Category: Studies

Port Authority’s LaGuardia Rail Link Study

Two days ago, Port Authority put out a study about a rail link to LaGuardia, which became Governor Cuomo’s top transit priority a few years ago. The PDF file is bundled with the RFP, but starting on PDF-p. 25 it’s an alternatives analysis and not an RFP. While transit activists including myself have attacked Cuomo’s proposed rail link for its poor alignment choice, the Port Authority study considers many alternatives, including some interesting ones. It also describes the current situation in more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’d like to talk about the alternatives for a rail link, but also summarize some of the important facts buried in the study. Unfortunately, the study also eliminates all the useful options and prefers to advance only Cuomo’s uselessly circuitous alignment.

The current situation

LaGuardia had about 25 million O&D passengers in 2017. They disproportionately go to or from Midtown, but it’s not as overwhelming as I thought based on this density map. Here is a precise breakdown, lumping together both locals (33%) and visitors (67%):

In Manhattan and western Queens “Walking access” means half a mile from a commuter rail stop or from the 7 train; there is no attempt to track walk access to the N or W trains. In Eastern Queens it means half a mile from any subway stop.

About half of the passengers get to or from the airport by taxi, and another 20% are dropped off or picked up in a car. Only 6.2% use public transportation, and another 5.6% use a shared ride such as a hotel shuttle.

Among employees, the situation is different. I expected employees to cluster in western and central Queens, but in fact, based on the same categories used for passengers, the largest group is Queens East beyond subway range:

There are 13,000 employees at LaGuardia per Port Authority (compared with about 10,000 per OnTheMap), of whom 40% take transit to work and 57% drive. It goes without saying that the transit options are exceedingly harsh. The connections from Brooklyn require taking a subway through Manhattan (and I don’t think LGA is necessarily important enough to justify a direct bus route from Brooklyn, presumably a merger of the B38 with a Q18/Q47 compromise route to the airport). From Queens beyond subway range they require taking a bus to the subway and then another bus. The implication is that people take transit to the airport out of necessity – that is, poverty – and not because the options are good.

Unfortunately, the implication is also that it’s hard to serve the current employee base by any rail link, even if it’s fare-integrated with the subway (unlike the JFK AirTrain). The origins are too dispersed. The best that can be done is serving one tranche of origins, and letting passengers sort themselves based on commute possibilities.

In some strategic places, a decent two-seat ride can be made available. The M60 bus is not good for passengers, but it is fine for employees since more of them come from Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, and moreover low incomes imply that it’s fine to have a transit : car trip time ratio well in excess of 1 provided it’s not too onerous. Some future rail extensions, not covered in the study, would help with passenger distribution: Triboro RX would help get passengers from the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and parts of Queens to major transfer points at Astoria and Jackson Heights, and Penn Station Access with an Astoria stop would help get eastern Bronx passengers into Astoria with a quick transfer.

The alternatives analyzed

The study mentions a horde of different options for connecting people to the airport, but most only get a few paragraphs followed by an indication that they don’t meet the objectives and therefore should not be considered further. These excluded alignments exist only for i-dotting and t-crossing, such as ferries or whatever Elon Musk is calling his tunnels this year; Port Authority is right to reject them.

The alternatives proposed for further consideration consist of no build, subway extensions, and various air train alignments. Unfortunately, on second pass, the subway extensions are all eliminated, on the same grounds of community impact. This includes the least impactful subway extension, going north on 31st Street and then east on 19th Avenue, avoiding Ditmars (which could host an el).

Instead of a subway extension, the study is recommending an air train. There are many alternatives analyzed: one from Astoria along the Grand Central Parkway, one from Woodside with a connecting to the local M/R trains on the Queens Boulevard Line at Northern Boulevard, one from Jackson Heights, one from Jamaica with a missed connection to the 7, and one from Willets Point as recommended by Cuomo. All but the last are excluded on the same grounds of impact. Any land acquisition appears to be prohibited, no matter how minor.

What went wrong?

The obvious answer to why the study recommends the Willets Point detour is political support. This can be seen in e.g. PDF-p. 150, a table analyzing each of the air train possibilities. One of the criteria is operational concerns. The Jamaica option fails that test because it is so circuitous it would not get passengers between the airport and either Penn Station or Grand Central in thirty minutes. The Willets Point option passes, despite being circuitous as well (albeit less so); it would still not get passengers to Midtown Manhattan in thirty minutes since the 7 is slow, but the study seems to be assuming passengers would take the LIRR, on the half-hourly Port Washington Branch.

This alone suggests political sandbagging. But by itself it doesn’t explain how the study’s assumptions sandbag the options the governor doesn’t favor; after all, there could be many little omissions and judgment calls.

Rather, I propose that the study specifically looked only at nonstop service to the airport. The subway extensions are all proposed as nonstop services from Astoria (either Astoria Boulevard or Ditmars) to the airport, without intermediate stops. Without intermediate stops, the political will to build els above neighborhood streets is diminished, because few people in Astoria have any need to travel to LaGuardia. In contrast, with intermediate stops, the subway extensions would improve coverage within Astoria, serving Steinway and Hazen Streets.

If intermediate stops are desired, then 19th Avenue may not be the best corridor. Ditmars itself is feasible (with some takings), as are 21st and 20th Avenues. Ditmars has the most impact but serves the highest-value location, and can descend to Grand Central Parkway to get to the airport without any tunneling, limiting costs.

Moreover, the impact of els can be reduced by building them on concrete columns rather than all-steel structures. Paris Metro Line 2 opened in 1903, before the First Subway in New York; it has a steel structure on top of concrete columns, and the noise level is low enough that people can have conversations underneath while a train is passing. New Yorkers should be familiar with the reduced noise of concrete structures since the 7 el on top of Queens Boulevard is quiet, but that is an all-concrete structure on a very wide street; Line 2 here follows wide boulevards as well but not so wide as Queens Boulevard, and is moreover a mixture of concrete and steel, and yet manages not to have the screeching noise New Yorkers are familiar with from Astoria, Woodside, and other neighborhoods with els.

Is this study valuable?

Yes and no. Its conclusions should be tossed for their limited scope (nonstop airport access only), questionable assumptions (overreliance on infrequent commuter rail), and political aims (justifying Cuomo’s decision). But some of the underlying analysis, especially of current travel patterns, is useful for the purposes of thinking about systemwide transit expansion. Despite the consideration of an N/W extension, the study does not try to figure out the percentage of travelers whose ultimate origin or destination is near an N/W stop, only near a 7 stop; however, we can make some educated guesses from the map and realize that an N/W extension is of considerable value to passengers.

For employees, the situation is more delicate. The study mentions them but doesn’t try to optimize for them – the aim is to give Cuomo political cover, not to design the best possible public transit for New York. But the dispersal of worker origins means that a single rail link to the airport is unlikely to have much of an effect. Better everywhere-to-everywhere transit is needed. With decent bus connections at Astoria and Jackson Heights, it’s more important to build circumferential transit there (that is, Triboro) than to connect directly to the airport.

A general program of transit expansion would serve both groups. An N/W extension through Astoria with intermediate stops would give the neighborhood better coverage while also connecting the airport with Manhattan destinations, with good transfers to origins on the Upper East and West Sides. Better circumferential transit would then let workers from different parts of the city use the same extension without having to detour through Midtown even if their origins are in the Bronx or Queens.

Can any of this happen? The answer is unambiguously yes. Even in New York, els and at-grade rail is not so expensive. The only real question is whether good transit can happen while the state is governed by a do-nothing administration, headed by a governor who is more interested in a signature project than in improving transportation for his hapless subjects.

Cities and Cultural Theory

I ran a Patreon poll about sociological theories as applied to urbanism, offering two options: cultural theory of risk, and cultural cringe. The poll was tied, so I feel compelled to do one post on each (when cultural theory was ahead I was outlining two separate posts on it, one about transit and one about housing).

Psychologists and sociologists have long known that people’s perceptions of risk can vary widely from actual risks (e.g. people are more afraid of flying than of driving even though planes are safer), and, moreover, different people have different evaluations of risk. Early theories analyzed differences in risk perception along lines of class, race, or gender, but subsequently a group of social scientists, many (though not all) libertarians, argued for an ideology-based cultural identity. In 1982, the anthropologist Mary Douglas and the political scientist Aaron Wildavksy published Risk and Culture, arguing for three different identities (later expanded to four). Douglas used her past insights from analyzing premodern societies’ social taboos to analyzing risk perception within industrialized societies, especially the rise of the environmental movement during a time of falling pollution levels.

Urbanism and public transit are intimately connected with environmentalism. A large fraction of transit advocacy is environmental in nature, and both early NIMBYs and present-day YIMBYs come from green progressivism. Even when the arguments are not explicitly ecological, the parallels are unavoidable: Jane Jacobs’ critique of urban renewal has strong similarities with Rachel Carson’s critique of DDT. Legally, the mechanisms that exist to protect both endangered species and neighborhoods are often the same (e.g. the American environmental impact report process). Thus, understanding a sociological theory developed originally to analyze environmentalism should have straightforward applications to cities and urban transportation.

Grid-group typology

Cultural theory begins with the distinction between markets and hierarchies. These are two distinct ways of organizing society, leading to different institutions and different social views. Douglas and Wildavsky’s innovation is to distinguish two different axes of separation between markets and hierarchies, which they call group and grid, leading to a 2*2 chart:

Group measures group solidarity among members of the system; grid measures the restrictions placed on the individual’s ability to exit the system. While individualism and hierarchy are politically stronger than the other two cultural identities, group and grid are fairly independent on the level of personal politics and there are numerous examples of egalitarianism and fatalism.

I strongly recommend reading the original book, but this review does it and the theory’s subsequent developments justice.

Individualism arises in institutions that are atomized and like it. The free market is the best example, but professions with mostly independent workers (like academia and the law, especially historically) also fit. Individualists view nature as resilient, returning to a stable equilibrium no matter what happens, and thus business control of the environment is to be celebrated as development; I had this aspect of cultural theory in mind when I wrote one of my early posts critiquing the idea that cities have a single equilibrium. Rejecting systemic or environmental risks, individualists focus on risks that disrupt the market’s operation, like war or recession.

Hierarchy arises in institutions where everyone has a predetermined role to play. Examples include the military, premodern feudalism, and modern bureaucracies. Hierarchists view nature as perverse or tolerant, capable of adapting to change to an extent but not beyond circumscribed limits, and therefore employ what their society considers expert opinion (e.g. scripture, bureaucratic process, big science, etc.) to figure these limits. Hierarchists focus on risks that indicate social deviance, like crime.

Douglas and Wildavsky call the above two tendencies the center, distinguished from what they call the border, whose growth they ascribe to the erosion of trust in institution in the 1960s and 70s (coming in the US from the Vietnam War and Watergate, in France from the reaction to the social protests of 1968, etc.).

Egalitarianism was the border tendency studied in Risk and Culture, which polemically called it sectarianism. It occurs in groups that rely on intensive solidarity among members but cannot enforce their collective will on the individual, and thus require other mechanisms to encourage people not to leave. These include internal equality, to stave off discontentment, and the precautionary principle, to prevent change from inducing disaffected members to exit. Thus they view nature as fragile, prone to collapse at any moment if the system endures any change in direction, and focus on low-probability, high-impact risks (such as environmental collapse), which enhance the group’s internal solidarity against outside enemies.

One of the key oppositions Douglas and Wildavsky point out is between the Hutterites and the Amish. Both denominations are high-group, socializing almost exclusively among their own kind, adhering to strict religious principles. But despite their common Anabaptist origin, they differ in one crucial aspect: the Hutterites have communal ownership of property, the Amish don’t. This makes the Hutterites high-grid, since members who leave start from zero, whereas Amish who leave get to keep their land. The Amish openly adhere to the precautionary principle, which they famously interpret extremely conservatively; the Hutterites have formal rules for group size and adopt modern farming technology easily.

Fatalism is the last tendency, so politically weak that it was ignored in the original book and only discussed in subsequent refinements of the theory. It arises in institutions whose lower-ranked members (whether by market poverty or low rank in the hierarchy) are disaffected, unable to leave and yet not sharing any of the group’s purported values. They tend to view nature as capricious, moving without clear direction, and do not have any particular risk focus, but tend to be especially concerned about things they do not understand (such as unfamiliar or complex technology). Transgressive fiction like The Wire tends to depict fatalist institutions; geekier readers may also recognize H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos as fatalist, portraying a universe so far beyond human understanding that any who begins to figure any of it out goes insane or slowly becomes a monster.

Some political movements have obvious cultural identities. Libertarianism is individualist. The New Left is egalitarian. The far right is hierarchist: Cas Mudde calls it pathological normalcy, and its issue focus (crime, immigration as genetic pollution, terrorism) is hierarchical, even as it rejects traditional hierarchical institutions. However, the broader left vs. right distinction does not neatly map to any of the four cultural biases. About the only generalization that can be made is that activists are usually not fatalists.

Cultural theory and transportation

Transportation planning is an inherently hierarchical industry. The technologies involved are old and continuously tweaked within well-understood parameters. With so much accumulated knowledge, work experience matters, requiring companies in the industry to adopt a hierarchical setup. Moreover, the transportation network itself is complex and interconnected, with changes in one region cascading to others. Changes to the bus network, the train schedule, etc. are possible but only if the people implementing them know what they’re doing, creating a picture of the network much like the hierarchical view of nature as tolerant up to a limit.

The individualist ethos of tech companies – move fast and break things – works for fast-growing industries. Individualism is by far the fastest of the four biases in reacting to sudden changes. The tech industry’s denigration of public transit as an old hat has to be understood as individualists reacting poorly to an industry that has to be run by a business culture they find alien.

Readers who have been following me closely may ask, well, what about me? I’m an individualist. I evidently talk more to startups than to transportation consulting megacorps. One reader notes that I’ve called for people in positions of authority to be fired for incompetence so many times that a post like this one may read as hesitant purely because I only call for removing the governor of Massachusetts and the secretary of transportation and not also for firing planners.

The answer is that while there is extensive accumulated knowledge about good public transit in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea, there is very little in the area I’m most involved in, North America. This is especially true when it comes to regional rail: the existing mainline rail in the US should be treated as more or less tabula rasa. Adopting best practices requires extensive expert knowledge, but the methods in which they should be implemented have little to do with the internal bureaucracy of hierarchical organizations, since the railroads that would ordinarily be in charge (like the LIRR or the MBTA) are the problem and not the solution.

But if the actual process of running a transportation network is hierarchical, the politics are completely different. As with left-right politics, the politics of public transit don’t neatly fit into any of the four tendencies. Center-right hierarchists tend to support extensions of the status quo, which means more urban transit in New York, London, Paris, and other large cities, as well as high-speed rail on strong corridors (High Speed 2 in the UK is bipartisan), but more roads everywhere else. Individualists on the right tend to be anti-rail, partly because it looks so hierarchical, partly because of peculiarities like Koch funding of American libertarianism (which has been exported to Israel, at least).

Egalitarian environmentalists tend to be pro-transit, but their discomfort with hierarchy sometimes shows up as mistrust of big infrastructure projects. The radical environmentalist Chris Clarke, opposed early attempts to fast-track California High-Speed Rail and called Robert Cruickshank of California HSR Blog a shill for developer interests. Jane Jacobs herself ended up arguing late in her life that mass transit was at the wrong scale and instead cities should encourage community jitney services.

The process itself has issues of trust that activate egalitarians and fatalists, the latter often reflexively opposing reforms since they assume things must always get worse. It leads to tension between community outreach, which helps defuse this opposition, and speed of implementation.

Cultural theory and housing development

Whereas transportation politics isn’t neatly slotted into the grid-group paradigm, the politics of urban development is: YIMBY is an individualist movement, with near-universal support from people who identify with that cultural bias. The other three tendencies are split. The market urbanist proposition of abolition or near-abolition of zoning doesn’t appeal to hierarchists (who want to be able to control where housing goes) or egalitarians (who worry about the consequences of empowering market actors); but there are egalitarian left-YIMBYs and hierarchical city leaders who favor transit-oriented development.

In fact, when analyzing NIMBYism, it’s useful to slot it not by class or political opinion, but by cultural identity. There is much less difference between working-class and middle-class NIMBYs than leftists posit, and in some cases anti-gentrification politics and racist opposition to fair housing blend together (as in South Tel Aviv, where the local far right has argued black refugees are part of a gentrification ploy).

The key is that egalitarianism really consists of two distinct concepts, both necessary to maintain high group solidarity without grid: internal equality, and strong boundedness (which refers to sharp distinctions between insiders and outsiders). The cultural geographer Stentor Danielson argued once that surveys consistently show people approve of internal equality but not of strong boundedness, which is why egalitarian communities are so rare even though many people agree with most of their tenets.

Thus, when NIMBYs argue that more development would bring outsiders or change the character of the neighborhood, this is as compatible with egalitarianism as with hierarchy. Gentrification is just the name for when these outsiders are not begging for scraps. The real difference is in where this is taken. Egalitarian NIMBYism emphasizes irrevocable change, high-impact risks (e.g. that a new development would induce runaway gentrification), and trust. Hierarchical NIMBYism instead talks about behavioral norms, usually referring to middle-class moral panics about crime, but occasionally flipping to black American fears that white people would call the police more often.

The fatalists, too, have their own criticism of redevelopment – namely, that it represents another sudden change involving forces they have no control over. “Nobody asked us” has to be understood as a fatalist and not egalitarian cry, even though egalitarians often try to organize fatalists.

It’s not really possible to promise any of the other groups what it really wants: protection from change for egalitarians, a more concrete relationship between development and their actual lives for fatalists, or ethnic or other kinds of homogeneity for hierarchists. Nonetheless, alliances are possible with some egalitarians and hierarchists. SF YIMBY has to be viewed as an attempt at an individualist-egalitarian alliance for more housing, ceding ground on rent control to curry favor with ideological socialists (and its East Bay offshoot is run by actual socialists). In the other direction, Theresa May’s making noises about releasing more land for housing to get young people on the “housing ladder,” invoking a hierarchical sense of normality regarding when it’s appropriate to buy a house.

Massachusetts Sandbags the North-South Rail Link

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.

Tunneling costs

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.

Electrification 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.

Going forward

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.

Consumption Theory and Gentrification

I recently saw an article about location decisions by education in the Netherlands. The article discusses the impact of rail investment on different social classes, and claims that,

A recent study by Teulings et al. (2018) uses microdata to quantify the differences in the willingness to pay for particular locations between the high and low educated (omitting the medium education level) (Figure 2). It shows willingness to pay for the job availability (based on the locally available transport infrastructure to commute to these jobs) and urban amenities such as parks and historic scenery at the location. The highly educated (right panel) are very sensitive to the quality of a location.

The claim is that educated people prefer central cities, in this case Amsterdam, because of their consumption amenities. This is the consumption theory of gentrification, which holds that the process of gentrification is caused by a middle-class taste for urban amenities. However, this theory appears incorrect, on several levels. The references cited in the paper for location decisions do not really bear out consumption theory. Moreover, the history of gentrification strongly suggests that, if consumption amenities are at all involved, then they have been stable for at least a hundred years.

Instead of consumption theory, the best explanation is that location decisions are about jobs. Certain cities have higher production amenities, especially for the middle class, leading the middle class to preferentially move to them to obtain higher-income jobs. The choice of neighborhood is then driven by access to skilled jobs, usually in the CBD but sometimes also in new job clusters. If there’s gentrification, the cause is insufficient housing in closer-in areas, leading to spillover to adjacent neighborhoods.

The references

The internal reference cited for it in the paper, the work of Coen Teulings, Ioulia Ossokina, and Henri de Groot, breaks down willingness to pay higher rents in expensive cities (i.e. Amsterdam) based on job access and several consumption amenities. The paper’s headline numbers superficially bear out consumption theory: table 7 on page 23 says that job availability is only responsible for 38% of low-education people’s variance in willingness to live in expensive cities and 28% of high-education people’s variance; the rest comes from amenities. However, a closer reading suggests that this is not really about consumption amenities.

First, that 28% of middle-class location choice comes from job access does not mean 72% comes from amenities. Observed consumption amenities are only 18% (and only 14% for low-education workers); the rest is unobserved amenities (30%), which are a residual rather than any identified amenities, and covariances between jobs and amenities.

Moreover, the consumption amenities listed are proximity to restaurants, monuments, parks, and a university. Is a university really a consumption amenity for the middle class? This is unlikely. Graduates don’t really have the same consumption basket as students. Instead, what’s more likely is that universities provide skilled employment for a particular set of high-education workers (namely, academics and other researchers), who are willing to pay extra to be near work; academic job markets are so specialized that access to non-academic high-education work isn’t as important. Of course, universities also have extensive working-class employment, but a university janitor can get a similar job at a non-academic environment, and therefore has no reason to locate specifically near a university rather than another source of work, such as a hospital or office building.

Finally, there is a second reference in the article, reinforcing its claims about location decisions with American data. This is a paper by David Albouy, Gabriel Ehrlich, and Yingyi Liu. Albouy, Ehrlich, and Liu’s text does not endorse consumption theory – on the contrary, their discussion blames “policies and regulations that raise rents by creating artificial shortages in housing supply” (pp. 28-29). On the question of consumption theory, the results of the study are inconclusive. They do not look directly at amenities that critics of gentrification typically implicate in causing the middle class to displace the poor; the amenities they consider include mild climate, clean air, and a sea view.

The history of gentrification

The word “gentrification” was coined in 1964 to describe the process in Islington. However, Stephen Smith has argued from looking at historical rents that the process goes much further back. He finds evidence of gentrification in Greenwich Village in the 1910s and 20s. Already then, the middle class was beginning to move into the Village, previously a working-class district. Jane Jacobs moved in in 1935. She was income-poor, as were many other people in the Depression, but on any marker of class, she was solidly comfortable: her father was a doctor, she herself was a high school graduate and had some college education at a time when most Americans had never gone to high school, and her job was in journalism, at the time a middle-class career path.

In the 1950s and 60s, this process continued in full swing, in the Village and other inner neighborhoods of New York, such as the Upper West Side, which unlike the Upper East Side was originally rowdy (West Side Story is set there). Developers were building taller buildings, to Jacobs’ consternation, to house the growing middle-class demand.

I focus on early gentrification in New York and not London, because in this era, the American middle class was fleeing cities. In the 1950s New York was poorer than its suburbs. The wealthiest strata of the city had decamped to Westchester and Fairfield Counties starting in the 1910s and 20s (in 1930 Westchester had 520,000 people, more than half of today’s level, and more than Long Island). Then in the 1950s and 60s this process spread to the entire white middle class, causing a population surge on Long Island, in New Jersey, and in the parts of Westchester and Fairfield that the rich hadn’t already settled in. Moreover, companies were moving out of city centers, often to be closer to the CEO’s home, including General Electric (which moved to the town of Fairfield in 1974) and IBM (which moved to Armonk in 1964). Middle-class taste at the time was firmly suburban.

A better explanation for the early history of gentrification in New York concerns the subway. Before the subway opened, the working class had to live right next to the Lower Manhattan CBD and commute on foot. The els did provide some options for living farther uptown, but they were slow and noisy (they were only electrified around the time the subway opened) and until the early 20th century the working class could not afford the 5-cent fare. This led to extreme levels of overcrowding just outside the CBD, most infamously on the Lower East Side. In 1900, most of Manhattan was open to the middle class but only the Lower East and West Sides were open to the working class. By 1920, the fast subway and the 5-cent fare (held down despite post-WW1 inflation) made all of Manhattan open to everyone, making it easier for the middle class to outbid the poor for housing in the Village.

Production theory

The paper cited at the beginning of this post does not profess consumption theory; it claims that both production and consumption amenities explain gentrification. However, the actual work within the paper leans heavily toward production. It looks at the effect of opening a new rail line from the suburbs to Amsterdam, and finds that this leads to middle-class displacement of lower-education residents, who have less use for the train service. This is also consistent with what working-class residents of some Parisian banlieues think: a newspaper article I can no longer find cites people within Seine-Saint-Denis complaining that all Grand Paris Express will do is raise their rents.

In addition to being more consistent with Dutch and American evidence and American history, production theory benefits from not relying on special local explanations for a global trend. A process that began at similar development levels in the US and Western Europe is unlikely to be about American race relations. Even Tokyo is seeing gentrification in the sense that industrial waterfront areas are redeveloped, if not in the sense of mass displacement seen in New York, London, and other cities with stricter zoning.

There is no burning middle-class desire to live near poor people – quite the opposite, in fact. When the middle class does begin gentrifying a neighborhood, it’s because it offers convenient access to jobs. The same is true on the level of an entire city: San Francisco did not magically become a nicer place to live in when the current tech boom began – if anything, rising rents have led to a homelessness problem, which makes professional workers uncomfortable. A city that wishes to forestall gentrification will make it easy to build housing in the areas with the best job access, in order to encourage people to have short commutes rather than seeking increasingly marginal neighborhoods to move to.

When are Express Trains Warranted? Part 1: Regional Rail

The Regional Plan Association has a detailed regional rail proposal out. It’s the same one from the Fourth Plan that I’ve criticized here, on Streetsblog, and on Curbed, but with more explanation for how the service should run, with stopping patterns and frequency.

There are some good aspects there, like a section about the importance of electrification and multiple-units, though it stops short of calling for full electrification and replacement of locomotives with EMUs; the focus on off-peak frequency is also welcome. There are also bad ones, like the claim on p. 32 that it’s difficult to impossible to provide through-running using the existing Penn Station tracks used by New Jersey Transit. Foster Nichols told me that there are some difficulties with grades but they should be doable if NJT commits to an all-EMU fleet, and reminded me that the ARC studies judged through-running using these station tracks and new tunnels feasible. What he expressed to me as a difficulty turned into a near-impossibility in the report, in order to justify the $7 billion Penn Station South project.

But I want to focus on one particularly bad aspect of the proposal: the stopping patterns. The RPA is proposing three distinct stopping patterns on pp. 32-45, with three separate brands: Metro, in the city and some inner suburbs; Regional Express (RX), in the suburbs; and Trans-Regional Limited (TRL), providing intercity service to New Haven, Ronkonkoma, Philadelphia, and other major stations outside the built-up area. Even as the plan talks about the importance of making sure suburban trains serve urban stations in order to give them frequent service through overlay, the stopping patterns suggest the opposite.

The proposal involves trains from the suburbs expressing through most city stations (including the infill) even on two-track lines, like the Port Washington Branch. Metro trains would make all current stops plus additional infill to Bayside, and RX trains would only serve Willets Point, Flushing, and Bayside, and then run from Bayside to Port Washington. A similar pattern happens from Jamaica to Valley Stream, resulting in the Babylon, Long Beach, and Far Rockaway Branches all having to share a track pair. Moreover, the RX trains may themselves be divided into local and express trains, for example on the New Haven Line.

This is bad practice. On a two-track line, there’s no real reason to skip a handful of inner stations just to guarantee the outer ones express service. If anything, the need to schedule trains on the same tracks would lead to more fragile timetables, requiring more schedule padding. My analysis from 2.5 years ago found that the LIRR Main Line is padded 32% and the Babylon Branch is padded 19%: that is, the scheduled travel time on the Main Line (up to Ronkonkoma) is 32% more than the travel time imputed from line speed limits and current fleet acceleration performance. Patrick O’Hara, who the RPA study even quotes as a source elsewhere, investigated this issue separately, looking at best-case timetables, and found that some runs are padded 40-50%.

In Switzerland, trains are padded 7%, and I’m told that in Japan, after the Amagasaki accident showcased the safety problems of overly precise schedules, pads are about 5%. Express trains and locals mixed on the same line make it harder to maintain tight enough reliability for low schedule padding; this way, on an all-local line, trip times may match those of express trains on mixed lines, as they do in my analysis above. The best analogy is the RER B going to the north: the express trains are 4 minutes faster than the local trains, skipping 9 stops. The stop penalty on the RER B is higher, closer to 7 minutes over 9 stops, but the shared tracks with local trains (and with the RER D between Gare du Nord and Chatelet-Les Halles) means that there’s a fudge factor in the schedule, so it’s not possible to reliably do better than 4 minutes, and the trains end up visibly crawling on the mainline.

The reader familiar with technical transit advocacy in the Bay Area may interject, what about Caltrain? Clem Tillier has no trouble proposing timetables mixing local trains, express trains, and high-speed rail on the same track pair with timed overtakes, and a 7% pad. So why am I down on this concept in New York? The answer is line complexity. Caltrain is a simple two-track back-and-forth, and HSR is generally more punctual than legacy trains because it runs for long stretches on high-quality dedicated tracks, so it’s unlikely to introduce new variability to the line. In contrast, the RPA plan for regional rail in New York involves extensive branching, so that train schedules depend on trains elsewhere on the line. In this case, introducing more complexity through local/express sharing is likely to require more schedule padding, erasing the speed advantage.

In general, my questions to establish guidelines for where express trains are warranted are,

  • How long is the line, measured in the number of stations? More stations encourage more express trains, because more stations can be skipped. In higher speed zones, stop penalties are higher, but at equal line length measured in km, higher speeds and fewer local stations reduce the benefit of express trains.
  • How frequent are trains? At low frequency, local stations need more frequency, so express runs are less useful. At very high frequency, there may not be capacity for different stopping patterns unless the line has four tracks. On a two-track line, the optimum frequency for a local/express alternation is about 6-12 trains per hour, 3-6 local and 3-6 express, with a single mid-line overtake. Multiple overtakes on a single line are possible, but more fragile, so they are a bad idea except in special circumstances.
  • What is the demand for travel? Express trains work best if there are a few distinguished stations at regular intervals, or else if the line is long and there is strong demand at the far end; if the inner stations are very strong then it’s more important to give them higher local frequency. When performing this analysis, it’s important to make sure station ridership levels reflect genuine demand rather than service. For example, Caltrain express stops have high ridership in large part because of their better service, not nearby density, as shown in Clem Tillier’s analysis. The LIRR Main Line has far more ridership at Mineola and Hicksville than the other stations on the trunk and also far more service, but Patrick explains that this is due to better highway access, so it’s genuine demand and not just a reflection of better service.

Caltrain needs express service because it has about 20 stations between San Francisco and San Jose, depending on the amount of infill and anti-infill desired; a target frequency of 8-10 peak trains per hour; and strong demand on the outer stations, especially for reverse-peak trips. In New York, none of the two-track lines meets the same standard. Some are too short, such as the Port Washington Branch. Others are too busy, such as the Harlem Line, Babylon Branch, and LIRR Main Line. Yet others have too much demand clustering in the inner stations, such as the Erie lines and the North Jersey Coast Line.

On four-track lines, it’s always easier to run express service. This doesn’t mean it should always be run: the upper New Haven Line is a strong candidate for relegating all commuter trains to the local tracks, making all stops, giving the express tracks to intercity trains. The Northeast Corridor Line in New Jersey is a dicey example: past Rahway there are four tracks, but intercity trains could run at very high speeds, making track sharing on the express tracks difficult. My service pattern map has express trains skipping Edison and Metuchen, but it’s just two stations, making it better to just run local beyond Rahway to clear the express tracks for high-speed rail.

It’s tempting to draw proposals involving intense metro-style regional rail service only serving the urban and inner-suburban stations; I’ve had to argue against such plans on some MBTA lines. The problem is that trains from the outer suburbs are still necessary and still going to pass through the inner suburbs, and in most cases they might as well stop at those stations, which need the frequency more than the outer suburbs need the few minutes of speedup.

Off-Peak Subway Service in New York

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has a new report out about the poor state of off-peak subway service. It’s a topic I’ve talked about a lot here (e.g. here), but there’s a big difference in focus: I normally talk about midday service for efficiency reasons, and as far as I remember this is the bulk of what I discussed with report author Adam Forman, but the report itself highlights non-traditional commutes in the early morning and evening:

Traditional commuters
(depart 7-9 am)
Early morning commuters
(depart 5-7 am)
Median Income $42,300 $35,000
Bachelor’s Degree or Higher (Age 25+) 52% 31%
Foreign Born 47% 56%
Person of Color 64% 78%
Work in Healthcare, Hospitality, Retail, Food Services, or Cultural industries 36% 40%
Growth in the Last Quarter Century 17% 39%

Citywide, there are 1,888,000 commuters leaving to go to work between 7 and 9 am, and 711,000 leaving between 5 and 7. The latter group has to contend with much worse subway frequencies: the report has a table (chart 8) detailing the reduction in frequency, which is typically about half. The report does not say so, but an additional hurdle facing early-morning commuters is that some express trains run local: for example, the northbound A train only starts running express at 6 in the morning, forcing a substantial minority of early morning commuters to ride what’s effectively the C train.

The one saving grace in the early morning, not mentioned in the report, is that buses aren’t as slow. For example,  the B6 limited takes 1:11 end-to-end at 6 am, compared with 1:26 at rush hour. However, this is a 16 km route, so even the faster speed at 6 am corresponds to an average speed of 13.7 km/h, which is not competitive with a bicycle. Moreover, in practice, slow circumferentials like the B6 are used in situations where transferring between subway lines is not viable or convenient, such as early in the morning, when subway frequencies are low; this means that far from a substitute for slower rush hour buses, early morning buses have to substitute for much faster subway lines.

The report has charts about subway and bus service by the time the route begins operation. As expected, there’s a prominent morning peak, and a slightly less prominent afternoon peak. In the evening there’s a dropoff: 350 subway runs begin around 9 pm compared with just under 600 subway runs in the morning peak, a reduction of 40%. For buses, the dropoff is larger: about 1,700 versus 3,700, a 54% reduction. The most worrying trend is that the buses peak at the same time as the subway in the afternoon, starting at 4:30 or so; in reality, buses are often a first-mile rather than a last-mile connector, which means that people returning from work typically ride the subway and then the bus, so we should expect buses to peak slightly later than trains, and drop off in the evening at a slower rate. Instead, what we see is the same peak time and a faster dropoff.

Some of this can be attributed to operating costs. Buses have lower fixed costs than trains and higher marginal costs, so the economics of running them at less busy times are weaker than those of running trains. However, in reality buses and trains in New York run as a combined system; running just the subway in the evening but not the buses means that people can’t come home from work if they live in neighborhoods not connected to the subway.

Evening frequencies on many routes are low enough that they are almost certainly negatively impacting ridership. Some individual subway routes run every 11-12 minutes in the evening, including the B, C, D, W, and 5; in the every 9-10 minutes category are the 2, 3, A, F, J, N, and R. Other than the J, these are all branches sharing track with other lines, but they branch off the trunks and recombine. A Bronx-bound rider on the 2 and 3 can only ride the 2, and a Flatbush-bound rider can choose between the 2 and a 3-to-5 transfer, both of which are infrequent. Without timed transfers, the effective frequency as experienced by the rider remains low, about every 10 minutes.

This isn’t how other top metro systems work – in Paris the trains on Metro Line 9, not one of the top lines in the system, come every 7 minutes at 10 or 11 at night. The RER is less frequent on individual branches, but the individual branch points are all outside the city except on the RER C, sometimes well outside it. Other than on the RER C heading west, the branch points are at worst 6 km outside the center (at Vincennes), more typically 10 km (such as Nanterre and Bourg-la-Reine), and at best 16-18 km out (Aulnay and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges). In New York, the R and W branch at Lexington and 60th, a little more than 2 km outside Times Square, and the Q and N branch even earlier; the A-B-C-D branch and recombine at Columbus Circle, and branch again at 145th Street, 8.5 km out of Port Authority. This branching affects a majority of bedroom communities in the city, including almost the entire Bronx, much of Upper Manhattan, all of Queens except the 7, and Central and Southern Brooklyn.

To my knowledge, there is no public study of the effect of frequency on ridership. Occasionally there are ridership screens that incorporate it, but the examples I know are designed around the needs of specific project studies. There can be rules of thumb about frequency at different scales (the smaller the scale, the higher the minimum frequency is), but without more careful analysis, I can only bring up some best industry practices. It does not seem common to run metro trains every 10 minutes in the evening. On the Piccadilly line, there are 22 northbound trains departing Leicester Square between 9 and 10 in the evening, of which 19 go all the way to Cockfosters. On the Central line, 24 trains depart Oxford Circus eastbound, 9 going to Epping (in Essex, 31 km from Oxford Circus and 27 km from Bank), and another 13 serving Newbury Park, in outer East London.

Evening service also has one more complication: it serves several distinct markets. There are commuters working non-traditional hours, themselves split into shift workers and professionals who work late (I spoke to several Manhattan lawyers who told me that they work from 10 in the morning to 8 in the evening). There are tourists and local leisure travelers, some coming late from work after dinner and some coming from a non-work destination. Non-work trips don’t always have the same centers as work trips: in London, non-work trips are dominated by the West End, with little contribution from the City, whereas in New York, presumably Lower Manhattan punches below its weight while Union Square punches above its weight. New York already takes care of non-work trips in the evening, with high frequencies on the 1, L, and 42nd Street Shuttle (“GS” in chart 8), but its frequency guidelines are unfriendly to commuters who are working late.

The MTA Genius Challenge is as Bad as Expected

A year ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a competitive $2.5 million grant, to be disbursed by what he dubbed the Genius Challenge. I wrote about it at the time, expressing skepticism that it would lead to anything useful. The panel of eight judges had only one person with background in the transportation industry, a former FRA administrator. The word “genius” itself is a tech mainstay that to me mostly means “I don’t know any Fields Medalists.” And the topics within the scope of the grant seemed more about what the tech industry thought were the most pressing issues and not what the lowest-hanging actually were. I had very low expectations, and the announcement of the winning entries met them.

The grant has three topics: signaling, rolling stock (interpreted broadly), and underground mobile or wireless service. The last three is by far the least important; it also got only half a million dollars, whereas each of the other two got a full million. Each of the two main ideas shows how weak the very concept of the genius grant is, but they do so in dramatically different ways.

The rolling stock winners included a vendor asking for a grant for New York to use its rolling stock (CRRC); the problems with that idea are more akin to those of the signaling section, so I will cover them there. A second rolling stock winner was a proposal to use better data collection to facilitate preventive maintenance; this idea may or may not work, it’s hard to tell from layers of obfuscating business language. It’s the third idea that deserves the most attention, and the most scorn: lengthening trains but not platforms.

The crank Idea: lengthening trains

The genius competition gave a $330,000 grant for the idea of lengthening trains from 10 to 14 cars without lengthening the platforms. Trains would alternate between only berthing the first 10 cars and only berthing the last 10. Transit Twitter has already dumped on this idea, and for good reason: the proposal reads like a crank paper purporting to prove the Riemann hypothesis or another famous result, starting with a lot of trivial observations and then making a leap of logic buried somewhere in the middle.

The basic problem with running trains that are longer than the platforms is that passengers need to be able to move to the correct car, which takes time. The report says that this is done on the London Underground, which is true, but only at outlying stations – as is the case on the subway in New York. The conductor announcement “only the first five cars will open” is familiar to anyone riding the 3 train and was familiar to anyone riding the 1 train before the new South Ferry station opened. This is fine as long as the station in question is low-volume enough that the extra dwell time does not interfere with operations. Lengthening trains beyond the platforms at busier stations than Harlem-148th Street 145th Street or South Ferry would result in a shuffle forcing passengers to scramble within the train (if moving between cars is possible) or on the platform (if it isn’t). The dwell times would be brutal and would almost certainly reduce capacity measured in passengers per hour.

The proposal handwaves this critical flaw by saying that dwell times would decrease because crowding would decrease. This assumes that dwell times are a function exclusively of on-train crowding, rather than of the number of passengers getting on or off the train. The same number of passengers would have the same platform space, but would actually only be able to use a fraction of it: many would only be able to use the 6 cars that go to their chosen destination, and at those cars, the volume of passengers per unit of platform length would rise.

The second handwave is unlimited stations, with longer platforms. Acknowledging that the busiest stations should have all doors open, the proposal says,

[P. 20] Third, 18.5% of rides occur through just 10 stations in Manhattan. In the medium term, the platforms can, and should, be extended at these 10 stations to enable customers that embark and disembark at them to use any car at both ends of their trip. Accordingly, 9.25% of the customers that presently need to use the middle cars could instead use the end cars.

This is the equivalent of the logical leap from trivial to wrong in a crank paper. First, the number of central stations that would need to be lengthened is much more than 10, including some key origins (86th/Lex, Jamaica Center, etc.) and transfer points (West 4th, Canal, 96th/Broadway). And second and more importantly, the busiest stations are multilevel complexes, where just adding more pedestrian circulation is hard; London is spending a considerable amount of money on that at Bank. Lengthening platforms at these stations is prohibitively expensive. This problem is discussed in cities with constrained underground platforms in the CBD, such as Vancouver, where nearly all Expo Line stations are above-ground (thus, relatively easy to lengthen), but the most crowded in Downtown Vancouver are in a tunnel, where platform reconstruction costs too much to be economic.

The bigger question is why the judges did not catch the error. The proposal brings up London as an example, which serves to bring the magic of the foreign to people who are unfamiliar with best industry practices. Saying that New York does the same is equally true, and in a way more relevant to the proposal (since New York doesn’t let people move between cars, making this more challenging than in London), but would raise questions like “can the dwell times of relatively light stations like South Ferry or Harlem-145th be replicated at the top 40 stations?”. London is Anglophone and some reformist New Yorkers have used it as a source of foreign ideas the way they wouldn’t use non-Anglophone cities. But the judges didn’t do the basic due diligence of checking whether London really implements the idea as widely as the proposal implies, and if not, then why not.

The rent-seeking idea: CBTC by another name

New York State awarded four applicants $250,000 each for ideas about signaling. All four ideas boiled down to the same thing: introducing new technology for communication between trains permitting the functional equivalent of moving-block signaling, at a lower cost than preexisting communication-based train control (CBTC) installations.

The grantees all have experience in the transportation industry. Rail signaling vendors Thales and Ansaldo propose to use cameras to read automated signals; train sensor provider Metrom Rail and veteran rail manager and consultant Robert James propose ultra-wide broadband to improve train location precision. There’s nothing obviously wrong about their proposals. Nor is there anything outlandish, which is why each of the two technologies has two independent applicants behind it. Thales and Ansaldo in particular have experience in advanced signaling – Thales supplied CBTC to the L 7 train in New York and to Metro Line 13 in Paris, and Ansaldo supplied rail automation to Copenhagen and CBTC to a number of Paris Metro lines.

Even then, questions about cost remain. Robert James’ and Metrom’s proposals leave a bad taste in my mouth for their cost estimates. James has a systemwide cost estimate somewhat less than $200 million, not much more than $500,000 per km; Metrom says its system costs “$3 million per mile” and compares itself positively with legacy CBTC systems at $20 million per mile. Actual costs of CBTC without automation in Paris on Line 13 were about 5 million euros per km according to Wikipedia, and this includes modification of the railyards and not just the signaling system. So the Metrom system’s claimed figure is still cheaper, but not by quite as much. Metrom also complains that in Boston, CBTC would not improve capacity much because it would prohibit double-berthing, an issue that is only relevant to a subway-surface system and not to a full metro.

The broader problem with this part of the grant is that if the MTA put out an RFP about CBTC on the subway, it would get bids from Ansaldo, Thales, and Metrom, and James might well bid or consult for a bidder. It would be able to judge the technical merit of each proposal in much closer detail than given in the competition. Instead, the state is paying vendors to market their technology to the public, which would influence future procurement.

While the grant asks about whether the technology is proprietary, it makes no attempt at establishing a multi-vendor standards. Such standards exist: Thales and Ansaldo are both listed as ERTMS vendors. In France there’s already a discussion in the trade press about whether using ERTMS is better than using CBTC; the discussion specifically mentions New York’s uniqueness as a network with connected rather than isolated lines, and says CBTC is designed for isolated lines whereas ERTMS is designed for shared lines, such as the RER system. European experts might well recommend that New York use ERTMS for the subway, even though it’s a system originally designed for mainline rail.

New York’s highly-branched system means it must be more conservative with new technology – there’s nowhere to test it, now that the L and 7 already have CBTC. The shuttles might be useful test cases, or the 1 and 6 trains on weekdays, but without isolated lines, the cost of a mistake in procurement or technological failure is much higher. This suggests the MTA should try to reduce the complexity of branching (which is what I would’ve proposed if it had been within the grant’s scope), and until then concentrate on imitating proven technology rather than innovating. This is especially important given the potential for rent-seeking, in which the vendors use the grant to market themselves to the state over competitors selling similar product.

The judges don’t know any better

Would a panel of judges with more familiarity with metro operations around the first world have come to better decisions? Probably. Through blogs, railfan forums, and comments, I know people with great knowledge of existing operations in a number of cities in the first world, and for the most part they think highly enough of their local systems that they’d ask of any innovation, “why hasn’t it been implemented here already?”.

I wrote in 2011 that people in the US who make technical arguments in favor of public transit tend to be skeptical of many proposals, to the point of finding existing US agencies incompetent. This is US-specific: London Reconnections is a technical blog but it tends to support Transport for London’s process, Swiss and Japanese railfans seem to trust their local rail operators, and even Transport Paris is more positive about STIF’s capital investment than New York-based blogs are about the MTA’s. Experts (and not just bloggers like me) could point out innovations their cities have that can be imported into New York, as well as shoot down bad ideas for which “why doesn’t London/Paris/Tokyo do it?” is a useful sanity check.

Note that sometimes there is a legitimate reason to do something that nobody else has tried. New York’s highly branched network makes ERTMS a better deal there than on other metro systems, and an RFI would be prudent. But because the details of implementation matter more than the idea of innovative genius, it has to go through the regular procurement process.

Cuomo attempted to inject the inventions of the American tech industry into the subway. Instead, he created space for cranks to promulgate their ideas and for vendors to have a leg up over their competitors in any future bid. In effect, his attempt to improve the economic productivity of the public sector to be more in line with that of the American tech industry is going to make the public sector less productive, through weaker institutions (namely, a less robust CBTC bid) and distraction (namely, the useless train lengthening idea).

What the Spinetta Axe Reveals About Cost Control

The Macron administration commissioned a report about the future of SNCF by former Air France chief Jean-Cyril Spinetta. Spinetta released his report four days ago, making it clear that rail is growing in France but most of the network is unprofitable and should be shrunk. There is an overview of the report in English on Railway Gazette, and some more details in French media (La Tribune calls it “mind-blowing,” Les Echos “explosive”); the full proposal can be read here. Some of the recommendations in the Spinetta report concern governance, but the most radical one calls for pruning about 45% of SNCF’s network by length, which carries only 2% of passenger traffic. Given the extent of the proposed cut, it’s appropriate to refer to this report as the Spinetta Axe, in analogy with the Beeching Axe.

I wrote a mini-overview on Twitter, focusing on the content of the Axe. In this post I’m going to do more analysis of SNCF’s cost control problem and what we can learn from the report. The big takeaway is that cost control pressure is the highest on low-ridership lines, rather than on high-ridership lines. There is no attempt made to reduce SNCF’s operating costs in Ile-de-France or on the intercity main lines through better efficiency. To the British or American reader, it’s especially useful to read the report with a critical eye, since it is in some ways a better version of British and American discussions about efficiency that nonetheless accept high construction costs as a given.

SNCF is Losing Money

The major problem that the report begins with is that SNCF is losing money. It is not getting state subsidies, but instead it borrows to fund operating losses, to the tune of €2.8 billion in annual deficit (p. 28), of which €1.2-1.4 billion come from interest expenses on past debt and €1 billion come from taxes. Its situation is similar to that of Japan National Railways in the 1970s, which accumulated debt to fund operating losses, which the state ultimately wiped out in the restructuring and privatization of 1987. The report is aiming to find operating savings to put SNCF in the black without breaking up or privatizing the company; its proposed change to governance (turning SNCF into an SA) is entirely within the state-owned sector.

Unlike the Beeching report, the Spinetta report happens in a context of rising rail traffic. It opens up by making it clear that rail is not in decline in France, pointing out growth in both local and intercity ridership. However, SNCF is still losing money, because of the low financial performance of the legacy network and regional lines. The TGV network overall is profitable (though not every single train is profitable), but the TERs are big money pits. Annual regional contributions to the TER network total €3 billion, compared with just €1 billion in fare revenue (p. 30). The legacy intercity lines, which are rebranded every few years and are now called TETs, lose another €300 million. Some of the rising debt is just capital expenses that aren’t fully funded, including track renovation and new rolling stock; even in the Paris region, which has money, rolling stock purchase has only recently been devolved from SNCF to the regional transport association (p. 31).

In fact, the large monetary deficit is a recent phenomenon. In 2010, SNCF lost €600 million, but paid €1.2 billion in interest costs (p. 27); its operating margin was larger than its capital expenses. Capital expenses have risen due to increase in investment, while the operating margin has fallen due to an increase in operating costs. The report does not go into the history of fares (it says French rail fares are among Europe’s lowest, but its main comparisons are very high-fare networks like Switzerland’s, and in reality France is similar to Germany and Spain). But it says fares have not risen, for which SNCF’s attempt to provide deliberately uncomfortable lower-fare trains must share the blame.

The Spinetta Axe

The Spinetta report proposes multiple big changes; French media treats converting SNCF to an SA as a big deal. But in terms of the network, the biggest change is the cut to low-performing rail branches. The UIC categorizes rail lines based on traffic levels and required investment, from 1 (highest) to 9 (lowest). Categories 7-9 consist of 44% of route-km but only 9% of train-km (p. 48) and 2% of passengers (p. 51). Annual capital and operating spending on these lines is €1.7 billion (about €1 per passenger-km), and bringing them to a state of good repair would cost €5 billion. In contrast, closing these lines would save €1.2 billion a year.

But the report is not just cuts. Very little of SNCF’s operating expenditure is marginal: on p. 34 the report claims that marginal operating costs only add up to €1 billion a year, out of about €5.5 billion in total operating costs excluding any and all capital spending. As a result, alongside its recommendations to close low-ridership lines, it is suggesting increasing off-peak frequency on retained lines (p. 54, footnote 53).

There is no list of which lines should be closed; this is left for later. Page 50 has a map of category 7-9 lines, which are mostly rural branch lines, for example Nice-Breil-Tende. But a few are more intense regional lines, around Lyon, Toulouse, Rennes, Lille, and Strasbourg, and would presumably be kept and maintained to higher standards. Conversely, some category 5-6 lines could also be closed.

The report is equally harsh toward the TGV. While the TGV is overall profitable, not all parts of it are competitive. Per the report, the breakeven point with air travel, on both mode share and operating costs, is 3 hours one-way. At 3:30-4 hours one way, the report describes the situation for trains as “brutal,” with planes getting 80% mode share (p. 61). With TGV operating costs of €0.06/seat-km without capital (€0.07 with), it is uncompetitive on cost with low-cost airlines beyond 700 km, where EasyJet and Air France can keep costs down to €0.05/seat-km including capital and Ryanair to €0.04.

And this is where the report loses me. The TGV’s mode share versus air is consistently higher than that given in the report. One study imputes a breakeven point at nearly 4 hours. A study done for the LGV PACA, between Marseille and Nice, claims that as of 2009, the TGV had a 30% mode share on Paris-Nice, even including cars; its share of the air-rail market was 38%. This is a train that takes nearly 6 hours and was delayed three out of four times I took it, and the fourth time only made it on time because its timetable was unusually padded between Marseille and Paris. On Paris-Toulon, where the TGV takes about 4 hours, its mode share in 2009 was 54%, or 82% of the air-rail market.

SNCF has some serious operating cost issues. For example, the conventional TGVs (i.e. not the low-cost OuiGo) have four conductors per 200-meter train; the Shinkansen has three conductors per 400-meter train. The operating costs imputed from the European and East Asian average in American studies are somewhat lower, about $0.05-6/seat-km, or about €0.04-5/seat-km, making HSR competitive with low-cost airlines at longer range. However, there is no attempt to investigate how these costs can be reduced. One possibility, not running expensive TGVs on legacy lines but only on high-speed lines, is explicitly rejected (p. 64), and rightly so – Rennes, Toulouse, Mulhouse, Toulon, Nice, and Nantes are all on legacy lines.

This is something SNCF is aware of; it’s trying to improve fleet utilization to reduce operating costs by 20-30%. With higher fleet utilization, it could withdraw most of its single-level trains and have a nearly all-bilevel fleet, with just one single-level class, simplifying maintenance and interchangeability in similar manner to low-cost carriers’ use of a single aircraft class. However, this drive is not mentioned at all in the report, which takes today’s high costs as a given.

Efficiencies not Mentioned

The biggest bombshell I saw in the report is not in the recommendations at all. It is not in the Spinetta Axe, but in a table on p. 21 comparing SNCF with DB. The two networks are of similar size, with DB slightly larger, 35,000 route-km and 52,000 track-km vs. 26,000 and 49,000 on SNCF. But DB’s annual track maintenance budget is €1.4 billion whereas SNCF’s is €2.28 billion. Nearly the entire primary deficit of SNCF could be closed just by reducing track maintenance costs to German levels, without cutting low-usage lines.

Nonetheless, there is no investigation of whether it’s possible to conduct track maintenance more efficiently. Here as with the TGV’s operating expenses, the report treats unit costs as a fixed constant, rather than as variables that depend on labor productivity and good management.

Nor is there any discussion of rolling stock costs. Paris’s bespoke RER D and E trains, funded locally on lines to be operated by SNCF, cost €4.7 million per 25 meters of train length, with 30% of this cost going to design and overheads and only 70% to actual manufacturing. In Sweden, the more standard KISS cost €2.9 million per 25-meter car.

Low-ridership dilapidated rural branch lines are not the only place in the network where it’s possible to reduce costs. Rolling stock in Paris costs too much, maintenance on the entire network costs too much, TGV operating costs are higher than they should be, and fleet utilization in the off-peak is very low. The average TGV runs for 8 hours a day, and SNCF hopes to expand this to 10.

The Impetus for Cost Control

The Beeching Axe came in the context of falling rail traffic. The Spinetta Axe comes in the context of rapidly growing SNCF operating costs, recommending things that could and probably should have been done ten years ago. But ten years ago, SNCF had a primary surplus and there was no pressure to contain costs. By the same token, the report is recommending pruning the weakest lines, but ignores efficiencies on the strong lines, on the “why mess with what works?” idea.

The same effect is seen regionally. French rolling stock costs do not seem unusually high outside Paris. But Ile-de-France has money to waste, so it’s spending far too much on designing new rolling stock that nobody else has any use for. This is true outside France as well: the high operating costs of the subway in New York are not a US-wide phenomenon, but rather are restricted to New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, while the rest of the country, facing bigger cost pressure than New York and Boston, is forced to run trains for the same cost as the major European cities. It is also likely that New York (and more recently London) allowed its construction costs to explode to extreme levels because, with enough money to splurge on high-use lines like 63rd Street Tunnel and Second Avenue Subway, it never paid attention to cost control.

This approach to cost control is entirely reactive. Places with high operating or capital costs don’t mind these costs when times are good, and then face crisis when times are bad, such as when the financial crisis led to stagnation in TGV revenue amidst continued growth in operating costs, or when costs explode to the point of making plans no longer affordable. In crisis mode, a gentle reduction in costs may not be possible technically or politically, given pressure to save money fast. Without time to develop alternative plans, or learn and adopt best industry practices, agencies (or private companies) turn to cuts and cancel investment plans.

A stronger approach must be proactive. This means looking for cost savings regardless of the current financial situation, in profitable as well as unprofitable areas. If anything, rich regions and companies are better placed for improving efficiency: they have deep enough pockets to finance the one-time cost of some reforms and to take their time to implement reforms correctly. SNCF is getting caught with its pants down, and as a result Spinetta is proposing cuts but nothing about reducing unit operating and maintenance costs. Under a proactive approach, the key is not to get caught with your pants down in the first place.

The RPA Construction Cost Report

A much-awaited Regional Plan Association report about construction costs in New York has come out, as a supplement to the Fourth Regional Plan, and I’m unimpressed. I thought that I would either enjoy reading the RPA’s analysis, or else be disappointed by it. Instead, I’ve found myself feeling tepid toward most of the analysis; my objections to the report are that its numbers have serious mistakes, that the recommendations at the end conflict with the analysis, and that it seems to overvalue other English-speaking countries, even when their construction costs are the highest in the world outside the US.

The big contrast is with Brian Rosenthal’s expose in the New York Times. The main comparison city to New York there is Paris, where the extension of Metro Line 14 resembles New York’s subway extensions; for the article, Brian talked to construction managers here, and either visited the site himself or talked to people who did, to compare the situation with that of New York. As a result, I learned things from Brian’s article that I did not know before (namely, that the excavation per station for the Line 14 extension wasn’t less voluminous than for Second Avenue Subway). The RPA report gives a few details I wasn’t familiar with, such as escalators’ share of construction costs, but nothing that seems big.

I feel like I slag on the RPA a lot nowadays – it started with their report from three years ago about Outer Borough transit and continued with their wrong approach to Triboro, but more recently I didn’t think much of their take on suburban TOD, or the Gateway project, or the Fourth Regional Plan in general. This isn’t out of malice or jealousy; when I talked to Tom Wright six months ago I sympathized with the political constraints he was operating under. The problem is that sometimes these constraints lead either to unforced errors, or to errors that, while I understand where they come from, are big enough that the organization should have pushed and made sure to avoid them. In the case of the construction cost report, the errors start small, but compound to produce recommendations that are at times counterproductive; agency officials reading this would have no way of reducing costs.

Mistakes in the Numbers

The RPA is comparing New York’s costs unfavorably with those of other cities around the world, as well as one American city (Los Angeles). However, at several points, the numbers appear different from the ones I have seen in the news media. Three places come to mind – the first is a nitpick, the second is more serious but still doesn’t change the conclusions, the third is the most egregious in its implications.

The first place is right at the beginning of the report. In the executive summary, on page 2, the RPA gives its first example of high New York costs:

The Second Avenue Subway (SAS), for example, has the distinction of being the world’s most expensive subway extension at a cost of $807 million per track mile for construction costs alone. This is over 650% more per mile than London’s Northern Line extension to Battersea — estimated at $124 million per track mile.

Both sets of numbers are incorrect – in fact, contradicted by the rest of the document. SAS is $1.7 billion per route-km, which is $850 million per track-km. The Northern line extension to Battersea is also much more expensive. I can’t tell whether these figures are missing something, such as stations or overheads, but as headline numbers, they’re both lowballed.

The second place is when the report discusses station construction costs. Not having seen any advance copy, I wrote about this issue two weeks ago, just before the report came out: the three new SAS stations cost $821, $649, and $802 million, according to the Capital Program Dashboard. In contrast, on pp. 16-17, the RPA gives lower figures for these stations: just $386 million, $244 million, and $322 million. The RPA’s source is “Capital Construction Committee reports,” but my post on station costs looked at some of those and found costs that are not much lower than those reported in the Dashboard. The RPA figures for the last two stations, 86th and 72nd, seem close to the costs of finishes alone, and it’s possible that the organization made a mistake and confused the cost of just finishes (or perhaps just excavation) with the total cost, combining both excavation and finishes.

With the correct costs, the difference from what Paris spends on a station (about $110 million on average) seems so stark that the recommendations must center station construction specifically, and yet they don’t.

The third and most problematic mistake is table 10 on page 50, which lists a number of subway projects and their costs. The list is pretty short, with just 11 items, of which 3 are in New York, another is in Los Angeles, one is in Toronto, and 2 are in London. The Toronto project, the Spadina subway extension to Vaughan, and one of the London projects, the Northern line extension, are both lowballed. The RPA says that the Northern line extension’s cost is $1.065 billion, but the most recent number I’ve seen is £1.2 billion, which in PPP terms is $1.7 billion. And the Vaughan extension, listed as $1.961 billion in the report, is now up to C$3.2 billion, about $2.55 billion in PPP terms. Perhaps the RPA used old numbers, before cost escalations, but in such a crucial report it’s important to update cost estimates even late in the process.

But most worryingly, the costs on table 10 also include mistakes in the other direction, in Paris and Tokyo. The cost estimate listed for Line 14 South in Grand Paris Express is $4.39 billion. But the Cour des Comptes’ report attacking Grand Paris Express’s cost overruns lists the line’s cost as only €2.678 billion, or about $3.3 billion; this is in 2012 euros, but French inflation rates are very low, well below 1% a year, and at any rate, even applying American inflation rates wouldn’t get the cost anywhere near $4 billion. In Tokyo, the RPA similarly inflates the cost of the Fukutoshin Line: it gives it as $3.578 billion, but a media report after opening says the cost was ¥250 billion, or about $2.5 billion in today’s PPP conversion, with even less inflation than in France.

I can understand why there would be downward mistakes. Reports like this take a long time to produce, and then they take even longer to revise even after they are supposedly closed to further edits; I am working on a regional rail report for TransitMatters that has been in this situation for three months, with last-minute changes, reviews by stakeholders, and printing delays. However, the upward mistakes in Paris and Tokyo are puzzling. It’s hard to explain why, since the RPA’s numbers are unsourced; it’s possible they heard them from experts, but didn’t bother to write down who those experts were or to check their numbers.

The Synthesis Doesn’t Follow the Analysis

Manuel Melis Maynar’s writeup in Tunnelbuilder about how as CEO of Madrid Metro he delivered subway construction for, in today’s money, around $60 million per km, includes a number of recommendations. The RPA report cites his writeup on several occasions, as well as his appearance at the Irish Parliament. It also cites secondary sources about Madrid’s low construction costs, which appear to rely on Melis’s analysis or at least come to the same conclusions independently. However, the RPA’s set of recommendations seems to ignore Melis’s advice entirely.

The most glaring example of this is design-build. Melis is adamant that transit agencies separate design from construction. His explanation is psychological: there are always some changes that need to be made during construction (one New York-based construction manager, cited on p. 38 of the RPA study, says “there is no 100% design”), and contractors that were involved in the design are more likely to be wedded to their original plans and less flexible about making little changes. This recommendation of Melis’s is absent from the report, and on the contrary, the list of final recommendations includes expansion of design-build, a popular technique among reformers in New York and in a number of English-speaking cities.

Another example is procurement. I have heard the same explanation for high New York costs several times since I first brought up the issue in comments on Second Avenue Sagas: the bidding process in New York picks the lowest-cost proposal regardless of technical merit (Madrid, in contrasts, scores proposals 50% on technical merit, 30% on cost, and 20% on speed), and to avoid being screwed by dishonest contractors, the state writes byzantine, overexacting specs. As a result, nobody wants to do business with public works in New York, which means that in practice very few companies bid, leading to one-bid contracts. Brian’s article in the New York Times goes into how contractors have an MTA premium since doing business with the MTA is so difficult, and there’s also less competition, so they charge monopoly rates.

The RPA report’s analysis mentions this (pp. 3-4):

In addition, the MTA’s practice of selecting the lowest qualified bidder, even though they are permitted to issue Requests-for-Proposals, has resulted in excessive rebidding and the selection of teams that cannot deliver, resulting in millions of dollars in emergency repairs.

However, the list of recommendations at the end does not include any change to procurement practices to consider technical merit. The recommendations include post-project review for future construction, faster environmental review, reforms to labor rules, and value capture, but nothing about reforming the procurement process to consider technical merit.

Finally, the report talks about the problem of change orders repeatedly, on pp. 3, 15-16, and 38-39, blaming the proliferation of change orders for part of the cost escalation on SAS. Melis addresses this question in his writeup, saying that contracts should not be awarded for a lump sum but rather be itemized, so that change orders come with pre-agreed costs per item. None of this made it to the final recommendations.

There’s a World Outside the Anglosphere

If the report’s recommendations are not based on its own analysis, or on correct construction cost figures, then what are they based on? It seems that, like all failed reform ideas around the US, the RPA is shopping for ideas from other American cities or at least English-speaking ones that look good. Its recommendations include “adopt London’s project delivery model” and “expand project insurance and liability models,” the latter of which is sourced to the UK and Australia. Only one recommendation so much as mentions a non-English-speaking city: “develop lessons learned and best-practice guidance as part of a post-project review” mentions Madrid in passing, but focuses on Denver and Los Angeles.

This relates to the pattern of mistakes in the cost figures. Were the numbers on table 10 right, the implication would be that London, Paris, and Tokyo all have similar construction costs, at $330, $350, and $400 million per km, and Toronto is cheaper, at $230 million per km. In this situation, London would offer valuable lessons. Unfortunately, the RPA’s numbers are wrong. Using correct numbers, London’s costs rise to $550 million per km, while those of Paris and Tokyo fall to $260 and $280 million. Toronto’s costs rise to $300 million per km, which would be reasonable for an infill subway in a dense area (like the Fukutoshin Line and to some extent the Metro Line 14 extension), but are an outrage for a suburban extension to partly-undeveloped areas.

Using correct numbers, the RPA should have known to talk to people in countries that don’t speak English. Many of the planners and engineers in those countries speak English well as a second language. Many don’t, but New York is a large cosmopolitan city with immigrants with the required language skills, especially Spanish.

Nonetheless, the RPA report, which I am told cost $250,000 to produce, does not talk to experts in non-English-speaking countries. The citations of Melis are the same two English-language ones I have been citing for years now; there is no engagement with his writings on the subject in Spanish or his more recent English-language work (there’s a paper he coauthored in 2015 that I can’t manage to get past the paywall update: kind souls with academic access sent me a copy and it’s not as useful as I’d hoped from the abstract), nor does the RPA seem to have talked to managers in Madrid (or Barcelona) today. Across more than 200 footnotes, 30-something are sourced to “expert interviews,” and of those all but a handful are interviews with New York-based experts and the rest are interviews with London-based ones.

As a result, while the report is equipped to explain New York’s internal problems, it fails as a comparative piece. The recommendations themselves are primarily internal, based on things Americans have been discussing among themselves for years: streamlining environmental review, simplifying labor rules, expanding design-build.

The labor reforms mentioned include exactly one specific case of excessive staffing, reported in the New York Times (and, beforehand, on an off-hand remark by then-MTA Capital Construction chief Michael Horodniceanu), about the number of workers it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine. The New York Times article goes into more detail about the entire process, but the RPA report ignores that in favor of the one comparison that had been going around Transit Twitter for years. Instead of proposing specifics for reducing headcounts, the report talks about changing the way workers are paid for each day, relying on internal reforms proposed by people dissatisfied with the unions rather than on any external analysis.

The Cycle of Failure

I’ve been reading policy papers for maybe a decade – mostly American, a few Israeli or Canadian or British or French. There’s a consistent pattern in that they often treat the practices of what they view as a peer city or country as obvious examples of what to do. For example, an American policy paper on Social Security privatization might explain the Chilean system, and recommend its implementation, without much consideration of whether it’s really best industry practice. Such papers end up at best moving sideways, and at worst perpetuate the cycle of failure, by giving governments the appearance of reform while they in fact cycle between bad options, or occasionally stumble upon a good idea but then don’t understand how to implement it correctly.

If New York wants to study whether design-build is a good idea, it’s not enough to put it in the list of recommendations. It needs to do the legwork and read what the best experts say (e.g. Melis is opposed to it) and look at many cities at once to see what they do. I would feel embarrassed writing a long report like this with only 7 case studies from outside the US. I’d want to examine many more: on the cheap side, Stockholm, Milan, Seoul, Barcelona, Madrid, Athens, Naples, Helsinki; on the expensive side, London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Toronto, Melbourne, Munich, Amsterdam; in between, Paris, Tokyo, Brussels, Zurich, Copenhagen, Vienna. On anything approaching the RPA’s budget for the paper, I’d connect with as many people in these places as I could in order to do proper comparative analysis.

Instead, the RPA put out a paper that acknowledges the cost difference, but does not make a real effort to learn and improve. It has a lot of reform ideas, but most come from the same process that led to the high construction costs New York faces today, and the rest come from London, whose construction costs would astound nearly everyone in the world outside the US.

One of the things I learned working with TransitMatters is that some outside stakeholders, I haven’t been told who, react poorly to non-American comparison cases, especially non-English-speaking ones. Ignorant of the world beyond their borders, they make up excuses for why knowledge that they don’t have is less valuable. Even within the group I once had to push back against the cycle of failure when someone suggested a nifty-looking but bad idea borrowed from a low-transit-use American city. The group’s internal structure is such that it’s easy for bad ideas to get rejected, but this isn’t true of outside stakeholders, and from my conversation with Tom Wright about Gateway I believe the RPA feels much more beholden to the same stakeholders.

The cycle of failure that the RPA participates in is not the RPA’s fault, or at least not entirely. The entire United States in general and New York in particular is resistant to outside ideas. The political system in New York as well as the big nonprofits forms an ecosystem of Americans who only talk to other Americans, or to the occasional Canadian or Brit, and let bad ideas germinate while never even hearing of what best industry practices are. In this respect the RPA isn’t any worse than the average monolingual American exceptionalist, but neither is it any better.

RPA Fourth Regional Plan: LaGuardia Airport and the Astoria Line

This is the second post based on a Patreon poll about the RPA Fourth Regional Plan. See the first post, about Third Avenue, here.

The most worrisome part of the RPA Fourth Regional Plan is the LaGuardia Airport connector. The regional rail system the RPA is proposing includes some truly massive wastes of money, but what the RPA is proposing around LaGuardia showcases the worst aspects of the plan. On Curbed I explained that the plan has an unfortunate tendency to throw in every single politically-supported proposal. I’d like to expand on what I said in the article about the airport connector:

The most egregious example is another transit project favored by a political heavyweight: the LaGuardia AirTrain, championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Though he touts it as a one-seat ride from Midtown to LaGuardia, the vast majority of airport travelers going to Manhattan would have to go east to Willets Point (a potential redevelopment site) before they could go west. Even airport employees would have to backtrack to get to their homes in Jackson Heights and surrounding neighborhoods. As a result, it wouldn’t save airport riders any time over the existing buses.

Once again, it’s proven unpopular with transit experts and advocates: [Ben] Kabak mocked the idea as vaporware, and Yonah Freemark showed how circuitous this link would be. When Cuomo first proposed this idea, Politico cited a number of additional people who study public transportation in the region with negative reactions. Despite its unpopularity—and the lack of an official cost for the proposal—the AirTrain LaGuardia is included in the RPA’s latest plan.

But there is an alternative to Cuomo’s plan: an extension of the N/W train, proposed in the 1990s, which would provide a direct route along with additional stops within Astoria, where there is demand for subway service. Community opposition killed the original proposal, but a lot can change in 15 years; Astoria’s current residents may well be more amenable to an airport connector that would put them mere minutes from LaGuardia. Cuomo never even tried, deliberately shying away from this populated area.

And the Fourth Plan does include a number of subway extensions, some of which have long been on official and unofficial wishlists. Those include extensions under Utica and Nostrand avenues (planned together with Second Avenue Subway, going back to the 1950s), which also go under two of the top bus routes in the city, per [Jarrett] Walker’s maxim [that the best argument for an urban rail line is an overcrowded bus line, as on Utica and Nostrand].

There is also an extension of the N/W trains in Astoria—though not toward LaGuardia, but west, toward the waterfront, where it would provide a circuitous route to Manhattan. In effect, the RPA is proposing to stoke the community opposition Cuomo was afraid of, but still build the easy—and unsupported—airport connector Cuomo favors.

My views of extending the Astoria Line toward LaGuardia have evolved in the last few years, in a more positive direction. In my first crayon, which I drew in 2010, I didn’t even have that extension; I believed that the Astoria Line should be extended on Astoria Boulevard and miss the airport entirely, because Astoria Boulevard was the more important corridor. My spite map from 2010, give or take a year, connects LGA to the subway via a shuttle under Junction, and has a subway branch under Northern, a subway extension that I’ve been revising my views of negatively.

The issue, to me, is one of branching and capacity. The Astoria Line is a trunk line on the subway, feeding an entire tunnel to Manhattan, under 60th Street; the Queens Boulevard Line also feeds the same tunnel via the R train, but this is inefficient, since there are four trunk lines (Astoria, Flushing, and Queens Boulevard times two since it has four tracks), four tunnels (63rd, 60th, 53rd, Steinway/42nd), and no way to get from the Astoria Line to the other tunnels. This was one of my impetuses for writing about the problems associated with reverse-branching. Among the four trunks in Queens, the Astoria Line is the shortest and lowest-ridership, so it should be extended deeper into Queens if it is possible to do so.

The RPA is proposing to extend the Astoria Line, to its credit. But its extension goes west, to the waterfront. This isn’t really a compelling destination. Development isn’t any more intense than farther east, and for obvious reasons it isn’t possible to extend this line further; the RPA’s proposal would only add one stop to the subway. In contrast, an eastern extension toward LGA could potentially rebuild the line to turn east on Ditmars (with some takings on the interior of the curve at Ditmars and 31st), with stops at Steinway and Hazen before serving the airport. The intensity of development at Steinway is similar to that at 31st and Ditmars or at 21st, and Hazen also has some housing, albeit at lower density. Then, there is the airport, which would be about 8 minutes from Astoria, and 26 minutes from 57th and 7th in Manhattan. This is a different route from that proposed in the Giuliani administration, involving going north above 31st and then east farther out, running nonstop to the airport (or perhaps serving a station or two) through less residential areas, but I believe it is the best one despite the added impact of running elevated on Ditmars.

LGA is not a huge ridership generator; total O&D ridership according to the Consumer Airfare Report is around 55,000 per day, and 33% mode share is aspirational even with fast direct service to Manhattan hotels and an easy connection to the Upper East Side. But it still provides ridership comparable to that of Astoria Boulevard or Ditmars on the line today, and Steinway and Hazen are likely to add more demand. If the MTA closes the 11th Street Connection, taking the R from 60th Street Tunnel to the Queens Boulevard Line, in order to reduce the extent of reverse-branching, then the Astoria Line will run under capacity and need this additional demand. The total number of boardings at all stations, including Queensboro Plaza, is 80,000 per weekday today, plus some transfer volumes from the 7, which empties at Queensboro Plaza as 60th Street Tunnel provides a faster route to most Manhattan destinations than the Steinway Tunnel. An LGA extension should add maybe 40,000 or 50,000 weekday riders, without much of a peak since airport travel isn’t peaky, and make it easier to isolate the Astoria Line from the other Queens lines. This is not possible with a short extension to the waterfront as the RPA proposes.

I’ve seen someone suggest somewhere I don’t remember, perhaps on Twitter, that the reason the RPA plan involves an extension of the Astoria line to the west is to insidiously get the correct extension to LGA passed. If the RPA can propose an el in Astoria and not be killed by NIMBYs, then it will prove to Cuomo that NIMBYism is not a problem and thus he can send the subway to the airport directly, without the circuitous air train project that even less acerbic transit writers like Ben and Yonah hate.

I disagree with this line, on two different grounds. The first is that the RPA has two other reasons to support a western extension of the Astoria Line: it connects to the waterfront (which, following de Blasio and his support for the waterfront tramway, the RPA wants to develop further), and it got a station on Triboro in the Third Regional Plan, in the 1990s. I can no longer find the map with the stations on Mike Frumin’s blog, but the plan was to have a station every 800 meters, with a station to the west of Ditmar/31st still in Queens, around 21st Street; only in the more recent plan did the RPA redesign the idea as Crossboro, with much wider stop spacing.

The second grounds for disagreement is that the RPA presented a long-term vision. If Cuomo’s flawed LGA connector is there, then it will embolden him to find money to build this connection, even though it’s slower than taking a bus to the subway today. It will not embolden anyone to look for funding for the extension of the Astoria Line to the west, since there is no force clamoring for such extension – not the neighborhood, and not even the RPA, which includes this line on a long list of proposals.

As I said on Curbed, the RPA has been around for 90 years. Cuomo is just a governor, not even the leader of a real political movement (unlike Bernie Sanders, who seems to be interested in his leftist agenda more than in himself). There is no reason for an organization so venerable to tether itself to a politician who isn’t likely to be around for more than a few more years. On the contrary, it can provide cover for Cuomo to change his plan, if it does some legwork to prove that people in Astoria actually are interested in subway expansion to the east.