The Biden administration recently put out a statement saying that it would work to increase national housing production. It talks about the need to close the housing shortfall, estimated at 1.5 million dwellings, and proposes to use the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) to dole out transport funding based on housing production. This is a welcome development, and I’d like to offer some guidelines for how this can be done most effectively.
Incentives mean mistrust
You do not need to give incentives to trustworthy people. The notion of incentives already assumes that the people who are so governed would behave poorly by themselves, and that the governing body, in this case the federal government, surveils them loosely so as to judge them by visible metrics set in advance. Once this fundamental fact is accepted – the use of BIL funding to encourage housing production implies mistrust of all local government to build housing – every other detail should be set up in support of it.
Demand conflict with community
Federal funding should, in all cases, require state and local governments to discipline community groups that fight housing and extract surplus from infrastructure. Regions that cannot or do not do so should receive less funding; the feds should communicate this in advance, stating both the principle and the rules by which it will be judged. For example, a history of surrender to local NIMBYs to avoid lawsuits, or else an unwillingness to fight said lawsuits, should make a region less favored for funds, since it’s showing that they will be wasted. In contrast, a history of steamrolling community should be rewarded, showing that the government is in control and prioritizes explicit promises to the feds and the voters over implicit promises to the local notables who form the base of NIMBYism.
Spend money in growth regions
In cities without much housing demand, like Detroit and Cleveland, the problem of housing affordability is one of poverty; infrastructure spending wouldn’t fix anything. This means that the housing grant should prioritize places with growth demand, where current prices greatly exceed construction costs. These include constrained expensive cities like New York and San Francisco, but increasingly also other wealthy cities like Denver and Nashville, whose economic booms translate to population increase as well as income growth, but unfortunately housing growth lags demand. Even poorer interior cities are seeing rent increases as people flee the high prices of richer places, and encouraging housing growth in their centers is welcome (but not in their suburbs, where housing is abundant and not as desirable).
Look at residential, not commercial development
In the United States, YIMBY groups have focused exclusively on residential development. This is partly for political reasons: it’s easier to portray housing as more moral, benefiting residents who need affordable housing even if the building in question is market-rate, than to portray an office building as needing political support. In some cases it’s due to perceived economic reasons – the two cities driving the American YIMBY discourse, New York and San Francisco, have unusually low levels of job sprawl for the United States, and in both cities YIMBY groups are based near city center, where jobs look especially plentiful. At the local and state level, this indifference to commercial YIMBY is bad, because it’s necessary to build taller in city center and commercialize near-center neighborhoods like the West Village to fight off job sprawl.
However, at the federal level, a focus on residential development is good. This is a consequence of the inherent mistrust assumed in the incentive system. While economically, American cities need city centers to grow beyond the few downtown blocks they currently occupy, politically it’s too easy for local actors to bundle a city center expansion with an outrageously expensive urban renewal infrastructure plan. In New York, this is Penn Station redevelopment, including some office towers in the area that are pretty useful and yet have no reason to be attached to the ill-advised Penn Station South project digging up an entire block to build new tracks. Residential development is done at smaller scale and is harder to bundle with such unnecessary signature projects; the sort of projects that are bundled with it are extensions of urban rail to new neighborhoods to be redeveloped, and those are easier to judge on the usual transport metrics.
The US Department of Transportation has an equity action plan, and it’s not good. It suffers from the same fundamental problem of American governance, especially at the federal level: everything is about process, nothing is about visible outcomes for the people who use public services. If anything, visible change is constantly deprecated, and direct interference in that direction is Not What We Do. Everything is a nudge, everything has to be invisible. When the state does act, it must do so in the direction of ever more layers of red tape, which at this point are for their own sake.
Case in point: a 12-page PDF with many graphics and charts manages to fit in two giant red flags, both with serious implications for how USDOT views its mission. They showcase a state that exists to obstruct and delay and shrugs off social and developmental goals alike. The action plan should be dismissed and replaced with an approach that aims to dissolve anti-developmental institutions and favor action over talk.
Contractors, or users?
Most of the document does not concern itself with how to be more equitable for the users of public transportation in the United States. It doesn’t talk about racial differences in commuting patterns – it says poor people spend more of their income on transportation (as is the case for other basic staples) but ignores the issue where 61% of American public transport commuters are racial or ethnic minorities in a country that’s 62% white.
What it does talk about is the needs of contractors. The US has special programs for disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs). In contracting, this is called MWBE in New York – minority- and women-owned business enterprise. New York requires 20% of contract value to go to MWBE, and since construction is an oligopoly owned entirely by white men and there is no interest in breaking said oligopoly, everything goes through a web of subcontractors to satisfice the law while driving up costs for the end users; one source at the MTA quotes a 20% premium to me just from the subcontracting web caused by this and other special restrictions.
In anti-left American media, the black slumlord who complaints that it is racist to levy fines on him for violating building codes is somehow a sympathetic figure, in preference to the people with the misfortune of living in one of his 100 apartments. Similarly, when Americans speak about income mobility in their country, they center the origin stories of billionaires, most of whom grew up comfortably upper middle-class, rather than whether a working poor person has much hope to ascend to the middle class.
It’s the same with the focus on MWBE. MWBE are not socially relevant. There is no social or developmental purpose in creating a class of business owners shielded from competition – in this case, federal contractors – and then trying to diversify it. Most people are not business owners; most people work for someone else and to get to work they need to commute, and for women and minorities, this is disproportionately likely to be public transport. The path forward is a federal repeal of all MWBE laws and their replacement with preemption forbidding states to enact similar laws. Federal power should dissolve failed local arrangements, free from the need to kowtow to local power brokers who have limited power beyond the local level and none at the federal level.
Process for the sake of process
Community meetings in the United States are a failure. The action plan recognizes this problem, and even begins to understand why:
* Public meetings are a common public involvement strategy, but can be inconvenient or impossible to attend for some. Physical meeting locations may be inaccessible for some, including those with disabilities. Virtual public meetings are inaccessible for people without internet access or computer literacy.
* Various methods may be needed to allow people with diverse circumstances to have a voice in decisions that affect their community. Adaptive engagement strategies can be a resource-intensive but valuable endeavor that is responsive to specific community needs, including different language and cultural backgrounds.
Unfortunately, the solution wants to accrete more process for its own sake. There is no positive use for a community meeting; the defenders of the process in multiple American cities, when I challenged them on this point, could not name to me a single useful thing that came out of them. But the negatives are numerous, and not fixable through multilingual meetings:
- The times at which meetings are held tend to privilege people who can take time off during work hours – the same class of already overprivileged business owners, comfortable housewives, and retirees, to the exclusion of people who work for someone else.
- Community as a concept is exclusive; in Cultural Theory terms, egalitarian systems tend toward strong boundedness and this is inherently exclusive in ways that market- and state-based systems lack. Outsiders who attempt to attend community meetings report being verbally harassed for not looking like the typical attendee, for example if they are much younger.
- Community meeting dynamics favor loudness and adversarial agitation. Social media has the same problem, with a growing body of published work about the effect of online harassment on people, disproportionately people from disadvantaged background. Yelling is believed to get results, and the idea that the state should punish it to let other voices than that of the biggest blowhard be heard is treated as so ridiculous that in popular culture it’s put in the mouth of a junta member.
- Local community is not relevant to how most people live in metropolitan areas. In New York, only 8% of workers work in the same community board that they live in (and even same-borough commutes are only 39%); the other 92% and their dependents socialize in citywide networks rather than locally. And yet, community boards, representing those 8% with local ties, are taken as closest to the people.
- People with limited English proficiency need not just government services in the relevant language but also relevant information. For example, Chinese immigrants receive information out of Chinese networks, which are not especially local to one specific Chinatown, but are often pan-Chinese or pan-Chinese-American. With much thinner sourcing than is available in English, they can form opinions about the issues most in the news, which tend to be national, but not about local issues. This is something every intra-European immigrant gets very quickly – it’s easier to find someone who speaks the same language with opinions about Annalena Baerbock than someone who speaks the same language with opinions about Bettina Jarasch, let alone any borough-scale politician (I do not remember a single conversation within queer Berlin spaces about borough-scale politicians).
- Local knowledge, to the extent it even exists, is not important, but the community meeting foregrounds it. Long-timers insist on talking about the history of every parklet and mural and shop and not about jobs or rents or public services; the community meetings elevates their concerns above memorizing sports statistics or similar trivialities.
The community meeting as a source of knowledge for the state to use or as a source of informal or formal power is a social stain wherever it is tried, and the impacts disproportionately fall on women, the young, minorities, queers, and immigrants. And yet an equity action plan that understands at least some of the problems created by the process cannot bring itself to recommend its abolition in favor of top-down state action, informed by the academic research of ethnographers to create universal design standards. No: it is recommending even more process. Process cannot fail; it can only be failed. Fair outcomes are out; endless red tape with all talk and no action is in.
The Massachusetts state legislature is shrugging off commuter rail improvements, and in particular ignoring calls to spend some starter money on the Regional Rail plan. The state’s climate bill ignores public transportation, and an amendment proposing to include commuter rail electrification in the plan has been proposed but not yet included in the plan. Much of the dithering appears to be the fault of one politician: Will Brownsberger, who represents Watertown, Belmont, Back Bay, and parts of Brighton.
What is Regional Rail?
Regional Rail is a proposal by TransitMatters to modernize the MBTA commuter rail network to align it with the standards that have emerged in the last 50-60 years. The centerpiece of the plan is electrification of the entire network, starting from the already-wired Providence Line and the short, urban Fairmount Line and inner Eastern Line (Newburyport/Rockport Lines on timetables).
Based on comparable projects in peer countries, full electrification should cost $0.8-1.5 billion, and station upgrades to permit step-free access should cost on the order of $2 billion; rolling stock costs extra upfront but has half the lifecycle costs of diesels. An investment program on the order of high hundreds of millions or very low billions should be sufficient to wire the early-action lines as well as some more, such as the Worcester Line; one in the mid-single digit billions should be enough to wire everything, upgrade all stations, and procure modern trains.
Benefits include much faster trips (see trip planner here), lower operating and maintenance costs, higher reliability, and lower air and noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. For a city the size of Boston, benefits exceed costs by such a margin that in the developed world outside North America, it would have been fully wired generations ago, and today’s frontier of commuter rail electrification is sub-million metro areas like Trondheim, Aarhus, and Cardiff.
Who is Will Brownsberger?
Brownsberger is a Massachusetts state senator, currently serving as the Senate’s president pro tempore. His district is a mix of middle-class urban and middle-class inner-suburban; the great majority of his district would benefit from commuter rail modernization.
He has strong opinions on commuter rail, which are what someone unaware of any progress in the industry since roughly 1960 might think are the future. For example, here’s a blog post he wrote in 2019, saying that diesel engines are more reliable than electric trains because what if there’s a power outage (on American commuter rail systems that operate both kinds of vehicles, electric trains are about an order of magnitude more reliable), and ending up saying rail is an outdated 20th century concept and proposing small-scale autonomous vehicles running on the right-of-way instead. More recently, he’s told constituents that rail electrification with overhead wire is impossibly difficult and the only option is battery-electric trains.
Because he’s written about the subject, and because of his position in the State Senate and the party caucus, he’s treated as an authority on the subject. Hence, the legislature’s lack of interest in rail modernization. It’s likely that what he tells constituents is also what he tells other legislators, who follow his lead while focusing on their own personal interest, such as health policy, education policy, taxes, or any other item on the liberal policy menu.
Why is he like this?
I don’t know. It’s not some kind of nefarious interest against modernization, such as the trenchant opposition of New York suburbanites to any policy that would make commuter trains useful for city residents, who they look down on. Brownsberger’s district is fairly urban, and in particular Watertown and Belmont residents would benefit greatly from a system that runs frequently all day at 2020s speeds and not 1920s speeds. Brownsberger’s politics are pretty conventionally liberal and he is interested in sustainability.
More likely, it’s not-invented-here syndrome. American mainline passenger rail is stuck in the 1950s. Every innovation in the field since then has come from outside North America, and many have not been implemented in any country that speaks English as its primary language. Brownsberger lacks this knowledge; a lifetime in politics does not lend itself well to forming a deep web of transnational relationships that one can leverage for the required learning.
Without the benefit of around 60 years of accumulated knowledge of French, German, Swiss, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Turkish, Italian, and Spanish commuter rail planning, any American plan would have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it happens to reinvent a wheel that is round and has spokes; more often, it invents a wheel with sharp corners or no place to even attach an axle.
When learning happens, it is so haphazard that it’s very easy to learn wrong or speculative things. Battery-electric trains are a good example of this. Europe is currently experimenting with battery-electric trains on low-traffic lines, where the fact that battery-electrics cost around double what conventional electric multiple units do is less important because traffic is that light. The technology is thus on the vendors’ mind and so when Americans ask, the vendors offer to sell what they’ve made. Boston is region of 8 million people running eight- and nine-car trains every 15 minutes at rush hour, where the places in Europe that experiment with battery tech run an hourly three-car train, but the without enough background in how urban commuter rail works in Europe, it’s easy for an American agency executive or politician to overlook this difference.
Is there a way forward?
Here is a proposed amendment, numbered Amendment 13, by Senator Brendan Crighton. Crighton represents some of the suburbs to the northeast of Boston, including working-class Lynn and very posh Marblehead; with only four years in the State Senate and three in the Assembly, he’s not far up the food chain. But he proposed to require full electrification of the commuter rail network as part of the climate bill, on a loose schedule in which no new diesels may be procured after 2030, and lines would be electrified by 2028 (the above-named early action lines) to 2035 (the rest of the system). There are so far four cosponsors in addition to Crighton, and good transit activists in Massachusetts should push for more sponsorship so that Amendment 13 makes it into the climate package and passes.
After four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, here’s how I think it’s possible to do better. Compare what I’m proposing to posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, free public transport proposals, federal aid to operations, and a bad Green New Deal proposal by Yonah Freemark.
If you’re thinking how to spend outside (for example, federal) money on local public transportation, the first thing on your mind should be how to spend for the long term. Capital spending that reduces long-term operating costs is one way to do it. Funding ongoing operating deficits is not, because it leads to local waste. Here are what I think some good guidelines to do it right are.
Working without consensus
Any large cash infusion now should work with the assumption that it’s a political megaproject and a one-time thing; it may be followed by other one-time projects, but these should not be assumed. High-speed rail in France, for example, is not funded out of a permanent slush fund: every line has to be separately evaluated, and the state usually says yes because these projects are popular and have good ROI, but the ultimate yes-no decision is given to elected politicians.
It leads to a dynamic in which it’s useful to invest in the ability to carry large projects on a permanent basis, but not pre-commit to them. So every agency should have access to public expertise, with permanent hires for engineers and designers who can if there’s local, state, or federal money build something. This public expertise can be in-house if it’s a large agency; smaller ones should be able to tap into the large ones as consultants. In France, RATP has 2,000 in-house engineers, and it and SNCF have the ability to build large public transport projects on their own, while other agencies serving provincial cities use RATP as a consultant.
It’s especially important to retain such planning capacity within the federal government. A national intercity rail plan should not require the use of outside consultants, and the federal government should have the ability to act as consultant to small cities. This entails a large permanent civil service, chosen on the basis of expertise (and the early permanent hires are likely to have foreign rather than domestic experience) and not politics, and yet the cost of such a planning department is around 2 orders of magnitude less than current subsidies to transit operations in the United States. Work smart, not hard.
However, investing in the ability to build does not mean pre-committing to build with a permanent fund. Nor does it mean a commitment to subsidizing consumption (such as ongoing operating costs) rather than investment.
Funding production, not consumption
It is inappropriate to use external infusions of cash for operations and, even worse, maintenance. When maintenance is funded externally, local agencies react by deferring maintenance and then crying poverty whenever money becomes available. Amtrak fired David Gunn when the Bush administration pressured it to defer maintenance in order to look profitable for privatization and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman, and then when the Obama stimulus came around Boardman demanded billions of dollars for state of good repair that should have built a high-speed rail program instead.
This is why American activists propose permanent programs – but those get wasted fast, due to surplus extraction. A better path forward is to be clear about what will and will not be funded, and putting state of good repair programs in the not-funded basket; the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework’s negotiations were right to defund the public transit SOGR bucket while keeping the expansion bucket.
Moreover, all funding should be tied to using the money prudently – hence the production, not consumption part. This can be capital funding, with the following priorities, in no particular order:
- Capital funding that reduces long-term operating costs, for example railway electrification and the installation of overhead wires (“in-motion charging“) on bus trunks.
- Targeted investments that improve the transit experience. Bus shelter is extremely cost-effective on this point and a federal program to fund it at a level of around $15,000/stop (not more – it’s easy to make local demands that drive it up to $50,000) would have otherworldly social rates of return. Washington bureaucrats are loath to be this explicit about what to do – they try to speak in circumlocutions, saying “standards for bus stops” instead of just funding shelter, or “transit asset management” instead of just committing to not playing the SOGR game.
- Accessibility upgrades. This require close federal control to eliminate local waste, because much of the money would be going to New York, which has a long-term problem of siphoning accessibility money to other priorities like adding station access points or repairing stations, and has a uniquely incompetent local environment when it comes to construction costs.
- Planning aid for improving bus-rail interface; these two modes are often not planned together in American cities, and commuter rail is not planned in conjunction with other modes. San Jose, for example, has a proposal for large expansion of bus service, part of which is parallel to Caltrain; the local agency, VTA, owns one third of Caltrain and could expand rail service within the county and integrate it with bus service better, but does not do so.
- Rail automation, to reduce long-term operating costs. Bus automation could go in this bucket too but is at this point too speculative; save it for one or two stimuli in the future.
Avoiding local extraction
Local government has very little democratic legitimacy. It’s based on informal power arrangements, in which direct elections play little role; partisan elections are rare and instead primaries reign with severe democratic deficits (for example, it’s hard to form any kind of base for opposition to challenge a sitting New York mayor or governor). Without national ideology to guide it, it is the domain of cranks and people with the time and leisure to attend community meetings on weekdays at 3 pm. Local community takes its illegitimate power and thieves what others create, whether it is the market or the state.
Recognizing this pattern means that federal funding should not under any circumstances coddle local arrangements. If, for example, California cannot spend money cost-effectively because it is constrained by referendum, federal funding can be used to bypass this system, but never work under its rules. If the local business community is traumatized by cut-and-cover construction in the distant past, the feds should insist that subway money that they give will be used for cut-and-cover instead of mined stations.
The typical surplus extraction pattern concerns car dominance. State DOTs are in effect highway departments; transit planning is siloed, usually at separate agencies. They use their power to demand the diversion of transit money to roads. For example, in Tampa, a plan to increase bus service led to a DOT demand to pave the routes with concrete lanes at transit agency expense (with federal or state transit funding). The list of BRT projects that were just highway widenings is regrettably too long. The feds should actively demand to keep transit funding for transit, and not roads, social services, policing, or other priorities.
In particular, the feds should give money for some bus improvements, but demand that agencies prioritize the bus over the car. No bus lanes? No signal priority? No money. Similarly, they should demand they engage in internal efficiency measures like stop consolidation and all-door boarding with proof of payment ticket collection, which a larger and more expert FTA can give technical assistance for.
It may also be prudent to give transitional resources, up to a certain point. Funding private-sector retraining for workers displaced by automation is good, and in some limited cases public-sector retraining, as long as it doesn’t turn into workfare (there is no way for the subway in New York to absorb redundant conductors or surplus maintenance staff). If moderate amounts of capital funding are required for bus improvements, such as traffic signal upgrades to have active control and conditional TSP, then they are good investments as well.
Funding public transportation is useful, provided there is enough of a connection between the source of funds and the management thereof that the money is not wasted. A larger and more technocratic federal government is an ideal organ for this, with enough planning power to propose bus network redesigns, rail planning, integrated fare systems, and intermodal coordination. It can and should have technical priorities – shelter is far and away the lowest-hanging fruit for American bus systems – and state them clearly rather than hiding behind bureaucratic phrases (again, “transit asset management” is a real phrase).
It’s fundamentally an investment rather than consumption. And as with all investments, it’s important to ensure one invests in the right thing and the right people. A local transit agency with a track record of successful projects, short lead times from planning to completion, technical orientation, and the ability to say no to highway departments and other organs that extract surplus is a good investment. One that instead genuflects before antisocial groups that launch nuisance lawsuits is not so good an investment, and funding for such an agency should be contingent on improvement in governance of the kind that will make local notables angry.
This is the third in a series of four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, following posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston and free public transport proposals, to be followed by an Urban Institute report by Yonah Freemark.
In the United States, political transit activists in the last few years have set their eyes on direct federal aid for operating subsidies for public transport. Traditionally, this has not been allowed: federal aid goes to capital planning (including long-term maintenance), and only a small amount of money goes to operations, all in peripheral bus systems. Urban transit agencies had to operate out of fares and local and state money. Demands for federal aid grew during corona, where emergency aid to operations led to demands for permanent subsidies, and have accelerated more recently as corona recovery has flagged (New York’s subway ridership is only around 60% of pre-corona levels). But said demands remain a bad idea in the short and long terms.
In the early 20th century, when public transport was expected to support itself out of fares, operating costs grew with wages, but were tempered by improvements in efficiency. New York City Transit opened with ticket-takers at every subway entrances and a conductor for every two cars; within a generation this system was replaced with automatic turnstiles and one conductor per train. Kyle Kirschling’s thesis has good data on this, finding that by the 1930s, the system grew to about 16,000 annual car-miles (=26,000 car-km) per employee.
And then it has stagnated. Further increases in labor efficiency have not happened. Most American systems have eliminated conductors, often through a multi-decade process of attrition rather than letting redundant workers go, but New York retains them. The network today actually has somewhat less service per employee than in the 1930s, 14,000 car-miles as of 2010, because fixed costs are spread across a slightly smaller system. Compare this with JICA’s report for Mumbai Metro comparing Japanese cities: Tokyo Metro has 283,871,000 car-km (PDF-p. 254) on 8,474 employees (PDF-p. 9), which is 33,500/employee, and that’s without any automation and with only partially conductor-less operations; Yokohama gets 40,000.
Moreover, the timeline in the US matches the onset of subsidies, to some extent: state and local subsidies relieved efficiency pressure. In Canada, TTC saw this and lobbied against subsidies for its own operations in the 1960s, on the grounds that without a breakeven mandate, the unions would capture all surplus; it took until the 1970s for it to finally receive any operating subsidies.
Federal subsidies make all of this worse. They are other people’s money (OPM), so local agencies are likely to maximize them at the expense of good service; this is already what they do with capital money, lading projects with local demands for betterments figuring that if everyone else hogs the trough then they should as well.
Then there is the issue of wages. Seniority systems in American unionized labor create labor shortages even when pay is high, because of how they interact with scheduling and tiered wage structures. Bus drivers in Boston earn around $80,000 a year, a pay that German bus and train drivers can only dream of, but starting drivers are in probational status and have a lower wage (they are not even given full-time work until they put in a long period of part-time work). Moreover, because drivers pick their shifts in seniority order, drivers for about the first 10 years are stuck with the worst shifts: split shifts, graveyard shifts at inconsistent intervals, different garages to report to. New York manages to find enough bus drivers to fill its ranks but only by paying around $85,000 a year; other American cities, paying somewhat less, are seeing thousands of missed runs over the year because they can’t find drivers.
And outside aid does nothing to fix that. Quite to the contrary, it helps paper over these problems and perpetuates the labor gerontocracy. New York City Transit has learned to react to every crisis by demanding a new source of income; there is not enough political appetite for transparent taxation, so the city and state find ever more opaque sources of funds, avoiding political controversy over wanton inefficiency but creating more distortion than a broad income tax would.
Instead of subsidizing current consumption, a developmental state should subsidize production. Don’t pay money to hire more bus drivers; pay for automating subway systems, for better dispatching, for better planning around intermodal integration. Current American wages, not to mention the unemployment rate, scream “invest in labor-saving technology” and not “expand labor-intensive production.”
This is the second in a series of four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, following a post about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, to be followed by the topics of operating aid and an Urban Institute report by Yonah Freemark.
There’s a push in various left-wing places to make public transportation free. It comes from various strands of governance, advocacy, and public transport, most of which are peripheral but all together add up to something. The US has been making some pushes recently: Boston made three buses fare-free as a pilot program, and California is proposing a three-month stimulus including free transit for that period and a subsidy for car owners. Germany is likewise subsidizing transport by both car and public transit. It’s economically the wrong choice for today’s economy of low unemployment, elevated inflation, and war, and it’s especially troubling when public transport advocates seize upon it as their main issue, in lieu of long-term investments into production of transit rather than its consumption.
Who’s for free public transit?
Historically, public transit was expected to be profitable, even when it was publicly-run. State-owned railroads predate the modern welfare state, and it was normal for them to not just break even but, in the case of Prussia, return profits to the state in preference to broad-based taxes. This changed as operating costs mounted in the middle of the 20th century and competition with cars reduced patronage. The pattern differs by country, and in some places (namely, rich Asia), urban rail remained breakeven or profitable, but stiff competition bit into ridership even in Japan. The norm in most of the West has been subsidies, usually at the local or regional level.
As subsidies were normalized, some proposed to go ahead and make public transport completely free. In the American civil rights movement, this included Ted Kheel, a backer of free public transit advocates like the activist Charles Komanoff and the academic Mark Delucchi. Reasons for free transit have included social equality (since it acts as a poll tax on commuters) and environmental benefits (since it competes with cars).
Anne Hidalgo has attempted and so far failed to find the money for free public transport in Paris, and other parts of Europe have settled for deep discounts in lieu of going fully fareless: Vienna charges 365€ for an annual pass (Berlin, which breaks even on the U-Bahn as far as I can tell, does so charging 86€/month).
In the United States, free transit has recently become a rallying cry for DSA, where it crowds out any discussion of improvement in the quality of service. Building new rail lines is the domain of wonks and neoliberals; socialists call for making things free, in analogy with their call for free universal health care. Boston has gotten in on the act, with conventional progressive (as opposed to DSA) mayor Michelle Wu campaigning on free buses within the municipality and getting the state-run MBTA to pilot free buses on three routes in low-income neighborhoods.
What’s wrong with free transit?
It costs money.
More precisely, it costs money that could be spent on other things. In Ile-de-France, as of 2018, fare revenues including employer benefits amounted to 4 billion euros, out of a total budget of 10.5 billion. The region can zero out this revenue, but on the same budget it can expand the Métro network by around 20-25 km a year – and the Métro is as far as I can tell profitable, subsidies going to suburban RER tails and buses. For that matter, the heavy subsidies to the suburbs, which pay the same cheap monthly rate as the city, could be replaced with investment in more and better lines.
The experiments with actually-free transit so far are in places with very weak revenues, like Estonia. Some American cities like it in context where public transport is only used by the desperate and no attempt is made at making service attractive to anyone else. Boston is unique in trying it in a context with higher fare revenue – but the buses are rail feeders, so the early pilot piggybacks on this and spends relatively little money in lost revenue, ignoring the long-term costs of breaking the (limited) fare integration between the buses and the subway.
What’s wrong with free transit now?
Free transit as deployed in the California proposal is in effect a stimulus project: the government gives people money in various ways. Germany is doing something similar, in a package including 9€ monthly tickets, a 0.30€ fuel tax cut, and a cut in energy taxes.
In Germany, unemployment right now is 2.9% and core inflation (without food and energy) is 3%. This is a country that spent a decade thinking going over 2% was immoral, and now the party that considers itself the most budget hawkish is cutting fuel taxes, in a time of conflict with an oil and gas exporter and a rise in military spending.
In the United States, unemployment is low as well, and inflation is high, 6.4%. This is not the time for stimulus or investments in consumption. It’s time for investments in production and suppression of consumption. So what gives?
The state is to a large extent a coordinating body. Even the more extractive aspects of it, like historically the military, succeeded or failed not by who was the most brutal (they all were brutal) but by who was most efficient at organizing large groups of people.
Coordination in public transit is especially important, because it’s a system with many moving parts: infrastructure, equipment, timetable, development. These do not accrete spontaneously, not in any society that has also invented cars; transit-oriented development in the 21st century looks different from historic development before mass motorization. Organizational capacity makes the difference between a state that grows around mass transit, like Japan or South Korea or Switzerland or Sweden or increasingly France, and one that grows around cars even when the goal is nominally transit first, as is common in the United States but also most of Southeast Asia.
So in general, better coordination means overall better public transit. But it specifically means better investment – more targeted at the right places. And this is especially visible in mainline rail, which is less self-contained than urban metro lines. The right way to plan is to get different bodies to cooperate, such as different railroads and government agencies. And then there is the wrong, American way.
Coordination versus wishlists
In theory, the United States has mechanisms to get different agencies to talk to one another. The Northeast Corridor planning process understands that the corridor has many users and owners: Amtrak, MBTA, Connecticut DOT, MTA, New Jersey Transit, SEPTA, MARC. To ensure they collaborate, there are layers set on top of them, like the NEC Commission.
And yet, the NEC Commission’s plans are not worth the paper they are written on, and the people involved should not work in this field or in government again. The problem is that their idea of coordination is to ask each of the above agencies what its wishlist is, collate the responses, and staple them together.
The wishlist staple job is the opposite of coordination. Coordination means sitting down with intercity and regional rail operators, figuring out their service needs, and writing down a timetable with associated infrastructure plan that maximizes service at minimum cost. Even the accidental moves toward coordination that do exist, like the MBTA plan to complete electrification of the Providence Line and run modern EMUs rather than diesels under catenary, do not figure into the plan: Amtrak still wants a third track on the Providence Line, which such electrification obviates even if Amtrak cuts its Boston-Providence trip time in half. The third track was said to cost $400 million years ago; I do not know if it is still its budget or whether costs are higher now. One such unnecessary project at a time is what it takes to turn what should be a $15 billion project into three-figure billions.
This wishlist mentality is present whenever bad planners (e.g. all Americans) try to do something that involves more than one agency. It’s assumed that different parts of the government must constantly be at one another’s throats. Unless one agency dominates, the only solutions in this mentality are either to do a staple job, or subordinate all agencies to one new hierarchy, typically run by people who have never run transit service and do not respect those who have.
How to plan mainline rail better
Three of the legs of coordinated planning – infrastructure, rolling stock, timetable – are coordinated in an excellent way in Switzerland. (Switzerland is unfortunately too NIMBY for modern TOD.) This does not mean slavishly copying every single Swiss decision, but it does mean that it behooves planners to learn how Swiss rail planners got Europe’s best rail network on a limited (though not quite austerity) budget.
The way it should work is that everything begins from the timetable. Trains must run on the same fixed interval – typically hourly, but denser services should be planned around shorter intervals like 30 minutes or smaller divisors of the hour. This provides the base level of coordination: connections between trains at major stations are to be done at times that are compatible with this interval.
If the trip time between major stations (“Knoten”) is just a bit too long for timed connections at both ends, it means that the trains should be sped up. This is the run trains as fast as necessary maxim, beloved by many high-speed rail opponents who bring up that maxim far more often than they bring up how much rail tunneling Switzerland has built.
Everything must come based on this plan. The choice of rolling stock must be compatible. Switzerland chose bilevel EMUs, because its use case is urban stations with a surplus of platform tracks but limited platform length; the bilevel trades off higher on-train capacity per unit of train length for lower egress capacity, and in a country where the main train station has 26 tracks, the bilevel is the correct choice. Maybe in another environment it is and maybe it isn’t; in New York it is not.
The slate of infrastructure projects must likewise be based on total integration of operations and capital planning. This means being able to trace delays to their source, using data to figure out what the most problematic areas are, and fixing them. Swiss trains are not inherently punctual; delays in the 5 minute range are routine. What sets them apart is that the infrastructure has been designed, at minimum cost, to ensure that delays don’t propagate, whereas in Germany, cascading delays are more common, and the less said about the United States, the better.
Swiss integration, to be clear, operates in an environment that is highly federal, has a smattering of private railroads interoperating with SBB, is stingy about public spending, and has in most cases Western Europe’s most privatized economy. And yet there is no separation of infrastructure and operations, in contrast with the trend in Britain and the EU.
Coordination and saying no
A planning agency that has to work with operators to ensure they all collaborate has to mediate conflict in many cases. This is the origin of the wishlist mentality: by planning overly expensive systems with maximum separation between operators, conflict is avoided, at the minor cost of an order of magnitude increase in the budget.
A better way to mediate is to either propose compromises, or outright saying no. Investment that is not part of the coordinated plan is extra and infrastructure plans should not burden the taxpayers with it. If different bodies conflict, sometimes one is right and the other is wrong, and the infrastructure planners should say so; sometimes who is right and who is wrong is consistent, sometimes it isn’t. Moreover, if bodies refuse to coordinate, it’s important to be able to say no to overall plans.
All of this interfaces with previous posts on this subject. In particular, the infrastructure investment program, whether it’s a regional Verkehrsverbund or an intercity system like the NEC Commission, should consist of subject matter experts. Senior politicians should understand that those experts are paid to maximize the efficiency of an enormous infrastructure program and therefore defend their expertise against attacks.
I’ve covered issues of procurement, professional oversight, transparency, and proactive regulations so far. Today I’m going to cover a related institutional issue, regarding sensitivity to change. It’s imperative for the state to solve the problems of tomorrow using the tools that it expects to have, rather than wallowing in the world of yesterday. To do this, the civil service and the political system both have to be sensitive to ongoing social, economic, and technological changes and change their focus accordingly.
Most of this is not directly relevant to construction costs, except when changes favor or disfavor certain engineering methods. Rather, sensitivity to change is useful for making better projects, running public transit on the alignments where demand is or will soon be high using tools that make it work optimally for the travel of today and tomorrow. Sometimes, it’s the same as what would have worked for the world of the middle of the 20th century; other times, it’s not, and then it’s important not to get too attached to nostalgia.
Bad institutions often produce governments that, through slowness and stasis, focus on solving yesterday’s problems. Good institutions do the opposite. This problem is muted on issues that do not change much from decade to decade, like the political debate over overall government spending levels on socioeconomic programs. But wherever technology or some important social aspect changes quickly, this problem can grow to the point that outdated governance looks ridiculous.
Climate change is a good example, because the relative magnitudes of its various components have shifted in the last 20 years. Across the developed world, transportation emissions are rising while electricity generation emissions are falling. In electricity generation, the costs of renewable energy have cratered to the point of being competitive from scratch with just the operating costs of fossil and nuclear power. Within renewable energy, the revolution has been in wind (more onshore than offshore) and utility-scale solar, not the rooftop panels beloved by the greens of last generation; compare Northern Europe’s wind installation rates with what seemed obvious just 10 years ago.
I bring this up because in the United States today, the left’s greatest effort is spent on the Build Back Better Act, which they portray as making the difference between climate catastrophe and a green future, and which focuses on the largely solved problem of electricity. Transportation, which overtook electricity as the United States’ largest source of emissions in the late 2010s, is shrugged off in the BBB, because the political system of 2021 relitigates the battles of 2009.
This slowness cascades to smaller technical issues and to the civil service. A slow civil service may mandate equity analyses that assume that the needs of discriminated-against groups are geographic – more transit service to black or working-class neighborhoods – because they were generations ago. Today, the situation is different, and the needs are non-geographic, but not all civil service systems are good at recognizing this.
The issue of TOD
Even when the problem is static, for example how to improve public transit, the solutions may change based on social and technological changes.
The most important today is the need to integrate transportation planning with land use planning better. Historically, this wasn’t done much – Metro-land is an important counterexample, but in general, before mass motorization, developers built apartments wherever the trains went and there was no need for public supervision. The situation changed in the middle of the 20th century with mass competition with the automobile, and thence the biggest successes involved some kind of transit-oriented development (TOD), built by the state like the Swedish Million Program projects in Stockholm County or by private developer-railroads like those of Japan. Today, the default system is TOD built by private developers on land released for high-density redevelopment near publicly-built subways.
Some of the details of TOD are themselves subject to technological and social change:
- Deindustrialization means that city centers are nice, and waterfronts are desirable residential areas. There is little difference between working- and middle-class destinations, except that city center jobs are somewhat disproportionately middle-class.
- Secondary centers have slowly been erased; in New York, examples of declining job centers include Newark, Downtown Brooklyn, and Jamaica.
- Conversely, there is job spillover from city center to near-center areas, which means that it’s important to allow for commercialization of near-center residential neighborhoods; Europe does this better than the United States, which is why at scale larger than a few blocks, European cities are more centralized than American ones, despite the prominent lack of supertall office towers. Positive New York examples include Long Island City and the Jersey City waterfront, both among the most pro-development parts of the region.
- Residential TOD tends to be spiky: very tall buildings near subway stations, shorter ones farther away. Historic construction was more uniformly mid-rise. I encourage the reader to go on some Google Earth or Streetview tourism of a late-20th century city like Tokyo or Taipei and compare its central residential areas with those of an early-20th century one like Paris or Berlin.
The ideal civil service on this issue is an amalgamation of things seen in democratic East Asia, much of Western and Central Europe, and even Canada. Paris and Stockholm are both pretty good about integrating development with public transit, but only in the suburbs, where they build tens of thousands of housing units near subway stations. In their central areas, they are too nostalgic to redevelop buildings or build high-rises even on undeveloped land. Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei are better and more forward-looking.
Public transit for the future
Besides the issue of TOD, there are details of how public transportation is built and operated that change with the times. The changes are necessarily subtle – this is mature technology, and VC-funded businesspeople who think they’re going to disrupt the industry invariably fail. This makes the technology ideal for treatment by a civil service that evolves toward the future – but it has to evolve. The following failures are regrettably common:
- Overfocus on lines that were promised long ago. Some of those lines remain useful today, and some are underrated (like Berlin’s U8 extension to Märkisches Viertel, constantly put behind higher cost-per-rider extensions in the city’s priorities). But some exist out of pure inertia, like Second Avenue Subway phases 3-4, which violates two principles of good network design.
- Proposals that are pure nostalgia, like Amtrak-style intercity trains running 1-3 times per day at average speeds that would shame most of Eastern Europe. Such proposals try to fit to the urban geography of the world of yesterday. In Germany, the coalition’s opposition to investment in high-speed rail misses how in the 21st century, German urban geography is majority-big city, where a high-speed rail network would go.
- Indifference to recent news relevant to the technology. Much of the BART to San Jose cost blowout can still be avoided if the agency throws away the large-diameter single-bore solution, proposed years ago by people who had heard of its implementation in Barcelona on L9 but perhaps not of L9’s cost overruns, making it by far Spain’s most expensive subway. In Germany, the design of intercity rail around the capabilities of the trains of 25 years ago falls in this category as well; technology moves on and the ongoing investments here work much better if new trains are acquired based on the technology of the 2020s.
- Delay in implementation of easy technological fixes that have been demonstrated elsewhere. In a world with automatic train-mounted gap fillers, there is no excuse anywhere for gaps between trains and platforms that do not permit a wheelchair user to board the train unaided.
- Slow reaction time to academic research on best practices, which can cover issues from timetabling to construction methods to pricing to bus shelter.
Probably the most fundamental issue of sensitivity to social change is that of bus versus rail modal choice. Buses are labor-intensive and therefore lose value as the economy grows; the high-frequency grid of 1960s Toronto could not work at modern wages, hence the need to shift public transit from bus to rail as soon as possible. This in turn intersects with TOD, because TOD for short-stop surface transit looks uniformly mid-rise rather than spiky. The state needs to recognize this and think about bus-to-rail modal shift as a long-term goal based on the wages of the 21st century.
The swift state
In my Niskanen piece from earlier this year, I used the expression building back, quickly, and made references to acting swiftly and the swift state. I brought up the issue of speeding up the planning lead time, such as the environmental reviews, as a necessary component for improving infrastructure. This is one component of the swift state, alongside others:
- Fast reaction to new trends, in technology, where people travel, etc. Even in deeply NIMBY areas like most of the United States, change in urban geography is rapid: job centers shift, new cities that are less NIMBY grow (Nashville’s growth rates should matter to high-speed rail planning), and connections change over time.
- Fast rulemaking to solve problems as they emerge. This means that there should be fewer layers of review; a civil servant should be empowered to make small decisions, and even the largest decisions should be delegated to a small expert team, intersecting with my previous posts about civil service empowerment.
- Fast response time to civil complaints. It’s fine to ignore a nag who thinks their property values deserve state protection, but if people complain about noise, delays, slow service, poor UI, crime, or sexism or racism, take them seriously. Look for solutions immediately instead of expecting them to engage in complex nonprofit proof-of-work schemes to show that they are serious. The state works for the people, and not the other way around.
- Constant amendment of priorities based on changes in the rest of society. A state that wishes to fight climate change must be sensitive to what the most pressing sources of emissions are and deal with them. If you’re in a mature urban or national economy, and you’re not frustrating nostalgics who show you plans from the 1950s, you’re probably doing something wrong.
In all cases, it is critical to build using the methods of the world of today, aiming to serve the needs of the world of tomorrow. Those needs are fairly predictable, because public transit is not biotech and changes therein are nowhere near as revolutionary as mRNA and viral vector vaccines. But they are not the same as the needs of 60 years ago, and good institutions recognize this and base their budgetary and regulatory focus on what is relevant now and not what was relevant when color TVs were new.
Continuing with my series on institutional factors relevant to construction costs, I’d like to turn to a culture of transparency, or lack thereof. It’s unfortunate that the exact breakdown of costs by items and factors that we’ve seen in Italy and Turkey and are seeing in Sweden does not exist in the English-speaking world. It’s further unfortunate that there is an adversarial relationship in the Anglosphere between the civil service and academic researchers like us or the broad public.
It’s a delicate subject, because the cultures of opacity we’ve encountered, the American and the British, certainly correlate with high costs, but we cannot be perfectly certain that they cause them. The peripheral Anglosphere learns many things from the US and UK, so it could just be part of the general correlation between Anglosphere membership and high costs.
That said, we do have reasons to believe this matters. The opacity we’ve encountered in the US and UK is so severe that it ensures there is no proper oversight. A system that punishes junior workers for reporting problems will just not know they exist. It’s best viewed as the Xi Jinping school of governance: demand that people follow the line and not air out problems, until subordinates lie to you just as much as you lie to the public, and local party officials arrest doctors who report to the public about corona while Taiwan is already warning the world about it.
The organization of information
Many episodes of Yes, Minister prominently feature the red boxes of papers for the minister to review. The civil service prepares documents every night for review, and the minister, who thinks he is a reformer, demands to know everything – so the permanent secretary’s office gives him interminable work to look at, down to and including stationery requisition. Needless to say, the minister does not come out of this experience informed about the department’s workings.
One of the obstacles we’ve encountered to a clean itemized comparison of construction costs is that in the US (and apparently also the UK), the information either does not exist or is not made public. We know how much Second Avenue Subway cost; we know how much individual stations cost and even how the stations break down between the civil work and the finishes, but each of these is still $200-500 million in unitemized costs, given as a lump sum contract. There are independent itemized estimates used as a benchmark, but they’re confidential, since the MTA uses them to rate contractor bids.
Any further breakdown we’ve seen is at the level of the minister’s red boxes, stating individual salaries and contracts for concrete and widgets; it’s not even complete information, since most of the work is subcontracted, and what’s subcontracted is opaque even to the independent cost estimators. To the extent we have estimates at a level that’s at all useful, that is high single-digit millions to low tens of millions, they’re cobbled together from many different examples, to the great frustration of people who were hoping for a perfect recipe for them to solve the cost problem.
I must stress that this is in a relatively cooperative environment. I don’t think Janno Lieber is sitting on a detailed breakdown of contracts to tranches of about $30 million and is just making sure we don’t know it. I doubt that this information exists in an organized fashion at all – it lives in the lore of numerous private-sector middle managers each of whom knows a few items.
An example from Italy
Italy has a well-known problem with tax evasion. Pellegrino-Zingales consider tax evasion among small businesses to be one of the root causes behind Italy’s economy stagnation in the last generation, arguing that it encourages firms to hire and promote by loyalty and nepotism (alongside patronage-based credit networks) rather than by merit, and that this has been an especial drag in the age of IT.
More recently, D’Agostino-de Benedetto-Sobbrio consider this question from the other end: what makes people choose to evade taxes? They look at the impact of government spending, proposing two opposed theories: the government as a grabbing hand, which taxpayers perceive as out to get them, and the government as a helping hand, whose spending helps ordinary taxpayers. The grabbing hand model predicts that bigger government leads to more tax evasion, the helping hand model predicts the opposite. While Chinese tax evasion follows the grabbing hand model, Italian tax evasion follows the helping hand model: Italian government spending induces the taxpayers to perceive the Italian state as on their side, reducing tax cheating.
All of this should be treated as background to the fact that, in Italy, the public data on construction costs and their breakdown is of very high quality. Marco Chitti has obtained breakdowns at the level that is useful for us for the upcoming Italian case study, and having read a draft of his report, I can speak with relative confidence (less than he can, of course) about wages, staffing levels, techniques, relative costs, and what the problem sections are.
Transparency and openness
That Sweden has very high-quality public data is probably not surprising to readers who know even a little bit about Nordic institutions. Here, for example, is the published breakdown of one set of contracts for Nya Tunnelbanan. Nordic transparency is a general feature, seeping to so many places, to the point that academic hiring committees in Sweden produce public-facing spreadsheets of all applicants and brief comments on them, and if the comments are positive, along the lines of “almost makes our shortlist but we have too many good candidates this year,” then applicants use that in their next application.
But when it comes to infrastructure megaprojects, we’ve found high transparency wherever we’ve looked in Continental Europe. Italy has the same information quality – because the Italian state works for the people of Italy rather than lording over them in secret.
This transparency extends to analysis of problems. The cost overruns on Grand Paris Express have led to a report by the Cour des Comptes about what happened, with detailed analysis and cost breakdowns (albeit not at granular enough level for our case studies). The report is earnest because the French state, elitist as it is, still works for the public, and acknowledges errors. Likewise, academic work in Italy on cost problems, such as Paolo Beria’s paper on the high costs of Italian high-speed rail, is in wide circulation. In Sweden, there is not only academic student work about the cost overruns of Nya Tunnelbanan but also a brief report a civil servant involved in the project sent us explaining the issue of mid-project changes in regulations.
Then there are the UK and US, where the situation is different. The UK, and countries it influences like Australia, barely even informs the public of the expected cost of a project until it is time to approve it; David Levinson told me that in Australia all communication about costs comes from leaks and trial balloons, unlike in the more open US. Even learning the highest-level breakdown of Crossrail costs required using a freedom of information request, and project-level questions about the cost of individual stations are often redacted (Crossrail 2 made available information about relative costs of stations, not a specific number per station). Reports about critical technological change like driverless trains, increasingly adopted in Paris, are not available to the public in London except through leaks. American governance is somewhat more transparent in the early stages, but key information about choices is hidden in confidential documents; the freedom of information process takes forever and officials freely redact documents or reject handing them over. The American and British freedom of information process screams, the government doesn’t work for you – its relationship with you is adversarial.
Transparency and language
In the last year or so, observing ever more central circles of political activism in the United States, I’ve realized something important: federal policymakers, and state policymakers who interface with them, speak an inscrutable language of bureaucrats who nudge but do not do. This is best illustrated with examples:
- The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework has a line item about federal funding for previously funded but canceled projects, inserted by Maryland’s senators in order to fund the Baltimore Red Line, which Governor Hogan canceled for racist reasons in 2017. Instead of openly including it as an earmark, or else letting the federal process play it out, the language uses a circumlocution.
- At a meeting with activists, another advocate asked Beth Osborne of Transportation for America (T4America) about bus shelter. Instead of dealing with the direct issue, she gave a soporific answer about the need for federal standards, which may be Washingtonian for what in English would be rendered as “yes, I’ll do what I can to make sure the feds fund bus shelters,” or it may be Washingtonian for endless process and yet another round of red tape; not speaking the language, I could not and still cannot tell.
The contrast is with the concrete, plain language I see elsewhere from civil servants, to the point that it’s easier for me to go through the Cour des Comptes report, in a language I speak imperfectly, than to try to translate from Washingtonian to English. All of this matters – the use of a form of language designed to speak only to Beltway insiders is itself a form of opacity and American civil servants need to train themselves to on the one hand be more technical when necessary but on the other hand be very clear about what they’re doing.
Transparency as a goal
The path forward must involve treating transparency not as an imposition to be fulfilled through checklists, which produce red boxes, but as a positive goal. It involves ensuring agencies are helpful to regulators, academics, and the broad public, rather than hiding decisions behind walls, often because the reasoning behind such decisions is weak. An academic is expected to make data available to peers and the public, and so must agencies and regulators.
Trust in the civil servants is crucial for public infrastructure to succeed. Results can speak for themselves even in a low-trust system – streets really do come before trust – but the US and UK have poor results. The adversarial relationship with the public produces bad outcomes, and people whose expertise is in stonewalling and making excuses must be replaced with people whose expertise is in building things and accurately reporting on what they’re doing so that others can replicate their success.
Continuing my series on institutional issues concerning infrastructure costs and quality, after the issue of procurement, I’d like to discuss the issue of the quality of public-sector oversight. It is critical to have extensive in-house expertise inside an apolitical civil service empowered to make technical decisions. The role of the political layer is to set up broad rules, not to micromanage. Conversely, while the top people should avoid micromanagement, they should be expert enough to be capable of making specific decisions.
Civil service and oversight
The importance of civil service to oversight is that it’s the professional layer that has to supervise planners, engineers, architects, and construction teams. There are too many small decisions for a single elected political layer, say a minister and a policy team the minister directly appoints and supervises.
In my procurement post, I was basing my recommendations on common threads I’d seen or read about in low- and medium-cost European countries, and to some extent practice in South Korea, a low-cost country on a par with Southern Europe. All of these make use of professional civil servants to make any of the following decisions:
- In-house planning. The macro-level decisions on funding levels are political (and never devolved to the agency through dedicated slush funds, unlike for US highways), but the decisions at the level just below, such as what programs to ask the politicians to fund, are made by professional agencies. High-speed rail was invented this way in Japan and then reinvented in France, while upgraded legacy rail was so invented in Germany and perfected in Switzerland.
- Design and engineering. Those can be done in-house or outsourced to consultants, or more likely some mixture of the two, but even if the design is contracted out, it’s the agency that owns the product and is responsible for it.
- Contractor selection. It is irresponsible to award a megaproject design contract based on the lowest bid. A technical score is used nearly universally in the low- and medium-cost examples we have looked at, and this means someone needs to come up with sound criteria for scoring and then evaluate each proposal. This has to be done more intelligently than just by rubric. A British source told us of a problem with British technical scoring: every large project is parceled out between different consultants, and thus all consultants can claim experience on the same project, making it impossible at that level to tell which companies do better work than others, even as industry insiders know who does bad work. The same source, when I asked about French comparisons, said that France has extensive in-house expertise and therefore doesn’t hire their consultancy.
- Contract supervision. Change orders are inevitable, especially for underground projects. Not coincidentally, in Eno’s database the American premium for subways is higher than for at-grade light rail, which is technically more predictable. It’s on the client agency to decide whether to accept or reject changes coming from unpredictable factors, and this requires extensive knowledge of the field.
In my procurement post, I spoke of flexibility. No client can have flexibility without oversight – flexibility without oversight is an anything-goes game in which the contractor abuses the client, the client abuses the contractor, or, most likely, both. And this oversight is necessarily detailed enough that it requires civil service.
An example from Sweden
I spoke to an experienced Swedish project manager earlier this year. The project manager talked to me about the major issues with the construction of Citybanan, the regional rail tunnel Stockholm opened 4 years ago, shortly after I left the country. This included issues of construction techniques (but for further engineering question my source referred me to an engineer) but also competition policy, negotiation, change orders, etc.
At one point in the interview, I asked about something a previous Swedish source told me about, called functional procurement. In functional procurement, the agency maximizes flexibility by specifying only the function of the project, such as the required capacity and schedule, and letting the contractors make suggestions as to how to fulfill it; this is similar to the military concept of mission command, stressing flexibility and training intermediate officers in how to use it in a hierarchical organization.
The project manager said of this growing trend in Swedish procurement: “I can’t say it makes it easier.” The manager then explained the constraints involved – railways have technical specs that make a functional contract not too different from a conventional one, where the design is already figured out and the contractors have to build to it with only minor modifications.
Let’s unpack what happened in that interview. A Swedish manager who does not know me, who I have never met, first of all talked to me in technically adept language, and second of all was willing to go on the record criticizing a trend in infrastructure construction procurement, a trend that the person who put us in contact had mentioned to me as a positive.
I have never heard this kind of internal criticism from American sources, unless they knew me well enough and were trying to get me to publish their internal problems in the media. And quite often, the criticism I would hear from the US was much more pungent, complaining about politics or a bad manager. “We have been trying this trend but I don’t think it’s working,” in exactly the tone you can imagine emerge from the style of quotation, is not a line I recall hearing from an American. The civil servants who criticize something are far more frantic, far more afraid. Sweden will trust its civil servants to literal death. The US (and UK) will not trust them to do anything but follow orders.
Is Sweden unique?
No. Strong traditions of professional civil service exist everywhere we’ve looked outside the US. Even the UK has a semblance of it; the problem there is that the topmost layer of civil servants – the Sir Humphreys – consists of lifelong generalist elites rather than domain experts.
In Italy, the situation is especially lopsided. The political layer of the government is weak because party control changes so often and ministers do not last, and there are so few political appointments that even with political instability, the civil service lasts across those changes. If anything, the instability makes the professional layer stronger.
It’s critical to ensure the civil service is not political. This doesn’t just mean that it should not be partisan. There are enough dominant-party jurisdictions in which it’s understood that the civil service exists to implement a predictable political agenda, which can be left-wing (Berlin, New York, California) or right-wing (Bavaria, Texas). Those jurisdictions all have problems coming from the lack of meaningful political competition, but those problems come from politicians, not civil servants. No: political noninterference goes much deeper, and means sidelining issues of petty personal priorities.
The ideal civil service has as few political appointees as possible. Those are neither elected nor meritorious. By their nature, they lack the legitimacy of both the politicians above them and the deep layer of domain experts below them. If they’re selected from among people with industry and operating experience then this is fine – technically senior generals are political appointments in both the US and Israel subject to the usual military norms, and Andy Byford was an external hire for New York City Transit with experience in the industry but not the agency. But letting generalist managers selected for political loyalty parachute in charge of agencies is a recipe for disaster.
The word for people who are always to be managed by people who are not from within their own social group is servants. Such people, knowing that their manager will always be someone who has other priorities that are not always transparent to them, will learn to lower their heads rather than proactively looking for ways to improve their institution.
A scientist working at a federal institution explained it to me this way: “There’s absolutely ways to speed things up, but they need cover from the political appointees at the top. A career officer understands their role to be following an existing plan, laid down in writing by either congress or by a planning process involving the top (i.e. political appointee) officers of the agency.”
This was meant to explain the sluggish FDA corona vaccine approval process, but can equally apply to infrastructure and operations of public transportation. Any variation from a plan written long ago by people who were often not even at the frontier of knowledge then requires political approval.
Trusting the civil service
A low-trust society isn’t one in which common people don’t trust the elites. It’s one in which the elites don’t trust the common people. In the context of civil service, it’s crucial to set up a system in which the top people affirm rather than scourge those below them.
Byford did it well, setting up a system encouraging employees to complain and suggest improvements, much to the surprise of managers at other MTA agencies who preferred scourging their subordinates. At the topmost level, it means the political layer needs to affirm the authority and expertise of the civil servants; in conflict between a petty actor such as a community advocate and the junior members of the state, the state must support its own, while internally ensuring that the proposal has technical merit. (Political merit is judged by elections, not by who screams the most loudly at midday community meetings.)
Civil servants who see that their superiors are hired and promoted from within the ranks or among peers, and judged for their ability to work with those below them and not just those above them (in the tech industry, a managerial hire spends some interview time with the team they are to supervise), will soon learn that they can show initiative. The ones with bad intuition will fail, whereas the ones whose initiative is more successful will be able to rise and transmit their ideas to the group. It goes without saying that this also requires staffing up to normal levels and paying competitive wages. This way, the state can ensure it can oversee its own projects competently; there is no alternative.