I’ve spoken my piece about why American infrastructure construction is so expensive. This is very much a work-in-progress, but it represents about the extent of my current knowledge on the subject. I want to follow up on this by talking about stereotypes and how they affect what people believe is possible when it comes to construction costs. I wrote about this to some extent here, 4.5 years ago, noting that my impression is that people on the Internet are far more willing to believe that there is efficient construction in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe even though the latter actually has lower construction costs.
Here I want to delve somewhat deeper into what stereotypes I’ve seen and how they lead people astray when it comes to infrastructure. It’s a lot more than just Southern and Northern Europe. Each of the following sections describes an aspect of infrastructure planning that doesn’t conform to American stereotypes.
The US has weak property rights
Americans are taught from a young age that America is about freedom. They’re taught about the American struggle against British tyranny, about the life-liberty-property triad, and about all manners of national origin stories that get extended to a ridiculous extent. The result is that Americans and even some immigrants who made it big in America and absorbed American ideas readily believe that they are the freest nation in the world in all ways. Faced with the reality that (for example) Germany has far stronger privacy protections, the reaction is either indifference (among most people in the US) or an attempt to castigate privacy as actually a weird imposition (among some tech boosters).
The same issue occurs with property rights. Objectively speaking, American law does not have strong protections for property rights. Japan has stronger individual protections in property rights. In addition to strong legal protections, there are strong extralegal protections in countries that have some tolerance of street protests; France is famously such a country, at least if the protesters are white, but Japan had airport riots delaying the construction of Narita and earlier riots blocking the expansion of an American military base.
In contrast to these cases, in the US, when the state wants your property, it will get it. Lawsuits can cause delays but not stop a project the state is committed to. Moreover, the state is allowed to time the market. The only thing the government is not allowed to do is excess takings – that is, taking more property than needed to build infrastructure in order to sell it at a profit later. If your property has low value due to past government activity, the government does not need to pay you extra. As mentioned in The Big Roads, the United States built the Interstates through redlined black inner-city neighborhoods because land there was cheaper; after the race riots of the 1960s Washington-area road builders even wanted to build a new round of roads since land would be especially cheap, and they were stopped only by political opposition to such optics rather than by any legal or extralegal challenge.
NIMBYism in the US in the context of infrastructure has to be understood as not a reaction to a state that is too weak but to one that is too strong. The denizens of rich suburbs like the sundown town Darien, Connecticut rely on the state to prop up their property values through exclusion, and any change that threatens such exclusion may cause losses that they have no way to recover. Lacking any way to legally prevent the state from slicing through the town to build faster roads and trains, they have to use political influence to prevent infrastructure from being built.
The US does not have safe railway operations
I made a post eight years ago scrubbing lists of rail accidents from Wikipedia and comparing the US, the EU, Japan, China, and India. I don’t believe the numbers are true for India or China as not everything may be reported in English sources, although I do believe they’re true for Chinese high-speed rail; but for Japan, the EU, and the US, the numbers are solid. American trains are several times less safe for passengers than European ones, and more than a full order of magnitude less safe than Japanese ones.
The US in theory has a culture of safety-first, but in reality it’s more safety theater than safety. Rail signaling is primitive, and automatic train protection (“positive train control,” or PTC) is not required in terminal zones with restricted speed, leading to fatal crashes. The favorite way to deal with danger is to slap an arbitrary speed limit – for example, to permit trains to use a bridge that has just been burned down but at restricted speed, with exactly the result you’d expect.
This is difficult for Americans to believe, especially with respect to Asia. I’ve repeatedly seen people insist that Japan does not prioritize safety, and the idea that China does not seems universal in the developed world. Richard Mlynarik’s report of a Caltrain official who, when told Japan turns trains faster than the official thought was possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do,” seems par for the course when it comes to Western attitudes. Westerners are certain that Asians are not fully human but are part machine, with no individuality, perhaps thinking that since Westerners can’t tell East Asians apart East Asians can’t tell one another apart either.
China is not particularly efficient
The epitome of the American stereotype of dangerous tyrannical efficiency today is China. Ray Lahood, Obama’s first-term secretary of transportation, even mentioned that in connection with high-speed rail. In reality, Chinese infrastructure construction costs do not seem especially low. Not much information makes it to English-language media, and unlike in French or German I don’t know how to look up construction costs in Chinese, but the lines for which I can find data seem to be in line with the global average. Metro Report has an article mentioning two Shanghai Metro extensions: the all-underground Line 9 extension at $225 million per km, and the 46% underground Line 17 at $123 million per km, with very wide stop spacing.
Moreover, high-speed rail in China is on the expensive side. There are studies asserting that it isn’t, but they do not control for PPP. The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line cost 218 million yuan, or about $55 billion adjusted for PPP, making it about $42 million per km, a high figure for a line with almost no tunnels (only 1.2% of the line’s length).
The other famously efficient East Asian dictatorship, Singapore, has high infrastructure costs as well, judging by what’s going on with the Thomson MRT Line.
Americans fixate on China because it’s so big and because they consider it a rival. But there is no reason to expect the best results to come from a large country. Most countries are small, so we should expect both the most successful and the least successful ones to be small. The actually cheap places to build infrastructure in, like Spain and South Korea, don’t really pattern-match to any American or European self-perception, so it’s much easier to ignore them than to look at Chinese or German efficiency.
Corruption does not work the same way everywhere
The United States has a fair amount of political corruption, but it’s not exceptional for this in the developed world. There’s widespread American belief that the public sector is incompetent, and Americans who have compared American and generic first-world public projects correctly think this is especially true of the American public sector, but this is not exactly about corruption. My quip on the subject is that Italy has low construction costs – and Italy’s high corruption levels are no mere stereotype, but are mirrored in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Moreover, low costs and high corruption perceptions seem endemic to Southern Europe and South Korea.
I’m not familiar with the precise nature of corruption everywhere. But what I’ve read from Italy and Greece suggests that it’s different from what happens in the United States. In diagnosing Italy’s stagnation over the last generation, Bruno Pellegrino and Luigi Zingales note that Italy has a widespread problem of tax avoidance, leading private companies to mostly hire within extended clans rather than by merit; the reason for the recent stagnation, they posit, is that the computer revolution has made hiring by merit especially important. In Greece the same problem of tax avoidance is endemic – see some links through Wikipedia – and Stathis Kalyvas’s paper about clientelism and political populism notes that Greece does not really have large prestigious private businesses with workers vs. bosses politics the way the US, Japan, South Korea, and the European core do.
In Southern Europe, or at least in Greece and Italy, it looks like corruption is endemic to the private sector. The public sector is affected by clientelism, but perhaps infrastructure construction is so removed from politics that there is no unusual corruption there, and thus engineers can innovate their way into lower costs, as postwar Milan did. If the public sector in Italy is as efficient in Germany, it will have lower costs than Germany simply because market wages in Italy are lower thanks to the private sector’s low productivity. This is not a complete story, since it specifically predicts that Italy should have a growing construction cost gap with Germany as their wages diverge, whereas at least based on the smattering of projects I’ve seen Italy was cheaper even in the 1990s and early 2000s, when wages were similar in both countries. Moreover, Scandinavia has low corruption, high wages, and low construction costs. But this is suggestive of how come countries with wages on the margin of the first world tend to consistently have lower construction costs.
The nature of American corruption is different. The private sector has little of it. Tax avoidance exists in the US, but not to the same extent as in Italy or Greece. Managerial fraud at big business exists, but is nowhere near the levels of Mediterranean small businesses. Instead, the public sector is inefficient, due to different problems – not quite clientelism, which describes party loyalty as a condition of hiring, but hiring based on personal loyalty to the governor or mayor. What’s more, since the problem goes all the way to the top, expecting the same authoritarian state and municipal officials to successfully privatize infrastructure to unleash private-sector productivity is fruitless.
The bureaucratic state can guarantee fairer outcomes than litigation
When writing my post about the causes of high American construction costs, I read different takes on the American tradition of adversarial legalism. A paper by Shep Melnick, which I linked in my post, asserts that adversarial legalism is good for various oppressed minorities, focusing on lawsuits forcing better accessibility for people with disabilities, looking at special education as an example.
And yet, if we look at the usual liberal standard of fair outcomes rather than fair processes, the outcomes in the United States do not seem especially fair. Workplace discrimination levels against nonwhites range widely between countries as well as between different studies in the same country, but the US seems to be roughly within the European median; there is a large set of references in the OECD’s International Migration Outlook of 2013, PDF-pp. 11-12, as well as a smaller list in the OECD’s The Price of Prejudice, p. 16. The latter source also compares international gender gaps, and the US seems fairly average as well. Only in the employment gap between second-generation immigrants and children of natives does the US do especially well, and that’s in the context of an unusually high-skill mix of immigrants, like similar high performers Canada and Switzerland, neither of which has an especially low discrimination level in equal resume studies.
When it comes to Melnick’s question of disability rights, the US is increasingly falling behind thanks to high construction costs. Berlin is about to complete installing elevators at all U-Bahn stations, aided by a process that allows it to make a station accessible for €2 million. Madrid, where this cost is about €5 million per line served by each station, has a large majority of accessible stations already and is looking at full installation next decade. Compare this with the tardiness of New York, where layers of consent decrees and grandfather clauses have created a subway system that is about as old as Berlin’s and only 25% accessible.
Incuriosity affects all American groups
I literally just saw a comment on Reddit that tried to slot the idea that the US should learn from the rest of the world into political liberalism or Democratic partisanship (“blue tribe”). This is not an idiosyncratic connection. In 2006, at Yearly Kos, a performer used the expression “French-loving” as a self-description for American liberals, and the entire audience said “preach on” in agreement; this and similar epithets hurled by conservatives in the same era may have been a unique artifact of France’s opposition to the Iraq War, but years later Republicans would keep complaining that Democrats want the US to imitate European welfare states.
The reality is very different. American indifference to rest-of-world practice is national. So is English Canadian indifference to rest-of-world practice excluding the US and occasionally Britain. If anything, New York is even more solipsistic than the rest of the US. I’ve recurrently seen New Yorkers use the same dismissive language that Americans use for the world outside their country for anything outside the city. In contrast, Bostonians do try to look at how things work in the rest of the US and the same is true of people in Sunbelt cities that build light rail.
The upshot of this is that there is not much to look for in intra-American politics. The institutions of American partisanship are not useful for this. Some good ideas can come from people who happen to identify with a party, but the distance between the legal scholars criticizing adversarial legalism and the practice of tort reform, like that between the recommendations of academic environmentalists and the practice of green jobs programs, is vast.
Moreover, the elite centrist politics that claims to be above partisanship has to be seen as yet another partisan institution, working hard to limit the scope of debate to what the same elites that have failed to provide good government services will find comfortable. The same can be said for populism. There is nothing to look for on the populist left and right, because as movements they are not concerned with governing, and tend to boost voices that are long on rhetoric and short on knowledge. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does not need to be correct for leftists to admire her, for one since the veto points on implementation details are members of Congress well to her right; why should she make an effort to educate herself about fuel taxes or about the white supremacy of the Gilets Jaunes? And the less said about ideological experiments like Walker-era Wisconsin or Brownback-era Kansas, the better.
Ultimately, not everyone has the same stereotypes
I focus on American stereotypes, and to some extent pan-Western ones, because stereotypes differ by culture. Americans self-perceive as risk-taking and entrepreneurial. Israelis perceive Americans as hopelessly square and rulebound, even in comparison with Europeans. Westerners perceive all East Asians as rulebound and machine-like. Chinese and Malay people self-perceive as dog-eat-dog societies, at least in Southeast Asia, to the point that when I learned Mahatir Mohamed’s criticism of human rights in Asia in university, I learned his take as “we Asians don’t naturally cooperate and require an authoritarian government” rather than as the more typically Western belief that Asians are naturally obedient.
The incredulity I’ve encountered when trying to tell Americans how Israelis and Singaporeans perceive things is not just a matter of American solipsism. I’ve seen similar incredulity on this side of the Pond, for example when I told Spanish mathematicians, who are not railfans, that Spain has really low construction costs; they found it hard to believe, due to the widely-shared stereotype of Southern European corruption. By their nature, stereotypes appeal to base instincts, working through unexamined prejudices. Not for nothing, the people most invested in stereotypes, the racists, tend to be the most closed, to the point that openness to experience as a personality trait is almost a proxy for antiracist politics.
Neither widely-shared stereotypes (Japanese order, Southern European corruption, etc.) nor more internationally variable ones are enlightening when it comes to actual differences in infrastructure construction costs. The importance of international variability is that Westerners who are closed to the fact that how Asians perceive themselves is different from how Westerners perceive them are likely to be equally closed to a thousand details of governance, business, and engineering between successful and failed infrastructure programs.
The most importance difference in stereotypes when it comes to infrastructure is how Americans perceive the difference between Europe and the US and how Europeans perceive it. The US is certain it’s at the top of the world, so if there’s an aspect on which it isn’t, like life expectancy or public transit, then this aspect probably doesn’t matter much and the American entrepreneurial spirit will soon fix it anyway. Few people in the core European countries share this attitude. Americans need to choose between a sense of national pride and improving their infrastructure; for all the glory infrastructure can give, the methods with which they need to build it require letting go of their prejudices against the rest of the world.
I’m sitting on a train heading to Germany, about to depart Paris. I’m less comfortable writing about myself than some other urbanists I admire like Alex Baca and Kristen Jeffers, but I will still try to explain.
I didn’t intend to live here long-term. As I said two years ago, I moved here for the universities, and stayed even after I left academia, and even as I stayed, I didn’t know it would be for such a long period of time. I kept renting on three-month cycles because with my self-employment and variable income landlords wouldn’t rent to me on an annual contract. Many of the renewals were uncertain, depending on various circumstances like whether I would hear from NYU about grants. But this turned into my longest stint living in the same apartment in my adult life: two years and three months. And now it’s ending.
I spent 2017 building my professional life, sending pitches to anyone I could find an email for. I knew I was in an expensive city, but even then, I looked at housing costs elsewhere and didn’t think I’d even save money net of moving expenses. I still don’t; I don’t expect my living expenses to fall in Berlin once you add mandatory health insurance to rent. This is not why I’m leaving.
Rather, the situation in 2018 got to the point that I needed to ask myself where I really wanted to live. The rule was, anywhere in the EU or where EU citizens could live freely, like Norway. In July I visited London, which was an option depending on how EU migrant rights would be treated under Brexit, but between high rents and trademark Theresa May hostile environment rules in the Brexit deal, it wasn’t so attractive.
So far, all of my moves had been job-related: New York for grad school, then Providence, Vancouver, and Stockholm for a string of postdocs, then Paris to intersect my grad school advisor while I was waiting on an answer from Calgary. Working from home means I had to choose where to live based on which city in Europe I actually liked. I had to ask myself the same question every three months:
Do I like Paris?
For a while, I really did like it here. I saw things that I never got to see in the United States or in Sweden: at the nearby high school, as well as at Bois de Vincennes, white and Arab and black children were playing together. Eastern Paris is the kind of integrated neighborhood that, in North America, everyone pretends to want to build and yet nobody seems capable of building.
I knew about the diesel pollution from my first winter here, but things seemed to be getting better, with a steady decrease in the proportion of cars powered by diesels, Anne Hidalgo’s pedestrianization of streets and city squares, and the Macron cabinet’s hike in taxes on fuel. My best recollection is that the pollution was less bad in the winter of 2017-8 than in 2016-7, and I took it at a sign things were getting better.
The Gilets Jaunes
Macron is not a popular president. Polls consistently put his approval rate in the 30s, even as, as the median French politician on the main issues, he was and still is handily winning reelection against the cadre of sacrificial lambs offered by the parties on the left and right. Previous protest movements concerned labor issues, sometimes winning, as when they defeated his 2017 labor law reforms (since passed in a weaker form last year), and sometimes losing, as when the railway workers struck to fight the SNCF governance reforms.
And then came the Gilets Jaunes, so-called because of the mandatory reflective yellow vests within cars. Their initial grievances were the diesel taxes and the reduction in the speed limit on non-motorway roads from 90 km/h to 80. The taxes were no more popular than any other tax hike, and they got sympathy early, protesting in the usual French way of blocking roads.
Even then, in late November, there were signs they were nastier than the usual. CRIF warned about anti-Semitism at the protests; SOS Racism warned about harassment of immigrants. White Christian France did not listen. Then the Gilets Jaunes escalated to rioting, and even as the public grew hostile to their methods, the state dithered.
The political movements outside En Marche maintained their support. I never had any illusions about La France Insoumise and other far left movements, but the Green Party joined in, echoing the fake news of the extreme right about how what really matters is taxing ship fuel rather than cars. Soi-disant green protesters tried to connect their agenda to that of the Gilets Jaunes, saying “the fight for the climate and the fight for purchase power are the same.” Antifa joined in, having some internal fights with the most overtly fascist members, but not with the main of the movement, which is still about half National Front voters. Nobody saw fit to mention the racism. Politics in France is so white—Macron’s rainbow coalition has a less racially diverse cabinet than Trump, and he’s still under criticism for not being racism enough from both directions; the top far left leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, wrote an angry blog post saying that France did not collaborate with the Nazis in WW2.
The big protest, on December 8th, involved vandalism in central Paris. At Nation things were tamer. I visited briefly and saw an all-white crowd in a neighborhood where these are not the usual demographics. Two people who looked my age or slightly younger, both white, sat on a bench near the square, one taping “down with the state” on the back of the other’s jacket. Everything about that crowd screamed “hipsters going through the motions.” Eastern Paris has a lot of that, too.
Elsewhere, things got a lot worse, with violent threats against foreigners, Jews, and racial minorities. Protesters vandalized stores with graffiti like “Rothschild” and “Juden,” and the reaction among supporters on Twitter was either justification and denial that the Rothschild tag was anti-Semitic, or denial that the Gilets Jaunes were the vandals. This is on top of homophobia (Gilets Jaunes protesters have demanded a referendum on repealing gay marriage) and general idiocy (they oppose mandatory vaccination).
Macron did what France does best in the face of fascism: he surrendered. In overseas France he’d declared martial law, but at home, facing white people, he didn’t; he canceled the planned tax increase, and announced a host of tax cuts and pension benefit increases to try to mollify them. The difference between that and how the state treated Muslim rioters in 2005 was jarring.
A single spineless leader might be survivable, but the entire political system here supports rioters provided they are white. This percolates outside the country. The alt-right is of course in full support, but the decidedly non-extreme Wall Street Journal positively spun the movement as a tax revolt. On the other side, the alt-left celebrated, since it’s always hated Macron. Pan-European anarchists like Quinn Norton celebrated the Gilets Jaunes. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in support of the movement, in response to a tweet saying the police was threatening to join them if the state didn’t increase cops’ pay, and nearly every American socialist I’ve interacted with since has tried to defend her in ways they never would if she’d tweeted in enthusiasm about Pinochet.
Why do I need to be here?
The pollution will not get better, or, if it does, it will be at a glacial rate; the revocation of the diesel taxes will make sure of that. Neither will the French state’s responsiveness to the needs of the city and the people who live here, many of whom are not the grandchildren of the Milice but of its and of the French colonial army’s victims. White Europe’s public intellectuals pattern-matched the movement to a right-populist resurgence that they love to blame on neoliberalism and not on the populists’ racism.
While this was going on, I was glued to AQI. There were days in December when the air here was worse than in Milan, worse than in Katowice. Germany was entirely clean. This is not just an issue of Germany having a government that feels sufficiently guilty about leading the pan-European project that was the Holocaust that it dials down the racism. Somehow, German cities manage far cleaner air than Paris, and the political system there looks forward. The Greens there fight for an open society rather than looking for excuses to protest fuel taxes.
Paris keeps defining itself by global city attractions, like the Opera or the cafes or the museums. But that’s not a reason to live in a city. It’s a reason to visit for a week. Already Hidalgo is unpopular for her attempt to make the city livable, and the poster boards of Nation, once filled with communist slogans and with the face of one crank calling for Frexit, are now filled with posters complaining that the mayor is immiserating the French. If the city and the state are not going to provide basic necessities like clean air and streets that I can cross safely, I don’t really need to live here.
All the programs in the world won’t keep me in a place where I do not get these basic necessities. Even before Macron, France tried to build up tech clusters, which effort has only intensified in the last two years. The state will do anything except improving the business climate and providing services like protecting foreigners from marauding hordes of vandals.
The message the surrender has sent is not just that air quality will remain among Europe’s worst but also that foreigners are not really welcome here. This is not the message Macron wants to send; I get the impression he genuinely wants a more open and more globalized France. But he is unwilling to do what it takes to send the right message. In that way, he is like many ineffectual leaders in semi-democracies like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where there’s no autocracy in the sense of China or Russia, just a crowd of traditionalist pogromchiks who the state either can’t or won’t stop from hacking at gays, religious minorities, or journalists who offended some local notable.
I will miss Paris. I really will. Eastern Paris is delightful and supposed no-go zones like Belleville have grocery stores selling good food items that the European-owned stores don’t. It’s the supposed Real France that’s a problem, defined around closedness, monolingualism, and an ethnic hierarchy.
If I’m looking for a place that’s functional enough I can expect it to not just have clean air but also deal with other social problems appropriately, I don’t have that many options. Eastern Europe is out, Mediterranean Europe not much better, France by definition not good. Ireland might be an option because they speak English there, but moving by plane is a chore and Dublin is ultimately not a large city. Scandinavia is Anglophone and has food items I’m craving at supermarkets that I can’t find anywhere in Paris, but it’s expensive and my two years there were two more than enough.
I told a Twitter follower I was moving to Germany and their first question was “are you a Berlin person or a Munich person?” I of course don’t know the answer to this question, not knowing the subtleties. The Germans I know tend to be northerners; I asked a German professor in Stockholm why the Germans at KTH seem to all be northerners and was told that Scandinavia and northern Germany are similar in ways that are distinct from southern Germany. So I don’t have a basis of comparison, I just know what the rents are and which governments are in charge.
Two years ago, I noticed Berlin’s cheapness, but wasn’t sure where to live, and knew the moving expenses would be high. But given that I have to undertake these moving expenses anyway, I might as well move to the cheaper city. The job market there is weak in the private sector, but since I’m not getting work at someone else’s company either way I might as well go for the cheap rents.
What does this mean?
I will of course keep blogging. I imagine I will talk more about the details of proof-of-payment systems and S-Bahn scheduling and less about driverless metro implementation, but ultimately I read trade publications and look at timetables rather than writing about my experiences taking urban rapid transit. Not much will change—expect a few days’ gap in new posts, but with my schedule of posting eight or nine times per month such gaps are routine anyway. I will just say “here” and mean Berlin and not Paris.
All reform agendas run into the same problem: someone needs to implement the reform, and this someone needs to be more politically powerful than the entrenched interests that need reform. The big political incentive for a leader is to swoop in to fix an organization that is broken and get accolades for finally making government work. But whether this work depends on what exactly is broken. If the fish rots from the tail, and better management can fix things, then reformist politicians have an easy time. The problem is that if the fish rots from the head – that is, if the problem is the political leaders themselves – then there is no higher manager that can remove underperforming workers. My contention is that when it comes to poor American public transit practices, the fish usually rots from the head.
Whither fixing construction costs?
I wrote my first comment documenting high New York construction costs at the end of 2009. By 2011 this turned into my first post in my series here with some extra numbers. By the time I jumped from commenting to blogging, the MTA had already made a reference to its high costs in a 2010 report called Making Every Dollar Count (p. 11): “tunneling for the expansion projects has cost between three and six times as much as similar projects in Germany, France and Italy.” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has been plagiarizing my 2011 post since 2013.
However, the early recognition has not led to any concrete action. There has not been any attention even from leaders who could gain a lot of political capital from being seen as fixing the problem, such as governors in California, New York, and Massachusetts, as well as successive New York mayors. That Governor Cuomo himself has paid little attention to the subway can be explained in terms of his unique personal background from a car-oriented city neighborhood, but when it’s multiple governors and mayors, it’s most likely a more systemic issue.
What’s more, there has been plenty of time to come up with an actionable agenda, and to see it pay dividends to help catapult the career of whichever politician can take credit. The MTA report came out 9 years ago. An ambitious, forward-thinking politician could have investigated the issue and come up with ways to reduce costs in this timeframe – and in the region alone, four politicians in the relevant timeframe (Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio, Cuomo, and Governor Christie) had obvious presidential ambitions.
Evidently, there has been action whenever a political priority was threatened. The LIRR had long opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access project, on the grounds that by sending trains through a tunnel used by the LIRR, Metro-North would impinge on its turf. As it was a visible project and a priority for Cuomo, Cuomo had to remove the LIRR’s obstruction, and thus fired LIRR President Helena Williams in 2014.
So what’s notable is that construction costs did not become a similar political priority, even though rhetoric of government effectiveness and fighting waste is ubiquitous on the center-left, center, and center-right.
That successive powerful American leaders have neglected to take on construction costs suggests that there is no benefit to them in fixing the problem. The question is, who benefits from high costs, then?
The answer cannot be that these politicians are all corrupt. The inefficiency in construction does not go to any serious politician’s pockets. Corruption might, but that requires me to believe that all relevant mayors and governors take bribes, which I wouldn’t believe of Italy, let alone the United States. One or two crooks could plausibly lead to cost explosion in one place, but it is not plausible that every serious politician in the New York area in the last decade has been both corrupt and in on the exact same grift.
Another answer I’d like to exclude is powerful interest groups. For example, if the main cause of high American construction costs were unions, then this would explain why governors all over the more liberal states don’t make an effort to build infrastructure more cheaply. However, there are enough high-cost states with right-wing politics and anti-union laws. The other entrenched interest groups are quite weak nationwide, for example planners, who politicians of all flavors love to deride as unelected bureaucrats.
The pattern of competence and incompetence
In my dealings with New York, I’ve noticed a pattern: the individual planners I talk to are curious, informed, and very sharp, and I don’t just mean the ones who leak confidential information to me. This does not stop at the lower levels: while most of my dealings with planners were with people who are my age or not much older, one of my sources speaks highly of their supervisor, and moreover my interactions with senior planners at the MTA when Eric Goldwyn and I pitched our bus redesign were positive. Eric also reports very good interactions with bus drivers and union officials.
In contrast, the communications staff is obstructive and dishonest. Moreover, the most senior layer of management is simply incompetent. Adam Rahbee describes it as “the higher up you get, the less reasonable people are” (my paraphrase, not a direct quote); he brings up work he proposed to do on reworking on the subway schedules, but the head of subway operations did not have the budget to hire an outside consultant and the higher-up managers did not even know that there was a problem with trains running slower than scheduled (“running time”).
A number of area observers have also noticed how MTA head Ronnie Hakim, a Cuomo appointee, was responsible to much of the recent spate of subway slowdowns. Hakim, with background in law rather than operations, insisted speed should not be a priority according to Dan Rivoli’s sources. The operations staff seem to hate her, judging by the number and breadth of anonymous sources naming her as one of several managers who are responsible for the problem.
The pattern is, then, that the put-upon public workers who run the trains day in, day out are fine. It’s the political appointees who are the problem. I don’t have nearly so many sources at other transit agencies, but what I have seen there, at least in Boston and San Francisco, is consistent with the same pattern.
Quite often, governors who aim to control cost institute general hiring freezes, via managers brought in from the outside, even if some crucial departments are understaffed. For example, Boston has an epidemic of bus bunching, is staffed with only 5-8 dispatchers at a given time, and can’t go up to the necessary 15 or so because of a hiring freeze. The 40 or so full-time dispatchers who are needed to make up the difference cost much less than the overtime for bus drivers coming from the bunching, to say nothing of the extra revenue the MBTA could get if, with the same resources, its buses ran more punctually. In the name of prudence and saving money, the MBTA wastes it.
The risk aversion pattern
The above section has two examples of political interference making operations worse: a hiring freeze at the MBTA (and also at the MTA), and Ronnie Hakim deemphasizing train speed out of fear of lawsuits. There is a third example, concerning capital planning: Cuomo’s interference with the L shutdown, well covered by local sources like Second Avenue Sagas, in which the governor effectively took sides in an internal dispute against majority opinion just because engineering professors in the minority had his ear. All three examples have a common thread: the negative political interference is in a more risk-averse direction – hiring fewer people, running slower trains, performing ongoing maintenance with kludges rather than a long-term shutdown.
The importance of risk-aversion is that some of the problems concerning American construction costs are about exactly that. Instead of forcing agencies that fight turf battles to make nice, political leaders build gratuitous extra infrastructure to keep them on separate turf, for example in California for high-speed rail. Only when these turf battles risk a visible project, such as the LIRR’s opposition to Penn Station Access, do the politicians act. Costs are not so visible, so politicians let them keep piling, using slush funds and raiding the rest of the budget.
In New York, the mined stations, too, are a problem of risk-aversion. Instead of opening up portions of Second Avenue for 18 months and putting it platforms, the MTA preferred to mine stations from a smaller dig, a five-year project that caused less street disruption over a longer period of time. An open dig would invite open political opposition from within the neighborhood; dragging it over five years may have caused even more disruption, but it was less obtrusive. The result: while the tunneling for Second Avenue Subway was about twice as expensive as in Paris, the stations were each seven times as expensive. The overall multiplier is a factor of seven because overheads were 11 times as expensive, and because the stop spacing on Second Avenue is a bit narrower than on the Paris Metro extension I’m comparing it with.
In contrast with the current situation in New York, what I keep proposing is politically risky. It involves expanding public hiring, not on a massive level, but on a level noticeable enough that if one worker underperforms, it could turn into a minor political scandal in which people complain about big government. It involves promoting smart insiders as well as hiring smart outsiders – and those outsiders should have industry experience, like Andy Byford at New York City Transit today, not political experience, like the MBTA’s Luis Ramirez or the FRA’s Sarah Feinberg; by itself, hiring such people is not risky, but giving them more latitude to operate is, as Cuomo discovered when Byford began proposing his own agenda for subway investment.
On the engineering level, it involves more obtrusive construction: tunnels and els, not bus lanes that are compromised to death – and the tunnels may involve cut-and-cover at stations to save money. Regional rail is obtrusive politically, as modernization probably requires removal of many long-time managers who are used to the current way of doing things (in Toronto, the engineers at GO Transit obstructed the RER program, which was imposed from Metrolinx), and in New York the elimination of Long Island and the northern suburbs’ respective feudal ownership of the LIRR and Metro-North. The end result saves money, but little kings of hills will object and even though American states have the power to overrule them, they don’t want the controversy.
The fish rots from the head
American transportation infrastructure does not work, and is getting worse. The costs of building more of it are extremely high, and seem to increase with every construction cycle. Operating costs for public transit run the gamut, but in the most important transit city, New York, they are the highest among large world cities, and moreover, the cheapest option for extending high-quality public transit to the suburbs, regional rail, is not pursued except in Silicon Valley and even there it’s a half-measure.
The problems are political. Heavyweight politicians could use their power to force positive reforms, but in a number of states where they’ve been able to do so on favorable terms, they’ve done no such thing. On the contrary, political influence has been negative, installing incompetent or dishonest managers and refusing to deal with serious long-term problems with operations and maintenance.
The reason politicians are obstructive is not that there’s no gain in improving the state of public services. On the contrary, there is a huge potential upside to getting credit for eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse and delivering government projects for much cheaper than was thought possible. But they look at minor controversies that could come from bypassing local power brokers, who as a rule have a fraction of the influence of a governor or big city mayor, or from building bigger projects than the minimum necessary to be able to put their names or something, and stop there.
One animal analogy for this is that the fish rots from the head: the worst abuses come from the top, where politicians prefer slow degradation of public services to a big change that is likely to succeed but risks embarrassment or scandal. The other animal analogy is that, through a system that rewards people who talk big and act small, American politics creates a series of chickenshit leaders.
Lately I’ve seen some very aggressive people on social media assert that high American transit construction and operating costs are the fault of unions, and thus, the solution is to break the unions using the usual techniques of subterfuge and breaking implicit promises. A while back, maybe a year ago, I even saw someone argue that gadgetbahn (monorails, PRT, Hyperloop, etc.) is specifically a solution to union agreements covering traditional transit but not things that are marketed as new things. This is an incorrect analysis of the problem, and like many other incorrect analyses, the solutions that would follow were this analysis correct are in fact counterproductive.
American costs are high even without unions
The majority of American transit construction occurs in parts of the country with relatively strong unions. This is for historical reasons: American cities with large prewar cores are both more unionized and more densely populated than newer Sunbelt cities. Thus, a table with cities and their subway construction costs, such as what one might get cobbling together my posts, will show very high costs mostly in cities with American unions.
However, American cities with weak unions build transit too, it’s just unlikely to come with subway tunnels. We can look at above-ground urban rail construction costs in a variety of American states with right-to-work laws. There is one recent above-ground metro line in a right-to-work state, the Washington Silver Line in Virginia, and another proposal, an extension of MARTA. Let’s compare their costs with those of other mostly at-grade urban rail lines in unionized West Coast states:
- The second phase of the Silver Line cost $2.8 billion, or about $150 million per km.
- The proposed MARTA extension is projected to cost about $110 million per km.
- Portland’s Milwaukie MAX extension, which Wikipedia says cost $1.5 billion for 11.7 km, or $130 million per km.
- San Diego’s mixed elevated and rail right-of-way Blue Line extension is currently budgeted at $2.1 billion, or $120 million per km.
- The canceled BART extension to Livermore in a freeway median would have cost $1.6 billion, or $180 million per km.
We can go lower than this range by looking at street-running light rail lines, which are popular in such Sunbelt cities as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte, but then we can compare them with light rail lines in Minneapolis, which has no right-to-work laws.
- Dallas’s Orange Line cost either $1.3 billion or $1.8 billion, or $2.8 billion, so either $58 or 80 million per km.
- Houston’s Green and Purple Lines together cost $1.3 billion, about $80 million per km.
- Phoenix’s light rail extension to Gilbert Road is $186 million, about $60 million per km. A canceled extension to Glendale was projected to cost $900 million to $1 billion, around $90 million per km.
- Charlotte’s light rail extension cost $1.1 billion, about $75 million per km.
- Minneapolis’s light rail extensions, the Blue Line extension and the Southwest LRT, are $1.5 and $2 billion respectively, or about $75 and $80 million per km.
Let’s also look at commuter rail. Dallas’s Cotton Belt Line, a diesel line in a disused freight right-of-way, is projected to cost $1.1 billion for 42 km. The cost, $26 million per km, is within the normal European range for greenfield high-speed rail without tunnels, and more than an order of magnitude higher than some German examples from Hans-Joachim Zierke’s site. In Massachusetts, the plans for South Coast Rail cost around $3 billion for 77.6 km before some recent modifications cutting both cost and length, about $40 million per km; this would have included electrification and right-of-way construction through an environmentally sensitive area, since bypassed to cut costs.
Finally, what of operating costs? There, the Sunbelt is unambiguously cheaper than the Northeast, Chicago, and California – but only by virtue of lower market wages. The cost ranges for both sets of states are wide. In Chicago and San Francisco, the operating costs of rapid transit are not much higher than $5/car-km per the NTD, which is normal or if anything below average by first-world standards. Light rail looks more expensive to operate in old unionized cities, but only because Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco’s light rail lines are subway-surface lines with low average speeds, which are more expensive to run than the faster greenfield light rail lines built elsewhere in North America. The lowest operating costs on recently-built light rail lines in the US are in Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Denver, and among those only the first is in a right-to-work state.
Non-labor problems in American transit
I urge everyone to look at the above lists of American transit lines and their costs again, because it showcases something important: high American costs are not a uniform problem, but rather afflict some areas more than others. Commuter rail construction costs are the worst, casually going over European levels by a full order of magnitude or even more. Subway operating costs are the best, ranging from no premium at all in some cities (Chicago) to a factor-of-2 premium in others (New York). Light rail construction costs are in the middle. The variety of cost premiums suggests that there are other problems in play than just labor, which should hit everything to about the same extent.
When I’m asked to explain high American construction costs, I usually cite the following explanations:
- Poor contracting practices, which include selection of bidders based exclusively on cost, micromanagement making companies reluctant to do business with New York public works, and design-build contracts removing public oversight and encouraging private-sector micromanagement.
- Poor project management: Boston’s Green Line Extension is now budgeted at about $1 billion for 7.6 km, but this is on the heels of an aborted attempt from earlier this decade, driving up total money spent beyond $2 billion.
- Indifference to foreign practices: Americans at all levels, including transit agencies, shadow agencies like the Regional Plan Association, and government bodies do not know or care how things work in other countries, with the partial exception of Canada and the UK, which have very high costs as well. The area where there has been the greatest postwar innovation in non-English-speaking countries, namely commuter rail, is the one where the US is the farthest behind when it comes to cost control. Explanation #1 can be folded into this as well, since the insistences on cost + technical score bid selection and on separation of design and construction are Spanish innovations, uncommon and obscure in the English-speaking world.
- Overbuilding: extra infrastructure required by agency turf battles, extra construction impact required by same, and mined stations. Other than the mined stations, the general theme is poor coordination between different agencies, which once again is especially bad when commuter rail is involved for historical reasons, and which in addition to raising costs also leads to lower project benefits.
Labor is a factor, but evidently, the intransigent BART unions coexist with low operating costs, as do the Chicago L unions. American unions are indifferent to productivity more than actively hostile to it, and in some cases, i.e. bus reforms in New York, they’re even in favor of treatments that would encourage more people to ride public transit.
But union rules force transit agencies to overstaff, right?
In the Northeast, there are unambiguous examples of overstaffing. Brian Rosenthal’s article for the New York Times found horror stories, and upon followup, frequent commenter and Manhattan Institute fellow Connor Harris has found more systematic cases, comparing the ~25 people it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine in New York with the 12 required in Germany. The unions themselves have pushed back against this narrative, but it appears to be a known problem in the infrastructure construction industry.
So what gives? In Texas, the unions are too weak to insist on any overstaffing. Texas is not New York or even California. Without knowing the details of what goes on in Texas, my suspicion is that there is an informal national standard emerging out of mid-20th century practices in the cities that were big then. I see this when it comes to decisions about construction techniques: features that came out of the machinations of interwar New York, like the full-length subway mezzanine, spread nationwide, raising the cost of digging station caverns. I would not be surprised to discover something similar when it comes to staffing. Obvious economies like running driver-only train are already widespread nearly everywhere in the US, New York being the exception. Less obvious economies concerning maintenance regimes are harder to implement without very detailed knowledge, which small upstart Sunbelt transit agencies are unlikely to have, and if they invite consultants or other experts, they will learn to work in the same manner as the big American transit agencies.
The reality that the entirety of the American transit industry is used to doing things a certain way means that there needs to be a public discussion about staffing levels. There are jobs that look superfluous but are in fact crucial, and jobs that are the opposite. The cloak-and-dagger mentality of anti-union consultants does not work in this context at all. Experimentation is impossible on a safety-critical system, and nothing should be changed without double- and triple-checking that it works smoothly.
Anti-union explanations are harmful, not neutral
While union overstaffing does drive up tunneling costs in the United States, there are many other factors in play, which must be solved by other means than union-busting. By itself, this would make union-busting either neutral or somewhat positive. However, in reality, the politics of union-busting wreck government effectiveness in ways that make the overall cost problem worse.
The people who try to tell me the problem is all about the unions are not, as one might expect, Manhattan Institute hacks. Connor himself knows better, and Nicole Gelinas has been making narrow arguments about pension cuts rather than calling for sweeping changes to leave unions in the dust. Rather, the loudest anti-union voices are people who either are in tech or would like to be, and like using the word “disruption” in every sentence. The Manhattan Institute is pretty open about its goals of union-busting and race-baiting; in contrast, the people who tell me gadgetbahn is necessary to avoid union agreements insist on never being public about anything.
The rub is that it’s not possible to solve the coordination problem of public transit agencies without some sort of public process. Adding gadgetbahn to the mix creates the same result as the XKCD strip about 14 competing standards. The more the people building it insist that they’re disruptive synergistic innovators inventing the future with skin in the game, the less likely they are to build something that’s likely to be backward-compatible with anything or cohere to form a usable network.
Nor is it possible to assimilate good industry practices by cloak and dagger politics. The universe of industry practices is vast and the universe of good practices isn’t much smaller. The only way forward is via an open academic or quasi-academic process of publication, open data, peer review, and replication. A single consultancy is unlikely to have all the answers, although with enough study it could disseminate considerable knowledge.
There needs to be widespread public understanding that the United States is behind and needs to import reforms to improve its transportation network. This can happen in parallel with a process that weakens unions or for that matter with a process that strengthens them, but in practice the subterfuge of managers looking for union-busting opportunities makes it difficult to attack all cost drivers at once. Whatever happens with conventional left-right politics, there is no room for people who reduce the entirety or even the majority of America’s transit cost problem to labor.
American progressive media is talking about the possibility of a Green New Deal, which involves spending money in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. So far details are scant, and most likely no real plan is likely to emerge for a number of years, since the proposal is pushed by the Democratic base, which is no more supportive of cooperation with President Trump than I am. Because the plan is so early, people are opining about what should go in it. My purpose in this post is to explain what I think the main priorities should be, and to leave to others the politics of how to package them.
The primacy of transportation
The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation, electricity generation, and industry. In the US this is in descending order, transportation having just overtaken power generation; the reduction in coal burning and the collapse in solar power production costs are such that in the long term, electricity generation should be viewed as a solved problem in the long term. Lingering issues with storage and base load are real, but the speed of progress is such that ordinary taxes on carbon should be enough to fix whatever is left of the problem.
Transportation is the exact opposite. American transportation emissions fell in the 2007-8 oil price spike and ensuing economic crisis but are now increasing again. Newer cars have higher fuel efficiency, but Americans are buying bigger cars and driving more. Electric cars, the favored solution of people who think spending $50,000 on a new car is reasonable, are still a niche luxury market and have trouble scaling up. Scratch an American futurist who looks exclusively at electric cars and denigrates mass transit and you’ll wound a solipsist who looks for excuses to avoid the humiliation of having to support something where other countries lead and the US lags.
The upshot is that the primary (but not the only) focus of any green push has to be expansion of public transportation. This includes ancillary policies for urban redevelopment and livable streets, which have the dual effects of buttressing public transit and reducing residential emissions through higher-density living. Overall, this turns any such program into a large public works project.
Spend money right
It’s paramount to make sure to avoid wasting money. A large infrastructure program would run into an appreciable fraction of federal spending; money is always a constraint, even when the goal is to spend funds on economic stimulus. The first lesson here is to keep construction costs under control. But an equally fundamental lesson is to make sure to spend money on transit expansion and not other things:
Don’t spend money on roads
A large majority of American public spending on transportation is on roads. Adding in subsidies for cars makes the proportion go even higher. It reflects current travel patterns, but if the goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of driving, the government can’t keep pumping money into road infrastructure. Accept that in developed countries the generally useful roads have already been built, and future construction just induces people to suburbanize further and drive longer distances.
Congress spends transportation money in multi-year chunks. The most recent bill passed in 2015 for five years, totaling $300 billion, of which $50 billion went to public transit and $200 billion went to highways. Raiding the road fund should be the primary source of additional transit funding: most of the line workers and engineers can build either, and even the physical act of building a freeway is not too different from that of building a high-speed railway. In contrast, outside of a deep recession, increasing total spending on transportation infrastructure requires hiring more workers, leading to large increases in costs as the program runs up against the limit of the available construction labor in the country.
$60 billion a year on public transit is a decent chunk of money for a long-term program, especially with expected state matches. Over the next decade it would be $600 billion, and around a trillion with state and local matches, if they are forthcoming (which they may not be because of how political incentives are lined up). That is, it’d a decent chunk of money if the federal government understands the following rule:
Fund expansion, not maintenance or operations
The sole legitimate source of regular budgeting for public transit is regular spending at the relevant level of government, which is state or local in the United States. Outside infusions of money like federal spending are bad government, because they incentivize deferring maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then crying poverty when it is generous. Amtrak did just that in the 2000s: faced with pressure from the Bush administration to look profitable for future privatization, Amtrak fired David Gunn, who wouldn’t defer maintenance, and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman; then in the economic crisis and the stimulus, it discovered a multi-billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, permitting it to ask for money without having to show any visible results.
If the federal government credibly commits to not funding state of good repair backlogs or normal replacement, and to penalizing agencies that defer maintenance and giving them less money for expansion, it can encourage better behavior. Unlike ongoing maintenance, capital expansion is not necessary for continued operations, and thus if funding dries up and a transit agency stops expanding, there will not be problems with service cancellation, slow zones, frequency-ridership spirals, and other issues familiar to New Yorkers in the 1970s or Washingtonians today.
One potential way to change things is to federally fund expansion without expecting much if any local match, provided the agency commits to spending the required operating funds on running the service in question. This separation of federal and local responsibility also reduces the political incentives to grandstand by rejecting federal money in order to make the president look bad.
Build the rail lines that are appropriate
Each region in the US should be getting transit expansion money in rough proportion to its population. However, the meaning of transit depends on the local and regional geography:
- In big cities it means rapid transit expansion: new lines for the New York City Subway, the Chicago L, etc. In somewhat smaller cities with light rail-based systems it means light rail expansion, which may also involve upgrading at-grade light rail to full rapid transit: Dallas is considering a downtown tunnel for its light rail network and Los Angeles is already building one, and those could lead to upgrading capacity elsewhere on the system to permit longer trains.
- In suburbs and some smaller cities with large mainline rail networks, it means commuter rail. It’s especially valuable in the Northeast and secondarily in the Midwest and the odd older Southern city: cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati don’t really have compelling corridors for greenfield urban rail, but do have interesting S-Bahn corridors.
- In periurban and rural areas, it means longer-range regional rail, transitioning to intercity rail in lower-density areas. In some smaller metro areas, it means actual intercity rail to bigger cities. Examples include Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, both of which can be connected with Denver, and Hans-Joachim Zierke’s proposed regional rail line for Medford, Oregon.
I focus on rail and not buses for two simple reasons: rail has higher capital and lower operating costs, so it’s more relevant for a capital program, and rail gets higher ridership for reasons including better right-of-way quality and better ride quality.
Transmit knowledge of best practices
The federal government has the ability to assimilate best practices for both limiting construction costs and designing good transit networks. Local governments can learn the same, but for the most part they don’t care. Instead they run their transit systems in manage-the-decline mode, only occasionally hearing about something done in London, hardly the best-run European transit city.
The best practices for network design are especially important given the magnitude of the program. The US is not spending $60 billion nationwide a year on transit expansion. The NTD says annual spending on capital among the top 50 American transit agencies was $14.6 billion as of 2016 (source, PDF-p. 11), and a lot of that (e.g. most of the MTA’s $3.5 billion capital expenditure) is the black holes that are state of good repair and normal replacement. $60 billion a year apportioned by population is on the order of $2 billion for New York City annually, which is $20 billion over 10 years, and the city doesn’t necessarily know how to spend that money even at today’s construction costs, let alone rational construction costs.
At least New York has an internal bank of enthusiasts at the MTA and at shadow agencies like the RPA who have ideas for how to spend this money. Smaller cities for the most part don’t. Does Cleveland have any idea what it would do with $5 billion over ten years for regionwide transit expansion? Does Tampa? The federal government has to play an educational role in giving regions sample zoning codes for TOD, network design guidelines, and procurement guidelines that help reduce costs.
Start planning now
A large infrastructure bill planned for 2021 has to be planned now. Its proponents do not intend for it to be a regular jobs program based on existing local wishlists: they intend for it to represent a shift in national priorities, which means that each item of spending has to be planned in advance, mostly from scratch. It means the political work of aligning various interest groups toward the same goal has to start early, which seems to be what the proponents are doing; even the name Green New Deal evokes progressive nostalgia for olden days before neoliberalism.
But alongside the political work, there must be good technical work. Regional planning agencies have to be aware this may be coming and have to have solid ideas for how they’d like to spend a few billion dollars over the decade. Simultaneously, organs including federal offices like the GAO, transit agencies, shadow agencies, and thinktanks have to learn and transmit a culture of good operating and capital practices. A government that plays a bigger role in the economy or in society has to become more competent; managerial competence is required for any program that allocates money with any precision, and very good cost control is a must to make sure the available budget goes to a green transition and isn’t wasted on red tape.
After the midterm election 2.5 weeks ago, there began calls for an infrastructure deal. The details, as always, were always vague, but the idea is that congressional Democrats and President Trump will agree on a bill to spend about a trillion dollars on infrastructure. What infrastructure is at stake is not specified, except that some New York-based commentators (and Senator Schumer) are calling for federal funding of the Gateway project; whether to pay for the program with deficit spending, tax hikes, or cutting other spending is not specified either. The good news is that such a deal isn’t likely to happen, for roughly the same reasons such a deal would be a bad idea in the first place. However, just in case some people reading this blog might like the idea of such a grand bargain, I’d like to spell the reasons why such a deal would be a waste of money.
What is the purpose of an infrastructure deal, anyway?
Given around a year of something approaching full-time work, I could identify a trillion dollars’ worth of useful public transportation investment in the United States. Given that I’d also look for ways to cut construction costs (which I’m almost certain Congress has not seriously tried), and given that there are other infrastructure priorities than transit, it should not be hard to come up with a long-term 13-figure program.
However, I’m fairly certain there hasn’t been any serious attempt to list infrastructure projects that should be covered under this plan. The main clue is that if there were any, the people trying to sell the public on such a deal would mention them as concrete benefits. This has happened with Gateway: people around the New York area are desperate for federal funding to cover the project’s extreme cost, and do not shy from mentioning it as a beneficiary of a grand bargain. But with anything else, there’s nothing.
For example, nobody in California has said anything about federal funds for the state’s flagging high-speed rail project, even though it would be a natural candidate for a bipartisan deal between Trump and congressional Democrats (the state’s Republican delegation opposed the project, but much of it was wiped out in the midterm). Elsewhere, there are both road and transit projects in red state cities that are hungry for funding, some of which were on the Trump administration’s list of projects to fund last year, in one of the interminable Infrastructure Week pushes that went nowhere. Nothing comparable has surfaced this month.
The lack of detail about the plan suggests it’s not really serious policy. It’s a trial balloon – one that’s failing because of the political situation. But in the event anything comes out of it, it will be a half-thought plan, created for the purpose of spending money and doing something that gives the appearance of bipartisan consensus.
The US economy is not in a recession
The point of a Keynesian stimulus is to prop up the economy during recessions. The American economy right now has 3.7% unemployment, which is more or less full employment, and 2.5% inflation, which is a hair above target. Additional spending would be great for me – it would strengthen the dollar, personally helping me as someone who earns dollars and spends euros. But for the putative target of the bill – the American people – the only effect would be fiscal constraints. The country needs to think about reducing the deficit, not about increasing it in a show of bipartisan unity.
Worse, the stimulus effect of new government spending comes from the net change in annual spending, whereas the deficit effect comes from overall annual spending. A big infrastructure bill would only act as economic stimulus in the earliest phases, when the spending rate would ramp up. Subsequently, it would have no effect on growth or on employment. David Dayen made this point regarding the 2009 stimulus: it had a big effect on American economic growth in 2009, but as the spending rate reached its maximum in 2010, the net effect of federal spending on growth turned negative in the third quarter of 2010, even before the Republican victory in the midterm, long before most stimulus funds were actually spent.
This does not mean that infrastructure funding is out of the question. A serious bill that is crafted to be deficit-neutral in the short as well as long term could do good; it is also close to impossible. Some Democratic pundits have trolled the conversation by proposing pairing it with repealing Trump’s tax cuts, but the probability of a grand bargain that raises taxes to pay for extra spending is approximately zero. Cutting other spending is extremely unlikely as well – unlike state and local governments, domestic federal spending doesn’t have enough waste to fund a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, and what waste does exist is locked up in Medicare, which is politically untouchable.
The state of the American economy is such that it’s a great idea to design an infrastructure bill, to be deployed at the next recession. There could be a list of priority projects for public transportation (or other forms of infrastructure) chosen for a combination of cost-effectiveness and nationwide spread. While designing this plan, the federal government would make the process open, to let local and state governments know what is happening and offer them the opportunity to submit their choice projects for consideration. The federal government should also insist that they not defer maintenance now hoping to score state of good repair money later – for example, I would propose to credibly commit to only funding expansion but not maintenance, and to defund projects run by agencies that defer maintenance (such as Boardman-era Amtrak). The plan would be funded, with deficit spending, at the next recession, which analysts expect to start in the next few years.
The federal government is unusually corrupt
If the above plan of coming up with a measured infrastructure plan, with incentives to encourage good behavior among state and local governments, sounds like science fiction, it’s because the federal government today doesn’t have the capability of carrying out such a program. Part of it is generic public-sector weakness within the United States, making it hard to make long-term plans; the civil service is weak, and politicians make capricious decisions, so nothing like the TGV, Grand Paris Express, High Speed 2, and Crossrail – all bipartisan projects within their respective countries – can happen.
But there’s a bigger problem now: Trump. Trump himself is corrupt in ways that go far beyond the affairs of scandal-ridden past presidents like Clinton and George W. Bush, and this affects how people think of infrastructure. The US has a public transportation cost premium of nearly a full order of magnitude over comparable countries. Such a premium must have multiple causes, but one cause is corruption: we’ve already seen how political interference by Schumer helped double the cost of Amtrak’s rolling stock procurement. Trump’s scandals easily surpass Schumer’s.
This goes beyond partisanship. Atrios has been a partisan Democrat since his blog’s early days, and yet he’s called for SUPERTRAINS (always in caps) since mid-2008, when the idea of stimulus became part of the American public conversation. At the time Obama was ahead in the polls, but he was not guaranteed to win, and years of Bush had gotten the Democratic base used to opposing anything a Republican president did; and yet, center-left writers like Atrios and Matt Yglesias (at the time transitioning from the Republican bloggers’ favorite Democrat to a conventional partisan liberal Democrat) were fine endorsing an infrastructure program in an uncertain partisan climate.
In theory, the extent of Trump’s corruption is small compared with the magnitude of the program. It’s billions of dollars at worst versus a trillion. In practice, the presence of the current president at the helm of any program screams at contractors, “make an effort to stay at Trump hotels and Mar-a-Lago, not to make a cheap and technically sound bid.” The extra cost coming from contractors slouching in the bidding and construction phases can easily soak up hundreds of billions of dollars out of the trillion: in Brian Rosenthal’s article about high New York costs, contractors quoted a premium of about 25% just from MTA red tape, and Trump’s personal corruption is probably on the same order of magnitude.
Ultimately, it’s fine to wait
In late 2008 and early 2009, the American economy was spiraling into the deepest recession since 1946; in that climate, rushing the stimulus was desirable. The situation today is not like that at all. There’s time to develop an infrastructure plan based on one’s combination of political preference and belief about the future (e.g. will Trump be reelected?, and who will control Congress after 2020?). There’s no point in passing a plan that exists purely to spend money and to show that Congress can enact big policies.
Since there’s no rush, and no need to deficit-spend right now, there’s grounds for demanding better of the government. Any infrastructure plan should be based on clear needs: that is, a national blueprint (such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or spreading infrastructure funding to poor states, or a similar political goal), a list of items designed to maximize cost-effectiveness within the blueprint’s parameters, and a federal civil service that can implement the construction of these items with maximum efficiency.
The incompetent and the corrupt should have no role to play in this program, and this begins with the current president. If it’s not possible to remove deadwood from the federal government, it’s fine to indefinitely postpone any big federal infrastructure plan. Nothing there would be indispensable; if Congress wants to deficit-spend money to create jobs, it can choose policies that are less sensitive to public-sector competence, such as tax cuts, unemployment benefits (not a big factor today but by definition a big one in a recession), and aid to states. With infrastructure that most of the developed world laughs at the US still manages to be one of the richest countries in the world; filling in the gap in public transportation is desirable, but the country won’t collapse if the gap persists.
To the transportation user, holidays are nothing but pain. Synchronized travel leads to traffic jams and very high rail and air fares, and synchronized shopping by car leads to parking pain. American commercial parking minimums are designed around the few busiest days of the year (source, endnote #8), timed for the Christmas rush. In France, synchronized travel at the beginning and end of school holidays is so bad that each region begins and ends its winter and spring breaks on different dates. There’s so much travel pain, and associated waste in designing transportation around it, that it’s worth asking why even bother.
The travel pain is even worse than mere congestion. When I visited London in early July, Eurostar broke in both directions. This was not a pair of random delays. French holiday travel is synchronized even though there are two months of summer break and only about one month of paid vacation net of the other holidays: traditionally people from all over the country and the world visit Paris in July, and then Parisians visit other places in August.
With slow boarding at the stations courtesy of security theater and manual ticket checks with just two access points per train, it takes longer than usual to board the trains when they are full. With full trains throughout the day, the delays cascaded, so by afternoon the trains were hours off schedule. Eurostar let passengers on trains on practically a first-come, first-served basis: people with tickets on a train got to ride the next available train. I had a ticket on an 11:39 train, and got to ride the train that was nominally the 11:13 (there were a few available seats) but departed at 12:58, and my nominally-11:39 train departed even later.
Eurostar’s inability to deal with crowds that occur annually, at a time when revenue is highest, is pure incompetence. But even if that particular problem is resolved, the more fundamental problem of unnecessary swings in travel volumes remains. On domestic TGVs it’s seen in wild price swings. Today is the 8th. In two weeks, a one-way TGV ticket from Paris to Marseille costs €72-74 on Thursday the 22nd or Friday the 23rd (Friday is the traditional peak weekend travel date and increasingly Thursday joins it) and about €62 on Saturday the 24th. But next month, on the 23rd, I see tickets for about €150, and even the low-comfort OuiGo option, which usually has €10 tickets (from the suburbs, not Paris proper), shoots up to €100; even with these prices, most trains are sold out already.
In some cultures, common holidays serve a religious or otherwise traditional purpose of bringing the extended family together. This is the case for Chinese New Year, which causes overcrowding on the mainline rail network at the beginning and end of the holiday as urban workers visit their families back home, often in faraway interior provinces. The same tradition of extended families occurs on Passover, but Israel has little travel pain, as it is so small that Seder travel is the same as any other afternoon rush hour.
However, there is no religious or social value to synchronized school holidays, nor is there such value to Western holidays. Western Christian civilization has centered nuclear families over extended families for around a millennium. In modern-day American culture, people seem to spend far more time complaining about the racist uncle than saying anything positive about catching up with relatives.
Christmas has religious significance, but much of the way it is celebrated in rich countries today is recent. The emphasis on shopping is not traditional, for one. The travel peak is probably unavoidable, since Christmas and New Year’s are at a perfect distance from each other for a week-long voyage, but everything else is avoidable. A source working for a bookstore in Florida, located strategically on the highway between Disneyland and the coast, told me of two prominent peaks. In the summer there would be a broad peak, consisting mostly of European tourists with their long paid vacations. But then there would be a much sharper peak for the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, in which the store would fill every cashier stall and pressure employees, many of whom temps working seasonally, to work overtime and get customers through as quickly as possible.
Some holidays have political significance, such as various national days, but those do not have to create travel peaks or shopping peaks. Bastille Day doesn’t.
Finally, while it’s accepted in Western countries today that summer is the nicest season to travel, this was not always the case, and even today there are some exceptions. The Riviera’s peak season used to be winter, as the English rich fled England’s dreary winters to the beaches; Promenade des Anglais in Nice is named after 19th century winter vacationers. When I lived in Stockholm, I was more excited to visit the Riviera in the winter, fleeing 3 pm sunsets, than in the summer. Today, Japan has a peak for the cherry blossom in the spring, while in New England (and again in Japan) there is a tradition of leaf peeping in the fall.
Instead of centering synchronized holidays, it’s better for states to spread travel as well as shopping behavior throughout the year as much as possible. Different people have different preferences for seasonality, and this is fine.
For bigger shopping seasons, the best thing to do is to emphasize birthdays. Instead of trying to fix major holidays, the way Lincoln did for Thanksgiving, it’s better to encourage people to make their biggest trips and biggest shopping around birthdays, anniversaries, saint days in Catholic countries, and idiosyncratic or subculturally significant days (such as conventions for various kinds of geeks). There are already well-placed traditions of birthday and anniversary gifts. In academia it’s also normal to extend conference trips into longer vacations, when they don’t conflict with teaching schedules.
The impact on labor is reduced seasonality, and far less peak stress. With less seasonal employment, the natural rate of unemployment may also end up slightly lower. The impact on transportation is a large reduction in travel peaks, which would make it easier to run consistent scheduled service year-round, and to maintain car travel and parking capacity at its average day level rather than building parking lots that go unused 364 days out of every year.
After I criticized Cuomo’s Genius Challenge earlier this year, I saw some comment, I think on the Manhattan Contrarian, to the effect that even if the winning proposals suck the idea of the contest is still good because the MTA needs fresh advice. The argument is that a sclerotic organization like just about every state or local government agency in the US needs to be shaken up using outside ideas. The American private sector, which is very productive, is a good source of ideas, according to this line.
This notion is unfortunately wrong. Outside advice is useful, but leveraging the success of American business is not possible in transportation. Outsiders need a lot of grounding within the field to be able to contribute (and this includes myself). In some cases the best single source of fresh advice is not even from the outside, but from internal planners who the political appointees ignore.
The tyranny of the org chart
Aaron Renn tells a story from when he worked in management consulting: after years of leading projects advising other firms, he was tasked with improving the managerial efficiency of the firm where he worked. His ideas were ignored, because the organization chart said that he was middle management, and so senior management didn’t have to do what he said. When he consulted for other firms it was not like this, because consultants have titles that deliberately obfuscate the fact that in their own firm they are middle management, and thus senior management considers them peers outside their firm’s org chart and listens.
What’s more, many of the consultants’ ideas come from conversations with lower-level employees. The low- and mid-level workers pitch ideas that their managers ignore because of the tyranny of the org chart, and the consultants then take the better ideas, rebrand them as outside advice, and sell them to the people at the top. Employee resentment toward consultants often hinges on the fact that consultants take credit for ideas they heard from grunt workers.
A lot of transit reforms in the United States have this flavor. TransitCenter relies on best industry practices for its recommendations, but in some cases it learns what these practices are from passed-over planners. When I talked to Zak Accuardi last year about measuring punctuality on urban transit, he explained the concept of excess journey time to me, but then added that he learned from conversations with NYCT planners that this metric exists and is used in London and Singapore.
The bus redesign Eric and I have been working on has some of that, too. We have a lot of our own ideas, coming from independent research, but we’ve talked regularly to some of the mid-level planners for sanity checks. In particular, while we got the idea for a Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel bus route between Red Hook and Lower Manhattan from a railfan, I talked to one of the bus planners at NYCT about the idea and was told that the planners were already thinking in the same direction.
When consultant advice is not based on laundering internal ideas to avoid getting stuck in the tyranny of the org chart, it comes instead from best industry practices. What a consultant needs to know is how the successful players in the relevant industry work. This is more than a simple laundry list of practices: there is a range of different options that work (Swiss and Japanese rail practices are not the same), and a dazzling array of local circumstances that can make some options a better fit for a specific client than others.
As it happens, NYCT is led by someone who is familiar with some better practices: Andy Byford, who has experience working in London, Sydney, and Toronto. He can be assumed to be familiar with the best English-speaking practices; Transport for London would not be my first choice for best practices worldwide or even Europe-wide, but it’s better than anything else that speaks English and is far better than anything in the United States.
It’s worth noting that it’s important to understand not just the best practices themselves but how to implement them. I’ve noticed this with various reform ideas that rely on European rail successes: there’s a reasonably deep bench of Americans who understand how some features work in London, but practically none who understand how they work in Paris, Madrid, Stockholm, Munich, Zurich, or Prague.
This is a clear-cut case of where outside advice would be valuable to American transit agencies. However, the snag is that there is no reason to expect the American private sector to be able to dispense any such advice. The bench of multilingual Americans is shallow, and a disproportionate share of those are second-generation immigrants who are heritage speakers of a language but often can’t read technical materials in it. What I know and what I’ve learned about best practices has involved talking to railfans from other countries who speak English who tell me about how Switzerland, Japan, Czechia, etc. work.
One of the themes I’ve been harping on since this blog’s early days is that public transit is 19th-century technology, and as such its corporate culture is one of incremental tweaks and not revolutionary changes. In this situation, it’s very difficult to come up with good ideas without very solid grounding in the domain. It’s nothing like tech, where people could invent their own platforms and succeed by first-mover advantage (did Amazon really need to know the bookselling business in the 1990s?).
This does not mean there is no room for new ideas. On the contrary. Old industries like public transit, cars, household appliances, and agriculture are full of innovation. But they are less likely to involve the personal brilliance of a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos and more likely to involve copying something that works elsewhere, optimizing an existing platform, or tweaking something to be incrementally better.
In particular, the way Cuomo set up the genius challenge set it up for the failure that it turned out to be. The judges had no domain knowledge. They were mostly drawn from the tech world, and could not judge a proposal on its actual merits, only on its perceived merits. The winning ideas have the same relationship to innovation that truthiness has to truth.
How to get the outside advice the MTA needs
The MTA’s sclerosis is not universal within the agency. It most acutely afflicts the top brass, especially the political appointees, who are there to shield the governor from criticism rather than to run public transit properly. The lower-level planners are often much more up to the task. The remaining gaps in MTA effectiveness come from ignorance of best practices elsewhere, in particular in places that don’t speak English.
Were the MTA to ask me how it can adopt outside advice better, I would tell it to ignore gimmicks and definitely not try to look to American business-class saviors. Instead, I’d recommend the following action items:
- Invest in better HR infrastructure to hire better people faster (today the process takes months and discourages people who can obtain private-sector work), and make sure to regularly promote people who have good ideas rather than leaving them to stew in a middle position for 10 years. If it’s impossible to get senior management to listen to underlings better organically, then restore the employee suggestion box, which at least levels mid-level planners’ and line workers’ status.
- Hire a small team to investigate and implement best practices. The team should report to the head of NYCT directly and should preferentially comprise people with extensive rest-of-country and rest-of-world experience, with an aim for a broad coverage of languages spoken, ideally including Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Chinese, most of which are fortunately represented by substantial immigrant communities in the region. The people on this team should interface with transit planners around the world in order to develop new ideas.
- Interface regularly with academics and researchers, such as Bent Flyvbjerg and his work on cost overruns, Carlos Daganzo and his work on modeling optimal transit networks, and David Levinson and his work on travel behavior. Answers to empirical questions like “what is the transfer penalty?” may change over time, and it’s easy for an organization to unwittingly use data that’s a generation out of date.
- Take more planning in-house, in order to develop institutional knowledge. In effect, this would give the MTA an acute problem of having to assimilate a vast quantity of knowledge today, instead of a slightly less acute problem of assimilating knowledge every 10 or 20 years when it discovers it’s fallen another step behind.
Building the institutional infrastructure for good transit is not easy. It’s tempting for Americans to rely on the private sector, through design-build bids, outsourcing design to consultants, and flashy tech challenges, but for all its prowess, the American private sector cannot solve transportation challenges. Higher productivity in transportation can only come from a better public sector. Outside advice that helps the MTA be more efficient is useful insofar as it helps the agency assimilate best practices and generate new ideas, and implement them. But if it aims to supplant public planning, it’s unlikely to succeed; Cuomo’s genius challenge hasn’t.
The theme of winners and losers has been on my mind for the last few months, due to the politics of the Brooklyn bus redesign. In a rich country, practically every social or political decisions is win-lose, even if the winners greatly outnumber the losers. It’s possible to guarantee a soft landing to some of the losers, but sometime even the soft landing is disruptive, and it’s crucial that backers of social change be honest with themselves and with the public about this. Overall, a shift from an auto-oriented society to a transit-oriented one and from dirty energy to clean energy is positive and must be pursued everywhere, but it does have downsides. In short, it changes economic geography in ways that make certain regions (like Detroit or the Gulf Cooperation Council states) redundant; it reorients economies toward more local consumption, so oil, gas, and heavy industry jobs would not be replaced with similar manufacturing or mining clusters but with slightly more work everywhere else in the world.
Dirty production is exportable
The United States has the dirtiest economy among the large developed countries, so it’s convenient to look at average American behavior to see where the money that is spent on polluting products goes.
Nationally, about 15.9% of consumer spending is on transportation. The vast majority of that is on cars, 93.1% (that is, 14.7% of total consumer spending). The actual purchase of the car is 42% of transportation spending, or 6.7% of household spending. This goes to an industry that, while including local dealerships (for both new and used cars), mostly consists of auto plants, making cars in suburban Detroit or in low-wage Southern states and exporting them nationwide.
In addition to this 6% of consumer spending on cars, there’s fuel. Around 3% of American household spending is on fuel for cars. Overall US oil consumption in 2017 was 7.28 billion barrels, which at $52/barrel is 5% of household spending; the difference between 5 and 3 consists of oil consumed not by households. This is a total of about 2% of American GDP, which includes, in addition to household spending, capital goods and government purchases. This tranche of the American economy, too, is not local, but rather goes to the oil industry domestically (such as to Texas or Alaska) or internationally (such as to Alberta or Saudi Arabia).
Historically, when coal was more economically significant, it was exportable too. Money flowed from consumers, such as in New York and London, to producers in the Lackawanna Valley or Northeast England; today, it still flows to remaining mines, such as in Wyoming.
The same is true of much of the supply chain for carbon-intensive products. Heavy industry in general has very high carbon content for its economic value, which explains how the Soviet Union had high greenhouse gas emissions even with low car usage (15.7 metric tons per capita in the late 1980s) – it had heavy industry just as the capital bloc did, but lagged in relatively low-carbon consumer goods and services. The economic geography of steel, cement, and other dirty products is again concentrated in industrial areas. In the US, Pittsburgh is famous for its historical steel production, and in general heavy manufacturing clusters in the Midwestern parts of the Rust Belt and in transplants in specific Southern sites.
All of these production zones support local economies. The top executives may well live elsewhere – for example, David Koch lives in New York and Charles Koch in Wichita (whose economy is based on airplane manufacturing and agriculture, neither of which the Kochs are involved in). But the working managers live in city regions dedicated to servicing the industry, the way office workers in the oil industry tend to live in Houston or Calgary, and of course the line workers live near the plants and mines.
Clean alternatives are more local
The direct alternatives to oil, gas, and cars are renewable energy and public transportation. These, too, have some components that can be made centrally and exported, such as solar panel and rolling stock manufacturing. However, these components are a small fraction of total spending.
How small? Let’s look at New York City Transit. Its operating costs are about $9.1 billion a year as of 2016, counting both the subway and buses. Nearly all of this is wages, salaries, and benefits: $7.3 billion, compared with only $500 million for materials and supplies. This specifically excludes vehicle purchases, which in American transit accounting are lumped as capital costs. The total NYCT fleet is about 6,400 subway cars, which cost around $2.3 million each and last 40+ years, and 5,700 buses, which cost around $500,000 each and last 12 years, for a total depreciation charge of around $600 million a year combined.
Compare this with cars: New York has about 2 million registered cars, but at the same average car ownership rate as the rest of the US, 845 per 1,000 people, it would have 7.3 million cars. These 5.3 million extra cars would cost $36,500 each today, and last around 20 years, for a total annual depreciation charge of $9.7 billion.
Put another way, total spending on vehicles at NYCT is one sixteenth what it would take to raise the city’s car ownership rate to match the national average. Even lumping in materials and supplies that are not equipment, such as spare parts and fuel for buses, the total, $1.1 billion, is one ninth as high as buying New Yorkers cars so that they can behave like Americans outside the city, and that’s without counting the cost of fuel. In particular, there is no hope of maintaining auto plant employment by retraining auto workers to make trains, as Michael Moore proposed in 2009.
The vast majority of transit spending is then local: bus and train operations, maintenance, and local management. The same is true of capital spending, which goes to local workers, contractors, and consultants, and even when it is outsourced to international firms, the bulk of the value of the contract does not accrue to Dragados or Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Clean energy is similarly local. Solar panels can be manufactured centrally, but installing them on rooftops is done locally. Moreover, the elimination of carbon emissions coming from buildings has to come not just from cleaner electricity but also from reducing electricity consumption through passive solar construction. Retrofitting houses to be more energy-efficient is a labor-intensive task comprising local builders sealing gaps in the walls, windows, and ceilings.
Low-carbon economic production can be exported, but not necessarily from Detroit
A global shift away from greenhouse gas emissions does not mean just replacing cars and oil with transit and solar power. Transit is cheaper to operate than cars: in metro New York, 80.5% of personal transportation expenditure is still on cars, and the rest is (as in the rest of the country) partly on air travel and not transit fare, whereas work trip mode shares in the metropolitan statistical area are 56% car, 31% transit. With its relatively high (for North America) transit usage, metro New York has the lowest share of household spending going to transportation, just 11.4%. This missing consumption goes elsewhere. Where does it go?
The answer is low-carbon industries. Consuming less oil, steel, and concrete means not just consuming more local labor for making buildings more efficient and running public transit, but also shifting consumption to less carbon-intensive industries. This low-carbon consumption includes local purchases, for example going out to eat, or hiring a babysitter to look after the kids, neither of which involves any carbon emissions. But it also includes some goods that can be made centrally. What are they, and can they be made in the same areas that make cars and steel or drill for oil and gas?
The answer is no. First, in supply regions like the Athabascan Basin, Dammam, and the North Slope of Alaksa, there’s no real infrastructure for any economic production other than oil production. The infrastructure (in the case of North America) and the institutions (in the case of the Persian Gulf) are not suited for any kind of manufacturing. Second, in real cities geared around a single industry, like Detroit or Houston, there are still lingering problems with workforce quality, business culture, infrastructure, and other necessities for economic diversification.
Take the tech industry as an example. The industry itself is very low-carbon, in the sense that software is practically zero-carbon and even hardware has low carbon content relative to its market value. Some individual tech products are dirty, such as Uber, but the industry overall is clean. A high carbon tax is likely to lead to a consumption shift toward tech. And tech as an industry has little to look for in Detroit and Houston. Austin has booming tech employment, but Houston does not, despite having an extensive engineering sector courtesy of the oil industry as well as NASA. The business culture in the space industry (which is wedded to military contracting) is alien to that of tech and vice versa; the way workers are interviewed, hired, and promoted is completely different. I doubt the engineers oil and auto industries are any more amenable to career change to software.
On the level of line workers rather than engineers, the situation is even worse. A manufacturing worker in heavy industry can retrain to work in light industry, or in a non-exportable industry like construction, but light industry has little need for the massive factories that churn out cars and steel. And non-manufacturing exports like tech don’t employ armies of manufacturing workers.
In Germany the situation is better, in that Munich and Stuttgart may have little software, but they do have less dirty manufacturing in addition to their auto industries. It’s likely that if global demand for cars shifts to a global demand for trains then Munich will likely keep thriving – it’s the home of not just BMW and Man but also Siemens. However, the institutions and worker training that have turned southern Germany into an economically diverse powerhouse have not really replicated outside Germany. Ultimately, in a decarbonizing world, southern Germany will be the winner among many heavy industrial regions, most of which won’t do so well.
There’s no alternative to shrinkage in some cities
A shift away from fossil fuel and cars toward green energy and public transit does not have to be harsh. It can aim to give individual workers in those industries a relatively soft landing. However, two snags remain, and are unavoidable.
The first is that some line workers have deliberately chosen poor working conditions in exchange for high wages; the linked example is about oil rig workers in Alaska, but the same issue occurs in some unionized manufacturing and services, for example electricians get high wages but all suffer hearing loss by their 50s. It’s possible to retrain workers and find them work that’s at the same place on the average person’s indifference curve between pay and work conditions, but since those workers evidently chose higher-pay, more dangerous jobs, their personal preference is likely to weight money more than work conditions and thus they’re likely to be unhappy with any alternative.
The second and more important snag is the effect of retraining on entire regions. Areas that specialize to oil, gas, cars, and to some extent other heavy industry today are going to suffer economic decline, as the rest of the world shifts its consumption to either local goods (such as transit operations) or different economic sectors that have no reason to locate in these areas (such as software).
Nobody will be sad to see Saudi Arabia crash except people who are directly paid by its government. But the leaders of Texas and Michigan are not Mohammad bin Salman; nonetheless, it is necessary to proceed with decarbonization. It’s not really possible to guarantee the communities a soft landing. Governments all over the world have wasted vast amounts of money trying and failing to diversify from one sector (e.g. oil in the GCC states) or attract an industry in vogue (e.g. tech anywhere in the world). If engineering in Detroit and Houston can’t diversify on its own, there’s nothing the government can do to improve it, and thus these city regions are destined to become much smaller than they are today.
This is bound to have knock-on regional effects. Entire regions don’t die quietly. Firms specializing in professional services to the relevant industries (such as Halliburton) will have to retool. Small business owners who’ve dedicated their lives to selling food or insurance or hardware to Houstonians and suburban Detroit white flighters will need to leave, just as their counterparts in now-dead mining towns or in Detroit proper did. Some will succeed elsewhere, just as many people in New Orleans who were displaced by Katrina found success in Houston. But not all will. And it’s not possible to guarantee all of them a soft landing, because it’s not possible to guarantee that every new small business will succeed.
All policy, even very good policy, has human costs. There are ways to reduce these costs, through worker retraining and expansion of alternative employment (such as retrofitting older houses to be more energy-efficient). But there is no way to eliminate these costs. Some people who are comfortable today will be made precarious by any serious decarbonization program; put another way, these people’s entire livelihood depends on continuing to destroy the planet, and most of them are not executives at oil and gas companies. It does not mean that decarbonization should be abandoned or even that it should be pursued more hesitantly; but it does mean climate activists, including transit activists, have to be honest about how it affects people in and around polluting industries.
The public transit conversation is full of statements like “passengers don’t like to transfer,” or, in quantified terms, “passengers perceive a minute transferring to be equivalent to 1.75 minutes on a moving vehicle.” But what does this exactly mean? It’s not a statement that literally every passenger has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75. Different passengers behave differently. At best, it’s a statement that the average passenger on the current system has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75, or alternatively that the aggregate behavior of current passengers can be approximated by a model in which everyone has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75. Understanding that different people have different preferences is critical to both the technical and political aspects of transportation planning.
I talked about the heterogeneity of transfer penalties three years ago, and don’t want to rewrite that post. Instead, I want to talk more broadly about this issue, and how it affects various transit reforms. In many cases, bad American transit practices are the result not of agency incompetence (although that happens in droves) but of preferential treatment for specific groups that have markedly different preferences from the average.
The universal symbol of disability is the wheelchair. Based on this standard, every discussion of accessible to people with disabilities centers people in wheelchairs, or alternatively retirees in walkers (who tend to make sure of the same infrastructure for step-free access).
However, disabilities are far broader, and different conditions lead to dramatically different travel preferences. One paper by the CDC estimates that 20% of US adults have chronic pain, and 8% have high-impact chronic pain, limiting their life in some way. People with chronic pain are disproportionately poor, uneducated, and unemployed, which should not be a surprise as chronic pain makes it hard to work or go to school (in contrast, the one unambiguously inborn socioeconomic factor in the study, race, actually goes the other way – whites have somewhat higher chronic pain rates than blacks and Hispanics). Another paper published by BMJ is a meta-analysis, finding that depending on the study 35-51% of the UK population has chronic pain and 10-14% has moderately to severely disabling chronic pain.
I’ve only talked to a handful of people with chronic pain – all of working age – and the best generalization that I can make is that it is impossible to generalize. The conditions vary too much. Some find it more painful to drive than to take transit, some are the opposite. Some have conditions that make it hard for them to walk, some are fine with walking but can’t stand for very long. To the extent the people I’ve talked to have common features, they a) have a strong preference for rail over bus, and b) require a seat and can’t stand on a moving vehicle for very long.
The best use case for rapid transit is getting people to work in a congested city center at a busy time of day, ideally rush hour. Off-peak ridership is generally cheaper to serve than peak ridership, but this is true for all modes of transportation, and public transit tends to be relatively better at the peak than cars. Per table 2 of the Hub Bound report, as of 2016, 19% of public transit riders entering the Manhattan core do so between 8 and 9 am and 43% do so between 7 and 10 am, whereas the corresponding proportions for drivers are 6% and 18% respectively.
The upshot is that people are more likely to ride public transit if they work a salaried job. This is especially true in the middle class, which can afford to drive, and whose alternative is to work at some suburban office park where car ownership is mandatory. In the working class, the distribution of jobs is less CBD-centric, but the ability to afford a car is more constrained.
The social groups most likely to drive are then neither the working class (which doesn’t own cars anywhere with even semi-reasonable public transit) nor the professional working class, but other social classes. The petite bourgeoisie is the biggest one: small business owners tend to drive, since they earn enough for it, tend to have jobs that either virtually require driving (e.g. plumbers) or involve storefronts that are rarely located at optimal locations for transit, and need to go in and out at various times of day.
Another group that’s disproportionately likely to drive is retirees. They don’t work, so they don’t use transit for its most important role. They take trips to the hospital (which is bundled with issues of disability), which can be served by buses given that hospitals are major job centers and non-work travel destinations, but their other trips tend to be based on decades of socialization that have evolved haphazardly. The urban transit network isn’t likely to be set up for their particular social use cases.
Consensus for whomst?
I bring up small business owners and retirees because these two groups are especially empowered in local politics. When I lived in Sweden, I could vote in the local and regional elections, where I had no idea what the main issues were and who the candidates were; I voted Green based on the party’s national platform, but for all I know it’s not great on Stockholm-specific issues. Figuring out the national politics is not hard even for a newcomer who doesn’t speak the language – there are enough English-language news sources, there’s social media, there are friends and coworkers. But local politics is a mystery, full of insider information that’s never spelled out explicitly.
What this means is that the groups most empowered in local politics – that is, with the highest turnouts, the most ability to influence others in the same constituency, and the greatest ability to make consistent decisions – are ones that have local social networks and have lived in one place for a long time. This privileges older voters over younger voters, and if anything underprivileges people with disabilities, whose ability to form social and political connections is constrained by where they can go. This also privileges people with less mobile jobs – that is, shopkeepers rather than either the professional middle class or the working class.
With their greater local influence, the most empowered groups ensure the transportation that exists is what is good for them: cars. Public transit is an afterthought, so of course there is no systemwide reorganization – that would require politicians to care about it, which interferes with their ability to satisfy the politically strongest classes. But even individual decisions of how to run transit suffer from the same problem when there is no higher political force (such as a strong civil service or a national political force): bus stops are very close together, transfers are discouraged (“we oppose the principle of interchange” said one left-wing group opposed to Jarrett Walker’s bus redesign in Dublin), rail service is viewed more as a construction nuisance than a critical mobility service, etc.
Models for transportation usage take into account the behavior of the average user – at least the average current user, excluding ones discouraged by poor service. However, the political system takes into account the behavior of the average empowered voter. In the case of local politics, this average voter rarely rides public transit. When city political machines run themselves, the result is exactly what you’d think.