Category: Politics and Society

New Hudson Tunnels Are Canceled. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urbanism and Standards of Respectability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Northeast Corridor Privatization is Doomed to Failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Spinetta Axe Reveals About Cost Control

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

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

SNCF is Losing Money

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

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

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

The Spinetta Axe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Efficiencies not Mentioned

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

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

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

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

The Impetus for Cost Control

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

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

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

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

Reforming Pensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil Service, Racism, and Cost Control

I ran a Patreon poll about theory-oriented posts, and this option won over the concepts of skin in the game and of cities and assimilation. It came to me when I tried understanding why on several distinct measures of good governance related to urbanism and public transportation, the US is unusually weak by developed-country standards. I was reminded of something regular commenter Max Wyss once said: in French and in German, there’s a word that means “the state” and has positive connotation, whereas in native English use it usually refers to a sinister external imposition.

My main theory is that the US has problems with governance that ultimately stem from its racist history, and these have unrelated implications today that lead to poor urban governance and low transit usage. This is not a straightforward claim about white flight leading to high car use, or even a general claim about racism-poor transit correlation. (I don’t think the US is currently more racist than the average Western European country, and the costs in Europe don’t seem to correlate with my perception of racism levels.) In particular, fixing racism is not by itself going to lead to better transit or better urbanism, only to improvements in quality of government that in the future could prevent similar problems with other aspects of public policy that are yet unforeseen today.

This is a three-step argument. First, I am going to go over the weakness of US civil service and its consequences. Second, I am going to step back and describe the political mentality that leads to weak civil service, which centers the local community at the expense of the state. And third, I am going to relate this and similar examples of excessive localism in the US to the country’s unique history of racism. In effect, I am going to go backward, describing the effect and then looking at its causes.

Effect: Weak State Capacity

The argument is as follows: the US has a weak civil service. There’s relatively little in-house expertise, and weak planning departments. The rapid transit extensions of London and Paris are driven mostly by professional planning departments (Transport for London is especially powerful), with the budgets debated within their respective national parliaments. In contrast, in New York, while Second Avenue Subway was similarly driven by an internal process, other rail extensions were not: the 7 extension is Bloomberg’s project, the ongoing plans for BQX and the LaGuardia AirTrain are de Blasio and Cuomo’s projects respectively, and Gateway in its various incarnations is political football among several agencies and governments. Similarly, while the TGV was developed internally at SNCF with political approval of the overall budget, American plans for high-speed rail involve a melange of players, including consultants.

The more obvious effect of the weakness of the American civil service is that, with political control of planning and not just of the budget, it’s easy to build low-performance infrastructure such as the 7 extension. However, there are three ways in which this problem can increase costs, rather than just lead to poor priorities.

First, it is easier to have agency turf battles. The US has no transport association coordinating planning like STIF in Ile-de-France or any number of German-speaking Verkehrsverbünde (Berlin’s VBB, Zurich’s ZVV, etc.). Even when one agency controls all transit in an area, like SEPTA in Philadelphia or the MBTA in Boston, powerful internal cultures inhibit reforms aiming at treating mainline rail like regular public transit. An instructive example of better civil service is Canada: while Canadian civil service is also weak by Continental European or Japanese standards, it is strong enough that Metrolinx plans to raise off-peak frequency and at least in theory aims at fare integration, over the objections of the traditional railroaders who, like their American counterparts, like the situation as it is today.

Without any structure that gets different agencies to coordinate plans, overbuilding is routine. I blogged about it a few months ago, giving the examples of Gateway and East Side Access in New York and San Jose Diridon Station. A second Bay Area example, not mentioned in the post, concerns Millbrae, where BART holds on to turf it does not need, leading California High-Speed Rail to propose a gratuitous $1.9 billion tunnel: see posts on Caltrain-HSR Compatibility here and here.

Second, there is less in-house supervision of contracting. Brian Rosenthal’s article about Second Avenue Subway’s construction costs talks, among other things, about the lack of internal expertise at the MTA about running large projects. This is consistent with Manuel Melis Maynar’s admonition that project management should be done in-house rather than by consultants; Melis managed to build subways in Madrid for around $60 million per km. It’s also consistent with what I’ve heard from MBTA insiders as an explanation for the cost blowout for Boston’s Green Line Extension, an open-cut light rail so expensive it was misclassified as a subway in a Spanish comparison; as I mention in CityLab, once the MBTA found a good project manager it managed to substantially reduce costs.

Weaker in-house supervision has knock-on effects on procurement practices. An agency that can’t easily oversee the work it pays for has difficulty weeding out dishonest or incompetent contractors. One way around it is strict lowest-bid rules, but these offer dishonest contractors an opportunity to lowball costs; California has a particular problem with change orders. In New York, I’ve heard from several second-hand sources that to prevent contractors from doing shoddy work, the specs micromanage the contractors, leading to more expensive work and discouraging good builders, who can get private-sector work, from bidding. If fewer contractors bid, then there is less competition, increasing cost further. In contrast, Melis Maynar’s prescription is to offer contracts based primarily on the technical score and only secondarily on cost, to ensure quality work. But this requires objective judgment of technical merit, which American bureaucrats are not good at.

And third, the US’s weaker state capacity leads to problems with NIMBY opposition to infrastructure. This does not means the US can’t engage in eminent domain (on the contrary, its eminent domain laws favor the state). But it means that agencies feel like they’re politically at the mercy of powerful local interests, and can’t propose projects with high community impact that they can negotiate with local landowners. The impetus for the SECoast’s hiring me to analyze high-speed rail in Fairfield County is that the NEC Future plan was vague about that area; an insider at one of the NEC Future consultants told me that this was specifically because the consultant was worried about NIMBYism in that part of the state, so an “unspoken assumption” was that the area should not be disturbed.

This kind of preemptive surrender to NIMBYism leads to inferior projects, like agency turf battles: cost-effective solutions are not pursued if consultants are worried about political pushback. But, like agency turf battles, it also leads to higher costs, if the reports propose expensive remediation such as tunnels.

Cause: Localism

Any attempt to build a strong bureaucracy in the United States runs into entrenched interests, most of which are local. These interests are empowered politically rather than legally. The NIMBYism example is the cleanest case study. The United States does not have a legal regime that empowers NIMBY opposition in eminent domain cases. On the contrary, the state can condemn property with relative ease, and the arguments are over price. Under Kelo, the state can even expropriate land and to give to a private developer.

In contrast, in Japan the process is more difficult: in a 1994 Transportation Research Board paper, Walter Hook says that urban landowners in Japan enjoy strong legal protections, which requires the state to pay a high price for property takings. About 75-80% of the cost of urban highway construction in Japan is land acquisition, versus only 25% in the US (both figures are lower for rail, which is more space-efficient; the paper argues that Japan’s difficult land acquisition led it to favor the more space-efficient mode for its urban transportation network).

Moreover, in Japan as well as in France, property owners have extralegal means of fighting infrastructure: they can take to the streets. The construction of Narita Airport faced riots by landowners, encouraged by leftists who opposed the airport’s use by the US military; and in France, blocking roads is a standard way of protesting, and there is little the state can do against it. SNCF resolves this issue in building high-speed lines for TGVs by spending years negotiating with landowners and coming up with win-wins in which it pays extra to make the owners go away quietly.

With a legally stronger state, the US needs to come up with different ways to protect powerful property owners from arbitrary expropriation. The mechanism the country settled on is political empowerment of local interests. If rich individuals in Fairfield County or on the San Francisco Peninsula can interfere with the construction process, then they can rest assured the state will not be able to build a rail alignment that wrecks their real or imagined quality of life. The point I made repeatedly in my writeup about high-speed rail in Fairfield County (funded by those rich individuals) is that there is some real visual and noise impact, but it’s possible to mitigate it in most cities using noise barriers and trees, and as compensation use the faster tracks to offer faster commuter rail service; only Darien has unmitigable impact.

The same localism encourages agency turf battles. The LIRR, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit could provide much better rail service in their respective service areas by integrating planning, but this would compel local interests to give up control. Long Islanders would have to interact directly with the Tri-State Area’s transport association, in which they’d be only 12% of the population and 5% of transit ridership; today they interact with planning via their powerful elected representatives, who can block any change that is unfavorable to incumbent riders.

The main losers here are potential riders. It is possible to come up with a win-win (there’s so much schedule padding a local train could be as fast as today’s super-express trains), but it is not possible for any coordinated planning department to credibly promise that the suburbs would retain the priority they have today. For the same reason, even vertically integrated SEPTA and the MBTA find it difficult to engage in integration – the suburbs would lose their special status.

In contrast, planning in France and Britain is more centralized, and the local communities were never so empowered. The two main players in STIF are RATP and SNCF. RATP serves Paris, and SNCF is the national railroad and does not view itself as catering to the suburbs even if those suburbs are the overwhelming majority of SNCF’s ridership. The rich can exercise direct political influence: thus, the state just committed to building the entire Grand Paris Express, despite cost overruns, without pruning the unnecessary airport connector that is Line 17 or the low-ridership favored-quarter suburban circumferential that is Line 18. But they can’t block projects as easily as in the US.

The US achieves democratic checks and balances by having many veto points on every law. In Congress, a law needs majorities in both houses and a presidential signature, or supermajorities in both houses. Moreover, achieving a majority in each house requires not only the support of the majority of legislators, but also the support of the majority of legislators in the majority party (the Hastert Rule). In each state legislature, the process is largely similar. In nonpartisan or effectively single-party legislatures, such as the New York City Council, votes on such local issues as rezoning informally require the approval of the legislator representing the district in question; David Schleicher, who has elsewhere investigated high US subway construction costs, has a paper on this local representative privilege explaining why upzoning is difficult in large cities.

This localism is absent from other democracies. Westminster systems just don’t have checks and balances, only traditions, occasionally supplemented by narrow civil liberties-oriented constitutions like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As a result, Ontario could pass a rent control law overnight; with this regulatory uncertainty, it’s no wonder that for years, even before the law, fearful developers built mostly condos rather than rental units.

In most other democracies, checks and balances instead rely on proportional representation and a multiparty system: laws in Germany or Scandinavia require a parliamentary majority, and restrictions on the government’s ability to pass big changes overnight with no debate come from the ability of class-based and ideological interests to activate entire political parties. Coalition agreements still specify the agenda, roughly equivalent to the Hastert Rule, but parties can freely campaign for changes in elections, reducing the ability of a minority to block change. In some systems, most notably Switzerland, it’s also possible to use referendums to direct spending. This way, local magnates opposed to the expansion of civil service are disempowered, while at the same time the civil service cannot easily use its powers to create internal slush funds, because it is still overseen by a political majority that cares little for corruption.

Ultimate Cause: Democratic Deficit and Racism

The superficial reason why the US prefers localism to civil service is that it is historically localist. New England had powerful town halls from early white settlement, and Americans like to tell themselves that they have a lively tradition of self-government and individualism. But this is incorrect. Israelis in the United States often comment that far from individualist or self-governing, Americans are unusually rule-bound and obedient, compared with not just Israelis but also Europeans.

More to the point, traditions of localism exist in much of Europe. Switzerland is famous for this, and yet it’s managed to develop civil service planning transportation; referendums exert a powerful check on the ability of the state to spend money, but do not micromanage planning, and as a result the state makes cost-effective plans rather than retreating and letting local suburbs decide what to build.

Moreover, most European countries have undergone rounds of municipal consolidation, converting formerly independent suburbs or villages into parts of larger cities or townships. France has uniquely not done so, and is therefore extremely fractionalized, with 30,000 communes, about the same as the number of municipalities in five times more populous America; but in France the communes are for the most part weak, and most subnational government is done by departments and regions. The US, in contrast, maintained its suburbs’ autonomy.

The answer to the question of why the US has done so is simple: racism. Suburban consolidation came to a hard stop once the cities became more diverse than the suburbs. Relying on prior town lines could offer suburban whites something they craved: protection from integration, especially school integration.

It would be difficult to consolidate education policy, even at the state level, and maintain the white middle and working classes’ desired segregation levels. Thus, the US prefers the second-best policy of maintaining localism. The same principle also underlies much election disenfranchisement (giving white poll workers authority to reject black voters’ credentials), today and even more so before the Voting Rights Act.

Transit faces the same issue. The traditional American transit cities’ suburbs have fast expensive trains for middle-class, mostly white suburban commuters to city center, and slow, cheap suburban buses for poor minorities working service jobs in the suburbs. Stephen Smith, who spent some time on the NICE buses on Long Island and compared their demographics with those of the LIRR, calls this “separate and unequal.” This segregation would not survive any coordinated planning; even ignoring racial equality, it’s inefficient.

The underlying cause is that it is very difficult to have a clean herrenvolk democracy. Neither of the two main examples of herrenvolk democracies, the American South in the eras of slavery and Jim Crow and South Africa in the apartheid era, had good government. On the contrary, the antebellum South opposed public infrastructure investment (“internal improvements” in the era’s language), and the Jim Crow South was a single-party state ruled by corrupt political machines. Apartheid South Africa, too, was effectively a single-party state with totalitarian characteristics trying to stamp out communism. The ability of the state to respond to even the white population’s economic and social needs was constrained by the overwhelming need to credibly promise to maintain apartheid. Ta-Nehisi Coates notes this of George Wallace:

I frequently reference the story of George Wallace’s evolution. Wallace was once a sensible politician who generally was seen as fair-minded by black leaders in Alabama. But he lost the gubernatorial election after being tarred by John Patterson as too friendly to black people. Wallace subsequently vowed to never be “out-niggered” again and thus began his long dark march into history.

You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.

The only way to maintain racism is to weaken institutions. It’s hard to have a clean system of apartheid justice, because then the oppressed minority can simply demand the state treat it the way it treats the herrenvolk. A state that attempted to impose apartheid with clean government would not be able to credibly promise to the racists that the system would stay as is. Instead, it would need to engage in arbitrary justice, giving individual cops, judges, and juries broad latitude to make decisions, which could survive the end of formal apartheid to some extent.

The Impact of Racism on Property Rights

The US built roads in the 1950s and 60s by running them through low-income black urban neighborhoods. The book The Big Roads says that road planners figured that those areas were already declining and had low property values, so it was cheap to build there; in one tone-deaf example, planners in Washington tried surveying roads after a race riot, figuring that it was the best time to demolish buildings, until outraged civil rights groups put a stop to the process. The problem is that black neighborhoods were cheap because of redlining. The federal government spent 30 years wrecking the property values of black neighborhoods and then acquired property for cheap to build infrastructure for then-white suburban drivers.

For the same reason, there is much less tolerance toward protest in the US than in other democracies. If Americans tried reacting to adverse changes the way the French react, the police would shoot them. If the US engaged in a process to reduce its police brutality rates to levels that Europeans tolerate, black people would be able to free to roam the streets and make racist whites uncomfortable.

Thus, the US refrains from giving property owners any formal legal or extralegal protections from expropriation. Instead, it promises security of property to the middle class by underinvesting in institutions that could come up with bureaucratic rules for expropriation. Legally excluding minorities is difficult; politically excluding them is easy. The natural end of this system is to ensure the locus of protection from expropriation is political rather than legal.

When the US protects individuals from the predations of the state, it does so by letting people sue the government; this contrasts with regulatory protections, such as the Nordic ombudsman system. While suing the government is in theory a legal protection, in practice it depends on familiarity with the court system, which privileges people with connections and legal knowledge. When the state does spend political capital on getting what it wants, some rich individuals can sue indefinitely to delay projects; the poor have no such recourse. While this is partly a legacy of the common law system, indefinite delay by lawsuit is rare in the rest of the common law world, leading to British stereotypes that Americans are overly litigious.

The US is not uniquely racist. Its levels of economic discrimination against minorities seem fairly average to me by developed-country standards. Moreover, the extent of political exclusion of black Americans is arguably the smallest among all large groups of nonwhite minorities in white-majority countries. Barack Obama faced considerably racism as president, but he did win by a fair margin, and for years beforehand the media normalized the idea of a black president (as in the TV show 24 or the film Deep Impact). In contrast, a Muslim French president would be unthinkable. Even the Trump cabinet is more diverse than the Macron cabinet, which has one black member (the minister of sport) and one part-Algerian member (the minister of public accounts); the Clinton, Bush, and Obama cabinets all had minorities in far more senior positions.

However, the US is unique in that it was racially diverse early, requiring its political system to adapt to a state of slavery and subsequently apartheid. Europe, in contrast, formally applies the rules of liberal democratic participation, developed when there were few minorities, to an increasingly diverse electorate. To the extent that European racists are dissatisfied with this arrangement, they try to push for localism as well: British xenophobia borrows rhetoric from American local racism, substituting neo-Confederate dislike for the US federal government for anti-EU sentiments. Similarly, Swiss racists push for rules putting every naturalization to a referendum, ensuring that long-settled white Germans and Italians could naturalize while nonwhites could not.

Conclusion: the Origins and Future of Poor Governance

With the need to maintain apartheid embedded into the American legal and political systems, it had to underinvest in state capacity. A uniform civil service with clear rules would have to treat everyone equally, and if it didn’t, it would be so obvious that civil rights advocates would be able to easily push for change.

For the same reason, the US didn’t design rules that would guarantee security of property to all citizens while allowing the government to function in those cases where expropriation was required. Such rules would equally protect whites and blacks, and allow the black middle class to build wealth on the same terms as whites. Instead, its legal system empowers the state in eminent domain cases and requires individuals to either use their political pull to protect themselves or to attempt to sue the government for just compensation, neither of which option protects unorganized or disempowered communities.

With planning done by ad hoc arrangements and excessive empowerment of local interests, it is difficult to engage in any regional coordination. Even when none of the actors is a racist, or when all relevant communities are white, parochial local interests are stronger than the civil service and have many levers with which they can block change. With a change-averse political system, planning is run by autopilot, keeping traditional arrangements as they are.

Aversion to change, poor coordination, and ad hoc planning all lead to bad government, but are especially deleterious for public transit. Two road agencies that work independently in neighboring jurisdiction could build a single continuous road. Two public transit agencies in the same situation could build a railroad but not operate it. Moreover, with the bulk of spending on roads coming from individual consumers buying cars and fuel, a car-based transportation system is more resilient to bad government than a transit-based one, in which all spending is directed by a transit agency.

It’s hard to have an organization-before-electronics-before-concrete mentality when organization is stymied by the overarching need to maintain white middle-class local autocephaly. The end result is that transit planning departments are too weak to prioritize projects the right way and even to control costs of spending that benefits the white middle class.

None of this was intentional. Racism was of course intentional, but the political compromises between racist and nonracist whites that created American governance as it is today were not intended to wreck American state capacity. They just did so as a side product of guaranteeing the desired levels of political and economic exclusion.

The importance of intent is that reducing the extent of racism in the US in the future, while obviously desirable, is independent of fixing public transit. Some individual bad decisions today, such as Larry Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line in Baltimore, are directly racist, but a lot of agency turf (such as between different commuter rail agencies) is not, and neither are high construction costs. Fixing the problems of US transit planning requires improving the relevant planning departments, but this is so narrowly-focused as to neither require nor be a natural consequence of fighting racism.

However, there is an entire world out there beyond public transit. When the US built its current racist system, during the midcentury transition period from apartheid to more-or-less equal democracy, probably the most obvious racially charged issue was school integration; the effect on transportation policy was a byproduct. Likewise, if the US makes a concerted effort to move toward racial equality, or if any European country with high immigration rates makes a concerted effort to avoid falling into an American racist trap, the improvements in governance will have far-reaching unforeseen benefits in the future.

RPA Fourth Regional Plan: LaGuardia Airport and the Astoria Line

This is the second post based on a Patreon poll about the RPA Fourth Regional Plan. See the first post, about Third Avenue, here.

The most worrisome part of the RPA Fourth Regional Plan is the LaGuardia Airport connector. The regional rail system the RPA is proposing includes some truly massive wastes of money, but what the RPA is proposing around LaGuardia showcases the worst aspects of the plan. On Curbed I explained that the plan has an unfortunate tendency to throw in every single politically-supported proposal. I’d like to expand on what I said in the article about the airport connector:

The most egregious example is another transit project favored by a political heavyweight: the LaGuardia AirTrain, championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Though he touts it as a one-seat ride from Midtown to LaGuardia, the vast majority of airport travelers going to Manhattan would have to go east to Willets Point (a potential redevelopment site) before they could go west. Even airport employees would have to backtrack to get to their homes in Jackson Heights and surrounding neighborhoods. As a result, it wouldn’t save airport riders any time over the existing buses.

Once again, it’s proven unpopular with transit experts and advocates: [Ben] Kabak mocked the idea as vaporware, and Yonah Freemark showed how circuitous this link would be. When Cuomo first proposed this idea, Politico cited a number of additional people who study public transportation in the region with negative reactions. Despite its unpopularity—and the lack of an official cost for the proposal—the AirTrain LaGuardia is included in the RPA’s latest plan.

But there is an alternative to Cuomo’s plan: an extension of the N/W train, proposed in the 1990s, which would provide a direct route along with additional stops within Astoria, where there is demand for subway service. Community opposition killed the original proposal, but a lot can change in 15 years; Astoria’s current residents may well be more amenable to an airport connector that would put them mere minutes from LaGuardia. Cuomo never even tried, deliberately shying away from this populated area.

And the Fourth Plan does include a number of subway extensions, some of which have long been on official and unofficial wishlists. Those include extensions under Utica and Nostrand avenues (planned together with Second Avenue Subway, going back to the 1950s), which also go under two of the top bus routes in the city, per [Jarrett] Walker’s maxim [that the best argument for an urban rail line is an overcrowded bus line, as on Utica and Nostrand].

There is also an extension of the N/W trains in Astoria—though not toward LaGuardia, but west, toward the waterfront, where it would provide a circuitous route to Manhattan. In effect, the RPA is proposing to stoke the community opposition Cuomo was afraid of, but still build the easy—and unsupported—airport connector Cuomo favors.

My views of extending the Astoria Line toward LaGuardia have evolved in the last few years, in a more positive direction. In my first crayon, which I drew in 2010, I didn’t even have that extension; I believed that the Astoria Line should be extended on Astoria Boulevard and miss the airport entirely, because Astoria Boulevard was the more important corridor. My spite map from 2010, give or take a year, connects LGA to the subway via a shuttle under Junction, and has a subway branch under Northern, a subway extension that I’ve been revising my views of negatively.

The issue, to me, is one of branching and capacity. The Astoria Line is a trunk line on the subway, feeding an entire tunnel to Manhattan, under 60th Street; the Queens Boulevard Line also feeds the same tunnel via the R train, but this is inefficient, since there are four trunk lines (Astoria, Flushing, and Queens Boulevard times two since it has four tracks), four tunnels (63rd, 60th, 53rd, Steinway/42nd), and no way to get from the Astoria Line to the other tunnels. This was one of my impetuses for writing about the problems associated with reverse-branching. Among the four trunks in Queens, the Astoria Line is the shortest and lowest-ridership, so it should be extended deeper into Queens if it is possible to do so.

The RPA is proposing to extend the Astoria Line, to its credit. But its extension goes west, to the waterfront. This isn’t really a compelling destination. Development isn’t any more intense than farther east, and for obvious reasons it isn’t possible to extend this line further; the RPA’s proposal would only add one stop to the subway. In contrast, an eastern extension toward LGA could potentially rebuild the line to turn east on Ditmars (with some takings on the interior of the curve at Ditmars and 31st), with stops at Steinway and Hazen before serving the airport. The intensity of development at Steinway is similar to that at 31st and Ditmars or at 21st, and Hazen also has some housing, albeit at lower density. Then, there is the airport, which would be about 8 minutes from Astoria, and 26 minutes from 57th and 7th in Manhattan. This is a different route from that proposed in the Giuliani administration, involving going north above 31st and then east farther out, running nonstop to the airport (or perhaps serving a station or two) through less residential areas, but I believe it is the best one despite the added impact of running elevated on Ditmars.

LGA is not a huge ridership generator; total O&D ridership according to the Consumer Airfare Report is around 55,000 per day, and 33% mode share is aspirational even with fast direct service to Manhattan hotels and an easy connection to the Upper East Side. But it still provides ridership comparable to that of Astoria Boulevard or Ditmars on the line today, and Steinway and Hazen are likely to add more demand. If the MTA closes the 11th Street Connection, taking the R from 60th Street Tunnel to the Queens Boulevard Line, in order to reduce the extent of reverse-branching, then the Astoria Line will run under capacity and need this additional demand. The total number of boardings at all stations, including Queensboro Plaza, is 80,000 per weekday today, plus some transfer volumes from the 7, which empties at Queensboro Plaza as 60th Street Tunnel provides a faster route to most Manhattan destinations than the Steinway Tunnel. An LGA extension should add maybe 40,000 or 50,000 weekday riders, without much of a peak since airport travel isn’t peaky, and make it easier to isolate the Astoria Line from the other Queens lines. This is not possible with a short extension to the waterfront as the RPA proposes.

I’ve seen someone suggest somewhere I don’t remember, perhaps on Twitter, that the reason the RPA plan involves an extension of the Astoria line to the west is to insidiously get the correct extension to LGA passed. If the RPA can propose an el in Astoria and not be killed by NIMBYs, then it will prove to Cuomo that NIMBYism is not a problem and thus he can send the subway to the airport directly, without the circuitous air train project that even less acerbic transit writers like Ben and Yonah hate.

I disagree with this line, on two different grounds. The first is that the RPA has two other reasons to support a western extension of the Astoria Line: it connects to the waterfront (which, following de Blasio and his support for the waterfront tramway, the RPA wants to develop further), and it got a station on Triboro in the Third Regional Plan, in the 1990s. I can no longer find the map with the stations on Mike Frumin’s blog, but the plan was to have a station every 800 meters, with a station to the west of Ditmar/31st still in Queens, around 21st Street; only in the more recent plan did the RPA redesign the idea as Crossboro, with much wider stop spacing.

The second grounds for disagreement is that the RPA presented a long-term vision. If Cuomo’s flawed LGA connector is there, then it will embolden him to find money to build this connection, even though it’s slower than taking a bus to the subway today. It will not embolden anyone to look for funding for the extension of the Astoria Line to the west, since there is no force clamoring for such extension – not the neighborhood, and not even the RPA, which includes this line on a long list of proposals.

As I said on Curbed, the RPA has been around for 90 years. Cuomo is just a governor, not even the leader of a real political movement (unlike Bernie Sanders, who seems to be interested in his leftist agenda more than in himself). There is no reason for an organization so venerable to tether itself to a politician who isn’t likely to be around for more than a few more years. On the contrary, it can provide cover for Cuomo to change his plan, if it does some legwork to prove that people in Astoria actually are interested in subway expansion to the east.

Climate Apartheid

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.

Infrastructure for Mature Cities

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.

Integrated Planning

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.

A Marshall Plan for Third-World Infrastructure?

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.