There are floods in Houston, thanks to Hurricane Harvey‘s making landfall close to the city, dumping about a meter of rain within just a few days. So far, the best explanation I’ve seen about the city’s drainage system is Matt Corbett’s tweetstorm, about how the city keeps building flood control systems but due to population growth they are perpetually five years behind current development. The confirmed death toll so far is 30. There is a connection to climate change: warmer ocean temperatures make tropical storms more likely, and also make it likelier that they will move slowly and dump more rain onto one area; as a result, Harvey is the Houston region’s third 500-year flood in three years, while one neighborhood was hit by three such floods in a decade.
There are floods all over South Asia, thanks to unusually strong summer monsoon rains. Mumbai got about 200 mm of rain in 12 hours yesterday. The worst impact is in more rural areas and smaller cities in the north, including Bangladesh, West Bengal, Nepal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh. The confirmed death toll so far is 1,200, of whom only 6 are in Mumbai – Bihar and Nepal seem like the worst-hit areas. There is once again a connection to climate change: the seasonal monsoon rainfall in South Asia is fairly stable, but extreme events dumping more than 100 or 150 mm of rain on one day are happening at increasing frequency, and climate models predict an increase in extreme rainfall events.
It is not my intention to attack American media for undercovering India. Rather, it is my intention to attack American public intellectuals and wonks for proposing adaptation to climate change. This means building flood walls to protect low-lying cities at risk of storm surges like New York, using zoning and public investments to steer development toward higher ground, and building infrastructure to deal with higher future flood risk. This contrasts with reducing the extent of climate change in the first place, called mitigation in environmentalist parlance, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Examples of calls for adaptation, in lieu of or in addition to mitigation, abound:
- The Obama administration passed a directive requiring flood control standards for federally-funded projects in areas vulnerable to climate change. The Trump administration rescinded this directive, to widespread criticism from liberals in the media, for example in the Guardian.
- ThinkProgress just published an article calling for both adaptation and mitigation.
- ProPublica’s investigative reporting about Houston mentions that Fort Lauderdale and Boulder are both addressing adaptation in their long-term city plans, and compares Houston negatively with them.
- CNN negatively compared US flood control efforts with the Dutch Delta Works. The article does mention American climate change denial, but talks about the Netherlands’ flood control and not about its pro-bike transportation policy, doing its part to mitigate catastrophic climate change.
- In a personal conversation with ReThinkNYC‘s Jim Venturi about transit-oriented development near Secaucus Station, he said that the area is vulnerable to climate change, at only 2 meters above sea level. I don’t want to blame him, because he might have been channeling the Regional Plan Association or statewide plans, but one of those three (ReThink, RPA, the state) is giving up the United States’ best TOD spot on climate adaptation grounds.
All of these adaptation plans should be prohibited on grounds of climate apartheid. The term climate apartheid is not my own: it comes from Desmond Tutu, who says,
[Link, PDF-p. 181] For most people in rich countries adaptation has so far been a relatively painfree process. Cushioned by heating and cooling systems, they can adapt to extreme weather with the flick of a thermostat. Confronted with the threat of floods, governments can protect the residents of London, Los Angeles and Tokyo with elaborate climate defence systems. In some countries, climate change has even brought benign effects, such as longer growing seasons for farmers.
Now consider what adaptation means for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people—the 2.6 billion living on less than US$2 a day. How does an impoverished woman farmer in Malawi adapt when more frequent droughts and less rainfall cut production? Perhaps by cutting already inadequate household nutrition, or by taking her children out of school. How does a slum dweller living beneath plastic sheets and corrugated tin in a slum in Manila or Port-au-Prince adapt to the threat posed by more intense cyclones? And how are people living in the great deltas of the Ganges and the Mekong supposed to adapt to the inundation of their homes and lands?
There’s a lot of nuance to add on top of Tutu’s admonition. The most important is that Mumbai is not Port-au-Prince or Malawi; it’s not even Bihar. But it’s not New York or the Netherlands either. Catastrophic flooding is still a serious risk, and its urban policy gives the poor a choice between substandard slum housing in flood-prone areas and housing projects in suburbs far from any jobs. And this is the richest city in India, while India is richer than practically every African state between South Africa and the Sahara. The poorest countries in the world, in turn, have very low emissions, even relative to their low GDPs – Bangladesh emits the equivalent of 1 metric ton of CO2 in greenhouse gases per capita annually.
Moreover, we can already know what climate adaptation will really mean. A 1-meter rise in sea level is projected to flood 17.5% of Bangladesh, corresponding at today’s population level to about 25 million people. Now, add the effects of crop failures: David Roberts quotes a paywalled Nature Climate Change article saying that rice yields go down by 10% per degree of nighttime temperature above 26. The minimal scenario would dwarf the Syrian refugee crisis, affecting 5 million people, by an order of magnitude. A more catastrophic scenario, involving flooding in Nigeria and increased droughts in the interior of Africa, could dwarf the Syrian crisis by two orders of magnitude.
The reaction to migration crises has been to militarize the border, to push the refugees away before they can get close and attract local sympathy. The US built a wall along much of the border with Mexico, long before Trump; Europe is stepping up patrols in the Mediterranean, and as we speak France is trying to open detention camps in Libya. This is not just a first-world reaction: India is fencing its border with Bangladesh. Climate adaptation means a little bit of money for flood control schemes, and a lot of money for pushing away refugees on threat of gunning them down, and building an entire apparatus of intermediate detention camps to be able to pretend that it’s not the fault of the US or Europe or Japan that the refugees are dying.
The implication is that, in parallel with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in the Cold War, adaptation should be banned throughout the developed world. A country that spends money on trying to avoid the consequences of climate change is unlikely to be interested in avoiding it in the first place – just as a country with ABM protections is unlikely to be interested in avoiding nuclear war. Tackling a global problem like climate change requires ensuring that no single high-emissions country or economic bloc can insulate itself from its consequences.
Far from discouraging development in floodplains, first-world governments should prohibit any consideration of post-2000 temperature rise. If Secaucus is terra firma today, New Jersey should be compelled to treat it as terra firma forever and develop it as the TOD site that it is. If sea levels rise, none of the residents will be as negatively affected as the median Bangladeshi, but the residents might still agitate for future mitigation.
A post by Aaron Renn just made me remember something I said in the Straphangers Campaign forum ten years ago. I complained that New York was building too little subway infrastructure – where were Second Avenue Subway, Utica, Nostrand, various outer extensions in Queens and the Bronx that we crayonistas liked? Shanghai, I told people in the forum, was building a lot of subway lines at once, so why couldn’t New York? The answer is not about construction costs. Ten years ago, China’s construction costs relative to local incomes were about the same as those of New York; even today, the difference is small. Rather, it is that China is a fast-growing economy that’s spending a lot of its resources on managing this growth, whereas the US is a mature economy without infrastructure problems as urgent as those of developing countries.
Aaron posits that American cities are too conservative, in the sense of being timid rather than in the sense of being on the political right. He gives examples of forward-looking infrastructure projects that New York engaged in from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century: the Manhattan grid, the Erie Canal, the Croton Aqueduct, the subway, the Robert Moses-era highways and parks. Today, nothing of the sort happens. Aaron of course recognizes that “New, rapidly growing cities need lots of new infrastructure and plans. Mature cities need less new infrastructure.” The difference is that for me, this is where this line of questioning ends. New York is a mature city, and doesn’t need grand plans; it needs to invest in infrastructure based on the assumption that it will never again grow quickly.
If not grand plans like building the Manhattan grid far beyond the city’s then-built up area, then what should a mature city do? Aaron talks about dreaming big, and there is something to that, but it would take a profoundly different approach from what New York did when its population grew by 50% every decade. I stress that, as with my last post critiquing another blog post, I agree with a substantial part of what Aaron says and imagine that Aaron will treat many of the solutions I posit here as positive examples of thinking big.
Rationalization of Government
Mature societies have accumulated a great deal of kludge at all levels, coming from social structures and government programs that served the needs of previous generations, often with political compromises that are hard to understand today. Welfare programs are usually a kludge of different social security programs (for the disabled, for retirees, for various classes of unemployed people, sometimes even for students), housing benefits, reduced tax rates for staple goods like food, child credit, and in the US food stamps. A good deal of the impetus for basic income is specifically about consolidating the kludge into a single cash benefit with a consistent effective marginal tax rate.
In transportation, bus networks have often evolved incrementally, with each change making sense in local context. When a new housing development opened, the nearest bus would be extended to serve it. In Israel, which grew late enough to grow around buses and not rail, this was also true of dedicated industrial zones. In cities that used to have streetcar networks, some buses just follow the old streetcar routes; the Washington bus system even today distinguishes between former streetcars (which have numbers) and routes that were never streetcars (which use letters). Jarrett Walker‘s bus network redesigns are partly about reorganizing such systems around modern needs, based on modern understanding of the principles behind transit ridership.
Governance often needs to be rationalized as well. In the early 20th century, it was important to connect outlying neighborhoods to city center, and connections between lines were less important. This led to excessively radial surface transit (rapid transit is always radial), but also to rail lines that don’t always connect to one another well. Sometimes due to historical contingency the lines are run by separate agencies and have uncoordinated schedules and different fare systems charging extra for transfers. Occasionally even the same agency charges for bus-rail transfers, often because of a history of separate private operators before the public takeover. In the US and Canada, the special status of commuter rail, with different unions, fares, schedules, and management is of particular concern, because several cities could use commuter rail to supplement the rest of the transit network.
In New York, this points toward the following agenda:
- Modernization of commuter rail, with full fare integration with the subway and buses, proof-of-payment fare collection to reduce operating costs, high off-peak frequency on the local lines, and through-running where there is infrastructure for it (i.e. Penn Station).
- Some bus service reorganization. New York already has extensive frequent buses, but some of its network is still questionable, for example some branches of the Third/Lexington and Madison/Fifth one-way pairs in Harlem.
- Subway reorganization. The subway branches too much, and at several places it could have higher capacity if it reduced the extent of reverse-branching; see discussion here and in comments here. Some elevated lines could also see their stops change to support better transfers, including the J/M/Z at Broadway and Manhattan to transfer to the G, and maybe even the 7 at 108th Street to enable a transfer to a straightened Q23 bus.
- Fare integration with PATH, and demolition of the false walls between the PATH and the F/M trains on Sixth Avenue, to enable cross-platform transfers.
Serve, Don’t Shape
There are two models for building new infrastructure: serve, and shape. Serve means focusing on present-day economic and demographic patterns. Shape means expecting the project to change these patterns, the “build it and they will come” approach. When New York built the 7 train to Flushing, Flushing already existed as a town center but much of the area between Long Island City and Flushing was open farmland. I’ve argued before that third-world cities should use the shape model. In contrast, mature cities, including the entire developed world except a few American Sunbelt cities and analogs in Canada and Australia, should use the serve model.
The serve model flies in the face of the belief that public transit can induce profound changes in urban layout. In reality, some local transit-oriented development is possible, but the main center of New York will remain Midtown; so far Hudson Yards seems like a flop. In the suburbs, more extensive redevelopment is possible, with apartment buildings and mixed uses near train stations. But these suburbs, built after WW2, are less mature than the city proper. In fast-growing cities in North America outside the traditional manufacturing belt the shape model still has validity – Vancouver, still a relatively new city region in the 1980s, got to shape itself using SkyTrain. But in New York, there is no chance.
This also has some ethnic implications. Jarrett likes to plan routes without much regard for social circumstances, except perhaps to give more bus service to a lower-income area with lower car ownership. But in reality, it is possible to see ethnic ties in origin-and-destination transit trips. This is why there are internal Chinatown buses connecting Chinatown, Flushing, and Sunset Park, and a bus connecting two different ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn. In Washington, there is origin and destination data, and there are noticeable ties between black neighborhoods, such as Anacostia and Columbia Heights.
In a mature city with stable ethnic boundaries (Harlem has been black for ninety years), it is possible to plan infrastructure around ethnic travel patterns. This means that as New York disentangles subway lines to reduce branching, it should try choosing one-seat rides that facilitate known social ties, such as between Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. While New York’s ethnic groups are generally integrated, this has special significance in areas with a mixture of linguistic or religious groups with very little intermarriage, such as Israel, which has two large unassimilated minorities (Arabs, and ultra-Orthodox Jews); Israeli transportation planning should whenever possible take into account special ultra-Orthodox travel needs (e.g. large families) and intra-ethnic connections such as between Bnei Brak and Jerusalem or between Jaffa and Nazareth.
A few years ago, I wrote a post I can no longer find talking about building the minimum rail infrastructure required for a given service plan. In comments, Keep Houston Houston replied that no, this makes it really difficult to add future capacity if demand grows. For example, a single-track line with meets optimized for half-hourly service requires total redesign if demand grows to justify 20-minute frequency. In a growing city, this means infrastructure should be planned for future-proofing, with double track everywhere, no reliance on timed overtakes, and so on. In a mature city, this isn’t a problem – growth is usually predictable.
It is relatively easy to integrate infrastructure planning and scheduling based on today’s travel patterns, and impossible to integrate them based on the future travel patterns of a fast-growing city such as Lagos or Nairobi. But in a slow-growing city like New York, future integration isn’t much harder than present-day integration. Alone among North American cities, New York has high transit mode share, making such integration even easier – transit usage could double with Herculean effort, but there is no chance that a real transit revival would quadruple it or more, unlike in cities that are relatively clean slates like Los Angeles.
Since the mature city does not need too much new infrastructure, it is useful to build infrastructure to primarily use existing infrastructure more efficiently. One example of this is S-Bahn tunnels connecting two stub-end lines; these are also useful in growing cities (Berlin built the Stadtbahn in the 1880s), but in mature cities their relative usefulness is higher, because they use preexisting infrastructure. This is not restricted to commuter rail: there is a perennial plan in New York to build a short tunnel between PATH at World Trade Center and the 6 train at City Hall and run through-service, using the fact that PATH’s loading gauge is similar to that of the numbered subway lines.
In New York, this suggests the following transit priorities:
- Open commuter rail lines and stations based on the quality of transfers to the subway and the key bus routes. For example, Penn Station Access for Metro-North should include a stop at Pelham Parkway for easy transfer to the Bx12 bus, and a stop at Astoria for easy transfer to the subway.
- Investigate whether a PATH-6 connection is feasible; it would require no new stations, but there would be construction difficulties since the existing World Trade Center PATH station platforms are in a loop.
- Change subway construction priorities to emphasize lines that reduce rather than add branching. In particular, Nostrand may be a higher priority than Utica, and both may be higher priorities than phases 3 and 4 of Second Avenue Subway. A subway line under Northern Boulevard in Queens may not be feasible without an entirely new Manhattan trunk line.
- Build commuter rail tunnels for through-running. The Gateway project should include a connection to Grand Central rather than Penn Station South, and should already bake in a choice of which commuter lines on each side match to which commuter lines on the other side. Plan for commuter rail lines through Lower Manhattan, connecting the LIRR in Brooklyn with New Jersey Transit’s Erie Lines, and, accordingly, do not connect any of the lines planned for this system to Penn Station (such as with the circuitous Secaucus Loop in the Gateway project).
New York still needs infrastructure investment, like every other city. Such investment requires thinking outside the box, and may look radical if it forces different agencies to cooperate or even amalgamate. But in reality the amount of construction required is not extensive. More deeply, New York will not look radically different in the future from how it looks today. Technological fantasies of driverless flying cars aside, New York’s future growth is necessarily slow and predictable, and cities in that situation need to invest in infrastructure accordingly.
In my post about third-world transit, I posited an epistemological principle that if the presence of a certain trait makes a certain solution more useful, then the absence of the trait should make the solution less useful. The shape vs. serve argument comes from this principle. The same is true of the emphasis on consolidating the kludge into a coherent whole and then building strategically to support this consolidation. A fast-growing city has no time to consolidate, and who’s to say that today’s consolidation won’t be a kludge in thirty years? A mature city has time, and has little to worry about rapid change obsoleting present-day methods.
But at the same time, the same epistemology means that these changes are less critical in a mature city. In the third world, everything is terrible; in the first world, most things are fine. New York’s transportation problems are painful for commuters, but ultimately, they will not paralyze the city. It will do well even if it doesn’t build a single kilometer of subway in the future. Nothing is indispensable; this means that, in the face of high costs, often the correct alternative may be No Build. This illustrates the importance of improving cost-effectiveness (equally important in the third world, but there the problem is the opposite – too many things are indispensable and there isn’t enough money for all of them).
I emphasize that this does not mean transportation is unimportant. That New York will not be destroyed if it stops building new infrastructure does not mean that new infrastructure is of no use for the city. The city needs to be able to facilitate future economic and demographic growth and solve lingering social problems, and better infrastructure, done right, can play a role in that. New York will most likely look similar in 2067 to how it looks in 2017, but it can still use better infrastructure to be a better and more developed city by then.
At the G-20 meeting, an Ivorian journalist asked President Macron about the Marshall Plan and if Europe would do the same for Africa. Macron gave a long-winded response, including some deservedly-mocked zingers about Africa’s “civilizational” problems and how women have 7-8 children (see my own response here). But buried in that there was an interesting point I’d like to expound on, about the difference between the Marshall Plan and current aid:
I don’t believe in this reasoning, forgive me for my directness. We among the West have been discussing such Marshall plans for Africa for many years and have in fact given many such plans already. So if it was so simple it would be fixed already. The Marshall plan was a reconstruction plan, a material plan in a region that already had its equilibriums, its borders and its stability.
Jane Jacobs said something similar, in either The Economy of Cities or Cities and the Wealth of Nations, I forget which. Her argument was as follows: postwar Europe lay in ruin, but the business culture, social networks, and so on were still there, so rebuilding infrastructure could restore prewar prosperity and seed future growth. Even with the disruption caused by the mass carnage, there were enough skilled workers who knew the local business culture for the economy to recover. Thus, per Jacobs, and per Macron, Marshall Plan-type programs for developing countries, which are poor rather than in ruins, have no chance of succeeding.
And yet. There are some complexities in the above description. The first is that postwar reconstruction in South Korea, which had never been a developed or even middle-income country at that point, was useful. Literacy rates rose rapidly, after WW2 and again after the Korean War, going from 22% in 1945 to about 71% in 1960. The schools were often built not by the Korean government but by the US or by Christian missionaries (Korea was the cause celebre at the time, and the origin of the trend of Americans adopting children from poor countries).
The second complication is that in post-conflict situations, there is a role for reconstruction aid. Libya was never a developed country, but it was richer before the civil war than it is today, and could have used reconstruction before the war resumed in 2014. Niger and Mali (two of the few countries that are so poor Macron’s epithet about 7-8 children per woman might apply) in particular have had recent conflicts, dragging down growth, especially in Niger.
The third is the subject of this post: infrastructure. In theory, this is a one-time investment, which can be done with an outside infusion of cash plus some tech transfer. This means, first-world consultants helping design rail networks, water infrastructure, roads, subways, and power plants, and on the way training local workers in how to do maintenance and how to design and engineer future expansion. Europe and the US practically never do that anymore, but Japan still does and China has started doing so as well; Kenya is building intercity rail with Chinese money, buying Chinese equipment. In theory, this is worthwhile investment, since the recipient countries have very weak currencies and high expected growth rates, which depresses current-dollar construction costs while maintaining decent future current-dollar profits.
And yet. There’s a number of subway projects in developing countries built with foreign financing and technical expertise, chiefly Japanese. I singled out two for their high construction costs, in Dhaka and to a lesser extent Jakarta. Dhaka is setting world records for elevated construction costs – higher in absolute terms than in the US, and unimaginably higher relative to local incomes. Jakarta’s costs have risen further since I last wrote the post, and currently stand at $1.7 billion, or $5.4 billion after PPP adjustment, a total of $350 million per km for a line that’s only 60% underground.
There is a dearth of indigenous expertise in how to build rail infrastructure in developing countries. Unfortunately, the first world cannot supply this expertise, because the first world’s expertise is in how to build rail infrastructure in rich countries. As I noted a month ago, rapid transit construction in the third world needs to take into account the difference in relative costs of labor and capital between rich and poor countries; in comments, Ian Mitchell suggested resuscitating the methods of the 1910s, when American incomes were about the same as in the more functional third-world countries today, like India and Nigeria. There is no real expertise in how to do that, and it is unlikely that international consultants, who expect to do most of their work in rich countries, will bother to learn.
After the initial construction phase of the Delhi Metro, the system worked on indigenizing itself – that is, on using more local capital rather than relying on foreign consultants. The cost reduction, as far as I can tell from links that are now dead, was 15% – substantial, but not a game changer. India remains one of the highest-cost countries in the world. It’s possible that it learned all the wrong lessons – as it developed local expertise, it figured out how to build rapid transit using the construction methods of the first world.
This is unlikely to have been an accident. Poor countries, and even middle-income ones, are full of cultural cringe, in which acting like the rich world is a positive status marker; ex-colonies frequently act this way toward their former colonizers. The political system within the countries in question encourages elites to show that they can be just like the Europeans or Americans or high-income Asians. Those elites are fervently nationalistic, but this often means showing the world that India can have what Britain and the US have. Thus there is an internal political bias toward solutions that do not work. Ironically, first-world consultants are the best-placed people to recommend using different construction techniques, suitable for low labor costs, but they are unlikely to suggest them, again since their expertise is in high-labor cost environments.
So having a Marshall Plan-style program in which rich countries build infrastructure in poor countries is a recipe for high construction costs. Can it at least result in good projects? The answer is, again, mixed, for two reasons.
The first reason is that it isn’t easy to realize profits from infrastructure investment in foreign countries. The poorest ones have a high risk of relapse into civil war. The next tier of countries – the Kenyas, the Bangladeshes, the Vietnams – are more stable, and in theory offer a good investment, with reduced risk of economic collapse. The problem is that as they get richer, they will necessarily be more nationalistic and more capable of asserting themselves. The same xenophobia that leads people in expensive British, American, and Canadian cities to scapegoat foreign investors, often Chinese, for high housing costs, applies just as well to poor countries. A richer Kenya is a Kenya that is more likely to find it offensive that it depends on China for its railroad network. If there is significant profit extraction from Kenya to China, then it’s because Kenya’s economy has grown, allowing it to threaten to impose capital controls or nationalize the railroad. This means that a strategy of spending money in a poor country now to make profits later as it gets richer has too much political risk, regardless of how much the country signals commitment to letting foreigners make a profit in it today.
The second reason is that the projects themselves may not be optimal. This is the same problem as the construction cost problem. International consultants are used to principles that are true in the cases they have the most experience in, which are usually in rich countries and occasionally in middle-income ones. I’ve had trouble drawing good fantasy maps in Israel, a borderline rich country, purely because its ethnic divisions are so different from those of any other rich country: in comments here and at Sandy Johnston’s place, Shlomo reminds us that the ultra-Orthodox use transit profoundly differently from everyone else. With my knowledge of European mores, I can confidently say that even in European countries I don’t know well, like Spain, this is at most an edge case. Can I say this of Nigeria? Maybe not. Can I say this of Niger? Lol.
This lack of local knowledge is compounded by the fact that, as with the construction cost problem, local elites want the appearance of a Western- or high-income-Asian-looking system. This does not mean they want to build subways, rail networks, modern sewage systems, household electrification, etc. just for show. On the contrary, in the better-functioning third-world countries even very corrupt leaders genuinely want their respective countries to be more successful. The problem is that they are unlikely to be experts on what a good subway, sewage, etc. system should look like, and base their ideas of what works on what they have seen work in the first world. Third-world adaptations are often creatively different, for example an NGO is installing elevated water pipes in Kibera, to avoid expensive underground engineering required to eliminate seepage, and to deter metal and water theft (Kibera is notorious for both).
There is no way around painstakingly developing local expertise in infrastructure construction and operations. It’s something that engineers in poor countries can learn from rich countries, but they would need a good understanding of first principles in order to adapt to local situations. It’s not something that a consultancy could trivially do.
So, is there room for a Marshall Plan? The poor countries in question could certainly use the money. The problem is that the sum total of what they need to invest in – physical infrastructure, schools, public health, legal institutions – stretches not just their tax capacity but also the generosity (some would say guilt) of any first-world country. What I think Lagos needs to spend on building a metro system is on the order of $200 billion in PPP terms; in exchange rate terms that’s $60 billion, compared with $90 billion in annual aid given by EU members, in total. Lagos needs more investment than just the subway, Nigeria is more than just Lagos, and the total population of countries poorer than Nigeria is more than a billion. Even counting foreign investments that the donor country intends to recoup but probably will not, this is not nearly enough. So what we’re discussing is not really a Marshall Plan equivalent in which the donors help rebuild infrastructure in the recipient countries, but usual foreign aid politics, in which (from the perspective of the recipients) foreign aid is one additional revenue stream with its own strings attached.
I don’t like the word “genius.” When people use it unironically, what I hear is “we haven’t met many smart people, so the first one we meet looks like a genius to us.” Math academia is very good about excising the word from anyone’s vocabulary. It drills you on the idea that you’re not Manjul Bhargava or anyone of that caliber, and if you are, you’re judged by what you’ve proved, not how theoretically smart you are. The tech industry uses the term more often, alongside related terms: rock star, 10x engineer, ninja. Most of it serves to convince coders that they’re masters of the universe, that all of them are above average and half of them are in the top 10% of coders.
New York State just issued a call for proposals for a $1 million grant, dubbed the MTA Genius Transit Challenge. I sent in a request for more information, and haven’t gotten a response yet; when I do, I will probably apply, if the specs and timeframe are within what I can give, but I doubt I will get it. My suspicion is that the state is looking for a tech company to privatize something to. Governor Andrew Cuomo wants someone to tackle one of the following three problems:
- Rail signaling, in context of how to maximize the subway’s capacity in trains per hour.
- Rolling stock maintenance schedules: the state isn’t saying what the ultimate issue is, but presumably it is reliability.
- Cell service and wi-fi underground.
I doubt that the tech industry is capable of doing much on the first two issues, while the third one is a solved problem (as in cities like Singapore and Boston) that just requires installing wires. The first two issues have a lot of potential improvements, but they come from the transportation field, including service planning.
Unfortunately, the panel judging the grant is tilted toward people in the tech industry. Only one has background in rail transportation: Sarah Feinberg, former administrator of the FRA, whose background prior to working at the US Department of Transportation is in politics and tech. Two more are academic administrators, neither with background in transportation: SUNY Chancellor-elect Kristina Johnson, an engineer with background in energy and 3D graphics, and Daniel Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, whose background is in IT. The other five are in the tech industry; one is a professor who studies networks, with some applications to car transportation (congestion pricing) but not to rail. Missing from the panel are people who worked on ETCS, people who have developed driverless train technology, and professionals within the major rolling stock vendors.
The biggest tech fixes in New York area outside the three areas identified by Cuomo. One, train arrival boards, is already in development, with planned opening next year.
But an even bigger fix is speed: the subways in New York have permanent slow orders at some places, not because of deferred maintenance but because of past accidents. There is a railroading tradition, in the US but sometimes also elsewhere, of using slow orders to mask underlying safety issues, even when the accident in question had very little to do with speed. The subways in New York today are getting even slower, for a combination of legitimate reasons (temporary signal upgrades) and illegitimate ones (inexperienced crews assigned at the busiest times).
However, the solutions to these problems often combine many different viewpoints. Speeding up the subway involves ending the slow orders (which involves signaling, but isn’t exactly tech), improving scheduling to reduce delays at merges (which involves service planning), reallocating crews (which involves labor relations), and coming up with ways to reinstall signals with less impact to operations (which is itself a combination of signaling tech and service planning).
American tech industry titans like to think of themselves as omnicompetent; Elon Musk’s bad ideas about transportation, from Hyperloop to elevator-accessed tunnels for cars, stem from his apparent belief that he can understand everything better than anyone else. This is not how good interdisciplinary work happens; the best examples in science involve people who are specialized to the two fields they’re combining, or people in one field collaborating with people in another field. A governor that understood this would empanel people with a wider variety of fields of expertise within the transportation industry: service planning, civil engineering, signal engineering, local labor relations and regulations, rolling stock maintenance. There would be one tech person on the panel (among the existing panelists, the professor studying networks, Balaji Prabhakhar, seems the most relevant in background), rather than one non-tech person.
This sort of self-importance especially appeals to Cuomo. Cuomo is not managing the state of New York; he is running for president of the United States, which requires him to be able to say “I did that” about something. Solving big problems requires big money; reducing costs requires local tradeoffs, such as reducing construction costs by using more disruptive cut-and-cover techniques. That’s how you run a good government, but that’s not how you run a cautious political campaign for higher office, in which the other side will pounce on every negative consequence. As a result, Cuomo is hoping to solve problems using tech innovation without spending much money; but the parameters of his plan seem to guarantee that the panel can only solve small problems, without touching on the most fundamental concerns for people riding the subway.
Three years ago, I wrote about how American urban elites propose public monuments in lieu of providing public services. My topical example was an article by Larry Summers, whose proposal to reduce inequality was to invest in nicer-looking airports – per Summers, the rich have private jets, the poor fly commercial. The post overall focused on government projects. But in the last few days I’ve seen two examples in the same direction, involving thinktanks and the private sector, and no government projects at all. One is from a panel headlined by J. D. Vance, which Pete Saunders and Aaron Renn both sat on; I can’t find a link to the video anymore, but here is a recap (update: here is the video). The other is from a Brookings report about Philadelphia. In both cases, the elite speaker (Vance, or Brookings) looks at a region that’s not as wealthy as it would like to be, and proposes everything except better services.
Vance’s panel was held in Cleveland and discussed how Rust Belt towns could grow again. Vance, famous for talking about deep poverty in white Appalachia and for not proposing any political liberal or socialist solution to it, gave his usual spiel: Cleveland needs innovation, entrepreneurs, and venture capital. One of the panelists proposed dropping the name Rust Belt and replacing it with Heartland. It reminded me of how Providence subsidizes smartphone app developers in vain hopes that they’ll make it big and stay in town rather than decamping to Cambridge. Providence, too, went through rebranding attempts: first Renaissance City, and then, when I lived there, Creative Capital.
There is a cottage industry of right-wing pundits who talk about poverty and propose everything except center-left and left-wing (not the same thing!) solutions. Vance is clearly there, but the panel still didn’t discuss the usual center-right and neoliberal (not the same thing, again) solutions. Development economists on the right have a long list of proposals for fighting poverty, mainly in the third world, but with some applications to developed countries as well: give squatters legal title to the lands they’ve developed, make it easier to start a business, reduce occupational licensing requirements, improve capital markets, levy broad-based taxes, avoid industrial policy picking winners and losers. This is not what the panel said. The panel didn’t really say anything concrete, except that more ambition is needed.
The Brookings report about Philadelphia is similar in concept, even if the political and economic context is different. Brookings is center-left (though moderate enough to attract conservative experts like Ed Glaeser), and Philadelphia is not poor, just less rich than New York and Washington. But the list of recommendations, on PDF-pp. 39-40, is an exercise of how not to say anything. Most of the recommendations are nebulous: “appoint an executive director.” The one specific actionable item is to bring in star faculty to the universities; Penn in fact does that periodically, and the results are not always good, with several examples of tenured hires who weren’t as productive as hoped for.
These plans are reminiscent of alchemy. Medieval alchemical texts were never clear about what to do exactly; they couldn’t be, because then readers would try to replicate the results and see the recipe doesn’t work. So they can’t give an exact recipe for how to grow, because that wouldn’t work. Instead, they propose ten nebulous items. A city that succeeds will get praised for how it implemented six of them; a city that fails will get criticized for how it only implemented six and did so in the wrong way.
Nor can these plans offer services. They cannot talk about investing more in education and in hospitals, in improving social services, etc. That’s political. If they do talk about education, they talk about it in the same terms as a self-important tech entrepreneur or venture capitalist: attracting excellence, enterprise universities, global talent, anything to avoid talking about school segregation or funding disparities.
Cleveland urbanist Alex Baca complains that the Vance panel was overfocused on private-sector solutions and not on public-sector investments. But I don’t think that’s really the problem. Elite institutions and pundits who, to look like they’re above the political fray, propose non-solutions and irrelevant brand-building exercises, come up with both private and public programs. The biggest enduring fad, charter schools, is funded by the public, just not run by it. Brookings and Vance are proposing private programs, and New York and Providence both wasted money on public enterprise programs, but the principle is the same: branding is cool, social services are dirty.
The political problem is that the consultants need to justify their own existence. This requires them to exclude every solution that has a political address. Vance himself hints at his own conservative values (he thinks declining religiosity is a sign of decline), but he makes sure to propose things that everyone can relate to and that peg him as J. D. Vance, independent thinker, and not J. D. Vance, a cog in the religious right’s machine. This does not mean that his proposals are a veneer for the religious right. On the contrary: I think they’re a deliberate attempt to be independent of political partisanship. But the same principle also excludes every social program that orthodox progressives support. A consultant who proposed raising income or sales or property taxes, rather than an opaque TIF deal, would be treated as belonging to the city’s progressive Democrat faction; the same is true of a consultant who proposed raising teacher pay rather than bringing in outside school administrators.
This is not purely self-serving, since urban politics is corrupt, especially in poorer cities. Being treated as an outsider above the fray has legitimate value: a consultant who proposes ideas that are viewed as fresh will get more locals to listen purely for the mystique of outside opinion, regardless of whether those ideas are good. But the self-serving aspect of this kind of self-marketing ensures that there is no quality control, and the consultants who succeed the most at this are the ones who devote the least amount of effort to ensuring their proposals actually work.
I think the ultimate cause of this is the need to be seen to be doing something. If a peripheral city asked me what it could do to be as rich as San Francisco, I’d tell it, nothing. It can tax itself to make its poverty less desperate, it can improve the business climate somewhat, it can have better public transit based on best global industry practices, but it’s not going to be San Francisco, Munich, New York, or Paris. Forget about it. Elite consultants instead overpromise: they tell those cities what they want to hear. And they make sure to pick solutions that a) they will not be held accountable for when they invariably fail, and b) are complicated enough so as to justify those consultants’ own existence. Local urban elites benefit from looking leader-like and implementing a new program; consultants benefit by getting both money and kudos. Everyone wins, except the people who are governed by this arrangement.
There’s a discussion on Twitter about home ownership. In the US, there are periodic calls to abolish the mortgage interest deduction on various grounds: it discriminates against low-income renters, it benefits people in higher tax brackets (i.e. the rich), it is a subsidy to the suburbs. Matt Bruenig, one of the strongest voices on the American socialist left writing about policy, makes an anti-racist argument: per a 2015 report from Demos (p. 12), home ownership contributes to a racial wealth gap, since whites enjoy higher returns than blacks and Hispanics.
In this post, I’m going to make a more general point: home ownership is a questionable individual choice, and a bad regional choice. Governments, from the urban to the national level, should not encourage it in any way.
Home ownership as wealth
Real estate, like any other asset, is a source of wealth. People buy it as an investment, which they can borrow against (“second mortgage”), bequeath to their children, or sell in retirement. In this, it’s no different from any other asset. The more down-to-earth use is as a source of savings: retirees who own a house or apartment debt-free, having finished paying off their mortgage, are not at risk of eviction if their pensions are limited. Near-retirees who lose their jobs are in a similar situation – they have lower immediate expenses than if they rented.
The problem is that this form of saving works in reverse for everyone who is of working age. A 40-year-old who loses their job might want to live off of savings while looking for a job of equivalent skill level and pay. If their savings are largely in their house, this is difficult, for two reasons:
- The house is less liquid than stocks – it’s hard to sell a quarter of it.
- The house is likelier to lose value when the owner needs it the most.
The second point is true to some extent of all pro-cyclical assets (e.g. stocks), but especially of real estate. Workers are more likely to be laid off in recessions, when pro-cyclical assets lose value. Counter-cyclical ones, like sovereign bonds, rise in value, but have lower returns in the long run, creating the familiar risk/returns tradeoff. Housing in that sense is no different from stocks.
However, in one sense, housing is different: it is especially sensitive to the state of the local economy. The American economy today is stronger than it was thirty years ago, but the Detroit economy is not, and people who bought houses in Detroit have had their home values wiped. In this way, home ownership makes people less capable of moving to places with better jobs.
Home ownership and NIMBYism
One of the points made by William Fischel in his writings about zoning and NIMBYism is that the impetus for this behavior comes from homeowners trying to safeguard the value of their investment. Per Fischel, since most homeowners’ entire savings are locked up in one risky asset, they are risk-averse when it comes to any neighborhood change, leading to NIMBYism. Renters are more flexible. So are the richest people, who have a broad array of investments (and often multiple apartments and houses): upper-crust NIMBYism is often the domain of the upper middle class rather than of the top 1%.
It is the general interest of society to have less NIMBYism and looser zoning. This is true even at the level of the individual city. It’s in the interest of San Francisco to be able to build more housing and more office space, even to replace single-family houses in outer areas near Muni Metro with mid-rise apartment buildings. And the higher the level of government, the more upzoning makes sense.
Condos and governance
As Ed Glaeser mentions in a 2011 paper, more than 85% of single-family houses in the US are owned, and more than 85% of apartments in buildings with 3 or more units are rented. Glaeser explains how this turns home ownership incentives into incentives for single-family housing. But it also affects how new multifamily housing looks.
Traditional mid-rise buildings are owned by a single landlord, who rents them to individual tenants. Newer buildings are either rentals or condos. Condos have more complex governing boards, and in extreme cases end up having the same social dynamics of suburbs: people who enjoy telling others what to do make rules about behavior.
The American practice of making mortgage interest tax-deductible is not common across the developed world. But there are more widespread policies that still treat homeowner wealth preferentially to other kinds of investments. There are no capital gains taxes on real estate appreciation, subject to constraints to make sure individual homeowners are not taxed but large-scale commercial developers are. Most countries also fail to tax imputed rents. Switzerland does tax imputed rents, but is unusual in doing so: Swiss homeowners owe taxes on the rents they’d be getting if they rented out their properties at fair market value.
There doesn’t need to be double taxation. In other words, housing should be taxed as personal consumption (so mortgage interest is not deductible, but there are no imputed rents) or as business expenses (so interest is deductible, but there are imputed rents). But it should be single-taxed, because it is not a state interest to depopulate the cities to create a class of suburban NIMBYs, who affect petty aristocratic manners when times are good but turn into a precariat when times are bad.
After a week of raging protests in Beijing and the other major Chinese cities calling for measures to fight corruption, inequality, and pollution, the military moved to arrest Xi Jinping and release several high-profile dissidents from prison. In a statement, the military said it would schedule free elections to the National People’s Congress for the end of this year. Based on statements by leaders of the New Citizens’ Movement, the new government will prioritize building infrastructure and enacting regulations to fight pollution, adding that the measures passed by Xi had too many loopholes and did little to improve public health.
Sources within the transitional government say that the hukou registration system will be abolished in the coming days, as will the two-child policy. With rich cities like Beijing and Shanghai expecting a surge in internal migration, there is friction between urban middle-class protesters and migrants over future development policy. Protesters in Shanghai indicated that they would prefer local control over housing development and education policy. The degree of federalism is up in the air and will not be settled until after the election, but most of the freed dissidents believe that the new government should devolve substantial autonomy to the provinces.
Political leaders, including both freed dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and CCP faction leaders within the National People’s Congress, have said they will work on anti-pollution measures, to be passed after the election. Environmentalist protesters have proposed a national cap on the purchase of new cars, akin to existing policies in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, and stricter emission controls on cars. They have also proposed a national program to build more solar plants and retrofit apartments to be more energy-efficient in order to close coal plants; within Beijing, middle-class reformers identified with the political right have proposed ending government subsidies to coal heating.
In the near term, the largest cities plan to continue building out their subway networks at the same pace as before. Planners at the Beijing Subway and Shanghai and Guangzhou Metros said they expect passenger numbers to rise modestly as the abolition of hukou leads to higher population growth, but all three cities already have low car ownership rates, so replacement of car trips by subway trips is unlikely. However, in some other cities, where car ownership rates are higher today, planners expect higher rail traffic in the future. Because there already are plans for rapid expansion of subway service, it is unlikely any city will build out its system faster; however, some long-term plans without a timeline may be accelerated and built in the next decade.
There is some nationalistic element to the proposed infrastructure and environmental policies. Planners at China Railways have expressed dismay that Chinese passenger rail traffic density is not the highest in the world, but ranks second, after Japan. This is part of a broader split between democracy activists who are pro-Western, like Liu, and ones who are not and came to oppose the CCP out of recent concerns about economic and environmental problems. The latter activists take it for granted that China should reunify with Taiwan on its terms; some have proposed an undersea rail tunnel connecting Taiwan with the mainland.
But sources within the Japanese rail industry expressed some pessimism about the ability of the new democratic China to solve its pollution problems via better infrastructure. They note that Chinese urban train stations are poorly located, usually well outside city centers, and urban rail lines lack express tracks, limiting train speeds. Nearly all protesters oppose China’s use of eminent domain to clear areas for new development, making it hard to build more central train stations.
The transitional government said that it would welcome a global climate change agreement and that China would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions provided the rich industrialized countries committed to sharper reductions. Analysts within Europe and Japan believe that this proposal is aimed at the United States, which has substantially higher per capita emissions than the rest of the developed world, and is the world’s second largest emitter after China. A minority of anti-American protesters in China have proposed declaring trade war on the United States until it agreed to combat climate change, but the views of both the transitional government and most growing political factions are that there should not be any change to Chinese foreign policy, outside the issue of Taiwan.
A faction of protesters, currently planning to form a green party and contest the upcoming election, has proposed far-reaching taxes, investments, and regulations, intending to ban cars for non-emergency uses by 2025, and phase out all coal plants by 2025 and gas plants by 2035. Members of this faction have said that this would ensure Chinese supremacy in the realm of green technology, which China could then export to the United States, India, and industrializing African states as it sheds low-value added manufacturing industries. The majority of Chinese reformers do not support those measures, and it is unlikely the conservative factions within the CCP will agree to any further regulation. However, the upcoming green party is likely to be a key component of any reformist coalition, and substantial additional regulations stopping short of a ban can be expected.
Earlier this month, Andrew Cuomo unveiled a proposal to spend $10 billion on improvements to JFK Airport, including new terminals, highway expansion, and public transit access. I encourage readers to look at the plan: the section on highways proposes $1.5-2 billion in investment including adding lanes to the Van Wyck Expressway and to on-ramps, and has the cheek to say that this will reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This while the section on mass transit gives it short shrift, only proposing superficial improvements to the AirTrain; in the unlikely the case that this is built, highway mode share will grow and transit mode share will fall. Put in plainer terms, the environmental case for the plan includes fraud.
However, this is not really the topic of this post. That Andrew Cuomo lies to the voters and doesn’t care about good transportation is by now a dog-bites-man story. Instead, I want to focus a little on a throwaway line in the plan, and more on the Regional Plan Association’s reaction. The throwaway line is that almost every major world airport has a one-seat train ride to city center, and by implication, so should JFK.
As an organization dedicated to environment-friendly public transit, the RPA should have made it very clear it opposes the plan due to its low overall transportation value and its favoring of highways over transit. Instead, the RPA immediately launched a brief detailing possible new airport connectors between JFK and Manhattan. The RPA has a lot of good technical people, and its list of the pros and cons of each option is solid. It correctly notes that using the LIRR and Rockaway Beach Branch would compete for traffic with LIRR trains serving Long Island, although it doesn’t mention associated problems like low frequency. The brief is based on prior RPA proposals, but the timing, just after Cuomo came out with his announcement, suggests an endorsement. There are several intertwined problems here:
There is no no-build option
A good study for public transit should not only consider different alignments and service patterns, but also question whether the project is necessary. The US requires environmental impact statements to include a no build option; European countries require a cost-benefit analysis, and will not fund projects with a benefit/cost ratio under 1.2, because of cost escalation risk.
The RPA study does not question whether a one-seat ride from JFK to Manhattan is necessary or useful. It assumes that it is. Everything else about the study follows from that parameter. Thus, it considers entirely express plans, such as the LIRR option, alongside local options. Everything is subsumed into the question of connecting JFK to Manhattan.
One of the alignments proposed is via the LIRR Atlantic Branch and Second Avenue Subway, which the RPA has long believed should be connected. The brief says that it would be slow because it would have to make many local stops; I’ll add that it would serve Midtown, where nearly all the hotels are, via a circuitous alignment. But with all these stops on the way, shouldn’t this be considered as primarily a new trunk line connecting Eastern Brooklyn with Second Avenue? The question of whether the eastern terminus should be Jamaica or JFK must be subsumed to a study of this specific line, which at any rate is unlikely to offer faster service to JFK than the existing AirTrain-to-E option. After all, the most optimistic ridership projection for a JFK connector is maybe 40,000 users per day, whereas the projection for the full Second Avenue Subway is 500,000. I don’t think a Second Avenue-Atlantic Branch connection is warranted, but if it is, the question of whether to serve JFK at the end is secondary.
Express airport connectors are a fetish
I lived in Stockholm for two years, where I went to the airport exclusively using the Arlanda Express, a premium express link running nonstop between the airport and city center. I imagine many visitors to Stockholm use it, are satisfied, and want to replicate it in their own cities.
Unfortunately, such replications miss something important: any air-rail link must go to the areas that people are likely to want to connect to. For locals who wish to travel to the airport, this means good connections to the local transit network, since they are likely to come from many neighborhoods. Not even a small city like Stockholm worries about providing rich areas like Vasastan and Roslag with a one-seat ride. For visitors, this means a one-seat ride to where the hotels are.
Stockholm is a largely monocentric city, with one city center where everything is. (It has an edge city in Kista, with more skyscrapers than Central Stockholm, but Kista can’t be reasonably connected to the airport). The situation in other cities is more complicated. And yet, express air links prioritize serving a big train station even if it’s poorly connected to the transit network and far from the hotels. Let us consider London and Paris.
In London, the five-star hotels cluster around the West End. Only two are at Paddington Station, and only a few more are an easy walking distance from it. This is where the Heathrow Express and the slower Heathrow mainline trains go. No wonder the Heathrow Express’s mode share, as of 2004, is 9%, whereas other Heathrow connections, mainly the Piccadilly line, total 27% (source, PDF-p. 28). The Piccadilly line beautifully passes through the parts of the West End with the largest concentration of hotels, and last time I was in London, I chose it as my Heathrow connection. Nonetheless, the government chose to build the Heathrow Express.
In Paris, the five-star hotels cluster in the west of the city as well, in the 8th arrondissement. The current airport connection is via the RER B, which offers express service in the off-peak when there’s capacity, but not in the peak, when there isn’t. Even so, it is a local commuter rail service, with good connections to the city transit system, and a two-seat ride to the 8th. Because of slow perceived speeds, the state is planning to build an express connector, originally planned to open in 2015 but since delayed to 2023. The express connector will dump passengers at Gare de l’Est, with no hotels within walking distance, no access to Metro lines serving the hotel clusters (Metro 7 does so peripherally, M4 and M5 not at all), and a long walk to the RER for passengers wishing to connect to longer-range destinations such as parts of the Left Bank.
I bring this up to show that the idea of the express air-rail link is a fetish rather than a transportation project, and by analogy, so is the one-seat ride. There is value in faster service and in minimizing the number of transfers, but express airport connectors attempt both even at the cost of building a line that doesn’t go where people want to go.
Ultimately, Cuomo doesn’t care about good transit
Cuomo has many concerns. The chief one is most likely winning the 2020 presidential primary. He has been running for president since the moment he was elected, and many of his policies – gay marriage, the feuds with Bill de Blasio, the desperate attempt to build shiny infrastructure with his name on it – are best viewed through that lens. To the extent that he is not running for president, he has attempted to cement absolute power within the state. He backed a palace coup in the State Senate that secured a Republican(-ish) majority even though the Democrats won most seats; a Democratic majority would be led by a different faction of the party, one more beholden to Democratic interest groups, and might send Cuomo bills that he would lose political capital if he either signed or vetoed them.
This is why I keep giving him as an example of an autocrat in various posts; here is the major takedown, but see also here. Autocrats are always bad for the areas that they govern, which as two separate implications. The first is that their choice of spending priorities is compromised by the need to expand their own power and glory: even if you believe that New York needs $1.5-2 billion in new highway spending, is the Van Wyck really the best place for it?
The second and worse implication is that it is hard for outside groups to convince autocrats to do better. Autocrats don’t have to listen; if they did, they would be democratic leaders. Cuomo happens to be an anti-transit autocrat, and this means that pro-transit groups in New York need to view him as an obstacle and work to weaken him, rather than to ask him to please consider their plans for an air-rail link.
The difficulty is that, precisely because local- and state-level democracy in the US is so weak, it is difficult for issue-oriented groups to go out and oppose the governor. Planners in Democratic cities are hesitant to attack budget-cutting Republican governors like Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan; attacking Democratic governors like Cuomo is a nonstarter. Nonetheless, the RPA needs to understand that it needs to oppose governments hostile to public transit rather than ask them to improve. When Cuomo proposes a bad transportation project, say “no” and move on to more important things; don’t try to work with him, because nothing good can come of that.
Since the 2015-9 capital plan, the New York MTA had been including the second phase of Second Avenue Subway in its capital plan, without a clear estimate of its projected cost. The rumors said the cost would be about $5 billion. A new media story finally gives an official cost estimate: $6 billion. The total length of the project, from 96th Street and 2nd Avenue to 125th Street and Lexington, is about 2.7 km. At $2.2 billion per km, this sets a new world record for subway construction costs, breaking that of the first phase of the same line, which only cost $1.7 billion per km. See a compendium of past posts here to look how these projects stack up. For people not interested in combing through multiple old posts of mine, the short version is that outside the Anglosphere, subway tunnels typically cost $100-300 million per km, with outliers in both directions, but even inside the Anglosphere, costs are in the mid-to-high hundreds of million per km.
In some way, the high cost of SAS phase 2 is more frustrating than that of phase 1. This is because 1 km of the 2.7 km of route preexists. SAS construction began in the 1970s, but was halted due to New York’s financial crisis. In East Harlem, some actual tunnel segments were dug, roughly between the proposed station locations at 96th, 106th, 116th, and 125th Streets; Wikipedia has a more detailed list. Construction of phase 2 thus involves just the stations, plus a short bored segment under 125th Street to get from Second Avenue to Lexington, for a connection to the 4, 5, and 6 trains.
Not having to build tunnels between the stations is beneficial, not as a cost saver in itself but as a way to reduce station costs. In phase 1, it appears that most costs were associated with the stations themselves; if I remember correctly, the cost breakdown was 25% for each of three new stations, and 25% for the tunnels in between. The reason is that the stations are quite deep, while the tunneling in between is bored, to reduce surface disruption. Deep stations are more expensive because they require more excavation, while tunnel boring costs depend more on soil type and how much infrastructure is in the way than on depth. Counting the extra expense of stations, bored subways cost more per km than cut-and-cover subways, but create less surface disruption away from station sites, which is why this method was chosen for phase 1. In contrast, in phase 2, most construction is stations, which would favor a shallow cut-and-cover solution.
Unfortunately, according to rumors, it appears that the MTA now judges it impossible to use the preexisting tunnels in phase 2. If this is true, then this would explain the higher cost (though it would justify $400 million per km, not $2.2 billion): they’d have to build underneath those tunnels. But if this is true then it suggests severe incompetence in the planning stage, of the kind that should get senior employees fired and consultants blacklisted.
The reason is that Second Avenue Subway was planned as a single line. The Environmental Impact Statement was for the full line, including the proposed construction techniques. The phasing was agreed on by then; there was only enough state money for phase 1. This isn’t an unexpected change of plans. I’d understand if in the 2000s it was found that tunnels from the 1970s were not usable; this happened further south, in phase 4, where a preexisting tunnel under Chrystie Street was found to be difficult to use. But in the 2000s the SAS studies signed off on using the tunnels in Harlem, and what seems to be happening is that phase 1, built according to the specifications of the same study, is too deep for using the tunnels.
At $6 billion, this line shouldn’t be built. I know that it goes to a low-income, underserved neighborhood, one that I’ve attacked New York before for taking years to equip with bike lanes (scroll down to my comments here). But the ridership projection is 100,000 per weekday, and $60,000 per weekday rider is too much. Phase 1, providing an underrated east-west connection and serving a denser neighborhood, is projected to get 200,000, for a projection of around $25,000 per weekday rider, which isn’t terrible, so it’s a justified project even if the costs could be an order of magnitude lower.
Were costs lower, it would be possible to build subways to many more low-income neighborhoods in New York. A 125th Street crosstown line, extending phase 2 of SAS, would provide Harlem with crucial east-west connectivity. Subways under Nostrand and Utica Avenues would serve a mixture of working- and middle-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn. A subway under Northern Boulevard in Queens, connecting to phases 3 and 4 of SAS, would serve one of the poorest parts of Queens. A network of tramways would improve surface transit in the South Bronx. Triboro Line would connect poor areas like the South Bronx and East New York with richer ones like Astoria. New York could achieve a lot, especially for its most vulnerable residents, if it could construct subways affordably.
But in a world in which subways cost $60,000 per weekday rider and $2.2 billion per km, New York cannot extend the subway. If it has money in its budget for investment, it should look into things other than transportation, such as social housing or schools. Or it could not borrow money at all to pay for big projects, and in lieu of the money spent on interest, reduce taxes, or increase ongoing social spending.
Given persistent high costs, I would recommend shelving SAS and future rail extensions in New York, including the Gateway tunnel, until costs can be drastically cut. There’s no shortage of worthy priorities for scarce budget in New York, both city and state. Health care in the US is too expensive by a factor of 2, not 10, and transfer payments have near-100% efficiency no matter what; it’s possible to exhaust the tax capability of a state or city just on these two items. Perhaps the need to compete with other budget priorities would get the MTA to cut waste.
One of the most fundamental questions in urban and transportation governance is the role of ideology. There’s inherent tension between trying to run a government or a government program according to the tenets of socialism, liberalism, conservatism, or any other ideology, and trying to run it pragmatically. I wrote some early posts criticizing the latter tendency, for example here and here; an emergent view coming from the corpus of my political posts here in 2011-2 is that instead of removing ideology from transit politics, ideologues should instead learn best industry practices and use them in the service of their chosen political philosophy. In this post, I’d like to present a more nuanced view about whether this is feasible. Ultimately, I think the situation is unstable: the need to run public services well softens ideologues, while attempts to run ideology-free government involve assumptions that breed outside populist movements.
A few months ago, Sandy Johnston called for a revival of a US tradition called sewer socialism, associated with Socialist Milwaukee mayors Emil Seidel (r. 1910-12), Daniel Hoan (r. 1916-40), and Frank Zeidler (r. 1948-60). The Milwaukee socialists boasted of the municipal sanitation system that they’d built, and were notably corruption-free. This was while they remained in good standing in the Socialist Party, which was orthodox Marxist; Seidel was Eugene Debs’ running mate in the 1912 presidential election.
The problem with the sewer socialist tradition that Sandy cites is that it inevitably makes the sewers more important than the socialism, and soon, the socialists turn into technocrats. This happened to European social democrats starting in the 1930s and 40s. Out of power, and even early in power in the 1920s and 30s, they talked about replacing capitalism with socialism. After years of power, they built public housing for the working class, comprehensive education, and national health care systems, and abandoned revolution; within the US, Zeidler was influenced by Debs and identified as a socialist but explicitly rejected Soviet communism.
The people who passed the laws creating public works, social welfare schemes, and public services were usually committed to social and economic equality, but the people running them would be promoted and rewarded based on competence rather than ideology. A politician could succeed in a social democratic party by showing ability to implement a government program rather than by showing ideological commitment. Sewer socialism turned into sewer big-tent center-left politics, and subsequently into sewer neo-liberalism.
Neo-liberalism is the Great Satan of leftist writing today, and has no agreed upon definition other than “what the leftist writer who uses this term opposes.” Few positively identify as neo-liberal, and the most prominent exception I can think of, Brad DeLong, is someone who specifically enjoys needling the left. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to define neo-liberalism around the following points:
- Neo-liberals philosophically think in liberal, especially classical liberal, terminology.
- Market-based solutions to most problems, with the remaining problems cordoned off into areas without political interference, such as central bank independence, and (for neo-liberals more on the left) universal education and health care.
- A belief in pragmatic, non-ideological governance, to the point of preferring solutions that appear to be reasonable; as a result, few of the people most leftists would identify as neo-liberal are climate hawks, since climate hawks, whatever their other political views, definitionally want aggressive action to mitigate climate change.
- An attempt to incorporate outsider critiques rather than oppose them heads-on, hence neo-liberal attempts to come up with internal solutions to problems of poverty, inequality, and unemployment.
- Anti-populism, leading to conflict with not only left-populists but also traditional interest groups such as unions.
- A positive attitude toward the intellectuals, experts, and technocrats within each field, most famously economics but also the other natural and social sciences.
The populist left today defines itself in diametric opposition to some subset of the above points, and this requires defining itself against the notion that competence in governing is important. This is unmistakable in Jacobin, the most important magazine of the American far left today. Here’s founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara, in an early interview:
Liberalism has always been an inchoate, diverse ideology. You have some who are more or less operative social democrats; they are pro-union and trying to get back to that golden age of the welfare state. In other words, “class-struggle liberals.” Then you have technocratic liberals, your Ezra Kleins, who also have a very long intellectual tradition. You see it in the history of the press, where we went from a partisan, even ideological press to people like Walter Lippman who made liberalism part of a wider “clean cities, clean government” movement. In the 1960s these technocratic liberals were some of the people cleaning up white racist urban machines. Now they are attacking teachers’ unions and what they see as new city machines, which are predominantly made up of people of color—the people who have mainly benefited from public employment. History has cruel ironies like that.
Or see Sunkara in this extended rant, calling Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias less than human. Klein is “a technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet.” Per Sunkara, political success comes not from understanding policy but from emotional appeal, as in the Reagan Revolution, which, he concludes, “wasn’t a policy revolt; it was a revolution.”
There is a reason why ideological movements reject the notion of policy knowledge, of competence. They know that it leads to moderation. Sunkara is educated in the history of socialism and socialist movements, and knows what happened once social democrats had to govern. Even less educated socialists know this on some level, which is why the 1960s’ and 70s’ icon for young leftists was Che Guevara, forever a revolutionary, and not any leader who had to spend any time in power, such as Fidel Castro or even Ho Chi Minh.
While the bulk of this post is about socialism, the same rejection of competence can be seen on the right. Paul Krugman loves to needle the Republicans about it, for example here: for economic analysis, American conservative thinktanks rely on Stephen Moore, Larry Kudlow, and Arthur Laffer, none of whom is a respected economist, rather than on such right-leaning experts as Greg Mankiw, Ed Glaeser, or John Taylor. European mainline conservatives have avoided this, by moderating to the point of accepting the EU, the welfare state, and the advice of the intellectuals. In their stead, right-wing populists have grown in power, taking rejection of any expertise almost as a badge of pride, since they associate expertise with eurocrats; for example, in the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom (PVV) is climate denialist, in the developed country most vulnerable to climate change.
The far left is no more interested in governing than the far right, leading to weakness even on issues the left is supposed to be strong on. In the UK, the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, got his position on the strength of ideological purity rather than any governing experience; most candidates with government experience are tainted with Blair’s policies, especially the Iraq War. The left is supposed to support transit because it is green and friendly to the poor, and in Britain, the privatization of railroads is now unpopular with the broad public. YouGov proposes that a leader more trusted than Corbyn would be able to turn renationalization into a vote winner. But as related by the then-shadow minister of transport, Corbyn botched a very good opportunity, namely the UK’s annual fare hike, to attack the Cameron administration on rail fare hikes and propose renationalization and reregulation.
I stress that this is not about individual incompetence. The far left does not have a deep bench of people who can run a socialist state well; the people who run socialist programs successfully get accolades from the more numerous moderates and surround themselves with technocrats who are usually not committed to left politics. Corbyn’s opportunity to attack Cameron on rail fares came with the support of Labour’s bench, but his relationship with the rest of the party was always uneasy, and completely unraveled after the Brexit vote; fundamentally, it is not easy for a committed far-left leader to trust a more politically diverse bench.
Five years ago, when I talked about the split in US transit activism between politicals and technicals, I said that both groups were on average slightly left of center, but politicals clustered there, where technicals ranged from far left to reform conservatism (e.g. Reihan Salam) and Rothbardian libertarianism (i.e. segments of Market Urbanism, including Stephen Smith). Yonah Freemark would talk about the dangers and failures of neo-liberalism; in comments, Richard Mlynarik would reference Maher Arar’s extraordinary rendition in discussions of airport security theater, and so on.
Today, the situation has changed. It’s been center-left media outlets like Vox that have talked the most about high US rail construction costs and bad regulations. Among moderates and conservatives, interest never took off, with a handful of positive exceptions like Aaron Renn and again Reihan Salam; City Journal’s Nicole Gelinas remains more interested in cutting wages than in improving efficiency (this post of mine is partly inspired by Gelinas’s claims about wage scales). Most libertarians and many reform conservatives have found dreams of driverless car-share services and view transit as old-fashioned, now as in the 1950s. The growth of US right-populism and its attack on urban intellectuals has also limited concern for reforming transit in publications that should be friendly to this message; The American Conservative is publishing Strong Towns’ Charles Marohn, but overall a rural-dominated radical right is uninterested in either urban infrastructure or pragmatic solutions. Finally, on the far left, the message that political support, even rabblerousing, matters more than cost control, has played well with the growing zeitgeist. By now, the technicals are solidly center-left in practice.
The result is that, as happened to the Milwaukee socialists and to the social democrats on this side of the Pond, any modern-day sewer socialists are necessarily going to moderate. Once moderated, they will not get the support of more radical socialists, who will screamingly accuse them of betrayal. The socialists today know that this is going to happen – unlike in the 1940s, there’s historical precedent for this – and this is leading to the new political split. This is not a resolvable tension. At best, individual center-leftists and leftists who succeed in pushing technical reform can tweak it in ways that help rather than hurt the poor, but collectively there is no way to force reform to be more sewer socialism than sewer neo-liberalism.