rich and Poor People Work in Different Neighborhoods?

There are workplaces where most employees are high-income, for example office towers (or office parks) hosting tech firms, law firms, or banks. There are workplaces where most employees are working-class, for example factories, warehouses, and farms. Does this lead to a difference in commuting patterns by class? I fired up OnTheMap two days ago and investigated. This is American data, so it stratifies workers by income, education, industry, or race rather than by job class. I generated maps for New York and saw the following:

There are three income classes available, and I looked at the bottom and top ones, but the middle one, still skewed toward the working class, looks the same as the bottom class. The biggest observation is that Midtown is dominant regardless of income, but is more dominant for middle-class workers (more than $40,000 a year) than for low-income ones (up to $15,000, or for that matter $15,000-40,000).

The colors are relative, and the deepest shade of blue represents much more density for middle-class workers, even taking into account the fact that they outnumber under-$15,000 workers almost four to one. Among the lowest-income workers we see more work on Queens Boulevard and in Williamsburg, Flushing, and the Hub, but these remain tertiary workplaces at most. The only place outside Midtown, Lower Manhattan, or Downtown Brooklyn (which includes all city workers in Brooklyn due to how the tool works, so it looks denser than it is) that has even the third out of five colors for low-income workers is Columbia, where the low-income job density is one-third that of Midtown, and where there is also a concentration of middle-class workers.

The same pattern – job centers are basically the same, but there’s more concentration within the CBD for the rich – also appears if we look at individual neighborhoods. Here is the Upper East Side versus East Harlem:

I chose these two neighborhoods to compare because they exhibit very large differences in average income and are on the same subway line. Potentially there could be a difference between where East Siders and West Siders work due to the difficulty of crosstown commuting, so I thought it would be best to compare different socioeconomic classes of people on the same line. With the East Side-only restriction, we see two Uptown job centers eclipse Columbia: Weill-Cornell Medical Center in Lenox Hill at the southeast corner of the Upper East Side, and Mount Sinai Hospital at the northwest corner.

One place where there is a bigger difference is the definition of Midtown. Looking at the general job distribution I’d always defined Midtown to range between 34th and 59th Street. However, there are noticeable differences by income:

For the middle class, Midtown ranges from 34th to 57th Street and peaks around 47th. For the lowest-income workers, it ranges from 28th to 49th and peaks in the high 30s. My best explanation for this is that Midtown South and Union Square are more retail hubs than office hubs, featuring department stores and shopping centers, where the rich spend money rather than earning it.

In a deindustrialized country like the US or France, the working class no longer works in manufacturing or logistics. There are a lot of truck drivers today – 3.5 million in the US – but in 1920 the American railroad industry peaked at 2.1 million employees (source, PDF-p. 15), nine times today’s total, in a country with one third the population it has today and much less mobility. Manufacturing has plummeted as a share of employment, and is decreasing even in industrial exporters like Germany and Sweden. Instead, most poor people work at places that also employ many high-skill, high-income workers, such as hospitals and universities, or at places where they serve high-income consumption, such as retail and airports.

Since the working class works right next to the middle class, the nature of bosses’ demands of workers has also changed. Low-skill works now involves far more emotional labor; in Singapore, which makes the modern-day boss-worker relationships more explicit than the Anglosphere proper, there are signs all over the airport reminding workers to smile more. Nobody cares if auto workers smile, but they’re no longer a large fraction of the working class.

With the working class employed right next to the middle class, there is also less difference in commuting. For the most part, the same transportation services that serve middle-class jobs also serve working-class jobs and vice versa. This remains true even across racially segregated communities. The patterns of white New York employment are similar to those of middle-class New York employment, and those of black, Hispanic, and Asian employment are similar to those of the working class, with small differences (Asians are somewhat more concentrated in Flushing, and blacks in Downtown Brooklyn, reflecting the fact that blacks are overrepresented in public employment in the US and all city workers in Brooklyn are counted at Court Square).

This is true provided that opportunities for transportation are available without class segregation. This is not the situation in New York today. Commuter rail actually serves working-class jobs better than middle-class jobs, since Penn Station is closer to the department stores of 34th Street than to the office towers in the 50s. However, it’s priced for the middle class, forcing the working class to take slower buses and subway trains.

When I posted the above maps on Twitter, Stephen Smith chimed in saying that, look, the poor are less likely to work in the CBD than the middle class, so everywhere-to-everywhere public transportation is especially useful for them. While Stephen’s conclusion is correct, it is not supported by this specific data. In the $40,000 and up category, 57% of city jobs are in Manhattan south of 60th Street, compared with 37% in the $15,000-40,000 and under-$15,000 categories. It’s a noticeable difference, but not an enormous one. The reason Stephen is correct about how rides crosstown transit is different: people who can afford cars are very likely to drive if the transit option is not good (which it isn’t today), whereas people who can’t are stuck riding slow crosstown buses; in contrast, for CBD-bound commutes, the subway and commuter rail work reasonably well (especially at rush hour) and driving is awful.

Instead of trying to look specifically at low-income and middle- and high-income job centers, it’s better to just plan transit based on general commute patterns, and let anyone take any train or bus. This doesn’t mean business as usual, since it requires transitioning to full fare integration. Nor does this mean ignoring residential segregation by income, which in some cases can lead to transit segregation even in the face of fare integration (for example, the crosstown buses between the Upper East Side and Upper West Side have mostly white, mostly middle-class riders). Finally, this doesn’t mean relying on middle-class transit use patterns as a universal use case, since the middle class drives in the off-hours or to off-CBD locations; it means that relying on middle-class transportation needs could be reasonable. It just means that the rich and poor have substantially the same destinations.

An even bigger implication relates to questions of redevelopment. There have been periodic complaints from the left about gentrification of jobs, in which working-class job sites are turned over to high-end office and retail complexes. For example, Canary Wharf used to be the West India Docks. In New York, Jane Jacobs’ last piece of writing before she died was a criticism of Greenpoint rezoning, in which she specifically talked up the importance of keeping industrial jobs for the working class. But since the big deindustrialization wave, developments brought about by urban renewal, gentrification, and industrial redevelopment have not had any bias against providing employment for the poor. It’s not the factory jobs that the unionized working class still culturally defines itself by, but it’s industries that are hungry for low-skill work, and in many cases are serious target of unionization drives (such as universities).

Buses in Brooklyn: Frequency is Freedom, but 15 Minutes isn’t Frequency

I’ve recently started working part-time on a project for the Marron Institute at NYU about bus restructuring in Brooklyn; at the end of this summer, I expect to release a proposal for service upgrades and a new map. I’m working on this with Marron scholar Eric Goldwyn, who is funded by the TWU, which is worried that ridership collapse may lead to service cuts and job losses, but I’m funded directly by Marron and not by the union.

Some of what’s likely to appear in the final report should be familiar to regular readers of this blog, or of Human Transit, or of the work TransitCenter has been doing. As I wrote in Curbed earlier this year, bus operating costs in New York are unusually high because the buses are slow, as the main operating costs of buses scale with service-hours and not service-km. Thus, it’s important to speed up the buses, which allows either providing higher frequency at the same cost or the same frequency at lower cost. A bus speedup should include systemwide off-board fare collection and all-door boarding (common in the German-speaking world but also in San Francisco), wider stop spacing, dedicated lanes wherever there is room, and signal priority at intersections; the TWU is an enthusiastic proponent of off-board fare collection, for reasons of driver safety rather than bus speed.

While bus speedups are critical, their impact is not as Earth-shattering as it might appear on paper. New York’s SBS routes have all of the above features except signal priority, and do save considerable time, but are still slow city buses at the end of the day. Brooklyn has two SBS routes: the B44 on Nostrand, averaging 15 km/h (local B44: 11.3), and the B46 on Utica, averaging 13.7 (local B46 on the shared stretch: 10.8). Their speed premiums over the local routes are toward the high end citywide, but are still 30%, not the 200% speed premium the subway enjoys. Moreover, the speed premium over non-SBS limited routes is 15-20%; put another way, between a third and a half of the speed premium comes purely from skipping some stops.

I mentioned in my last post that I met Carlos Daganzo at Berkeley. Daganzo was responsible for the Barcelona bus redesign, Nova Xarxa; you can read some details on Human Transit and follow links to the papers from there. The guiding principles, based on my conversation with Daganzo and on reading his papers on the subject, are,

  • Barcelona has high, relatively uniform density of people and jobs, so there’s no need for buses to hit one CBD. Brooklyn has about the same average residential density as Barcelona, but has a prominent CBD at one corner, but as this CBD is amply served by the subway, it’s fine for buses to form a mesh within the subway’s gaps.
  • Nova Xarxa involved widening the stop spacing in Barcelona from less than 200 meters to three stops per km, or a stop every 300-350 meters; Daganzo recommends even wider stop spacing.
  • While Barcelona’s street network is strictly gridded, the buses don’t run straight along the grid, but rather detour to serve key destinations such as metro stops. This is an important consideration for Brooklyn, where there are several distinct grids, and where subway stops don’t always serve the same cross street, unlike in Manhattan, where crosstown routes on most two-way streets are assured to intersect every north-south subway line.
  • The percentage of transfers skyrocketed after the network was implemented, standing at 26% at the end of 2015, with the model predicting eventual growth to 44%, up from 11% before the redesign.
  • The network was simplified to have 28 trunk routes, the least frequent running every 8 minutes off-peak.

The high off-peak frequency in Barcelona is a notable departure from Jarrett Walker’s American network redesigns; the evidence in Houston appears mixed – ridership is about flat, compared with declines elsewhere in the country – but the percentage of transfers does not seem to have risen. Jarrett says in his book that having a bus come every 10 minutes means “almost show-up-and-go frequency” with no need to look at schedules, but his work in Houston and more recently in San Jose involves routes running every 15 minutes.

Moreover, unreliable traffic in these car-dominated cities, in which giving buses dedicated lanes is politically too difficult, means that the buses can’t reliably run on a schedule, so the buses do not run on a clockface schedule, instead aiming to maintain relatively even headways. (In contrast, in Vancouver, a less congested street network, with priority for all traffic on the east-west main streets on the West Side, ensures that the buses on Broadway and 4th Avenue do run on a fixed schedule, and the 4th Avenue buses have a 12-minute takt that I still remember four years after having left the city.)

I’ve talked about the importance of radial networks in my posts about scale-variant transit. I specifically mentioned the problem with the 15-minute standard as too loose; given a choice between an untimed 15-minute network and a timed 30-minute network, the latter may well be more flexible. However, if the buses come every 5 minutes, the situation changes profoundly. Daganzo’s ridership models have no transfer penalty or waiting penalty, since the buses come so frequently. The models the MTA uses in New York have a linear penalty, with passengers perceiving waiting or transferring time on the subway as equivalent to 1.75 times in-motion time; bus waiting is likely to be worse, since bus stops are exposed to the elements, but if the average wait time is 2.5 minutes then even with a hefty penalty it’s secondary to in-vehicle travel time (about 18 minutes on the average unlinked bus trip in New York).

Unfortunately, that high frequently does not exist on even a single bus line in Brooklyn. Here is a table I created from NYCT ridership figures and timetables, listing peak, reverse-peak, and midday frequencies. Five routes have better than 10-minute midday frequency: the B12, the B6 and B35 limited buses, and the B44 and B46 SBSes, running every 7, 7.5, 8, 8, and 6 minutes respectively. In addition, the B41 limited and B103 have a bus every 9 and 7.5 minutes respectively on their trunks, but the B41 branches on its outer end with 18-minute frequencies per branch and the B103 short-turns half the buses. Another 14 routes run every 10 minutes off-peak, counting locals and limiteds separately.

The problem comes from the split into local and limited runs on the busiest buses. The mixture of stopping patterns makes it impossible to have even headways; at the limited stops, the expected headway in the worst case is that of the more frequent of the two routes, often about 10 minutes. The average ridership-weighted speed of Brooklyn buses is 10.75 km/h. An able-bodied passenger walking at 6 km/h with a 10-minute head start over a bus can walk 2.25 km before being overtaken, which can easily grow to 3 km taking into account walking time to and from bus stops. To prevent such situations, it’s important to run buses much more frequently than every 10 minutes, with consistent stopping patterns.

This does not mean that NYCT should stop running limited buses. On the contrary: it should stop running locals. The SBS stop spacing, every 800 meters on the B44 and B46, is too wide, missing some crossing buses such as the B100 (see map). However, the spacing on the B35 limited is every 400 meters, enough to hit crossing buses even when they run on one-way pairs on widely-spaced avenues. The question of how much time is saved by skipping a stop is difficult – not only do different Brooklyn buses give different answers, all lower than in Manhattan, but also the B35 gives different answers in different directions. A time cost of 30 seconds per stop appears like a good placeholder, but is at the higher end for Brooklyn.

The question of how many stops to add to SBS on the B44 and B46 has several potential answers, at the tight end going down to 400 meters between stops. At 400 meters between stops, the B44 would average 13 km/h and the B46 12 km/h. At the wide end, the B44 and B46 would gain stops at major intersections: on the B44 this means Avenue Z, R, J, Beverly, Eastern Parkway, Dean, Halsey, and Myrtle, for an average interstation of 570 meters and an average speed of 14 km/h, and on the B46 this means Avenue U, Fillmore, St. John’s, and Dean, for an average interstation of 610 meters an average speed of 13 km/h. Consolidating all buses into the same stopping pattern permits about a bus every 2.5 minutes peak and every 4 minutes off-peak on both routes.

On the other routes, consolidating local and limited routes required tradeoffs and cannibalizing some peak frequency to serve the off-peak. While it may seem dangerous to limit peak capacity, there are two big banks that can be used to boost off-peak frequency: time savings from faster trips, and greater regularity from consolidating stop patterns. The B82 is an extremely peaky route, running 7 limited and 10 local buses at the peak and just 6 buses (all local) for a four-hour midday period; but there is a prolonged afternoon shoulder starting shortly after noon with another 6 limited buses. Some peak buses have to be more crowded than others just because of schedule irregularity coming from having two distinct stop patterns. Consolidating to about 15 buses per hour peak and 10 off-peak, cannibalizing some frequency from the peak and some from the shoulders, should be about neutral on service-hours without any additional increase in speed.

The sixth post on this blog, in 2011, linked to frequent maps of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Bronx buses, using a 10-minute standard. There has been some movement in the top buses since 2011 – for one, the B41 route, once in the top 10 citywide, has crashed and is now 16th – but not so much that the old map is obsolete. A good place to start would be to get the top routes from a 10-minute standard to a 6-minute standard or better, using speed increases, rationalization of the edges of the network, and cannibalization of weak or subway-duplicating buses to boost frequency.

Joe Lhota Admits Defrauding the Public About Costs

The Wall Street Journal is reporting a bombshell story about New York’s subway station renovation program. The MTA had a budget of $936 million for renovating 32 subway stations, but nearly the entire budget is exhausted after the MTA has spent it on only 19 stations. These renovations do not include accessibility, which New York is lagging on. I’m interviewing people in the disability rights community about New York’s problems in this area, but the smoking gun about Lhota is not that issue, on which he is no worse than anyone else. Rather, it’s that Lhota hid the fact of the cost overrun from the MTA board. Per the Journal:

On Monday, Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner who represents New York City, said the program was “ill-conceived,” and that he is glad it has come to an end.

“I don’t know when the MTA management realized that the program had run out of money but it would’ve been helpful to have informed the board when this matter was under discussion,” he said.

Mr. Lhota said he was aware of the increased costs last year, but he chose not to mention it until now. “I didn’t think it was relevant to the debate,” he said.

An alternative way to phrase Lhota’s own words is that he is concealing critical information from the public relevant to public spending priorities. In other words, he is defrauding the public when it comes to costs. Previously he had been merely making excuses for high construction costs (e.g. saying New York, founded in the 17th century, is old, and thus naturally has higher costs than cities founded in the Middle Ages or even in Antiquity). But now it turns out that he’s not only trying to deflect criticism, but is actively putting obstacles in front of board members, journalists, and ordinary citizens who want to discuss MTA capital expansion.

Absent democratic mechanisms for oversight of the state, the state will not engage in cost-effective projects. We know this, because the part of public policy most insulated from public criticism, the military and security in general, is the most bloated. The US is wasting a trillion and a half dollars on the F-35, and allies like Israel are wasting money buying this jet from the US military industry. It’s hard to question the costs when overconfident military commanders say “this is necessary for national security.” The intelligence community is even worse, with self-serving slogans like “our successes are private and our failures are public.”

Evidently, facing criticism over costs, domestic agencies portray their projects as necessary rather than useful, hence the weak claims that Gateway is required to avoid shutting down rail service across the Hudson. My specific criticism of the argument that Gateway is required is that the study recommending long-term shutdowns of the existing tunnels did not even attempt to provide a comparative cost of maintaining the tunnels on nights and weekends as is done today. An informed public can more easily demand an end to bad investments, and specific interest groups can highlight how they are harmed by bad spending: the Journal article mentions disability rights advocates demanding that the MTA instead spend money on putting elevators at stations to make them accessible to people in wheelchairs.

The station renovations are especially at risk of being canceled if an informed public finds their costs offensive. The benefits include better maintenance standards, but those are almost self-evidently useful but not necessary. Activists can complain about costs or demand that the money be spent elsewhere.

In Astoria, activists complain that the MTA is renovating stations at a cost of $40 million per station without even installing elevators for accessibility. In London, the cost of the Step-Free Access program is £200 million for 13 stations, or about $20 million per station, and in Paris, where only Metro Line 14 and the RER A and B are accessible, disability rights activists estimate the cost of making the remaining 300 stations accessible at €4-6 billion. This is profoundly different from the situation with tunneling costs, where London has a large premium over Paris and New York has a large premium over London. It is likely that New York can install elevators at the same cost of its top two European peers if it puts its mind to it.

However, such investments are not possible under the current leadership. If a hack like Lhota stays in charge of the MTA, there is not going to be transparency about contracting and about costs, which means that small overruns can blow out of proportion before anyone notices. In such an environment, high costs are not surprising. If New York State is interested in good, cost-effective transit, it will get rid of Lhota and replace him with an experienced transit manager with a good history regarding cost control and respect for the democratic process.

New York-Area Governments to Form a Coordinated Transportation Planning Agency

Governors Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and Phil Murphy (D-NJ) announced that they would cooperate to form a Lower Hudson Transportation Association, or LHTA, to supersede what they described as antiquated 20th-century thinking and bring the region’s transportation into the 21st century. LHTA would absorb the transportation functions of Port Authority, which senior New York state officials speaking on condition of anonymity called “irredeemably corrupt,” and coordinate planning across the region. Negotiations with the state of Connecticut are ongoing; according to planners in New Jersey, the timing for the announcement was intended to reassure people that despite the lack of federal funding for Gateway, a lower-cost modified version of the project would go forward.

But the first order of business for LHTA is not Gateway. The governors’ announcement mentioned that LHTA would begin by integrating the schedules and fares throughout the region. By 2019, passengers will be able to transfer between the New York City Subway and PATH for free, and connect from the subway to the AirTrain JFK paying only incremental fare. Engineering studies for removing the false walls between PATH and F and M subway platforms are about to begin.

Commuter rail fare integration is also on the table. Currently, the fare on the subway is a flat $2.75. On commuter rail, it is higher even within New York City: a trip between Jamaica Station and New York Penn Station, both served by the E line of the subway, is $10.25 peak or $7.50 off-peak on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR). The governors announced that they would follow the lead of European transportation associations, such as Ile-de-France Mobilités in Paris, and eliminate this discrepancy under LHTA governance, which also includes revenue sharing across agencies. Detailed studies are ongoing, but in 2019, LHTA will cut commuter rail fares within New York City and several inner cities within New Jersey, including Newark, to be the same as the subway fare, with free transfers.

Simultaneously, LHTA will develop a plan for schedule integration, coordinating New Jersey Transit, the LIRR, Metro-North, and suburban bus agencies. In order to make it easier for suburban passengers to reach commuter rail stations, the suburban buses will be timed to just meet the commuter trains, with a single ticket valid for the entire journey. Today most passengers in the suburbs drive to the commuter rail stations, but the most desirable park-and-rides are full. Moreover, the states would like to redevelop some of the park-and-rides as transit-oriented development, building dense housing and retail right next to the stations in order to encourage more ridership.

Moreover, the LIRR and New Jersey Transit’s commuter trains currently stub-end at Penn Station in opposite directions. LHTA is studying French and German models for through-running, in which trains from one suburb run through to the other instead of terminating at city center. Planners within several agencies explain that the systems on the Long Island and New Jersey side are currently incompatible – for example, LIRR trains are electrified with a third rail whereas New Jersey Transit trains are electrified with high-voltage catenary – but reorganizing these systems for compatibility can be done in a few years, well before the Gateway project opens.

In response to a question about the cost of this reorganization, one of the planners cited the Swiss slogan, “electronics before concrete.” Per the planner, electronics include systems, electrification, and software, all of which are quite cheap to install, whereas pouring concrete on new tunnels and viaducts is costly. The planner gave the example of resignaling on the subway: the New York Times pegged the cost of modernizing subway signals at $20 billion, and this could increase capacity on most lines by 25 to 50 percent. But the cost of building the entire subway from scratch at today’s costs in New York is likely to run up to $200 billion.

But while the immediate priorities involve fare and schedule integration, LHTA’s main focus is the Gateway project. There are only two commuter rail tracks between New Jersey and Penn Station, and they are full, running a train every 2.5 minutes at rush hour. The Gateway project would add two more tracks, doubling capacity. The currently projected cost for the tunnel is $13 billion, but sources within New York said that this number can be brought down significantly through better coordination between the agencies involved. This way, it could be funded entirely out of local and state contributions, which add up to $5.5 billion. When pressed on this matter, officials and planners refused to say outright whether they expect $5.5 billion to be enough to cover the tunnel, but some made remarks suggesting it would be plausible.

Previous estimates for the costs of Gateway adding up to $30 billion include substantial extra scope that is not necessary. Sources on both sides of the Hudson report that the main impetus for the formation of LHTA was to coordinate schedules in a way that would make this extra scope no longer necessary. “With last decade’s ARC, there was a cavern under Penn Station to let trains reverse direction and go back to New Jersey,” explains one of the planners; ARC was a separate attempt to add tracks to the Hudson rail crossing to Penn Station, which Republican Governor Chris Christie canceled in 2010 shortly after his election. “With Gateway, there was the plan for Penn Station South, condemning an entire Manhattan block for the station for $7 billion. With the plans we’re developing with LHTA we don’t need either Penn South or a cavern to let trains run between stations.”

Moreover, some planners suggested reactivating plans to connect Penn Station and Grand Central as part of Gateway. They refused to name a cost estimate, but suggested that at the low end it could be funded out of already-committed state money. Under this plan, there would be through-running between not just New Jersey Transit and the LIRR but also Metro-North, serving the northern suburbs of New York and Connecticut. Sources at the Connecticut Department of Transportation said they are studying the plan and have reservations but are overall positive about it, matching the reports of sources within New York, who believe that Connecticut DOT will join LHTA within six months.

Officials are optimistic about the effects of LHTA on the region both privately and publicly. The joint press release referred to the metro area as “a single region, in which decisions made in far apart areas of New York nonetheless affect people in New Jersey and vice versa.” Planners in both states cited examples of friends and family in the other state who they would visit more often if transportation options were better. With better regional rail integration, they said, people would take more trips, improving regional connectivity, and take fewer trips by car, reducing traffic congestion and pollution.

New Hudson Tunnels Are Canceled. Again.

Amtrak’s Gateway project, spending $30 billion on new tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station, just got its federal funding yanked. Previously the agreement was to split funding as 25% New York, 25% New Jersey, 50% federal; the states had committed to $5.5 billion, which with a federal match would build the bare tunnels but not some of the ancillary infrastructure (some useful, some not).

When Chris Christie canceled ARC in 2010, then estimated at $10-13 billion, I cheered. I linked to a YouTube video of the song Celebration in Aaron Renn‘s comments. ARC was a bad project, and at the beginning Gateway seemed better, in the sense that it connected the new tunnels to the existing station tracks and not to a deep cavern. But some elements (namely, Penn Station South) were questionable from the start, and the cost estimate was even then higher than that of ARC, which I attributed to both Amtrak’s incompetence and likely cost overruns on ARC independent of who managed it.

But I’m of two minds about to what extent good transit advocates should cheer Gateway’s impending demise. The argument for cheering is a straightforward cost-benefit calculation. The extra ridership coming from Gateway absent regional rail modernization is probably around 170,000 per weekday, a first-order estimate based on doubling current New Jersey Transit ridership into Penn Station. At $40,000 per weekday rider, this justifies $7 billion in construction costs, maybe a little more if Gateway makes it cheaper to do maintenance on the old tunnels. Gateway is $30 billion, so the cost is too high and the tunnel should not be built.

Moreover, it’s difficult to raise the benefits of Gateway using regional rail modernization. On the New Jersey side, population density thins fast, so the benefits of regional rail that do not rely on through-running (high frequency, fare integration, etc.) are limited. The main benefits require through-running, to improve access on Newark-Queens and other through-Manhattan origin-destination pairs. Gateway doesn’t include provisions for through-running – Penn Station South involves demolishing a Manhattan block to add terminal tracks. Even within the existing Penn Station footprint, constructing a new tunnel eastward to allow through-running becomes much harder if the New Jersey Transit tracks have heavy terminating traffic, which means Gateway would make future through-running tunnels more expensive.

But on the other hand, the bare tunnels are not a bad project in the sense of building along the wrong alignment or using the wrong techniques. They’re just extremely expensive: counting minor shoring up on the old tunnels, they cost $13 billion for 5 km of tunnel. Moreover, sequencing Gateway to start with the tunnels alone allows dropping Penn South, and might make it possible to add a new tunnel for through-running mid-project. So it’s really a question of how to reduce costs.

The underground tunneling portion of Second Avenue Subway is $150 million per km, and that of East Side Access is $200 million (link, PDF-p. 7). Both figures exclude systems, which add $110 million per km on Second Avenue Subway, and overheads, which add 37%. These are all high figures – in Paris tunneling is $90 million per km, systems $35 million, and overhead a premium of 18% – but added up they remain affordable. A station-free tunnel should cost $350 million per km, which has implications to the cost of connecting Penn Station with Grand Central. Gateway is instead around $2 billion per km.

Is Gateway expensive because it’s underwater? The answer is probably negative. Gateway is only one third underwater. If its underwater character alone justifies a factor of six cost premium over Second Avenue Subway, then other underwater tunnels should also exhibit very high costs by local standards. There aren’t a lot of examples of urban rail tunnels going under a body of water as wide as the Hudson, but there are enough to know that there is not such a large cost premium.

In the 1960s, one source, giving construction costs per track-foot, finds that the Transbay Tube cost 40% more than the bored segments of BART; including systems and overheads, which the source excludes, BART’s history gives a cost of $180 million, equivalent to $1.38 billion today, or $230 million per km. The Transbay Tube is an immersed tube and not a bored tunnel, and immersed tubes are overall cheaper, but a report by Transport Scotland says on p. 12 that immersed tubes actually cost more per linear meter and are only overall cheaper because they require shorter approaches, which suggests their overall cost advantage is small.

Today, Stockholm is extending the T-bana outward in three direction. A cost breakdown per line extension is available: excluding the depot and rolling stock, the suburban tunnel to Barkarby is $100 million per km, the outer-urban tunnel to Arenastaden in Solna is $138 million per km, and the part-inner urban, part-suburban tunnel to Nacka is $150 million per km. The tunnel to Nacka is a total of 11.5 km, of which about 1 is underwater, broken down into chunks using Skeppsholmen, with the longest continuous underwater segment about 650 meters long. A 9% underwater line with 9% cost premium over an underground line is not by itself proof of much, but it does indicate that the underwater premium is most likely low.

Based on the suggestive evidence of BART and the T-bana, proposing that bare Hudson tunnels should cost about $2-2.5 billion is not preposterous. With an onward connection to Grand Central, the total cost should be $2.5-3 billion. Note that this cost figure does not assume that New York can build anything as cheaply as Stockholm, only that it can build Gateway for the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway. The project management does not have to be good – it merely has to be as bad as that of Second Avenue Subway, rather than far worse, most likely due to the influence of Amtrak.

The best scenario coming out of canceling Gateway is to attempt a third tunnel project, this time under a government agency that is not poisoned by the existing problems of either Amtrak or Port Authority. The MTA could potentially do it; among the agencies building things in the New York area it seems by far the least incompetent.

If Gateway stays as is, just without federal funding, then the solution is for Amtrak to invest in its own project management capacity. The cost of the Green Line Extension in Boston was reduced from $3 billion to $2.3 billion, of which only $1.1 billion is actual construction and the rest is a combination of equipment and sunk cost on the botched start of the project; MBTA insiders attribute this to the hiring of a new, more experienced project manager. If Gateway can be built for even the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway, then the existing state commitments are enough to build it to Grand Central and still have about half the budget left for additional tunnels.

Urbanism and Standards of Respectability

Alex Baca wrote a thread on Twitter a week ago, talking about cities and normativity. The key tweet is,

The discourse about ~cities~ is, to me, a big fight against a normative, hegemonic, mostly white, mostly straight dominant culture, which has very clearly not made physical space for people who don’t fit that profile. It sucks, and we’re seeing the effects.

A few days later, I saw an unrelated meme, attacking Scott Wiener, the state senator representing San Francisco, who supports the YIMBY movement and introduced a zoning preemption bill that would permit mid-rise construction and abolish parking minimums near public transit. The meme consisted of two photoshops:

My first reaction to seeing the first picture was “I live in a building just like this.” I lived adjacent to buildings like the ones in the second picture in Singapore (where they’re actually taller) and the French Riviera. I’d already been thinking of different standards of middle-class respectability, in large part thanks to Alex’s thread, but the memes crystallized this so perfectly.

There’s a certain American standard of middle-class normality. A detached house for a nuclear family, with a backyard for the children to play in, and a garage that fits a car per adult. A school that has as few black students as possible without making the white middle class feel too guilty. Social engagements and hobbies that are so common, like a knitting circle, that a suburb of 10,000 can support a group. Everything else is deviant and embarrassing.

This is not the only middle-class respectability standard out there. There’s a competing standard, common in countries without a history of white flight. In cities with good transit, like Stockholm and Paris, generations can grow up and live in the city in apartment buildings and not own cars. Car ownership is still higher in richer areas – transit ridership is very far from universal in Paris, even intra muros – but it’s not mandatory. Detached housing is also less common even among the most comfortable segments of the middle class. The Singaporean dream is to own a car and live in a condo. The Israeli dream always includes a car but runs the gamut on density, from detached houses through mid-rises to high-rise condos in Tel Aviv.

Academia has lower car ownership than other professions of equivalent income, but still exhibits the same difference in mentality. My former postdoc advisor at KTH, a tenured professor, biked to work. At my last math conference, in Basel, one professor complained that when they tried biking to work when on sabbatical at the University of Michigan they got strange looks from the rest of the department. “Ann Arbor is a left-wing city and they still drive,” the professor said. In the United States, math postdocs usually don’t own cars but tenured professors do and often live in the suburbs, even at Columbia.

New York is supposed to have good transit and urban amenities, but for the most part the middle class treats it as part of a life cycle in which families live in the suburbs, rather than as a stable place. The city’s poverty rate is 20.3% per the 2012-6 American Community Survey, but among children age 5-17 it’s 29.3% (and among under-5 children it’s 27.7%). In my largely middle-class American social circle there are a number of New Yorkers, but also a number of people whose parents moved from New York to segregated suburbs when they were born or when they were about to start school. Even on the level of urban layout, there’s a stereotype that the city is not a good place to raise a family, e.g. because the apartments are too small (in fact they’re larger than Parisian ones).

It’s not just a matter of different tastes – some people think respectability means the Mad Men lifestyle, some think it means living in a walkable city. The walkable city is capable of containing more than one standard of respectability, because it arranges itself to let people access more potential friends, who could form different social networks. In theory it’s possible to drive an hour in some suburbs and meet many people, but in practice it’s uncommon, for two reasons. First, it requires one car per adult, which is expensive and produces class stratification even in social groups that could be cross-class. And second, in practice the social identity of suburbs in the Northern US is local more than regional – for example, they tend to have smaller, more local schools.

In theory, conservative lifestyles could also be more supported in cities. Haredi Jews are very urban: they need certain community amenities like a kosher supermarket and a mikveh and have to live within walking distance of synagogue; when they suburbanize, it’s en bloc, like the Satmar move to Kiryas Joel or master-planned Haredi cities in Israel, often in the settlements.

In practice, this doesn’t happen. Haredi Jews are notable in being an oppressed minority in Israel as well as around New York. But traditional groups that view themselves as part of the majority end up wanting everyone to live like they do. When the Progressive Movement created the idea of suburbia around 1900, it came out of an explicit desire to assimilate immigrants into what it viewed as proper American values. The Historic American Engineering Record gives background about the politics of the subway both before and after construction. The point of suburbia from the start was to make it impossible to form any culture except the dominant WASP culture.

Not for nothing, urbanism in the United States tends to disproportionately feature people who have other reasons to be dissatisfied with traditional culture. Foremost among these are queers, who led gentrification in the 1970s and 80s, when they weren’t safe in most suburbs and small cities; even this decade, a genderqueer Canadian acquaintance told me that there are parts of the US that they’re scared to be in. Without outing people, I believe that between one third and one half of the people who write online about public transportation or urbanism in the US are queer.

In order to reinforce the notion that only single-family suburbs are the respectable way to live, American society has to denigrate everything else as ridiculous. Parisian apartment buildings feature a hammer and sickle and defenestration; Mediterranean apartment buildings feature gay flamboyance. Were the US more willing to admit that there are educated professionals in some countries that do not need a car, it would need to find ways to accommodate professionals with the same preferences domestically, and that would lead to accidentally accommodating people who are not in the social or cultural mainstream.

Why Northeast Corridor Privatization is Doomed to Failure

Alex Armlovich asked me whether it’s possible to design a public-private partnership on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) to build high-speed rail. I took it to a Patreon poll, in which it prevailed over three other options (why land value taxation is overrated, why community groups oppose upzoning, and what examples of transit success there are in autocracies). On social media I gave a brief explanation for why such a privatization scheme would fail: the NEC has many users sharing tracks, requiring coordination of schedules and infrastructure, and privatizing one component would create incentives for rent-seeking rather than good work. In this post I am going to explain this more carefully.

Conceptually, the impetus for privatization is that the public sector cannot provide certain things successfully because it is politically controlled. For example, political control of infrastructure tends to lead to spreading investment around across a number of regions rather than where it is most needed; when Japan National Railways was broken up and privatized, the new companies let go of many lightly-used rural lines and focused on the urban commuter rail networks and the Shinkansen. Political control may also make it harder to keep down headcounts or wages. A competent government that recognizes that it will always be subject to political decisionmaking about services that should not be political will aim to devolve control of these services to the private sector.

The problem with this story is that privatization itself is a public program. This means that the government needs to be in good enough shape to write a PPP that encourages good service and discourages rent-seeking. Such a government entity does not exist in the realm of American public transportation. This doesn’t mean that all privatization deals are bad, but it means that only the simplest deals have any chance of success, and those deals in turn have the least impact.

When it comes to HSR, private operations work provided there is no or almost no need to coordinate schedules and fares with anyone else. One example is Texas, which has no commuter rail between Dallas and Houston nor any good reason to ever run such service. In California, this is also more or less the case: Caltrain-HSR compatibility is needed, but that’s a small portion of the line and could be resolved relatively easily.

In the Northeast, where there is extensive commuter rail, such coordination is indispensable. Without it, any operator has an incentive to make life miserable for the commuter rail operators and then demand state subsidies to allow regional trains on the track. Amtrak is already screwing other NEC users by charging high rates for electricity (which is supposedly the reason Conrail deelectrified, having previously run freight service on the NEC with electric locomotives) and by coming up with infrastructure plans that make regional rail modernization harder and demanding state money for them. If anything, the political control makes things less bad, because congressional representatives can yell at Amtrak; they will have less leverage over a private operator. In the other direction, Metro-North is slowing down Amtrak between New Rochelle and New Haven for the convenience of its own dispatching, and is likely to keep doing so under any PPP deal.

I have written many posts about what it would take to institute HSR on the NEC at the lowest possible cost. All of these make the same point, from many angles: organization – that is, improving timetabling – is vastly cheaper than pouring concrete and building bypass tracks. In chronological order, I’ve written,

Privatization is supposed to solve the problems of an incompetent public sector. But Amtrak’s incompetence is not really about wages or staffing; NEC trains are overstaffed relative to Shinkansen trains, but not relative to TGVs. Nor is it about unprofitable branch lines, not when the proposal is to privatize the NEC alone, rather than the entirety of Amtrak so that the private operator could shut down the long-distance trains. Some of the incompetence involves politicized procurement, but this is not the dominant source of high NEC costs. No: the incompetence manifests itself first of all in poor coordination between the various users of the NEC. Given better coordination, Amtrak could shave a substantial portion of its New York-New Haven runtime, perhaps by 10-20 minutes without any bridge replacements, and reduce schedule padding elsewhere.

To fix this situation, some organization would need to determine the timetables up and down the line and handle dispatching and train priority. In the presence of such an organization (which could well be Amtrak itself given top-to-bottom changes in management), a PPP is of limited benefit, because the private operator would be running on a schedule set publicly. Absent such an organization, privatization would make the agency turf battles that plague the entire NEC even worse than they are today.

In 2009, SNCF proposed to develop HSR in four places in the US: California, Texas, Florida, and the Midwest. The NEC, with its existing public intercity and regional rail operations, was not on its map. More recently, Texas Central is a private Japanese initiative to build HSR between Dallas and Houston. On the NEC the only Japanese initiative involved maglev between Washington and Baltimore, a mode of transportation that doesn’t fit the NEC’s context but is guaranteed to not share tracks with any state-owned commuter rail operation.

The invention of HSR itself was not privatized, and the European privatization paradigm involves public control of track infrastructure. Competing operators (some public, some private) can access tracks by paying a track charge, set equally across all operators. But even then, the track infrastructure owner has some decisions to make about design speed – mixing slower and faster trains reduces capacity, so if there’s a mixture of both, does the infrastructure owner assume the design speed is high and charge slower trains extra for taking high-speed slots or does it assume the design speed is low and charge faster trains extra? So far the public rail infrastructure operators have swept this question under the rug, relying on the fact that on high-speed tracks all trains go fast and on low-speed ones few HSR services go faster than an express regional train.

Unfortunately, the NEC requires large speed differences on the same route to avoid excessive tunneling. This complicates the EU’s attempts at a relatively hands-off approach to rail competition in two ways. First, it’s no longer possible to ignore the design speed question, not when regional trains should be connecting Boston and Providence in 51 minutes and high-speed trains in 20 minutes, on shared tracks with strategic overtakes. And second, the overtakes must be timed more precisely, which means whoever controls the tracks needs to also take an active hand in planning the schedules.

Handwaving the problems of the public sector using privatization works in some circumstances, such as those of Japan National Railways, but could never work on the NEC. The problems a PPP could fix, including labor and rolling stock procurement, are peripheral; the problems it would exacerbate, i.e. integrating infrastructure and schedule planning, are the central issues facing the NEC. There is no alternative to a better-run, better-managed state-owned rail planning apparatus.

What the Spinetta Axe Reveals About Cost Control

The Macron administration commissioned a report about the future of SNCF by former Air France chief Jean-Cyril Spinetta. Spinetta released his report four days ago, making it clear that rail is growing in France but most of the network is unprofitable and should be shrunk. There is an overview of the report in English on Railway Gazette, and some more details in French media (La Tribune calls it “mind-blowing,” Les Echos “explosive”); the full proposal can be read here. Some of the recommendations in the Spinetta report concern governance, but the most radical one calls for pruning about 45% of SNCF’s network by length, which carries only 2% of passenger traffic. Given the extent of the proposed cut, it’s appropriate to refer to this report as the Spinetta Axe, in analogy with the Beeching Axe.

I wrote a mini-overview on Twitter, focusing on the content of the Axe. In this post I’m going to do more analysis of SNCF’s cost control problem and what we can learn from the report. The big takeaway is that cost control pressure is the highest on low-ridership lines, rather than on high-ridership lines. There is no attempt made to reduce SNCF’s operating costs in Ile-de-France or on the intercity main lines through better efficiency. To the British or American reader, it’s especially useful to read the report with a critical eye, since it is in some ways a better version of British and American discussions about efficiency that nonetheless accept high construction costs as a given.

SNCF is Losing Money

The major problem that the report begins with is that SNCF is losing money. It is not getting state subsidies, but instead it borrows to fund operating losses, to the tune of €2.8 billion in annual deficit (p. 28), of which €1.2-1.4 billion come from interest expenses on past debt and €1 billion come from taxes. Its situation is similar to that of Japan National Railways in the 1970s, which accumulated debt to fund operating losses, which the state ultimately wiped out in the restructuring and privatization of 1987. The report is aiming to find operating savings to put SNCF in the black without breaking up or privatizing the company; its proposed change to governance (turning SNCF into an SA) is entirely within the state-owned sector.

Unlike the Beeching report, the Spinetta report happens in a context of rising rail traffic. It opens up by making it clear that rail is not in decline in France, pointing out growth in both local and intercity ridership. However, SNCF is still losing money, because of the low financial performance of the legacy network and regional lines. The TGV network overall is profitable (though not every single train is profitable), but the TERs are big money pits. Annual regional contributions to the TER network total €3 billion, compared with just €1 billion in fare revenue (p. 30). The legacy intercity lines, which are rebranded every few years and are now called TETs, lose another €300 million. Some of the rising debt is just capital expenses that aren’t fully funded, including track renovation and new rolling stock; even in the Paris region, which has money, rolling stock purchase has only recently been devolved from SNCF to the regional transport association (p. 31).

In fact, the large monetary deficit is a recent phenomenon. In 2010, SNCF lost €600 million, but paid €1.2 billion in interest costs (p. 27); its operating margin was larger than its capital expenses. Capital expenses have risen due to increase in investment, while the operating margin has fallen due to an increase in operating costs. The report does not go into the history of fares (it says French rail fares are among Europe’s lowest, but its main comparisons are very high-fare networks like Switzerland’s, and in reality France is similar to Germany and Spain). But it says fares have not risen, for which SNCF’s attempt to provide deliberately uncomfortable lower-fare trains must share the blame.

The Spinetta Axe

The Spinetta report proposes multiple big changes; French media treats converting SNCF to an SA as a big deal. But in terms of the network, the biggest change is the cut to low-performing rail branches. The UIC categorizes rail lines based on traffic levels and required investment, from 1 (highest) to 9 (lowest). Categories 7-9 consist of 44% of route-km but only 9% of train-km (p. 48) and 2% of passengers (p. 51). Annual capital and operating spending on these lines is €1.7 billion (about €1 per passenger-km), and bringing them to a state of good repair would cost €5 billion. In contrast, closing these lines would save €1.2 billion a year.

But the report is not just cuts. Very little of SNCF’s operating expenditure is marginal: on p. 34 the report claims that marginal operating costs only add up to €1 billion a year, out of about €5.5 billion in total operating costs excluding any and all capital spending. As a result, alongside its recommendations to close low-ridership lines, it is suggesting increasing off-peak frequency on retained lines (p. 54, footnote 53).

There is no list of which lines should be closed; this is left for later. Page 50 has a map of category 7-9 lines, which are mostly rural branch lines, for example Nice-Breil-Tende. But a few are more intense regional lines, around Lyon, Toulouse, Rennes, Lille, and Strasbourg, and would presumably be kept and maintained to higher standards. Conversely, some category 5-6 lines could also be closed.

The report is equally harsh toward the TGV. While the TGV is overall profitable, not all parts of it are competitive. Per the report, the breakeven point with air travel, on both mode share and operating costs, is 3 hours one-way. At 3:30-4 hours one way, the report describes the situation for trains as “brutal,” with planes getting 80% mode share (p. 61). With TGV operating costs of €0.06/seat-km without capital (€0.07 with), it is uncompetitive on cost with low-cost airlines beyond 700 km, where EasyJet and Air France can keep costs down to €0.05/seat-km including capital and Ryanair to €0.04.

And this is where the report loses me. The TGV’s mode share versus air is consistently higher than that given in the report. One study imputes a breakeven point at nearly 4 hours. A study done for the LGV PACA, between Marseille and Nice, claims that as of 2009, the TGV had a 30% mode share on Paris-Nice, even including cars; its share of the air-rail market was 38%. This is a train that takes nearly 6 hours and was delayed three out of four times I took it, and the fourth time only made it on time because its timetable was unusually padded between Marseille and Paris. On Paris-Toulon, where the TGV takes about 4 hours, its mode share in 2009 was 54%, or 82% of the air-rail market.

SNCF has some serious operating cost issues. For example, the conventional TGVs (i.e. not the low-cost OuiGo) have four conductors per 200-meter train; the Shinkansen has three conductors per 400-meter train. The operating costs imputed from the European and East Asian average in American studies are somewhat lower, about $0.05-6/seat-km, or about €0.04-5/seat-km, making HSR competitive with low-cost airlines at longer range. However, there is no attempt to investigate how these costs can be reduced. One possibility, not running expensive TGVs on legacy lines but only on high-speed lines, is explicitly rejected (p. 64), and rightly so – Rennes, Toulouse, Mulhouse, Toulon, Nice, and Nantes are all on legacy lines.

This is something SNCF is aware of; it’s trying to improve fleet utilization to reduce operating costs by 20-30%. With higher fleet utilization, it could withdraw most of its single-level trains and have a nearly all-bilevel fleet, with just one single-level class, simplifying maintenance and interchangeability in similar manner to low-cost carriers’ use of a single aircraft class. However, this drive is not mentioned at all in the report, which takes today’s high costs as a given.

Efficiencies not Mentioned

The biggest bombshell I saw in the report is not in the recommendations at all. It is not in the Spinetta Axe, but in a table on p. 21 comparing SNCF with DB. The two networks are of similar size, with DB slightly larger, 35,000 route-km and 52,000 track-km vs. 26,000 and 49,000 on SNCF. But DB’s annual track maintenance budget is €1.4 billion whereas SNCF’s is €2.28 billion. Nearly the entire primary deficit of SNCF could be closed just by reducing track maintenance costs to German levels, without cutting low-usage lines.

Nonetheless, there is no investigation of whether it’s possible to conduct track maintenance more efficiently. Here as with the TGV’s operating expenses, the report treats unit costs as a fixed constant, rather than as variables that depend on labor productivity and good management.

Nor is there any discussion of rolling stock costs. Paris’s bespoke RER D and E trains, funded locally on lines to be operated by SNCF, cost €4.7 million per 25 meters of train length, with 30% of this cost going to design and overheads and only 70% to actual manufacturing. In Sweden, the more standard KISS cost €2.9 million per 25-meter car.

Low-ridership dilapidated rural branch lines are not the only place in the network where it’s possible to reduce costs. Rolling stock in Paris costs too much, maintenance on the entire network costs too much, TGV operating costs are higher than they should be, and fleet utilization in the off-peak is very low. The average TGV runs for 8 hours a day, and SNCF hopes to expand this to 10.

The Impetus for Cost Control

The Beeching Axe came in the context of falling rail traffic. The Spinetta Axe comes in the context of rapidly growing SNCF operating costs, recommending things that could and probably should have been done ten years ago. But ten years ago, SNCF had a primary surplus and there was no pressure to contain costs. By the same token, the report is recommending pruning the weakest lines, but ignores efficiencies on the strong lines, on the “why mess with what works?” idea.

The same effect is seen regionally. French rolling stock costs do not seem unusually high outside Paris. But Ile-de-France has money to waste, so it’s spending far too much on designing new rolling stock that nobody else has any use for. This is true outside France as well: the high operating costs of the subway in New York are not a US-wide phenomenon, but rather are restricted to New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, while the rest of the country, facing bigger cost pressure than New York and Boston, is forced to run trains for the same cost as the major European cities. It is also likely that New York (and more recently London) allowed its construction costs to explode to extreme levels because, with enough money to splurge on high-use lines like 63rd Street Tunnel and Second Avenue Subway, it never paid attention to cost control.

This approach to cost control is entirely reactive. Places with high operating or capital costs don’t mind these costs when times are good, and then face crisis when times are bad, such as when the financial crisis led to stagnation in TGV revenue amidst continued growth in operating costs, or when costs explode to the point of making plans no longer affordable. In crisis mode, a gentle reduction in costs may not be possible technically or politically, given pressure to save money fast. Without time to develop alternative plans, or learn and adopt best industry practices, agencies (or private companies) turn to cuts and cancel investment plans.

A stronger approach must be proactive. This means looking for cost savings regardless of the current financial situation, in profitable as well as unprofitable areas. If anything, rich regions and companies are better placed for improving efficiency: they have deep enough pockets to finance the one-time cost of some reforms and to take their time to implement reforms correctly. SNCF is getting caught with its pants down, and as a result Spinetta is proposing cuts but nothing about reducing unit operating and maintenance costs. Under a proactive approach, the key is not to get caught with your pants down in the first place.

Reforming Pensions

I don’t usually write about labor issues or pensions specifically, but an interview I got with a clerical union representative a few months ago made me think about pensions and vesting. I’ve come to believe that, to improve labor productivity at US public agencies (including transit, but not just), it would be useful to reform pensions, keeping their current levels and defined-benefit nature, but changing them to vest annually. That is, a year of working for a public agency at salary X should entitle a worker to a retirement annuity equal to a fraction of X, depending on age and years of experience (the fraction should be higher at lower age, representing more time the pension fund has had to gain interest).

In contrast, state governments in the US today have a long-term vesting model. I talked to Tim Lasker, president of the local Office and Professional Employees International Union, representing MBTA clerical workers. I intended to ask about salary competitiveness and retention, but Lasker told me that the pension system represents a “golden handcuffs.” People who are on the job for 25 years have fully-vested pensions, but people who leave earlier leave a chunk of money on the table by going. As a result, people with 15 or so years of experience don’t leave.

Jamal Johnson, a labor relations analyst working for the state government of Pennsylvania, said that in Pennsylvania pensions take up to 30 years to fully vest, and take 10 years to even partially vest, so workers who leave earlier get nothing.

The result is that there isn’t much turnover among employees with defined-benefit pensions. This is not a good thing. Lasker told me there is a lot of burnout, and a lot of people who just show up to work but aren’t productive, and are just punching the clock every day until they vest. They’re not lazy, and probably would quit in frustration and leave to a place where they could be more productive if it didn’t come at an enormous cost. Among the people who don’t have defined-benefit pensions, such as assistant secretaries and M.B.A. hires, there is much more turnover – too much, per Lasker, with people typically staying 1-2 years.

In the private sector, the best practice seems to be letting stock options vest after a number of years, as in the tech industry. But this is in an environment with performance bonuses – the idea is that giving workers shares in the company that only vest in a few years will incentivize them to work toward the company’s bottom line. The pensions are defined-contributions, which means the company and employee set aside money for a savings account that the government undertaxes, rather than providing a real pension.

Calls for pension reform in the public sector have tried to look to private-sector models, hence calls on the right (e.g. by Nicole Gelinas) to give public employees tax-deferred defined-contribution pseudo-pensions rather than actual pensions. Unless the point is to surreptitiously cut pension obligations, there is little point in this. The difference between a defined-contribution and a defined-benefit pension is ultimately who bears the risk of the worker living longer than expected. Under defined-contribution, it’s the worker, who then has to save much more money to avoid being penniless at 90. Under defined-benefit, it’s the company, which can average the amount across a large number of employees. In effect, defined-benefit pensions work as free life insurance.

The problem with the defined-benefit model today is purely that it assumes people work for the same agency their entire life, and thus pensions take decades to vest. This might have made sense in the middle of the 20th century, but it doesn’t today. People burn out, at which point it’s mutually beneficial for both sides to have them look for a new job and for the agency to look for a new worker. With burned out employees, the effect of the golden handcuffs on loyalty is not positive: people who are just punching in and out have no reason to be especially loyal to an employer that they hate. And the effect on morale is destructive: Lasker did not tell me this, but I suspect that with so much resentment among middle management, new hires are inducted into a culture in which good work is not valued. Lasker blamed mismanagement, and it is likely that this mismanagement percolates down the food chain.

There’s also limited risk of revolving door with transit agencies. In regulatory agencies, limiting employee exchange with the private sector is desirable, because otherwise workers have an incentive to shirk their duties in exchange for later high-paying jobs at the private companies they’re supposed to regulate. Tax collection agencies, safety agencies (including the FRA), and antitrust regulators are all at risk of regulatory capture. But transit agencies exhibit little such risk, since they do operations in-house. Capital programs are more vulnerable, but there, the people who are most affected by the revolving door are at the very top, and they’re not relying on a union pension. So the biggest risk coming from encouraging turnover at other public agencies is limited when it comes to transit agencies.

With this in mind, it’s useful to come up with a model in which pensions work like defined-contribution pseudo-pensions – that is, a sum of money the employer gives the worker that’s earmarked for a tax-deferred savings account. However, to reduce the aforementioned risk of running out of money in old age, it should be defined-benefit. I’m not aware of an existing model that achieves this, but it doesn’t mean such a scheme is impossible: the numerical parameters of this scheme (retirement age, rate of return, etc.) are already set in union agreements. All that’s required is to break down the pension into fractional amounts, accumulated every year of work, and cut the overall levels slightly so as to account for people who leave before their money is vested.

The big drawback of this plan is that there’s no real political appetite in the United States for any benefit-neutral pension reform. The unions might be interested, but without small cuts to offset people who leave early, a small additional increase in spending is required; the effect on productivity should be more than high enough to justify it, but the current zeitgeist in rich American cities treats pensions as outdated for ideological reasons. These same reformers who, as a rule, are outsiders to the union and think in terms of defined-contribution pensions, aren’t especially interested in making defined-benefit pensions work. If they think in terms of attracting and retaining talent, they think in terms of higher base wages.