This is the third in a series of four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, following posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston and free public transport proposals, to be followed by an Urban Institute report by Yonah Freemark.
In the United States, political transit activists in the last few years have set their eyes on direct federal aid for operating subsidies for public transport. Traditionally, this has not been allowed: federal aid goes to capital planning (including long-term maintenance), and only a small amount of money goes to operations, all in peripheral bus systems. Urban transit agencies had to operate out of fares and local and state money. Demands for federal aid grew during corona, where emergency aid to operations led to demands for permanent subsidies, and have accelerated more recently as corona recovery has flagged (New York’s subway ridership is only around 60% of pre-corona levels). But said demands remain a bad idea in the short and long terms.
In the early 20th century, when public transport was expected to support itself out of fares, operating costs grew with wages, but were tempered by improvements in efficiency. New York City Transit opened with ticket-takers at every subway entrances and a conductor for every two cars; within a generation this system was replaced with automatic turnstiles and one conductor per train. Kyle Kirschling’s thesis has good data on this, finding that by the 1930s, the system grew to about 16,000 annual car-miles (=26,000 car-km) per employee.
And then it has stagnated. Further increases in labor efficiency have not happened. Most American systems have eliminated conductors, often through a multi-decade process of attrition rather than letting redundant workers go, but New York retains them. The network today actually has somewhat less service per employee than in the 1930s, 14,000 car-miles as of 2010, because fixed costs are spread across a slightly smaller system. Compare this with JICA’s report for Mumbai Metro comparing Japanese cities: Tokyo Metro has 283,871,000 car-km (PDF-p. 254) on 8,474 employees (PDF-p. 9), which is 33,500/employee, and that’s without any automation and with only partially conductor-less operations; Yokohama gets 40,000.
Moreover, the timeline in the US matches the onset of subsidies, to some extent: state and local subsidies relieved efficiency pressure. In Canada, TTC saw this and lobbied against subsidies for its own operations in the 1960s, on the grounds that without a breakeven mandate, the unions would capture all surplus; it took until the 1970s for it to finally receive any operating subsidies.
Federal subsidies make all of this worse. They are other people’s money (OPM), so local agencies are likely to maximize them at the expense of good service; this is already what they do with capital money, lading projects with local demands for betterments figuring that if everyone else hogs the trough then they should as well.
Then there is the issue of wages. Seniority systems in American unionized labor create labor shortages even when pay is high, because of how they interact with scheduling and tiered wage structures. Bus drivers in Boston earn around $80,000 a year, a pay that German bus and train drivers can only dream of, but starting drivers are in probational status and have a lower wage (they are not even given full-time work until they put in a long period of part-time work). Moreover, because drivers pick their shifts in seniority order, drivers for about the first 10 years are stuck with the worst shifts: split shifts, graveyard shifts at inconsistent intervals, different garages to report to. New York manages to find enough bus drivers to fill its ranks but only by paying around $85,000 a year; other American cities, paying somewhat less, are seeing thousands of missed runs over the year because they can’t find drivers.
And outside aid does nothing to fix that. Quite to the contrary, it helps paper over these problems and perpetuates the labor gerontocracy. New York City Transit has learned to react to every crisis by demanding a new source of income; there is not enough political appetite for transparent taxation, so the city and state find ever more opaque sources of funds, avoiding political controversy over wanton inefficiency but creating more distortion than a broad income tax would.
Instead of subsidizing current consumption, a developmental state should subsidize production. Don’t pay money to hire more bus drivers; pay for automating subway systems, for better dispatching, for better planning around intermodal integration. Current American wages, not to mention the unemployment rate, scream “invest in labor-saving technology” and not “expand labor-intensive production.”
I did a poll on Patreon about cost issues to write about. This is a close second, with 11 votes; other people’s money won with 12, whereas neighborhood empowerment got 8 and will not be on my docket.
There are infrastructure investment programs defined around the specific projects funded: Crossrail, Second Avenue Subway, Grand Paris Express, Nya Tunnelbanan, the Toronto RER, Marmaray. Then there are programs defined around costs, where one constantly hears the project defined by its budget rather than what it produces; these are all in the United States, and include the entire slates of Los Angeles and Seattle rail extensions, and to some extent also California High-Speed Rail and Gateway. The latter appears like bad practice for cost minimization.
What’s the problem?
In isolation, I’d have expected cost-centric plans to be more prudent with the budget – there’s less room for overruns. This is related to Swiss practice, which is project-centric but also requires projects to go to referendum on the precise amount, which has disciplined cost overruns in most cases and also kept absolute costs low. However, the fact of the matter is that the only places that use cost-centric plans have high costs, having recently risen from levels that were not so bad 20 years ago. So why?
My suspicion is leakage. This is getting to be less general and more specific to the situation of California and its sales tax measures, but the way it works is, there is an amount that proponents think they can go to ballot on, and then they work the slate of projects backward. In theory, this is supposed to discipline the planners into better behavior: the amount of money is truly fixed, and if costs go up, it delays the entire program. In practice, there is no prior discipline about what infrastructure should be included, and thus the slate is decided politically on a place-based plan.
Further leakage occurs when buying off additional interest groups. Soon enough, one useful if very expensive subway line, like the Purple Line Extension in Los Angeles or the Ballard-West Seattle LRT, is bundled into a huge program alongside bus operating subsidies, road money, and low-usage lines to lower-density areas.
I can’t prove that this is the result of budget-centric planning. The comparison examples I have – all high-cost, politicized North American projects – exhibit leakage as well, but less of it. The Green Line Extension in Boston had extensive local leakage in the first iteration of the project, like the Somerville Community Path, but it wasn’t paired with less useful infrastructure elsewhere. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 was paired with East Side Access and the Broadway subway in Vancouver is paired with a SkyTrain extension deeper into Surrey toward Langley; in both cases, the less useful projects are nonetheless more useful on a likely cost per rider basis than any of the American West Coast leakage and compete with the more useful projects. ESA is probably going to end up $60,000/rider, not much worse than GLX and probably about the same as the Purple Line Extension depending on how much transit-oriented development Los Angeles permits.
Place-based politics is a scourge and should be eradicated whenever possible. What it does wherever it is not suppressed is create political identification among local and regional power brokers not with the piece of infrastructure but its cost. The reason is that evaluating transportation needs is too technocratic for the attention span of a local politician, whereas the budget is a straightforward measure of one’s importance.
Once local actors are empowered, they make further demands for irrelevant extras (“betterments”), or construction techniques that spend too much money to avoid real or imagined negative local impact. People with a local identity don’t care about public transit much – public transit takes riders to other localities, especially city center, whereas the locally-empowered minority of people who work locally has little use for it and drives everywhere.
Local empowerment is not unique to budget-based infrastructure. It was a major drag on GLX and at least a moderate one on SAS Phase 1, neither of which is budget-based. The Central Subway and BART to San Jose projects are both place-based vanity, for Chinatown and San Jose respectively, but even these projects are smaller in scope than the Los Angeles or Seattle ST3 leakage. There’s just more surface area for it when advocates lead with a budget, because then every local hack sees an opportunity to make a claim.
The place-based politics in the Northeast is much broader and more regional: SAS, a city project championed by then-Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side), was balanced with ESA, a suburban project serving the base of Governor George Pataki (R-Peekskill, but the state Republicans were based on Long Island). Metro Vancouver’s place-based extraction follows the same schema: if Vancouver gets a useful SkyTrain extension, Surrey must get an extension too regardless of usefulness. Massachusetts is likely to be in a similar situation with the TransitMatters Regional Rail program: RR serves the entire east of the state, and must be balanced with a Western Massachusetts project, for which we propose the still-useful East-West Rail program connecting Boston and Springfield.
In contrast, the situation in California and metropolitan Seattle is much worse – useful lines in Los Angeles are paired with many layers of leakage, as different groups make claims on the pot of money. This way, Los Angeles doesn’t build as much useful transit as New York and Boston even though its construction costs are comparable to Boston’s and much lower than those of New York, and even though it makes large amounts of money available for transportation by referendum.
Are jobs a cost or benefit?
Like place-based extraction, the use of infrastructure as a jobs program is terrible everywhere in a modern developed country where construction is not a labor-intensive zero-skill job, and should be eradicated. And like place-based extraction, I think – and am less certain than on the other points – there is more surface area for this when the program is about a budget and not a piece of infrastructure.
The mechanism is the same as before: once money becomes available, local labor groups descend on it to make claims. Promises of job creation are thus always local, including beggar-thy-neighboring-state demands for local rolling stock construction. These occur for both budget-based plans (like the Los Angeles light rail fleet) and project-based ones (like the new Red and Orange Line cars for Boston, built in Springfield due to place-based extraction). However, it’s easier to make a claim when the political discussion is about how to spend $X and not how to optimally produce a desired piece of infrastructure.
The way forward
The American West Coast’s problem of budget-based planning is, thankfully, easy to solve, because it’s been solved in other parts of the same country. The Bay Area has less of it than Southern California and the Pacific Northwest (but it’s not free of it – many of the specifics of California High-Speed Rail’s failure come from Bay Area power brokers hoping to use it as a slush fund). The Northeast doesn’t have it at all. Los Angeles is likely to be forced in that direction anyway, because it’s running out of sales tax capacity – the already-approved measures are spoken for through the 2050s.
The impact is likely not a matter of straight construction costs in dollars per kilometer. Rather, it’s about leakage. Los Angeles and Seattle do not have unusually higher per-km costs by American standards; in the 2000s Los Angeles looked like the good part of America and in the 2010s Seattle did, but since both have converged to much higher figures. The problem is that a smaller share of the Los Angeles Measures R and M spending goes to useful expansion than the capital budget in places that have project-based planning. This is what needs to be fixed through transitioning to project-based planning, costs aside.
I did a poll on Patreon about cost issues to write about. This is the winning option, with 12 votes; project- vs. budget-driven plans came second with 11 and I will blog about it soon, whereas neighborhood empowerment got 8.
OPM, or other people’s money, is a big impediment to cost reform. In this context, OPM refers to any external infusion of money, typically from a higher-level government from that controlling an agency. Any municipal or otherwise local agency, not able or willing to raise local taxes to fund itself, will look for external grants, for example in a federal budget. The situation then is that the federal grantor gives money but isn’t involved in the design of where the money goes to, leading to high costs.
OPM at ground level
Local and regional advocates love OPM. Whenever they want something, OPM lets them have it without thinking in terms of tradeoffs. Want a new piece of infrastructure, including everything the local community groups want, with labor-intensive methods that also pay the wages the unions hop for? OPM is for you.
This was a big problem for the Green Line Extension’s first iteration. Somerville made ridiculous demands for signature stations and even a bike path (“Somerville Community Path”) thrown in – and all of these weren’t jut extra scope but also especially expensive, since the funding came from elsewhere. The Community Path, a 3 km bike path, was budgeted at $100 million. The common refrain on this is “we don’t care, it’s federally funded.” Once there’s an outside infusion of money, there is no incentive to spend it prudently.
OPM modifying projects
In capital construction, OPM can furthermore lead to worse projects, designed to maximize OPM rather than benefits. Thus, not only are costs high, but also the results are deficient. In my experience talking to New Englanders, this takes the form of trying to vaguely connect to a politician’s set of petty priorities. If a politician wants something, the groups will try pitching a plan that is related to that something as a sales pitch. The system thus encourages advocates and local agencies to invest in buying politicians rather than in providing good service.
This kind of behavior can persist past the petty politician’s shelf life. To argue their cases, advocates sometimes claim that their pet project is a necessary component of the petty politician’s own priority. Then the petty politician leaves and is replaced by another, but by now, the two projects have been wedded in the public discourse, and woe betide any advocate or civil servant who suggests separating them. With a succession of petty politicians, each expressing interest in something else, an entire ecosystem of extras can develop, compromising design at every step while also raising costs.
The issue of efficiency
In the 1960s, the Toronto Transit Commission backed keeping a law requiring it to fund its operations out of fares. The reason was fear of surplus extraction: if it could receive subsidies, workers could use this as an excuse to demand higher wages and employment levels, and thus the subsidy would not go to more service. As it is, by 1971 this was untenable and the TTC started getting subsidies anyway, as rising market wages required it to keep up.
In New York, the outcome of the cycle of more subsidies and less efficiency is clearer. Kyle Kirschling’s thesis points out on PDF-p. 106 that New York City Transit’s predecessors, the IRT and BMT, had higher productivity measured in revenue car-km per employee in the 1930s than the subway has today. The system’s productivity fell from the late 1930s to 1980, and has risen since 1980 but (as of 2010) not yet to the 1930s peak. The city is one of a handful where subway trains have conductors; maintenance productivity is very low as well.
Instead of demanding efficiency, American transit advocates tend to demand even more OPM. Federal funding only goes to capital construction, not operations – but the people who run advocacy organizations today keep calling for federal funding to operations, indifferent to the impact OPM would have on any effort to increase efficiency and make organizations leaner. A well-meaning but harmful bill to break this dam has been proposed in the Senate; it should be withdrawn as soon as possible.
The difference between nudging and planning
I am soon going to go over this in more details, but, in brief, the disconnect between funding and oversight is not a universal feature of state funding of local priorities. In all unitary states we’ve investigated, there is state funding, and in Sweden it’s normal to mix state, county, and municipal funding. In that way, the US is not unique, despite its federal system (which at any case has far more federal involvement in transportation than Canada has).
Where the US is unique is that the Washington political establishment doesn’t really view itself as doing concrete planning. It instead opts for government by nudge. A federal agency makes some metrics, knowing that local and state bodies will game them, creating a competition for who can game the other side better. Active planning is shunned – the idea that the FTA should have engineers who can help design subways for New York is unthinkable. Federal plans for high-speed rail are created by hiring an external consultant to cobble together local demands rather than the publicly-driven top-down planning necessary for rail.
The same political advocates who want more money and care little for technical details also care little for oversight. They say “regulations are needed” or “we’ll come up with standards,” but never point to anything concrete: “money for bus shelter,” “money for subway accessibility,” “money for subway automation,” etc. Instead, in this mentality the role of federal funding is to be an open tab, in which every leakage and every abnormal cost is justified because it employed inherently-moral $80,000/year tradesmen or build something that organized groups of third-generation homeowners in an expensive city want. The politics is the project.
I’ve talked before on the subject of infrastructure as stimulus, arguing that it’s ideally used for projects with one-time costs and ongoing benefits. Tonight I want to discuss a specific aspect of this: jobs. American infrastructure projects always talk about how many jobs they will create as a benefit rather than as a cost, and even in Europe, the purpose of the Green Deal investment package is to create jobs. In contrast with this view, I believe it is more correct to view infrastructure stimulus as an unusually bad way of creating jobs to deal with unemployment. The ideal infrastructure package really has to be about the benefits of the projects to users, and not about temporary or permanent employment.
The key question when designing stimulus is, unemployment for whomst?. Unemployment is predominantly a problem of unskilled workers. The OECD has a chart of unemployment by education level, and the rates for people with tertiary education are very low: in 2019, the US and Germany were at 2%, France at 5%, and even Spain only at 8%, all standing around half the overall national unemployment rates.
In theory, this makes infrastructure a good solution, because it employs people in the building trades, who are not university graduates and who have swings in employment rates based on private residential construction. In practice, it is not the case, for two reasons.
First, infrastructure projects have a long lead time, and therefore by the time physical construction happens, the recession has ended: the Green Line Extension in Boston, funded by the Obama-era stimulus, has mostly been under construction at the peak of the current business cycle, with such a shortage of labor that the contractors had to offer workers a full day’s pay with overtime for just five hours of nighttime work to get people to come in.
And second, while the building trades have large swings in employment, they are not good targets for absorbing the mass of laid off workers in recession. It takes years to get certified. This is not the 1930s, when construction was more labor-intensive and less skilled, so that armies of unemployed workers could be put to work building bridges and hydroelectric dams. Construction today is more capital-intensive (how capital-intensive, I can’t tell, since the full capital-labor ratios for the projects we’ve delved into are buried beneath layers of subcontracting), and the workers, while not university-educated, are much higher-skill.
Swings in employment are the most common among unskilled workers who do not have a special qualification. Those are workers in retail, restaurants, sundry small non-essential businesses that depend on the state of the economy for sales. The public sector is rather bad at absorbing them, because the stuff the public sector is or should be doing – the military, police, health care, education, social work, transportation, infrastructure – employs workers who are not so interchangeable. Health care, education, and social work involve massive numbers of people in intermediate professions; the military requires long training and a long commitment and countries that use soldiers as cheap labor for civil infrastructure projects end up weak in both infrastructure and defense; infrastructure uses workers in trades that usually involve years of apprenticeship. The main employers of the workers most at risk of unemployment are private, doing things the state would not be able to provide well.
So if the point is to limit unemployment, it’s best to stimulate private-sector spending through direct cash aid, and not through large state-directed development programs. Those have their place, but in the economic conditions of the 2020s rather than the unfairly romanticized middle of the 20th century, they are not good tools for reducing the impact of business cycle on workers.
And if the point is to build infrastructure, then an infrastructure package is a great tool for this, but it must be built based on maximum value and long-term savings. The number of jobs created should under no circumstances appear in any public communications, to deter groups from extracting surplus by claiming that they provide jobs, and to deter false advertising when in reality the jobs created by public-sector construction tend to be created when the recession is over among groups that do not need stimulus by the. Instead, infrastructure should center the benefits to the public, to be provided at the lowest reasonable price; labor, like concrete and lumber, is in that case a cost, and not a benefit.
In New York, the frequency of a bus or subway service is regularly adjusted every three months to fine-tune crowding. Where Berlin has a fixed clockface timetable in which most trains run every 5 minutes all day, New York prefers to make small changes to the frequency of each service throughout the day based on crowding. The New York approach looks more efficient on paper, but is in fact the opposite. It leads to irregular frequencies whenever trains share tracks with other trains, and weakens the system by leading to long waits. But another problem that I learned about recently is that it is unusually inconvenient for labor, and makes the timetabling of trains too difficult.
How does New York timetable trains?
New York City Transit meets every three months to change the frequency of each named (numbered or lettered) subway service and, I believe, also every bus service. The rule is that, off-peak, train loads should be 125% of seated capacity at the most crowded point of the journey. Of note:
- This is adjusted by time of day – it’s not one fixed frequency for the entire midday off-peak.
- At the peak, the frequency follows the same rule but the guideline allows much more crowding, equal to about 3 times the seated capacity.
- When multiple services share the same trunk, the crowding is based on the service, not the trunk. This matters because sometimes there’s a notable difference, for example the 2 is more crowded than the 3 coming in from the Bronx and Harlem.
- There is no adjustment for the length of the most crowded point: it could be one 1.5-minute interstation, or a long 20-minute stretch.
- The interlining between different services leads to irregular frequencies on each, thus different crowding levels. The frequency guidelines are averaged across different trains of the same service.
- There is a minimum frequency of a train every 10 minutes weekdays, every 12 minutes weekends; late at night, all trains run every 20 minutes.
I wrote in 2015 about the negatives of this approach, focusing on the issue of interlining of different services with different frequencies and the seams this creates. Because the system is not trunk-based, the alternation of (say) 2 and 3 trains on the long trunk that they share is not regular. Thus the frequency is irregular and so is crowding. More recently, in 2019 I wrote about the frequency-ridership spiral. The guidelines are based on thinking from an era when nobody thought ridership was endogenous to frequency; direct commute trips without transfers are long compared with frequency, so in that era, the only perceived purpose of frequency was to provide capacity for a fixed ridership. But in reality, 10 minutes is too infrequent for the subway trips people actually take, which average 13.5 minutes without transfers.
Timetabling and labor
The consequence of the constant fidgeting on frequency is that crew timetables are unpredictable. In one period, the system may need more subway drivers reporting to Coney Island Yard, and in another, it may need more at yards in the Bronx and Queens. Bus depots likewise are located all over the city. Naturally, subway yards and bus depots are at peripheral locations, usually accessible only from one subway line in one direction. Commuting there from most spots in the city is difficult.
Moreover, as is typical in the American unionized public sector, workers at New York City Transit pick their schedules in descending order of seniority. The senior workers can make sure to pick work out of depots near where they live. The junior ones spend years having to work out of the Bronx one day and Southern Brooklyn the next. The commute is so bad that the TWU negotiated paid commute time: workers who have long commutes, forced by erratic timetabling, get paid for commute time, rather than just for time they actually work. Car ownership rates among subway workers are high, which is not typical of New York workers.
The erratic scheduling also means that, even independently of the long commutes for train and bus drivers, there is extensive downtime between runs. A prominent peak in the schedule means that split shifts are unavoidable. Split shifts are undesirable to workers, and therefore shift scheduling always includes some compromises, for example paying workers half-time for time between shifts (as in Boston), or scheduling shorter paid gaps between revenue service. In New York, there are some subway train operators who have three uninterrupted hours of paid work in which they do not drive a revenue train.
As a result, comparing total counts for train operators and service-hours, NYCT gets around 550 hours per train operator. I provided some comparative links in 2016, but they have rotted; Berlin, which runs close to even service on the U-Bahn with very little peaking and little adjustment over time, has 790 drivers and gets 22.1 million annual train-km at an average speed of 30.9 km/h, which is 905 hours per train driver. If you’ve seen me cite lower figures, such as 820 or 829 hours/driver, they come from assuming 20.3 million train-km, which figure is from 2009.
This is not because New York City drivers are lazy or overpaid. The timetabling is forcing unnecessary pain on them, which allows them to demand higher wages, and also leads to inefficiency due to much downtime and paid commutes. NYCT pays bus and train drivers $85,000 a year in base salary per See Through NY, and there aren’t hordes of people knocking on NYCT’s doors demanding those jobs. Boston pays slightly less, around $80,000, and has some retention problems among bus drivers; private bus companies that attempt to pay much less just can’t find qualified workers. The market pay is high, partly because it’s a genuinely physically tough job, but partly because it’s made tougher by erratic scheduling. In Munich, the richest city in Germany, with average per capita incomes comparable to those of New York, S-Bahn drivers get 38,000-45,000€ a year, and one wage comparison site says 40,800€. Berlin pays less, but Berlin is a poorer city than both Munich and New York.
There is another way
New York should timetable its trains differently. Berlin offers a good paradigm, but is not the only one. As far as reasonably practical, frequency should be on a fixed clockface timetable all day. This cannot be exactly 5 minutes in New York, because it needs more capacity at rush hour, but it should aim to run a fixed peak timetable and match off-peak service to peak service.
One possibility is to run all trunks every 2.5 minutes. In some cases, it may be fine to drop a trunk to every 3 minutes or a bit worse: the L train has to run every 3 minutes due to electrical capacity limits, but should run at this frequency all day; the local Broadway Line trains should probably only run every 3 minutes as they have less demand. But I wouldn’t run the 1 train every 3 minutes as it does today, but rather keep it every 2.5, matching the combined trunk of the 2 and 3, and try to time the cross-platform transfers at 96th Street. Train services that share tracks with other services should thus run every 5 minutes, maybe 6. Last year I called this the six-minute city, in which all buses and trains run every (at worst) 6 minutes all day. In the evening this can drop to a train or bus every 10 minutes, and late at night every 20, but this should be done at consistent times, with consistent quantity of service demanded week in, week out.
There may be still some supplemental peak frequency. Taking 3 minutes as the base on every trunk, some trunks may need 2.5 at the peak, or ideally 2 or less with better signaling. It represents a peak-to-base ratio of 1-1.2, or maybe 1.5 in some extreme cases; Berlin, too, has the odd line with 4-minute peak frequency, for a ratio of 1.25. The employee timetabling is unlikely to be onerous with a ratio of 1.25 rather than the present-day ratio of around 2, and while passengers do drop out of riding trains for short distances if they only come every 10-12 minutes, 6 minutes on branches may be tolerable, even if 5 is slightly better.
It’s a large increase in service. That’s fine. Frequency-ridership spirals work in your favor here. Increases in service require small increases in expenditure, even assuming variable costs rise proportionately – but they in fact do not, since regularizing frequency around a consistent number and reducing the peak-to-base ratio make it possible to extract far more hours out of each train driver, as in Berlin. Net of the increase in revenue coming from better service, such a system is unlikely to cost more in public expenditure.
This remains true even assuming no pay cuts for drivers in exchange for better work conditions. Pay cuts are unlikely anyway, but improving the work conditions for workers, especially junior workers, does make it easy to hire more people as necessary. The greater efficiency of workers under consistent timetabling without constant fidgeting doesn’t translate to lower pay, but to much more service, in effect taking those 550 annual hours and turning them into 900 through much higher off-peak frequency. It may well reduce public expenditure: more service and thus greater revenue from passengers on the same labor force.
What it requires is understanding that frequency is not to be constantly messed with. Gone are the days when frequency was naturally so high that it looked to be just a function of capacity. On a system with so many transfers and so much short ridership, ridership is endogenous to it, and therefore high, consistent frequency is a must for passengers. For workers, it is also a must, to avoid imposing 1.5-hour commutes on people without much notice. Modernization in this case is good for everyone.
Sometimes, when I write about cost comparisons or public-sector incompetence, I see people make analogies to other fields. and sometimes these analogies are really strained. So I want to make this clear that I am talking about things that are specific to public transportation, and drawing lessons in other fields requires excellent cross-national comparisons within those other fields.
For example, in a Hacker News thread regarding my last post, including some interesting comments and some truly mad ones, someone brought up education, including that overrated word in US business, disruption. For another example, the pseudonymous New York (I believe?) socialist transit activist who goes by Emil Seidel asked me recently why I talk about full workforce replacement at Amtrak but not at American police departments.
So let’s enumerate some features of rail transport, as far as labor and international comparisons go:
- The United States is severely behind, with much less usage than in peer developed countries, especially when it comes to commuter and intercity rail as opposed to subways and light rail.
- The United States is moreover intellectually behind – there is too little academia-industry collaboration, the internal ideas of reform are usually half-baked, and so on, and this again is magnified when it comes to mainline rail.
- Wages are not really above local market rates, but the market rate is pulled up by solvable work conditions problems. Moreover, there is severe overstaffing on mainline rail, though much less so on subways and not at all as far as I can tell on buses.
- The laws of physics are universal, and to a large extent so are those of economics, which means that knowledge transplants quickly between different environments when the recipient place is interested in learning, as Southern Europe is in learning from Northern Europe.
I don’t think any of the above features applies to education. The United States seems worse than Northern Europe and East Asia, and does spend more money, but the money doesn’t really go to teachers. The OECD’s Education at a Glance report finds that among the OECD countries for which there is data, the US ranks last in teacher pay relative to that of similarly-educated workers (PDF-p. 387), and has somewhat more students per teacher than the average (PDF-p. 372). Starting Berlin teachers get paid slightly better than starting New York teachers, Germany having one of the best pay rates relative to wages, enough to overcome New York’s large average income premium over Berlin.
The part about the laws of physics being universal might apply to education, but the upshot is that full replacement leads to a big reduction in quality, because teachers should know the students personally and a contingent workforce of strikebreakers moving around from city to city can’t do that.
It’s plausible that the US is also intellectually behind on education, in the sense of not being aware of trends in Finland, Singapore, the Netherlands, and other high-performance countries. My impression is that individual Americans sometimes acquire such an interest but the school district system does not reward such knowledge, so they remain interested parents who yell into the ether and never become decision makers. But I don’t know to what extent American teachers, curriculum writers, etc. are just ignorant of advances elsewhere, and judging by the quality of comments on this subject, the American commenters who go ahead and assume education works like rail transport don’t either.
Policing, unlike education, does display a glaring international difference. American cops shoot around 1,100 people every year, around 3-3.5 per million people; the European range is 0.03-0.25 per million, to the point that one must rely on multiyear averages to get any reliable rates by country, and the high-income Asian range is so low that in 2018 Japan only had two killings, for a rate of 0.016. This is disproportionate to any difference in crime rates, police racism levels, etc.
And yet, all the other issues apply. The US does not have an overstaffed police by European standards, either writ large or in specific cities. NYPD has somewhat larger strength per capita than the TMPD, by about one third per Wikipedia, but this is not a large difference, and New York has higher crime than Tokyo. The biggest glaring difference to me on the labor side, all from Wikipedia-level knowledge, is that Germany requires years of academy of cops compared with a few months in American cities, but that argues against general replacement. And local knowledge is of paramount importance in criminal investigation.
I’d like to stress, then, that I make assertions regarding public transportation, especially mainline rail. These include the inferiority of North America to Europe and Asia, to such extent that Americans in the field need to view themselves as deficient Europeans or Asians and acquire the knowledge of the global technological frontier before attempting to innovate.
But this, again, is barely even true in other parts of public transportation. In urban transit that doesn’t touch mainline rail, the inferiority is still there but the gap is narrow in operations. It’s really only capital construction and anything involving mainline rail where one sees routine inefficiency by a factor of 5-10, with a commuter train staffed with five or more crew where a similar-size train here would have one, very low maintenance productivity, order-of-magnitude construction cost premiums, and so on. In operations, New York is still inefficient but the factor is 2 and not 10 and some other American cities, like Chicago, have normal operating costs. (Japanese cities, not depicted in the link, cluster around $5/car-km – see report for Mumbai Metro, PDF-pp. 254-261.)
If the point is to look at staffing levels carefully and only then make proclamations regarding the workforce, then it’s natural that the conclusions in different fields may be different. In mainline rail there really is a case for full replacement at Amtrak and some commuter rail agencies in the US, but it’s in context of truly otherworldly costs, an internal culture that is technologically stuck in the 1950s, and high enough staffing levels that pushing the reset button could be worth it. This case is most likely not there for other industries, and, again, isn’t there for non-mainline US rail transit, which needs reforms but often in a direction junior planners already push for.
Question. In what ways can a recession be useful for forcing inefficient public-sector agencies to lay off redundant workers and reduce bloat?
Every recession, going at least back to the Great Depression, you get economists and others who are certain that high unemployment can discipline firms into greater productivity. Back in the 1930s, this was Joseph Schumpeter saying that there was no need to fear a depression because it was good, like “a cold douche.” Liquidating unproductive firms and forcing the rest to get leaner was supposed to improve economy-wide efficiency. Today, you can find people arguing the same for inefficient public-sector agencies strapped by budget cuts.
It doesn’t happen. Productivity decreases in bad economic times; labor-saving productivity improvements happen when wages are high, not when sales are low. Cash-strapped firms do not have the ability to invest for the long run – they just sell portions of themselves and shrink to be easier to manage, to limit the loss.
In public-sector public transportation, this really is the same. The best time for converting a metro line to driverless operation is when unemployment is 3%, not when it’s 15%. When unemployment is 3%, it’s possible to place workers in the private sector, which means they’ll work well through the transition. This goes doubly so when the productivity improvement lets one person do a job that previously took three rather than eliminating the job entirely: workers can go on strike if they’re unhappy, and transit as an industry is very amenable to unionization, to the point that unions have succeeded in organizing the tech shuttles in Silicon Valley in an otherwise union-hostile setting. (Of note, American public-sector anti-union successes have mostly been about screwing young workers, who are already the least empowered within the union, rather than doing anything to 20-year veterans who are about to retire with a full pension.)
The issue here is that very, very few workers are redundant on a next-day basis, even in severely overstaffed agencies. New York can eliminate subway conductors but requires some planning in advance to do so, for example to move mirrors around and place CCTV cameras to enable drivers to see the platform and close the doors. American commuter rail agencies can eliminate rail conductors, in what is as close to next-day redundancy as I can think of, but even that requires hiring fare inspectors for proof of payment checks and often also buying ticketing machines at outlying stations where previously passengers bought tickets directly on the train.
More often, eliminating a large amount of waste requires spending a bit more money in the short run. It can be on capital, like more ticketing machines. It can be on labor, like more dispatchers to make the buses run more regularly to reduce delays and bus driver overtime. But it’s usually not something that can be done by the Chainsaw Al school of management. It takes time, and in a lot of cases, the cooperation of the workforce is necessary.
Time and time again, we see transit managers who think in terms of just cutting avoid making long-term investments to improve efficiency. We see hiring freezes, wage freezes, reticence to engage in any long-term hiring and planning even in temporary recessions, and hostility to electrification even among American governors who propose to spend billions of dollars on parking more trains in city center between the morning and afternoon peaks. Even below the top political level, managers who develop a siege mentality never think in terms of long-term improvement. That’s not what will get them ahead; avoiding short-term controversy will, and they adapt to bad practices readily.
The workers adapt, too. If they expect sudden layoffs, their morale will tank and so will their productivity doing anything but the most routinized work. Maintenance workers will skip things – nobody will notice until it’s too late. Cleaners will slack, and if the message sent from the top is that it’s time to retrench, it will be hard to argue for aggressive standards for cleanliness. Even absent unionization, productivity will flounder, and there will not be much room to replace truly lazy workers if there is a hiring slowdown.
So what works for increasing efficiency? The answer is growth. Kopicki-Thompson’s report on best practices for rail privatization has a chapter about the history of the breakup of Japan National Railways in the 1980s, which makes the connection between growth and efficiency clear. Between 1980 and the breakup of JNR into seven constituent JRs in 1987, the company laid off two-thirds of its workforce, after complex negotiations with the unions, some of which were militant socialists. Japanese work culture is that a man is expected to work for the same firm for his entire working life, from age 22 for a university graduate to retirement at 65; JNR had to place these workers in the private sector for a mid-career layoff. This could happen because Japan’s economic growth in that era was famously high, to the point that Americans soon bought business books about how to think like a Japanese manager.
It is best to instead use weak periods to plan for the long term. If there’s stimulus spending, take it and go build things. Even if there isn’t, remember that the recession won’t last forever and plan in advance. Part of the plan should be knowing which workers are supernumerary and making a plan to place them at private-sector jobs as soon as they become available. But don’t expect to be able to send masses of pink slips in a recession; that must be saved for when jobs elsewhere in the economy are plentiful.
I’d like to compare three cities: Paris, New York, Boston. They’re about equally wealthy, and I’ve lived years in two and spent a lot of time in the third. Americans dismiss New York and Boston too often as Not Real America, but they’re both excellent examples of how the US differs from Europe.
Private affluence and squalor at home
Visit the home of a middle-class person in the city. (I mean “middle-class” in the European sense of “reasonably educated professional,” not the American one of “not homeless.”) If you’re used to a certain suburban American standard of normality then the New York apartment will look small to you, but the one in Boston will not, and a few years seeing how Europeans live will disabuse you of any notion that New York apartments are small.
Parisian apartments are tiny. I had 40 square meters near Nation, but the citywide average is 31 per person; in New York, it’s 50 if I understand the Census Factfinder correctly. There are studios in Paris well below 20 m^2 – even Stockholm tends to stick to micro-units in the 20-25 m^2 area. There is something called studettes going down to 9 m^2 in the most extreme cases, many inherited from servant attic units built in the Second Empire and Belle Epoque. In New York it’s more or less prohibited by regulation, with the attendant high rents, but the regulations are about bedrooms, not unit size, hence the common experience of living 3 or 4 people to a large apartment, one that in Continental Europe is largely restricted to lower-income cities like Lisbon or Berlin.
In the 1950s, when John Galbraith coined the expression private affluence and public squalor, the American home had amenities unheard of in Europe, like universal ownership of appliances. This is not as stark a distinction today. Europeans have televisions and fast Internet connections for cheaper prices than in the US. But Europeans don’t have driers or air conditioning and don’t have dishwashers as commonly as Americans. I don’t want to exaggerate the difference in housing quality – for one, insulation is a lot better in Paris (and Berlin) than in New York and Boston, so the experience of living on the 3rd floor facing a city street is a lot noisier west of the Pond than east of it. For another difference, American air conditioning is window units in all but the highest-end apartments, which would have central air in Europe too. But the difference exists, and is noticeable.
Public affluence and squalor on the street
Let’s leave the inside of our houses now. How does the public sphere look?
The recent reporting of New York as trash city can make people think that this is literally about the street. To some extent, this is – but it’s not just about trash. For one, the street lighting is better in Paris, and better in Manhattan than in Cambridge, in what I think is an artifact of high density and not just wealth. For two, I don’t remember having to dodge puddles in the rain in Paris; in New York and Boston it’s a common occurrence whenever there’s heavier rain than a drizzle. For three, in the snow, Cambridge becomes mostly impassable to pedestrians, and while Paris does not get serious enough snow for shoveling to ever be a big issue, Stockholm does and the sidewalks in Central Stockholm are shoveled just fine.
The importance of Paris’s wealth and density is that Berlin is not this nice. The street lighting in Berlin is not great by Parisian standards (or, as I recall, by Stockholm ones?). Walking around Bernauer Strasse (let alone Neukölln, one of inner Berlin’s poorest neighborhoods), one never gets the feeling the area is as well-off as Nation, which is itself lower middle-class by Parisian standards. I’m saying this knowing the comparative income levels of Berlin and Paris, and perhaps it’s unfair, but from what I’ve seen, it’s fairly easy to compare France and Germany, their relative levels of public and private affluence are similar.
Most Americans know, on some level, that various public services are better in Western Europe. Life expectancy in France is higher than in the US by 3-4.5 years depending on source, and life expectancy in Germany is higher by 2-3 years. New York and Massachusetts are wealthy states and outlive the rest of the country by a margin, but they’re still not French, let alone Parisian.
Public health is there in various statistics, but the same is true of transportation. This is not even just public transportation – my recollection of the handful of times I’ve found myself in a taxi in Paris is that it’s a much more pleasant experience than the potholed American streets I’ve taken taxis or ridden with other people on. But it’s much more glaring in public transit than on roads, because public transit inherently requires more public competence. Parisians do not think the RER is particularly good, but it’s a marvel compared with any American commuter rail network, and involves a level of interagency coordination in fares, schedules, and services that is unheard of in the United States.
Worse, public transit in the United States has the reputation of a social service. In metro New York the incomes of transit and car commuters are very close, and in metro Boston transit commuters slightly outearn car commuters, but in both areas, anything that is not a segregated suburban middle-class commuter line is treated as a social service, run by managers who do not use their own system and do not consider use cases beyond their own 9-to-5 work travel.
Squalor and incompetence
Squalor and incompetence feed each other. This does not mean poverty is a moral failing or a result of weakness or stupidity. But it does mean that someone who is denied access to good work will, over a lifetime, learn to do lower-value things and, even if the job denial at 18 was entirely random or a matter of discrimination, be worse at high-value jobs by 50. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that countries with more income mobility and less persistent poverty – for examples, Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries – do not determine people’s careers by how they did at 18 at the university admissions the way the US, UK, and France do. Talented Canadians who get worse grades in high school because of obstructive teachers will have opportunities to shine at 23 that their French or American counterparts, denied the ability to go to the most prestigious universities, will simply not get.
I bring this up because the US has a cycle of public squalor. Public-sector wages are uncompetitive, so workers are either nerds with particular personal or social interest in the field (sanitation, public transit, etc.), or people who couldn’t get better private-sector work – and this is particularly acute at the management level, especially senior management, since the best managers can leak to the private sector and get better pay there. Weak civil service in turns reduces the political will to pay civil servants high salaries, especially among politicians, who encounter senior managers much more often than they do hard-working train drivers, sanitation workers, and individual teachers.
There’s perhaps an analog of private affluence and public squalor, in which Americans are individually diligent and collectively lazy. Some of this has to be political: ambitious politicians get ahead by doing nothing and packaging it as bravery. I can name multiple national Republicans who became nationally famous by saying no to spending, and not a single Democrat who became nationally famous by successfully pushing through a major government program, such statewide universal health care or a green transition. But it’s not just politicians and their political appointees – there’s punch-clock behavior and agency turf battles below that level.
Is there a solution?
Unambiguously, yes. It’s not evident from just reading about the history of the Anglosphere, since Britain took forever to develop its civil service and thus assumes the process would be equally long in South Korea or Finland (“first 500 years are hardest“). It requires political will, and often a good model – I suspect Finland was able to develop good government so quickly because it consciously imitated Swedish governance. It doesn’t even require setting everything on fire first – South Korea and Taiwan engaged in land reform but did not kill the entire middle class the way some communist countries did.
The good news is that most public-sector workers in the US are not incompetent political appointees. The people I talk to in New York and Boston are sharp and informed and often difficult to keep up with because of how much they understand that I don’t, and for the most part I get the impression that they don’t think their colleagues are morons. The competence level on average decreases as one goes upward, partly because of negative selection of management, but it’s possible and desirable to internally promote people and raise wages to retain talent.
Fundamentally, the US needs to let go of the idea that the public is inferior to the private. But this isn’t just about what’s in Americans’ heads. They need to treat the public commons well, and I don’t just mean building monuments that look nice now and will rust in 10 years. I mean investing in public services, and paying the people who provide them competitively. Public squalor is a choice the US makes every day that it can stop making.
As I’m putting more and more urban rail lines and their construction costs into one table, I have to notice trends. One that I’ve talked about for many years is that construction costs in the Anglosphere are higher than in the rest of the developed world, not just in world leader New York but also in other American cities as well as in Britain, Canada, Singapore, and so on. For years I identified this with common law, which I no longer do. Instead, I want to expand on this by asking what exactly the Anglosphere even means.
The features of the Anglosphere
Within the developed world, a subset of countries consists of the Anglosphere. The core is Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but Ireland has to be on the list too, as should Singapore and to varying extents Israel and Hong Kong. Which features separate them from the remainder of the first world:
- For the most part, they use English as their usual language – but Israel, Hong Kong, and Quebec do not, and Singapore only does as a public language while maintaining Chinese, Malay, and Tamil as home languages.
- They use English common law – but Quebec uses a French-derived code for civil law.
- They have extensive right to trial by jury – but Israel and Singapore have no juries.
- They use single-member districts in elections – but Singapore and Hong Kong are undemocratic, Israel and New Zealand use proportional representation, Ireland uses single transferable vote, and Australia’s single-member districts use instant runoff (cf. France’s single-member districts with runoffs).
- They have higher economic inequality than other developed countries, lower taxes and government spending, and weaker unions – but there are some exceptions (e.g. Canada and Australia are less unequal than Italy, and South Korea and Japan have lower taxes than most of the Anglosphere), and moreover the ranges within both the Anglosphere and the rest of the developed world are quite wide.
- They make extensive use of privatization and public-private partnerships for infrastructure and services – but Stockholm contracts out its urban rail whereas no major American city does, and France built one of its recent high-speed lines, the one to Bordeaux, as a PPP.
- The smaller countries see the US, the UK, or both as inspirations for what modern prosperity looks like – but Israel compares itself with both the US and Western Europe (especially Germany), Singapore’s cultural cringe extends toward both the US/UK and bigger East Asian countries, and Hong Kong is torn between Western and Chinese models.
Every distinguishing feature of the Anglosphere can be made to correlate with high construction costs, but that tells us little, because it could be that this is just a spurious relationship, the real cause being something else about the Anglosphere. When making a claim about what makes the US, UK, and Canada so expensive to build in, it’s useful to test it against special cases – that is, countries that are part of the Anglosphere in general but fail that specific criterion.
The legal system
With respect to common law, Quebec is the ideal testing ground. Montreal and Toronto share more social and economic features than do other pairs of major cities with their respective languages. A large Toronto premium over Montreal would suggest that remaining differences, such as the legal code or maybe the peculiarities of Quebec politics, matter to construction costs.
But what we see is the opposite. In the 2000s, Toronto and Montreal both built subway extensions at pretty reasonable costs. Since then, costs have risen in both cities in tandem, placing the planned Blue Line extension in Montreal and the planned Ontario Line and Scarborough replacement in Toronto among the most expensive non-New York subways. So it’s likely that common vs. civil law makes no great difference to costs.
By the same token as with the use of common versus civil law, we can look at the electoral system. Israel and New Zealand use fully proportional elections, and Israel has national lists, without any local empowerment. Both countries have cheap recent electrification projects, but when it comes to tunneling, both Tel Aviv and Auckland are on the expensive side.
Conversely, France has single-member districts with runoffs; the lack of a spoiler effect weakens political parties, but they’re still stronger than in the US, and in practice independent candidates mostly run explicitly as left or right. Any reasonable mechanism for why single-member districts should raise construction costs should apply regardless of whether these districts are elected by plurality or with runoffs (and besides which, Melbourne has extreme costs and Sydney fairly high ones). And yet, French costs are decidedly average: Grand Paris Express is the median world subway by construction costs, and other Metro extensions in Paris and other French cities are somewhat cheaper.
Unions and inequality
The political factor – the Anglosphere’s socioeconomic policy is generally to the right of that of Continental European countries – has its own special cases too. The American left and center-left has in particular seized upon the importance of health care to construction costs, since the US has high health care costs and employers, especially in the public sector, are expected to pay most of the costs of workers’ health insurance. But the UK and Canada both have largely public systems that the American left uses as inspiration for its single-payer health care plans, and the UK also has very good cost control; and yet both countries have very high infrastructure construction costs. Singapore, whose health care system is private and unequal but also low-cost, has very expensive subway construction as well.
We can similarly look at inequality in general, or at union power. The correlation between inequality and national construction costs should be fairly high, if only because the Anglosphere has high inequality as well as high construction costs. However, per Branko Milanovic’s data for after-tax-and-transfers inequality, Canada, Britain, and Australia all have slightly lower inequality than Spain, and are comparable to Greece and Italy.
Unions can affect construction costs in either direction. The American center-right and right complain that the power of public-sector unions warps public incentives and forces high construction and operating costs, citing union hostility to productivity improvements that include layoffs, or such regulations as prevailing wage laws. However, the most unionized countries in the developed world are in Scandinavia, where costs are low. The OECD has union density figures by country, and the big cleave is Scandinavia versus the rest. The Anglosphere is on the weaker side.
Perhaps the correlation must then go the other way? That is, weak unions increase costs, for example by creating a siege mentality among those workers who do have stable union jobs (including rail workers, as the industry’s economic and political situation is friendly to unionization)? But the data does not support that, either. Spain’s union density is barely higher than the US’s and much lower than Britain’s, and Greece’s is comparable to Britain’s. The available data strongly suggests that union power has no effect on construction costs, positive or negative.
Could it be privatization?
Privatization and the reliance on PPPs is the least clean of the Anglosphere’s special features – that is, it is not always used throughout the countries I identify with the Anglosphere, and conversely it may be used elsewhere, even in countries with generally left-wing economic policy like Sweden. Nonetheless, among the political, legal, social, and economic factors, it is the only one I cannot rule out.
The issue is not precisely contracting out something, as Stockholm is doing with urban rail. Rather, it is more specifically privatizing the planning aspects of the state, such as engineering. Spain relies heavily on in-house engineering and design, while the US and UK, and by imitation the rest of the Anglosphere, prefer private consultants. To the extent I have cost comparisons within the same city or country with different levels of privatization, they’re suggestive that it matters: the publicly-funded LGV Est Phase 2 cost €19 million per kilometer (with a tunnel covering 4% of the route), the PPP LGV Sud-Europe-Atlantique cost €23 million per kilometer (with no tunnels), the two lines opening within a year of each other. This is not an enormous cost difference, but accounting for the tunnel makes the cost noticeable, perhaps a factor of 1.5.
Overrelying on a single case is not particularly robust. In light of the similarities between costs of different lines in the same city, and even those of different cities in the same country, the N for a quantitative comparison is not large – my data table currently has 38 unique countries, and even accounting for a few misses for which I haven’t included data yet, like Israel, the number is not much larger than 40. It is not responsible to use multivariable regressions or other advanced statistical techniques in such a situation.
In that case, looking at one or two cases provides a powerful sanity check. As far as I can tell, the Anglosphere’s tendency toward privatization and using consultants, often reinforced by different English-speaking countries learning one another’s practices, could be a serious cost raiser. However, the other special features of the Anglosphere – common law, winner-take-all elections leading to two-party systems, and weak unions and welfare states – are unlikely to have a significant effect.
Lately I’ve seen some very aggressive people on social media assert that high American transit construction and operating costs are the fault of unions, and thus, the solution is to break the unions using the usual techniques of subterfuge and breaking implicit promises. A while back, maybe a year ago, I even saw someone argue that gadgetbahn (monorails, PRT, Hyperloop, etc.) is specifically a solution to union agreements covering traditional transit but not things that are marketed as new things. This is an incorrect analysis of the problem, and like many other incorrect analyses, the solutions that would follow were this analysis correct are in fact counterproductive.
American costs are high even without unions
The majority of American transit construction occurs in parts of the country with relatively strong unions. This is for historical reasons: American cities with large prewar cores are both more unionized and more densely populated than newer Sunbelt cities. Thus, a table with cities and their subway construction costs, such as what one might get cobbling together my posts, will show very high costs mostly in cities with American unions.
However, American cities with weak unions build transit too, it’s just unlikely to come with subway tunnels. We can look at above-ground urban rail construction costs in a variety of American states with right-to-work laws. There is one recent above-ground metro line in a right-to-work state, the Washington Silver Line in Virginia, and another proposal, an extension of MARTA. Let’s compare their costs with those of other mostly at-grade urban rail lines in unionized West Coast states:
- The second phase of the Silver Line cost $2.8 billion, or about $150 million per km.
- The proposed MARTA extension is projected to cost about $110 million per km.
- Portland’s Milwaukie MAX extension, which Wikipedia says cost $1.5 billion for 11.7 km, or $130 million per km.
- San Diego’s mixed elevated and rail right-of-way Blue Line extension is currently budgeted at $2.1 billion, or $120 million per km.
- The canceled BART extension to Livermore in a freeway median would have cost $1.6 billion, or $180 million per km.
We can go lower than this range by looking at street-running light rail lines, which are popular in such Sunbelt cities as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte, but then we can compare them with light rail lines in Minneapolis, which has no right-to-work laws.
- Dallas’s Orange Line cost either $1.3 billion or $1.8 billion, or $2.8 billion, so either $58 or 80 million per km.
- Houston’s Green and Purple Lines together cost $1.3 billion, about $80 million per km.
- Phoenix’s light rail extension to Gilbert Road is $186 million, about $60 million per km. A canceled extension to Glendale was projected to cost $900 million to $1 billion, around $90 million per km.
- Charlotte’s light rail extension cost $1.1 billion, about $75 million per km.
- Minneapolis’s light rail extensions, the Blue Line extension and the Southwest LRT, are $1.5 and $2 billion respectively, or about $75 and $80 million per km.
Let’s also look at commuter rail. Dallas’s Cotton Belt Line, a diesel line in a disused freight right-of-way, is projected to cost $1.1 billion for 42 km. The cost, $26 million per km, is within the normal European range for greenfield high-speed rail without tunnels, and more than an order of magnitude higher than some German examples from Hans-Joachim Zierke’s site. In Massachusetts, the plans for South Coast Rail cost around $3 billion for 77.6 km before some recent modifications cutting both cost and length, about $40 million per km; this would have included electrification and right-of-way construction through an environmentally sensitive area, since bypassed to cut costs.
Finally, what of operating costs? There, the Sunbelt is unambiguously cheaper than the Northeast, Chicago, and California – but only by virtue of lower market wages. The cost ranges for both sets of states are wide. In Chicago and San Francisco, the operating costs of rapid transit are not much higher than $5/car-km per the NTD, which is normal or if anything below average by first-world standards. Light rail looks more expensive to operate in old unionized cities, but only because Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco’s light rail lines are subway-surface lines with low average speeds, which are more expensive to run than the faster greenfield light rail lines built elsewhere in North America. The lowest operating costs on recently-built light rail lines in the US are in Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Denver, and among those only the first is in a right-to-work state.
Non-labor problems in American transit
I urge everyone to look at the above lists of American transit lines and their costs again, because it showcases something important: high American costs are not a uniform problem, but rather afflict some areas more than others. Commuter rail construction costs are the worst, casually going over European levels by a full order of magnitude or even more. Subway operating costs are the best, ranging from no premium at all in some cities (Chicago) to a factor-of-2 premium in others (New York). Light rail construction costs are in the middle. The variety of cost premiums suggests that there are other problems in play than just labor, which should hit everything to about the same extent.
When I’m asked to explain high American construction costs, I usually cite the following explanations:
- Poor contracting practices, which include selection of bidders based exclusively on cost, micromanagement making companies reluctant to do business with New York public works, and design-build contracts removing public oversight and encouraging private-sector micromanagement.
- Poor project management: Boston’s Green Line Extension is now budgeted at about $1 billion for 7.6 km, but this is on the heels of an aborted attempt from earlier this decade, driving up total money spent beyond $2 billion.
- Indifference to foreign practices: Americans at all levels, including transit agencies, shadow agencies like the Regional Plan Association, and government bodies do not know or care how things work in other countries, with the partial exception of Canada and the UK, which have very high costs as well. The area where there has been the greatest postwar innovation in non-English-speaking countries, namely commuter rail, is the one where the US is the farthest behind when it comes to cost control. Explanation #1 can be folded into this as well, since the insistences on cost + technical score bid selection and on separation of design and construction are Spanish innovations, uncommon and obscure in the English-speaking world.
- Overbuilding: extra infrastructure required by agency turf battles, extra construction impact required by same, and mined stations. Other than the mined stations, the general theme is poor coordination between different agencies, which once again is especially bad when commuter rail is involved for historical reasons, and which in addition to raising costs also leads to lower project benefits.
Labor is a factor, but evidently, the intransigent BART unions coexist with low operating costs, as do the Chicago L unions. American unions are indifferent to productivity more than actively hostile to it, and in some cases, i.e. bus reforms in New York, they’re even in favor of treatments that would encourage more people to ride public transit.
But union rules force transit agencies to overstaff, right?
In the Northeast, there are unambiguous examples of overstaffing. Brian Rosenthal’s article for the New York Times found horror stories, and upon followup, frequent commenter and Manhattan Institute fellow Connor Harris has found more systematic cases, comparing the ~25 people it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine in New York with the 12 required in Germany. The unions themselves have pushed back against this narrative, but it appears to be a known problem in the infrastructure construction industry.
So what gives? In Texas, the unions are too weak to insist on any overstaffing. Texas is not New York or even California. Without knowing the details of what goes on in Texas, my suspicion is that there is an informal national standard emerging out of mid-20th century practices in the cities that were big then. I see this when it comes to decisions about construction techniques: features that came out of the machinations of interwar New York, like the full-length subway mezzanine, spread nationwide, raising the cost of digging station caverns. I would not be surprised to discover something similar when it comes to staffing. Obvious economies like running driver-only train are already widespread nearly everywhere in the US, New York being the exception. Less obvious economies concerning maintenance regimes are harder to implement without very detailed knowledge, which small upstart Sunbelt transit agencies are unlikely to have, and if they invite consultants or other experts, they will learn to work in the same manner as the big American transit agencies.
The reality that the entirety of the American transit industry is used to doing things a certain way means that there needs to be a public discussion about staffing levels. There are jobs that look superfluous but are in fact crucial, and jobs that are the opposite. The cloak-and-dagger mentality of anti-union consultants does not work in this context at all. Experimentation is impossible on a safety-critical system, and nothing should be changed without double- and triple-checking that it works smoothly.
Anti-union explanations are harmful, not neutral
While union overstaffing does drive up tunneling costs in the United States, there are many other factors in play, which must be solved by other means than union-busting. By itself, this would make union-busting either neutral or somewhat positive. However, in reality, the politics of union-busting wreck government effectiveness in ways that make the overall cost problem worse.
The people who try to tell me the problem is all about the unions are not, as one might expect, Manhattan Institute hacks. Connor himself knows better, and Nicole Gelinas has been making narrow arguments about pension cuts rather than calling for sweeping changes to leave unions in the dust. Rather, the loudest anti-union voices are people who either are in tech or would like to be, and like using the word “disruption” in every sentence. The Manhattan Institute is pretty open about its goals of union-busting and race-baiting; in contrast, the people who tell me gadgetbahn is necessary to avoid union agreements insist on never being public about anything.
The rub is that it’s not possible to solve the coordination problem of public transit agencies without some sort of public process. Adding gadgetbahn to the mix creates the same result as the XKCD strip about 14 competing standards. The more the people building it insist that they’re disruptive synergistic innovators inventing the future with skin in the game, the less likely they are to build something that’s likely to be backward-compatible with anything or cohere to form a usable network.
Nor is it possible to assimilate good industry practices by cloak and dagger politics. The universe of industry practices is vast and the universe of good practices isn’t much smaller. The only way forward is via an open academic or quasi-academic process of publication, open data, peer review, and replication. A single consultancy is unlikely to have all the answers, although with enough study it could disseminate considerable knowledge.
There needs to be widespread public understanding that the United States is behind and needs to import reforms to improve its transportation network. This can happen in parallel with a process that weakens unions or for that matter with a process that strengthens them, but in practice the subterfuge of managers looking for union-busting opportunities makes it difficult to attack all cost drivers at once. Whatever happens with conventional left-right politics, there is no room for people who reduce the entirety or even the majority of America’s transit cost problem to labor.