Category: Politics and Society
Local Elected Representation is Bad
I am in awe of Marco Chitti’s depth of knowledge and quality of analysis on matters of public transportation; what he’s written about coordinated planning on his blog, not to mention his Italian construction costs case study, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in improving public transportation at any scale. So it’s against this background that I feel compelled to point out, regrettably, that he’s wrong when he calls for local representation on public transit planning boards. Specifically, he promotes a model in which a transport association’s decisions flow from a board that represents the mayors of the municipalities in the region. And this is a model that exists (he gives the example of provincial France) and just plain does not work. EU-level observers see this every time we are reminded that the Council of Ministers exists.
To the contrary, any path forward on public transportation requires the steady disempowerment of local electeds, including mayors of small municipalities or neighborhood-level representation in a larger city. The EU-level observation that the Council of Ministers is the epitome of the democratic deficit is true at all lower levels as well, down to a single city.
Local representation does not work in France
Marco puts a parenthetical in his tweet: “or the region president for IDF-mobilités.” This makes the entire difference. In Ile-de-France, the transport association is governed at the level of the entire region, which has a single elected regional government with competitive partisan elections and high-profile campaigns; the current president of the region, Valérie Pécresse, was the national presidential candidate of Les Républicains last election. The dominant players within Ile-de-France Mobilités, RATP and SNCF, are both owned by the French state, and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was the politically-appointed head of RATP in the Hollande era, which was her stepping stone from a string of advisor positions to a ministry under Macron. This is not at all a situation with much localism.
Where there is localism in the Paris region, it promotes pettiness and NIMBYism. The increase in the rate of housing production in the region starting in the mid-2010s was promoted by the state and by the region, over the objections of suburban mayors, who were livid at the idea of more housing in their enclaves, especially social housing. The state never so coerced the city, where housing growth remains anemic, but Anne Hidalgo has likewise built social housing in rich arrondissements over the objections of their local mayors.
In fact, the model in which there is a single metropolitan government that is responsible at once for multiple services, is being implemented in Lyon. The traditional department it’s part of, Rhône, isn’t really coterminous with the metropolitan area, while some suburbs spill over to neighboring departments; for planning purposes, France set up the intergovernmental Urban Community of Lyon in 1969, comprising Lyon and its inner suburbs (equivalent not to Ile-de-France but to the combination of Paris and the Petite Couronne), but then in 2015 it replaced it with the Lyon Metropolis, with direct elections of a single government.
Elsewhere in France, inter-municipal relations remain more intergovernmental, and local mayors are in the loop on many decisions. But provincial France is hardly an example of success in transit governance. The modal splits in regions like Marseille, Nice, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Strasbourg are all in the mid teens. They have little to recommend them as models over similar-size cities in the German-speaking and Nordic worlds.
This is something that’s recognized in France too – hence the formation of the Lyon Metropolis. France has excessive fractionalization of municipalities – it has around 35,000 communes, where Italy and Spain have 8,000 each and Germany has 11,000. It’s had little municipal consolidation since the Revolution; this way, Paris has fewer people than Berlin or Madrid, while possessing a metro area about the size of Berlin’s and Madrid’s combined. Local traditions make it hard to do further consolidation, often for petty reasons (Paris is wealthier than most of its suburbs and in the postwar era the poorer suburbs voted for communists); instead, where it cares that things should work, France sets up direct institutions with enough heft that people can vote for one government and expect that it should have the last say on big political questions.
Local representation does not work in the United States
The United States does not quite use the provincial French system of direct representation of mayors on transit boards. However, it has analogs, with extensive local empowerment. And those analogs do not work.
For example, in and around Springfield, Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) is governed on the basis of representation of each municipality within the region. These are not the directly-elected mayors of those municipalities but it doesn’t matter – the problems do not stem from how they are elected but from which interests they answer to. The problem starts with the fact that nearly all PVTA ridership is in the urban core – Springfield itself and a small handful of working-class suburbs like Holyoke – but the representation structure gives snob suburbs veto power, which they use to block any consolidation plan focusing service on where people ride.
Worse, the suburbs of PVTA have a combination of two political attitudes that explodes any possibility of good governance. They are snobs and NIMBYs, opposing any attempt to make buses useful for poor urbanites trying to access service jobs in their jurisdictions. But they also have left-wing identity politics and want to be seen as progressive places where there are alternatives to the car. Therefore, they demand that PVTA serve every municipality in the region, but often just peripherally, so that they can say “we have buses”; those buses have practically no ridership, and serve to trigger Massachusetts’ accessibility requirement, in which paratransit must be provided on demand not just within 0.75 miles of a bus or urban rail stop as in the federal ADA but also within the entire town’s jurisdiction.
Marco says that the solution to bad politics is good politics. But the problem with PVTA and similar intergovernmental agencies is not that local representation is based on local appointment or recommendation rather than the direct mandate of the mayor. The mayor wouldn’t be any better than what is currently available, because at the end of the day, when a small enclave in a wider region gets to self-govern, the people it represents will be selected for pettiness (since the great majority of people who socialize outside the municipality are effectively disenfranchised) and snobbery (since the enclaves safeguard their insulation from poorer people). In some places, the worst NIMBYism may even be spearheaded by a county executive, if the county is itself an enclave, which Westchester County, New York is.
Transportation and Localism
In New York City, 92% of workers commute out of their community board. Representation at such level has a democratic deficit that exceeds that of the EU; the ministers who comprise the Council were after all elected in their respective countries, in democratic elections in which the important portfolios are doled out to acceptable parties and politicians. Fractional suburbs like those of France or the parts of the United States that have public transit are little different from city neighborhoods in this way. To continue with the example of PVTA, the two largest suburbs of Springfield by population are Chicopee and Westfield. Chicopee has 24,431 employed residents and 18,228 jobs, but only 4,131 of those live and work in the city, or 17%; Springfield has 17,656 employed residents, 14,863 jobs, and 3,820 people working and living in the city, or 22%. In effect, the mayors of both cities are elected in enclaves in which the most empowered people are not at all representative of the jurisdictions.
This situation is especially bad when it comes to transportation. There, the interests of those 17-22% of the Springfield suburbs who work locally, not to mention the 8% of New Yorkers who work in-community board, diverge the most from the general interest. People who live and work in an outlying local area do not really ride public transportation; people who commute to a city center do. This is not just a feature of transit cities – the transit modal split for people working in Downtown Los Angeles is not awful (I remember reading it was 50% in the 2000s-10s), they’re just swamped by people who work in places that don’t even rise to the category of a secondary center.
Even when the time comes to build a transit network that works for people who don’t work in city centers, it still is intended for the majority, which doesn’t work locally. PVTA and other non-Boston Massachusetts agencies (called RTAs) struggle with span of service – buses stop running anytime between 6 and 8 pm to shopping malls that close at 10. Regional representation could catch those riders, who would have a single point of contact to vote for; local representation cannot, because they are formally disenfranchised where they work and in practice disempowered where they live.
Americans – not Marco, but some of the people who responded to him on Twitter – are paranoid that regional representation in an auto-oriented area would lead to the defunding of transit.
But we can concretely compare what happens when auto-oriented suburbs have local representation (as in most of the US) and what happens when they’re incorporated into a larger whole and can then vote there (as in Ile-de-France, or Berlin, or Toronto). Kai Wegner became mayor of Berlin after an explicitly pro-car campaign; what this means in practice is a halt on some road diet projects, the latter pushed by Green voters who work close to where they live and care about bikes more than about public transit. The far more populist, far more pro-car Rob Ford became mayor of Toronto powered by resentment of David Miller’s Transit City concept, which had the same failings as the agenda of the Berlin Greens; Ford’s election caused far more damage in its politicization of transit, leading to repeated changes in the Eglinton rail plan just so that Ford could prove that he existed, than at the basic level of defunding transit or closing the streetcars (which Ford promised to do and then didn’t).
We can even see the interplay between local and regional in Ile-de-France. The pro-car suburban mayors tried to sue Paris to stop its road diets, alleging that they are discriminatory against them, and one might expect that those suburbs, if given a seat at the table, would favor pro-car policy. But in practice, the same voters who vote for these mayors at the local level also vote for Pécresse at the regional level, and Pécresse hasn’t compelled Paris to remotorize and is a lot YIMBYer than any of those suburban mayors. The issue is less that people in those places are pro-car and more that local representation consistently returns people who drive more than the average and who represent a minority that drives more than the average, and in the absence of such local representation, even someone like Rob Ford can’t do much damage through his transportation policy. (Doug Ford, in contrast, has done considerably more damage in micromanaging the megaprojects to the point that Toronto is careening past the $1 billion/km mark.)
The need for professionalism in democracy
Professional civil service arises in part from the fact that it’s not possible to have meaningful local representation in an urban area. A city the scale of Berlin can have a democratic election, since people generally live and work in the city, and not many commute in from or out to elsewhere. The same is true of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or even New York City, which has less than half the population of its metro area and yet this is enough that the populations of disempowered in- and out-commuters are limited. It’s true of Lyon Metropolis. It’s true of the combination of Paris and the Petite Couronne, which France occasionally considers amalgamating into a single Grand Paris and mostly doesn’t because the elected layer of Ile-de-France is so far sufficient and there is a lot of identity politics involved in the formal separation of the city from the suburbs.
And at this scale, it’s impossible for a single government to control everything. Berlin, New York, and so on have the populations of small countries. Such countries can elect a government, but the span of control of the elected ministers comprises an order of magnitude of 100 people across all ministries combined.
Thus, the need for a professional civil service. This is why the role of politicians in a healthy political environment is to macro- and not micromanage. They can make big yes-or-no decisions, and that’s it – decisions on alignments should be left to professionals, who are hired and promoted based on apolitical criteria. A Wegner or Ford can choose to fund roads more and transit less and halt or even reverse road diets, but the details have to come from experts, because the span of control of the Wegner cabinet is far too small for there to be any real democratic check on the sort of advisors who in the United States are politically appointed.
What’s more, even when they do make decisions, the tendency of politicians to do things just to prove that they exist is, always, bad for governance. In some cases, including what we’ve seen in Boston when we wrote the Green Line Extension report, megaprojects even act as siphons for bad ideas, while contemporary small projects beneath the notice of politicians are done more smoothly and efficiently. The danger is that the practices developed for the megaprojects then later poison the local infrastructure ecosystem, as when some of the decisions made for Grand Paris Express are now leading to overdesign for shorter Métro extensions.
The ideal role for elected leaders is to set overall funding levels and then just let the professionals work. If the professionals are failing, it’s fine to replace them with other professionals, chosen based on past successes in the same field (in the US, this has to mean foreigners), rather than chums who the politicians are comfortable with, like the repulsive political appointees I’ve seen in New York and Boston.
In the same way that most people writing about EU governance understand that Parliament has democratic legitimacy and the Council is the opposite, it’s critical to understand that localism subtracts from civilian democratic control of the state, through its elevation of petty voices. And if subdividing territory into local fiefs doesn’t work, the alternative is to subdivide it thematically and let subject-matter experts handle planning. Marco, and I think other people who are much more uncomfortable with top-down unitary civil services than he is (after all, Italy is governed by such civil service and builds infrastructure very well), errs in portraying this depoliticization as antithetical to democracy; it’s to the contrary the tool with which democracy governs anything bigger than an isolated village.
Meme Weeding: Polarization
I’ve heard some people, including some in decently powerful government positions, excuse poor American public transportation performance by saying that it’s hard to work in a politically polarized environment. This is related to excuses made in the early 2010s, blaming the failure of high-speed rail in the United States on Republican governors who canceled programs after winning the 2010 midterm, never mind that all-Democratic California has not been able to build it either. But the complaints about polarization are not just specious. They also betray deep ignorance and incuriosity about the rest of the world, including specific countries that we at the Transit Costs Project have referenced repeatedly.
What is polarization, anyway?
Political polarization generally refers to a system in which there are two blocs, roughly evenly matched, each characterized by hating the other to the point of not fully (or at all) accepting its legitimacy. The blocs can alternate in power, as in the United States today, or one can usually prevail over the other, as in the Second and Third Party Systems in American history.
Usually this also includes large left-right ideological differences, which in the 20th century could even take the characteristic of support for communism versus fascism, as in multiple Latin American systems. However, systems in which the differences in ideology are more rhetorical than practical, as in 1980s-1990s Greece, can also be characterized as polarized. In fact, polarization (that is, delegitimization of the other side) is often a strategy employed by populist politicians to maintain mass support as a substitute for concrete action.
By most accounts, the United States is seeing high and growing party polarization. This contrasts with depolarized systems like those of Belgium and the Netherlands, which are historically tri- rather than bipolar and therefore have long traditions of shifting coalitions and consensus, or Germany and Austria, which have two blocs but still have a lot of cross-aisle cooperation and many grand coalitions.
Polarization in low-cost countries
While American political practitioners usually contrast the American situation today with that of the elite consensus of the postwar era, we should be more comparative and look at how polarization varies over space and not just time. And by that standard, most of the low-construction cost countries are obviously polarized: Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, South Korea. Even the Nordic countries are more polarized than Americans give them credit for, leaving Switzerland as the only truly depolarized low-construction cost country.
In Italy, moreover, polarization has grown even as construction costs have fallen. The First Italian Republic was depolarized: Democrazia Cristiana won every election and governed by choice of which coalition partners to work with, which could include the Socialists (a situation called “integral left”) or not; bringing in the Communists was unthinkable. It was also legendarily corrupt, to the point that DC should be thought of as a corruption party more than a center-right party like CDU here or VVD in the Netherlands. The corruption led metro construction costs to explode in the 1970s as contracts were given based on bribery rather than any objective criteria. It’s moreover this explosion in costs that led to the investigations that brought down the system, mani pulite.
The Second Italian Republic, birthed by those corruption investigations, has high levels of left-right polarization. The main policy plank of the right is that it hates the left; thus, the right’s leader until recently, Berlusconi, did not engage in any of the neoliberal reforms of good governance that his Northern European and French allies hoped he would. The left has been more neoliberal but it’s explicitly very moderate, governing in coalition with various populists who can be swayed over. The system trended toward two blocs. And now Italy can build infrastructure more affordably, due to the same good-government anti-corruption reforms that passed in the wake of mani pulite.
Turkey is even more polarized, to the point that the main political question in the election in two weeks is not exactly a left-right issue like the role of Islam in society or any socioeconomic issue, but whether Turkey should be a democracy or an autocracy governed by Erdoğan; the candidate of the democracy camp (“Nation Alliance”), Kılıçdaroğlu, has surrounded himself with disaffected former Erdoğan allies and with an entirely right-wing party, İyi, alongside his traditional center-left allies.
What’s more, Erdoğan has not let opposition cities just build infrastructure. Izmir has long been governed by CHP; the state lightly fudged numbers to make its subway construction costs look slightly higher than they are, using pessimistic cost projections. CHP won the elections in Istanbul and Ankara recently, and in Istanbul, the state stopped letting the city use state-owned parks for city-built subway lines and even denied funding for some future lines; Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu got these lines financed through loans from the European Investment Bank, which hates Erdoğan to the point that Istanbul borrows money internationally at lower interest rates than the state. Despite gross politicization, costs have remained low, and the civil service has functioned through this (and Elif’s interviews in Turkey included both AKP and CHP supporters).
Corruption and dominant parties
The situation of DC in Italy, in which its domination of the First Republic even with coalition partners led to corruption, generalizes.
In the United States, regional differences in voting and lack of regional differences in party ideology have made many states safe for one party or another. In those states, there is no polarization, since one party governs everything and has little to nothing to fear from the opposition: California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and increasingly Florida and Ohio all fall into this camp.
The result is that the dominant party in all of these states is a corruption party. It’s easy to be corrupt when you know in advance who you need to buy off, and when it’s not really possible for anyone to run for governor and polarize against you and your bribery of elected officials. In red states there’s occasionally an ideological sop to movement conservatism, usually exclusively the annual culture war topic (in 2023 it’s trans athletes), but nothing really about any of the broader agenda of the economists at right-wing think tanks; in blue states there’s not even a sop.
Why are they like this?
Polarization doesn’t raise construction costs. It’s most likely neutral, and the dominant-party alternative is worse. So why do Americans blame it? I suspect that, like when left-wing Americans try to make high costs a matter of health care, it’s about reducing a complex issue to an American feature that all middlebrow American politicos know to hate. Truthiness trumps knowledge here.
The Transit Lobby and Fares
Randal O’Toole has a weird blog post about our construction costs report. I say weird, because it complains that we didn’t ask certain questions that we actually did, in the executive summary: “what kind of political and decision-making process allows for such expensive projects to be approved in the first place?” in his language. It also is under the impression that Sweden and Italy are authoritarian states. I bring this up because the post suggests two reasons: the transit lobby, and user fees. These are both wrong, and I’d like to cover why.
The user fee issue
O’Toole harps on user fees:
At heart, and I keep harping on this, the real problem is the disassociation of costs from user fees. If costs have to be paid for out of user fees, then expensive and obsolete technologies will automatically be rejected. But if there is no relationship between costs and real measurable benefits, then there is no need to control costs at all. Any agency leader who supports lower-cost solutions loses out because their agency’s budget will be smaller and any politician who tries to control costs loses out because they bring less money into the pockets of potential campaign contributors.
The reason we don’t talk about this in the report is that high-subsidy transit systems don’t generally cost more to build and operate than low-subsidy ones. The norms in Asia are that rapid transit service should be operationally profitable; Japan won’t even build subways unless they can show a 30-year payback period, i.e. 3.3% financial return on investment in an economy whose natural rate of interest is maybe 1.5%. The norms in Europe are that intercity rail should be profitable but anything else is a social service that should receive subsidies.
And as it happens, there’s no systemic cost difference between Europe and rich Asia. Construction costs span the entire non-US range in both places: South Korea has very low construction costs and so do Southern Europe, Turkey, and the Nordic countries; Singapore and Hong Kong compete for highest costs outside the United States and so does Britain. In Hong Kong, if anything, the MTR’s development profits have enabled it to waste more money on construction, since it still gets state money for construction on top of the development profits, which have no accountability.
Transit ideology and modal warfare
O’Toole and other Americans with similar pro-car, anti-rail views like Wendell Cox and Robert Poole has an obsession with counting some kind of subsidy metrics. He talks about the transit lobby, and he ends up misunderstanding how the politics of mass transit works elsewhere. But, in short, modal warfare is not usually about construction of subway lines, but about road diets and bike lanes.
For example, in Germany, Kai Wegner just did very well in the Berlin election on a platform of more parking spots and opposition to everything the Green Party does. CDU came first for the first time since 1999. But Wegner supports more U-Bahn construction and attacked the left-wing coalition for dithering on the subject. His transport ideology is not the same as that of American mode warriors; it’s cars-and-trains urbanism, with cars getting more attention than trains. Social democracy for that matter has the same ideology, but with a greater role for trains – and it’s this ideology that built around 100 km of majority-underground metro in Stockholm for $3.6 billion in 2022 dollars.
I bring up Germany because we’re seeing the linkage between fares and operations vanish in real time, due to fallout from the 9€ ticket from last summer; see coverage on this blog here and here. Before corona, public transport fares covered around half of operating costs Germany-wide (source, p. 36), and some of the big city rapid transit system broke even (at least the Berlin U-Bahn and I think also the Munich U-Bahn). The perceived success of the 9€ ticket is changing Germany’s transit advocacy ideology – but in the exact opposite direction from more construction, whatever the cost. No: the same advocates who center low fares oppose subway construction, viewing it as a sop to cars-and-trains urbanism and preferring surface light rail instead. The same is true in the United States: the sort of people who support free transit and sue agencies that raise fares usually also think rail investment is racist and money for transit should go to bus operations.
The transit lobby
As soon as it’s clear that there are different ideologies of mass transit, the question of the transit lobby gets murkier. O’Toole, rooted in modal warfare, says of construction costs “The real answer, I suspect, is that the transit lobby has persuaded the public that transit is all good and no bad. This in turn persuaded politicians that they can spend as much as they want on transit (unlike freeways) with no political backlash.” But there’s a strong lobby in support of urban rail construction everywhere, across the entire cost range, including in our low-cost examples.
The US doesn’t really have a stronger transit lobby than Sweden or Italy or Turkey (or Germany or France or Japan, etc.), unless one defines “transit lobby” as “builds unusually expensive transportation infrastructure.” The typical federal funding formula in the United States is 80% cars, 20% transit; in Germany it was around 55% cars, 42% rail, 3% canals in the Grand Coalition. In Sweden, cities have transitioned to tolerating more disruption for drivers and less for pedestrians on the feminist grounds that drivers are disproportionately men. The ability of transit riders to both get a larger share of the funding and make the cities more walkable and bikable at the expense of the convenience of car drivers is unusually weak in the United States by developed-world standards.
In some cases, it goes the other way: a weak transit lobby leads to higher costs, due to political impositions. In Tampa, an attempt by the transit agency to increase bus frequency somewhat and provide bus shelter had to be pitched as BRT, and then the DOT extracted surplus and demanded that the agency get federal BRT funding for repaving all lanes used by the buses with concrete – lanes that were to be shared with cars and trucks, rather than dedicated to bus service. This has led some advocates to propose that a stronger transit lobby is what’s needed to improve transit efficiency… except that New York is the worst.
There are real political reasons for why the US has such high infrastructure construction costs; this is not just transit – road tunnels cost a lot more per km in Boston and Seattle than in Berlin and Stockholm and Paris and Madrid. We go over them in the report. I urge people to go read it and focus on issues of politicization, bad-and-worsening procurement norms, lack of interest in interagency coordination, and the subordination of expert civil servants to incurious political appointees. The modal warfare that O’Toole engages in is pretty irrelevant in either direction; in countries with functional infrastructure construction programs, people who are that political never have any input other than a very broad yes-or-no decision over megaprojects, and not even that level of input over smaller projects (Nordic decisionmaking about road construction is notably depoliticized).
Anne Hidalgo Hates Paris
Paris has depopulated by 123,000 people in 10 years, or about 5.5% of its population. Normally, this should be cause for alarm: it means either mass abandonment of the city, or, if rents are up, insufficient quantity of housing. But not so according to Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who celebrates the city’s depopulation. Hidalgo – and the New Left urban tendency that she’s so celebrated for – manifestly dislikes her own city so much that she thinks it’s a good thing people of lower incomes are displaced from it to the suburbs; she calls it good news. Why?
The standard excuses
There are specific complaints about overcrowding in Paris, but these are conflated with density. Paris is famously very dense – around 26,000/km^2, excluding the Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne, both of which extrude from the Périphérique, which otherwise acts as the city’s limit. It is also rather overcrowded: in 2013, INSEE reported that the average dwelling size per person in the city was 31 square meters, which may be the worst in the developed democratic world – Tokyo is at 33 by one calculation, and I believe Seoul is about 32 nowadays, while German and Dutch cities are in the 40s (Amsterdam is at 49).
However, Paris’s overcrowding is not about density, and Hidalgo’s dream of sending the working class to the suburbs is hardly going to give them space. Per the same INSEE source, the dwelling size in the Petite Couronne was actually lower per capita than in the city: Val-de-Marne and Hauts-de-Seine, both fairly wealthy departments, are at 31 just like the city, and infamously poor Seine-Saint-Denis is at 27. Note that Paris is richer than its suburbs – this is how Seine-Saint-Denis is so overcrowded – but the same income gradient is found in Stockholm, and there, the city is at 33 and suburbs like Huddinge and Södertälje are at 35.
So the problem isn’t that Paris is too dense – if it were, the Petite Couronne would have the residential space of Amsterdam, or at least Vienna (which is at 36). Rather, the issue is that up until 2013, little housing was built in Ile-de-France.
YIMBY region, NIMBY city
The overcrowding levels for Ile-de-France are from 2013. But in the last 10 years, there has been a building boom, entirely in the suburbs. Yonah Freemark has the best introduction to this issue that I’ve seen in English. In 2014, the housing production in Ile-de-France was around 3.5 per 1,000 people and had been for a generation. In the next two years, this figure doubled, and would stay around 7/1,000 at least through 2019, when Yonah wrote his paper.
Little of this new housing is in the city. In 2021, housing production in Ile-de-France was 72,000, a little less than 6/1,000 people, of which 2,600 units were in Paris, or 1.2/1,000 people. While housing production in the region intensified starting in the mid-2010s, it did not in the city – production in 2019 was lower than in 2014 and has since fallen further. This is not quite a matter of suburbanization and building where there’s more space, because in 2021 the Petite and Grande Couronnes had identical housing production rates (both about 6.8-6.9), and before corona, the Petite Couronne had a substantially higher rate, 8.6 vs. 7.2. Rather, it’s a matter of a growth plan done in tandem with the construction and upgrade of suburban rail, as part of a transit-oriented development plan.
And practically none of this plan concerns the city. This is not because there’s no space: the city is full of high-rise residential housing, typically social projects of around 12-15 floors, and conversely there are sections only built up to 3-4 floors, low enough that the buildings can be replaced. There are still railyards inherited from the steam era that have not been redeveloped yet in the manner of Bercy. Yonah’s paper talks about the top-down nature of the regional growth plan, which has overruled local NIMBYs in the suburbs; but in the city, perhaps the national elites who have little trouble telling a suburb that the needs of the state trump the needs of a mayor are reluctant to do the same out of an emotional reaction to the city.
Hidalgo has has little trouble overruling NIMBYs on matters that are important to her. The trickle of housing that is built in the city is disproportionately social, often in wealthy areas, where the mayor enjoys needling rich snobs. The same snobs who look down on social housing also look down on taking public transport alongside the hoi polloi; public transport usage in the city is very high, but the wealthiest arrondissement, the 16th, has a fairly large share of drivers, 26% compared with a city average of 12% (see table here). And Hidalgo has little trouble overruling such snobs when she redoes streets to give their cars less space so that there is more room for cycle paths, bike share docks, and wider sidewalks.
So if so little housing is built in the city, it’s not because Hidalgo is powerless in the face of NIMBY opposition. No: she is the NIMBY opposition to growth. No wonder she thinks it’s a positive thing that the working class is moving to the suburbs.
Why is she like this?
The New Left has always been uncomfortable with growth and production. Instead, it centers consumption. Its theory of the city is about consumption, and thus, its take on matters like growth, decline, gentrification, displacement, and housing centers consumption amenities, in which the city itself is what is being consumed. It pays little attention to job growth and instead tells a story of the middle class chasing some artistry, which is not in evidence in either patterns of development or what the urban middle class says drives its locational choices.
In Paris, this is seen in the museumification of the city. It’s a middle class that feels a little guilty about its privileges, and therefore Hidalgo will make sure there’s some social housing in the city for the poor, but the idea that the working class could just afford market rate and live in the city at scale (which it can in YIMBYer cities like Tokyo) is unthinkable to her and to generations of New Left urbanists. If poorer people leave, it’s a victory for the New Left: there are fewer poor people to take care of. Stalin promised socialism in one country; Hidalgo and her left-NIMBY counterparts in the United States and Germany build socialism in one county.
This also cascades to transport policy. Hidalgo has been very good about removing cars from the city – but the city already has a 64% public transport modal split and only a 12% split for cars. It’s more important to grow the city and allow people to move into it rather than out of it than to squeeze those last 12%. Migration out of the city is nothing to celebrate; unless those people are moving to a comparably car-free place like Tokyo, Stockholm, or Barcelona, it’s a net negative for everyone who cares about modal shift.
More broadly, Hidalgo and the New Left care little about how people get to work; Hidalgo is not involved in any plan to improve public transport in the region, and the high-level socialist in the region who was, Elisabeth Borne, is currently serving as prime minister under Macron while Hidalgo allied with far-left forces, including Putin apologists (which she herself is not), to form NUPES in opposition. Instead, they try to create little bubbles where the middle class can feel good about its own consumption while changing little at macro scale. This ideology is, in practice, to the pedestrian, city center, and to the car, the world.
The hate for the city
There are places in the United States that are notorious for their combination of left-wing politics, extreme NIMBYism, high rents, and an entrenched local middle class that looks down on the consumption of the workers who it has displaced. They are never major cities: New York has people with these attitudes but they don’t really run the city – New York’s NIMBYism comes from other interest groups. Rather, they are small places, often college towns or resort towns; Aspen and Boulder are both notorious for it.
The museumification of the city is the product of the ideology of turning Paris from a productive city with millions of jobs that one gets to on the Métro or RER into an enclave for rich people who don’t need to work outside the home. If you want work, you live and work in the suburbs and unless your commute lines up perfectly with the orbital lines in Grand Paris Express, you drive. It’s casual hate for the city, by people who don’t like change and don’t like sharing space with other people, and only differ from the snobs of the 16th in that they are the snobs of the Left Bank instead.
FDP and Vice Signaling
Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) just tweeted that more investment in roads is good – because if traffic flows more smoothly then there will be less greenhouse gas emissions. Reaction was not positive, and as of when I’m writing, 16 hours later, it is mildly ratioed. People understand that this is wrong. Lindner himself probably gets this too. Understanding what’s going on here requires talking about bullshit in the philosophical sense of Harry Frankfurt, and about something that I don’t have a better name for than vice signaling.
Is it true?
Absolutely not. It’s standard in transport studies that the construction of more highways in high-demand areas induces more traffic, as people take advantage of the greater convenience of driving. Drivers drive to new destinations that they forwent or chose to take public transport to, and new developments are built in areas opened by new highway development.
There may be exceptions to this in declining areas. The United States loves building new grade-separated interchanges in declining regions. This doesn’t generate new demand, because traffic is already uncongested, and the purpose of roadbuilding there is a political statement more than transport policy. But that’s not Germany. The roads under discussion here are in growth regions: there’s a plan to widen the beltway around Munich, A99, to 10 lanes, and the federal and Berlin FDP have both badgered Berlin to build a further stage of A100 parallel to the Ringbahn, which the city wants not to under the influence of the Green Party. Both motorway projects are likely to lead to adverse mode shift if built, and Lindner knows this.
There’s a developmental argument that induced demand is actually good. Matt Yglesias has made it before, saying that if road building induces more traffic then it means people get to take more trips and are better off. Many roadbuilders have made that very argument, and others were aware of it; Robert Moses, for example, was perfectly aware that his parkways and bridges were inducing more car traffic, and was fine with it, because he thought more driving was good. But that’s not what Lindner is saying: Lindner is saying that building new motorways and keeping them without a speed limit reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which is just bullshit.
The term “bullshit” has a precise meaning in analytic philosophy, due to Harry Frankfurt. It comprises a type of deception about the speaker’s mindset, rather than about the facts, unlike an ordinary lie. A politician who denies a scandal they are involved with is lying: their goal is to get you to believe that they are innocent of this scandal. A politician who, having been caught in said scandal, launches a series of schlock patriotic speeches is bullshitting: their goal is to get you to think they are fundamentally aligned with your values. From Frankfurt’s original essay, we have,
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”
The statement “widening roads reduces CO2 emissions” is this kind of bullshit. It is not quite a lie: it is false, but Lindner is not especially concerned with whether it is true or false. His goal is not to persuade people that building another section of A100 and widening A99 is good for climate; nobody who cares about climate change thinks that. Rather, his goal is to position himself as the sort of person who doesn’t listen to climate advocates and will just push for road widenings. The deception is part of the positioning: if he’d said that he understands the Greens’ argument against road investment but roads are important for economic development, he’d come off as too reasonable, which is not his intention.
Sounding deliberately unreasonable is the domain of populist politicians, and Frankfurt himself and many of his followers have noticed how political bullshit is on the rise as populism grows more normalized. Nigel Farage, for example, bullshitted that smoking isn’t bad for your health. And FDP is a populist party, despite its liberal origins and relatively moderate political positioning; it swung from deficit scold at the start of the current government to tax scold precisely as inflation rose last year, the opposite of what one should expect of a Washington Consensus-following economically orthodox party.
There’s a pseudo-academic term going around the web, virtue signaling. The idea is that individuals and organizations engage in actions to signal that they’re better people than they really are; companies hire consultants on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) without ever doing anything about their glass ceiling and harassment problems.
But it may be more fruitful to discuss its opposite – that is, vice signaling. This is when people take actions to portray themselves as terrible people, for any number of reasons:
- Loyalty: criminal gangs are deliberately threatening and often require that prospective members commit murder (this is a requirement to become a made man in the Italian-American mafia), because this forces new members to have crossed both a moral and a legal event horizon from which they can’t come back; populist political movements don’t require crimes, but do require ridiculous beliefs
- Novelty: this is what in the online language of the early 2010s was called the Slate Pitch – a take that aims to be novel by saying something really out there, often by writers who can’t separate themselves from the rest of the pack by any more productive means
- Love of power: some people lie to you, with your full knowledge that they’re lying, just to flex that they can get away with it
Lindner loves this kind of vice signaling, I think out of novelty more than anything. FDP could be a party of YIMBYism, fiscal conservatism, and digital governance; younger members of the party who identify with neoliberalism wish that it were that party. The problem is that the difference between such a party and SPD is not large; Scholz ran on building more housing Germany-wide, and there’s a fair amount of consensus in favor of this in the party’s wings. SPD’s worst attributes so far are its officious leadership anchored in the Lower Saxony clique and consequently its sluggish governance and refusal to do more to support Ukraine – but FDP has the exact same problems, Lindner having told Ukraine when it asked for aid as the war started that there was no point since they’d fall in hours either way.
So to distinguish themselves from everyone else, FDP engages in vice signaling about climate and transport. They’re not trying to convince anyone that their policies are good for climate change. Rather, they’re doing the exact opposite: they’re trying to convince center-right voters that they’re an internal opposition within a coalition that is engaging in modal shift in federal funding priorities, and that they are explicitly against any climate action, because cars are good and only annoying hippies prefer trains.
What Does It Mean to Run the State Like a Business?
There’s a common expression, run it like a business, connoting a set of organizational reforms that intend to evoke private-sector efficiency. Unfortunately, the actual implementation as far as I’ve seen in public transportation agencies has always fallen short. This is not because the private sector is inherently different from the public sector – it is, but not in ways that are relevant here (for example, in marketing). Rather, it’s because the examples I’ve seen always involve bringing in an outside manager with experience in private-sector management but not in the industry, which tends to be a bad practice in the private sector too. Many of the practices bundled with this approach, like the hiring freeze, are harmful to the organization and well-run private firms do not engage in them.
So, instead, what would it mean to run public transportation like a business?
A public transit agency that wants to access the high productivity of frontier private-sector industries in the United States had better imitate common features to large corporations. These include all of the following:
1. Smoother HR. Jobs need to fill quickly, with a hiring process that takes weeks rather than months or years. HR should follow private-sector norms and not civil service exams, which represent the best reform ideas of the 1910s and are absent from the strongest bureaucratic public sector norms out there. Moreover, the pay needs to be competitive and largely in cash, not benefits. Some European countries (like Sweden) get away with having a fully laden cost of employment that’s about twice the gross salary because their tax structures have such high employer-side payroll taxes that this is more or less also the case for the private sector; but in the US, the private-sector norm is a multiplier of about 1.3 and not 2 and the public sector needs to do the same. Benefit cuts should go one-to-one to higher base pay, which should be competitive with high-productivity industries – public transit agencies should want to hire the best engineers, not the engineers who couldn’t get work in the private sector.
2. Promotion by merit and not seniority. Seniority systems in private businesses are a feature of relatively low-productivity countries like Japan, whereas the more productive American and Northern European private sectors promote by merit and have paths for someone to have decisionmaking power in their early 30s if they’re good. In contrast, American public transportation providers are bound by rigid notions of seniority at all levels – including even how bus and train drivers are scheduled (in the German-speaking world, schedulers set everyone’s work schedules on the principle of spreading out the painful shifts equally) – turning one’s 20s into a grueling apprenticeship, and even at my age people are always subordinate to a deadwood manager who last had an idea 20 years ago.
3. Hiring successful leadership, from within the industry if not through internal promotion. In some cases I can see hiring from adjacent industries, but so far this has meant national railroads like Amtrak and SNCF hiring airline executives, who do not understand some critical ways trains differ from planes and therefore produce poor outcomes. The practice of hiring people whose sole expertise is in turnarounds must cease; in Massachusetts, Charlie Baker’s foisting of Luis Ramirez on the MBTA was not a success. In the United States, the best example of a successful outside hire for leadership is Andy Byford, who Andrew Cuomo then proceeded to treat with about the same level of respect that he has for the consent of women in the room with him and for the lives of residents of New York nursing homes. This is really an extension of point #2: people with a track record of success in public transit should run public transit, and not hacks, washouts, and personal friends and allies of the governor.
4. Professional development. A planner earning $60,000 a year, who should probably be earning $90,000 a year, gets to regularly fly to a conference abroad for $2,500 including hotel fees to learn how other countries do things. The core of a high-value-added firm is its employees; the biggest risk when one invests in them is that they then take their skills and go elsewhere, but public transit is a local monopoly and if a New York planner takes their skills and moves to Philadelphia, on net New York has lost nothing, since SEPTA is complementary to its services rather than a competitor.
Note that this list avoids any of the usual tropes of hiring freezes, rank-and-yank systems, or the imposition of a separate class of managerial overlords who get to tell the experienced insiders what to do. These are not features of successful, high-productivity businesses. Some are features of failing companies, like the hiring freeze. Others are a feature of long dead industrial traditions, superseded by more modern ones: the class system in which the recently-hired MBA is always superior to the experienced worker, faithfully reproduced in most militaries with their officer-enlisted distinction, is inferior to the classless system in which people are hired and among them the most successful and most interested in a leadership role are more rapidly promoted.
The above points are about how a public transit agency should restructure itself. But the private sector has some insights about how external funding, such as federal funding in the US, should work.
Central to this is the venture capital insight that the quality of the team of founders matters at least as much as the proposal they bring in front of the VC team. If public transit agencies are to be run as frontier businesses (such as biotech or software-tech), then it stands to reason that federal funding should look at how the VC system funds them. In addition to following the above agency norms for their own hires, grantors like the FTA and FRA should then look at who exactly they’re funding. This means at least three things:
1. YIMBYer regions get more money than NIMBYer ones. New York can still get some money if it has exceptionally strong proposals, but overall, regions with stronger transit-oriented development, which in the US mainly means Seattle, should be getting more funding than regions without. This is on top of the purely public-sector negotiation process, common in the Nordic countries, in which an area that wants rail access to city center jobs is required to plan for more housing, even over local NIMBY objections. The Nordic process is a negotiation, whereas what I’m proposing here is a process in which the FTA and FRA get discretion to invest more money in regions that have pro-growth, pro-TOD politics without rezoning-by-rezoning negotiation.
2. Regions with recurrent corruption problems get defunded. If there’s a history of poor project management (for example, at California High-Speed Rail), or of actual corruption (as in Florida with Rick Scott), or of leakage of federal funds to unrelated goals such as creation of local jobs or overpriced betterments, then outside funding should not be forthcoming. There are other places that need the money and don’t abuse federal funds.
3. Regions with healthy ecosystems of transit advocacy get more money than regions without. NGOs are part of the local governance structure, and this means the FTA and FRA should be interested in the quality of advocacy. The presence of curious, technically literate, forward-looking groups like TransitMatters in Boston and 5th Square in Philadelphia should be a positive mark; that of populist ones like the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union with its preposterous claims that trains are racist should be a negative mark. This also extends to the local nonprofit grantors – if they are interested in good governance then it’s a sign the region’s overall governance is healthy and it will not only spend federal money prudently but also find new innovative ways to run better service that can then lead to a nationwide learning process. But if they are ignorant and incurious, as Boston’s Barr Foundation is (see incriminating article here by Barr board member Lisa Jacobson, falsely claiming Britain has no interest in equitable investment and the Netherlands has no interest in pedestrians), this suggests the opposite, and regions with such people in positions of power are likely to waste money that they are given.
Giving the state discretion
A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea that the public sector should ever have the discretion to make its own decisions. In practice discretion is unavoidable; the American solution to the conundrum has been to bury everyone in self-contradictory paperwork and then any decision can be justified and litigated using some subset of the paperwork. So the same discretion exists but with far too high overheads and with a culture that treats clear language as somewhere between evil and unthinkable.
Because the idea of running the government like a business is disproportionately common among people who don’t like the public sector, programs that aim to do just that are bundled with programs that leash the state. The leash then means politicization, in which personal acquaintances of the mayor, governor, or other such heavyweight run agencies they are not qualified to work at, let alone manage; the professionals are then browbeaten into justifying whatever decision the political appointees come to, which is a common feature of dysfunctional businesses and a rare one at successful ones.
But successful businesses are not leashed. To run the government like a business means to imitate successful business ecosystems, and those are not leashed or politicized, nor are their core office workers subjected to a class system in which their own promotions are based on seniority and not merit whereas their overlords are a separate group of generalists who move from agency to agency. What it does mean is to hire the best people and promote the best among them, pay them accordingly, and give them the explicit discretion to make long-term planning and funding decisions.
I Gave Two Talks About Construction Costs Yesterday
We gave two talks about construction costs yesterday, as I said in my invite earlier this week. There are no slides to upload, so I’ll just give brief overviews.
The 11 am talk had with Aaron Gordon as moderator and comprised me, Eric, Elif, and Marco, in front of an audience of about 40, including a few people in official capacity from the MTA or the more reform-oriented sections of politics. It was recorded, and the video has been uploaded via the Marron channel. The four of us went over our backgrounds and what brought us to this issue, and then we talked about what we’d done – we tallied around 200 personal interviews and correspondences and countless academic and gray studies reviewed – and what the conclusions are (see above link for some of them).
Audience questions were markedly friendly, and so were followup conversations Eric had with people at the MTA about this; Eric and I had spent the previous day catastrophizing about what if we’d encounter a hostile audience with questions insisting that no, New York can’t possibly be an order of magnitude more expensive to build subways in than our comparison cases, but none of that happened there.
The political response is also interesting. I’m not going to name names but I’ve found it striking that there’s interest in this from both politicians who ideologically identify with the radical left and the Democratic Socialists of America and ones who ideologically identify with the neoliberal movement (currently rebranding itself as New Liberals, in parallel with the New Democrat Coalition).
In a way, it’s not too surprising. Both groups are motivated by ideology and not by the petty concerns that lead to NIMBYism and to the politics of delay for its own sake. More subtly, while the term neoliberalism evokes a retreat from state methods and toward privatization, in practice the people who use the label today talk about state capacity all the time, they just have a vision of the state that centers efficiency. The sight of a New York that can, on its present capital budget, build 200 km of rail tunnel in 10 years while also completing investments in accessibility and high-capacity signaling is uplifting to such movements, even if those movements may disagree about driverless trains.
This does not mean everyone is on board, unfortunately. I can’t tell what exactly goes on at the MTA; clearly, there are some people there who are unhappy, although I can’t tell who except in the broadest, least certain outline. In politics, I will say that the people I’ve talked to are not nearly as well-known or powerful as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the staff of Pete Buttigieg.
The 8 pm talk was much less formal and was just me in front of a crowd of about 25 that was more advocacy-oriented. It was from the start the secondary event, designed for people who would like to come but couldn’t make it during business hours. I expected 12 people and got 25, with an awkward signup process at the lobby of the building, for which I am grateful to security for being understanding. I managed to possess the AV system in the room with the help of an audience member and share my screen to showcase some more examples and talk more about our report, but there was no recording.
Audience questions covered a variety of topics: the applicability of our work to California High-Speed Rail (I went on a long rant about the problems of early commitment), how the different factors mentioned in the link at the start of this post interact, what the role of utilities is, etc.
A more interesting question, which I didn’t immediately have an answer to, was what advocates can do about it. People don’t vote based on subway construction costs, or at least not directly. I did bring up the political popularity of mani pulite and the anti-corruption reforms in Italy that have helped bring down costs, and, echoing more experienced activists who I’d asked, recommended that people raise the issue with their state legislator, member of City Council, or mayor if they’re in an inner suburb and not the city. In an American context, there is no criminal corruption that we’ve found, unlike in Italy in the 1970s and 80s, but instead of mani pulite, a popular process for making government more efficient is viable. Even people whose entire political career is built on wrecking the ability of the state to do anything talk about how It’s Time to Build or about Getting to Yes.
I want to say I’m optimistic based on what we saw, but not everything has gone as smoothly, and there are people in powerful positions who should not have them – they just didn’t show up this time. So we’ll see; I’ll know much more at the end of the year.
Who Learns from Who?
My interactions with Americans in the transit industry, especially mainline rail, repeatedly involve their telling me personally or in their reports that certain solutions are impossible when they in fact happen every day abroad, usually in countries that don’t speak English. When they do reference foreign examples, it’s often shallow or even wrong; the number of times I’ve heard American leftists attribute cost differences to universal health care abroad (in most of these countries, employers still have to pay health benefits) is too high to count. Within the US, New York stands head and shoulders above the rest in its incuriosity. This is part of a general pattern of who learns from who, in which the US’s central location in the global economy and culture makes it collectively stupid.
Some learning is symmetric. The Nordic countries learn from one another extensively. The Transit Costs Project’s Sweden case study has various references in the literature to such comparisons:
- Eliasson-Börjesson-Odeck-Welde compare Sweden and Norway in the use of benefit-cost analyses for road projects.
- Smith-Sochor-Sarasini compare Sweden and Finland in Mobility as a Service.
- The Finnish transport ministry compares Finland’s public transport system with those of the other Nordic countries and a selection of other Northern European countries.
- The Nordic Council of Ministers has long worked on pan-Nordic horizontal ties; here is its report on investment in transport infrastructure.
- Södrström-Schulman-Ristimäki compare Stockholm and Helsinki’s urban forms.
- Nilsson-Nyström benchmark Sweden’s privatization of maintenance to Finland, the Netherlands, and Britain.
- LO’s report on labor rights and repression in Swedish tunnel projects compares the situation to that of Norway (where immigrant workers readily join unions) and Denmark (where they do at much lower rates, albeit higher than Sweden’s).
This goes beyond transportation. People in the four mainland Nordic states constantly benchmark their own national performance to that of the other three on matters like immigration, education, energy, corona, and labor. This appears in the academic literature to some extent and is unavoidable in popular culture, including media and even casual interactions that I had in two years of living in Sweden. Swedes who criticize their country’s poor handling of the corona crisis don’t compare it with Taiwan or South Korea but with Norway. Likewise, Swedes who think of a country with open hostility to immigration think of Denmark rather than, say, the United States, Italy, or Lithuania.
Other macro regions exist, too, with similar levels of symmetric learning. The German-speaking world features some of this as well: the advocacy group ProBahn has long championed learning from Switzerland and Austria, and the current Deutschlandtakt plan for intercity rail is heavily based on both Swiss practice and the advocacy of ProBahn and other technically adept activists. Switzerland, in turn, developed its intercity rail planning tradition in the 1980s and 1990s by adopting and refining German techniques, taking the two-hour clockface developed in 1970s Germany under the brand InterCity and turning it into a national investment strategy integrating infrastructure construction with the hourly timetable.
This, as in the Nordic countries, goes beyond transport. Where Swedes’ prototype for hostility to immigrants is Denmark, Germans’ is Austria with its much more socially acceptable extreme right.
Most of the learning from others that we see is not symmetric but asymmetric: one place learns from another but not vice versa, in a core-periphery pattern. Countries and cities prefer to learn from countries that are bigger, wealthier, and culturally more dominant than they are. In our Istanbul case, we detail how the Turks built up internal expertise by bringing in consultants from Italy, Germany, and France and using those experiences to shape new internal practices.
In Europe, the biggest asymmetry is between Southern and Northern Europe. Few Spaniards, Italians, and Turks believe that their respective countries build higher-quality infrastructure than Germans – some readily believe that the costs are lower but assume it must be lower quality rather than higher efficiency. The experts know costs are low, but anything better from Northern Europe or France penetrates into Southern European planning with relative ease. It didn’t make it to the infrastructure-focused Italian case, but Marco Chitti documents how the German clockface schedule is now influencing Italian operations planning, for example here and here on Twitter. Spain’s high-speed rail infrastructure provides another example: it was deeply influenced by France in the 1990s, including the idea of building it, the technical standards and the (unfortunate) operating practices, but the signaling system is more influenced by Germany.
In contrast, in the other direction, there is little willingness to learn. Nordic capital planners and procurement experts cite other Northern European examples (in and out of Scandinavia) as cases to learn from but never Southern European or French ones. The same technically literate German rail activists who speak favorably of Swiss planning look down on French high-speed rail, and one American ESG investor even assumed Italy is falsifying its data. In the European core-periphery model, the North is the core and the South and East are the periphery, and the core will not learn from the periphery even where the periphery produces measurably better results.
Domestically, it’s often the case that smaller cities learn from larger ones in the same country. Former Istanbul Metropolitan staff members were hired by the state, and many staff and contractors went on to build urban rail projects in Bursa, İzmir, and Mersin. In France, RATP acts as consultant to smaller cities, which do not have in-house capacity for metro construction, and overall there is obvious Parisian influence on how such cities build their urban rail. In Italy, Metropolitana Milano has acted as consultant to other cities. This is the primary mechanism that makes construction costs so uniform within countries and within macro regions like Scandinavia.
In this core-periphery model, the Anglosphere is the global core, the United States views itself as its core (Britain disagrees but only to some extent), and New York is the core of the core. New Yorkers respond to any invocation of another city or country with “we are not [that country],” and expect that their audience will believe that New York is superior; occasionally they engage in negative exceptionalism, but as with positive exceptionalism, it exists to deflect from the possibility of learning.
This asymmetry may not be apparent in transportation – after all, Europe and Asia (correctly) feel like they have little to learn from the United States. But on matters where the United States is ahead, Europeans and Asians notice. For example, the US military is far stronger than European militaries, even taking different levels of spending into account – and Europeans backing an EU army constantly reference how the US is more successful due to scale (for examples, here, here, and here). Likewise, in rich Asia, corporations at least in theory are trying to make their salaryman systems more flexible on the Western model, while so little learning happens in the other direction that at no point did Europe or the US seriously attempt to imitate Taiwan’s corona fortress success or the partial successes of South Korea and Japan.
In this schema, it is not surprising that New York (and the United States more generally) has the highest construction costs in the world, and that London has among the highest outside the United States. Were New York and London more institutionally efficient than Italian cities, Italian elites would notice and adapt their practices, just as they have begun to adapt German practices for timetabling and intermodal integration.
On the surface, Americans do learn from the periphery. There are immigrant planners at American transit agencies. There’s some peer learning, even in New York – for example, New York City Transit used RATP consultants to help develop the countdown clocks, which required some changes to how train control works. And yet, most of this is too shallow to matter.
What I mean by “shallow” is that the learning is more often at the level of a quip comment, with no followup: “[the solution we want] is being used in [a foreign case],” with little investigation into whether it worked or is viewed positively where it is used. Often, it’s part of a junket trip by executives who hoard (the appearance of) knowledge an refuse to let their underlings work. Two notable examples are ongoing in Boston and the Bay Area.
In Boston, the state is making a collective decision not to wire the commuter rail network. Instead, there are plans to electrify the network in small patches, using battery trains with partial wiring; see here and follow links for more background. Battery-electric trains (BEMUs) exist and are procured in European examples that the entire Boston region agrees are models for rail modernization, so in that sense, this represents learning. But it’s purely superficial, because nowhere with the urban area size of Boston or the intensity of its peak commuter rail traffic are BEMUs used. BEMUs trade off higher equipment cost and lower performance for lower infrastructure costs; they’re used in Germany on lines that run an hourly three-car train or so, whereas Massachusetts wants to foist this solution on lines where peak traffic is an eight-car train every 15 minutes.
And in San Jose, the plan for the subway is to use a large-diameter bore, wide enough for two tracks side-by-side as well as a platform in between, to avoid having to either mine station cavern or build cut-and-cover stations. This is an import from Barcelona Metro Lines 9 and 10, and agency planners and consultants did visit Barcelona to see how the method works. Unfortunately, what was missing in that idea is that L9 is by a large margin Spain’s most expensive subway per kilometer, and locally it is viewed as a failure. In Rome, the same method was studied and rejected as too risky to millennia-old monuments, so the most sensitive parts of Metro Line C use mined stations at very high costs by Italian standards. Barcelona’s use case – a subway built beneath a complex underground layer of older metro lines – does not apply to San Jose, which is building its first line and should build its stations cut-and-cover as is more usual.
No such superficiality is apparent in the core examples of both symmetric and asymmetric learning. Swedes, Danes, Finns, and Norwegians are acutely aware of the social problems of one another, and will not propose to adopt a system that is locally viewed as a failure. At most, they will propose an import that is locally controversial, with the same ideological load as at its home. In other words, if a Swede (or more generally a Western European) proposes to import a solution from another European country that is in its home strongly identified with a political party or movement, it’s because the Swede supports the movement at home. This can include privatization, cancellation of privatization, changes to environmental policy, changes to immigration policy, or tax shifts.
This includes more delicate cases. In general the US and UK are viewed as inegalitarian Thatcherite states in Sweden, so in most cases it’s the right that wants to Anglicize government practice. But when it comes to monetary policy, it was Stefan Löfven who tried to shift Riksbank policy toward a US-style dual mandate from the current single mandate for price stability, which the left views as too austerian and harsh toward workers; globally the dual mandate is viewed as more left-wing and so it was the Swedish left that tried to adopt it.
In contrast, in superficial learning, the political load may be the opposite of what it is in its origin country, because the person or movement who purport to want to import it are ignorant of and incurious about its local context. Thus, I’ve seen left-wing Americans proposing education reforms reinvent the German Gymnasium system in which the children of the working class are sent to vocational schools, a system that within Germany relies on the support of the middle-class right and is unpopular on the left.
Individual versus collective knowledge
Finally, I want to emphasize that the issue is less about individual knowledge and learning than about collective knowledge. Individual Americans are not stupid. Many are worldly, visit other countries regularly and know how things work there, and speak other languages as heritage learners or otherwise. But their knowledge is not transmitted collectively. Their peers view it at best as a really cool hobby rather than a key skill, at worst as a kind of weirdness.
For example, an American planner who speaks Spanish because they are a first- or second-generation Hispanic immigrant is not going to get a grant to visit Madrid, or for that matter Santo Domingo, and form horizontal ties with planners and engineers there to figure out how to build at low Spanish or Dominican costs. Their peers are not going to nudge them to tell them more about Hispanic engineering traditions and encourage them to develop their interests. American culture writ large does not treat them as benefiting from bicultural ties but instead treats them as deficient Americans who must forget the Spanish language to assimilate; it’s the less educated immigrants’ children who maintain the Spanish language. In this way, it’s not too different from how Germany treats Turks as a social problem rather than as valuable bicultural ambassadors to a country with four times Germany’s housing production and one third its metro construction costs.
Nor is experience abroad valued in planning or engineering, let alone in politics. A gap year is a fun experience. Five years of work abroad are the mark of a Luftmensch rather than valued experience on a CV, whereas an immigrant who comes with foreign work experience will almost universally find this experience devalued.
Even among the native-born, the standard pipelines through which one expresses interest in foreign ideas are not designed for this kind of learning. The United States most likely has the strongest academic programs in the world for Japanese studies, outside Japan itself. Those programs are designed to critique Japanese society, and Israeli military historian of Japanese imperialism Danny Orbach has complained that from reading much of the critical theory work on the country one is left to wonder how it could have ever developed. It goes without saying such programs do not prepare anyone to adapt the successes of the big Japanese cities in transportation and housing.
This, as usual, goes beyond transportation. I saw minimal curiosity among Americans in the late 2000s about universal health care abroad, while a debate about health care raged and “every rich country except the US has public universal health care” was a common and wrong line among liberals. Individual Americans and immigrants to the US might be able to talk about the French or Japanese or Israeli or Ghanaian health care system, but nobody would be interested to hear except their close friends; political groups they were involved with would shrug that off even while going off about the superiority of those countries’ health care (well, not Ghana’s, but all of the other three for sure, in ignorance of Israel’s deep problem with nosocomial infections, responsible for 9-14% of the national death rate).
The result is that while individual Americans can be smart, diligent, and curious, collectively the United States is stupid, lazy, and ignorant on every matter that other parts of the world do better. This is bad in public transportation and lethal in those aspects of it that use mainline rail, where the US is generations behind and doesn’t even know where to start learning, let alone how to learn. It’s part of a global core-periphery model in which Europe hardly shines when it comes to learning from poorer parts of Europe or from non-Western countries, but the US adds even more to that incuriosity. Within the US, the worst is New York, where even Chicago is too suspect to learn from. No wonder New York’s institutions drifted to the point that construction costs in the city are 10 times higher than they can be, and nearly 20 times as high as absolute best practice.
What Does Pete Buttigieg Think the US has to Teach the World?
On the 27th, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announced the creation of a new program called Momentum, to export what he calls best practices around the world. Buttigieg said he invites global civil society to engage with USDOT, linking to the Momentum website – not so that the US can learn from the rest of the world, but so that the rest of the world can learn from the United States on matters of transportation and climate change.
It’s remarkable that the areas covered by Momentum are consistently ones on which the only thing to learn from the United States is what not to do. There are seven target areas: transport infrastructure projects, climate change mitigation, transport safety, regional corridors, logistics supply chains, emerging tech (e.g. smart cities), good regulatory practices.
That the US has the world’s worst urban rail construction costs is just the beginning. Climate change, so central to this plan, is another example of American failure; Wikipedia’s list has the US near the top in CO2 emissions per capita, and the US is lagging in not just decarbonizing transport, which the entire developed world is failing at, but also in installing renewable energy (or nuclear power). Transport safety is almost always better in rich countries than in poor ones, but in 2018 the US had the highest per capita car accident death rate in the developed world, and rates rose during corona (in Germany, they fell). The supply chain issues in the US are often localized to the one country – the baby formula shortage is worse than in Europe. Good regulatory practices are to be learned from countries with strong apolitical civil service apparatuses, and not from the US, with its grabbing-hand regulators and government by lawsuit.
There is approximately one thing the US has to teach other countries, but it’s nowhere within USDOT’s portfolio: people who are familiar with the history of infrastructure construction in the early 20th century, when it was labor-intensive because everything was labor-intensive then by today’s standards, should teach these methods to countries with similar GDP per capita to Gilded Age and Progressive Era America, like India or Nigeria, so that they can use their advantage in low-cost labor and avoid importing expensive machinery or use techniques that only make sense with modern first-world wages.
However, exporting that history requires taking the exact opposite approach of Momentum. Momentum tells other places “you can be like the US!”. The historical approach tells them “your GDP per capita is $5,000, get over your cultural cringe and your tendency toward isomorphic mimicry and think how to get from $5,000 to $20,000.” As it is, any country that participates in the Momentum program is likely to be importing bad practices, including a politicized civil service, anti-housing NIMBYism, slow government that is supposed to protect civil rights and environmental standards but doesn’t, and a can’t-do attitude.
I don’t know where the idea for such a stupid scheme came. I know USDOT was interested in dialog with other countries to learn best practices, but I don’t know how far up that idea went. Not knowing Washingtonian well, I can’t tell from Buttigieg’s language whether his junket trip to Germany impressed him with how public transport here is run. But somewhere in that game of telephone, the notion that the US should learn from other countries turned into that the US should teach other countries, and that’s just wrong.
I’ve heard the Momentum program analogized to having Saudi Arabia export its human rights practices. And this analogy, unfortunately, goes further than intended. It’s not just that Saudi Arabia is a notorious human rights abuser and the US is (among people with comparative knowledge) notorious for the poor state of its transport infrastructure. It’s that Saudi Arabia does in fact export its human rights practices – dictators all over the world are impressed by Mohammed bin Salman and wish they had the ability to murder international journalists with a US green card. Countries with wealth or cultural cachet have soft power like this.
And unfortunately, this is not just hypothetical when it comes to infrastructure. A lot of public transit construction badness originates in the United Kingdom, where the privatization of the state in the late 20th century exerts considerable soft power anywhere that interacts with the London elite. The peripheral Anglosphere learned those practices and has subsequently seen its construction costs explode: Canada, Singapore, and Hong Kong all built subways at reasonable costs until, depending on the country, 15-25 years ago, and in Canada the explosion can be traced to the adoption of bad practices like design-build contracts and poor oversight of consultants. The Nordic countries and France are British-curious as well – the bibliography of the Stockholm cost report, to appear very soon, is replete with papers discussing how Sweden should privatize infrastructure construction and maintenance on the British model, written by the Swedish civil service or by academics who are contracted to do research for it, none questioning whether such privatization is wise.
The US has fortunately not been able to export its own variety of dysfunction so far, which differs in some key ways from the British dysfunction that consultants so often recommend. This is because Americans have been insular in both directions so far; after the failure of programs in the 1960s to create heaven on Earth (and defeat communism) within the span of one presidential administration, the US reduced its global presence, and now it’s much more likely that a poor country seeking infrastructure advice will buy Japanese or Chinese dysfunction (and almost never the positive things in those countries’ infrastructure – Chinese investments in African railways build palatial stations outside city centers, but not actual high-speed rail).
Unfortunately, Momentum seems set up to export this dysfunction after decades of neglect. And even more unfortunately, American dysfunction is worse than British dysfunction and much worse than Japanese or Chinese dysfunction. Japan builds subways domestically for maybe $400 million per km – more in Central Tokyo, less in very suburban areas; Japanese-financed projects elsewhere in Asia, such as the Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh, and Dhaka Metros, are largely elevated, but correcting for that, they’re more expensive, and the mostly-but-not-wholly-underground Dhaka MRT manages to get up to $600 million per km even without such correction. But Los Angeles, San Jose, and Seattle are all worse than this, and New York is worse than all three with its $2 billion/km projects. Far from acknowledging that these are all failures, the Biden administration named San Jose’s Nuria Fernandez as the head of the Federal Transit Administration, and in her capacity as FTA head, Fernandez gave a keynote talk at Eno’s symposium on construction costs that displayed total indifference to the problem and consisted of a litany of excuses.
I hope that nobody should make the mistake of participating in the Momentum program. USDOT should take it down and replace its pretense of teaching the world with the humility of learning from it. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law touted by Buttigieg in the video spends tens of billions on urban mass transit and tens more on intercity rail. Done right – that is, done not in the American way – it can create amazing things for American transportation and set up a success that will leave Americans wanting more and then going ahead and building more. But the US needs to lower its head and learn from places that build urban rail for $150 million/km instead of stepping on a soapbox and towering over everyone else.
Quick Note: How to Incentivize Transit-Oriented Development
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.