Category: Consensus

The Option of Profitable Transit

David Levinson’s post saying that transit should strive to restructure and be profitable stirred much discussion on neighboring blogs, including Human Transit (which broadly agrees with the idea if not the libertarian tone) and The Transport Politic (which does not), as well as multiple commenters who chimed in noting that it’s ridiculous to require transit to break even when cars get so many subsidies. While I agree with Levinson and Jarrett’s sentiments about core versus welfare services in principle, in practice the causes of transit losses are orthogonal to the subjects under discussion; the actual issues are somewhat related to what the commenters mention, but those commenters don’t go nearly far enough.

In the original post, Levinson proposes the following distinction:

Mass transit systems in the United States are collectively losing money hand over fist. Yet many individual routes (including bus routes) earn enough to pay their own operating (and even capital costs). But like bad mortgages contaminating the good, money-losing transit routes are bogging down the system.

We can divide individual systems into three sets of routes:

1. Those routes break-even or profit financially (at a given fare). This is the “core”.

2. Those lines which are necessary for the core routes to break-even, and collectively help the set of routes break-even. These are the “feeders”.

3. Those lines which lose money, and whose absence would not eliminate profitability on other routes. These money-losers are a welfare program. We might politely call them “equity” routes.

Jarrett, whose work has focused on priorities, not only agrees with the distinction but also downplays the importance of routes in category #2, and has often advocated that agencies let go of low-performing routes and concentrate on trunk frequency. While Jarrett is right and this distinction is critical when an agency needs to reduce its expenditure, it’s not going to make any agency profitable.

The number of routes in the US that break even financially is minimal. It’s easy enough to come up with routes that cover their avoidable costs, but transit has enough fixed costs that retreating to them is not going to be enough. For a New York example, see this spreadsheet, due to Cap’n Transit: although multiple bus routes are portrayed as profitable, once one checks the more detailed spreadsheet the Cap’n links to, it turns out that when including both direct and indirect operating costs, the best-performing route, the M86, drops from an operating ratio of 172% to one of 91%. Moreover, the best-performing routes do not form a trunk system, but are for the most part short-hop crosstown buses, with very high ridership per kilometer of route length. Most networks that actually are profitable consist of buses feeding into the Lincoln Tunnel, a choke point that has an exclusive bus lane in the morning rush hour.

Since in some other parts of the world urban transit is in fact profitable, we need to address causes other than the existence of lesser-used routes. I propose that instead of classifying American lines into profitable and unprofitable ones, a division in which one category is going to be very lonely, we classify whole networks according to what makes them lose so much money. I believe the following list of causes is relatively uncontroversial for good transit advocates:

1. High labor costs, predominantly overstaffing, but at some agencies (for example, Muni) also very high salaries.

2. Poor design, e.g. of intermodal transfers.

3. Low fares on some networks, which exist predominantly to provide minimal mobility of last resort rather than core transportation.

4. Bad regulations, especially when it comes to regional rail.

5. An auto-oriented policy.

Cause #5 is the elephant in the room. It’s not just ongoing auto subsidies and such mandates as Euclidean zoning and free parking. It’s also a decades-long history promoting auto-centric development, as a result of which uses are too widespread and low-intensity for transit to be of much use on most trips. Even edge cities are too dense sometimes; if you can find Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy’s sadly now behind paywall article Edgeless Cities, read it for a quick explanation of the limitations of the relatively intense but auto-centric development form of Tysons Corner or White Plains.

The best analogy I can give here is a growing industry or industrial zone. Early on in a country’s development, it will want industrial policy: subsidies, tax breaks, protectionism. The US railroads got it, most Japanese exporters got it, Samsung and Hyundai got it. As a country becomes richer and its economy becomes more mature, those industries become profitable and suddenly start advocating free trade and free markets, even for themselves, and whine loudly at the suggestion that rich regions or industries should subsidize poor ones.

There are plenty of routes in the US that, while unprofitable now, could be made profitable with better management and operating practices. This is usually what I write about. Those are causes #1, 2, and 4. Cause #3 applies to some but not the most relevant agencies; fares in large US cities tend to be average or high by international standards, though perhaps lower than the revenue-maximizing fares. Altogether, fixing what are essentially issues of competence is going to raise transit use, possibly to acceptable levels. But it will not turn New York into Tokyo, Boston into Taipei, or Providence into Zurich.

Consensus and Immigration

This is the final installment in my series about consensus. For the first two posts, see Consensus and Cities, and Democratic Versus Elite Consensus.

There’s a pervasive view that, far from a consequence of extreme diversity, consensus is in fact a feature of homogeneous societies. For example, the popular view in Scandinavia is that the traditional high-trust society is under assault by immigrants who do not share the same social values as the native-born. Robert Putnam goes further and shows that diversity is associated with less trust and social capital, which made many racists joyful that here, there was a scientific basis for hate. The conclusion they as well as many ordinary members of the elite draw is that immigrants are a problem for society to deal with.

Before presenting an alternative view, let me point out that in fact, some of the world’s most famous consensus societies are also the most diverse. The Netherlands had a sharp division between Catholics, Protestants, and secular socialists for a century; Dutch consensus democracy is based in part on the need for those communities to coexist. Belgium is practically two separate countries – one Flemish, one Walloon. Switzerland, too, is diverse, though the German-speaking community has a majority. Those societies are all deeply suspicious of immigrants, but their attitude to the diversity they have built natively is positive, and, in the Netherlands, one attempt at integration involved creating a separate pillar for Muslims.

The diversity in those countries is discounted today by Americans and even Europeans who have grown to seeing the West as a single coherent civilization in opposition to others, but back when they developed their model of inter-ethnic consensus, Protestant vs. Catholic and other internal European divisions were critical. By analogy, it would have been senseless to talk about Jews, Irish, and Italians in New York in 1900 as one undifferentiated white mass.

The negative attitudes toward immigrants in the most diverse European countries, as seen in the rise of the SVP and Geert Wilders’ PVV and in the success of their nativist programs, suggests the reason for the xenophobia is not fear of diversity, but fear of change. Consensus government works slowly – and, at any rate, the mainstreaming of democratic consensus has gotten to a point that there’s a strong elite consensus for not dealing with incendiary issues. Rapid entry of new people into an area causes NIMBYism everywhere; when those people are distinguished by skin color or religion, the result is racism.

It is not my intention to excoriate racism here, much less European racism – it is pointless. However, let me suggest ways for social and political leaders to avoid the above problems – to build a consensus in favor of more social integration and acceptance. This is especially important in diverse cities, where immigrants tend to cluster, and where there’s preexisting diversity making it feasible to avoid majority-minority politics.

First, immigrants are not a problem. Neither is immigration. The problem is racism. This is the mistake of the elites in every European country: they whitewash the existence of discrimination and make little attempt to fix it. A good reference is Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves, portraying French governments as knowing exactly how many Muslims there are in their communities when it comes to discussing gender-segregated swimming pools but not knowing or discussing discrimination. Alternatively, read these two New York Times articles published in the wake of the French riots.

Second, in the long run, diverse communities become stronger, and the trend of hunkering down dissipates. It’s a long process, and the goal should be to make it shorter, and avoid the risk of long-term divisions as occurred between blacks and whites in the US over the centuries. Putnam himself notes it in his study; his three examples include black-white integration in the army following desegregation, Catholic/Protestant intermarriage from the postwar period to the 1980s, and the turning of ethnic whites from disparate nationalities into Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

Third, it’s imperative to make integration a matter of local consensus rather than a political play by one party, either a liberal party looking for patronage voters or a conservative party looking for strikebreakers. In other words, immigrants are a group of people, not a solution or a problem.

A good example of a mayor who seems to abide by the first two principles but not the third, viewing immigrants as a solution, is Schenectady’s Al Jurczynski. After hearing that the Guyanese don’t accept welfare, Jurczynski began a concerted campaign of luring them in from New York and giving them free housing that would otherwise have to be demolished. Many of Jurczynski’s actions, such as going to Guyanese areas of Queens and going on a Guyanese radio show, are a good example of what political leaders must do to make immigrants feel like part of the city; however, the consensus he created exists purely among the business class, and therefore has drawn animosity from other groups within the city, including existing minorities, who feel slighted by the implication. It was a political play, much like Nixon and Pat Buchanan’s strategy of appealing to Catholics.

It’s not hard to redefine Americanness (or Britishness, or Dutchness) along more inclusive lines – it’s been done before in the face of new waves of immigration, often in order to maintain a majority of those defined as white Americans but using methods that could be generalized to decrease rather than increase animosity.

A mayor who wants to promote integration rather than create an ethnic group captive to his political needs will not engage in such divisive politics. He will walk in the ethnic enclaves of his own city first, making people already in the city feel welcome. He will make a positive effort to hire qualified minorities and listen to communities on the issues relevant to them, including, for example, making an effort to integrate the police force in order to reduce racist brutality.

Democratic Versus Elite Consensus

This is part 2 of my series on consensus, following Consensus and Cities.

Early-20th century America was a nation with remarkable consensus about cities. The progressive reformers, the populists, and the environmental movement all agreed that cities were bad, and the only solution to their problem was widespread destruction of slums. It’s this general agreement that gave autocrats like Robert Moses their power. Obviously, this consensus missed one key piece of the puzzle – namely, the consent of the urban dwellers who were being discussed as objects rather than as participants. Thus, a good consensus has to involve everyone, and not just the elites, or else it at best degenerates into elite vs. populist politics, and at worst leads to virtual colonialism.

The distinction between democratic or popular consensus and elite consensus is important, because in places that have only had the latter, including the US, people can form their views of consensus around features that are really special to elite consensus, as represented by insider publications such as the Washington Post, most of the New York Times, and a horde of Washington-area trade journals. For one, elite speech is very measured, and phrased in reasonable-sounding ways: concerned but understanding of limits, haughty-sounding and wonky but still reducible to soundbites for the lay reader, and always phrased in an understated way. Those are Krugman’s Very Serious People, and the National Review’s liberal elite. The US has come a long way since the 1950s and enough people see this elite as a distinct faction rather than as a real national consensus, but many of the elite’s values have percolated and taint the notion of consensus.

In contrast, democratic consensus is a messy affair. What’s happening right now in the Israeli J14 housing protests – or, even more so, what happened a month ago, before the protest became an institution by itself – is exactly the process of consensus-formation. Tents representing all social and ethnic groups in the country are present. The protest began with culturally liberal Tel Avivis, but has Haredi tents; it’s majority-Jewish, but has had Arab speakers in Jewish towns and spread to Arab towns. On the ground, the dialogue is the exact opposite of that of the Washington Post: people yell and argue until the small hours of the night, debating different views of how to improve the housing situation, and listening to one another. They tolerate trolls who maliciously propose settlement expansion as the solution but do not feed them; they have more important things to discuss. The consensus ideas they’ve formed for how to deal with the housing situation involve concerns of all groups – two of the protesters’ demands are specific to Arab and Bedouin minorities, and, unlike the mishmash of demands one sees in the US at ANSWER protests, those demands are relevant to the issue at hand.

In the US, any attempt to discuss things in the manner of J14 rather than in the manner of the Washington Post is immediately lumped together with unserious partisanship. Even people who know how rotten elite consensus is have gotten used to its discourse: thus, Michael Lind exalts the attitudes of what he calls post-consensus America in a hippie-punching piece against public transportation and environmentalism.

Ironically, calls for technocracy are sometimes a reaction against this elite domination, when the elites put themselves on the other side of expert consensus, as they do on climate issues (see Lind’s other piece on the matter, or anything on the subject by George Will), and prefer to talk in terms of platitudes about unpredictability and how scientists may be wrong. There are sizable and growing organizations and pundits criticizing consensus from this technocratic point of view – for one, anything involved in the new atheist movement.

The properties of consensus are orthogonal to those of elitism, and are different from the properties of the combination of both. The most important is listening to people with different points of view without sneering. How messy or orderly the discussions are is not relevant – it speaks only to how different the parties involved are from one another and how much they initially disagree. It’s the process of listening, of forming conversation, that makes for productive and consensus-building debate. How nice people are to one another is only tangentially important. I submit that if you compare a Room for Debate piece on transportation with a thread of the same length on a transportation blog – even a repetitive fight over Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass on the California High-Speed Rail Blog, let alone the ideological arguments about financing on The Transport Politic – you’ll find that the blog is going to be more informative. Lay people talking to each other will beat thinktank fellows and professional pundits talking at each other any day.

The problem with extending this to urbanism is that cities’ power structure makes it very hard to give ordinary people the voice they deserve. People who are not part of the elite, by definition, are less powerful. And being elite by itself changes how one thinks, leading to factional interests different from those of ordinary people, independently of questions such as which social and ethnic groups the elites are drawn from. (Communist Party elites, high-income elites, and racial elites are equally unconcerned with the average person.)

Only in a city with a completely gated establishment can major media organizations refer to slum dwellers as “a city within a city” when they outnumber people living in formal neighborhoods, and quote researchers as saying crime is a big problem in the slums when it in fact isn’t. Unfortunately, as Robert Neuwirth‘s experience in Mumbai shows, such cities exist.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, democratic consensus is possible, by slowly persuading all stakeholders in a community that one’s solution is good and in line with community values. Usually, within a small enough community, the problem of democratic vs. elite consensus is less acute. Some groups are privileged over others – for example, long-term residents versus recent immigrants – but arguably no more so than in citywide politics. Where localism is oppressive is in treatments of minorities in situations with a defined majority group, but when it comes to participatory inclusion, it’s no worse than appealing to the power brokers and hoping for good. In a diverse neighborhood with multiple factions of which none can dominate, this problem is usually quite small. The local elites are not so powerful that one can’t approach them on more or less equal footing.

However, the only way to systematically unleash the power of democratic consensus is via populism, as the example of J14 shows us. It by itself is not purely consensus-based – it comes from a partisan fight between the people and those in power in which the people are acting as one bloc – but the result usually involves a fair amount of consensus, since anything else would lead to divide-and-rule politics. In the US – as well as Israel, and other developed countries I’m somewhat familiar with the discourse of – such populism can come off as polarizing and anti-consensual, because of the misidentification of what are really features of elitism with consensus.

Of course, to many people, populism is not a dirty word. The Tea Party, and its right-wing populist equivalents around Europe, has had many successes precisely because there’s a segment of the US that wants neither consensus nor the current elite. The same can be said of any proto-populism on the left. But there are plenty of people who do want government to work, and do like dialogue, and they can be turned off by what they perceive as unserious attitudes.

The way to create a situation in which both the relatively secure middle class and more radical factions – both ideological and socioeconomic – are willing to cast aside elite values is then to wait until things get bad enough. But it’s easier to imagine such consensus happening today than in 1965, and not just because of reduced racial animosities. It’s as if Marx was right except that, instead of a violent revolution, the dispossessed fight for social reforms that make their economic situation more secure.

The time could already be right. And the process of replacing elite bipartisanship – or hyper-partisan fights between parties that are unconcerned with actually governing – can be pursued on the local level, in parallel, to allow for time to create bottom-up institutions to take a more prominent role in the future. It could be that the US is waiting for its own tents in New York and Washington to lead to nationwide demonstrations.

Consensus and Cities

Note: this is the first post in a series of 3-4 articles about consensus urbanism.

The dominant discourse on cities nowadays focuses on the role of visionary, top-down innovation. Some write about mayors who change paradigms, such as Michael Bloomberg and now Rahm Emanuel. Others write about entrepreneurs and the role of new technology, and invariably portray the change as groundbreaking and unforeseen by all except the dogged inventor. In contrast to this worldview, let me propose a view of urbanism based on political consensus among disparate interests, on forging agreement instead of trying to defeat everyone else.

The current trend toward livable cities, as seen in road diets and bike lane projects, is entirely top-driven. Bloomberg decided to make it his legacy, and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan moves aggressively with little consultation with community interests except those that already agree with her. Rahm Emanuel, infamous for his combative style, followed suit. This caused livable streets advocates, led by Streetsblog, to often identify community consensus with NIMBYism and top-down change with improvement; it’s unavoidable on Streetsblog, though sometimes there are glimpses of support for a more consensus-based policy on other livable streets blogs.

In reality, in cities, there are too many interest groups for one to normally dominate: labor, the middle class, multiple kinds of business, organized religion – and in the exceptional cases, such as Singapore, it comes out of autocracy. This is especially true in the US, with its multi-ethnic cities, requiring delicate acts of ticket-balancing. This is easy to paper over in majoritarian political systems, as the US is, but the actual practice of politics in American cities is far from majoritarian. Liberal cities have become cities of primaries – one wins by assembling an ad hoc coalition that can win the Democratic primary. In general, cities have multiple interest groups, even independently of ethnicity: see for example Christof Spieler’s analysis of the 2009 Houston mayoral race. The reason this political process hasn’t led to a consensus-based decision making is that the electoral process – in particular, the authoritarian strong-mayor system – is anti-consensus.

And yet, a consensus-based agenda is possible. As one of the Streetsblog community members explained to me, the way to obtain community support for a project is to talk to all stakeholders in the neighborhood, and understand what their hidden hopes and fears are; it’s important to avoid any situation in which someone later complains “Nobody informed me about this.” Ordinary people are far less intransigent than they can appear in the papers. For example, along Queens Boulevard, the long-term residents are still reeling from plans to turn the street into an expressway, and therefore will support or oppose a livable streets proposal in part based on whether they perceive it as turning the street into more of a highway (closing cross-streets) or less of one (widening sidewalks).

A community so empowered with its own ideas about how to make itself pedestrian-friendlier will of course help if a top-down reformist politician wants to make the city more livable, but it can also convince an apathetic politician to champion its cause if it can demonstrate that this cause is popular. The same is true of many other public projects and contentious issues; support for many of them crosses ideological and partisan boundaries, both the normal national ones and the specific issue of machinists vs. reformists in American cities.

Consensus must be contrasted with its distant top-down cousin, outreach. Outreach is what a partisan or dominant side in a debate does to get the little fish on board. There’s almost no possibility of dialogue. In contrast, consensus implicitly assumes that all stakeholders own the decision, more or less equally even if one side began the push for it and in reality did most of the work. One can imagine a community board agreeing to a development plan put forth by a mayor, and then criticizing the mayor for it after it fails; one can’t imagine the same if the community board is the body that created the plan.

Film critic Pauline Kael, when asked to comment on why Nixon won the 1972 election, refused to comment, saying she couldn’t know because nobody she knew voted for him. (This has been misquoted in conservative circles as her saying that she couldn’t believe he could have won.) Kael’s contrition was unusual; most people are more than happy to generalize based on the few people they know who fit a type, or, even worse, based on stereotypes they’ve heard from others. It’s bad enough in a bipartisan world, but in city politics, the large number of different factions and worldviews is such that no one force can possibly know enough to govern for everyone.

Although the political process of any non-autocratic city forces some cooperation among groups, the practice can be authoritarian enough that many are completely unheard of in the halls of power. This is especially true of recent immigrants and others who have no long-term activist presence, or of racial minorities in cities with a majority race and racist politics. But even groups with some organization and voting power can be shut out by a Bloomberg, an Emanuel, or even a Villaraigosa. The result is that even policy that isn’t malevolent can be destructive; this is the sin of many postwar urban renewal programs, which didn’t have to accommodate the concerns of the neighborhoods they leveled and had no intention of listening to anyone they didn’t have to listen to.

The alternative is to embark on a process that’s slow, but more robust. It’s immune to changes in electoral fortunes, since swings from 52-48 to 48-52 don’t have such a huge impact on policy. The roads movement in the US got everything it wanted from the 1910s to the 1950s, from governing ideologies ranging from Hooverism to New Deal liberalism. It’s important to imitate this one aspect of the roads movement, and ensure as many groups as possible pull in the same direction.

There are always authoritarians-in-making, people who pay lip service to any consensual and democratic concept they need to be seen to support but in reality seek power for themselves and surround themselves with yes-men. Those we need to be watchful of, to make sure that they never have the power to cause permanent damage. Streetsblog has shown glimpses of holding the Bloomberg administration’s feet to the fire on issues on which the city has not been a positive force for livability – for example, the 1st/2nd Avenue bike lanes – but we need to do more than that, and ensure that even if an autocrat has power, we use him more than he uses us.

Switching from a fundamentally authoritarian booster mentality to consensus governance has no hope of getting us demolition of low-performing or city-splitting freeways, or Hong Kong-style traffic restraint, at least not until the far future. It will take a long time to overturn preexisting anti-urban biases – even longer than necessary, since it will be based on consultation with many groups that oppose gentrification and find what’s happening to American cities now a bad thing. It requires letting go of many proposals that are currently too expensive, and focusing on making the process friendlier to good transit and walkability and less so to boondoggles and pollution. It requires sitting down with people we may find abhorrent on other issues. Its saving grace is only that, in the medium and long runs, it works.

Development-Oriented Transit

Occasionally, people faced with very high transit construction costs propose value capture, where some of the increase in land value coming from transit access is directed to the transit agency. Yonah Freemark has just brought up this issue again, in the context of Toronto’s failure to find private investors willing to put money for its extravagant suburban subways in exchange for greater land value.

Despite the list of examples of value capture used to fund transit, the idea remains a poor one. Jarrett Walker gives a list of consequences of value capture, one good (it ties transit success to density) and two bad (it is bad at serving existing density, and at social justice).

In New York, Second Avenue Subway and the 7 Extension are both very expensive, but the 7 Extension is getting funded by value capture whereas to construct Second Avenue Subway, backroom deals by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were required. If anything, Jarrett’s first bad consequence is understated: politicians prioritize projects they can find private support for, especially reformists, and ignore transit lines that merely have very high ridership potential. At worst, it encourages collusion with developers and therefore corruption.

Jarrett misses one additional problem: nobody expects developers who build near highways to contribute to highway construction costs, and until they do, to tax developments near transit is to give developers an incentive to build near highways. Transit agencies should either reform themselves to become profitable or seek a reliable source of tax subsidy, but they should not tax people who do the right thing and build compact, transit-oriented development.

There’s a common misconception that in Japan and Hong Kong, both famous for the integration of rail construction and development, development is used to subsidize transit. Reality is the other way around: in most cases, Japanese private railroads use development to raise transit ridership, and although the real estate dealings are often higher-margin, the rail transportation is profitable by itself without exception. The Hong Kong MTR, too, is profitable on transportation alone, but keeps engaging in development to raise profit margins and provide patronage for the trains.

Many cities do in fact follow the model of Hong Kong and the private railroads of Japan, but entirely in the public sector. They upzone around transit stations, reduce or eliminate parking minimums, and restrain or avoid expanding auto capacity. This was done intensively in Calgary and Vancouver, which in recent years have been North America’s leaders in both efficient transit construction and transit modal share increase.

Note that this is still to a large extent development-oriented transit, and still creates problems with politicians who overfocus on greenfield TOD, but not to the same extent as value capture. Vancouver is seriously planning a rapid transit line to UBC, the main neglected urban line, just later than it should have. In contrast, New York is sidelining future phases of Second Avenue Sagas entirely; even PlaNYC only incorporates the first two of four phases, which are too far advanced to ignore.

Toronto could not follow the positive example of Vancouver and Calgary; there was too much NIMBYism along the routes proposed. This same problem also plagued the proposal for land value capture. The problem is that Toronto’s bad government is so suburban-focused it really believes in building transit to low-density suburban regions, and at the same time in enhancing auto accessibility (Mayor Rob Ford demagogued about a war on cars in his campaign).

In this sense, land value capture, and in general development-oriented transit, should be viewed as a failure of consensus for good transit, regardless of whether this consensus allows transit to be profitable or to be stably subsidized. At its best, for example in the Vancouver suburbs, development-oriented transit is a political price to be paid for suburban support for high-ridership urban lines. More commonly, as frequently happens with value capture, it sidelines the high-ridership lines completely. And at its worst, as is happening with the 7 extension, it’s a transfer of wealth from the public to private developers in the hopes of future tax revenues.

On Privatization

My post identifying the FRA as American passenger rail’s biggest nemesis drew a lot of links due to the relevance to Rep. Mica’s proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor. So it is time to step back and ask in general which problems privatization could solve, and which problems are facing American rail travel apart from the FRA. The operating assumption here is that capitalism is not a magical thing that always works, but rather a system that solves some problems created by competing economic systems while creating others.

First, privatization can be done in two separate ways. In Japan, or in the US before 1971, railroads comprise both infrastructure and operations. They run their own trains on their own tracks, and negotiate bilateral trackage rights agreements when they need to access other companies’ tracks. They compete for passengers, but cooperate when necessary; for example, many Shinkansen trains run through the territory of both JR Central and JR West, but the change of drivers only takes a minute.

The other way to privatize, favored in Europe and by Mica, is to split track ownership and operations, on the model of airports (not owned by airlines) and highways (not owned by truckers). Tracks remain public, operations are contracted out to the highest bidder. Regional services in Europe require subsidies, so the highest bidder in this context is the one asking for the smallest subsidy. Depending on which country it is and whether the service is regional or intercity, the public entity controlling the track may fix the schedules and fares in order to guarantee seamless compatibility between different operators.

Both ways have subcategories – for example, in the first method, the government could provide zero subsidies (Hong Kong), minor subsidies for capital construction (Shinkansen construction in Japan, the electrification of the Northeast Corridor south of New York in the 1930s), or ongoing subsidies for operations (Metra, some US commuter lines until the 1970s or 80s). In the second method, the operators can be all private as in Britain, or they could be a mixture of private and state-owned as in France and Germany.

The competition in Japan and the US works, when the railroads have power. There is not much cooperation apart from bilateral agreements and trackage rights. Thus, while Tokyo’s Suica and PASMO are top-notch smartcard implementations, they are poor examples of fare integration; people can swipe the same card on any company’s lines, but transferring from one company to the other requires paying for a separate ticket. For travel between two different metropolitan areas’ companies, smartcards are compatible only based on bilateral agreements, even though all smartcards in Japan use the same FeliCa technology.

When the railroads are not in power, disaster can happen. This is not easily seen in Japan, where the largest cities have not undergone urban renewal or transit decline, but in the US, agency turf means competing for a shrinking customer base and making the customer experience worse.

Therefore, straight Japanese-style privatization requires modifications to ensure timetable and fare integration, and compatible rolling stock. Here, ironically, FRA regulations provided something positive, paving the way to make the Bombardier Bilevel Car a standard commuter rail coach, which different North American cities can lease from one another when necessary; this indicates that what is necessary is better regulations modeled after those of the UIC or Japan rather than a free-for-all.

The other issue with privatization is that one of its primary features, the pruning of marginal branch lines, can become a bug. Focusing on core products has led railroads to neglect markets perceived as marginal rather than try to improve them. Both France and Germany have neglected regional travel in order to look more profitable; although SNCF and DB are state-owned, they act like private companies. In Berlin the resulting deferred maintenance led to a total meltdown, in which three-quarters of the S-Bahn stock had to be recalled on a day’s notice; while German trains are for the most part all compatible, the Berlin S-Bahn is an exception because it was electrified earlier and uses a different voltage from the rest of Germany.

Even in Japan, this is visible once one notes that for JR East and West, the core products are both the Shinkansen and the Tokyo and Osaka commuter networks. All the rest on those networks is lumped together under “Other lines,” so that JR East’s reports do not distinguish the Sendai and Niigata commuter lines from legacy intercity lines. It’s perhaps telling that the fastest non-Shinkansen train in Japan is in Hokkaido, where tilting DMUs on curvy single track with a top speed of 130 km/h average 100 km/h between Sapporo and Hakodate.

Note that the regulations here are mostly irrelevant, except where they involve cooperation between different private companies. Bad regulations can exist both under a private system (e.g. the US before 1971) and under a public one (e.g. the US today); the same is true of good regulations.

We should now step back and look at what enabled the success of the breakup of Japan National Railways, and the subsequent sale of its three constituents serving Honshu to private investors. Restructuring slashed the labor force, improved the quality of management, shut down lightly used lines, and erased the debt that JNR has accumulated to cover operating losses (for it was not subsidized, unlike Western money-losing railroads). It was done slowly, and the government helped find jobs for the displaced workers, which was easy since at the time Japan’s economy was booming. Subsequently, safety and punctuality increased.

The problems privatization solved, then, include operational inefficiency, political meddling forcing the operation of marginal lines, and labor problems. JNR not only was overstaffed, but also was represented by four separate unions, split along political rather than professional lines, ranging from centrist to communist. In the years before privatization, this was mitigated by reforms to both management and labor.

The experience of the positives of JNR privatization further shows that instead of shock therapy or PPPs, a slow reforming approach is required. The best practice is to do this slowly, like in Japan, and postpone the final decision until substantial changes have been made. A government that is too incompetent to run things by itself is also too incompetent to ensure privatization works for the public rather than just for cronies; at least some increase in the quality of government is required if privatization has any hope of success.

Reform vs. Reformism

Urban politics in what’s now the US Rust Belt has been dominated by the same battle between the machine and the reformists since the machines first came into existence in the 19th century. Since the national partisan battles weren’t too applicable, especially after the cities became dominant-party Democratic, the battle lines cemented based on this reform vs. machine issue, creating the same intense partisanship as at the national level.

I encourage everyone to read the Historic American Engineering Record‘s first two articles about the New York City Subway, by Wallace Katz and Clifton Hood. The importance is that the same battles are being fought today, with the same social ideas behind each group. The people Katz calls the patrician reformers still try to fix social problems with engineering and design, only they’re disaffected with cars and suburbs rather than cities.

The ultimate symbol of machine politics in New York is Sheldon Silver; the ultimate symbol of reformism is Michael Bloomberg. The former bloc has gotten almost as much beating as it deserves from Streetsblog, Cap’n Transit, and other congestion pricing supporters. But the reformists must be equally examined, because although they want transit to be better, they want it better their way and this is not the same as transit advocacy.

The reformists’ idea of reform is framed in partisan opposition to the machine; bipartisanship in the national sense of liberal vs. conservative is just part of the plank. They’re not wedded to competence, which is a different animal. Being seen as doing something is more important than success. That’s why Jay Walder uses the high costs of the MTA as an excuse to go through with another failed smartcard scheme. Reformists have a lot of valuable outside knowledge to bring to the table – for example, proof-of-payment on buses and commuter rail – but so far the administration hasn’t really done any.

The opposite of outsider knowledge is insider knowledge, and reformists that ignore it will not succeed. The Swiss and the Japanese grew expertise from the inside, and learned from outsiders where needed. When overstaffed, they lost workers to slow attrition, rather than mass layoffs whose size is determined by labor lawyers and which are not targeted at the most redundant workers. Of course, the only people with insider knowledge are the union members who’d be let go – but this underscores the need for consensus, not heavyweights.

Another reformist problem is the unwillingness to invest in the lower class, except for paternalistic redevelopment schemes. This was true in the urban renewal era and is still true today. JSK’s bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, almost the only good import of the city’s reformist class, are a sop to gentrification. The opposition of community boards is part of the mythology of fighting for the greater good, leading to the same predictable authoritarianism as that of Robert Moses. In reality, when East Harlem practically begged the city for bike lanes, JSK ignored it.

Bloomberg impresses people who don’t know which good reforms he’s squandered because they don’t fit his preconceptions. A friend of a friend wrote a computer program that would automatically match substitute teachers to principals who needed them, back when Bloomberg’s focus was reforming education. The program would’ve saved the city $20 million in administrative costs. The administration refused to consider it, because it conflicted with the idea of running schools like businesses.

Reform should instead be done right. The first traditions to go should be those that impede the formation of consensus; unfortunately, this requires learning from the political systems of non-English-speaking countries, which means it’s extremely unlikely to happen. Beyond that, learning from outsiders should be done in the tradition of Japanese industrialization and European proliferation of good industry practices rather than in that of American companies bringing heavyweight CEOs to save them. The CEOs and the reformists are both more mobile and more insulated from their mistakes than the shareholders or city residents they affect. Perhaps the first thing American cities need to learn from the outside is what the proper way to learn from the outside is.