Israel’s incoming prime minister Benny Gantz unveiled an emergency government, to take power following an upcoming confidence vote in the Knesset. The last two MKs required to give Gantz a 61-59 majority, two members of Gantz’s own Blue and White Party who were previously resolute not to go into coalition supported by the mostly Arab Joint List, relented after Gantz’s controversial attempt to enter a Netanyahu-led emergency unity government stalled due to disagreements over both security and coronavirus policy. Moreover, following revelations of government failures discovered last week by senior B&W MK Ofer Shelah, the new government announced sharp changes in policy toward both the Covid-19 emergency and broader domestic and foreign policy questions.
Of note, a major reshuffle in the state budget is expected. Some details are forthcoming, but short- and long-term reductions in settlement subsidies are expected. Moreover, reductions in subsidies to yeshiva students have been announced, delayed by a year due to the magnitude of the crisis within the Haredi community, which has 10% of Israel’s population but about half of Covid-19 hospitalization cases. Finally, a review of military procurement will be done due to the influence of the indicted Netanyahu on the process, but analysts expect that with so many former generals in the new government, including former IDF chief of staff Gantz himself, few real cuts to the IDF are forthcoming.
In lieu of these cuts, the new government is announcing a massive infrastructure investment program, funded partly by deficit spending to limit unemployment. Incoming health minister Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List, a medical doctor by training, promised that budget increases will invest in hospital capacity and hygiene, raise the wages of staff from doctors down to cleaning staff, and buy personal protective equipment (PPE) in sufficient quantities for universal mask-wearing. Outside health, energy and transportation are both on the list of budgetary winners. In energy, the collapse of the consortium of Yitzhak Tshuva and Noble Energy managing Israel’s natural gas reserves and the falling prices of solar power mean the state will invest in thermal solar power plants in the desert. In transportation, an infrastructure plan will invest in additional urban public transit capacity.
The situation of transportation is particularly instructive, because of the political element involved. Throughout most of the past 11 years of Netanyahu’s coalitions, the transport minister was the same politician, Yisrael Katz of Netanyahu’s Likud; Katz prioritized highway investments with some rail, and was viewed as the least controversial of Likud’s heavyweight politicians, many of whom find themselves embroiled in scandal following last month’s election. Nonetheless, to signify a break with the past, the new government is giving the transportation portfolio to Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the leftist Meretz party who has called for expansion of public transportation.
While car ownership in Israel is low, this is the result of car taxes and high poverty rates. Activists at Meretz, B&W, and the right-wing secular Yisrael Beitenu party all pointed out to religious laws banning public transportation and other services from running on Saturdays, promising to repeal them within months. Meretz activists as well as independent analysts expect everyday public transportation to encourage people to give up driving and rely on buses and trains more even on weekdays, requiring additional investment to cope with capacity.
Another political element identified by sources within B&W who spoke anonymously is that residents of Tel Aviv and most of its inner suburbs have long felt stiffed by state infrastructure plans; last decade, Mayor Ron Huldai clashed with Katz, demanding a subway in dense, upper middle-class North Tel Aviv. Meretz is especially strong in North Tel Aviv. However, Horowitz said that his priority was socioeconomic equality, and while he did favor subway expansion in and around Tel Aviv and would accelerate construction of the Green Line through North Tel Aviv, the budget would boost rail construction in working-class southern and eastern suburbs.
Several MKs at the Joint List added that there would also be additional funding for connections to the centers of Arab cities. One plan calls for a tunnel through Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab-majority city, which would connect it with Tel Aviv and other larger Jewish cities while also functioning as a regional rail link for the majority-Arab Galilee region. Towns too small to justify a direct rail link would get a bus to the nearest train station on the same fare system with a timed connection. One Meretz member explained, “in unbroken countries of similar size to ours, like Switzerland and the Netherlands, bus and train planning is coordinated nationally and there is no conception that buses are for poor people and trains for rich people.” Members of both Meretz and the Joint List added that there had long been underinvestment in Arab areas, calling past policies racist and vowing to correct them.
Sources at B&W stressed that there’s short and long term. In the short term, the priority will remain the coronavirus crisis, and the state will go into a large deficit in order to invest in health care and limit the death toll. Additional spending on other infrastructure will focus on planning, so that the state can begin construction after the crisis is long over, and will be funded by reducing yeshiva funding; B&W and Yisrael Beitenu plans to also reduce child credits, as Haredi families are larger than secular ones, have stalled due to opposition by the Joint List, as Arab families are poor and larger than secular Jewish ones too.
While Gantz himself stressed the pragmatic aspects of the plan, sources close to him mentioned the spirit of the 1990s. Negotiations with the Palestinians will resume shortly, they promised, and a two-state compromise will be worked out. They further promise that the peace dividend will allow Israel to grow through closer trade ties with the Arab world and reduced ongoing security spending. But other sources within the new coalition are more skeptical, pointing out Gantz and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s trenchant opposition to dismantling most settlements as a red line that may scuttle future negotiations.
Nonetheless, all sources agree that a clear change in foreign and domestic policy is coming. The more skeptical sources say that the end result will be a shift in domestic spending building a more expansive urban rail network and higher-quality health care. But the more idealistic ones are saying that a new Middle East is coming, one in which a thriving Israel will be at the center, with world-class public infrastructure and private entrepreneurship.
One frustrating thing coming from telling Americans to be more like democratic Asia, or even more like Europe, is that it is a) a political claim, that b) doesn’t neatly map onto partisanship or even intra-partisan political factions. Demographically, it appeals to more educated people, and to people who identify with more educated political movements (which in the US is solidly the left half of the spectrum), but ideologically, it doesn’t hit the main political cleaves well.
I want to emphasize that the fact that Asia is Asia rather than a neat image of any Western political faction is not by itself why Asian ideas don’t percolate to the West in time. Of note, the Nordic countries specifically have implemented most of the agenda of the center-left in the English-speaking world, and are economically successful. Canadian interest in importing Nordic policy ideas is limited, and American interest is even smaller, confined just to platitudes about health care followed by proposals developed without any curiosity as to how the health care system in Nordic countries actually works. That said, American interest in importing Asian ideas is noticeably even more limited than in importing Scandinavian ones, and European interest is very weak as well. So this lack of ideological load definitely plays a role.
Let us list some relevant public policy practices in South Korea, based on major Western political cleaves. Taiwan and Japan are fairly similar in most though by no means all respects; I bring up Korea for the prosaic reason that I have more reliable immigration data there, whereas in Japan the figure tracked is foreign nationals (excluding naturalized citizens) rather than all foreign-born residents.
Labor: unions exist and go on strike, especially the historically anti-militaristic-regime KCTU (there was extensive industrial action in the early 1990s), but overall union density is low, only 10%, and a total of only 12% of workers are subject to collective bargaining. The effective minimum wage is around $10/hour, average to above average by first-world standards and very high relative to labor productivity ($40/hour, cf. $60-75 in the US and European core).
Government spending and inequality: government spending is among the lowest in the OECD, 30% of GDP at all levels combined. Inequality is somewhat above OECD average but not unusually so and is well below American levels; there appears to be extensive predistribution, that is compressed pre-tax incomes, which is also the case in Switzerland and Japan, whereas in (for example) the Nordic countries pre-tax inequality is high but an extensive welfare state brings after-tax-and-transfers inequality down to low levels.
Military and foreign policy: there is conscription for men, and the military is 2.6% of GDP, more than most NATO members (though less than the US). Foreign policy oscillates between strict Atlanticism under right-wing governments, which the liberals criticize as obsequious to the US, and something like Ostpolitik but toward the North under liberal ones, which the right criticizes as obsequious to China and North Korea.
Immigration and race: only 5% of the population is foreign-born, and much of that is ethnic Koreans migrating from China. But the immigration rate is rising steadily – per Wikipedia the rate is up by about 0.3% of the population per year in the 2010s, slightly more than the growth in the US in 1990-2015, which averaged about 0.25% (cf. 2010-9 Sweden at 0.54%). Immigrants do not naturalize easily, and their children have no automatic right to Korean citizenship. There is extensive racism against Chinese people, who form about half of immigrants to Korea by citizenship (less by ethnicity), especially from the political right.
Feminism and gay rights: there is no gay marriage, open gay service in the military, or a national anti-discrimination law, but the last one exists in many cities, including Seoul. Sex reassignment surgeries have onerous conditions (minimum age of 20, no children), but ID change is subsequently allowed. Women face one of the most severe gender gaps in the developed world, and have low labor force participation, though in the 25-29 age group the rates are practically equal.
Environmentalism: greenhouse gas emissions per capita are on the high side by Western European standards, but low by North American or Australian ones. Electricity comes from coal and nuclear power, but the liberal president wants to replace both with natural gas. Transportation policy discouraged car ownership until the 1980s, and has since involved extensive construction of all infrastructure, specifically building a huge rapid transit network in Seoul and sizable ones in the secondary cities; motorization stands at just below 500 vehicles (not just cars) per 1,000 people, one of the lower figures in the developed world, but rising at 2.5-3% per year.
Crime: the crime rate is very low. A Google search for killings by police finds a mass shooting in 1982 but nothing recent; Wikipedia’s list by country has no Korean data but gives a fairly low rate for Taiwan by European standards (let alone American ones) and an extremely low one for Japan. There is capital punishment on the books and a large number of condemned, but in practice it is no longer used. The incarceration rate is normal by Western European standards (and low by American ones) relative to population.
What this means
To the person who wants to understand where democratic Asia shines (public cleanliness standards, math education, transit-oriented development, metro-regional rail integration), it doesn’t mean much. Success is success. There’s no real connection between how a country does TOD and (say) whether it has gay marriage, a practice that did not exist in any country until 19 years ago. There isn’t even much connection with cultural aspects of high-income Asia that are not exactly about political cleaves, such as the long working hours among salaried professionals or the high social distance between hierarchs and subordinates.
However, all these differences provide ample excuses for people who do not want to understand. I have noticed for a few years that most (though not all) Americans denigrate Germany politically either way, liberals viewing Germany as a land of austerity and conservatives viewing it as a land of open immigration rather than the reverse. This exists in Asia in much greater intensity: it is sexist, racist, closed to immigrants, and stiffly hierarchical – or bureaucratic, unitarist, anti-gun, hostile to small business, and stiffly hierarchical. Who wants to learn from that? Free Westerners don’t need to learn from Asiatic despots and their hiveminds, never mind recent anti-authoritarian mass movements in South Korea and Hong Kong or the state of civil liberties in Japan.
The lack of partisan load within Western politics means that small-minded people who have little interest in learning can easily excuse their disinterest. No broad political movement will say “let’s learn from Korea” because Korean government policy and practice do not match any Western movement well. For the same reason there is no learning from France or Germany in the Anglosphere; from Scandinavia there is a little, but it’s halting, stymied by the lack of a dedicated social democratic party that can propose a coherent program.
In such an environment, learning from elsewhere is a powerful tool, but not for broad party politics, which is how most people politically identify. Rather, it can be used in the following more limited ways:
- By civil servants, bureaucrats, and issue activists who are not formally affiliated to a political faction. (Of note, TransitMatters is pretty heavily Democratic, but Massachusetts is not a state with much interpartisan competition, nor one with coherent factions within the Democratic legislative caucus.)
- By politicians promising a specific solution on a specific issue, which from time to time does happen in the United States with respect to Europe, just not Asia (for example, YIMBYs in the Bay Area are trying to import the building typology of historic Continental city centers, relying on pleasant connotations of these cities among Americans who visited them as tourists).
- As a potential toolkit, especially for people who identify as worldly or educated, without a direct political load. The analog here is that Nordic countries learn from one another at all times, across the entire political spectrum, which means that a left-loaded policy in one Nordic country will inspire the left in the others while acting as a cautionary tale to avoid for the right and vice versa. No such learning happens from Asia anywhere I’ve seen in the West, not in mass politics – when was the last time an American politician, or an American pundit not named Matt Yglesias, pointed to high housing growth rates in Japan and South Korea and said “let’s be like that”?
Is there a future for learning from other places?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve said in interviews that one of my motivating examples for this blog was Ezra Klein’s international comparisons of health care systems in 2005, which he called The Health of Nations. He covered a few countries, writing maybe 2 pages about each, but with American health costs high and rising, this was enough to raise him to superstardom. I’d already been thinking comparatively before because that’s how Israelis think with their cultural cringe, but 2005-6 was when I finally saw an American do that and succeed.
Of course, The Health of Nations was in an extremely politically-loaded context – all countries Ezra surveyed have universal health care paid mostly (but never exclusively) by the government. Moreover, in 2007-9, the work done that created Obamacare was purely domestic, with little interest in the details of implementation in peer countries, such as the Jospin cabinet’s universal health care bill from 2000 or the second Rabin administration’s from 1995.
And yet. I think a comparative approach has a future, looking both at politically-loaded countries like Sweden and unloaded ones like Korea. Just as the fact that American health care expenses reached about 15% of GDP in the mid-2000s while the rest of the first world was happy with about 9% motivated the efficiency arguments behind The Health of Nations, the fact that New York can’t expand the subway and other American cities can barely build any transit motivates looking into countries that are capable of building better infrastructure. Similarly, the total lack of a good example of transit-oriented development in the United States (though not in Canada – Vancouver is pretty good), with accordant rent explosions in just about every urban neighborhood with sidewalks and a semi-reasonable crime rate, is motivating YIMBYism.
Fundamentally, the slave learns the master’s language but not the reverse. The US, so long the self-styled master of the world, is slowly learning to live in a world in which it cannot look down on everyone else. It’s taking at least a generation, possibly two, but a growing minority of Americans notice this – they notice that other countries are sometimes better, and that there is nothing in American history that they can look back to wistfully, forcing a forward and sideways look.
The US Census Bureau has just released 2019 population estimates by county. Metro New York, after slowly rising for decades more than making up the 1970s losses, went down by 60,000 people, or 0.3% of the population. The city is down 53,000 people.
The city chooses stagnation and ignorance. In the 1970s, the city was losing an average of 80,000 people per year, but the situation now is profoundly different. Incomes are up: the metro area’s per capita income as a proportion of the US average went from 126% in 1970 to 118% in 1980; but more recently it went from 135% in 2010-5 to 141% in 2018, the last year for which the BEA has data. Crime is down, the murder rate falling below the national average starting in 2013. Rent is up, sending a strong signal: more people want to live here.
But the entire political constellation of the city chooses not to grow. Housing growth is anemic, permits averaging around 21,000 per year in 2010-9, maybe 2.6 per 1,000 New York residents. It accelerated over the decade but not by much, reaching 26,500 in 2019, or 3.2/1,000. In the in-state suburbs, growth is even lower, less than 1 unit per 1,000 in each of Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties. New Jersey has somewhat higher growth rate, around 4/1,000, thanks to the Mount Laurel doctrine requiring high-cost municipalities to approve some affordable housing, which they typically do in the most out-of-the-way place they can find. The metro area overall approves about the same amount of housing as the city proper, around 2.5/1,000.
The most recent data I have for Korea is from the first half of 2019. In six months, Seoul, a shrinking city of 9.5 million, approved 38,000 dwellings, and the metro area writ large approved 129,000 on a population of about 26 million, an annualized rate of 10/1,000 (less in the city, more in the suburbs). This is a suburbanizing region, but suburbanization often means moving to a planned new town built on top of a subway or commuter rail line, like Ilsan, Bundang, and Anyang.
It’s not Tokyo that has high housing growth. It’s Tokyo, and Seoul, and to a lesser extent the metro area of Taipei (more suburbs than city proper), and Paris. In the presence of a strong economy and a state that doesn’t choose stagnation the way rich American regions choose with local empowerment, housing growth in a large city should be high, as more people want to move there to take advantage of its higher incomes and opportunities.
But New York chose differently. It chose stagnation and eventually decline. It chose to be expensive.
Why are they like this?
The US has an unusual system of governance, in which not only is there a separation of federal and state governments, as in Germany or Canada or Australia or Switzerland, but also the states delegate unusual powers to local governments. Education, policing, and housing are largely local responsibilities. Even when states do get involved, there is usually no partisan competition (most states are safe), leading to empowerment of local representatives on what are considered local issues, and even when there is people vote based on national issues.
But even that raises questions. For example, why do locals consider new development bad? Even YIMBY activists let NIMBYs whip them into thinking this way – they talk about sharing the burden, as if new buildings and new people are a burden that everyone must endure for some grand moral reason.
What if the reason people take it for granted that growth is bad is that the people who are most locally empowered are a specific anti-growth lobby? People who work for a living don’t have time to go to a citizen engagement meeting at 3 in the afternoon. They work and socialize with people from other neighborhoods, so they have little interest in neighborhood rags that report individual counts of parking spaces lost to a bus lane. They are far more interested in job growth than in hobby community gardens. A political system that requires very high levels of local social capital for one’s opinions to count will naturally undervalue their opinions and overvalue those of idle people and professional intermediaries.
The high levels of Covid-19 infection in New York are part of this system. The specific cause is not hyperlocalism, but rather the murky authority of the state. The city is plagued by the feud between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo. Both enjoy unlimited executive power, I think Cuomo more so than de Blasio. Both need it for their higher political aspirations. But neither can have it while the other exists as an independent political entity, nor is there a clear delineation of state and local authority. Thus, they are obligated to sabotage each other’s ideas, to the detriment of the city that has the misfortune to be governed by them. The entire West delayed its reaction to the virus, but New York especially so, as Cuomo and de Blasio tried denying each other credit.
I’ve been writing a lot about the role of incuriosity in high construction costs in the English-speaking world in general, and New York in particular – see for example this recent coronavirus-tainted piece, or this more random piece about Metro-North’s executives’ ignorance.
But this can apply more generally, as it did to the virus. Americans are quite provincial when it comes to the rest of the world, and New Yorkers especially so – go ahead, try telling a New Yorker that some other city does something better than New York. The out-of-town comparison, a powerful tool that places that view themselves as more peripheral (like Israel) use to correct errors, dos not work in a place like New York. New York literally made the collective decision to die and not to learn from the rest of the world. Mass death is not making New Yorkers demand the immediate removal of their mass manslaughterers who are their governor and mayor; why would a dip in population?
Part of it is related to local empowerment. Acquiring local social capital comes at the expense of worldliness; those years one spends learning foreign languages, living abroad, and socializing with foreigners are dead years for most political ambitions, including all ambitions that start locally.
But an even greater part of it is that New York self-perceives as the center of the world, which is not true elsewhere. Korea self-flagellates all the time: about its legal system (it adopted a limited jury system in 2009), about its engineering (see e.g. here), about its elevated air pollution levels (it’s adopting EU standards). The United States instead views all variations with the rest of the world as evidence of America’s unique greatness, and New York does the same both internationally and domestically. The city brims with immigrants, and yet it tells them, your home country is deficient and you must become a real New Yorker, that is someone whose world does not extend past city limits, to be a whole person. Until that changes, the government of New York will remain managed by dregs and incompetents and housing, transportation, and as we see health care will earn the mockery of other big first-world cities.
Entrenched hierarchies do not like outside criticism, especially when it’s right. They fight off knowledge that they don’t have or can’t control. In a business setting, the main way out is to found a competing company and drive the one that won’t change out of business. But when it’s not possible, the way out involves a massive crisis – something like a total war, in which people can rapidly rise through the ranks through demonstrating success in battle.
I bring this up because the coronavirus crisis in not such a total war. Branko Milanovic compares it with World War Two, contrasting economists who view it purely as an economic crisis akin to the 2008 crisis or the Depression. That comparison is apt when it comes to looking at non-economic aspects of it, namely the need to centrally plan a public health response. But the scale of the crisis is much smaller, it seems. The rich countries of Asia are emerging only somewhat battered, and even in the West some places seem to be over the hump judging by growth rates in the last few days, especially the Nordic countries but possibly also France. This isn’t the next Spanish Flu, a crisis so big that it would force Westerners to reckon with the fact that the West needs to learn from other places. Even in the United States, where things look worse, the solipsistic population looks for internal comparisons (e.g. between blue and red states) more than international ones, let alone international ones with Asia.
A small crisis is not going to nudge the hierarchy in a more open direction. I see this often in public transportation – institutions that feel embattled respond by entrenching and refusing any reform. The standard excuse is “we’re too busy fighting fires,” often by people that fires seem to erupt around regularly. The virus seems to have the same effect so far – less openness, less sanity checking proposals by looking at what works elsewhere, more digging in around traditional social hierarchies.
American nationalists are saber-rattling with the Chinese government, as in the “Chinese virus” dysphemism and Tom Cotton’s blaming the entire death toll on the PRC. But they still do this on the usual American terms, that is without any assurance that Taiwan is a success story to learn from, or even South Korea and Japan, two American allies that unlike Taiwan the US formally recognizes. If a virus that demonstrates to starkly that Taiwan governs itself better than the PRC won’t get American nationalists to start speaking favorably of Taiwan, what will? To people like Cotton, a crisis is a perfect time to proclaim American superiority, no matter what reality is.
Domestically, too, the American response seems to be to repeat old wives’ tales – for example, traditional American hostility to big cities. Governor Andrew Cuomo went as far as saying that New York is too dense; Seoul, a bigger and denser city, has 700 infections as of 2020-3-22 out of a metro population of 26 million, maybe a factor of 20 better than New York. But he’s the governor and he keeps giving speeches and appearing on television, and a few hundred and even a few thousand dead New Yorkers is not enough to make people ask questions about his and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s squabbling. After all, when nearly 3,000 New Yorkers died on 9/11, few asked why Mayor Rudy Giuliani had put the city’s anti-terrorism response center at World Trade Center against the advice of security experts who pointed out the Twin Towers were a likely target; 9/11’s effect on Giuliani’s popularity was an unmixed blessing.
In an environment in which more national pundits say Cuomo is looking presidential than say he should resign in disgrace, it’s unlikely the crisis will lead Americans in a more open direction. The magnitude of the crisis isn’t enough to create a new crop of leaders. It’s a good thing in the sense that the death toll will not be apocalyptic, but it just underscores what I mean when I say this isn’t World War Two.
Budget-cutting administrations, demanding reform before revenue, have not produced any reform. American state building stalled in the middle of the 20th century when various white middle-class interests realized localism could protect them from too much racial and economic equality. Then around the 1980s and 90s it went into reverse, with a continued assault on state capacity through public-private partnerships, outsourcing planning to consultants, and impositions of managers whose experience was in the private sector in unrelated industries. American construction costs were already high beforehand, but in Canada and Singapore, both of which seem to have had the same trend, costs exploded in the 2000s and 2010s.
The question remains: how come the reform-before-revenue mentality never produced any reform?
I bring this up because I believe the answer is the same as what we are seeing right now with the response to the coronavirus crisis. Budget-cutting or timid politicians are not an existential crisis to the civil service. They can scare off ambitious people the way Cuomo ran Andy Byford out of New York City Transit leadership; they can create a hostile work environment; they can force managers to contend with scarcity; they can force the unions to agree to wage reductions for entering workers. But they do not have the power to close entire departments, to stop running schools or public transportation or firefighting entirely, and the managers and workers both know this.
Just as the Covid-19 crisis is not World War Two, all attempts at privatizing the state in the Anglosphere have amounted to much less than a total war of extermination. It’s a cold war. Like the original Cold War, it has the same stupefying effect as a hot war – hierarchs are all too happy to be unaccountable to the broad public and to pretend their cloak-and-dagger politics achieve any results. Unlike a hot war, it is too low-intensity for people who disagree with the hierarchy but are right to demonstrate competence – nor is the other side going to be destroyed at the end.
The construction cost crisis in the United States, particularly New York, might actually be a big enough crisis to have the same effect on the established order as a total war. It’s unclear, but before the virus came to the United States, there was a lot of genuine interest in making things better, though not in every city.
I suspect the mechanism for costs is that they are so high that there must be a significant enough reduction to make a career without screwing some politically necessary constituency. I don’t know; I don’t yet know the drivers of high New York costs in sufficient detail. But the magnitude and breadth of the problem point to many different explanations each increasing costs by a significant but not apocalyptic amount. Moreover, the fact that there must be many causes seems to be accepted in the local political ecosystem. Thus, people can afford to make reforms, perhaps focusing on the politically low-hanging fruits.
This is less cynical than it may sound. A small success story, such as if Ned Lamont had figured out a way to build 30-30-30 or if the MTA manages to noticeably reduce the cost of some project, creates a visible trail of success, creating more pressure to keep the reforms. Nothing succeeds like success.
A New York that can build subways even at $300 million per kilometer, let alone $100 million per kilometer, and builds housing at a pace befitting a rich global city with considerable immigration, is a completely different place from the failed city that it is today. That New York is a dynamic, rapidly growing city in which there is far more kvetching about how it’s sucking in jobs and people from more static places than kvetching about how it’s exporting jobs and people to cheaper places. I’m using analogy here because low costs by themselves do not protect a city from disease (Italy and Switzerland both have low costs and high coronavirus infection levels), but the same kind of public-sector resurgence can presumably be done for public health, ensuring New York will respond to the next pandemic like Seoul or Tokyo or Taipei.
When a city or country decides how to go about solving some problem, it will usually learn from somewhere else – either consciously as a set of best practices, or unconsciously as a sanity check. The “who do you learn from?” question is then what that somewhere else is. This is true of the ongoing corona pandemic, but also of infrastructure, which is why I want to draw this analogy.
In the Covid-19 outbreak, it has become obvious that Western countries do not learn from non-Western ones. I’ve heard people say that high-income Asia has responded better to the crisis before it was used to from the SARS outbreak of 2003. But SARS affected primarily China and Hong Kong, and secondarily Taiwan, Canada, and Singapore. Korea and Japan barely had any cases. And yet, Korea’s response to the crisis has drawn praise for reducing the daily infection rate through aggressive monitoring and testing. Daily growth in Korea is maybe 1%, slower than the rate of recoveries.
There is a clean cleave between rich Asian countries’ response to the virus and Western countries’. It’s not SARS, and it’s not whatever racist mythology Westerners tell themselves about Asian collectivism (in what way is the Hong Kong democracy protest movement collectivist?). What it is, is that Asians are happy to learn from other Asians. SARS normalized mask wearing in high-income Asia as a solution to poor air quality or to a contagious disease, and Koreans and Japanese picked it up from nearby countries.
Europeans and Americans, in contrast, wouldn’t stoop to learn from a civilization they look down. My American Twitter feed talked about the virus somewhat when it was raging mostly in China and then in Korea, but as soon as it hit Italy, most of it transitioned to talking about Italy. The rest of Europe didn’t think it would affect it, and even the strategies for how to deal with it are entirely European. Masks are nowhere to be found, tricks like Korea’s use of disposable chopsticks at elevators to avoid finger-pressing are nowhere to be found, testing capacity is low even in countries with strong civil service and good health care, metro stations and public buildings have no hand sanitizer. If it wasn’t invented here, it isn’t worth implementing, never mind how many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Europeans will die for their civilization’s pride.
I went over a few national or supranational traditions of metro construction around a year to a year and a half ago, covering the United States, the Soviet bloc, and Britain. There are a few more traditions I could go over by popular request – Japanese (with influence across Asia, especially Korea), French, German, Chinese, increasingly Indian. These traditions do not neatly divide the world into spheres of influence – rather, there are places with multiple influences, like a combination of British and Japanese influence in Singapore and Hong Kong, and the Chinese system synthesizing some Soviet principles in addition to engaging in extensive domestic innovation.
I bring this complication up because when it comes to high costs, the Anglosphere seems mainly to learn from the rest of the Anglosphere, and the US almost exclusively from the US (very rarely from Canada and Britain, never from other English-speaking countries).
The Anglosphere shares certain institutions like common law, but Israel uses common law as well, and yet the Israeli rail electrification project’s communications and media coverage constantly emphasized “like Europe,” not like the English-speaking world; when it comes to how to build trains, Israel’s notion of the ideal functioning country is a pan-European medley.
Rather, the shared characteristics in the Anglosphere seem to be that these countries mostly learn from each other. The idea of road pricing was introduced to the world by the Smeed Report in 1962-4, then actually implemented in Singapore in 1975, then failed to make it to Hong Kong, then got back to London in 2003, and only then became a well-known idea in the American discourse. Moreover, in the Bloomberg-era discourse, London figured heavily, and few people mentioned Singapore and Stockholm; subsequently Milan adopted congestion pricing as well, and the American discourse has ignored it just as it has Stockholm.
Certain governance features that seem relevant to construction costs, like the privatization of state planning, are endemic to the Anglosphere. The use of public-private partnerships is widespread, more so than in other developed countries. Planning is routinely outsourced to consultants. What’s more, my vague understanding of Singapore is that for all its supposed state capacity, it’s headed in that direction too, no doubt thinking that if the US and UK are doing something then it must be good.
Obviously the importation of British and American ideas to Singapore has its limits, as we’re seeing now with the outbreak, but this importation remains widespread. In contrast, importation of Continental ideas is limited. One possible explanation is that Singaporeans view the entire West as a single culture, much as Westerners can’t tell Chinese people apart and often group the entirety of Asia together; if you don’t think there’s much of a difference between different European countries, then you will import ideas from the one that speaks English.
Why are they like this?
The West is a solipsistic civilization, and a lot of Europeans and Americans are going to die in the next few months as a result. But within the West, the United States is especially solipsistic. This does not mean it will necessarily fare worse in the outbreak than Europe – the virus reached it later, so it does have more time, measured in perhaps two weeks, to implement social distancing, ramp up testing capacity, and build emergency hospitals to reduce the death rate from infection. More fundamentally, when it comes to learning from Korea and Taiwan, the US isn’t any worse than Europe.
However, the virus is just my motivating example; my actual work is about public transportation, and there, the US is worse, because Europe has good test cases to learn from that other European countries look at and the US does not. I have seen multiple examples of this even among reformers, like the RPA report on construction costs or the GAO one, let alone among state governments (Massachusetts will simply not learn from anything outside North America).
The explanation, I think, has to do with who the process is empowering. Senior management in big American cities does not understand anything about how things work in other countries, nor do the managers have any social relationships with their peers abroad. Domestically, and sometimes even across the northern border, it’s different – a senior manager in New York has gone to national conferences and met peers from Los Angeles and Chicago and Boston and Seattle and probably also Toronto. A best practices effort that’s restricted to North America empowers such managers.
In contrast, a best practices effort that goes global disempowers the most powerful people in politics and the bureaucracy. They are monolingual, so they can’t easily contradict what people say in a report that talks about how things work in Paris or Tokyo or Madrid or Stockholm. They are unlikely to have lived abroad, or if they did, it was so long ago their knowledge is no longer relevant. They have no established relationships with their peers. They are useless in such a process, and they know it.
I was on a diversity panel at Intercon called Gaming as the Other, I believe in 2015. There were me as the immigrant (just about the only 1st-and-not-1.5th-generation immigrant in a community numbering in the low hundreds), a second-generation Chinese-American, and two black Americans. We discussed different issues relevant to this 95% white community, and at some point, someone from the audience asked me a very good question: “Alon, do you feel excluded when we talk about American pop culture references?” I thought about it a little and said no, I can usually fill in the gaps – I don’t feel excluded when the Americans know something I don’t but when I know something they don’t, because I know they will not respect my knowledge. The two black Americans did not connect to this; the Chinese-American did, bringing up a school in Chinatown in Manhattan that split over traditional vs. simplified characters, a distinction few non-Chinese people would understand.
It’s likely that the single biggest institutional barrier to improving public transportation in the United States is not exactly bureaucratic inertia, but rather than the improvements do not tap onto the agreed-upon skillset of the most powerful people. The political appointees are of no use. Some managers are, but not many, especially not at the top levels. At planning agencies it’s often the junior people who are most useful. Why should a manager listen to an underling?
I’ve seen far too many people in the English-speaking world attack Germany repeatedly for its closure of nuclear power plants, for a variety of reasons. So as a public service, I would like to explain why Germany is like this. This may be relevant to other related issues concerning the politics of the green transition, including transportation and urbanism.
Electricity in Germany
There’s easy-to-search data on the electricity mix in Germany by source on Clean Energy Wire and the Working Group on Energy Balance (AGEB); on the latter site, Stromdaten gives the overall mix. In 2019, 40% of German power generation was renewable, and 12% was nuclear. The renewable share of German power consumption was slightly higher, 42.6% – Germany is a net exporter of electricity. The biggest contributor to renewable power is wind, but solar has recently been growing as well. Hydro power counts with renewable energy here, but is not a major factor, as German population density is high, unlike in Canada, Sweden, or Norway.
Over the decade, there was a large reduction in nuclear power generation. Nuclear power generation is down by slightly less than half, and a full phaseout is expected by the end of 2022. This has created a lot of criticism from pro-nuclear advocates as well as from trolls who enjoy attacking Germany, the green movement, and German greens specifically. Here is one typical example, a 2013 Telegraph article warning German economic growth might fall and saying utilities were turning to coal. But coal production fell in absolute numbers even more than nuclear power, down over the decade from 42% to 28%.
Why is Germany like this?
It’s still worth asking, why did Germany cut nuclear production, where it could have instead reduced coal production even further?
The answer can be found in the following Cold War joke:
Q. What is a tactical nuclear weapon?
A. Anything that lands on Germany.
West Germany built some nuclear plants in the 1960s and 70s, as did many other developed countries, like the US and France. But it faced New Left protests early and often, and this has to be understood in the context of the association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. In Japan, such popular opposition happened even earlier, going back to the 1950s; the state kept building nuclear plants anyway, but slowly, without anything like France’s rapid buildup in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis.
Nuclear power advocates get frustrated when people compare nuclear power with nuclear weapons, but peaceful use of nuclear power always involved this association, often by supporters too. In the US, physicists proposed using nuclear bombs for infrastructure purposes. In the 1960s there were plans to use nuclear bombs to built I-40 as well as straighten the Southern Transcon; eventually I-40 was built by conventional means, and the Southern Transcon was not straightened. This was always a solution looking for a problem – the atomic age was the hallmark of modernity, so why not use nukes for more purposes than just war?
In France, too, the reasoning for the buildup of nuclear energy in the 1980s was justified on national security grounds – “in France we have no oil, we have ideas.” Germany and Japan, which do not have the global superpower pretensions of France, did not have the same justification to expand nuclear power at the same time.
Nuclear power and the modern greens: costs
On the eve of the Fukushima plant closures of 2011, German electricity was 23% nuclear, French electricity more than 70%. The origin of this difference is not about modern greens but about whether the national consensus viewed nuclear weapons positively or negatively in the 1970s and 80s, at which time nobody thought climate change was a serious problem.
The 2010s and 20s are not the 1970s and 80s; today, people do understand just how important climate change is as a global environmental problem. The green movement has adapted, if not as radically as pro-nuclear advocates would like. The German environmentalists I talk to either don’t care about nuclear power or are in favor of keeping it around. I tried to explain to the Breakthrough Institute’s Ted Nordhaus that at the big Fridays for Future protest on the 20th of September, there were hundreds of anti-coal power sign and just one anti-nuclear sign, held by people visibly older than most of the millennial and postmillennial attendees; he replied, “Greta is anti-nuclear.”
What is true is that nobody except Breakthrough calls for the construction of new nuclear power. But nuclear power is expensive with modern safety standards, while the costs of renewable energy are falling, those of onshore wind in Germany already lower than those of any other source, even coal. A 2009-11 analysis claims onshore wind costs $1.75-2.40 per watt to install (source, PDF-p. 25). A 2018 comparison within Europe finds a range of €1-1.50/W for onshore wind and perhaps €1.50-2.50 for offshore wind (source, PDF-p. 24), with noticeable correlation between a country’s wind power costs per watt and its urban subway tunneling costs per kilometer. Breakthrough has a cost comparison of nuclear power plant construction, where South Korea, which they praise for its low-cost construction, builds plants for about $2.50/W after PPP adjustment.
The cost comparison suggests strongly that people interested in green energy should be fine with retaining existing nuclear power in the medium term but not call for new capacity – it’s more expensive than renewables.
There are people who are against nuclear power categorically. There are people who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a clash between these two propositions, but it is not a total war. Before Fukushima, German power was 23% nuclear, and nuclear power costs were already higher than wind power costs, so decarbonizing the German electricity sector meant incentivizing more renewable power, not building more nuclear power. Since there was no point in dying on the nuclear hill – it was too small a share of power generation to be worth defending as in France, and too expensive to be worth expanding – the NIMBYs got their wish and nuclear power is being phased out early. Nonetheless, the majority of German electricity is generated by carbon-free sources, and the growth in renewable power has grown its scale to make it economic.
In France, the calculation is different. After Fukushima, there was no chance of a phaseout, only plans to reduce the share of electricity coming from nuclear power from the 70s to 50%. But the Macron administration has extended the lifespan of existing plants and pushed back plans for plant closure. In France, the nuclear power share is high enough because of decisions made in the 1970s and 80s that defending what exists is important, and thus the state can postpone mass installation of solar and wind energy until costs fall further. But in Germany, with an imminent need to install renewable power anyway, the political compromise went in another direction.
The formation of a de facto anti-nuclear political consensus has to be seen in this context. By the time the political system got serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, roughly in the 2000s and 10s, the costs of renewables were more favorable than those of nuclear power. Thus, to people who do distinguish nuclear power from nuclear weapons, think the plants are safe, and harbor no NIMBY opposition to new construction, nuclear power was an acceptable political sacrifice. It wouldn’t be the first choice to close these plants, but as a second choice combined with extensive renewable construction, it was fine.
It’s important to think in terms of goals – decarbonization, improving public health, reducing housing costs, etc. Breaking down these goals further – decarbonizing the power sector, reducing air pollution, etc. – can be desirable for specific solutions. But the goals are still too important for activists to be wedded to a specific solution and convert it from a means to an end. If the relative costs of different solutions change, it’s important to recognize this fact and switch support to the cheaper solution.
In 2011, I wrote a post arguing that international links underperform. I gave examples, using many links nearly all of which have rotted in the 8.5 years since, showing that the ridership on various air and rail city pairs was lower if they were in two different countries than if they were in the same country. The most important example is Eurostar, connecting London and Paris. Eurostar has 11 million passengers per year, of which a growing minority go between London and cities other than Paris, like Brussels and Amsterdam. In contrast, the TGVs from Paris to the southeast have 44.4 million annual passengers; the major secondary cities on the line combine to about half of London’s population. The newly-opened LGV Sud-Europe-Atlantique has 6 million annual passengers on the Paris-Bordeaux city pair alone – and Bordeaux has an order of magnitude fewer inhabitants than London.
My assumption was always that Eurostar’s problem is that it connects two distinct countries, speaking two different languages. Thus, similar international connections, like oft-mooted proposals for high-speed rail between New York or Boston and Montreal or even between New York and Toronto, are likely to severely underperform domestic ones. This is not too relevant to the United States, which is not building high-speed rail of any kind, but is increasingly relevant to Europe, which is slowly building international links. But what if the assumption that the important aspect is the national or linguistic border is incorrect? What if there are other issues on Eurostar and various international air links, which national railroads can choose to solve if they care?
The issue of fares
I fired up Eurostar and SNCF’s sites and looked for tickets departing Tuesday in 13 days. I got 14 trains from London to Paris, charging fares ranging from €52.50 to €144.50. The average is €91.46, and the median is €98.50. From Paris to Lyon, I got 22 regular TGVs (“InOui”), charging €45-97, with an average of €84.63 and a median of €97 – but I also got 5 OuiGo trains, charging €10-25, all but one leaving from Gare de Lyon rather than Marne-la-Vallée with its difficult RER transfer.
On city pairs where SNCF expects more competition than Paris-Lyon, fares are lower, even when trips are longer. Paris-Marseille has 15 regular InOui departures and 8 OuiGos; the InOuis charge €49-79 with an average of €57.33, and the OuiGos charge €10-28, half serving Paris proper and half leaving from Marne-la-Vallée. The OuiGo services overall are unprofitable, but the InOuis aren’t – the Spinetta Report claims the fully-laden cost of TGV service is €0.07/seat-km, and seat utilization is very high (too high, in fact – it’s at the expense of off-peak frequency).
The other international service using the LGV Nord, Thalys, charges high fares as well, if less high than Eurostar. The site shows me 18 departures from Paris to Brussels on the 4th of February; one has a €29 ticket, but the others state that cheap ticket is sold out and offer me €66-99 tickets and one is entirely sold out. Going to Amsterdam, there are 10 departures, charging €98-135. To Cologne, the final of the major cities served by Thalys, there are 5 departures, one with a cheap €35 ticket and the rest charging €76-122. Thalys has 7.5 million annual riders, roughly within the same range relative to metro area population one would expect from Eurostar, depending on what one counts as the metro areas of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Cologne.
I compare Eurostar and Thalys with domestic TGVs not just out of convenience. SNCF owns a majority stake in Eurostar and Thalys. The yield management systems are likely similar, making a comparison of trips on the same day reasonable. In contrast, I would not want to do such a comparison with, say, the Shinkansen, which has no yield management at all and charges the same fare for the same class of seat and train speed.
The consequence of high fares
It’s quite likely, then, that the low ridership on Eurostar is connected with its high fares. Once tickets are expensive enough to discourage price-conscious customers, the ridership profile consists of price-insensitive travelers, making it possible to keep escalating fares.
A 2009 study by Christiaan Behrens and Eric Pels on air-rail competition in the London-Paris market finds that in a nested logit model, Eurostar travelers have a price elasticity of -0.14 to -0.15, compared with about -0.43 out of Heathrow on BA for businesses travelers and -0.77 for leisure travelers. The study compares different airlines and airport choices, with most of the market in the 2000s using Heathrow and either BA or Air France, with Air France having higher elasticity. In a mixed logit model, fare elasticities are all much higher, but Eurostar is still much more inelastic than flying, around -0.50 vs. -1 for business flyers and -2.5 for leisure flyers.
The second link in this post mentions growth in American tourist travel as a reason for Eurostar’s recent growth in ridership. It is not surprising that foreign tourists who paid high fares to travel to Europe and are staying in expensive hotels are a significant source of revenue to Eurostar. Presumably American tourist travel on domestic TGVs is up too, but it is far less significant, first because no secondary French city has the tourism of Paris and London except for Nice, 5.5 hours from Paris by train, and second because the domestic market is strong enough that American tourists are barely a blip on the radar.
Regardless, the elevated American tourist numbers present a peril to the state of the American discourse on the subject, even if they generate much-needed revenue for SNCF. Those tourists then come back to the US talking up the convenience of high-speed rail, or at least the version of it with security theater and passport checks, but bemoan the high ticket prices.
We already see what happens when train trips are priced for the top of the market in the United States. Fares per the 2016 annual report, the most recent one to include this data (on PDF-p. 41), average $0.58/p-km on the Acela and $0.30/p-km on the Regional; per an ARAFER report using 2016 data, the corresponding number for domestic TGVs is €0.10/p-km (PDF-pp. 15, 26). With Amtrak’s cheaper trains charging 2.5 times as much as the TGVs, price-conscious travelers decamp for intercity buses – just as price-conscious Europeans ride FlixBus where train travel options are too slow or too expensive. By now, a decade after Megabus and Bolt entered the market, Amtrak is largely only used by people who are price-insensitive or who get motion-sick on buses.
Why are they like this?
If the problem is that international links underperform because they are expensive, then it raises the question, why are fares high to begin with? SNCF charges high fares on Thalys and Eurostar, but not on its domestic trains. This isn’t just about American tourists – I heard too few American accents when I took Eurostar for Americans to be a big enough proportion of revenue. Nor is this about business travelers, because there are many of these traveling between Paris and other French cities.
Rather, my suspicion is that the difference is political. National railroads offering domestic train service face demands from various interests in different directions: the executives themselves as well as the treasury want to maximize revenue, the government writ large wants to give the appearance of successful service, the public wants cheap travel. The major European national railroads seem to have converged on the same solution: intercity trains are not to receive public subsidy for operations or depreciation, but subject to that constraint they should set fares to maximize ridership rather than revenue. The EU even promotes this policy – its directives on passenger rail competition do not allow state subsidies on routes with competition, but do not mandate revenue-maximizing fares.
The political pressure on international rail services is different. The riders are usually foreigners. There is no populist pressure to keep fares low, even on the many French citizens who ride trains to London and Brussels – on the contrary, any inkling of the state not extracting maximum revenue from foreigners may lead to populist pressure to increase fares.
It is possible that more competition will lower fares. This happened in the domestic Italian market, where the entrance of NTV’s Italo service reduced fares on the thicker markets. There is some competition between Paris and points east, such as Frankfurt, where SNCF runs a daily TGV, charging €45 on the 4th of February and DB runs 4 daily ICEs, charging €70-90. Averaged out, it is barely higher than the domestic TGV fare per kilometer.
Which international connections become viable?
European high-speed rail networks are largely domestic. Eurostar stands as the one major exception. What’s more, France, Italy, and Spain have already built the strongest domestic corridors; the only low-hanging domestic fruit are in Germany, where high-speed construction is desirable but is beset by economic austerity, and Britain, where it is beset by very high construction costs. The future of European rail investment is therefore international.
I do not want to claim that charging domestic TGV or ICE fares will automatically lead to ridership density comparable to that of domestic TGVs and ICEs. The language difference probably still matters, just not to the point that Eurostar’s ridership is one quarter that of the LGV Sud-Est.
Moreover, some international routes are clearly a low political priority, so the infrastructure is not optimized for them, leading to low speeds. Trains leaving Brussels going north and east run on a mixture of fast and slow lines, and overall average speeds from Brussels to both Cologne and Amsterdam are within the range for all-legacy upgraded lines. French rail planners, infused by ideas of airline executives who think trains aren’t competitive past three hours, are not trying to optimize the under-construction Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel for intercity passenger traffic, on the theory that Paris-Turin and Paris-Milan trains would not be competitive either way.
So it’s important to get everything on an international connection right: breakeven rather than revenue-maximizing fares, infrastructure optimized for speed between different cities, sufficient frequency relative to travel time. If these are done right, then city pairs that may look weak may become attractive high-speed rail corridors: Paris-Frankfurt, Paris-Madrid via Bordeaux and Basque Country, Munich-Milan via Innsbruck and the Brenner Base Tunnel, Madrid-Lisbon, Hamburg-Copenhagen, Cologne-Amsterdam.
This is applicable in North America as well, except that there, an additional complication is border controls; the hassle must be reduced to preclearance with short lines (maximum 10-15 minutes), or ideally eliminated with a Schengen-style agreement. This affects Vancouver-Seattle and Toronto-New York, both of which look marginal if we assume international links always underperform. If we accept that New York and Toronto share a language and many cultural features and the weak air travel market is an artifact of high fares, then cross-border trains become an attractive target for investment. In that scenario, New York-Toronto is the strongest North American high-speed rail corridor not touching the Northeast Corridor – it’s like Los Angeles-San Francisco but with stronger connecting public transportation and no mountains to tunnel under.
The upshot is that, given good management, there remains a future for high-speed rail investment, with a plethora of strong lines. The EU can and should take an active role in promoting Union-wide links, ensuring that fares are within the reach of the broad public and that connections between any pair of European cities are reasonable. In North America, two specific links are strong – New York-Toronto and Seattle-Vancouver – and so the federal governments as well as the states and provinces should make sure to invest in them and to charge affordable fares with minimally intrusive border control.
I wrote a post about American moral panics about fare evasion two months ago, which was mirrored on Streetsblog. I made a mistake in that post that I’d like to correct – and yet the correction itself showcases something interesting about why there are armed police on trains. In talking about BART’s unique belts-and-suspenders system combining faregates with proof-of-payment fare inspections, I complained that BART uses armed police to conduct inspections, where the German-speaking world happily uses unarmed civilians. BART wrote me back to correct me – the inspections are done by unarmed civilians, called ambassadors. The armed cops on the trains are unrelated.
I’d have talked about my error earlier, but I got the correction at the end of November. The American Christmas season begins around Thanksgiving and ends after Sylvester, and in this period both labor productivity and news readership plummet; leave it to Americans to have five weeks a year of low productivity without giving workers those five weeks in vacation time. With that error out of the way – again, BART conducts inspections with unarmed ambassadors, not armed cops – it’s worth talking about why, then, there are armed cops on trains at all, and what it means for fare enforcement.
The answer to the “why armed cops on the train?” question is that among the broad American public, the police is popular. There are hefty differences by party identification, and in the Bay Area, the opinions of Republicans are mostly irrelevant, but even among Democrats; there are also hefty differences by race, but blacks are at their most anti-police divided on the issue. A Pew poll about trust in institutions asks a variety of questions about the police, none of which is “would you like to see more cops patrol the subway?”, but the crosstabs really don’t scream “no.” Vox cites a poll by Civis Analytics that directly asks about hiring more police officers, and even among black people the results are 60-18 in favor. In New York, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill had positive net approval among all racial groups shortly before leaving office, the lowest rate being 43-28 among Hispanics.
The crosstabs only go so far, and it’s likely that among certain subgroups the police is much less popular, for example black millennials. It’s normal for a popular institution to still generate intense opposition from specific demographic, class-based, or ideological groups, and it’s even normal for a popular institution to be bad; I should know, Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker is one of America’s most popular governors and yet his do-nothing approach to infrastructure planning makes him unpopular at TransitMatters. But this doesn’t change the fact that, as a positive rather than normative statement, the police enjoys consensus support from the urban American public.
What this means is that there are cops on the subway in New York and on BART not because of an inherent necessity of the fare collection system, but because in the eyes of the people who run these systems, crime is a serious concern and having more cops around is the solution. Evidently, BART layers cops on top of two distinct fare enforcement mechanisms – fare barriers and the ambassadors. In New York, too, NYPD’s justification for arresting people for jumping the turnstiles is that a significant fraction of them have outstanding warrants (many of which are about low-level offenses like being behind on court payments).
I bring this up because there’s a growing argument on the American left that public transportation should be free because that way people won’t be arrested for fare-dodging. This argument slides in an assumption, all too common to socialists who are to the left of the mainline liberal or social democratic party, that there is a leftist majority among the public that is just waiting to be activated by a charismatic leader rejecting neoliberal or otherwise moderate political assumptions.
But in the real world, there is no such leftist majority. The median voter even in a very left-wing area like New York or San Francisco may not support the more violent aspects of tough-on-crime politics, but is mostly okay with more police presence. The average self-identified leftist may be more worried that having police patrols will lead to more brutality than that not having them will lead to more crime, but the average self-identified leftist is not the average voter even in the Bay Area.
In this reality, there are cops on the subway because a lot of people worry about crime on the subway and want to see more police presence. The cops themselves, who are well to the right of the average voter pretty much anywhere, may justify this in terms of fare beating, but what matters is what voters near the median think, and they worry about ordinary property and violent crime. Those worries may well be unfounded – for one, New York is very safe nowadays and has been getting steadily safer, so the recent binge of hiring more cops to patrol the subway is a waste of money – but so long as voters have them, there will be police patrols.
The upshot is twofold. First, fare enforcement and the politics of criminal justice have very little to do with each other. Cops patrol crowded public spaces that require payment to enter, like the subway, as they do crowded public spaces that do not, like city squares. If public transportation fares are abolished, cops will likely keep patrolling subway stations, just as they patrol pieces of transportation infrastructure that are fare-free, like the concourses of major train stations.
If the left succeeds in persuading more people that the police is hostile to their interests and the city is better off with less public police presence, then cops will not patrol either the subway or most city squares. In the future, this is not outside the realm of possibility – in fifteen years the popularity of same-sex marriage in the US went from about 2-to-1 against to 2-to-1 in favor, and the trend in other democracies is broadly similar. But in New York and San Francisco in 2020, this is not the situation.
And second, fare enforcement can be conducted with unarmed inspectors regardless of the political environment. Multiple Americans who express fear of crime have told me that inspections have to be done with armed police, because fare beaters are so dangerous they would never submit to an unarmed inspector. And yet, even in San Francisco, where a large fraction of the middle class is worried about being robbed, inspections are done without weapons.
I’ve recurrently told American cities to tear down the faregates. BART’s belts-and-suspenders fare enforcement is unnecessary, borne of a panic rather than of any calculation of costs and benefits to the system. But what BART should get rid of is not the ambassadors, but the faregates. The most successful transit city the rough size of San Francisco – Berlin – has no faregates and leaves most stations unstaffed to reduce costs. Berlin encourages compliance by making it easier to follow the law, for example by offering cheap monthly passes, rather than by hitting passengers in the face with head-level fare barriers.
If cops patrol the subway because most voters and most riders would prefer it this way, then there is no need to connect the politics of policing with the technical question of what the most efficient way to collect fares is. There is a clear best practice for the latter, and it does not involve faregates in a rapid transit system with fewer than multiple billions of annual riders. What the police does is a separate question, one that there is no reason to connect with how to raise money for good public transportation.
Six weeks ago, I talked about the Anglosphere in context of its high construction costs, especially recently. In comes Bella Wang, and in a much greater generality, asserts,
In the context of transportation, there are some empirical observations from construction cost and mode share data:
- American transit usage underperforms any other first-world standard
- Anglosphere construction costs are very high
- Ex-colonies in the third world have very high construction costs
We can take all three observations to be matters of culture, but really culture is a measure of ignorance. It’s easy to list so many US-rest-of-world cultural differences, and still possible to list Anglosphere-rest-of-world differences that cover Singapore. But the question, which of them are relevant and which aren’t?, is still critical.
Separately, there’s the question, how deep is a specific cultural attribute? The example I want to zoom in on is the issue of hyperlocalism and too many stakeholders. In Brooks-Liscow, it’s identified as a key contributing factor to rising highway construction costs in the US since the 1960s (“citizen voice”) alongside rising incomes. In addition, one expert Eric and I talked to mentioned the multiplicity of stakeholders, as well as many other issues, not all of which I think are relevant.
From one angle, hyperlocalism goes very deep in American culture. Some of it is relatively recent, coming from the white middle class’s desire to maintain local control as the only way to legally prevent integration. Some of it is older – New England had a lot of local empowerment in the 18th and 19th centuries, and unlike in Europe, local elites were viewed as leaders who brought freedom rather than as the main obstacles to freedom.
But from another angle, the specific mechanism through which hyperlocalism acts is not that deep. The local gadfly who launches nuisance lawsuits against everything is a figure of derision; the politician who cuts through the red tape and knocks some heads together and gets things done is a figure of worship and a prime candidate for higher office. If anything, the reason things do not get done in the United States is that politicians prefer to play it safe and knock heads together on low-risk, low-reward projects, hence for example Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for a LaGuardia air train that goes the wrong way but avoids a NIMBY fight from 20 years ago.
The example of Cuomo’s air train, in turn, introduces another attribute: do-nothing politicians. That’s a fairly American problem – other high-cost countries, like Britain and Canada, have politicians that build extravagant projects at high cost, but those projects (HS2, Ontario Line, etc.) are actually useful. Is it a result of an American legal regime that favors the state against the individual and therefore cannot guarantee security of property unless the government credibly pledges to be slow and stupid? Or is it a contingent effect of a handful of governors being slow and stupid in 2019, which may change if someone more competent is elected in the future?
The ultimate question is “can anything get better?”. There’s a lot of evidence in both directions when it comes to American construction costs; when it comes to transit usage in the vast majority of the United States where there is no public transit, the same is true but right now I believe the evidence is stronger on the “no” side.
On social media and various forums, I have an expression for a variety of cities: “it has no public transportation.” This concerns just about the entire United States excluding a handful of cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago; Los Angeles notably is not among these handful, but has no public transportation, and neither do any cities in the South or the Midwest except Chicago. I want to talk a bit more about what I mean by this. I obviously don’t mean that literally there is no scheduled public transportation in these cities; I’ve taken these non-existent transit systems, in Los Angeles on a visit and in Providence when I lived there. But I mean that there’s something about such places distinguishing them from the bad-but-existing transit category of Boston, Chicago, Nice, etc.
Whatever you’re doing isn’t working
Let’s use an 8% cutoff for trips to work. This number is fully motivated reasoning: the metro area (MSA, not CSA) of Philadelphia is just above this cutoff, and I would not say it has no public transportation, at least not in the current state of the system. Bad, yes, but it exists. I may be missing some areas, but I don’t think I am: the list of American metro areas that meet that cutoff is New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Fairfield County, Seattle, Kitsap County, Philadelphia, Honolulu. 70% of American transit commuters live in one of these MSAs. Go down to 6% and you also get Portland and Baltimore, adding about 2.5% of US transit commuters.
Nor are things improving. Some parts of the US are seeing rising mode shares. The most notable is Seattle, which is serious about permitting urban housing, and has tunneling construction costs that would only get Europeans fired rather than simply not existing in democratic Continental Europe. But other cities that occasionally win accolades from American urbanists for investing in public transportation just aren’t cutting it. In the 2006-17 period, chosen because that’s what the ACS makes available, Denver went from 4.6% to 4.4%, Los Angeles from 6.1% to 4.8%, and Portland from 6.4% to 6.3%; in the praised-by-urbanists set, only Minneapolis went up, from 4% to 4.8%.
Let’s unpack what this means: whatever Los Angeles has been doing in the last 10+ years has gotten its mode share down – and that’s without counting the fact that the Inland Empire, officially a separate metro area, is growing much faster and has an even lower mode share, as people drive further and further from jobs to qualify for a mortgage. Portland and Denver have done a lot of supposedly good things with their light rail networks, but are standing still. Portland’s stagnation goes back at least to 1980, while Vancouver has built SkyTrain, a high-rise downtown, and Metrotown, and at 20% has a higher (and rising) mode share than any American metro area save New York.
When a metro area has 2-3% mode share, it’s best to treat it as tabula rasa. Yes, there are people who ride the buses and trains today, but so few that the advantages of from-scratch design are usually greater than the disadvantage coming from the risk to current ridership. The 2-3% figure really depends on the situation – I don’t want to give it as an ironclad figure.
Suburbs of very large cities (read: New York) approaching 10% may still be best treated the same way: commuter rail systems like the LIRR are really shuttles that extend auto-oriented suburbia into the city rather than the reverse. Sadly, where I say such suburbs have no transit as a positive statement, an MBTA general manager said “commuter rail is not public transit” as a normative statement.
The situations of extremely low-mode share metro areas and low-mode share suburbs are not exactly the same. For one, existing ridership is higher on Long Island than in Cleveland or St. Louis so there’s more risk if (for example) supernumerary workers go on strike to fight efficiency improvements, but the reward is much greater. We know how to squeeze high ridership out of regional rail in the suburbs, even low-density ones, since the city has so many jobs in the center. Moreover, we know which ready sources of ridership are suppressed by current operating patterns: working-class reverse-commuters, people who work non-traditional hours regardless of class, and peak-direction commuters getting off short of city center.
The tabula rasa concept notably does not mean the infrastructure doesn’t exist. Los Angeles has the physical infrastructure of a rail network. Long Island and Westchester have many rail lines pointing toward Manhattan. However, the operating patterns and development are deficient and little to no accommodation should be made for them. In the suburbs of New York and a handful of other American cities this concerns premium fares, low off-peak frequency, and lack of integration with local buses. In American metro areas with low overall ridership this concerns weak city centers, lack of TOD even when it could succeed (for example in Los Angeles and San Diego), local political systems that view transit as an excuse to get federal funds for other things such as road repaving, and, as in suburbia, low off-peak frequency. The problems vary, but the fact that there are severe problems remains.
The other element of tabula rasa is social. There is almost never any knowledge base in those areas about how good transit works, because people who’ve only lived there have by definition not regularly used even bad-but-existing public transport. Whatever local activists of all stripes have been doing in Los Angeles is not working. Understanding why from them can be valuable, for the same reason I talk to planners at poorly-run agencies like the MTA and the MBTA to understand what’s wrong, but all local practices should be considered suspect unless corroborated in an area with at least decent public transportation.
On giving offense
The people who complain about my use of “no transit” to refer to the vast majority of the United States are not making a semantic nitpick or asking for clarification. They specifically complain I give offense by erasing 2-3% of the population of Cleveland and St. Louis, or 1% of the population of Kansas City. (I name these cities and not 6% Portland because that’s what people have complained about to me.)
So let’s unpack what this means. I point out that in the vast majority of the United States, excepting a handful of regions all of which are politically stereotyped as Not Real America partly because they have public transit, has buses and trains that are so useless they might as well not exist. I point out that this remains the case despite extensive construction in many cities – Dallas has 150 km of light rail, which is respectable for a city of its size, Denver keeps expanding its network and has something resembling frequent regional rail, and so on. The problem is that I do not conveniently blame this on a political faction of others, be it Republicans, unions, moderates, drivers, or whoever. I genuinely think it’s the fault of everyone who’s had any amount of power, and this includes community organizations that keep identifying as always losing even when they repeatedly succeed in blocking changes they dislike.
This is American culture. Even the denigration of New York and other cities where there is public transportation is part of that culture; there are certain aspects of San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia that are useful for other parts of the US to emulate. But accepting that requires understanding that there is to a good approximation no contribution coming from no-transit cities (and this again includes Portland and Los Angeles, it’s not just Cleveland or Dallas).
Part of the problem is that the US defines itself so much around cars and car culture that the presence of public transportation is enough to make something feel not really American. The result is that any exhortation to learn from places with trains with decent ridership is bound to offend; I might as well tell Americans to move to Tokyo and learn Japanese and never come back to the West. But sadly for Americans, reality can be offensive. The culture of Real America has to change, at least when it comes to how to treat transportation and cities.