Earlier this month, Andrew Cuomo unveiled a proposal to spend $10 billion on improvements to JFK Airport, including new terminals, highway expansion, and public transit access. I encourage readers to look at the plan: the section on highways proposes $1.5-2 billion in investment including adding lanes to the Van Wyck Expressway and to on-ramps, and has the cheek to say that this will reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This while the section on mass transit gives it short shrift, only proposing superficial improvements to the AirTrain; in the unlikely the case that this is built, highway mode share will grow and transit mode share will fall. Put in plainer terms, the environmental case for the plan includes fraud.
However, this is not really the topic of this post. That Andrew Cuomo lies to the voters and doesn’t care about good transportation is by now a dog-bites-man story. Instead, I want to focus a little on a throwaway line in the plan, and more on the Regional Plan Association’s reaction. The throwaway line is that almost every major world airport has a one-seat train ride to city center, and by implication, so should JFK.
As an organization dedicated to environment-friendly public transit, the RPA should have made it very clear it opposes the plan due to its low overall transportation value and its favoring of highways over transit. Instead, the RPA immediately launched a brief detailing possible new airport connectors between JFK and Manhattan. The RPA has a lot of good technical people, and its list of the pros and cons of each option is solid. It correctly notes that using the LIRR and Rockaway Beach Branch would compete for traffic with LIRR trains serving Long Island, although it doesn’t mention associated problems like low frequency. The brief is based on prior RPA proposals, but the timing, just after Cuomo came out with his announcement, suggests an endorsement. There are several intertwined problems here:
There is no no-build option
A good study for public transit should not only consider different alignments and service patterns, but also question whether the project is necessary. The US requires environmental impact statements to include a no build option; European countries require a cost-benefit analysis, and will not fund projects with a benefit/cost ratio under 1.2, because of cost escalation risk.
The RPA study does not question whether a one-seat ride from JFK to Manhattan is necessary or useful. It assumes that it is. Everything else about the study follows from that parameter. Thus, it considers entirely express plans, such as the LIRR option, alongside local options. Everything is subsumed into the question of connecting JFK to Manhattan.
One of the alignments proposed is via the LIRR Atlantic Branch and Second Avenue Subway, which the RPA has long believed should be connected. The brief says that it would be slow because it would have to make many local stops; I’ll add that it would serve Midtown, where nearly all the hotels are, via a circuitous alignment. But with all these stops on the way, shouldn’t this be considered as primarily a new trunk line connecting Eastern Brooklyn with Second Avenue? The question of whether the eastern terminus should be Jamaica or JFK must be subsumed to a study of this specific line, which at any rate is unlikely to offer faster service to JFK than the existing AirTrain-to-E option. After all, the most optimistic ridership projection for a JFK connector is maybe 40,000 users per day, whereas the projection for the full Second Avenue Subway is 500,000. I don’t think a Second Avenue-Atlantic Branch connection is warranted, but if it is, the question of whether to serve JFK at the end is secondary.
Express airport connectors are a fetish
I lived in Stockholm for two years, where I went to the airport exclusively using the Arlanda Express, a premium express link running nonstop between the airport and city center. I imagine many visitors to Stockholm use it, are satisfied, and want to replicate it in their own cities.
Unfortunately, such replications miss something important: any air-rail link must go to the areas that people are likely to want to connect to. For locals who wish to travel to the airport, this means good connections to the local transit network, since they are likely to come from many neighborhoods. Not even a small city like Stockholm worries about providing rich areas like Vasastan and Roslag with a one-seat ride. For visitors, this means a one-seat ride to where the hotels are.
Stockholm is a largely monocentric city, with one city center where everything is. (It has an edge city in Kista, with more skyscrapers than Central Stockholm, but Kista can’t be reasonably connected to the airport). The situation in other cities is more complicated. And yet, express air links prioritize serving a big train station even if it’s poorly connected to the transit network and far from the hotels. Let us consider London and Paris.
In London, the five-star hotels cluster around the West End. Only two are at Paddington Station, and only a few more are an easy walking distance from it. This is where the Heathrow Express and the slower Heathrow mainline trains go. No wonder the Heathrow Express’s mode share, as of 2004, is 9%, whereas other Heathrow connections, mainly the Piccadilly line, total 27% (source, PDF-p. 28). The Piccadilly line beautifully passes through the parts of the West End with the largest concentration of hotels, and last time I was in London, I chose it as my Heathrow connection. Nonetheless, the government chose to build the Heathrow Express.
In Paris, the five-star hotels cluster in the west of the city as well, in the 8th arrondissement. The current airport connection is via the RER B, which offers express service in the off-peak when there’s capacity, but not in the peak, when there isn’t. Even so, it is a local commuter rail service, with good connections to the city transit system, and a two-seat ride to the 8th. Because of slow perceived speeds, the state is planning to build an express connector, originally planned to open in 2015 but since delayed to 2023. The express connector will dump passengers at Gare de l’Est, with no hotels within walking distance, no access to Metro lines serving the hotel clusters (Metro 7 does so peripherally, M4 and M5 not at all), and a long walk to the RER for passengers wishing to connect to longer-range destinations such as parts of the Left Bank.
I bring this up to show that the idea of the express air-rail link is a fetish rather than a transportation project, and by analogy, so is the one-seat ride. There is value in faster service and in minimizing the number of transfers, but express airport connectors attempt both even at the cost of building a line that doesn’t go where people want to go.
Ultimately, Cuomo doesn’t care about good transit
Cuomo has many concerns. The chief one is most likely winning the 2020 presidential primary. He has been running for president since the moment he was elected, and many of his policies – gay marriage, the feuds with Bill de Blasio, the desperate attempt to build shiny infrastructure with his name on it – are best viewed through that lens. To the extent that he is not running for president, he has attempted to cement absolute power within the state. He backed a palace coup in the State Senate that secured a Republican(-ish) majority even though the Democrats won most seats; a Democratic majority would be led by a different faction of the party, one more beholden to Democratic interest groups, and might send Cuomo bills that he would lose political capital if he either signed or vetoed them.
This is why I keep giving him as an example of an autocrat in various posts; here is the major takedown, but see also here. Autocrats are always bad for the areas that they govern, which as two separate implications. The first is that their choice of spending priorities is compromised by the need to expand their own power and glory: even if you believe that New York needs $1.5-2 billion in new highway spending, is the Van Wyck really the best place for it?
The second and worse implication is that it is hard for outside groups to convince autocrats to do better. Autocrats don’t have to listen; if they did, they would be democratic leaders. Cuomo happens to be an anti-transit autocrat, and this means that pro-transit groups in New York need to view him as an obstacle and work to weaken him, rather than to ask him to please consider their plans for an air-rail link.
The difficulty is that, precisely because local- and state-level democracy in the US is so weak, it is difficult for issue-oriented groups to go out and oppose the governor. Planners in Democratic cities are hesitant to attack budget-cutting Republican governors like Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan; attacking Democratic governors like Cuomo is a nonstarter. Nonetheless, the RPA needs to understand that it needs to oppose governments hostile to public transit rather than ask them to improve. When Cuomo proposes a bad transportation project, say “no” and move on to more important things; don’t try to work with him, because nothing good can come of that.
Following plans by the government of Norway to ban cars fueled by petrol or diesel by 2025, several other countries in Europe are formulating similar programs to phase out fuel-powered transportation. Moreover, sources close to the European Parliament say that once multiple member states pass such a ban as is expected later this year, the European Union will attempt to enforce these rules throughout its territory.
In Sweden, the office of Åsa Romson, minister for the environment and co-spokesperson for the Green Party, released a statement saying that a ban on the internal combustion engine is a necessary step to reduce pollution and carbon emissions. In Sweden, only about 3% of electricity production comes from fossil fuels, and plans made by the Persson cabinet in 2005, Making Sweden an Oil-Free Society, already call for a phaseout of the use of oil for heating. The Löfven cabinet has nowhere else to cut in its program to make Sweden a carbon-neutral society by 2050. The Social Democrats-Green minority government is expected to work with the more moderate parties in the opposition Alliance; the Centre Party has already endorsed the move, but the Liberals have yet to make a statement.
In France and Germany, the ban is expected to be far more contentious. Auto manufacturers in both countries have condemned the moves by their respective governments to ban the internal combustion engine, saying that it would make the economy less competitive. European automakers have lagged behind Japanese and American ones in both hybrid and all-electric car technology, as conventional European petrol and diesel cars already have high fuel economy. In response to so-called range anxiety, in which an electric car’s limited range may leave the driver stranded on the motorway, the Hollande administration is expected to pair the proposed phaseout with national investment into charging stations as well as additional investment into TGV lines, to make it easier to travel long distances in France without a car.
Demands by BMW and Volkswagen for Germany to commit to spending money on R&D for improved battery range and charging and battery swap stations on the highway network have run into budgetary problems. While Chancellor Angela Merkel is reported to be interested in implementing a phaseout, in order to attract Green support into a possible future grand coalition and reduce EU dependence on oil imports from Russia, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has openly rejected any package that would raise the budget deficit, and the allied Christian Social Union has rejected the proposed ban on principle. Opposition from far-right populist parties, including the Alliance for Germany (AfD) and France’s National Front (FN), is likely to be significant, and sources close to Hollande and Merkel say that both have ruled out tax increases to pay for the program.
In France the calls for a phaseout of the internal combustion engine are especially loud in the Paris region, where high levels of particulate pollution from diesel vehicles led to recent restrictions on car use. The mayor of Paris, the Socialist Anne Hidalgo, previously proposed to ban diesel vehicles from the city entirely, and has endorsed the state’s plans to phase out fuel-powered vehicles, adding that given Paris’s pollution crisis, a local ban on diesel vehicles should be implemented immediately. The president of the regional council, Valérie Pécresse of the Republicans (LR), is said to support the phaseout as well, and to push LR behind the scenes not to oppose it. Conversely, opposition from FN is especially acute. The party leader, Marine le Pen, quipped that France would not need any additional reductions in greenhouse gas emissions if it had not taken in non-European immigrants since the 1960s, and noted that the immigrants are especially likely to settle in Paris, where the problems are the most acute.
Elsewhere in Europe, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are said to be considering a phaseout by 2030. Within Belgium, Saudi support of mosques preaching radical interpretations of Islam is said to have influenced the country’s liberal parties, the Francophone Reformist Movement (MR) and the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD), to support a phaseout. However, the Flemish nationalist parties remain opposed, and the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) issued a statement saying that this solution may work within Brussels but is inappropriate for Flanders. In contrast, the Netherlands is expected to pass the phaseout without any political problems. In Switzerland, a referendum is planned for next year, and early polling suggests that it is supported by 55-60% of the population.
Governments outside Europe are said to be watching the development closely, especially in France and Germany, which are perceived as more reliable bellwethers of European opinion than Sweden. In Japan, home to the world’s top-selling electric car, the Nissan Leaf, political support for a phaseout appears high. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called climate change a “defining issue of our time,” and is working on a national infrastructure plan. Sources close to Abe say it will pair subsidies for so-called city cars, short-range electric vehicles, with investments into the country’s rail network outside major metropolitan areas, to make it easier for people living outside the biggest cities to travel on public transport.
In the US, both the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign refused to comment, saying that it is an internal European affair. However, sources close to the administration say that it is already planning to use the Environmental Protection Agency’s executive power to restrict the sale of new fuel-powered cars to emergency needs. The sources speculate that an executive order is planned for shortly after the presidential election this November, provided Clinton wins, in order to avoid creating backlash among key swing constituencies, including the automakers and the exurban lower middle class. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign’s response is unprintable.
Stockholm is currently expanding its transit system, with about 19 kilometers of subway extension, and another 6 kilometers of a commuter rail tunnel taking regional traffic off the at-capacity mainline. The subway extension, excluding rolling stock acquisition, costs about $2.1 billion, and the commuter rail extension $1.8 billion.
The US is currently building five subways: Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 (2.8 km, $4.6 billion), East Side Access (2.2 km, $10 billion), the first phase of the Wilshire subway (6.3 km, $2.8 billion), the Regional Connector (3.1 km, $1.4 billion), U-Link (5 km, $1.8 billion). Two more projects are partially underground: the Crenshaw/LAX Line, a total of 13.7 km of which 4.7 are underground, at a total cost of $2.1 billion, and the Warm Springs BART extension, a total of 8.6 km of which 1.6 are underground, at a total cost of $900 million. (Update 2/1: the Central Subway is $1.6 billion for 2.8 km. Thanks to Joel for pointing out that I forgot about it.)
The first observation is that Sweden has just
700 meters 3.5 km of subway under construction less than the US under construction, despite a vast gap in not only population but also current transit usage. Stockholm may have twice the per capita rail ridership of New York, but it’s still a small city, the size of Indianapolis, Baltimore, Portland, or Charlotte; 450 million annual rail trips is impressive for a city of its size, but the US combined has more than 3 billion. This relates to differences in costs: the amount of money Sweden is putting into heavy rail infrastructure is $3.9 billion, vs. $23.6 billion $25.2 billion among the seven eight US projects, which approaches the ratio of national subway and commuter rail ridership levels.
The second observation is that the US spending is not really proportional to current rail ridership. Two thirds of the spending is in New York, as is two thirds of US rail ridership, but nearly everything else is in Los Angeles, which takes in a majority of current subway construction route-length. Los Angeles is a progressive city and wants better public transit, but the same is true in many of the six major US transit cities – New York, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. And yet, of those six, only New York and San Francisco are building urban subways (BART’s one mile of tunnel is in a suburb, under a park).
The difference is that Los Angeles builds subways at $400-450 million per km in the city core (less in future phases of the Wilshire subway), whereas in most of the US, lines are either more expensive or more peripheral. Boston, the Bay Area, and Washington are expanding their rapid transit networks, but largely above-ground or in a trench, and only outside the core. Boston’s Green Line Extension is in a trench, but has had major budget overruns and is currently on the high side for a full subway ($3 billion for 6.9 km), and the MBTA is even putting canceling the project on the table due to the cost. Washington’s Silver Line Phase 2 is 18.5 km and $2.7 billion, in a highway median through the Northern Virginia suburbs. BART’s Warm Springs extension is about $100 million per km, which is not outrageously high, but the next extension of the line south, to Berryessa, is $2.3 billion for 16 km, all above ground.
Let us now stay on the North American West Coast, but go north, to Vancouver. Vancouver’s construction costs are reasonable: the cost projections for the Broadway subway (C$2.7 billion ex-vehicles, PDF-p. 95) are acceptable relative to route-length (12.4 km, PDF-p. 62) and very good relative to projected ridership (320,000 per weekday, PDF-p. 168). Judging by the costs of the Evergreen and Canada Lines, and the ridership evolution of the Canada Line, these projections seem realistic. And yet, in a May 2015 referendum about funding half the line as well as many other transit projects, 62% of the region’s voters, including a bare majority in Vancouver proper, voted no.
The referendum’s result was not a shock. In the few months before the vote, the polls predicted a large, growing no vote. Already in February, the Tyee was already comparing Vancouver negatively with Stockholm, and noting that TransLink’s regional governance structure was unusual, saying the referendum was designed to fail. This is not 100% accurate: in 2014, polls were giving the yes side a majority. The deterioration began around the end of 2014 or beginning of 2015: from 52-39 in December to 46-42 in January, to 27-61 in March. The top reason cited by no voters was that they didn’t trust TransLink to spend the money well.
This cannot be divorced from Vancouver’s Compass Card debacle: plans to replace paper tickets and SkyTrain’s proof-of-payment system with a regionwide smartcard, called Compass, and faregates on SkyTrain, were delayed and run over budget. The faregates aren’t even saving money, since TransLink has to pay an operating fee to vendor Cubic that’s higher than the estimated savings from reduced fare evasion. The height of the scandal was in 2014, but it exploded in early 2015, when TransLink replaced its manager amidst growing criticism. The referendum would probably have been a success a year earlier; it was scheduled in what turned out to be a bad period for TransLink.
The importance of the Vancouver example is that construction costs are not everything. Transit agencies need to get a lot of things right, and in some cases, the effects are quite random. (Los Angeles, too, had a difficult rollout of a Cubic-run faregate system.) The three key principles here are, then:
1. Absolute costs matter. They may not directly affect people’s perceptions of whether construction is too expensive. But when legislators have to find money for a new public transit project, they have some intuitive idea of its benefits, give or take a factor of perhaps 2. Gateway is being funded, even though with the latest cost overrun (to $23.9 billion) the benefit-cost ratio in my estimation is about 1/3, but this involved extensive lobbying by Amtrak, lying both to Congress and to itself that it is a necessary component of high-speed rail. Ordinary subways do not have the luxury of benefiting from agency imperialism the way the Gateway project did; if they’re too expensive, they’re at risk of cancellation.
2. Averaged across cities and a number of years of construction, cities and countries with lower construction costs will build more public transit. We see this in the US vs. Sweden. Of course, there are periods of more construction, such as now, and periods of less, such as around 2000, but this affects both countries right now.
3. Variations from the average are often about other issues of competence – in Vancouver’s case, the failure of the faregates and the delayed Compass rollout. Political causes are less important: Vancouver’s business community opposed the transit referendum and organized against it, but it’s telling that it did so and succeeded, whereas business communities in cities with more popular transit authorities support additional construction.
In a post from 2011, Yonah Freemark argued that California HSR’s projected cost’s upper end was just 0.18% of the projected GDP of California over a 20-year construction period. The implication: the cost of high-speed rail (and public transit in general) is small relative to the ability of the economy to pay. This must be paired with the sobering observation that the benefits of public transit are similarly small, or at most of the same order of magnitude.
New York’s survived decades without Second Avenue Subway. It’s a good project to have, provided the costs are commensurate with the benefits, but without cost containment, phase 2 is probably too expensive, and phases 3 and 4 almost certainly. What’s more, the people funding such projects – the politicians, the voters, even the community organizations – consider them nice-to-haves. The US has no formal mechanism of estimating benefit-cost ratios, and a lot of local political dysfunction, and this can distort the funding, to the point that Gateway is being funded even though at this cost it shouldn’t. But, first, even a factor of 3 distortion is unusual, and second, on average, these distortions cancel out. Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t plan on controlling either Congress or the White House more than about half the time, in the long run, and transit activists shouldn’t plan on political dysfunction persistently working in their favor.
The only route forward is to improve the benefit-cost ratio. On the benefit side, this means aggressive upzoning around subway stations, probably the biggest lacuna in Los Angeles’s transit construction program. But in New York, and even in the next five transit cities in the US, this is not the main problem: population density on many corridors is sufficient by the standards of such European transit cities as Stockholm, Berlin, London, and Munich, none of which is extraordinarily dense like Paris.
No: the main problem in most big US cities is costs, and almost only costs. Operating costs, to some extent, but mainly capital construction costs. Congress and the affected states apparently have enough political will to build a 5-km tunnel for $20 billion going on $24 billion; if this system could be built for $15 billion, they’d jump at the opportunity to take credit. The US already has the will to spend reasonable amounts of money on public transit. The difference is that its
$24 billion $25 billion of spending on subways buys 26 km 28.5 km of subway and 16 km of a mix of light rail and el, where it could be buying 120 km 125 km of subway. Work out where you’d build the extra 94 km 96.5 km and ask yourself if ignoring costs is such a good idea for transit activists.
There are various observations I would like to make about the urban geography of immigrants: where immigrants often land, what neighborhoods they prefer, how they differ both from the preference of natives, and how they differ from the policies that governments, run by enfranchised voters, implement. Many of the points I’m about to make I’ve made in comments before, on the Urbanophile and other urbanist blogs. I was compelled to write this by the news stories of the migration wave of Syrian refugees into Europe, but I would like to stress that I am writing about both labor migration and humanitarian migration, and that this post has been on my to-do list for years. The points here are often true of nearly all classes of immigrants: refugees, low-skill work migrants, high-skill work migrants; only family reunification is outside the scope of this post, but even family reunification usually consists of the family of a migrant immigrating as well.
The dominance of rich regions
Eurostat has regional per capita income figures for most of Europe. After subtracting rent and interest payments, incomes in London are 46% higher than in the United Kingdom as a whole, and twice as high as in depressed regions such as Birmingham and Sheffield. In Ile-de-France, the incomes are 38% higher than in France as a whole and 65% higher than in depressed regions such as Nord-Pas-de-Calais. In Northern Italy, the incomes are 80% higher than in Southern Italy, while if we compare the richer parts of the North (e.g. Lombardy) with the poorer parts of the South (e.g. Sicily and Naples), the gap grows to a factor of two, as in the UK. In all three countries, the rich regions have far more immigrants per capita than the poor regions. As of the 2011 census, 13.4% of the population of England and Wales is foreign-born, but in London, this rises to 36.7%. In France, 8% of the population consists of immigrants, but in Ile-de-France it rises to 17%: see PDF-p. 24 of an INSEE factsheet, and note also the table at the top of the page, showing far fewer immigrants live in rural areas than natives. In Italy, a breakdown per region shows 8-11% of the people in the Northern and Central regions are immigrants compared with 2-4% in the Southern ones.
Let us go over the reasons why. After all, in principle, both immigrants and natives are more interested in earning high incomes than in earning low incomes. So to see this, let us look at the situation from the point of view of someone who grew up in a poor region of such a country. The Brummie, the Sheffielder, and the Liverpudlian know that the Londoner makes more money than they do. But they can’t just move to London and expect to earn the same income a native Londoner earns. Their local social networks are precisely the ones they can rely on for job search tips, and after they’ve begun working they acquire local bosses who can give them reference letters, and neither group lives in London; this means that they’d make far less money than an equally qualified Londoner if they moved. This is on top of the personal disutility one suffers when moving, independently of the wage. This is less true of highly educated workers, who move in national and even international networks, whence the brain drain problem in rural and depressed areas.
Of course, immigrants short-circuit this, because immigrants usually come into the country without a social network in either its rich core or its depressed periphery. Logically, they go to where there are jobs, and to where the jobs pay more.
The situation I described above is true for first entrants. Once a community establishes itself in a city, the situation for the new immigrant changes. An Indian who wishes to emigrate to Canada can often rely on networks of Indian-Canadians, both first- and second-generation. This Indian’s situation is the exact opposite of that of the native of a depressed region: the native of Atlantic Canada, the poorest region of English Canada, has a social and professional network in their home area but not in Toronto or the other major cities; the Indian has a social network in Toronto and Vancouver but not in Atlantic Canada. This means that even when the income advantage of the traditionally rich cities disappears, immigrants will keep moving to them.
For three examples of this principle, let us look at the UK, Canada, and finally the US. In the UK, look at the table above again, and observe that, after London and the Southeast, the part of Britain with the highest foreign-born percentage is the West Midlands (the region, not the county), with 11.2%. This is because Birmingham used to be a rich city: Jane Jacobs compares it favorably with Manchester in The Economy of Cities, published in 1970. It declined in the 1970s, but by then the South Asian migration wave to Britain was already well underway. In Canada, Vancouver and Toronto remain rich, but Calgary has far surpassed them in incomes due to the oil boom, and is only now receiving comparable numbers of immigrants; 26% of its population is foreign-born, versus 40% of Metro Vancouver and 46% of the Greater Toronto Area (see data here). Finally, in the US, Los Angeles has remained one of the top destinations for immigrants, even though its incomes have slipped far below those of not only New York and San Francisco, but also Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, and other cities that are only beginning to see the same immigration numbers Los Angeles has had for decades. In general, the states bordering Mexico have long had elevated numbers of Mexican immigrants, going back to the braceros and even before, ultimately tracing to the large Mexican presence in those states after the US conquered them in the Mexican War.
Once there is an established community of immigrants from a particular country or ethnic group, they of course encourage further migration, in addition to shaping the migration to reach the same regions and city neighborhoods. This can take the form of social networks for community support and for finding work, but also the form of knowledge of migration routes. See, for example, a Guardian article from yesterday explaining the Syrian migration wave as a result of years of social learning in Syria of the best routes for trekking into Western Europe. Conceivably this could also include legal knowledge of how to apply to asylum and which countries have the most favorable policies.
At the same time, as the national or ethnic community in the target country gets larger, it begins to exhibit domestic ethnic dynamics more than immigrant dynamics. Part of it is that the immigrants eventually naturalize and acquire voting rights and enough informal political power to have some influence over how their city is run. Part of it is that after a few decades there’s a rising cadre of well-assimilated second-generation immigrants. Part of it is that between the presence of a community and a natural trend of drift in which the relative incomes of cities in the target country change, immigrants eventually behave more like native Brummies and Sheffielders. As a result, most of what I say is true largely of recent immigrants, and gradually becomes less true of people who immigrated decades ago.
The primacy of work
Nearly all immigrants intend to work for a living. This is obviously true of work migrants, of all classes, but it’s also true of refugees, which leads many nativists to mock them for not really seeking asylum but taking jobs from natives. One particularly cruel article that appeared in my Twitter feed from multiple sources, proposing to detain asylum seekers and confine those who meet the criteria for refugees to restricted areas far from the job-rich core, makes the point that people who try to move to where there are jobs are (illegal) work migrants.
The reality is that one of people’s basic needs is work. Idleness is not a normal state of affairs for a person; when as many as a quarter of the people in the workforce are unemployed, it’s a depression and a national crisis. In developing countries there is a lot of covert unemployment, in the sense that (especially in rural areas) a large majority of workers may be redundant if first-world technology is imported, but people still work for a living and earn a wage. In India, to take an example of a third-world country in a state of peace, the unemployment rate was 2.7% as of 2013. To say that a migrant who wants work is necessarily a work migrant is equivalent to saying that a migrant who wants shelter is moving to the first world for its higher housing quality and that a migrant who wants their children to be able to go to school is moving to the first world for its better schools. This need for work drives everything: immigrants from poor countries will work under the table, take jobs far below their skill level, and scab, and they’ll make sure they stay employed, as they would at home, except that these compromises wouldn’t really be necessary, since the third world has much more unskilled work to do.
That said, the need to work in an environment where the migrant has no local social network is the primary determinant of where the migrant lives. Given free choice, immigrants tend to cluster where there is easy access to jobs, ideally on foot in order to avoid paying exorbitant sums of money for a car. A rapid transit network makes it easier for people to disperse; in its absence, as in Tel Aviv, the migrants will cluster in a few cheap central neighborhoods, but even when it exists, migrants will try living where they can get to work easily. The greatest concentration of immigrants in Ile-de-France is in Seine-Saint-Denis, an inner-suburban department that in most other countries would be an outer neighborhood of Paris.
Finally, I wish I didn’t have to explain this, but given that it’s a politically charged issue right now, we see a lot of nativist complaints that immigrants are not seeking work, but welfare. The above article is one example of the genre, ultimately defining every social service immigrants use, such as schools, as welfare. Another example is a report by the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies, which finds that under a definition of welfare that excludes programs used by retirees (i.e. a large majority of US social spending), immigrants to the US use welfare more than native-born Americans.
The “work or welfare?” question can be answered directly by looking at where immigrants go when they get the chance. And the answer is decisively work. Welfare is to a first-order approximation the same throughout England or France; and yet, immigrants don’t choose to live in cheap areas of those countries to stretch the pounds and euros longer, but instead cluster in the cities where the jobs are. Scotland has a more generous welfare state than England, but it actually has fewer immigrants, about 6.5%. Singapore, with no welfare state whatsoever, tops the list of countries that people in a global Gallup poll expressed a desire to move to relative to its population; it’s followed by Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia (all five have already taken in many immigrants, making this a global version of the point I made about established communities). New York and San Francisco, whose biggest government interventions in the market, their rent control and public housing schemes, only benefit natives and people who immigrated decades ago, keep getting new immigrants of all social classes who are willing to pay exorbitant rents to have access to their strong local job markets. In contrast, rich suburban school districts in the Northeastern US only get upwardly-mobile professional immigrants.
In the rest of this post, I will expound on what the primacy of work means for housing policy.
Housing choice, overcrowding, and prejudice
Within a given city, immigrants do not choose where to live on the same criteria as natives. First, and this applies to immigrants of all categories and even to some domestic migrants, they lack the prejudices of locals. New Yorkers know which neighborhoods of the city are good and which are bad, whatever good and bad mean. New York is globally famous due to the influence of American media; in Israel, all that’s penetrated the cultural barrier is that Manhattan is the center, Brooklyn exists and has a lot of Jews (I remember being puzzled at why Super Mario isn’t Jewish when I was 10), and Harlem is a poor black neighborhood. In 2006, a few weeks after I moved to New York, I was in Bedford-Stuyvesant for an event, and nothing about the neighborhood looked poor to me. With my American cultural knowledge today I’d be able to tell that project towers, certain kinds of bodegas, and large concentrations of black people in that part of Brooklyn all correlate with poverty, but at the time, I couldn’t. I’m not the only one: a white Canadian blogger I know who moved to New York a few years before I did walked around Bed-Stuy looking for an apartment and found it nice, and when they reported where they were on a forum, people’s reactions were a mix of horror and outrage: “you’re crazy, you could have been killed” and “you evil gentrifier.”
Second, as a subset of the principle that new immigrants are more likely to move to the rich core cities than to poorer peripheral cities, new immigrants tend to be in the center of the city than in the suburbs (and again, this also somewhat applies to domestic migrants). Suburban jobs often pay less – the highest-earners in the favored-quarter suburbs in the US commute to the primary CBD, whence for example Daniel Kay Hertz’s observation that in suburban Chicago and Philadelphia, transit riders (CBD-bound commuter rail riders) outearn drivers. Here, there is a split between skilled and unskilled migrants. Skilled migrants often move to a city because, in the specialized global economy, their skills are a good fit for its primary industry; this means that if they’re moving to the Bay Area, it’s usually to work in the software industry or at one of the universities, rather than to be lawyers or accountants, which means their housing choice is disproportionately oriented toward where those industries cluster. Unskilled migrants have to consider transportation costs, making it hard to live in the suburbs, and on top of that, unless they’ve already been matched to a suburban employer to get a work visa (for example, to work as a maid in a particular house), it’s easier for them to find work in the central city.
For migrants from developing countries, there is one more consideration, which leads to the most glaring feature of low-income immigrant neighborhoods: people in the third world make more compromises on housing space to have access to jobs, leading to overcrowding. It’s often a step up from where they’re from anyway. New York has a profile of each of its community boards, based on the most recent census; before the move from the long-form 2000 census to the short-form 2010 census, there was detailed data about income, education, and crowding in each census tract, and the most overcrowding in Manhattan was not in the poorest neighborhood (East Harlem) but in Chinatown.
The basic issue here is that low-income immigrants from developing countries are unlikely to make enough money to cover rent at what first-world natives consider a respectable living standard. There’s a certain minimum housing quality in the developed world: minimum unit size, insulation, indoor plumbing, electricity, construction materials. It’s hard to violate these regulations, because buildings are conspicuous – for the same reason, there’s no equivalent of Uber or Airbnb for housing that bypasses zoning laws. But as the Airbnb example shows, it’s easy enough to subvert or outright ignore regulations about who occupies a residential unit. Hence, immigrants economize on space, either living multiple unrelated adults to a room (as black refugees do in South Tel Aviv) or housing a large extended family in a suburban house meant for a nuclear family (as Hispanics do in various American suburbs, raising the ire of the local natives).
Many immigrants return to their countries of origin, or move elsewhere, after a few years. This fact is deemphasized in the public discourse, shaped by the US narrative of people from all over the world coming to live the American dream. But in reality, migration is often seasonal, and a significant fraction of immigrants return; see, for example, a write-up of Italian-American history. More recently, we see this with illegal Mexican workers in the US, who would move back and forth across the borders seasonally, until the tighter border controls built after 1986 made this so difficult they moved to the US permanently (this is the work of Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan Malone, summarized here and here). Many refugees return to their home countries after the war or crisis ends. Skilled migrants often move between countries, as I do.
This creates a situation in which many recent immigrants do not know where they will live in five years, not even on what continent, even excluding the possibility of deportation. This does not mean immigrants do not care about the areas they live in. On the contrary. But they lack the deep social ties that local neighborhood activists have, and this makes it harder to engage politically on a level that appeals to the local notables. It takes years just to learn who the local notables are!
Hence, the immigrant really is a transient. “Transient” is just a dysphemism for someone who does not have enough social capital in an area to know definitively that they’re going to stay there permanently. Unsurprisingly, since community decisions are made by people who know the local notables and their networks, those decisions do not have recent migrants in mind. Even domestic migrants, who unlike international ones have the right to vote, are excluded. This is where community hostility to more housing comes from: why worry about how high the rent is for people you look down on as transients?
As far as housing goes, YIMBY groups have begun to build a national US network for more construction, with some international reach, so that recent domestic migrants to New York, San Francisco, and other expensive cities can rely on their national social capital to compensate for their lack of local social capital. But this is necessarily going to address primarily the needs of the people who participate in YIMBY networks, who tend to be white, educated, and American. I happen to think more housing in a region will benefit all recent and prospective immigrants to it, but there’s a wealth of other local political issues that are not covered in the YIMBY umbrella (for example, policing), and there, the community’s ability to abuse residents who got here more recently than it would like is not limited.
Finally, let me discuss the difference between how immigrants think and how governments elected by natives think immigrants ought to think. As I’ve established above, immigrants’ decisions are driven largely by the need for a job, even when the original purpose for the move was not work-related. This means that they will make compromises and live in a way that the native public deems substandard, as in various outrages of immigrant overcrowding.
The question is what to do about it. In capitalist countries (i.e. pretty much everywhere, except Cuba and a few other communist holdouts), the government professes to believe that people are economically rational. There are large sectors in which this is not true – for examples, health and education are mostly public in most developed countries – but in housing, most first-world countries use a free-market approach. Central cities often do provide extensive public housing, and zone tightly to prevent new construction that offends community sensibilities, but people can still buy and sell houses and move, and advocate for themselves politically so that they wouldn’t be stuck with housing that is by regional standards deficient.
Except, well, that people who lack voting rights can’t act politically except through their ties to enfranchised voters, and new migration waves lack these ties. The worst example of this is in Sweden, which provides refugees with public housing, but only where it’s cheap. Thus, instead of having a liberalized enough urban housing market so that refugees could live in overcrowded conditions in Stockholm, it either disperses them to peripheral towns where they know nobody and can’t work, or concentrates them in low-income ghettos. Malmö, which like Birmingham used to be a bustling city but deindustrialized and has high unemployment, is one of the prime locations for immigrants to Sweden; so is Södertälje, a Stockholm suburb infamous for its high unemployment.
One of the most salient features of being an immigrant is being a social problem. Every difference between the immigrant and the native will be used politically, in either direction, even if it is the result of normal variation between groups and economic sectors. And here, governments that refuse to consider immigrants’ own housing decisions are creating social problems for the future by creating new ghettos from scratch. For its own working class, Sweden built the Million Program; for immigrants, not a chance. Between overcrowding and joblessness, immigrants choose overcrowding, when they can. When they can’t, the government is choosing joblessness for them.
I like Stockholm. There’s something reassuringly familiar about it, despite the language barrier, which I think comes from the fact that the Central Stockholm housing stock is of similar vintage as the residential parts of Manhattan. It even avoids New York’s most annoying (to me) architectural tic, the exposed brick. The buildings here are similar in style to the ones in New York (and more generally northern Europe), but most have smooth exterior, with enough variation of colors between buildings to make it interesting.
The streets here vary a lot in width, but outside the older sections of the city, they are never very narrow. In Gamla Stan (“the old town”), the medieval core of the city that is now a tourist ghetto, complete with stores selling Swedish flags or English-language books, there are some pedestrianized streets with single-digit building-to-building width. But in my part of the city – Roslagstull, near the outer end of what’s considered Central Stockholm – the street width ranges are almost identical to those of Manhattan. My street, Birger Jarlsgatan, is about 30 meters wide, while less important parallel streets are about 15 or 20. Like the rest of city center, it’s lined with almost uniformly mid-rise buildings, six to seven stories tall. See photos here, from Södermalm, and here, from Regeringsgatan, a street that for a portion of its length is elevated over intersecting streets.
A feature of Stockholm streets that I have not seen in other cities is that on-sidewalk bike lanes. While the overall sidewalk width on Birger Jarlsgatan is generous, the sidewalk is broken by the bike lane. The inner side of the bike lane is interrupted by trees, and the outer side by sidewalk cafes, and as a result, sometimes walking in the bike lane is unavoidable if one wishes to avoid walking in zigzags. In any case, cyclist traffic does not seem to be heavy; there is much more pedestrian traffic.
Crossing the street is rarely difficult. There are beg buttons at intersections, but the pedestrian light will turn green even without pressing them. The stoplight phasing is simple: most of Central Stockholm is on one of several grids, and even at intersections of two-way streets (one-way streets are uncommon, at least around Roslagstull), there are only two phases per stoplight cycle. Without grade-separated freeways in the city core, the worst streets for the pedestrians are the occasional freeway-like structure, or one of several excessively wide roads. I walk to work on one of those roads, Valhallavägen, and during the daytime, the cars’ noise and air pollution are uncomfortable unless I walk through the parking lots behind the street or the bus bay in its median.
The transit system is useful, though I almost never take it. This is a combination of very high fares (with my pay-per-ride smartcard, I pay 25 kronor per ride, about PPP$2.70) and a city core that’s small enough and pedestrian-friendly enough that I can get around most of it on foot. The pedestrian orientation of the streets matters: my apartment is 2.3 km from the CBD mall and 1.7 km from Stockholm University; but I will walk to the mall, whereas to get to and from a conference at SU, I didn’t walk on Roslagsvägen (which is almost a full freeway) but instead took the subway from my university, KTH, which is more centrally located within the city.
Of course, most people in the region don’t live in Central Stockholm, and for them the T-bana is a lifeline. Subway ridership here, excluding commuter rail, is about 900,000 per day (not weekday), not much lower than on the U-Bahns of much larger Berlin and Munich. As a curiosity, there are many light rail lines that connect outlying suburbs to a T-bana station, requiring a transfer to get to the CBD; the busiest, Roslagsbanan, is a narrow-gauge commuter rail system terminating next to KTH, with one T-bana branch, the T14, running parallel to it for a few stops before terminating. This is in addition to a mainline commuter rail system, with 267,000 daily passengers; this ratio of about one commuter rail rider to three subway riders is higher than
anything most (see first two comments) in North America, but is much lower than in major European transit cities like Paris and London, where commuter rail and the metro have roughly equal ridership levels. Among the transit projects under construction in Stockholm is a new rail tunnel, which will increase the capacity of commuter rail.
This is somewhat of an addendum to my post before about dispersal of urban networks toward cheaper cities. I addressed the question of dispersal from rich, expensive metro areas, especially San Francisco, to cheaper ones, as a way of dealing with high housing prices. But more common is dispersal within metro areas: gentrification spilling from a rebounding neighborhood to adjacent neighborhoods that remain cheaper, and office space spilling from the primary CBD to the edge cities. I am going to address the latter issue in this post.
CBDs are expensive. They have intense demand for office space, as well as high-end retail and hotels. In many cities, there’s demand for office space even at the construction costs of supertall skyscrapers, going up to about $5,000-6,000 per square meter in privately-built New York towers. Zoning regimes resist the height required to accommodate everyone, and this is worse in Europe than in North America and high-income East Asia. Paris proper has many towers just above the 100 meter mark, but only three above 120. On a list of the tallest buildings in Sweden, not a single one above 100 meters is in central Stockholm, and the tallest within the zone are not in the CBD but in Södermalm; compare this with Vancouver, a metro area of similar size. But in the US, too, expanding CBDs is difficult in the face of neighborhood opposition, even in Manhattan.
The solution many cities have adopted is to put the skyscrapers in edge cities. Paris famously built La Defense, which has far more skyscrapers than the city proper does; Stockholm is building skyscrapers in Kista; London built Canary Wharf; Washington, the major US city with the tightest CBD height limits, sprouted skyscraper clusters in several suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Ryan Avent proposed this as one solution to NIMBYism: in new-build areas, there are few residents who could oppose the new development. In contrast, near zoning-constrained CBDs, not only are there many residents, but also the land is so desirable that they are typically high-income, which means they have the most political power to oppose new development.
The problem with this solution is that those secondary CBDs are not public transit hubs. In Paris, this has created an east-west disparity, in which people from (typically wealthy) western suburbs can easily reach La Defense, whereas people from poorer ones need to take long RER trips and often make multiple transfers. In every transit city, the CBD is unique in that it can be reached from anywhere. To give similar accessibility to a secondary center, massive investment is required; Paris is spending tens of billions of euros on circumferential regional rail lines to improve suburb-to-suburb connectivity, expand access in the eastern suburbs, and ameliorate the east-west imbalance (see for example isochrones on PDF-pp. 20-21 of the links here). Those lines are going to be well-patronized: the estimate is 2 million daily passengers. And yet, the east-west imbalance, if nothing else, would be a lesser problem if instead of building La Defense, Paris had built up Les Halles.
The situation in other cities is similar. Kista is on one branch of one subway line, two stops away from its outer terminus. Living in Central Stockholm, my coworkers and I can get to KTH on foot or by bike, but a coworker who teaches at KTH’s satellite campus in Kista has a long commute involving circumferential buses (taking the subway and changing at T-Central would be even longer because of the detour). While many individual sub-neighborhoods of Central Stockholm are quite dense, the overall density in the center is not particularly high, certainly not by the standards of Paris or New York. A similar problem happens in Washington, where the biggest edge city cluster, Tysons Corner, is traditionally auto-oriented and was only just connected to Metro, on a branch. This always affects poorer people the worst, as they can’t afford to live in the CBD, where there is easy access to all secondary destination, and often are pushed to suburbs with long commutes.
There is a political economy problem here, as is usually the case with zoning. (Although in the largest cities skyscraper heights are pushing beyond the point of constant marginal costs, purchase prices at least in New York are much higher than construction costs.) The people living near CBDs, as noted before, are usually rich. The displacement of office space to the suburbs affects them the least, for three reasons. First, if they desire work within walking distance or short subway distance, they can have it, since their firms typically make enough money to afford CBD office rents. Second, since they live in the transit hub, they can access suburban jobs in any direction. And third, if the transit options are lacking, they can afford cars, although of course traffic and parking remain problematic. Against their lack of incentive to support CBD office space, they have reasons to support the status quo: the high rents keep it exclusive and push poor people away, and often the traditional mid-rise buildings are genuinely more aesthetic than skyscrapers, especially ones built in modernist style.
These concerns are somewhat muted in the US, where rich people decamped for the suburbs throughout the 20th century, and have supported zoning that mandates single-family housing in the suburbs, instead of staying in the city and supporting zoning that keeps the city mid-rise. This may have a lot to do with the formation of high-rise downtowns in American cities of such size that in Europe they’d be essentially skyscraper-free.
However, what’s worse in the US is the possibility of short car-free commutes to the edge cities. Where La Defense is flanked by suburbs with high residential density, and Kista’s office blocks are adjacent to medium-density housing projects for working- and middle-class people, American edge cities are usually surrounded by low-density sprawl, where they are easily accessible by car but not by any other mode of transportation. This is because the American edge cities were usually not planned to be this way, but instead arose from intersections of freeways, and developed only after the residential suburbs did. As those edge cities are usually in rich areas, the residents again successfully resist new development; this is the point made in Edgeless Cities, which notes that, in major US metro areas, growth has been less in recognizable edge cities and more in lower-density edgeless cities.
As with the possibility of dispersing innovation clusters from rich, expensive metro areas to poorer and cheaper ones, the already-occurring dispersal from city centers to edge and subsequently edgeless cities has negative effects. It lengthens transit commutes. Although in Tokyo, long commutes first arose as a problem of a monocentric CBD, and the city developed secondary CBDs as a solution, the situation in European cities an order of magnitude smaller is very different. It worsens housing segregation: the development of an edge city tends to be in the direction of the favored quarter, since that’s where the senior managers live, and conversely, higher-income workers can choose to move nearby for the short commute. Although nearly all metro areas have favored quarters, decentralization of jobs thus tends to lengthen the commutes of poor people more than those of rich people.
This is not quite the same as what happens when entire metro areas are forced to disperse due to housing cost. The agglomerations generally stay intact, since an entire industry can move in the same direction: smaller cities have just one major favored quarter with edge cities, and larger ones still only have a few, so that industries can specialize, for example in New York, biotech and health care cluster in the Edison-Woodbridge-New Brunswick edge city. Moreover, the specialized workers are usually high-income enough that they can stay in the central city or migrate to the favored quarter. San Francisco’s programmers are not forced to move individually to faraway poor neighborhoods; they move in larger numbers to ones near already gentrifying ones, spurring a new wave of gentrification in the process; were they to move alone, they’d lose the access to the tech shuttles. The negative effects are predominantly not on richer people, but on poorer people.
The problem is that even among the poor, there is little short-term benefit from supporting upzoning. If Paris, London, and Stockholm liberalize housing and office construction, the first towers built of both kinds will be luxury, because of the large backlogs of people who would like to move in and are willing to pay far in excess of construction costs. I am going to develop this point further in two posts, on what is best called NITBYism – Not In Their Backyard – but this means that the incentive for poor and peripheral populations is not to care too much about development in rich centers. The marginal additional building in a rich city center is going to go to the upper middle class; sufficient construction would trickle to the middle class; only extensive construction would serve the working class, and then not all of it.
In the US, the marginal additional building may actually displace poor people, if no new construction is allowed, simply by removing low-income apartments. It may even create local demand for high-income housing, for example by signaling that the neighborhood has improved. In San Francisco, this is compounded by the tech shuttles, as a critical mass of Silicon Valley-bound residents can justify running shuttles, creating demand for more high-income housing.
The amount of construction required to benefit the bottom half of the national income distribution is likely to be massive. This is especially true in France and the UK, which have sharp income differences between the capital and the rest of the country; their backlogs of people who would like to move to the capital are likely in the millions, possibly the high millions. Such massive construction is beyond the pale of political reality: the current high-income resident population is simply not going to allow it – when forced to share a building with the working class, it pushes for poor doors, so why would it want zoning that would reduce the market-rate rent to what the working class would afford? The only political possibility in the short run is partial plans, but these are not going to be of partial use to the working class, but of no use to it, benefiting the middle class instead. As a result, there is no push by the working class and its social democratic political organs to liberalize construction, nor by the small-is-beautiful green movement.
Ultimately, the attempt to bypass restrictions on urban CBD formation by building edge cities, like every other kludge, is doomed to failure. The fundamental problem of rich people making it illegal to build housing nearby is not solved, and is often made even worse. The commutes get worse, and the inequality in commutes between the rich and the poor grows. Office space gets built, where otherwise it would spread along a larger share of the medium-rise CBD, but for most workers, this is not an improvement, and the environmental effects of more driving have negative consequences globally. And once city center is abandoned to the rich, there is no significant political force that can rectify the situation. What seems like a workaround and an acceptable compromise only makes the situation worse.
Many people have heard that certain regions are well-suited for these projects, for example the Northeast Corridor is unusually good for HSR because it links four major cities and several medium-size ones on a single line. By implication, there has to be a flip side, i.e. regions that are poorly-suited for HSR and cities that are poorly-suited for new rapid transit. If there weren’t – if every region were like the Northeast Corridor – then the ridership models would just have higher first-order estimates. Several proposals I’ve seen in comments and on my blogroll in the last few days are in areas where the urban geography makes it harder to justify such projects. These and a few others are the examples I will use in this post.
As usual, there’s a caveat that difficult does not equal bad. Some of these ideas are worth pursuing, but have more challenges that their easier counterparts do not, and if those challenges are solved, then they can perform well. One of the biggest success stories of modern rail investment, the TGV, is in an urban geography that’s not particularly conducive to rail: France’s secondary cities surround Paris in all directions (although Lyon and Marseille are collinear with Paris), the stub-end layout of stations in Paris and many other cities forces awkward branching, Lyon needed a business district to be built from scratch around Part-Dieu. France made this work, and it’s possible some of the projects on this list can be made to work in similar vein.
High-Speed Rail in Sweden
Project: greenfield HSR lines connecting Stockholm with Sweden’s major secondary cities, Gothenburg and Malmö.
The problem: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö do not lie on a straight line. The three cities are quite small by the standards of more populated countries: Stockholm has a bit more than 2 million people, Gothenburg has a bit less than a million, Malmö has 700,000. A line connecting just two of them, or even a Y-shaped line, is unlikely to get enough ridership to justify the construction costs of full HSR. There are no large intermediate cities: the largest, Linköping, has about 100,000 people. As noted above, French urban geography is not great for HSR, either, but at least the LGV Sud-Est could serve both Lyon and Marseille, and France’s greater population ensures that its secondary cities are large enough to generate enough traffic to fill an HSR line.
As a silver lining, Malmö is adjacent to Copenhagen, and the difficult part, bridging the Øresund, has already been done. While international lines tend to underperform, the tight cultural and economic connections between the Scandinavian countries make it likely that international projects within Scandinavia would be exceptions to the rule. Copenhagen would add another 2 million people at the end of the line. However, even that is unlikely to generate enough ridership to pay for 500-odd kilometers of greenfield HSR (plus a connection to Gothenburg).
Because of its poor urban geography for conventional HSR, Sweden has investigated cheaper solutions, allowing higher speeds on legacy track or on greenfield tracks built to lower standards. As a result, there is research into the possibility of high-speed tilting trains, running faster than the 250 km/h Pendolino. This research is likely to be useful in the UK and US, where the urban geography is better-suited for HSR but fully greenfield construction is obstructed by suburban development near the rights-of-way and by high construction costs, but the original context was faster speeds within Sweden.
High-Speed Rail in the Pacific Northwest
Project: greenfield HSR connecting Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. This is not officially proposed anywhere that I know; current plans focus on incremental improvements to the Amtrak Cascades. However, every American HSR fantasy map I’ve seen (including the ones I’ve drawn) includes this link, since at least superficially based on city populations it would succeed.
The problem: getting out of the major cities involves a slog on curvy legacy track in areas where it’s hard to straighten the right-of-way. Heading north of Seattle, the route goes along the water, in terrain that is too hilly for an easy inland cutoff all the way to Everett, 50 km north. Getting out of Vancouver is also hard, because of suburban development in Surrey, and becomes even harder if one wants the Vancouver station to be Waterfront rather than Amtrak’s current stop, the less centrally located Pacific Central. The Northeast Corridor is said to have slowdowns near the major stations, leading to proposals to bypass them with new tunnels, but at no point are there 50 nearly-continuous km of low curve radii; the New Haven Line does not look as curvy, while the Shore Line farther east is easy to bypass on I-95.
The Seattle-Portland segment is much easier: the route heading south of Seattle is not constrained, and north of Portland it is possible to run alongside I-5. However, the most important intermediate cities, Tacoma and Olympia, can only be served with exurban stations, since getting into their centers would require the mainline to detour on curvy alignments.
Through-Run Commuter Rail in Chicago
Project: there are many proposals by transit activists to construct new infrastructure to enable through-running on Metra, analogous to Crossrail, SEPTA Regional Rail, the Paris RER, and multiple S-Bahns. Details differ, but other than the lines through Union Station, through-running generally means connecting Metra Electric to some of the lines feeding into Union Station from the north or the Union Pacific lines; UP-North is especially notable for serving dense neighborhoods and not having any freight traffic.
The problem: the layout of the lines entering the Chicago central business district makes it hard to build a coherent network. What I mean by coherent is that commuter lines can make multiple CBD stops to serve different CBDs, or different parts of the same CBD: in New York, a Penn Station-Grand Central connection would let trains serve both the West Side and the East Side. Look at the map proposed by Sandy Johnston, in the second link above: there is no station on the Near North Side, there is no connection from the West Loop stations to the Loop, and effectively lines are still going to be split between lines bound for the West Loop and lines bound for the Loop in the through-run system.
None of this is the fault of any of the people drawing these maps. To serve both the West Loop and the Loop, a line would have to go east-west in the vicinity of Union Station, where there is no legacy line pointing in the right direction. The options boil down to a long greenfield east-west subway, and an awkward transition to the preexisting east-west lines, BNSF (which is too far south) and UP-West (which is too far north), which to add another complication carry heavy freight traffic.
A system prioritizing north-south connections runs into different dilemmas, concerning the tradeoff between service to the Near North Side and easier connections to the rest of the North Side Metra lines. A north-south line connecting UP-North to Metra Electric through the Near North Side would be beautiful, and miss all other Metra lines and most L lines. Sandy’s proposal has Metra Electric swerving west to meet UP-North just north of its terminus at Ogilvie Transportation Center, meeting all L lines and potentially the North Side Metra lines but missing the job centers in the West Loop and Near North Side.
Rail to LaGuardia
Project: construct some rail extension to LaGuardia Airport. Which rail extension varies based on the proposal. The most mainstream proposal, in the sense that it was supported by Giuliani until it was torpedoed by neighborhood opposition, would have extended the Astoria Line east to airport grounds. More recent proposals from various activists have included not just the Astoria Line extension, but also a Northeast Corridor spur, an AirTrain from the Astoria Line, an AirTrain from Jamaica with JFK connections, a subway shuttle under Junction, and a subway running from the airport to 125th Street along the route of the M60 bus.
The problem: all of the above ideas face the same pair of problems. At the airport end, the airport competes with other urban destinations, rather than complementing them by lying on the same straight line with them. An extension from the west, such as the Astoria Line extension, needs to choose between serving the airport and serving the Astoria Boulevard corridor, which has high residential density and no nearby subway service; Astoria Boulevard itself is so wide that as with Queens Boulevard, an elevated line in its middle would be an improvement. Farther east, there is nothing that a LaGuardia extension could be continued to, because of Flushing Bay. An extension across the bay going to Flushing or College Point could be useful, but an extension of the 7 to College Point would be even more useful and avoid underwater tunneling. The bay, and more generally the Long Island Sound, dooms any proposal for a loop returning to the mainline, in the manner of Zurich Airport, while a spur would again compete for capacity with more important lines. Compare this with LAX, which, going along the Harbor Subdivision, is collinear with Inglewood, the Slauson corridor, and Union Station, and would have an easy connection to El Segundo.
At the other end, the question with every airport extension is, what does it connect the airport to? The answer for LaGuardia has to be the Upper East Side, where as I remember most riders originate; but there is no good way of connecting to the Upper East Side, which has no east-west subway line, and shouldn’t, as there are perhaps a hundred kilometers of higher-priority tunnels in the region. A connection to 125th Street is ruled out by the fact that Second Avenue Subway has an even better connection to 125th. The Astoria Line serves the Midtown hotel cluster well, and has a connection to the Lexington trains to the Upper East Side, but I doubt that it can beat a taxi across the bridge in non-rush-hour traffic.
Providence East Side Tunnel
Project: restore rail service through the East Side Rail Tunnel, with a new connection to Downcity at the western end and connections to new or restored rail lines in and beyond East Providence. In Jef Nickerson’s version, the trains are light rail and drop to the surface at the Downcity end. In mine, they continue elevated through Downcity, with a new station replacing Providence Station for both commuter and intercity rail. All versions include a stop at Thayer Street for Brown University service, should one be constructable at reasonable cost.
The problem: there’s no real need for local or regional service from the east along the tunnel (intercity service could be sped up by about half a minute to a minute by avoiding curves in Pawtucket). Light rail service would run into the problem of incredibly spread-out suburbanization east of Providence. Commuter rail would run into separate problems: the legacy lines go along the water in East Providence and don’t serve the town itself well; beyond East Providence, the line going north serves the same suburbs as the existing Providence Line minus Pawtucket, while the line going south would need extensive and costly restoration work to get to Fall River, and only passes through small and low-density intermediate points.
Cutting off Providence Station to move the city’s main station to the south is useful, but the only rail from Providence to Pawtucket and Woonsocket goes due north of Downcity and would be left out of this system. Shoehorning it to the same station that leads to the East Side Tunnel would produce every adverse impact of viaducts on cities: heavy visual impact coming from elevated-over-elevated grade separation, squeal coming from low curve radii, takings of condo buildings near the existing Providence Station.