Category: Good/Interesting Studies

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.

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.

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’s Fourth Regional Plan

The RPA has just put up its Fourth Regional Plan, recommending many new subway and commuter rail lines in New York, ranging from good (125th Street subway, Brooklyn-Lower Manhattan regional rail) to terrible (Astoria Line extension to the west rather than to LaGuardia, which gets a people mover heading away from Manhattan). I have a poll for Patreon supporters for which aspects I should blog about; I expect to also pitch some other aspects – almost certainly not what I said in my poll – to media outlets. If you support me now you can participate in the poll (and if you give $5 or more you can see some good writings that ended up not getting published). If you want to be sneaky you can wait a day and then you’ll only be charged in January. But you shouldn’t be sneaky and you should pledge today and get charged tomorrow, in December.

It’s hard to really analyze the plan in one piece. It’s a long plan with many components, and the problems with it don’t really tell a coherent story. One coherent story is that the RPA seems to love incorporating existing political priorities into its plan, even if those priorities are bad: thus, it has the AirTrain LaGuardia, favored by Cuomo, and the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), favored by de Blasio, and even has tie-ins to these plans that don’t make sense otherwise. Some of the regional rail money wasters, such as Penn Station South and the new East River tunnels from Penn Station to the LIRR, come from this story (the LIRR is opposed to any Metro-North trains going to Penn Station under the belief that all slots from points east to Penn Station belong to Long Island by right). However, there remain so many big question marks in the plan that are not about this particular story that it’s hard to make one criticism. I could probably write 20,000 words about my reaction to the plan, which is about 15 published articles, and there are, charitably, 5 editors who will buy it, and I’m unlikely to write 10 posts.

I’ll wait to see how the poll on Patreon goes, and what editors may be interested in. There are interesting things to say about the plan – not all negative – in areas including rail extensions, transit-oriented development, and livable streets. But for now, I just want to zoom in on the crayon aspects. I previously put up my 5-line map (4 MB version, 44 MB version). The RPA proposal includes more tunnels, for future-proofing, and is perhaps comparable to a 7-line map I’ve been working on (4 MB version, 44 MB version):

I was mildly embarrassed by how much crayon I was proposing, which is why what I put in my NYU presentation 3 weeks ago was the 5-line system, where Line 1 (red) is the Northeast Corridor and the Port Washington Branch, Line 2 (green) is much the same but through the new Hudson tunnels, Line 3 (orange) is the Empire Connection and the Hempstead Branch, Line 4 (blue) connects the Harlem Line and Staten Island, Line 5 (dark yellow) connects the Erie Lines with the Atlantic Branch and Babylon Branch, and Line 6 (purple) is just East Side Access. In the 7-line system, Line 6 gets extended to Hoboken and takes over the Morris and Essex Lines, and Line 7 (turquoise) connects the Montauk Line with the Northern Branch and West Shore Line via 43rd Street, to prune some of the Line 5 branches.

With all this extra tunneling, the map has 46 new double-track-km of tunnel. With just Lines 1-5, it has 30; these figures include Gateway and the other tunnels highlighted in yellow (but not the highlighted at-grade lines, like Lower Montauk), but exclude East Side Access. In contrast, here’s what the RPA is proposing:

Counting the Triboro-Staten Island tunnel and Gateway starting from the portal (not at Secaucus as the map portrays), this is 58 route-km, and about 62 double-track-km of tunnel (the Third Avenue trunk line needs four tracks between 57th and Houston at a minimum), for substantially the same capacity. The difference is that the RPA thinks Metro-North needs two more tracks’ worth of capacity between Grand Central and 125th, plus another two-track tunnel in the Bronx; from Grand Central to Woodlawn, the Fourth Regional Plan has 19 km, slightly more than 100% of the difference between its tunnel length and mine. My plan has more underwater tunnel, courtesy of the tunnel to Staten Island, but conversely less complex junctions in Manhattan, and much more austere stations (i.e. no Penn Station South).

As I said, I don’t want to go into too much detail about what the RPA is doing, because that’s going to be a series of blog posts, most likely a series of Streetsblog posts, and possibly some pieces elsewhere. But I do want to draw a contrast between what the RPA wants for regional rail and what I want, because there are a lot of similarities (e.g. look at the infill on the Port Washington Branch in both plans), but some subtle differences.

What I look for when I think of regional rail map is an express subway. I’ve been involved in a volunteer effort to produce a regional rail plan for Boston, with TransitMatters, in which we start by saying that our plan could be a second subway for Boston. In New York, what’s needed is the same, just scaled up for the city’s greater size and complexity. This means that it’s critical to ensure that the decision of which lines go where is, for lack of a better word, coherent. There should be a north-south line, such as the Third Avenue trunk in the Fourth Regional Plan or my Line 4; there should be an east-west line, such as the lines inherited from the legacy Northeast Corridor and LIRR; and so on.

The one big incoherence in my plan is the lack of a transfer station between Line 4/6 and Line 1/3 at Madison and 33rd. This is on purpose. Line 2 connects Penn Station and Grand Central, Madison/33rd is well to the south of Midtown’s peak job density, and Lines 4 and 6 shouldn’t be making more stops than the 4 and 5 subway lines, which go nonstop between Grand Central and Union Square.

The other weirdness is that in the 7-line system, unlike the 5-line system, there is no way to get between the Northern Branch or the West Shore Line and the rest of New Jersey without going through Manhattan. In the first map of this system that I made on my computer, Line 7 has an awkward dip to serve the same Bergenline Avenue station as Line 2. But I think what I posted here, with two separate stations, is correct: Lines 6 and 7 are lower priorities than a subway under Bergenline Avenue, which would make intra-state connections much easier. It’s difficult to depict rail extensions at different scales on one geographically accurate map, and doing a schematic map like the London Underground isn’t useful for depicting new lines, which should make it clear to readers where they go. But the 7-line system must be accompanied by subway extensions, some covered by the RPA (Utica, Nostrand) and some not (Bergenline, again).

I recently had to give a short description of my program for good transit, and explained it as, all aspects of planning should be integrated: operations and capital planning, buses and light rail and subways and regional rail, infrastructure and rolling stock and scheduling, transit provision and development. When I make proposals for regional rail, they may look out there, but the assumption is always that there’s a single list of priorities; the reason I depict a 7-line map, or even a 9-line map (in progress!), is to be able to plan lines 1-3 optimally. Everything should work together, and if agencies refuse to do so, the best investment is to make sure those agencies make peace and cooperate. The RPA plan sometimes does that (it does propose some regional rail integration), but sometimes it’s a smörgåsbord of different politically-supported proposals, not all of which work together well.

NEC Future: Moving Sideways

The Northeast Corridor high-speed rail investment studies are moving forward, and four days ago the FRA released an early environmental impact study on the subject, as part of the NEC Future program. The study moves in part in the right direction, in that it considers many different segment-level improvements (for example, specific bypasses of curvy segments), but it still isn’t quite going in the right direction. It’s not a bad study in itself, but it does have a lot of drawbacks, and I would like to discuss the ultimate problems with its approach.

Overview

The EIS studies three alternatives, as well as an obligatory No Build option.

Alternative 1 includes minimal investment: capacity improvements already under consideration, including new Hudson tunnels; grade-separation of at-grade rail junctions, including Shell interlocking between the Metro-North New Haven Line to Grand Central and the NEC, which imposes a severe speed limit (30 mph, the worst outside major city stations) and a capacity constraint; and a limited I-95 bypass of the legacy NEC route in eastern Connecticut, to avoid the existing movable bridges. The bulk of the expense under this alternative, excluding the predominantly commuter-oriented new Hudson tunnels, involves replacing or bypassing obsolete or slow bridges with faster segments. I have advocated such an approach in certain cases for years, such as the Cos Cob Bridge; if anything, Alternative 1 does not do this enough, but I do appreciate that it uses this solution.

Alternative 2 constructs HSR along the NEC route, except for a major deviation to serve Hartford. It is also bundled with various bypasses and new stations elsewhere: under this alternative, Philadelphia and Baltimore get new stations, with extensive urban tunneling to reach those stations. Alternative 3 does the same, but considers more deviations, including a tunnel between Long Island and New Haven, and an inland route through Connecticut, closer to I-84 than to I-95 and the legacy NEC; it also constructs dedicated HSR tracks between New York and Washington.

The EIS does not include cost figures. It includes travel time figures on PDF-p. 51, which seem to be based on unfavorable assumptions: Alternative 2, called Run 5, does New York-Boston in 2:17 for trains making a few major-city intermediate stops; the Alternative 3 proposals vary widely depending on alignment, of which the fastest, the I-84 inland route, takes 1:51, again making intermediate stops.

The Good

First, the EIS includes service plan elements, stating the projected frequency of regional and express trains using the tracks. It also talks about clockface scheduling and proposes a pulse in Philadelphia, allowing timed transfers in all directions between local and express intercity trains as well as trains on the Keystone corridor. It goes further and discusses regional rail on the intercity tracks in the alternatives that include extensive new construction. In these ways, it focuses on regionwide rail integration far more than previous plans.

Second, in general, the correct way to think about NEC investment is component by component. The EIS gets closer to this ideal, by considering many different route combinations north of New York, and advancing several of them under the Alternative 3 umbrella.

And third, the concept of Alternative 1 is solid. In many cases, it is possible to bundle a trip time or capacity improvement into the replacement of an obsolete structure at very low additional cost. The example I keep coming back to is the Cos Cob Bridge, but it is equally true of the movable bridges east of New Haven. I also greatly appreciate that Alternative 1 recognizes the importance of grade-separating railroad junctions.

The Bad

Ultimately, the EIS does not take the three good concepts – integrated service planning, component-by-component thinking, and bundling trip-time improvements when the marginal cost of doing so is low – to their full conclusion. Thus, there is no attempt at running intercity trains at high speed on shared track with commuter rail with timed overtakes, as I have proposed for both the inner New Haven Line and the Providence Line. On the contrary, the plan for capacity investment on the Providence Line includes extensive three-tracking, rather than limited, strategic four-track bypass segments. This cascades to the trip times, which are quite slow between New York and New Haven (1:08, for an average speed of 103 km/h), and a bit slower than they could be between Providence and Boston (24 minutes, whereas about 21 is possible with about zero investment into concrete).

The concepts of Alternatives 1, 2, and 3 represent bundles of levels of investment. This is the wrong approach. Alternatives 2 and 3 include new tunneled city-center stations in Baltimore and Philadelphia; but wouldn’t we want to consider city-center station tunnels in those two cities separately? It’s possible for one to turn out to be cost-effective but not the other. It’s possible for neither to be cost-effective, but for other improvements included in Alternative 2, such as curve modification around Metropark and Metuchen, to pencil out.

There’s far more interaction between different macro-level alignments, by which I mean such questions as “inland route or coastal route?” and “serve Hartford on the mainline or put it on a branch?”, than between such micro-level investments as individual curve modifications and urban tunnels. This means that instead of discrete alternatives, there should be one umbrella, taking in Alternative 2 and 3 variants, proposing all of those options as possibilities. A future study, with detailed cost figures, could then rank those options in terms of trip time saving per unit of cost, or in terms of social and financial ROI. This way, there would be concrete proposals for what a $5 billion plan, a $10 billion plan, a $20 billion plan, and so on would be.

The Ugly

Two elements in the study are inexcusable. First, the service plan description explicitly keeps Amtrak’s current separation of premium-fare Regionals and even-more-premium-fare Acelas. This is not how the rest of the world structures HSR: even when the HSR fares are substantially higher than the legacy rail fares, as in Spain, the fare per passenger-km is not very high, and is not targeted exclusively at business travelers. In France, the intercity fare (including TGVs, which are the bulk of French intercity traffic) was on average €0.112 per passenger-km in 2011. Premium service is provided on the same TGVs as standard service, in first-class cars. In contrast, Amtrak charges about $0.29 per passenger-km on the Regional and $0.53 on the Acela.

And second, the investment alternatives appear to include more tunneling than is necessary. I will focus on the Hartford-Providence-Boston segment in Alternative 2, since it is less sensitive to assumptions on commuter rail track-sharing than the segments overlapping the New Haven Line. It is possible to go all the way from Hartford to the western margin of the Providence built-up area without any tunneling, and without outrageous bridging; see a past post of mine on the subject here, which concludes that it’s better to just go parallel to I-95 for trip time reasons. In Providence, tunnels are unavoidable, but can still be limited to short segments, mixed with elevated routes along pre-impacted freeway corridors. When I looked at it two years ago, I saw an alignment with just 2 km of tunnel, in Providence itself. In contrast, run A in figure 9 on PDF-p. 56 says that tunnels are about 27% of new construction between Hartford and Boston, which consists of, at a minimum, about 100 km of track between Hartford and Providence.

Conclusion

The EIS is a step in the right direction, insofar as it does consider issues of integrated service planning and prioritizing construction based on where it can be cheaply bundled into bridge replacement. However, it fails to consider cost limitations, as seen in the excessive tunneling proposed even in areas where high-speed tracks can run entirely above ground. It’s considering more options, which is good, but, Alternative 1, while representing a golden concept, is not sufficiently developed.

What I would like to see from a study in this direction is a mixture of the following:

  • Discussion of how to avoid tunnels, including various tradeoffs that have to be made (for example, above-ground construction may require more takings). Generally, I want to see much less tunneling than is currently proposed.
  • A well-developed incremental option, similar to Alternative 1 but more extensive, including for example I-95 bypasses all the way from New Haven to Kingston and along strategic segments of the New Haven Line, such as in Port Chester and Greenwich.
  • Greater integration with regional rail; one litmus test is whether the Providence Line is proposed to be three-tracked for long stretches, or four-tracked at a key bypass station (the options are Sharon and the Route 128-Readville segment), and another is discussion of high-acceleration electric multiple units on the Providence Line and the Penn Line.
  • Unbundling of projects within each alignment – there is no need to, for example, consider the Philadelphia and Baltimore tunnels together (I also think neither is a good idea, but that’s a separate discussion). The view should be toward an optimal set of projects within each alignment, since macro-level decisions such as whether to serve Hartford are more political than micro-level ones of which curves to fix. This permits explicit discussions such as “would you be willing to spend $2 billion and slow through-trains by 9 minutes to serve Hartford?”.

Except for the first, all are kind of present in this study, but in insufficient amount for me to view it as truly a step forward. The ultimate goal must be HSR in the Northeast on a reasonable budget – closer to $10 or even $20 billion than to the Amtrak Vision’s proposed $150 billion – and this requires carefully looking at which scope is required and which is not. The EIS has elements that can be used toward that goal, but ultimately it is a step sideways, not forward or in the wrong direction.

What is the MTA Reinventing, Anyway?

In the last few years New York’s MTA has gone through multiple cycles in which a new head talks of far-reaching reform, while only small incremental steps are taken. The latest is the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission, which has just released a report detailing all the way the MTA could move forward. Capital New York has covered it and hosts the report in three parts. Despite the florid rhetoric of reinvention, the proposals contained in the report are small-scale, such as reducing waste heat in the tunnels and at the stations on PDF-pp. 43-44 of the first part. At first glance they seem interesting; they are also very far from the reinvention the MTA both needs and claims to be engaging in.

Construction costs are not addressed in the report. On PDF-p. 53 of the first part, it talks about the far-reaching suburban Grand Paris Express project for providing suburb-to-suburb rapid transit. It says nothing of the fact that this 200-km project is scheduled to cost about 27 billion euros in what appears to be today’s money, which is not much more than $150 million per km, about a tenth as much as New York’s subway construction. (Grand Paris Express is either mostly or fully underground, I am not sure.) The worst problem for transit in the New York area is that its construction costs are an order of magnitude too high, but this is not addressed in the report.

Instead of tackling this question, the report prefers to dwell on how to raise money. As is increasingly common in American cities, it proposes creative funding streams, on the last page of the first part and the first six pages of the second part: congestion pricing, cap-and-trade, parking fees, a development fund, value capture. With the exception of congestion pricing, an externality tax for which it makes sense for revenues to go to mitigation of congestion via alternative transportation, all of these suffer from the same problem: they are opaque and narrowly targeted, which turns them into slush funds for power brokers. It’s the same problem as the use of cap-and-trade in California.

One of the most fundamental inventions of modern government is the broad-based tax, on income or consumption. Premodern governments funded themselves out of tariffs and dedicated taxes on specific activities (as do third-world governments today), and this created a lot of economic distortion, since not all activities were equally taxed, and politically powerful actors could influence the system to not tax them. The transparent broad-based tax, deeded to general revenue through a democratic process, has to be spent efficiently, because there are many government departments that are looking for more money and have to argue why they should get it. Moreover, the tax affects nearly all voters, so that cutting the tax is another option the spending programs must compete with. The dedicated fund does neither. If the broad-based tax is the equivalent of market competition, a system of dedicated funds for various government programs is the equivalent of a cartel that divides the market into zones, with each cartel member enjoying a local monopoly. In this way there’s a difference between the hodgepodge of taxes the MTA levies and wants to levy and Ile-de-France’s dedicated 1.4-2.6% payroll tax: the payroll tax directly affects all Francilien workers and employers, and were it wasted, a right-wing liberal politician could win accolades by proposing to cut it, the way New York Republicans are attacking the smaller payroll tax used to fund the MTA.

The proposals of where to spend the money to be raised so opaquely are problematic as well. There is a set of reforms, based on best practices in Continental Europe and Japan, that every urban transit system in the first world should pursue, including in their original countries, where often only some of those aspects happen. These include proof-of-payment fare collection on buses, commuter trains, and all but the busiest subway systems; all-door boarding on buses; mode-neutral fares with free transfers; signal priority and bus lanes on all major bus routes, with physically separated lanes in the most congested parts; a coherent frequent bus network, and high off-peak frequency on all trains; and through-service on commuter rail lines that can be joined to create a coherent S-Bahn or RER system. As far as I can tell, the report ignores all of these, with the exception of the vague sentence, “outfitting local bus routes with SBS features,” which features are unspecified. Instead, new buzzwords like resiliency and redundancy appear throughout the report. Redundancy in particular is a substitute for reliability: the world’s busiest train lines are generally not redundant: if they have parallel alternatives those are relief lines or slower options, and a shutdown would result in a major disruption. Amtrak, too, looks for redundancy, even as the busiest intercity rail line in the world, the Tokaido Shinkansen, has no redundancy, and is only about to get some in the next few decades as JR Central builds the Chuo Shinkansen for relief and for higher speeds.

The only foreigners on the Commission are British, Canadian, and Colombian, which may have something to do with the indifference to best industry practices. Bogota is famous for its BRT system, leveraging its wide roads and low labor costs, and Canada and to a lesser extent the UK have the same problems as the US in terms of best industry practices. Swiss, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Korean members might have known better, and might also have been useful in understanding where exactly the cost problems of the US in general and New York in particular come from.

The final major problem with the report, in addition to the indifference to cost, the proposal for reactionary funding sources, and the ignorance of best industry practices, is the continued emphasis on a state of good repair. While a logical goal in the 1980s and 90s, when the MTA was coming off of decades of deferred maintenance, the continued pursuit of the maintenance backlog today raises questions of whether maintenance has been deferred more recently, and whether it is still deferred. More oversight of the MTA is needed, for which the best idea I can think of is changing the cycles of maintenance capital funding from five years, like the rest of the capital plan, to one year. Long-term investment should still be funded over the long term, but maintenance should be funded more regularly, and the backlog should be clarified each year, so that the public can see how each year the backlog is steadily filled while normal replacement continues. This makes it more difficult for MTA chiefs to propose a bold program, fund it by skimping on maintenance, and leave for their next job before the ruse is discovered.

I tag this post under both good categories (“good transit” and “good/interesting studies”) and bad ones (“incompetence” and “shoddy studies”) because there are a lot of good ideas in the report. But none of them rises to the level of reinvention, and even collectively, they represent incremental improvement, of the sort I’d expect of a city with a vigorous capital investment program and industry practices near the world’s cutting edge. New York has neither, and right now it needs to imitate the best performers first.

Metro-North-Everything Compatibility

The Regional Plan Association has a new study warning that Metro-North’s infrastructure is falling apart, and demands $3.6 billion in immediate spending on state of good repair. In general, my line on deferred maintenance is “you mean the agency deferred maintenance all those years and didn’t tell us?”. But in this case, despite the language, most of the proposed spending is improvements, namely rehabilitation or replacement of old movable bridges with low speed limits, rather than ongoing maintenance folded into long-term capital spending.

$2.8 billion of the proposed program is for replacing five bridges: Pelham Bay, Cos Cob (over the Mianus), Walk (over the Norwalk River), Saga (over the Saugatuck), and Devon (over the Housatonic). I believe all five should be replaced in the medium term, but the cost proposed is much higher than it should be. $560 million per bridge is quite high, and out of line with Amtrak found on PDF-pp. 29 and 56 of the Northeast Corridor Master Plan. Amtrak cites the cost of replacing the Pelham Bay Bridge alone at $100 million, and the cost of both replacing it and modifying curves on the Hell Gate Line at $500 million. It cites the cost of replacing both the Saga and Walk Bridges at $600 million.

Now, the RPA lists Saga as the easiest bridge to replace since it’s two two-track bridges, so work can be done one bridge at a time with less disruption to ongoing service, but conversely Pelham Bay is also quite cheap according to Amtrak.

But there’s a more serious problem, which is the avoidance of talking about service plans for commuter and intercity rail. If there is serious effort at adding Metro-North service to Penn Station or at raising intercity rail speeds, then the worst speed and capacity restrictions should get priority, and the infrastructure construction should be based on what promotes the desired service plans. It is very expensive and probably cost-ineffective to six-track everything from New Rochelle to Stamford, to allow three speed regimes: local, express, and intercity. I have argued before that it’s better to leave it at four tracks and bypass bad curves, around Port Chester, and make this the six-track segment. This is of course independent of maintenance issues, but suggests which bridge replacements are necessary to support these bypasses (Cos Cob) and which aren’t (the rest are less critical, especially Walk, which intercity trains should bypass on a straighter I-95 segment).

Likewise, there’s a capacity crunch west of Stamford but not one east of Stamford, and this again suggests Cos Cob as the most important priority. Finally, the slowest segment of the NEC away from immediate station areas is the western corner of Connecticut, from the state line to Stamford; Stamford’s curves are mild, while those heading out of Port Chester all the way across the Mianus are quite bad, and straightening the segment would also require straightening the bridge, which can be done easily if it’s replaced. Despite all this, the RPA and Amtrak are saying Cos Cob needs rehabilitation and not replacement, which misses opportunities to both improve reliability and speed up a slow segment.

Moreover, there is no mention of grade-separating Shell Interlocking, just south of New Rochelle. While not a state of good repair issue even in theory, the interlocking’s tight curves impose a limit of either 30 or 45 mph (so, 50-70 km/h), depending on source, in an area that could otherwise support 200 km/h or more. It is very difficult to straighten New Rochelle to sufficient curve radius for that, but 150 requires only minor takings. This may be necessary, independent of speed issues, to raise capacity enough to allow Metro-North service to both Grand Central and Penn Station. It’s possible to schedule trains through the flat junction, but this imposes an additional constraint on the schedule, on top of track-sharing with Amtrak and, in the East River Tunnels, the LIRR.

Relative Costs of Transit Construction

The relative costs of different technologies of transit are not fixed. Although there are some rules of thumb for the ratio of tunneling cost to above-ground transit cost, the actual ratio depends on the city and project, and this would favor the mode that’s relatively cheaper. Likewise, the ratio of operating to capital costs is not always fixed, and of course long-term real interest rates vary between countries, and this could again favor some modes: more expensive construction and cheaper operations favor buses, the opposite situations favor rail.

In general, els cost 2-2.5 times as much as at-grade light rail, subways 4-6 times as much, according to Table 6 in this Flyvbjerg paper; Table 5, sourced to a different previous paper, estimates per-km costs, and has ratios of 1.8 and 4.5 respectively.

However, specifically in Vancouver, the premiums of elevated and underground construction appear much lower. The cost estimates for rail transit to UBC are $2.9 billion for an almost entirely underground extension of SkyTrain and $1.1 billion for at-grade light rail along Broadway, both about 12 km. Elevated construction is in the middle, though closer to the light rail end: the estimates for the two all-elevated SkyTrain extension alternatives into Surrey are $900 million for 6 km for rapid transit alternative 3 and $1.95 billion for 15.5 km for alternative 1. The under-construction Evergreen Line, which is 11 km long of which about 2 are in tunnel, is $1.4 billion.

In the rest of Canada, this seems to be true as well, though the evidence is more equivocal since the projects that are considered above-ground are often elevated rather than at-grade. The Canadian above-ground projects that Rob Ford’s Eglinton subway is compared with are not wholly above ground. Calgary’s West LRT, which with the latest cost overrun is $1.4 billion (a multiple of the preexisting three-line system) for 8 km, includes a 1.5 km tunnel, a short trench, and some elevated segments. Edmonton’s North LRT is $750 million for 3.3 km, of which about 1 km is in tunnel and the rest at-grade. But while it’s hard to find the exact ratio because of those mixed projects, the costs are not consistent with the ratios found in Flyvbjerg’s sources.

Outside Canada, those ratios seem to hold up better. American above-ground transit projects, such as the Portland Milwaukie extension and the Washington Silver Line, are as expensive as Calgary and Edmonton’s light rail, but American subways are much more expensive than Toronto’s Eglinton subway ($325 million/km, 77% underground and the rest elevated): Manhattan tunneling is more difficult, so its $1.3-1.7 billion/km cost may not be representative, but conversely, BART to San Jose’s $4 billion for about 8 km of tunnel is for tunneling partially under a wide railroad right-of-way, with no crossings of older subway infrastructure as is the case for Eglinton at Yonge.

Conversely, French tunneling costs are comparable to or lower than Canadian ones, but at-grade light rail is far less expensive than in North America. The RER E extension was at least as of 2009 budgeted at €1.58-2.18 billion for 8 km of tunnel (see PDF-page 79 here; this excludes €620 million in improvements to the existing commuter lines the tunnel will be linked with) – somewhere between the per-km costs of Vancouver and Toronto subways, but in a much denser environment with more infrastructure to cross. But the cost range for Parisian trams is much lower, about €30-50 million per km, in line with the subway:tram cost ratio of 4-6; the cost range in other French cities tends to be a little lower.

What this means is that in Canada in general, and in Vancouver in particular, questions about what mode to build should have higher-end answers than elsewhere. It doesn’t mean that the Eglinton subway is justified, but it does bias suburban rail lines in Vancouver toward elevated SkyTrain extensions rather than light rail, and inner extensions toward SkyTrain subways. For the same cost of building a subway under Broadway, Translink couldn’t build too much additional light rail; it could build two lines, say on Broadway and 41st, or maybe three if both non-Broadway routes are short, but certainly nothing like the entire network that SkyTrain opponents believe is the alternative, citing European tramway construction costs.