Last year, I saw a tip by the Metropolitan Police: if you witness any crime on a London bus and wish to report it later, you should tell the police the number on your Oyster card and then they’ll already be able to use the number to track which bus you rode and then get the names and bank accounts of all other passengers on that bus. Londoners seem to accept this surveillance as a fact of life; closed-circuit TV cameras are everywhere, even in front of the house where Orwell lived and wrote. Across the Pond, transit agencies salivate over the ability to track passenger movements through smartcards and contactless credit cards, which is framed either as the need for data or as a nebulous anti-crime measure. Fortunately, free countries have some alternative models.
In Germany, the population is more concerned about privacy. Despite being targeted by a string of communist terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 80s, it maintained an open system, without any faregates at any train station (including subways); fare enforcement in German cities relies on proof of payment with roving inspectors. Ultimately, this indicates the first step in a transit fare payment system that ensures people pay their fares without turning the payment cards into tracking devices. While Germany resists contactless payment, there are ways to achieve its positive features even with the use of more modern technology than paper tickets.
The desired features
A transit fare payment system should have all of the following features:
- Integration: free transfers between different transit vehicles and different modes should be built into the system, including buses, urban rail, and regional rail.
- Scalability: the system should scale to large metro areas with variable fares, and not just to compact cities with flat fares, which are easier to implement. It should also permit peak surcharges if the transit agency wishes to implement them.
- No vendor lock: switching to a different equipment manufacturer should be easy, without locking to favored contractors.
- Security: it should be difficult to forge a ticket.
- Privacy: it should not be possible to use the tickets to track passengers in most circumstances.
- Hospitality: visitors and occasional riders should be able to use the system with ease, with flexible options for stored value (including easy top-up options) and daily, weekly, and monthly passes, and no excessive surcharges.
Smartcard and magnetic card systems are very easy to integrate across operators; all that it takes is political will, or else there may be integrated fare media without integrated fares themselves, as in the Bay Area (Clipper can store value but there are no free transfers between agencies). Scalability is easy on the level of software; the hardest part about it is that if there are faregates then every station must have entry and exit gates, and those may be hard to retrofit. Existing smartcard technologies vary in vendor lock, but the system the US and Britain are standardizing on, contactless credit cards, is open. The real problem is in protecting privacy, which is simply not a goal in tracking-obsessed Anglo-American agencies.
The need for hospitality
Hospitality may seem like a trivial concern, but it is important in places with many visitors, which large transit cities are. Moreover, universal design for hospitality, such as easily recognizable locations for topping up stored value, is also of use to regular riders who run out of money and need to top up. Making it easy to buy tickets without a local bank account is of use to both visitors and low-income locals without full-service bank accounts. In the US, 7% of households are unbanked and another 20% are underbanked; I have no statistics for other countries, but in Sweden banks will not even give debit cards to people with outstanding debts, which suggests to me that some low-income Swedes may not have active banking cards.
New York’s MetroCard has many faults, but it succeeds on hospitality better than any other farecard system I know of: it is easy to get the cards from machines, there is only a $1 surcharge per card, and season tickets are for 7 or 30 days from activation rather than a calendar week or month. At the other end of the hospitality scale, Navigo requires users to bring a passport photo and can only load weekly and monthly passes (both on the calendar); flexible 5-day passes cost more than a calendar weekly pass.
In fact, the main reason not to use paper tickets is that hospitality is difficult with monthly passes printed on paper. Before the Compass Card debacle, Vancouver had paper tickets with calendar monthly passes, each in a different color to make it easy for the driver to see if a passenger was flashing a current or expired pass. The tickets could be purchased at pharmacies and convenience stores but not at SkyTrain stations, which only sold single-ride tickets.
ID cards and privacy
The Anglosphere resists ID cards. The Blair cabinet’s attempt to introduce national ID cards was a flop, and the Britons I was reading at the time (such as the Yorkshire Ranter) were livid. And yet, ID cards provide security and privacy. Passports are extremely difficult to forge. Israel’s internal ID cards are quite difficult to forge as well; there are occasional concerns about voter fraud, but nothing like the routine use of fake drivers’ licenses to buy drinks so common in American college culture.
At the same time, in countries that are not ruled by people who think 1984 was an uplifting look at the future, ID cards protect privacy. The Yorkshire Ranter is talking about the evils of biometric databases, and Israeli civil liberties advocates have mounted the same attack against the government’s attempt at a database. But German passports, while biometric, store data exclusively on the passport, not in any centralized database. ID cards designed around proving that you paid your fare don’t even have to use biometrics; the security level is lower than with biometrics, but the failure mode is that the occasional forger can ride without paying $100 a month (which is much less than the cost of the forgery), not that a ring of terrorists can enter the country.
Navigo’s ID cards are not hospitable, but allowing passengers to ride with any valid state-issued ID would be. Visitors either came in from another country and therefore have passports, drove in and therefore have drivers’ licenses, or flew in domestically and therefore still have ID cards. Traveling between cities without ID is still possible here and in other free European countries, but everyone has national ID cards anyway; the ID problem is mainly in the US with its low passport penetration (and secondarily Canada and Australia), and the US has no intercity public transit network to speak of outside the Northeast Corridor.
What this means is that the best way to prevent duplication of transit passes is to require ID cards. Any ID card must be acceptable, including a passport (best option), a national ID card (second best), or an American driver’s license (worst).
Getting rid of the faregates
There are approximately three first-world Western cities that have any business having faregates on their urban rail networks: London, Paris, New York. Even there, I am skeptical that the faregates are truly necessary. The Metro’s crowd control during the World Cup victory celebration was not great. New York’s faregates sometimes cause backups to the point that passengers just push the emergency doors open to exit, and then rely on an informal honor system so that passengers don’t use the open emergency doors to sneak in without payment.
Evidently, the Munich S-Bahn funnels all traffic through a single two-track city center tunnel and has 840,000 weekday users, without faregates. Only one or two trunk lines are busier in Paris, the RER A with about a million, and possibly the RER B and D if one considers them part of the same trunk (they share a tunnel but no platforms); in London, only the Central, Victoria, and Jubilee lines are busier, none by very much; in New York, none of the two-track trunks is as busy. Only the overcrowded lines in Tokyo (and a handful in Osaka, Beijing, and Shanghai) are clearly so busy that barrier-free proof-of-payment fare enforcement is infeasible.
The main reason not to use faregates is that they are maintenance-intensive and interfere with free passenger flow. But they also require passengers to insert fare media, such as a paper ticket or a contactless card, at every station. With contactless cards the system goes well beyond exact numbers of users by station, which can be obtained with good accuracy even on barrier-free systems like Transilien using occasional counts, and can track individual users’ movements. This is especially bad on systems that do not have flat fares (because then passengers tag on and off) and on systems that involve transferring with buses or regional trains and not just the subway (because then passengers have to tag on and off at the transfer points too).
Best industry practice here is then barrier-free systems. To discourage fare evasion, the agency should set up regular inspections (on moving vehicles, with unarmed civilian inspectors), but at the same time incentivize season passes. Season passes are also good for individual privacy, since all the system registers is that the passenger loaded up a monthly pass at a certain point, but beyond that can’t track where the passenger goes. All cities that have faregates except for the largest few should get rid of them and institute POP, no matter the politics.
Tickets and ID cards
In theory, the ID card can literally be the ticket. The system can store in a central database that Alon Levy, passport number [redacted], loaded a monthly pass valid for all of Ile-de-France on 2018-08-16, and the inspector can verify it by swiping my machine-readable passport. But in practice, this requires making sure the ticket machine or validator can instantly communicate this to all roving fare inspectors.
An alternative approach is to combine paper tickets with ID cards. The paper ticket would just say “I am Alon Levy, passport number [redacted], and I have a pass valid for all of Ile-de-France until 2018-09-14,” digitally signed with the code of the machine where I validated the ticket. This machine could even be a home printer, via online purchase, or a QR code displayed on a phone. Designing such a system to be cryptographically secure is easy; the real problem is preventing duplication, which is where the ID card comes into play. Without an ID card, it’s still possible to prevent duplication, but only via a cumbersome system requiring the passenger to validate the ticket again on every vehicle (perhaps even every rail car) when getting on or off.
The same system could handle stored value. However, without printing a new ticket every time a passenger validates, which would be cumbersome, it would have to fall back on communication between the validator and the handheld readers used by the inspectors. But fortunately, such communication need not be instant. Since passengers prepay with stored value, the ticket itself, saying “I am Alon Levy, passport number [redacted], and I loaded 10 trips,” is already valid, and the only communication required is when passengers run out of money; moreover, single-use tickets have a validity period of 1-2 hours, so any validator-to-inspector communication lag time of less than the validity period will be enough to ensure not to validate expired tickets. The same system can also be used to have a daily cap as in Oyster, peak surcharges, and even generally-undesirable station-to-station rather than zonal fares.
It’s even possible to design a system without single-use tickets at all. Zurich comes close, in that a 24-hour pass costs twice as much as a single-use ticket (valid for just an hour), so passengers never have any reason to get a single-use ticket. In this system there would not be any stored value, just passes for a day or more, valid in prescribed zones, with printable tickets if regular riders in one zone occasionally travel elsewhere.
The upshot here is that advanced technology is only required for printing and reading QR codes. The machines do not need to be any more complicated than ATMs or Bitcoin ATMs (insert money, receive a Bitcoin slip of paper); I don’t know how much Bitcoin ATMs cost, but regular ATMs are typically $2,000-3,000, and the most expensive are $8,000, unlike the $75,000 ticket machines used at New York SBS stations. The moving parts are software and not hardware, and can use multi-vendor cryptographic protocols. In effect, the difficult part of verifying that there is no duplication or forgery is offloaded to the state ID system.
When I first looked at construction costs, I looked exclusively at developed countries. Eventually I realized that the difference in average costs between rich and poor countries is small. But then I noticed a different pattern in the third world: some places, like India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Indonesia, spend much more than China does. Why is that? While I’ve had a bunch of different explanations over the years, I believe today that the difference concerns local expertise versus reliance on first-world consultants.
The facts, as far as I can tell, are as follows:
- Construction costs in China are about $250 million per km, a little more than the average for Continental Europe.
- Construction costs in post-communist Europe are all over, but are the same range as in Western Europe. Bulgaria is pretty cheap; in this post I bring up a line that costs around $200 million/km in today’s money but other extensions built this decade are cheaper, including one outer one at $50 million/km. In contrast, Warsaw’s Line 2 is quite expensive.
- Latin American construction costs have the same range as Europe, but it seems more compressed – I can’t find either $50 million/km lines or $500 million/km ones.
- Africa and the parts of Asia that used to be colonies have high construction costs: India and Egypt are expensive, and here I give two expensive examples from Bangladesh and Indonesia. The Lagos Metro is spending subway money on an el in the middle of a wide road and is reminiscent of American costs.
- When the first world had comparable income levels to those of the third world today, in the early 20th century, its construction costs were far lower, around $30-50 million per underground km. First-world cost growth in the last 100 years has mostly tracked income growth – it’s been somewhat faster in New York and somewhat slower in Paris, but on average it’s been similar.
For a while, I had to contend with the possibility that Chinese autocracy is just better at infrastructure than Indian (or Bangladeshi, or Indonesian, or Nigerian) democracy. The nepotism and corruption in India are globally infamous, and it’s still well-governed compared with Indonesia and Nigeria, which have personality-based politics. But then, in the developed world, authoritarian states aren’t more efficient at construction (Singapore’s construction costs are high); moreover, post-communist democracies like Bulgaria and Romania manage low construction costs.
What I instead think the issue is is where the state’s infrastructure planning comes from. China learned from the USSR and subsequently added a lot of domestic content (such as the use of cut-and-cover in some situations) fitting its particular needs; as a result, its construction costs are reasonable. The post-communist world learned from the USSR in general. There’s a wide range, with Romania near one end and Poland near the other, but the range is comparable to that of Western Europe today. Overall it seems that Eastern Europe can competently execute methods geared to the middle-income world (as the second world was in the Cold War) as well as, thanks to assistance from the EU, the high-income world.
Latin America, too, uses domestically-developed methods. The entire region is infamous in the economic development literature for having begun an inward economic turn in the Great Depression, cutting itself off from global markets and generally stagnating. Government functions are likewise done domestically or maybe outsourced to domestic contractors (and if international ones are involved, it’s in construction, not planning). Evidently, Latin America developed bus rapid transit, a mode of transportation optimally designed for countries with low incomes (so paying armies of bus drivers is cheaper than building rail tracks) and relatively strong currencies (so importing buses from richer countries isn’t ruinously expensive).
The situation in the ex-colonies is completely different. Even relatively protectionist ones outsource much of their planning to the developed world or increasingly to China, out of a combination of cultural cringe and shortage of domestic capital. The metro lines I have data for in India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia all involve Japanese technology and planning, with no attempt to adapt the technology to local conditions. So insistent is Japan on following its domestic recipe exactly that India’s high-speed rail construction is using standard gauge rather than broad gauge and Shinaknsen-size trains rather than larger Indian trains (which are 3.7 meters wide and can fit people 6-abreast). Elsewhere, China contributes capital and planning as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and then its methods are geared toward middle income and not low income.
The correct way for countries in the per capita income range of Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh to build subways is to open up their main roads, which are often very wide, and put in four tracks in a cut-and-cover scheme similar to that of early-20th century New York. If they can elevate the tracks instead, they should use the same methods used to build Lines 2 and 6 in Paris in the early 20th century, which use concrete columns and are quiet enough that, unlike in New York, people can carry a conversation under the viaduct while a train passes. If the line needs to deviate from roads, then the city should buy property and carve up a new street (as New York did with Seventh Avenue South and Sixth Avenue in the Village) or else learn to implement late Victorian and Edwardian London’s techniques of deep boring.
However, actually implementing Belle Epoque construction methods requires particular knowledge that international consultants don’t have. Most of these consultants’ income comes from the first world, where wages are so high that the optimal construction methods involve extensive automation, using machinery rather than battalions of navvies with shovels. The technical support required for a tunnel boring machine is relatively easy in a rich country with a deep pool of qualified engineers and mechanics and a nightmare in a poor one where all such expertise has to be imported or trained from scratch. Thus, the consultants are likely to recommend the first-world methods they are familiar with, and if they do try to adapt to low wages, they may make mistakes since they have to reinvent ideas or read historical sources (which they are typically not trained to do – they’re consultants, not historians).
The result is that even though open economies tend to grow faster overall, economies with a history of closure tend to do better on this specific topic, where international consultants are not very useful for the needs of the developing world. India in particular needs to get better at indigenizing its construction and avoid mindlessly copying the first world out of cultural cringe, because even though it is almost a middle-income country by now, its wages remain a fraction of those of North America, Western Europe, and Japan, and its future growth trajectory is very different, requiring extensive adaptations. Both the overall extent of planning and the specific construction methods must be tailored to local conditions, and so far India seems bad at both (hence the undersized, expensive high-speed trains).
The conversation about YIMBY and zoning seems to be centered around San Francisco. Googling YIMBY Guardian gives me two articles about Northern California out of the top three results (the third is an op-ed about London). But the real origin of YIMBY is New York. The term started with New York YIMBY, which was always a real estate magazine rather than an activist movement. San Francisco YIMBY adopted it and intended to publish under the umbrella of New York YIMBY before eventually going its own way, buoyed by SF YIMBY founder Sonja Trauss’s strong political organizing skills, which are much better than those of the New York YIMBY founder. However, for the most part the goals and actions of YIMBY are still based on New York-centric assumptions, which may not apply elsewhere.
This does not mean that YIMBY is a New York imposition. On the contrary. But some of the specific details come from New York’s context. They port more easily to Paris, Tokyo, and London than to San Francisco, Boston, and other American cities.
Commercial versus residential upzoning
I’ve argued for commercialization before. Near-CBD residential neighborhoods are prime locations for high-end retail and office uses, leading to expansion or even migration of the CBD. Midtown historically arose this way, beginning with commercialization around Fifth Avenue, and so did the Paris CBD, which is well to the west of the historic core; in London the primary CBD is still the City, but the West End has many jobs as well.
However, in practice, New York needs residential development more than commercial development. There is demand for new office space, particularly from the tech industry, but this is a minority of the city’s employment. In contrast, residential rents are very high, and there is very little construction permitted; according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average over the last few years has been about 2.5 annual units permitted per 1,000 residents (in Tokyo the average is 10.7). As a result, New York’s activist YIMBY group, called Open New York, focuses on residential and mixed projects and not on purely commercial ones.
When a city does not allow the construction of office space in or near its center, jobs are displaced to sprawling suburbs. This is routine all over the US, where high-rise CBDs are surrounded immediately by residential neighborhoods with little political will for commercialization, and thus people work either in the CBD or in auto-centric suburban office parks. San Francisco is especially prone to this trend, since the origin of the tech industry is not in the city but in the office parks stretching from Redwood City to San Jose. If Uber, Airbnb, Slack, and Twitter don’t have room to grow in SoMa they will move to a suburb hungry for sales tax revenues. Nonetheless, SF YIMBY has opposed the plan to add office space to SoMa on the grounds that residential space is of prime importance.
The politics of rent stabilization
New York has rent control (which means the real rent is fixed) on a small number of apartments, all continuously occupied since 1971, mostly in rich Manhattan neighborhoods. It has wider rent stabilization in a large (though not overwhelming) fraction of rental units, which permits some real rent increases, determined politically every year but averaging about 1%. This status quo has many problems, chief of which is that the details of rent stabilization incentivize harassing tenants into leaving or looking for tenants who’d only stay for a short period of time. However, the status quo is politically stable.
The importance of this is that YIMBYs in New York don’t have to take a position on rent stabilization, or on related issues like inclusionary zoning (moreover, New York’s high real estate profits ensure that inclusionary zoning, which is a tax on revenue, has less impact than in cheaper cities like Portland, where the same tax on revenue represents a much higher tax on profits). SF YIMBY adopts this approach, but this comes into tension with California’s politics in which populists demand more rent control, even applying it to new buildings.
YIMBYs can’t honestly support rent control on new buildings and expect the private sector to keep providing housing. In New York it’s irrelevant because nobody calls for such policy, but San Francisco has a more active leftier-than-thou community (as does Paris, but this is expressed in museum exhibits about Che Guevara and not in rent control on new buildings).
The frontier of the Millennial middle class
When the middle class moves into a low-income area it’s called gentrification. However, the same trend can be observed in areas that are already well-off, including the neighborhood I grew up in, Tel Aviv’s Old North. The Old North was never poor: it was built in the 1930s and early 40s and the initial population was middle-class German immigrants fleeing Hitler. Nonetheless, by the 1980s the area was unfashionable, and the retail on the main commercial drag, Dizengoff Street, declined in favor of newer shopping malls. But since the late 1990s, younger people have moved in, making the area more in vogue, often renovating old buildings from the 1930s (which are a UNESCO heritage site, even though locally they’re viewed as dinghy). The demographic entering the neighborhood is the same as the one that gentrifies poorer neighborhoods (such as Florentin), so it’s worthwhile to view this as part of the same trend.
I bring this up because in New York this trend of a middle-class frontier includes a wide swath of neighborhoods, some poor and gentrifying (Harlem, Washington Heights, Bushwick, Lower East Side) but others already comfortable (Astoria, Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, South Brooklyn). Open New York has a policy of focusing on supporting construction in areas that are already rich and gentrified, to avoid the risk of gentrification in places like Washington Heights. As a strategy, it makes sense for New York, as well as for other city whose frontier of young middle-class urban transplants is mostly in well-off areas, like Chicago, Boston, and Paris. It’s weaker in San Francisco specifically, since there the frontier is largely the Mission, where gentrification is unavoidable.
The role of the suburbs
New York may be permitting only 2.5 housing units per 1,000 residents every year, but its in-state suburbs build even less. Westchester’s average between 2011 and 2017 is 0.9, Nassau County’s is 0.7, and Suffolk County’s is 0.8. Moreover, the dynamic of suburban white flight is well-understood around the region, and criticizing suburban-style exclusionary zoning is easy from within the city. There is animosity between the city and the suburbs, a feature shared with many areas in the American Rust Belt, and this makes it easier to demand more building in the city. (In the other direction, it’s easier to demand more construction in the city if there are no city-suburb social tensions at all.)
In the American Sunbelt, the situation is different. There is less city-suburb animosity – often the boundaries of the city include de facto suburban areas while excluding dense areas. (This is to some extent true of New York but the examples are all on the New Jersey side, which New Yorkers ignore.) Just saying “we need more housing” doesn’t sound progressive. What’s more, even in places like Houston and Austin, the city proper votes liberal and wants internal political movements to align on the left, let alone in California; in these areas, upzoning sounds like a bad deregulation.
Counterexample: single-family zoning
In exactly one respect, YIMBY groups in North America have proposed something that departs from the movement’s New York origins: they call for replacing single-family zoning with what they call missing middle, such as townhouses with two to four apartments per building. Missing middle is in turn relevant mostly to Canada, where there are mid- and high-rise neighborhoods and single-family neighborhoods and not much in between. In the US, everything is missing except single-family and CBD high-rises.
In New York, of course, there is no missing middle – for one, there are rowhouses, which would count as missing middle elsewhere. But more to the point, these rowhouses and townhouses are on the outer margins of the subway’s coverage area (such as Southern Brooklyn) or even beyond it (such as Kew Gardens Hills), and aren’t where there is the most demand. The demand is for converting surviving low-rise buildings in inner neighborhoods to mid- and high-rise apartment buildings, so this is what Open New York and urbanists in general focus on.
Which cities are like New York when it comes to YIMBY?
New York’s situation is the same as in the European cities I’m familiar with. Missing middle density in Paris happens on the outer branches of the RER network, whereas the real demand is for more housing in the city and a handful of rich inner suburbs in Hauts-de-Seine, and the same is true in Stockholm, London, Zurich, and other expensive European cities, even though they’re less dense than Paris so they might have rowhouses (like London) or missing middle density that needs to be replaced with mid-rise (like Zurich).
The politics in New York, where it’s easier to sidestep concerns about gentrification by just focusing on upzoning rich areas, is also similar to that of cities that never experienced white flight. This includes nearly all major cities in the developed world outside the US; the biggest exception I know of is Brussels, where the politics is complicated by the fact that middle-class residents are often affiliated with the EU and many only stay temporarily.
Commercialization of near-CBD areas is also more common in Europe, so there is less need to argue about that specifically. Zoning is also looser in the sense of permitting small offices, such as those of doctors, lawyers, and accountants, in residential zones. Thus the focus is exclusively housing, especially in the largest cities, i.e. London and Paris, where traffic congestion is such that there is less risk of job sprawl than in (say) Stockholm.
Finally, London and Paris have no rent control. Both have political controversies around this – Paris passed rent control but it was stricken down by the courts on administrative grounds, and in London some people are calling for rent control – but the current status quo is market-rate. The European cities I’m familiar with that have rent control do not have vacancy decontrol, unlike in the US, but instead have long waitlists, measured in years and in some extreme Stockholm examples even decades, so YIMBYs can more readily point to long waitlists as evidence that more housing construction is needed.
New York’s specific social issues are much more American than European, but the way they interact with its urban layout and transportation network is unique, partly because it has decent public transit unlike anywhere else in North America and partly because it’s just bigger. This interaction in turn makes its housing politics look somewhat more European as far as YIMBY is concerned. This suggests that people interested in making housing affordable should be especially excited to implement the proposed program in big global first-world cities outside New York, led by London and Paris (and Tokyo, which is already sufficiently YIMBY).
Here and in London, the need for more housing is dire, as in New York. What’s more, it’s not possible to just propose missing middle density in single-family areas or even mid-rises like California’s SB 827 and say something about great cities, because Paris is already great. (In London this is easier – there are rowhouses in zone 2 of the Underground.) There are some unusually short buildings here and there, down to 3-4 floors, but usually replacements have to be much bigger, so they’d be perhaps 12-15 floors. And in the most desirable neighborhoods, around the 8th and 16th, full high-rises are warranted. The one point of light is that such a program is unlikely to run into California’s gentrification concerns, if only because the main target areas for upzoning are the richest city neighborhoods in France.
It’s hard to escape the conversation about the decline of the center-left. Whether it’s about non-populist US Democrats, the Israeli Labor Party, Nordic social democrats, German SPD, or French PS, there’s a pan-first world conversation about the crisis of social democracy. People give any number of reasons for it, some suggesting it can be reversed in some ways, but some more skeptical. Branko Milanovic brings up the change in the nature of work from manufacturing with interchangeable workers within one plant to services with fractionalized workers often working remotely as an economic cause of the decline of unions.
Public transportation is sufficiently close to social democracy that it’s important to ask where it’s going politically, if SPD is slipping to third in the polls, PS is irrelevant, the most exciting Democrats are left-populists, etc. YIMBYism can go anywhere politically, but in practice it’s an anti-populist neoliberal policy, affected by the same trends that hollow out social democracy. Fortunately, both issues have a strong likelihood of surviving the decline of the traditional party system with its bosses vs. workers divisions. My goal is to explain why I believe so, and where support for urbanism and public transit will end up politically in the remainder of the century in developed countries.
Patterns of Democracy
In college I read Patterns of Democracy, a study by comparativist Arend Lijphart classifying the world’s stable democracies (including some third-world ones like India and Botswana) along two dimensions: majoritarian (i.e. two-party) vs. consensus-based (i.e. multiparty), and federal vs. unitary. It’s a book-length overview of the elements that go into each dimension, culminating in some regressions showing that majoritarian democracies are not more politically stable and do not economically overperform multiparty ones.
For the purposes of this post, the interesting part of the book is how it treats the various dimensions of partisan political debate within each country. The most popular analysis is one-dimensional left vs. right, followed by two-dimensional schemes separating economic and liberal vs. authoritarian issues (on the Internet, this is Political Compass). But Lijphart uses a seven-dimensional analysis (pp. 76-78), with each country only having at most three or four active at a time:
- Socioeconomic issues, by far the most common point of controversy within each democracy, including the usual left-right issues like tax rates, health, education, etc.
- Religious vs. secular issues, such as the role of religion in education, abortion rights in the US, or sectarian conflict in multisectarian states like Israel, India, and the Netherlands.
- Cultural-ethnic issues, which in most countries pit majority-group hegemony against multiculturalism, but can also include Belgian language politics or Ashkenazi-Mizrahi tensions in Israel.
- Urban vs. rural issues, such as farm aid.
- Regime support, historically the main cleave between social democratic and communist parties, and today the cleave between extreme right parties like the National Front and AfD (or individuals like Donald Trump) and hard right mainstream parties like Sarkozy and Wauquiez’s Republicans and CSU (or individuals like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker).
- Foreign policy, for examples decolonization in postwar France and Britain and the conflict with the Palestinians in Israel.
- Post-materialist issues, including the environmental issues that underlie the New Left, representing the cleave between social democratic and green parties.
The decline of class-based politics
The crisis of social democracy that Milanovic and others observe is about the decline of class-based politics, pitting workers versus bosses, or the working class versus the middle class. Economic differences between mainstream parties are decreasing, to the point that grand coalitions (as in Germany) or de facto grand coalitions (such as the cordon sanitaire agreement in Sweden excluding the far right) are normalized, joined by an elite consensus that’s for the most part neoliberal. In their stead, the growing issue in salience in Lijphart’s classification is cultural-ethnic, incorporating the sectarian aspects of the religious-secular dimension, including immigration, multiculturalism, and various forms of racism.
However, it’s better to divide socioeconomic issues into issues that are class-based and issues that are not. The most familiar issues across the developed world today pit the rich against the poor: tax rates, health care, education, welfare, unions, labor regulations.
But a large number of issues divide people in different industries, with a fair degree of agreement between labor and capital within each industry. One such issue is the environment, on which oil executives and oil rig workers tend to vote the same way while executives at green tech or low-energy intensity companies and their workers tend to vote the other way. Another issue is free trade, where the battle lines today separate import-competing industries from exporters and industries that rely on a global supply chain (including finance). Historically, the Populist movement in turn-of-the-century America was rooted in farmers’ grievances, demanding free silver, which had little appeal to either the bourgeoisie or the urban working class, which channeled its disaffection into socialism instead. Thus the set of non-class-based economic issues should take over Lijphart’s urban-rural and postmodern dimensions.
Transportation as a politically contentious issue has always had one leg in rich vs. poor politics and one leg outside it. On the one hand, the poor generally use public transit more than the rich, and historically suburbanization in the US as well as the UK was fueled by middle-class flight from the city. On the other hand, the issue intersects with environmentalism and with urban-rural politics. Within cities, the differences often revolve around one’s job descriptions: people who need to drive for a living, such as plumbers and generally people who work outside the CBD, are more hostile to road diets than people who do not, who include both professional downtown workers and downtown service workers.
Non-class-based economic issues are not in any decline. On the contrary, the parties designed around them, including green parties and left-liberal parties (such as D66 or the Danish Social Liberal Party), are for the most part doing fine, taking refugees from declining social democratic parties. In the Schröder cabinet, it was the Greens who pushed for an increase in fuel taxes; support for transit over cars will survive whatever happens to the center-left.
The new class divide
While labor vs. capital is increasingly not a big political cleave in the developed world, other class cleaves are rising to take its place. Non-class-based economic issues pit different industries against one another, and often there’s no consistent pattern to who is on what side, and the same is true on non-economic issues. However, in a large number of cases, there is a consistent pattern, which can be approximated as liberal versus conservative, in the 19th century British sense.
In the case of YIMBYism, the debate over housing is really a fight between two elite classes. The YIMBY side is represented by the professional middle class; the other side is represented by homeowners. Moreover, the professional middle class tends to specifically come from globalized industries, drawing workers from all over, most famously tech in the Bay Area. This class has high labor income and low capital income as well as local social capital, which explains both YIMBYs’ indifference to preserving property values and preference for preemption laws disempowering local notables. Homeowners are the exact opposite: they tend to have high local property values and local social capital relative to their labor income, which means they favor restrictions on housing construction economically and a hyperlocal process in which they’re privileged participants politically.
For the most part, other non-economic issues correlate with the same cleave between the two elites. Middle-class newcomers are overwhelmingly attracted to production amenities of specific global industries (again, Bay Area tech, but also New York and London finance, Paris conglomerates, etc.), which benefit from free trade and have such diverse worker bases that they fall on the liberal side of most debates over immigration. They also tend to cluster in specific job centers, which are at least in principle serviceable by public transportation, leading to high transit ridership relative to income. The urban jobs that are most likely to require driving are local services, which are overwhelmingly owned by people who either were born in the city or immigrated so long ago that they are politically and socially equivalent to natives.
I bring up 19th-century Britain and not the US because Britain had an alignment between free trade, urban over rural interests, and internationalism in the Liberal Party, whereas in the US the Democrats were also the white supremacist party and (outside the Northeast) the agrarian party. But 19th century Europe fits the situation in the first world today between than the 19th century United States, which had free land (courtesy of the Indian Wars) and no real landed gentry apart from the antebellum Southern planter class.
So where are the poor?
If both sides of the debate over zoning and urban housing production are middle-class elites, then where is the working class? The answer is, nowhere. There are working-class organizations on the NIMBY side, such as tenant unions and community groups that try to extract maximum value from developers. There are also poor people on the YIMBY side: in the Houston zoning referendum the poor voted against zoning and the middle class voted for, with poor blacks voting the most strongly against zoning, and at a recent hearing in Brooklyn for a mixed high-rise project most whites spoke against the project and most nonwhites spoke in favor.
To the extent there’s a pattern, organized local groups of poor people and/or minorities are NIMBY and generally unreliable about public transit, but when it goes to ballot there is not much difference between how the poor and middle class vote. Organized local groups of the middle class aren’t any less NIMBY than organized low-income groups, but the middle class more readily dismisses local activists as crackpots and nincompoops. It matters that political activists with more talent and ambition than the typical king of a hill can advance to higher levels of government if they come from favored socioeconomic strata.
The situation with public transit remains profoundly different, because it really does maintain some class-based content. But in general transit cities, even flawed ones like New York, tend to have alignment between working- and middle-class organizations in favor of more investment, and then questions like congestion pricing, bus lanes, bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas cut across class lines and cleave people based on where they work and how they get there. In my Brooklyn bus redesign project, I expect allies to include the bus drivers’ union (the drivers are strong supporters of reforms speeding up buses, since they’d make their work safer and more comfortable) and middle-class reformers and opponents to include working- as well as middle-class drivers (since we’re going to propose stronger bus lane enforcement and street redesigns that prioritize buses). Overall drivers outearn transit riders, but the difference tends to be smaller in cities with even semi-decent public transportation than in places like Los Angeles, where transit is so bad that most riders are people too poor to afford a car.
The result is that it’s very easy on both sides to dismiss the other side as an elite fighting the working class, even in public transit (since a substantial segment of the working class really does drive, even though it’s a smaller segment than in the middle class). In reality, on non-class-based issues it’s hard for the poor to truly be relevant as political actors. In the bus redesign project the union has a voice, but the premise of this post is that the political power of unions is in decline; public transit just happens to be an industry that, owing to its Fordist layout, is unusually friendly to unionization, at least until driverless buses are deployed at scale.
In this context, people should avoid dismissing their opponents as rich. Both sides have vanguards that are mostly middle-class, with some rich people sprinkled around. It’s a fight between two elites, and the YIMBY elite has grounds to portray itself as superior to the NIMBY elite, as it’s defined by skilled professions rather than passive property income, but it’s still a privileged elite and not the poor.
Whither transit and urbanism?
I already see some evidence that support for mass transit and urban growth (which mostly, but not exclusively, means YIMBY) is concentrated in the segments that are underlying where left-liberalism is going. New Left parties, including center-left ones (i.e. D66 and the Danish Social Liberals), are fans of transit. Greens tend to have a small-is-beautiful mentality toward cities, but I believe that this will change soon as green parties become vehicles for more internationalist voters, just as these parties flipped last decade from euroskeptical to europhilic.
What this means is that transit and urbanism as politics are likely to remain important political issues and if anything grow in salience, as they play well to growing cleaves between urban and rural, or between international and local. Whatever happens to specific political parties, these issues will survive.
The American discourse about gentrification is full of stereotypes that the participants don’t recognize as such. For example, a widely-shared Buzzfeed article created an entire theory out of a single busybody who was responsible for half of the police complaints on their West Harlem block. The main check on stereotypes – “that’s racist” – only works when the stereotypes resemble the forms of racism society is most familiar with. The history of white racism against black people in the US is so different that it colors what Americans perceive as racial stereotypes and what they don’t. So as public service, I’d like to give some examples to draw commonalities between stereotypes in other cities I’ve lived in (Tel Aviv, Vancouver, Paris) and familiar anti-gentrification rhetoric.
Last decade, there was an influx of black refugees into working-class areas of South Tel Aviv, centered on Levinsky Park. The area is underpriced relative to its job access, courtesy of Central Bus Station, a failed urban renewal project that attracted crime; already in the 1990s it was nicknamed Central Stench (tsaḥana merkazit; Central Station is taḥana merkazit) and lampooned in a popular comic as a literal gateway to hell. The neighborhood’s response was violent, and the discourse within Israel is divided into people who wish the refugees imprisoned and deported from the country and people who wish them forcibly dispersed around the country.
Other parts of South Tel Aviv have been gentrifying since the 1990s, centered on Florentin. South Tel Aviv’s right-wing Jewish working class began connecting the two trends. A few years ago I saw a widely-shared Facebook post claiming that the influx of black refugees is deliberately engineered by developers as a ploy to gentrify the neighborhood. The theory, as I recall, is that black people are so odious that developers are using them to engineer white flight, after which they’ll evict the refugees, demolish the neighborhood’s mid-rise housing stock, and erect luxury towers.
In the last decade or so Vancouver has seen rising rents and even faster-rising housing prices, and the region’s white population is blaming Chinese people. In 2016, British Columbia passed a 15% tax on residential buyers who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents; the tax was phrased neutrally, but the target was predominantly Chinese, and 21% of correspondence from citizens to the government on the issue was explicitly Sinophobic. In a city with rapid immigration, it should not be a surprise that new buyers tend to be immigrants, often on work or investor visas, but the region has a moral panic about Chinese people buying condos and houses as investments and leaving them empty.
The specific stereotypes of Chinese people in Vancouver vary. When I lived in Vancouver I encountered some light generic stereotyping (“people in Richmond are aggressive drivers”), but nothing connoting poverty, even though Richmond is poorer than Surrey, which some people I met compared with Camden, New Jersey. The language I see in the media concerning housing goes the other way: Chinese immigrants are stereotyped as oligarchs laundering ill-begotten wealth.
Like people in every other highly-toured region, Parisians hate the tourists. Seeing small declines in city population over the 2009-14 period, city electeds decided to blame Airbnb, and not, say, low housing construction rates (raising rents), a falling birth rate, or commercialization in city center. The mayor of the 1st arrondissement, Jean-Francois Legaret, called Airbnb “a true catastrophe for Central Paris.” The 1st arrondissement has high residential incomes; the lower-income parts of the city are the 10th, 11th, 13th, 18th, 19th, and 20th.
Rich and poor stereotypes
An ethnic or national group can stereotype another group as rich, poor, or both. White stereotypes of black people in the US and Europe are, within each ethnic group, associated with poverty: crime, aggressive physicality, laziness, indifference to education, proclivity for certain kinds of music and sport. Anti-Semitism today invokes stereotypes of the rich: greed, political subversion, disloyalty to the nation, corruption, success with money. Islamophobic stereotypes tend toward stereotypes of poverty, but are sometimes also bundled with stereotypes of Gulf money. In the last few decades Sinophobic stereotypes transitioned from ones of poverty (treating the Chinese as a faceless horde) to ones of wealth, similar to anti-Semitic stereotypes, to the point that people in Vancouver forget Richmond’s low incomes and people in New York forget the high poverty rates of Asian-New Yorkers and the overcrowding in Chinatown.
But as in the case of South Tel Aviv, the stereotypes can merge. The racists in South Tel Aviv blend two groups they hate – middle-class leftists and poor non-Jews – into one mass, blaming them for a trend that is usually blamed on the rich and the middle class. Historically, anti-Semitism was fully blended: the Jew was simultaneously poor and rich, wretched and exploitative, communist and capitalist, overly studious and overly physical. This blending of stereotypes was overt in Nazi propaganda, but also in the softer anti-Semitism directed against immigrants to the US.
The urban as a foreigner
Nationalists and populists stereotype cities like prewar anti-Semites stereotype Jews. The urban poor are lazy criminals, the rural poor are honest workers; the urban rich are exploitative capitalists sucking life out of the country, the rural rich are successful small business leaders; the urban middle class are bo-bo globalists, the rural middle class is the very definition of normality. This mentality is hard to miss in anti-urbanist writers like Joel Kotkin, and more recently in articles trying to portray an opposition between the Real Country (in the US but also in Israel and France) and the Urban Elites.
The definition of what is rural and what is urban is fractal. In the South, Long Island is part of New York; on Long Island, Long Island is Real America, distinct from the city that Long Island’s residents fled in the 1950s and 60s. Within cities the Real Country vs. Urban Elite opposition can involve the outer city vs. the inner city, as in Toronto, where Rob Ford won the mayoral election by appealing to outer-urban resentment of David Miller’s attempt to redistribute street space from cars to public transit. But it is in many cases demographic rather than geographic: the newcomer is the new rootless cosmopolitan.
In this mentality, the newcomer can be a rich gentrifier displacing honest salt-of-the-earth third-generation residents by paying higher rents or a refugee doing the same through living multiple people to a bedroom (or even both, in the case of some San Francisco programmers). In either case, the newcomer is a foreigner who doesn’t belong to the city’s culture and does not deserve the same access to city resources. People who build housing for this foreigner are inherently suspect, as are businesses that cater to the foreigner’s tastes. The demands – removal of access to housing – are the same regardless of whether the foreigners so stereotyped are poor or rich, and the stereotypes of wealth and poverty mix easily. That anti-gentrification activism looks so similar regardless of which social class it targets suggests that ultimately, any argument made is an excuse justifying not liking outsiders very much.
Successful transit cities are not alike. There are large differences in how the most expansive transit networks are laid out. It takes multiple series of posts across several blogs (not just mine but also Human Transit and others) covering just one of them, for example stop spacing or how construction contracts are let. With so much variation, it’s easy to get caught up in details that differentiate the best systems. After all, the deepest communities of railfans tend to sprout in the cities with the largest rail networks; arguing with railfans with experience with London, Tokyo, or Paris is difficult because they know intricate details of how their systems work that I am catching up on but only know in the same depth for New York. Add in the fact that London and Paris view each other as peer cities and from there the route to arguing minutiae about two cities that by most standards have good public transit is short.
But what if this is wrong? What if, instead of or in addition to figuring out differences among the top transit cities, it’s useful to also figure out what these transit cities have in common that differentiates them from auto-oriented cities? After all, in other aspects of development or best practices this is well-understood: for example, a developing country can choose to aim to be hyper-capitalist like Singapore or the US or social democratic like Sweden or France, but it had better develop the institutions that those four countries have in common that differentiate them from the third world.
Unfortunately, before discussing what the common institutions to transit cities are, it’s necessary to discuss things that may be common but don’t really matter.
The US as a confounding factor
The biggest problem with figuring out things all good transit cities have in common is that in the developed world, the US (and to some extent Canada and Australia) is unique in having bad transit. Frequent commenter Threestationsquare has a list of cities by annual rapid transit ridership (counting BRT but not infrequent commuter rail, which lowballs parts of the US); New York is near the top, but the second highest in the US, a near-tie between Boston, Chicago, and Washington, would rank #22 in Europe. As a result, some social, political, and technical features that appear to differentiate good and bad transit are not really about transit but about the US and must be discarded as confounding factors. Fortunately, most of these confounding factors are easy to dispose of since they also occur in New York.
The more difficult question concerns factors that are distantly related to the weakness of US transit but are not direct explanations. I wrote about racism as such a factor a few months ago, arguing that high US construction costs come from weak civil service, which in turn comes from the way American segregation works. The US is not uniquely racist or even uniquely segregated; the unique aspect is that it a) has a long-settled oppressed minority and not just immigrants who arrived after the characteristic of the state was established, and b) has segregation within metro areas (unlike Singapore, which has social but not spatial segregation) but not between them (unlike Israel, where the built-up area of Tel Aviv has very few Arabs). But while this can explain why institutions developed in a way that’s hostile to transit, it’s not a direct explanation for poor US transit except in Atlanta, where the white state underinvests in the black city. White people in Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, and other cities with little to no public transit do not avoid the bus or the train out of stereotypes that match typical American racial stereotypes, such as crime; they avoid the train because it doesn’t go where they’re going and the bus because it is slow and unreliable.
There are two ways to avoid confounding factors. The first is the sanity check, where available: if some feature of transit exists across major transit cities but is absent in auto-oriented cities not just in the US but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and Italy, then it’s likely to be relevant. Unfortunately, clean examples are rare. The second and more difficult method is to have theoretical understanding of what matters.
London and Paris are transit cities. So are Prague and Stockholm. I’ve stressed the importance of scale-variance before: features that work in larger cities may fail in smaller ones and vice versa. Thus, it’s best to look at common features of successful transit cities within each size class separately.
In fact, one way cities can fail is by adopting transit features from cities of the wrong size class. China is making the mistake in one direction: Beijing and Shanghai have no express subway trains or frequent regional rail services acting as express urban rail, and as a result, all urban travel has to slow down to an average speed of about 35 km/h, whereas Tokyo has express regional lines averaging 60 km/h. China’s subway design standards worked well for how big its cities were when those standards were developed from the 1970s to the 1990s, but are too small for the country’s megacities today.
In contrast, in the developed world, the megacities with good public transit all have frequent express trains: Tokyo and Osaka have four-track (or even eight-track!) regional lines, Paris has the RER, New York has express subways (and the premium-price LIRR trains from Jamaica to Penn Station), London has fast regional rail lines and Thameslink and will soon have Crossrail, Seoul has a regional rail network with express trains on Subway Line 1, and Moscow stands alone with a strictly two-track system but has such wide stop spacing that the average speed on the Metro is 41 km/h. Smaller transit cities sometimes have frequent express trains (e.g. Zurich and Stockholm) and sometimes don’t (e.g. Prague), but it’s less important for them because their urban extent is such that a two-track subway line can connect the center with the edge of the built-up area in a reasonable amount of time.
And if China failed by adopting design standards fitting smaller cities than it has today, the US fails in the other direction, by adopting design standards fitting huge megacities, i.e. New York. Small cities cannot hope to have lines with the crowding levels of the Lexington Avenue Line. This has several implications. First, they need to scale their operating costs down, by using proof of payment ticketing and unstaffed stations, which features are common to most European transit cities below London and Paris’s size class. Second, they need to worry about train frequency, since it’s easy to get to the point where the frequency that matches some crowding guideline is so low that it discourages riders. And third, they need to maximize network effects, since there isn’t room for several competing operations, which means ensuring buses and trains work together and do not split the market between them.
The best example of an American city that fails in all three aspects above is Washington. While railfans in Washington lament the lack of express tracks like those of New York, the city’s problems are the exact opposite: it copied aspects of New York that only succeed in a dense megacity. With interlining and reverse-branching, Washington has low frequency on each service, down to 12 minutes off-peak. The stations are staffed and faregated, raising operating costs. And there is no fare integration between Metro and the buses, splitting the market in areas with price-sensitive riders (i.e. poor people) like Anacostia.
The political situation
While I’ve written before about what I think good metro design standards are, these standards themselves cannot separate the major transit cities from cities like Los Angeles (which has about two and a half rail trunks in a metro area larger than that of London or Paris) or Tel Aviv (which has no metro at all). Instead, it’s worth asking why these cities have no large subway systems to begin with.
In the case of Tel Aviv, Israel has had an official policy of population dispersal since independence. After independence the North and South of the country had Arab majorities, and the government wished to encourage Jews to settle there to weaken any Palestinian claims to these areas. As a result, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion rejected a plan to develop an urban rail network centered on Tel Aviv and instead encouraged low-income Jewish immigrants to move far away, either to depopulated Arab towns or to new towns (“development towns”) built at strategic points for national geopolitics. Decentralization was national policy, and with it came auto-oriented urbanism. A less harsh but equally politicized environment led to Malaysia’s auto-centric layout: Paul Barter’s thesis outlines how Malaysia choked informal transit and encouraged auto-oriented suburbanization in order to create an internal market for state-owned automakers.
In the case of the US, the situation is more complex, since there were several distinct political trends in different eras favoring cars. In postwar suburbia (and in Los Angeles going back to the 1920s) it was the association of cars with middle-class normality, and in California also with freedom from hated railroads; it’s related to the fact that American suburbanization was led by the middle class rather than by the working class as with more recent exurbanization. In Israel suburbanization was led by the working class, but the deliberate government policy of decentralization meant that the urban middle class’s demands for better transportation were ignored until the 1990s.
Without enough of an urban middle class to advocate for more transit, US transit withered. New cities in the Sunbelt had little demand for public transit, and in the older cities the middle class cared little for any transit that wasn’t a peak-only commuter train from the suburbs to the CBD. Moreover, in existing transit cities the middle class demanded that the urban layout change to fit its suburban living situation, leading to extensive job sprawl into office parks that are difficult to serve on transit. This paralleled trends in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; Sydney in particular saw middle-class suburbanization early, like Los Angeles.
The political situation changed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but by then high construction costs, NIMBYism constraining the extent of TOD (unlike in Canada), and indifference to leveraging regional rail for urban transit (as in Canada and until recently Israel but unlike in Australia) made it difficult to build more public transit lines.
Regional rail and TOD
The largest transit cities in the rich and middle-income world all make extensive use of regional rail, with the aforementioned exception of Chinese cities, where the lack of regional rail is creating serious travel pain, and New York, where the city itself is transit-oriented but its suburbs are not. Smaller transit cities usually make use of regional rail as well, but this isn’t universal, and to my understanding is uncommon in Eastern Europe (e.g. Kyiv has one semi-frequent ring line) even in cities with very high metro and tramway usage.
However, smaller transit cities that do not have much regional rail have full metro systems and not just tramways, let alone BRT. Curitiba and Bogota are famous for their BRT-only transit networks, but both instituted their systems in a context with low labor costs and both are building metro systems right now.
The other common element to transit cities is TOD. Here, we must distinguish old cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, whose urban layout is TOD because it was laid out decades before mass motorization, and newer cities like Stockholm, Tokyo, and every city in Eastern Europe or the East Asian tiger states. The latter set of cities built housing on top of train stations, often public housing (as in the communist world or in Stockholm) but not always (as in Tokyo and to some extent Hong Kong), in an era when the global symbol of prosperity was still the American car-owning middle class.
The importance of TOD grows if we compare countries with relatively similar histories, namely, the US and Canada. Neither country does much regional rail, both have had extensive middle-class suburbanization (though Canada’s major cities have maintained bigger inner-urban middle classes than the US’s), and English Canada’s cities came into the 1970s with low urban density. The difference is that Canada has engaged in far more TOD. Calgary built up a large CBD for how small the city is, without much parking; Vancouver built up Downtown as well as transit-oriented centers such as Metrotown, New Westminster, Lougheed, and Whalley, all on top of the Expo Line. Nowhere in the US did such TOD happen. Moreover, American examples of partial TOD, including Arlington on top of the Washington Metro and this decade’s fast growth in Seattle, have led to somewhat less awful transit usage than in the rest of the country.
Most cities in the developed world are replete with legacy rail networks that can be leveraged for high-quality public transit. We see cities that aim at transit revival start with regional rail modernization, including Auckland and to some extent Tel Aviv (which is electrifying its rail network and building new commuter lines, but they run in freeway medians due to poor planning). Moreover, we see cities that are interested in transit build up high-rise CBDs in their centers and high- and mid-rise residential development near outlying train stations.
“Regional rail and TOD” is not a perfect formula; it elides a lot of details and a lot of historical factors that are hard to replicate. But both regional rail and TOD have been major elements in the construction of transit cities over the last 60 years, and while they both have exceptions, they don’t have many exceptions. In the other direction, I don’t know of examples of failed TOD – that is, of auto-oriented cities that aggressively built TOD on top of new or existing rail lines but didn’t manage to grow their transit ridership. I do know some examples of failed regional rail, but usually they make glaring mistakes in design standards, especially frequency but also station siting and fare integration.
At a closer in level of zoom, it’s worthwhile to talk about the unique features of each transit city. But when looking at the big picture, it’s better to talk about what all transit cities of a particular size class have in common that auto-oriented cities don’t. Only this way can an auto-oriented city figure out what it absolutely must do if it wants to have better public transit and what are just tools in its kit for achieving that goal.
Boston has two main train stations: South Station, and North Station. Both are terminals, about 2 km apart, each serving its own set of suburbs; as a result, over the last few decades there have been calls to unify the system with a regional rail tunnel connecting the two systems. This tunnel, called the North-South Rail Link, or NSRL, would have been part of the Big Dig if its costs hadn’t run over; as it were, the Big Dig reserved space deep underground for two large bores, in which there is clean dirt with no archeological or geotechnical surprises. The NSRL project had languished due to Massachusetts’ unwillingness to spend the money on it, always understood to be in the billions, but in the last few years the pressure to build it intensified, and the state agreed to fund a small feasibility study.
A presentation of the draft study came out two days ago, and is hogwash. It claims on flimsy pretext that NSRL would cost $17 billion for the tunnel alone. It also makes assumptions on service patterns (such as manual door opening) that are decades out of date not just in Europe and East Asia but also in New York. The Fiscal and Management Control Board, or FMCB, discusses it here; there’s a livestream as well as a link to a presentation of the draft study.
The content of the study is so weak that it has to have been deliberate. The governor does not want it built because of its complexity, no matter how high its benefits. Thus, the state produced a report that sandbags a project it doesn’t want to build. People should be fired over this, starting with planners at the state’s Office of Transportation Planning, which was responsible for the study. The way forward remains full regional rail modernization. As for the cost estimate, an independent study by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government estimates it at about $5 billion in today’s money; the new study provides no evidence it would be higher. I urge good transit activists in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to demand better of their civil servants.
The study says that the cost of a four-track NSRL tunnel under the Big Dig would be $17 billion in 2028 dollars. In today’s money, this is $12 billion (the study assumes 3.5% annual cost escalation rather than inflation-rate cost escalation). It claims to be based on best practices, listing several comparable tunnels, both proposed and existing:
- California High-Speed Rail tunnels (average estimated cost about $125 million per km, not including overheads and contingency)
- Crossrail (see below on costs)
- The M-30 highway tunnel in Madrid (average cost about $125 million per km of bored tunnel in the mid-2000s, or around $150 million/km in today’s money)
- The canceled I-710 tunnel in California (at 7.2 km and $5.6 billion, $780 million per km
- The Spoortunnel Pannerdensch Kanaal (around $200 million in today’s money for 1.6 km of bore, or $125 million per km)
Unlike the other tunnels on the list, Crossrail has stations frustrating any simple per km cost analysis. The headline cost of Crossrail is £15 billion; however, I received data from a freedom of information request showing that the central (i.e. underground) portion is only £11.6 billion and the rest is surface improvements, and of this cost the big items are £2.2 billion for tunneling, £4.1 billion for stations, £1 billion for tracks and systems, and £2.7 billion for overheads and land acquisition. The tunneling itself is thus around $150 million per km, exclusive of overheads and land (which add 30% to the rest of the project). All of this is consistent with what I’ve found in New York: tunneling is for the most part cheap.
With the exception of Crossrail, the above projects consist of two large-diameter bores. The mainline rail tunnels (California HSR and Pannerdensch Kanaal) are sized to provide plenty of free air around the train in order to improve aerodynamics, a feature that is desirable at high speed but is a luxury in a constrained, low-speed urban rail tunnel. The highway tunnels have two large-diameter bores in order to permit many lanes in each direction. The plan for NSRL has always been two 12-meter bores, allowing four tracks; at the per-km boring cost of the above projects, this 5 kilometer project should cost perhaps a billion dollars for tunneling alone.
The stations are typically the hard part. However, NSRL has always been intended to use large-diameter tunnels, which can incorporate the platforms within the bore, reducing their cost. Frequent commenter Ant6n describes how Barcelona used such a tunnel to build Metro Lines 9 and 10, going underneath the older lines; the cost of the entire project is around $170 million per km, including a cost overrun by a factor of more than 3. Vertical access is likely to be more difficult in Boston under the Big Dig than in Barcelona, but slant shafts for escalators are still possible. At the worst case scenario, Crossrail’s station costs are of an order of magnitude of many hundreds of millions of dollars each, and two especially complex ones on Crossrail 2 are £1.4 billion each; this cost may be reasonable for Central Station at Aquarium, but not at South Station or North Station, where there is room for vertical and slant shafts.
It’s possible that the study made a factor-of-two error, assuming that since the mainline rail comparison projects have two tracks, their infrastructure is sized for two urban rail tracks, where in reality a small increase in tunnel diameter would permit four.
Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government came up with an estimate of $5.9 billion in 2025 dollars for a four-track, three-station NSRL option, which is about $5 billion today. Their methodology involves looking at comparable tunneling projects around the world, and averaging several averages, one coming from American cost methodology plus 50% contingency, and two coming from looking at real-world cost ranges (one American, one incorporating American as well as rest-of-world tunnels). Their list of comparable projects includes some high-cost ones such as Second Avenue Subway, but also cheaper ones like Citybanan, which goes deep underneath Central Stockholm with mined tunnels under T-Centralen and Odenplan, at $350 million per km in today’s money.
But the MassDOT study disregarded the expertise of the Kennedy School researchers, saying,
Note: The Harvard Study did not include cost for the tunnel boring machine launch pit and only accounted for 2.7 miles of tunneling (the MassDOT studies both accounted for 5 miles of tunneling), and no contingency for risk.
This claim is fraudulent. The Kennedy School study looks at real-world costs (thus, including contingency and launch pit costs) as well as at itemized costs plus 50% contingency. Moreover, the length of the NSRL tunnel, just under 5 km, is the same either way; the MassDOT study seems to be doubling the cost because the project has four tracks, an assumption that is already taken into account in the Kennedy School study. This, again, is consistent with a factor-of-two error.
Moreover, the brazenness of the claim that a study that explicitly includes contingency does not do so suggests that MassDOT deliberately sabotaged NSRL, making it look more expensive than it is, since the top political brass does not want it. Governor Baker said NSRL looks expensive, and Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack is hostile as well; most likely, facing implicit pressure from above, MassDOT’s overburdened Office of Transportation Planning scrubbed the bottom of the barrel to find evidence of absurdly high costs.
Massachusetts really does not want or understand electrification. Even some NSRL supporters believe electrification to be an expensive frill that would sink the entire project and think that dual-mode locomotives are an acceptable way to run trains in a developed country in the 2010s.
In fact, dual-mode locomotives’ weak performance serves to raise tunneling costs. Struggling to accelerate at 0.3 m/s^2 (or 0.03 g), they cannot climb steep grades: both the Kennedy School and MassDOT studies assume maximum 3% grades, whereas electric multiple units, with initial acceleration of 1.2 m/s^2, can easily climb 4% and even steeper grades (in theory even 10%, in practice the highest I know of is 7%, and even 5% is rare), permitting shorter and less constrained tunnels.
As a result of its allergy to electrification, MassDOT is only proposing wiring between North Station and the next station on each of the four North Side lines, a total of 22.5 route-km. This choice of which inner segments to electrify excludes the Fairmount Line, an 8-stop 15 km mostly self-contained line through low-income, asthma-riven city neighborhoods (source, PDF-pp. 182 and 230). Even the electrification the study does agree to, consisting of about 30 km of the above surface lines plus the tunnels themselves, is projected to cost $600 million. Nowhere in the world is electrification so expensive; the only projects I know of that are even half as expensive are a pair of disasters, one coming from a botched automation attempt on the Great Western Main Line and one coming from poor industry practices on Caltrain.
A more reasonable American budget, based on Amtrak electrification costs from the 1990s, would be somewhat less than $2 billion for the entire MBTA excluding the already-wired Providence Line; this is the most familiar electrification scheme to the Bostonian reader or planner. At French or Israeli costs, the entire MBTA commuter rail system could be wired for less than a billion dollars.
Another necessary element is conversion to an all-EMU fleet, to increase performance and reduce operating costs. Railway Gazette reports that a Dutch benchmarking study found that the lifecycle costs of EMUs are half as high as those of diesel multiple units. As the MBTA needs to replace its fleet soon anyway, the incremental cost of electrification of rolling stock is negative, and yet the study tacks in $2.4 billion on top of the $17 billion for tunneling for vehicles.
A miscellany of incompetence
In addition to the sandbagged costs, the study indicates that the people involved in the process do not understand modern railroad operations in several other ways.
First, door opening. While practically everywhere else in the first world doors are automatic and opened with the push of a button, the MBTA insists on manual door opening. The MassDOT study gives no thought to high platforms and automatic doors (indeed, the Old Colony Lines are already entirely high-platform, but some of their rolling stock still employs manual door opening), and assumes manual door opening will persist even through the NSRL tunnels. Each train would need a squad of conductors to unload in Downtown Boston, and the labor costs would frustrate any attempt to run frequently (the study itself suggests hourly off-peak frequency; in Paris, RER lines run every 10-20 minutes off-peak).
Second, capacity. The study says a two-track NSRL would permit 17 trains per hour in each direction at the peak, and a four-track NSRL would permit 21. The MBTA commuter rail network is highly branched, but not more so than the Munich S-Bahn (which runs 30 at the peak on two tracks) and less so than the Zurich S-Bahn (which before the Durchmesserlinie opened ran either 20 or 24 tph through the two-track tunnel, I’m not sure which).
Worse, the FMCB itself is dumbfounded by the proposed peak frequency – in the wrong direction. While FMCB chair Joe Aiello tried explaining how modern regional rail in Tokyo works, other members didn’t get it; one member dared ask whether 17 tph is even possible on positive train control-equipped tracks. My expectations of Americans are low enough that I am not surprised they are unaware that many lines here and in Japan have automatic train protection systems (ETCS here, various flavors of ATC in Japan) that meet American PTC standards and have shorter minimum headways than every 3-4 minutes. But the North River Tunnels run 24-25 peak tph into Manhattan, using ASCES signaling, the PTC system Amtrak uses on the Northeast Corridor; the capacity problems at Penn Station are well-known to even casual observers of American infrastructure politics.
A state in which the FMCB members didn’t really get what their chair was saying about modern operations is going to propose poor operating practices going forward. MassDOT’s study assumes low frequency, and, because there is no line-wide electrification except on the Providence Line and eventually South Coast Rail (where electrification is required for wetland remediation), very low performance. MassDOT’s conception of NSRL has no infill stops, and thus no service to the bulk of the contiguous built-up area of Boston. Without electrification or high platforms, it cannot achieve high enough speeds to beat cars except in rush hour traffic. Limiting the stop penalty is paramount on urban rail, and level boarding, wide doors, and EMU acceleration combine to a stop penalty of about 55 seconds at 100 km/h and 75 seconds at 160 km/h; in contrast, the MBTA’s lumbering diesel locomotives, tugging coaches with narrow car-end doors with several steps, have a stop penalty of about 2.5 minutes at 100 km/h.
The presentation makes it very clear what the value of MassDOT’s NSRL study is: at best none, at worst negative value through muddying the conversation with fraudulent numbers. The Office of Transportation Planning is swamped and could not produce a good study. The actual control was political: Governor Baker and Secretary of Transportation Pollack do not want NSRL, and both the private consultant that produced the study and the staff that oversaw it did what the politicians expected of them.
Heads have to roll if Massachusetts is to plan good public transportation. The most important person good transit activists should fight to remove is the governor; however, he is going to be easily reelected, and replacing the secretary of transportation with someone who does not lie to the public about costs is an uphill fight as well. Replacing incompetent civil servants elsewhere is desirable, but the fish rots from the head.
Activists in Rhode Island may have an easier time, as the state is less hostile to rail, despite the flop of Wickford Junction; they may wish to demand the state take lead on improving service levels on the Providence Line, with an eye toward forcing future NSRL plans to incorporate good regional rail practices. In New Hampshire, provided the state government became less hostile to public investment, activists could likewise demand high-quality commuter rail service, with an eye toward later connecting a North Station-Nashua-Manchester line to the South Side lines.
But no matter what, good transit activists cannot take the study seriously as a planning study. It is a political document, designed to sandbag a rail project that has high costs and even higher benefits that the governor does not wish to manage. Its cost estimates are not only outlandish but brazenly so, and its insistence that the Kennedy School study does not include contingency is so obviously incorrect that it must be considered fraud rather than a mistake. Nothing it says has any merit, not should it be taken seriously. It does not represent the world of transportation planning, but rather the fantasies of a political system that does not understand public transportation.
A Patreon poll in April asked about political blogging, offering three options: policy certainty in housing, process for the sake of process, and lawsuits and corruption of process. The second option won.
The year is about 2008. A wee grad student and former political blogger in New York is getting interested in transportation policy, and through past connections to political bloggers gets acquainted with a progressive local thinktank called Drum Major Institute, which advocates for all the right priorities of the center-left. One of these priorities is densification and urban growth. The relevant DMI fellow talks about the need to upzone in the city to permit smart growth. The wee grad student asks, why even have zoning at all? Why not let developers build to any density they’d like? The DMI fellow says that zoning is necessary in order to permit planners to have control over where development goes, and doesn’t explain what this control is useful for in the first place.
Fast forward to this decade. Cities install infrastructure for livable streets. Bikeshare revolutionizes cycling, first via the docked systems of Paris, Wuhan, and Hangzhou, and subsequently via the dockless systems developed in the largest Chinese cities. Simultaneously, all over the developed world cities reallocate space away from cars, whether it’s via bus lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, or freeway removal. This trend has generally earned the support of people who support livable streets or are generally progressive. There may be individual pieces of criticism: for example, East Harlem railed against New York’s original decision not to extend bike lanes on First and Second Avenues to its community, and thankfully the city listened after a few years and did extend them. But these criticisms tend to be specific to one issue and constructive.
But then there are the NIMBYs, whose rallying cry is “they didn’t ask us.” In San Francisco, the Mission left-wing community activist group Calle 24 attacked the city for extending bikeshare to the Mission, on grounds that include gentrification but also the process line: “we weren’t consulted.”
There are many defenses of process that do justify its importance. I interviewed Aaron Ritz and Waffiyah Murray at Indego, Philadelphia’s publicly-run docked bikeshare system, which has somewhat better reach to low-income and black residents than systems like Chicago’s Divvy and Washington’s Capital Bikeshare. They gave me concrete examples of how Indego’s community outreach was helpful: it gave the planners tips on the best station siting (e.g. where the community centers are) as well as on different ways different socioeconomic groups use bikeshare (e.g. black Philadelphians are likelier to think of cycling as fun rather than transportation and thus prefer station locations near recreational trails).
But simultaneously there are defenses of process for its own sake. Zoning is the biggest example: the actually useful aspects of urban zoning are so few and far between, and so disconnected from current practice, that there is no coherent defense of the existence of zoning boards. The common arguments used by neighborhood groups (overdevelopment, infrastructure, gentrification, etc.) range from manifestly false to manifestly selfish (property values).
On various YIMBY message boards, there has been a discussion of an alternative zoning code to standard low-density zoning. People discussed form-based codes or transit-oriented development regimes like that of SB 827 in California, and as a first stab I proposed the following at Open New York:
1. Land is residential, commercial, or industrial. Industrial gets set by regional or statewide commission taking into account manufacturing jobs, prevailing winds, etc., and is distinguished in having looser pollution controls. Residential is allowed in commercial zones by right; doctors’ offices, lawyers’ offices, and other independent personal services are allowed in residential areas, as are hotels.
2. Retail is allowed in all commercial zones. Office is allowed in commercial zones that are specifically for office.
3. Commercial zones are allowed to encroach on adjacent residential land: residential land within a certain distance from majority-commercial uses gets automatically reclassified as commercial, and if the commercial uses are mostly offices then the land gets reclassified as office and not just retail.
4. Density is regulated based on distance from high-quality transit, which for the purposes of this discussion does not include buses that run every 15 minutes. The lowest category is not single-family and doesn’t have parking minimums, but allows around floor area ratio 1. The highest one has residential FAR 12, the maximum allowed by New York State, and is within very short distance from rapid transit (say, 500 meters intra muros, 200 extra muros). Everything within a kilometer of a train station is at least FAR 4.
I got “but what about ___?” responses re parking and what New York calls a sky exposure plane. This is a YIMBY group, and even there some people were uncomfortable that a proposed code was not exact enough so as to say exactly who is allowed to do what, instead going for the principle that what’s not forbidden is permitted. Even this attempt at a compromise didn’t win much support (what I actually believe is that if urban land is developable based on scientific understanding of environmental protection it should be developable for any purpose and at any density its owner sees fit).
Outside the YIMBY world, the pushback against such a loose code would be severe, because it would not offer local activists the control over their neighbors’ lives that they crave. San Francisco’s affordable housing community was against SB 827, partly because of misguided fears of gentrification, but also partly because the byzantine process in the city allows community groups to extort benefits by threatening to withhold project approval. In comments on my post about free trade in rolling stock, Adam points out that the California Environmental Quality Act was so weaponized by unions, who demanded that a new plant be unionized as a condition for dropping an environmental lawsuit. When corrupt local groups benefit from the ad hoc nature of the process, they will defend it for its own sake, regardless of whether it achieves its stated purpose (affordable housing, environmental protection, etc.).
But corruption alone can’t explain why outside groups like DMI think zoning is valuable for its own sake. My suspicion is that this is ideological: every regulation must have some purpose, so while revising regulations is fine, getting rid of them entirely reeks of free market libertarianism. Since the right attacks the civil service as bloated and parasitic, the left and center-left reflexively defend the civil service no matter what and, by extension, justify its mission. This pattern flips when it comes to the police, but that’s a narrow issue of criminal justice equality, not even affecting the fire department, which is socially similar to the police but gets no hate from the left. A regulator who decides who gets to build what and where does not have the reputation of a brutal cop or border control agent, and can expect sympathy for the left even if the zoning mission serves no useful purpose and creates problems for left-wing goals of affordable housing.
YIMBY is a movement that calls for liberalizing land use in order to produce more housing. However, its take on non-residential development is more complicated. I’d always assumed that San Francisco YIMBY was not calling for more commercial development because the Bay Area already builds a lot of office space because of California’s tax incentives, which let municipalities raise taxes on sales but not residential property; however, as a check on this hypothesis I asked YIMBYs in New York, but they too said that office upzoning wasn’t really a priority and only cited mixed projects to me. This approach is usually harmless, but in a few places it creates serious long-term problems, and one of them is the center of SF YIMBY, the South of Market (“SoMa”) area, and the reason is commercialization of near-CBD neighborhoods.
A few months ago I wrote about job sprawl in the US vs. in Europe. In Europe, hostility to high-rise office buildings in most historic city centers has caused jobs to spread to neighborhoods near the CBD, often in the direction of the favored quarter; in the US, CBDs have office towers, but everything right outside them is usually strictly zoned, so jobs sprawl to suburban office parks. Both situations have a number of exceptions (e.g. Kista and La Defense are both examples of high-rise edge cities independent of the CBDs, while Kendall Square and Back Bay are contiguous extensions of the Boston CBD), but for the most part they apply in their respective areas.
In the same way that on a wider scale building more housing in New York and San Francisco would reduce the demand for housing in the places to which these cities’ working and lower middle classes have been pushed out, building more office space in city centers would reduce the demand for suburban office parks. Permitting jobs to move back from suburban edge and edgeless cities to city centers is a good thing, both for urbanism and for transit: for urbanism, the CBD is accessible from all directions (which is why it’s so valuable to begin with), and for transit, congested CBDs tend to maintain decent transit mode shares even in otherwise completely auto-dominated cities.
The political problem is that this requires replacing residential development with commercial development. It’s questionable but possible in European zoning regimes. In the US it’s harder, for several reasons:
- Near-CBD neighborhoods are as far as I can tell never middle or lower middle class. They’re either very poor (though by now they’ve all been urban-renewed) or rich. The greater extent of local empowerment in the US makes it harder to permit office development in rich areas over NIMBY objections.
- American residential zoning is stricter than at least German residential zoning, and as far as I can tell is also stricter than French residential zoning, in that it permits no commercial uses at all, except ground-floor retail on main streets. In particular, doctors, lawyers, and accountants’ offices must go in designated commercial zones in the US.
- American cities are more likely to have low-density neighborhoods in desirable near-downtown areas (for example, Georgetown) and defend their character fiercely through single-family zoning.
While all three factors seem important, the biggest examples of American near-CBD NIMBYism trigger only the first factor. In New York, the main example right now is the Meatpacking District, where there is extensive commercial demand (Google is located there and so do some other tech firms), which already has fairly high residential density, but the residents are rich homeowners who have successfully fought off attempts to build more office space. Historically, Midtown arose this way – rich areas around Fifth Avenue commercialized until the city’s 1916 zoning code put a stop to the practice.
And this brings me back to this post’s motivating example – SoMa. Located right next to the Financial District, with equally good access as the Financial District to the BART and Muni subway spine on Market Street, and better access to Caltrain’s 4th and King terminal, SoMa is a prime target for commercialization. Unfortunately, SF YIMBY opposes this process, saying the city’s zoning plan should add housing there and not office space. The argument is that permitting mostly office space in SoMa would create more demand for housing elsewhere in the Bay Area, exporting San Francisco’s high rents to Oakland and other East Bay cities. Unwittingly, SF YIMBY has turned into a NIMBY group when it comes to the highest and best use in the neighborhood in which it is the strongest.
To SF YIMBY’s credit, it recognizes the similarity between today’s tech workers (who form the vanguard of YIMBY) and last generation’s (who bought houses when they were cheaper than today and form one of several vanguards of area NIMBYism) and is pursuing preemption laws that reduce its own ability to object to growth. But, as preemption is not yet the law, SF YIMBY is opposed to commercialization in its own back yard.
The more specific argument SF YIMBY uses is about jobs-to-bedrooms ratio. Per YIMBY, zoning should have a maximum jobs-to-bedrooms ratio within a neighborhood or city, to prevent creating too much housing demand in other Bay Area cities. Right now, the Proposition 13 regime is such that municipalities derive tax revenues from commercial development but not so much residential development, and so they favor office space. But in reality, the only jobs-to-employed-residents ratio that’s sustainable this way is 1, a ratio that’s far too low for a city that has suburbs, let alone a central neighborhood such as SoMa. The consensus SF YIMBY proposes – an even balance between residential and commercial development everywhere, achieved through preference for housing in areas that are net recipients of inbound commuters – is thus untenable in a major metro area.
The proposed SF YIMBY consensus also does nothing to unseat the current consensus in favor of sprawl. Contrary to the narrative of selfish suburbs that add office space but no housing, the Silicon Valley suburbs are fiercely NIMBY toward high-density office development. Google could never hope to build a supertall skyscraper on top of Mountain View’s train station; it can’t even get permission to build a bridge to let the Googleplex expand to a nearby office park.
The selfish suburbs’ preference is not just office but also sprawl, and blocking commercial development in San Francisco increases sprawl in two distinct ways. First, the tech companies that would like to expand in SoMa – Uber, Slack, Airbnb, and so on – would, if not permitted to build more office space, open more back offices in sprawling areas, in or outside the Bay Area. And second, office development in the suburbs is only accessible to people from one wedge of the metro area, which encourages people to move to exurbs on the outer side, for example Gilroy for development in San Jose.
To counteract the tendency of hyperlocal planning to produce sprawl and replace the single-family housing consensus, the consensus YIMBY should seek is not about managing office-to-residential space ratios, but about letting places densify in whatever ways the market deems to have the highest and best use. In a high-demand place like San Francisco or New York, this means a consensus in favor of a bigger, faster-growing city, using its high productivity to add more people, offices, and apartments, rather than to increase the property values of the incumbents. Plan for long-term growth and long-term changes in zoning rules and don’t play the demand suppression game that NIMBYs love.
Classical economics asserts that if two countries freely trade, then both gain relative to a baseline in which they don’t trade. The classical theory of comparative advantage hinges on reciprocal free trade. But more recently, economists have begun to push for entirely domestic support for free trade, arguing that reducing trade barriers is good even without reciprocation. The arguments involve corruption and misallocation of capital coming from protectionism. Whatever criticism there may be of this neoliberal conception of trade, rolling stock appears to be an example in which this conception is right.
I have previously criticized informal French protectionism in high-prestige procurement for blowing up Parisian rolling stock costs by a factor of almost 2. In Paris, my example of what could be done with the money Ile-de-France Mobilités is wasting on rolling stock was infrastructure construction, justified by the city’s very low construction costs relative to ridership (if not relative to route-length). But there’s an even better set of examples of high costs in the United States, justified on labor grounds and yet involving wastes of money disproportionate to the number of jobs created.
Last month, The American Prospect published an article about a union push to have more US rolling stock made in America, by unionized workers. The TAP article talks about a light rail vehicle order in Los Angeles for $890 million, for what the article says is 175 cars and what manufacturer Kinki Sharyo and other industry sources say is 235 cars, built at a dedicated factory in the Los Angeles exurbs. The purpose of the article is to advocate for more protectionism for the sake of American union members, so it details the wages the workers are making (about $20 an hour, up from $11 for unskilled jobs elsewhere) but does not delve into comparative costs. It’s worth asking if the costs are competitive, and the answer is that they are not.
The cost of LACMTA’s Kinki Sharyo order is $3.8 million per car; these cars are 27 meters long, so this translates to $140,000 per meter of train length. In contrast, the average cost in Europe appears to be just under $100,000 per meter, across a variety of cities and models:
- In Bordeaux, a recent Citadis tram order cost $80,000 per meter.
- In Strasbourg, the Citadis cost $95,000 per meter.
- In Avignon, the Citadis Compact cost $95,000 per meter.
- In Aubagne, the Citadis Compact cost $100,000 per meter.
- In Budapest, an order for Urbos trams cost $95,000 per meter.
- In Birmingham, the launch customer for the Urbos, they cost £2 million per unit, and at 33 meters per car, it’s around $90,000 per meter.
- In Luxembourg, the Urbos cost €3.95 million per unit, each at 45 meters, or $110,000 per meter, and include catenary-free operation.
- In Munich, the launch customer for the Avenio, the trams cost $120,000 per meter.
- In the Hague, the Avenio cost $90,000 per meter.
The shortest trains on this list (the Citadis Compact orders, at 22-24 meters) are in the middle of the pack, so it’s unlikely there’s any nonlinearity in cost; moreover, the Compact is slightly shorter than the Kinki Sharyo trains, so no extrapolation is required, only interpolation.
The LACMTA order follows another premium-priced light rail order in the same state: as I wrote in the Bay City Beacon last year, Muni Metro’s Siemens LRV order cost about $4 million per 23-meter car, about $170,000 per meter of train length. The trains are being built at a new plant in Sacramento.
The United States has federal Buy America laws, requiring federally-funded contracts to buy domestic products provided they cost no more than 25% more than equivalent imports. However, there is no in-state purchase requirement. Owing to large New York City Subway orders, some vendors have long-established plants near New York (Kawasaki and Alstom are in-state, Bombardier is in Vermont). However, under informal pressure from activists within California to provide good local jobs, LACMTA asked bidders to open local factories. Moreover, Siemens most likely placed its plant in Sacramento rather than in lower-cost states in order to curry favor with state-funded orders.
We even see the same problem in Massachusetts, where CRRC opened a plant in Springfield for an MBTA Red and Orange Line car order. The order itself does not come at a premium – according to Metro Report the base order is about $100,000 per meter of train length and the option is $115,000, and the range of per-meter costs for subway trains is the same as that for LRVs – but it’s possibly a loss leader to help establish CRRC as a player in the American market. Even before Trump’s election, Congress investigated the order, which beat the competitors by a large margin; the competing bids were about $135,000 per meter for the base order. It says a lot about Massachusetts’ broken procurement that it takes a loss leader just to get costs down to their international levels. Nonetheless, the US premium does appear to be smaller for large subway orders than for small and medium-size LRV orders, since the extra costs of siting and setting up a factory are spread across more units.
The explicit goal of local content requirements is to create jobs. This is usually justified in terms of inequality and bleak prospects for unskilled workers. However, there is no cost-benefit calculation involved in this. According to TAP, the LACMTA order is creating 250 jobs manufacturing the trains; it doesn’t say how long they will last, but the duration of the contract is about 6 years. But the premium, about $300 million, works out to $1.2 million per job, a large multiple of total compensation to the workers. The Springfield plant has 200 jobs paying $50,000-60,000 per year, lasting 7 years across more than just the Boston contract; pro-rating to the Boston contract’s share of orders from the plant, the jobs will last around 5 years. Adding back the premium charged by the competing vendors raises the cost to $1 million per job, again a multiple of total working-class compensation.
There are two reasons why labor protectionism costs so much compared with its direct impact on working-class hiring. The first is leakage: much of the premium goes to management, including factory design and construction, or is just wasted on inefficiency (CRRC is opening a second American plant, in Chicago, instead of building everything at one plant). Some of the money goes to foreign consultants with the vendor and some stays domestic, but the domestic leakage goes to sitework and not to direct hiring.
The second reason is corruption and degradation of institutions. When the goal of public procurement is not just to buy the best product in terms of cost and quality, lobbyists make demands, like local hiring, that corrupt the process. A city that signals that the only things that matter are cost and quality will attract vendors who make the best bids in terms of cost and quality; a city that signals that the process depends on local political needs will attract vendors who make bids in order to satisfy local political actors, who as a rule don’t give a damn about good transit. Thus American agencies buy trains at a premium well beyond Buy America’s 25% limit, just because they think of cost and quality as just two of several political priorities and not as the sole legitimate bases of choosing a bidder.
The United States leads the world in higher education costs. The unsubsidized cost of a college degree at a good public university is about $100,000; at CUNY, which provides a good quality of degrees even if it’s so underfunded that classrooms aren’t supplied with chalk, it’s about $75,000. Stipends at the level of a good graduate program add another $30,000 or so per year. For around $200,000 per person, California could send low-income workers to college and pay for their living expenses for the duration of the degree, whereupon they will be able to get unsubsidized jobs paying much more than $20 per hour. For workers who can’t go to college, trade school is another option, offering decently-paying jobs for much lower cost since they take much less time. There is no need to lade the transit capital budget with what should be state or federal retraining grants; given the massive difference in cost, even the loss of matching funds (i.e. other people’s money) can leave the state or the city better off.
The problem is that there is no political incentive to think in such terms. Part of it is the corruption of institutions, as I mentioned already: labor groups see an opportunity to create jobs from a budget that from a local perspective is other people’s money. Another part is political prestige: romantics like old jobs (farmer, builder, truck driver, coal miner, baker, factory worker), which have had enough time to percolate into the national psyche, and since these jobs are old, they’re likely to be at the low end of the value-added ladder.
Absent very strong rules forbidding protectionism in procurement, this corruption will continue: evidently, Paris insists on buying expensive bespoke trains and somehow manages to get them manufactured within France, even though EU rules against interstate dumping are much stronger than US rules. Rules at the highest level are required to discourage such behavior (although Paris might still waste money on bespoke trains, just ones that can be made in Poland). Congress can and should stop funding any local or state agency that takes in-state content into account in procurement; the US is one democratic country, not fifty mercantile fiefdoms, and should use its status as a superstate with a large internal market to universalize good governance.