Andrew Cuomo has a Midas touch. Everything he touches turns to gold, that is, shiny, expensive, and useless. Bin Laden killed 3,000 people in New York on 9-11. Cuomo, through his preference for loyalists who cover up his sexual assaults over competent people, has killed 60,000 and counting in corona excess deaths – 50% more than the US-wide average. And the state let it slide, making excuses for his lying about the nursing home scandal. Eventually the sexual assault stories caught up with him, but not before every state politician preferred to extract some meaningless budget concessions instead of eliminate the killer of New Yorkers at the first opportunity. Even now they delay, not wanting to impeach; they do not believe in consequences for kings, only for subjects.
Time and time again, powerful people show that they don’t believe in accountability. After all, they might be held accountable too, one day. This cascades from the level of a mass killer of a governor down to every middle manager who excuses failure. The idea is that the appearance of scandal is worse than the underlying offense, that somehow things will get better by pretending nothing happened.
And here is the problem: bad leaders, whether they are bad due to pure incompetence or malevolence, don’t get good. People can improve at the start of their careers; leaders are who they are. They can only be thrown away, as far as down as practical, as an example. Anders Tegnell proposed herd immunity for Sweden in early 2020 and then pretended he never did, and the country remained unmasked for most of the year; deaths, while below European averages due to low Nordic levels of cohabitation, are far and away the worst in the Nordic countries, and yet Tegnell is still around, still directing an anti-mask policy. Tegnell is incompetent; Sweden is a worse country for not having gotten rid of him in late spring 2020. Cuomo is malevolent; New York is a worse state for every day that passes that he’s not facing trial for mass manslaughter and sexual assault, every day that passes that his mercenary spokespeople who attacked his victims remain employed.
This is not a moral issue. It’s a practical issue. The most powerful signal anyone can get is promotion versus dismissal (there’s also pay, but it’s not relevant to political power). When Andrew Cuomo stripped Andy Byford of responsibilities as head of New York City Transit, it was a clear signal: you can be a widely acclaimed success, but you failed to flatter the monarch and prostrate before him and this is what matters to me. Byford read the signal correctly, resigned, and ended up promoted to the head of Transport for London, because Sadiq Khan and TfL appreciate competence every bit as Cuomo does not.
Likewise, the retention of Tegnell sends a signal: keep doing what you’re doing. The same is true of Cuomo, and every other failure who is not thrown away from the public.
If anything, it’s worse for a sitting governor. Cuomo openly makes deals. The state legislators who can remove this killer from the body politic choose to negotiate, sending a clear signal: corrupt the state and be rewarded. 60,000 dead New York State residents mean little to them; many more who will die as variants come in mean even less.
The better signal is you have nothing anyone wants, go rot at Sing Sing. This is the correct way to deal with a failure even of three fewer orders of magnitude. Fortunately, there’s only one Cuomo – never before has New York had such mass man-made death. Unfortunately, incidents that are still deadly and require surgical removal of malefactors are far more common. Many come from Cuomo’s lackeys; in my field, the subway, Sarah Feinberg is responsible for around a hundred preventable transit worker deaths, and should never work in or adjacent to this field again. But apolitical managers too screw up on costs, on procurement, on maintenance, on operations, on safety – and rarely suffer for it. But then the fish rots from the head. Chop it off and move on.
We are happy to announce that on Sunday the 29th of August we will hold this year’s Modernizing Rail conference, on the heels of the success last year.
Please register using this form. And please give details on what you’d like to see, and if you’re willing to lead sessions – the schedule of the breakout sessions is still up in the air depending on popular demand. Even the number of breakouts depends on how many registrants we get, compared with the about 200 we had last year. Perhaps the news of the infrastructure bill will tilt the demand toward more political sessions regarding how to ensure what is built is good and less toward technical best practices.
Our keynote is certainly political: Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), who represents the northern suburbs of Boston (6th district) and for years has been pushing the North-South Rail Link. He will give brief remarks at 16:00 Eastern time, or 22:00 Central Europe Summer Time, to be followed by a Q&A; if you have a question that you’d like to hear an answer to, you can mention it in the registration form, or email the organizing committee at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be taking questions throughout the conference, which will start 11:00 Eastern, so if your questions depend on what you hear at the breakouts, you’re in luck.
And yet there’s a problem of comparable size when discussing infrastructure waste, which, lacking any better term for it, I am going to call leakage. The definition of leakage is any project that is bundled into an infrastructure package that is not useful to the project under discussion and is not costed together with it. A package, in turn, is any program that considers multiple projects together, such as a stimulus bill, a regular transport investment budget, or a referendum. The motivation for the term leakage is that money deeded to megaprojects leaks to unrelated or semi-related priorities. This often occurs for political reasons but apolitical examples exist as well.
Before going over some examples, I want to clarify that the distinction between leakage and high costs is not ironclad. Sometimes, high costs come from bundled projects that are costed together with the project at hand; in the US they’re called betterments, for example the $100 million 3 km bike lane called the Somerville Community Path for the first, aborted iteration of the Green Line Extension in Boston. This blur is endemic to general improvement projects, such as rail electrification, and also to Northeast Corridor high-speed rail plans, but elsewhere, the distinction is clearer.
Finally, while normally I focus on construction costs for public transport, leakage is a big problem in the United States for highway investment, for political reasons. As I will explain below, I believe that nearly all highway investment in the US is waste thanks to leakage, even ignoring the elevated costs of urban road tunnels.
State of good repair
A month ago, I uploaded a video about the state of good repair grift in the United States. The grift is that SOGR is maintenance spending funded out of other people’s money – namely, a multiyear capital budget – and therefore the agency can spend it with little public oversight. The construction of an expansion may be overly expensive, but at the end of the day, the line opens and the public can verify that it works, even for a legendarily delayed project like Second Avenue Subway, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, or the soon-to-open Tel Aviv Subway. It’s a crude mechanism, since the public can’t verify safety or efficiency, but it’s impossible to fake: if nothing opens, it embarrasses all involved publicly, as is the case for California High-Speed Rail. No such mechanism exists for maintenance, and therefore, incompetent agencies have free reins to spend money with nothing to show for it. I recently gave an example of unusually high track renewal costs in Connecticut.
The connection with leakage is that capital plans include renewal and long-term repairs and not just expansion. Thus, SOGR is leakage, and when its costs go out of control, they displace funding that could be used for expansion. The NEC Commission proposal for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor calls for a budget of $117 billion in 2020 dollars, but there is extensive leakage to SOGR in the New York area, especially the aforementioned Connecticut plan, and thus for such a high budget the target average speed is about 140 km/h, in line with the upgraded legacy trains that high-speed lines in Europe replace.
Regionally, too, the monetary bonfire that is SOGR sucks the oxygen out of the room. The vast majority of the funds for MTA capital plans in New York is either normal replacement or SOGR, a neverending program whose backlog never shrinks despite billions of dollars in annual funding. The MTA wants to spend $50 billion in the next 5 years on capital improvements; visible expansion, such as Second Avenue Subway phase 2, moving block signaling on more lines, and wheelchair accessibility upgrades at a few stations, consists of only a few billion dollars of this package.
This is not purely an American issue. Germany’s federal plan for transport investment calls for 269.6 billion euros in project capital funding from 2016 to 2030, including a small proportion for projects planned now to be completed after 2031; as detailed on page 14, about half of the funds for both road and rail are to go to maintenance and renewal and only 40% to expansion. But 40% for expansion is still substantially less leakage than seen in American plans like that for New York.
Betterments and other irrelevant projects
Betterments straddle the boundary between high costs and leakage. They can be bundled with the cost of a project, as is the case for the Somerville Community Path for original GLX (but not the current version, from which it was dropped). Or they can be costed separately. The ideal project breakdown will have an explicit itemization letting us tell how much money leaked to betterments; for example, for the first Nice tramway line, the answer is about 30%, going to streetscaping and other such improvements.
Betterments fall into several categories. Some are pure NIMBYism – a selfish community demands something as a precondition of not publicly opposing the project, and the state caves instead of fighting back. In Israel, Haifa demanded that the state pay for trenching portions of the railroad through the southern part of the city as part of the national rail electrification project, making specious claims about the at-grade railway separating the city from the beach and even saying that high-voltage electrification causes cancer. In Toronto, the electrification project for the RER ran into a similar problem: while rail electrification reduces noise emissions, some suburbs still demanded noise walls, and the province caved to the tune of $1 billion.
Such extortion is surplus extraction – Israel and Toronto are both late to electrification, and thus those projects have very high benefit ratios over base costs, encouraging squeaky wheel behavior, raising costs to match benefits. Keeping the surplus with the state is crucial for enabling further expansion, and requires a combination of the political courage to say no and mechanisms to defer commitment until design is more advanced, in order to disempower local communities and empower planners.
Other betterments have a logical reason to be there, such as the streetscape and drainage improvements for the Nice tramway, or to some extent the Somerville Community Path. The problem with them is that chaining them to a megaproject funded by other people’s money means that they have no sense of cost control. A municipality that has to build a bike path out of its own money will never spend $100 million on 3 km; and yet that was the projected cost in Somerville, where the budget was treated as acceptable because it was second-order by broader GLX standards.
Bad expansion projects
Sometimes, infrastructure packages include bad with good projects. The bad projects are then leakage. This is usually the politically hardest nut to crack, because usually this happens in an environment of explicit political negotiation between actors each wanting something for their own narrow interest.
For example, this can be a regional negotiation between urban and non-urban interests. The urban interests want a high-value urban rail line; the rest want a low-value investment, which could be some low-ridership regional rail or a road project. Germany’s underinvestment in high-speed rail essentially comes from this kind of leakage: people who have a non-urban identity or who feel that people with such identity are inherently more morally deserving of subsidy than Berlin or Munich oppose an intercity high-speed rail network, feeling that trains averaging 120-150 km/h are good enough on specious polycentricity grounds. Such negotiation can even turn violent – the Gilets Jaunes riots were mostly white supremacist, but they were white supremacists with a strong anti-urban identity who felt like the diesel taxes were too urban-focused.
In some cases, like that of a riot, there is an easy solution, but when it goes to referendum, it is harder. Southern California in particular has an extreme problem of leakage in referendums, with no short- or medium-term solution but to fund some bad with the good. California’s New Right passed Prop 13, which among other things requires a 2/3 supermajority for tax hikes. To get around it, the state has to promise somthing explicit to every interest group. This is especially acute in Southern California, where “we’re liberal Democrats, we’re doing this” messaging can get 50-60% but not 67% as in the more left-wing San Francisco area and therefore regional ballot measures for increasing sales taxes for transit have to make explicit promises.
The explicit promises for weak projects, which can be low-ridership suburban light rail extensions, bond money for bus operations, road expansion, or road maintenance, damage the system twice. First, they’re weak on a pure benefit-cost ratio. And second, they commit the county too early to specific projects. Early commitment leads to cost overruns, as the ability of nefarious actors (not just communities but also contractors, political power brokers, planners, etc.) to demand extra scope is high, and the prior political commitment makes it too embarrassing to walk away from an overly bloated project. For an example of early commitment (though not of leakage), witness California High-Speed Rail: even now the state pretends it is not canceling the project, and is trying to pitch it as Bakersfield-Merced high-speed rail instead, to avoid the embarrassment.
The issue of roads
I focus on what I am interested in, which is public transport, but the leakage problem is also extensive for roads. In the United States, road money is disbursed to the tune of several tens of billions of dollars per year in the regular process, even without any stimulus funding. It’s such an important part of the mythos of public works that it has to be spread evenly across the states, so that politicians from a bygone era of non-ideological pork money can say they’ve brought in spending to their local districts. I believe there’s even a rule requiring at least 92% of the fuel tax money generated in each state to be spent within the state.
The result is that road money is wasted on low-growth regions. From my perspective, all road money is bad. But let’s put ourselves for a moment in the mindset of a Texan or Bavarian booster: roads are good, climate change is exaggerated, deficits are immoral (German version) or taxes are (Texan version), the measure of a nation’s wealth is how big its SUVs are. In this mindset, road money should be spent prudently in high-growth regions, like the metropolitan areas of the American Sunbelt or the biggest German cities. It definitely should not be spent in declining regions like the Rust Belt, where due to continued road investment and population decline, there is no longer traffic congestion.
And yet, road money is spent in those no-congestion regions. Politicians get to brag about saving a few seconds’ worth of congestion with three-figure million dollar interchanges and bypasses in small Rust Belt towns, complete with political rhetoric about the moral superiority of regions whose best days lay a hundred years ago to regions whose best days lie ahead.
Leakage and consensus
It is easy to get trapped in a consensus in which every region and every interest group gets something. This makes leakage easier: an infrastructure package will then have something for everyone, regardless of any benefit-cost analysis. Once the budget rather than the outcome becomes the main selling point, black holes like SOGR are easy to include.
It’s critical to resist this trend and fight to oppose leakage. Expansion should go to expansion, where investment is needed, and not where it isn’t. Failure to do so leads to hundreds of billions in investment money most of which is wasted independently for the construction cost problem.
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.
I streamed my thoughts about the Biden infrastructure plan, and unlike previous streams, I uploaded this to YouTube. I go into more details (and more tangents) on video, but, some key points:
- Out of the nearly $600 billion in the current proposal that is to be spent on transportation, public transportation is only $190 billion: $80 billion for intercity rail, $85 billion for (other) public transit, $25 billion for zero-emissions buses. This 2:1 split between cars and transit is a change from the typical American 4:1, but in Germany it’s 55:42 and that’s with right-wing ministers of transport.
- Some of the spending on the car bucket is about electric vehicles, including $100 billion in consumer subsidies, but that’s still car spending. People who don’t drive don’t qualify for these subsidies. It’s an attempt to create political consensus by still spending on roads and not just public transit while saying that it’s green, but encouraging people to buy more cars is not particularly green, and there’s no alternative to sticks like fuel taxes in addition to carrots.
- The $25 billion for zero-emissions buses is likely to go to battery-electric buses, which are still in growing pains and don’t function well in winter. In California, in fact, trolleybuses are funded from the fixed infrastructure bucket alongside light rail and subways and are ineligible for the bucket of funding for zero-emissions buses. It is unknown whether in-motion charging qualifies for this bucket; it should, as superior technology that functions well even in places with harsh winters.
- The $85 billion for public transit splits as $55 billion for state of good repair (SOGR) and only $30 billion for expansion (including $5 billion for accessibility). This is a terrible idea: SOGR is carte blanche for agencies that aim to avoid public embarrassment rather than provide useful service to spend money without having to promise anything to show for it, and Amtrak in particular cycles between deferring maintenance and then crying poverty when money becomes available. Federal money should go to expansion alone; a state or local agency that doesn’t set aside money for maintenance now isn’t going to do so in the future, and periodic infusions of SOGR money create moral hazard by encouraging maintenance deferral in good times.
- The Amtrak money is a total waste; in particular, Amtrak wants $39 billion for the Northeast Corridor while having very little to show for it, preferring SOGR, climate resilience, and agency turf battles over the Gateway project over noticeable improvements in trip times, reliability, or capacity.
- The expansion money is not by itself bad, and in fact should grow by $55 billion at the expense of SOGR, but I worry about cost control. I’m just not sure how to express it in Washington policy language, as opposed to agency-level language regarding in-house design, more flexible procurement, civil service independence, adoption of foreign best practice and not just domestic practices, keeping station footprints small, using cut-and-cover more, and so on.
You should go watch the whole thing, which has some on-screen links to the breakdowns above, but it’s a 1:45 video.
There’s a rite of passage every year in Berlin of taking a day trip to Bielefeld, an hour and a half away by ICE, every 10 minutes. The idea is to be able to retort to aging millennials who joke that Bielefeld does not exist than they’ve actually been there.
The Abitur is coming soon, and 12th-grade students are supposed to study, but Adam Mansour, Katja Brühl, Max Kleinert, and Nora Martinek are going in Bielefeld. It is not the best day to travel. Friday is a school day, even if it’s short enough it ended at 13:30, and it’s also a popular travel day so the tickets were a bit more expensive, and Adam had to convince his parents it’s worth spending 80€ and all the Germans do it. But at least today it means they don’t have to wake up at 7:00 tomorrow.
On the train going west, Katja keeps complaining about how the train bypasses Magdeburg because of 1980s-90s politics. She says she was looking for labor-related museums in Bielefeld but couldn’t find any; instead, she talks about how the mayor of Hanover is leading a red-black coalition and it’s not the SPD that she’s voting for in September or the SPD that subsidized childcare in Berlin that let her parents afford to have children.
The other three don’t find her annoying. Max and Nora come from much wealthier families, and Nora’s is scratching 10,000€/month, but when Katja talks about how thanks to education reforms pushed on the Länder by the Green-led federal government she could go to the same school as them, they don’t feel either attacked or guilty. They feel happy that they know her and Adam. They listen to what she says about Jusos and housing, the EU, feminism, or comprehensive schools, and it clicks with them because it’s their world too. They know that there are people who resent that the cities are growing faster and associate immigration with social problems; but they associate immigration with Adam’s parents, or with Nora, who only moved to Germany when she was five but who nobody ever calls an immigrant. Adam, in turn, does get called a Syrian immigrant, even though he was born in Germany, his parents having arrived just before the 2015 wave.
There are some American tourists on the train, talking about how pretty Germany is and how they wished the United States could have such a system. Max leans forward and says, “every time they’re on a train, they talk just about the train,” figuring circumlocutions because the Americans might recognize the German word Amerikaner and realize he is talking about them. Nora and Katja giggle, and Adam then joins too.
Otherwise, they try to distract themselves by talking about the exams and about university plans. All plan to go, and all have been told by teachers that they should get good enough grades to go where they want, but Max wants to study medicine and needs to get a 1.0 to get past the numerus clausus. “Do you want me to test you?” Adam asks him.
They are all competitive about grades, even Katja, who told them once that neoliberal models of academic competition promoted inequality, and the Greens should do more to prevent what she calls the Americanization of German education. But Max told them when they planned the trip last week that he was treating it as his vacation day when he wouldn’t need to think about school.
Getting off the train, they start walking toward city hall; Bielefeld doesn’t have a bikeshare system, unlike Berlin, and bringing a bike on the ICE is not allowed. Adam insists on stopping on the way and taking detours to photograph buildings; most aren’t architecturally notable, but they’re different from how Berlin looks.
They run to the Natural History Museum and the Kunsthalle. The museum closes at 17:00 and they have less than an hour, then less an hour at the Kunsthalle until it closes at 18:00. They furiously photograph exhibits when they don’t have enough time to look at them and talk about them.
Adam is especially frantic at the archeology section, just because of the reminder of what he is giving up. He has read a lot of popular history and for the longest time wanted to go study it, but felt like he wouldn’t be able to get work with a humanistic degree and instead went for the real stream at school. When he met Katja two years ago he felt like this choice was confirmed – Katja for all her political interests is going to study environmental engineering and at no point expressed doubt about it.
Max spits on the Richard Kaselowsky memorial when the staff isn’t looking, distracted by other customers. In Berlin he might not even do this, but in Bielefeld he wouldn’t mind getting thrown out of a museum if worst came to worst. Nora and Adam didn’t know the history so as they go in he tells them Kaselowsky was a Nazi and so was the museum’s founder Rudolf Oetker, and the Oetker heirs had to return a few items that may have been stolen from Jewish owners in the Holocaust.
They find a döner place with good reviews and good falafel for Katja and are eating there. Normally they’d go out and get different things in Berlin, but Bielefeld is still a small city and even with Germany’s rapid immigration in the 2020s it doesn’t have Berlin’s majority-migration-background demographics.
Where they’re sitting overlooks the pedestrianized streets of the old city. There are some bikes, some pedestrians, some walking delivery drones. Berlin has a few of these zones within the Ring but they’re not contiguous and Bild accuses the Greens of promoting car-free zones for everyone except the federal government.
They talk about where they want to go, but Max and Katja are hesitant to publicly say what they feel about where they are. It’s Nora who openly says that she’s having fun and that Bielefeld definitely exists no matter what her parents say, but she wouldn’t want to live here. She doesn’t know if she wants to stay in Berlin – she wants to go to TU Munich, partly to see more places, partly because of some parental pressure to leave home – but Bielefeld feels a little too dörferlich.
They all laugh, and Adam says that judging by how his parents describe Daraa, it was a lot smaller than this. He says that they didn’t ever describe Daraa as especially lively, and always compared it negatively with Berlin when he was young and then eventually they just stopped talking about it, it stopped being important to them. Max and Katja nod and start comparing Bielefeld to parts of Germany they know well through extended family – Max’s father is from Münster and his mother’s family is in Göttingen and Hamburg, Katja’s parents are both from Berlin but her mother has family in Fürstenwalde.
And then somehow it drifts back to the election. Katja is worried the Union might win the election this time, stop free work migration, and freeze the carbon taxes at present levels. Adam doesn’t have family left in Syria but they have a few classmates who have family in India, in Vietnam, in Turkey. For the most part things are okay, but there’s always the occasional teacher or group of students who still think Neukölln and Gesundbrunnen are bad neighborhoods; they know who to avoid because people who are racist always find something negative to say to Adam specifically.
But for now, they have one another, and they have exams to score highly on to move on and go to university, and they have two hours to kill in Bielefeld until the ICE train they booked in advance departs to take them back home.
Working on an emergency timetable for regional rail has made it clear how an environment of austerity requires tradeoffs that reduce efficiency. I already talked about how the Swiss electronics before concrete slogan is not about not spending money but about spending a fixed amount of money intelligently; but now I have a concrete example for how optimizing organization runs into difficulties when there is no investment in either electronics or concrete. It’s still possible to create value out of such a system, but there will be seams, and fixing the seams requires some money.
Boston regional rail
The background to the Boston regional rail schedule is that corona destroyed ridership. In December of 2020, the counts showed ridership was down by about an order of magnitude over pre-crisis levels. American commuter rail is largely a vehicle for suburban white-collar commuters who work in city center 9 to 5; the busiest line in the Boston area, the Providence Line, ran 4 trains per hour at rush hour in the peak direction but had 2- and 2.5-hour service gaps in the reverse-peak and in midday and on weekends. Right now, the system is on a reduced emergency timetable, generally with 2-hour intervals, and the trains are empty.
But as Americans get vaccinated there are plans to restore some service. How much service is to run is up in the air, as is how it’s to be structured. Those plans may include flattening the peak and going to a clockface schedule, aiming to start moving the system away from traditional peak-focused timetables toward all-day service, albeit not at amazing frequency due to budget limits.
The plan I’ve been involved with is to figure out how to give most lines hourly service; a few low-ridership lines may be pruned, and the innermost lines, like Fairmount, get extra service, getting more frequency than they had before. The reasoning is that the frequency that counts as freedom is inversely proportional to trip length – shorter trips need more frequency and shorter headways, so even in an environment of austerity, the Fairmount Line should get a train every 15 or 20 minutes.
In an environment of austerity, every resource counts. We were discussing individual trains, trying to figure out what the best use for the 30th, the 35th, the 40th trainset to run in regular service is. In all cases, the point is to maximize the time a train spends moving and minimize the time it spends collecting dust at a terminal. However, this leads to conflict among the following competing constraints:
- At outer terminals like Worcester and Lowell, it is desirable that the train should have a timed transfer with the local buses.
- At the inner terminals, that is South and North Stations, it is desirable that all trains arrive and depart around the same time (“pulse“), to facilitate diagonal transfers, such as from Fitchburg to Salem or from Worcester to Brockton.
- Some lines have long single-track segments; the most frustrating is the Worcester Line, which is in theory double-track the entire way but in practice single-track through Newton, where only the nominally-westbound track has platforms.
- The lines should run hourly, so ideally the one-way trip time should be 50 minutes or possibly 80 minutes, with a 10-minute turnaround.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to satisfy all constraints at once. In an environment with some avenues for investment, it’s possible to double-track single-track bottlenecks, as the MBTA is already planning to do for Newton in the medium run. It’s also possible to speed up lines on the “run as fast as necessary” principle to ensure the trips between knots take an integer or half-integer multiple of the headway; in our higher-investment regional rail plan for Worcester, this is the case, and all transfers and overtakes are tight. However, in a no-investment environment, something has to give. The Worcester Line is 90 minutes end-to-end all-local, and the single-track section is between around 15 and 30 minutes out of South Station, which means it is not possible to conveniently pulse either at South Station with the other commuter lines or at Worcester with the buses. But thankfully, the length of the single-track segment between the crossovers is just barely enough to allow bidirectional local service every 30 minutes.
No-investment and low-investment plans are great for highlighting what the most pressing investment needs are. In general Boston needs electrification and high platforms everywhere, as do all other North American commuter lines; it is unfortunate that not a single system has both everywhere, as SEPTA is the only all-electric system and the LIRR (and sort of Metro-North) is the only all-high-platform system. However, more specifically, there are valuable targets for early investment, based on where the seams in the system are.
In the case of integrated timetabling, it’s really useful to be able to make strategic investments, including sometimes in concrete. They should always be based on a publicly-communicated target timetable, in which all the operational constraints are optimized and resolved for the maximum benefit of passengers. For example, in the TransitMatters Regional Rail plan, the timed transfers at the Boston end are dealt with by increasing frequency on the trunk lines to every 15 minutes, at which point the average untimed transfer is about as good as a timed hourly transfer in a 10-minute turnaround; this is based on expected ridership growth as higher frequency and the increase in speed from electrification and high platforms both reduce door-to-door trip times.
The upshot is that austerity is not good for efficiency. Cutting to grow is difficult, because there are always little seams that require money to fix, even at agencies where overall spending is too high rather than too low. Sometimes the timetables are such that a speedup really is needed: Switzerland’s maxim on speed is to run as fast as necessary, not as fast as trains ran 50 years ago with no further improvement. This in turn requires investment – investment that regularly happens when public transportation is run well enough to command public trust.
A curious pattern can be found in subway construction costs around the world, based on GDP per capita. On the one hand, poor countries that have severe cultural cringe, such as former colonies, have high construction costs, and often the worst projects are the ones that most try to imitate richer countries, outsourcing design to Japan or perhaps China. On the other hand, poor-rich countries, by which I mean countries on the periphery of the developed world, have similar cultural cringe and self-hate for their institutions, and yet their imitation of richer countries has been a success; for example, Spain copied a lot of rail development ideas from Germany and France. This can be explained using the development economic theory of isomorphic mimicry; the rub here is that a poor country like India or Ethiopia is profoundly different from the richer countries it tries to imitate, whereas a poor-rich country like Spain is actually pretty similar to Germany by global standards.
What is isomorphic mimicry?
In the economic development literature, the expression isomorphic mimicry refers to when a poor country sets up institutions that aim to imitate those of richer countries in hope that through such institutions the country will become rich too, but the imitation is too shallow to be useful. A common set of examples is well-meaning regulations on safety, labor, environmental protection, and anti-corruption that are not enforced due to insufficient state capacity. Here is a review of the concept by Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock, with examples from Mozambique, Uganda, and India, as well as some history from the American private sector. More examples using the theory can be found in Turczynowicz, Gautam, Rénique, Yeap, and Sagues concerning Peru’s one laptop per child program, in Evans’ interpretation of Bangladesh’s domestic violence laws, and in Rajagopalan and Tabarrok on India’s poor state of public services.
While the theory regarding institutions is new, analogs of it for tangible goods are older. Postwar developmental states engaged in extensive isomorphic mimicry, building dams, steel plants, and coal plants hoping that it would transform them into wealthy states like the United States, Western Europe, and Japan; for the most part, they had lower economic growth than did the developed world until the 1980s. The shift within international development away from tangible infrastructure and toward trying to fix institutions came about because big projects like the Aswan Dam failed to create enduring economic growth and often had ill side effects on agriculture, the environment, or human rights.
How does isomorphic mimicry affect public transportation?
The best example of isomorphic mimicry leading to bad transit that I know of is the Addis Ababa light rail system. This is funded by China, whose ideas of global development are similar to those of the postwar first and second worlds, that is providing tangible physical things, like railroads. Unfortunately, usage is low, because of problems that do not exist in middle-income or rich countries but are endemic to Ethiopia. Christina Goldbaum, the New York Times’ transit reporter, who lived in East Africa and reported from Addis Ababa, mentioned four problems:
- Electricity is unreliable, so the trains sometimes do not work. In early-20th century America, electric railroads and streetcar companies built their own power supply and were sometimes integrated concerns providing both streetcar and power service; but in more modern countries, there is reliable power for urban rail to tap.
- Not many people work in city center rather than in the neighborhood they live in. This, again, has historical analogs – there were turn-of-the-century Brooklynites who never visited Manhattan. Thus, a downtown-centric light rail system won’t get as much ridership as in a more developed city.
- The train is expensive relative to local incomes, so many people stick with buses or ride without paying.
- The railroad cuts through streets at-grade, to save money, and blocks off pedestrian paths that people use.
The Addis Ababa light rail system at least had reasonable costs. A more typical case for countries that poor is to build urban rail at premium cost, and the poorer the country, the higher the cost. The reason is most likely that such countries tend to build with Chinese or Japanese technical assistance, depending on geopolitics, and therefore import expensive capital for which they pay with weak currencies.
In India, the most functional and richest of the countries in question, there is much internal and external criticism that its economic growth is not labor-intensive, that is the most productive firms are not the ones employing the most people, and this stymies social development and urban growth. I suspect that this also means there is reluctance to use labor-intensive construction methods, that is cut-and-cover with headcounts that would be typical in New York, Paris, and Berlin in the early 20th century, or perhaps mid-20th century Milan and Tokyo. International consultancies are centered on the rich world and recommend capital-intensive methods to avoid hiring too many sandhogs at a fully laden employment cost of perhaps 8,000€ a month; in India, that is the PPP-adjusted gross salary of an experienced construction worker per year, and if capital is imported then multiply its cost by 3 to account for the rupee’s exchange rate value.
Poor-rich countries are those on the margin of the developed world, such as the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe, Turkey, Israel, to a lesser extent South Korea, and the richer countries of Latin America such as Chile. These are clearly poorer than the United States or Germany. Their residents, everywhere I’ve asked, believe that they are poorer and institutionally inferior; convincing a Spaniard or an Italian that their country can do engineering better than Germany is a difficult task. Thus, these countries tend to engage in mimicry of those countries that they consider the economic center, which could be Germany in Southern Europe, Japan in South Korea, or the US or Spain in Spanish America.
However, being a poor-rich country is not the same as being a poor country. Italy is, by American or German standards, poor. Wages there are noticeably lower and living standards are visibly poorer, and not just in the South either. But those wages remain in the same sphere as American and German wages. The labor-capital cost ratios in Southern Europe are sufficiently similar to those of Northern Europe that it’s not difficult to imitate. Spain even mixed and matched, using French TGV technology for early high-speed rail but preferring the more advanced German intercity rail signaling system, LZB, to the French one.
Such imitation leads to learning. Spain imported German and French engineering ideas but not French tolerance for casual rioting or German litigiousness, and therefore can build infrastructure with less NIMBYism. Turkey invited Italian consultants to help design the early lines of the Istanbul Metro, but subsequently refined their ideas domestically in order to build more efficiently, for example shrinking station footprint and tunnel diameter to reduce costs. Seoul has a subway system that looks like Tokyo’s in many ways, but has a cleaner network shape, with far fewer missed connections between lines. As a result, all three countries – Spain, Turkey, Korea – now have innovative domestic programs of rail construction and can even export their expertise elsewhere, as Spain is in Ecuador.
Openness to novelty
Andrews-Pritchett-Woolcock stress the importance of openness to novelty in the public sector, and cite examples of failure in which bureaucrats at various levels refused to implement any change, even one that was proven to be positive, because their goal was not to rock the boat.
Cultural cringe is in a way a check on that. Isomorphic mimicry is an attempt to combine agenda conformity and closeness to novelty with a desire to have what the richest countries have. But in poor-rich countries, isomorphic mimicry is real imitation – there is ample state penetration in a country like Spain or Turkey rather than outsourcing of state capacity to traditional heads of remote villages, and education levels are high enough that many people know how Germany works and interact with Germany regularly. A worker who earns 2,000€ a month net and a worker who earns 3,000€ a month can exchange tips about how to apply for jobs, how to prepare food, what brands of consumer goods to buy, and where to go on vacation. They cannot have this conversation with a worker who earns 10,000€ a month net.
Within the rich world, what matters then is the realization that something is wrong and the solution is to look abroad. It doesn’t matter if it’s a generally poor-rich region like Southern Europe or a region with a poor-rich public sector like the United States – there’s enough private knowledge about how successful places work, but what’s needed is a public acknowledgement and social organization encouraging imitation and lifting voices that are most expert in implementing it.
And for all the jokes about how the United States or Britain is like a third-world country, they really aren’t. Their public-sector dysfunctions are real, but are still firmly within the poor-rich basket; remember, for example, that despite its antediluvian signaling capacity, the New York City Subway manages to run 24 trains per hour per track at the peak, which is better than Shanghai’s 21. Health and education outcomes in the United States are generally better than those of middle-income and poor countries on every measure. This is a public sector that compares poorly with innovation centers in Continental Europe and democratic East Asia, but it still compares; to try to do the same comparison in a country like Nigeria would be nonsensical.
The upshot then is that implementing best practices in developed countries that happen to be bad at one thing, in this case public transportation in the United States, can work smoothly, much like Southern Europe’s successful assimilation of and improvements on Northern European engineering, and unlike the failures in former colonies in Africa and Asia. But people need to understand that they need to do it – that the centers of innovation are abroad and are in particular in countries that speak English non-natively.